Once, while interviewing for a job, I told an English department’s search committee that I would be interested in teaching a class on chastity in literature. I don’t know if my proposal alone torpedoed my candidacy, but I still remember the uncomfortable silence that followed. The message of that silence was clear: chastity is weird.
This weirdness is precisely what Lisabeth During homes in on in her intelligent, lengthy, and ambitious book The Chastity Plot. Chastity refuses to continue the cycle of generation contests and reconfigures societal imperatives, whatever those might be. “Militant chastity frustrates and allures,” During writes. “[I]t is the making of martyrs, the sign of sovereignty, and the fast track to pathology. That is why it is interesting.”
During opts for the term “chastity” rather than “celibacy” in part because chastity’s meaning is so unstable. Depending on where and when it is used, it can mean temporary or lifelong abstinence from sex, or abstinence from “unlawful” sex, or, in the Catechism’s formulation, the “successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (CCC 2337).
During calls her approach “genealogical,” which means that she does not offer a clear definition of chastity but instead tells the story of its many transformations from antiquity to the present. Among these was the shift from a rigorous, prophetic, and sometimes antisocial Christian version of chastity to a more mundane version that reinforced the social order rather than challenging it. Chastity “in the Christian tradition is a virtue of the soul. In the secular tradition it is the honor of the female sex.”
During is happily unencumbered by, and largely unaware of, the intra-Catholic debates that swirl about the concept—e.g. whether Latin-rite priests should be required to remain unmarried, or whether married couples should, under some circumstances, “live as brother and sister.” During offers neither “an apology for chastity nor a lament for its decline.” Instead, she aims to show that “the chastity ideal has profoundly influenced a number of the West’s social and personal aspirations, modifying the ways individuality, subjectivity, and psychological norms have been imagined in the modern world.”
During identifies a “chastity plot,” which comes in major and minor versions: the “eunuch’s plot” and the “maiden’s plot.” Despite their similarities, the two have different aspirations: “While the eunuch stakes almost everything on the chance for otherworldly transformation, the maiden seeks to have her significance recognized in the world.” The distinction can be illustrated by comparing the Golden Legend’s “Life of Saint Agnes” with Jane Eyre. St. Agnes does all she can to avoid marriage. Claiming to be “loved of another lover,” Jesus, she aims at something higher than marriage to a powerful Roman. She would rather die than marry. Like St. Agnes, Jane Eyre fends off a rich man’s proposal of marriage. But Jane’s rejection of marriage, unlike St. Agnes’s, is only provisional. Jane doesn’t want to transcend marriage; she wants a good marriage.
Today, During observes, the maiden’s plot has long “outstripped the eunuch’s plot” and has morphed into “that mainstay of novel and film, the marriage plot.” The fact that you’re much more likely to have read—or at least to know about—Jane Eyre’s life than St. Agnes’s illustrates During’s point.
During has unearthed a range of examples that I found fascinating. (Did you know that the slogan of the early-twentieth-century English suffragist Christabel Pankhurst was “Votes for Women, Chastity for Men”?) While During draws on the work of historians, her main sources tend to be philosophical and literary. After an overview of Nietzsche and Freud’s critiques of ascetic ideals, there are chapters on Euripides’s “masculine hero of chastity” Hippolytus, Puccini’s unfinished opera Turandot, Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, the Danaids in The Suppliants, and England’s “Virgin Queen,” Elizabeth I.