Pope John Paul II often described sexual relations as a language of complete self-giving between husband and wife. Contraception, he asserted disapprovingly, “overlaid” sex with a “contradictory language” in which the spouses, by withholding their fertility, actually did not give their entire selves. Something about the pope’s notion of actions as languages, and of one such language being overlaid by another contradictory one, has always intrigued me even in quite different contexts.
Oak Alley is an hour’s drive west of New Orleans. Walking the grounds of this ancient sugar planation over spring break with my family, I found the pope’s overlaid with a contradictory language coming suddenly to mind. Here, multiple languages seemed to be speaking, one overlaid upon another, contradictory, competing, discordant, across centuries and running through the very day of my visit.
At first sight, the language of natural beauty seemed to speak loudest. Oak Alley takes its name from its “Alley of Oaks,” 28 oak trees planted in two long rows of fourteen each. A large walkway stands in between, leading to the plantation house. The trees were introduced by a Frenchman sometime in the early eighteenth century. At some 300 years old, they have in themselves all the beauty and grandeur one would expect from their kind. Continue reading