Saturday, January 5, 2013

What would Juvenal have said?

Decimus Junius Juvenalis (fl. 100-120)
LORD POLONIUS:  What do you read, my lord? 
HAMLET:  Words, words, words. 
LORD POLONIUS:  What is the matter, my lord? 
HAMLET:  Between who? 
LORD POLONIUS:  I mean, the matter that you read, my lord. 
HAMLET:  Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams: all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.
—Shakespeare, Hamlet II:ii

So thirty-three or so years after first devouring these lines, I finally started reading the "satirical rogue" — the Satires of Juvenal.  At some places, Juvenal is hard to read, probably because the underlying text suffered from quite a bit of corruption over its long existence.  And a lot of his humor would simply pass over the heads of someone who, like me, has only a smattering of education in the classics and Greco-Roman mythology.  One line, though, caught me by surprise: in the middle of a passage about homosexuals, Juvenal sneers, "Gracchus has presented to a cornet player — or perhaps it was a player on the straight horn — a dowry of four hundred thousand sesterces" (Satire 2).  Plus ça change, plus ça même chose: I suppose as long as there are wind instruments people will use them for witty references to fellatio.

Just a little further we read this:

"I have a ceremony to attend," quoth one, "at dawn to-morrow, in the Quirinal valley."  "What is the occasion?"  "No need to ask: a friend is taking to himself a husband; quite a small affair."  Yes, and if we only live long enough, we shall see these things done openly: people will wish to see them reported among the news of the day.  Meanwhile these would-be brides have one great trouble: they can bear no children wherewith to keep the affection of their husbands; well has nature done in granting to their desires no power over their bodies.  They die infertile; naught avails them the medicine-chest of the bloated Lyde, or to hold out their hands to the blows of the swift-footed Luperci!
Again, the more things change ....  

No sooner did I read this satire than this report came from Kansas City, Kansas: The State of Kansas has filed a petition seeking to have William Marotta, 46, declared the father of a child born to a lesbian couple who are now strapped for cash and seeking state benefits.  According to Kansas state law, sperm donations must be through licensed physicians for the donors to be released from paternal (i.e. financial) obligations to children born of their seed.  Marotta — get this — gave a container of semen to the couple, who found him on Craigslist, instead of donating through a doctor or clinic.

Marotta's lawyers' argument, reduced to its essential core, is "Who cares what the law says?  He had a contract!"  Said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, "It certainly might have a negative effect on other men's willingness to help couples who need a donor, which would be harmful to everyone [because, of course, people will die, suffer horribly or go insane if they don't have children ... especially children who possess their genes].  I also think it undermines everyone's respect for the law when you see it operate so arbitrarily" [So the law operates "arbitrarily" when its enforcers take it seriously?  "You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means."].

But this is where I plotzed:

"This was totally unexpected," Marotta said in a phone interview.  "The very first thing that went through my mind was that no good deed goes unpunished."

 The very first thought that went through my mind was of Bobcat Goldthwait's complaint about people who tell jokes to comedians:  "'... So then, the monkey runs up and sticks his [deleted] in the guy's drink!  And the guy says ——'  Like you need a punchline??  If you saw primate genitalia go into an alcoholic beverage, your head would [censored] explode!"

Seriously, how could you write a satire about this?  Thirty years ago, if this had been a play or movie written by Neil Simon, Marotta's whimper would have had people falling out of their theater seats and pounding on the floor with laughter.  The whole point of satire is to magnify people's foibles so their absurdity becomes more apparent; how could you exaggerate this example of human folly?

I can't feel sorry for Marotta.  Beyond the risibility of contributing genetic material for a child "as a favor" (in another context, that would be called — pardon my French — a "mercy f***") so the couple could maintain the pretense that their relationship is exactly the same as a traditional marriage, there's the absurdity of a person who can use Craigslist but can't be bothered to Google Kansas state law — or, better, consult a lawyer — to make sure there were no legal requirements to fulfill.  "To me, ethics [sic] need to override rules," Marotta says, but the only time morals can inarguably claim priority over rules is when the law would compel a person to participate in evil; Marotta's situation doesn't pass that benchmark by any sane reckoning.

No, Juvenal couldn't satirize this contretemps.  The best he could do is report it with a straight face.