The following is an article from the February 8, 2001 edition of Notre Dame’s Scholastic Magazine.
A Valentine for Catholic Lovers, by David O’Connor
Where do we find ourselves? A crazy Austrian named Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was one of the great philosophers of the last century, said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” When it comes to love, I think he has a point. Our mother tongue stammers and scolds when she tries to speak of love. Every word chagrins us, and we blush from inarticulacy.
The most common word we mouth to describe the conjugal embrace is as old as English, our four-letter friend derived from a German root, ficken, meaning “to strick or beat” (so much for romance). What is common comes to lose its savor and, in the end, is good for nothing but to be thrown in the street and trampled underfoot. When I was a boy, three decades ago, the word at least retained a certain vulgar potency, even when voiced only among other boys — I don’t recall it being thinkable to say it in front of girls — and it was uttered in front of adults only for the most extreme of purposes. It meant something then, something about crossing a line or or being unusually provoked. We could wear it as a badge of our impudence. But 30 years of trampling have made it in truth what the Oxford English Dictionary says it has been for a century, a “meaningless intensifier.” One wonders if the century has made a meaningless intensifier not only of the name, but of the action named as well. The limits of this erotic world are common indeed.
But when we try to ascend from the common to the public, do we fare better? The phrase “sexual intercourse,” and the use of the word “sex” to cover not just the fact of male and female, but what we (though not our former president) call “sex acts,” are also hardly a century old. At the very moment our German word left the confines of the erotic and became a general term of excitement or abuse, the vacuum was filled with words more at home in a hospital than the nuptial chamber. Our talk of love came under the severe influence of the public-health authorities. The nuptial meaning of the body, to borrow a phrase from John Paul II, all but disappears. This medical turn in our language made public speech possible by sanitizing it, like chlorine in so much sewage. It was the beginning of the movement toward safe sex, a kind of prophylactic of the tongue. “Sexual intercourse” comes from the same region of the language native to various sorts of -ectomies and -oscopies. It does not sound like something for which one would cross the hall, let alone the world. “I’m sorry, I can’t meet for lunch today; I have to go to the medical center for a sexual intercourse.” My favorite illustration of where this way of talking takes us is the phrase “sexually active.” It seems to be modeled on “radioactive”: the “sexually active” teenager is an isotope with a short half-life, spewing particles of sexuality that threaten to cause beta decay in the surrounding atoms.
Neither words adolescent nor words medical speak to our erotic desires. Both modes of speech leave the tongue dry in our mouth, with the unpalatable choice between being tasteless and tasting like medicine. How like a drink of fresh water it is to read in Plato that Eros is a great god and to speak of love with the sacred names of Dionysus, god of wine, and Aphrodite, goddess of beauty! Our poor tongue seems to cover itself in shame when confronted with this erotic theophany. A scholar could point out the Greek word for “sexual intercourse” is aphrodisia, “the things of Aphrodite,” which is true as far as it goes. But this is rather like saying the Catholic Church’s word for “cup” is chalice: one is a mundane instrument of profane life, the other the container for a bloody yet nourishing god.
In our time, the Catholic Church has done more than anyone else to make visible this divine aspect of sexuality. I do not claim she has done enough. The tongue remains a most erotic organ, but our language labors to make itself heard over the noise of boys sniggering over pornography and doctors clattering about with their cold instruments. We need love-intoxicated Catholic poets to find a new heaven, new earth, new words. “The conjugal embrace, the nuptial meaning of the body.” For most of us, this cannot be our mother tongue. They are the quaint idioms of Vaticanese, the foreign speech of a land where we may visit but do not live. The conceptions of our mother tongue suffer under us, whether we boy them in the postures of a whore or lay them out against the sky, etherized upon a table.
It is an honest response to bide one’s time and bite one’s tongue, until the weather clears and new work can be done. As crazy Ludwig said, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” But there is a risk in waiting, too. If I bite my tongue too often, I may lose the power of speech altogether. And then where will I be? Nowhere to be found.
O’Connor is an associate professor of philosophy and classics and Notre Dame. He teaches “Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love” to about 250 students a year. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1980.