I suspect only someone as stubborn as I am would insist on continuing to write about a novel read last year before commenting on more recent readings, but A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man struck some deep chords with me, though they’re probably not the same chords that Joyce intended to strike when he wrote the novel.
The novel got me thinking about Sin and prostitution in ways I haven’t thought about them in many years. Since I didn’t attend church regularly as a youth, I’ve never considered many things “sinful,” seeing them, instead, as moral issues. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” always served as my life’s guideline, and I’ve done my best to follow that rule throughout my life — which is not to say that I have always managed to do so.
Although the Catholic Church would definitely think otherwise, I feel like I’ve only sinned once in my life, and apparently most Churches don’t even consider what I did a “sin.” On the other hand, I’ve slept with a prostitute once and didn’t consider it a sin then, even if, in retrospect, it seemed like a mistake, one I wouldn’t commit again and wouldn’t have done then if I’d known more about prostitution in Thailand.
These two events converged during a five-day leave in Thailand at the end of my tour of duty in Vietnam. When my tour of duty was about over, I was eligible to go on R&R to Thailand. I argued that it should go to those who had another 6 months of duty, but the officer in charge insisted that I’d “earned” the leave. So, in the end, I took it because I’d been relieved of my command and didn’t have much to do otherwise.
The trip didn’t start very auspiciously. When we got on the plane we were handed a very large bottle of Thai Beer. No one bothered to tell me it wasn’t the usual American 3% alcohol, but a strong 10% brew. I suspect by the time I got off the plane I was already drunk and managed to stay that way most of the time I was in Bangkok, especially since it was the custom to offer a beer in nearly every shop we stopped at.
There was only one other officer on the plane, a Captain whose name I don’t think I even remembered by the end of the trip, though I remembered his actions quite vividly. We had been given adjoining rooms at the hotel, and he took charge almost immediately. I was only a 1st Lieutenant, had never been on R&R before, and had never been in a foreign country, so I wasn’t opposed to letting him set things up. Before I knew it we had hired a taxi to be at our beck-and-call throughout our entire stay, the driver sleeping in his taxi in case we wanted something. Soon our entire five days were booked, and I toured some of Bangkok’s greatest treasures, including the Golden Buddha and the Reclining Buddha. We had an “authentic” Thai feast at an up-scale officer’s club, bought Thai silk for presents and toured the rivers where people lived as they had throughout time.
One night in the middle of drinking, the Captain told our taxi driver we needed a couple of prostitutes. I was either too drunk or too intimidated to protest. Besides, I wasn’t married, and it certainly seemed like a Thai custom. After all, the lobby of the expensive hotel where we were staying had been lined with Thai girls dressed as Indian maidens and cheerleaders when we signed in — and it wasn’t even Halloween. Hell, it was nearly Christmas.
Unlike Stephen in the Portrait of the Artist, I ended up finding the whole experience particularly repugnant and needed a whole lot more beer to spend the night with someone who could barely speak English, so much beer that the evening was barely a memory by morning, though I vaguely remember looking up at the skylight early the next morning and seeing, or perhaps imagining, a giant lizard crawling across it.
As if that night wasn’t bad enough, the next night as we were getting ready to return to Vietnam the Captain, who was Catholic, panicked in the middle of dinner and started asking where he could find a Catholic Priest so he could go to confession before returning to his unit in Vietnam, suddenly afraid he would die in mortal sin and end up in Hell.
I wanted no part of that. I sobered up instantly, wondering why anyone would commit what they thought was a mortal sin knowing death was a daily companion where we were going. I never did find out if he found his priest. As I’ve thought it over, both immediately afterward, months later, and even years later, I thought what we were doing in Vietnam was a greater sin than sleeping with a prostitute for one night, no matter how others might view it.
Even though I didn’t come close to committing any atrocities and don’t think I even managed to kill a single Viet Cong, despite constantly shooting back at snipers who haunted our nights, fighting that war against a people who simply wanted self-rule seemed to me, particularly in retrospect, to be a Sin, one I’ve spent much of my life trying to redeem. There are undeniably “Just Wars” and I am certainly no pacifist, but Vietnam simply wasn’t one of them. I still suffer from a collective guilt that most Americans won’t admit, a guilt that many of my fellow Vietnam vets seemed unable to recover from.
When I read years later how Thai prostitutes were procured, often sold at a young age by poor rural families to earn much-needed money, I regretted that I managed to contribute to that injustice, but it seems to me that the greatest sin belongs to the Thai people who allow that practice to continue. Knowing what I know now, I would certainly never consider having sex with one of them, but I knew nothing of that when I was first there.
My short experience with prostitution makes it impossible for me to identify with Stephen when he chooses “life experiences” over Church doctrines. Hell, it even makes it impossible for me to identify with Ulysses’ Bloom, who’s twice as appealing as Stephen, even if he seems to visit the whorehouse because he’s being cuckolded by his wife and because he’s unable to have sex with her after the death of his son. It’s hard for me to believe that sex without love isn’t just plain wrong. It’s ironic, to me at least, that my views of prostitution are much closer to the Catholic views than to Joyce’s views, despite my refusal to see it as a mortal sin. I don’t think I believe in Heaven or Hell, but it seems to me that using people to satisfy your own personal needs without considering its effects on them leads to personal, if not eternal, damnation.