In 1895, Oscar Wilde was convicted of engaging in acts of “gross indecency” and was incarcerated for two years. These crimes, which transgressed the puritanical mores of late-Victorian society, were enough to ruin his career and bring shame to his family name, forcing his wife and children to live abroad for fear of being ostracized by the English public. One way in which the defense made its case against Wilde was that those acts appeared to be valorized in Wilde’s writings, particularly in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
These same acts were made licit in the state of New York in 1980, and today in 2016 are valorized in subway ads by the NYC Department of Health. In other ads, the health department demonizes a different “crime” that in Wilde’s time was though very little of, and that Wilde outwardly condoned in Dorian Gray without any backlash from the public or from the law.
How did this copernican shift in the understanding of health and crime occur? The gravity of the crimes of cigarette smoking and sodomy in a particular society is contingent upon that society’s definition of the “good of the person.” What constitutes the needs of the human person? What does it mean to “be well”? What is good for us? While I cannot speak so much about late-Victorian England, I can comment about what is communicated to New Yorkers in 2016 about their “good” as human persons.
It seems that as man’s “ultimate” dimension, his tendency toward transcendence, is given less attention in the public sphere (for fear of transgressing the dogmas of secularism and political correctness), the nature of his basic needs and thereby his well-being is limited to the purview of his temporal existence. What results is a markedly utilitarian understanding of what is good for the person. If the body is unhealthy, then the person’s earthly fulfillment will be considerably constrained. If man’s temporal life constitutes the apex of his existence, and thus his “good,” then pleasures of the body that incur longer-lasting damage become the new capital offense or mortal sin. The inhaling of tobacco smoke, when done in excess, can potentially cause serious health risks. Sodomy, which according to the Health Department is a form of entertainment or leisurely activity (whatever “play” is supposed to mean), can also cause health risks. But lucky for sodomites, you can “play sure” if you take advantage of the Health Department’s complimentary offer of contraceptive drugs and devices. Suck it, cigarette smokers.
Because the health risks of tobacco smoke are not reversible or preventable, unless smokers “repent” and renounce their former ways, cigarette smoking has become the new act of “gross indecency.” The latest propaganda from the Health Department paints cigarette smokers as demoniacs, heathens, or criminals (try purchasing cigarettes under the age of 21, or smoking them within 500 feet of a hospital).
As much as cigarette smoking can be deadly (note, studies which are not funded by Health Department have proven that the occasional “social” cigarette will not automatically lead to emphysema), is all of this fanfare and fear-mongering necessary? Without an outlook that takes into account man’s atemporal destiny, then yes, it probably is. But when we consider the existential aspect of man’s being, which tends toward the ultimate, the infinite, the transcendent, the atemporal, perhaps we need to judge pleasures using a criteria that transcends mere negative vs. positive “side effects.” What do man’s actions and choices indicate about who he is on an existential level?
Cigarettes can allow the smoker to perceive his current environment and the events in which he is participating in a more keen and profound way. He can live the drama of his existence more intensely. In other words, he can enhance his relationship with reality on an existential level. Wilde wrote in Dorian Gray that “…a cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?” The dissatisfaction after tossing out a butt can bring one more in touch with the fact that all pleasures of this world will are finite, and leave man wanting more, yearning for the infinite.
Sodomy closes man to the possibility of bearing new life, of realizing his vocation to participate in the work of creation, and obscures the horizon of his ultimate destiny: being united to an Other, his fulfillment being the fruit of that loving union. The attitude toward sex in general, whether sodomy, coitus, or fellatio, et al, promoted by the Health Department also implies that the gift of one’s body ought to be regarded as a plaything, a mere toy that, when used with caution, can offer their partner pleasure and fulfillment. Do human bodies exist to give their “user’s” pleasure? Is the human person a mere plaything that can be acquired and disposed of at whim?
Should we go back the British Penal Code…redemonizing sodomy and celebrating the pleasures of cigarette smoking? It’s not that simple. But this is exactly the point. Human existence and our actions are much more complicated than such reductive criteria. Simplistic notions of the human good based on good or bad side effects cause even more damage to the person than do sodomy or cigarette smoking, or both at the same time. If we insist on using utilitarian criteria to judge our existence and actions, we will begin to regard each other as mere objects that exist for the sake of increasing our own pleasure and diminishing our pain. But the pains and pleasures of this world will are finite, unlike the infinite dignity with which the Creator imbues upon each person. Perhaps we can broaden our horizon as we look at health and its place in pursuing the ultimate Good.