Cartesian Cave

I like to imagine Rene Descartes sometimes, sitting as a shadow among shadows in his little Rembrandt painting, an exile from the kingdom of France. Perhaps smoking a pipe, he glances up at his mistress/wife and says, “Madame, you know it has occurred to me that I think, and therefore I am.”

“Yes, Monsieur Descartes,” she replies, rolling her eyes. She hands him his daughter to hold while she tends to the fire, the only glow in the gloom.

Later in the Dutch-dark afternoon she nips over to the neighbour’s house. “You know I gave him the child, his child,” she says to the Frau, “and I saw his heart overflow with the love he has for the babe, and still he didn’t say, ‘I love and therefore I am’, or even ‘I feel and therefore I am’.”

“Men can be so dense,” her neighbor replies.

“I think and therefore I am”

But Rene was after an alternative to obedience. He’d already escaped the slavery of subservience to an absolutist king to live in the free republic of The Netherlands. And long association with protestants had freed him from blind obedience to the Pope. He was as a single man in the western world, tasting freedom for the first time.

For more than a thousand years humans in Christendom had used appeals to authority in all their arguments and disagreements. God, of course, was the ultimate authority and for a millennium the church had stood in God’s stead, claiming to know what God wanted, required, even demanded of every man, woman and child in Christendom . Obedience was the only possible response. Then Luther did his thing, the church fragmented, and suddenly the Word of God was available in translation, available to be read by every Tom, Dick or even Harriet, if her father had given her an education. Obedience to authority was no longer taken for granted, and individual conscience was now more important than ever before.

“Well,” thought Rene, “conscience tells us after the fact that we’ve done wrong, but what tells us the right path in advance?” It was then that he had his epiphany. We can reason our way between alternative courses of actions to the best, the truest one. Eureka.

And so God, the father, no longer necessary as the authority of right and wrong, retreated behind the newly mechanical universe and reason, the tool the father had left behind, took his place.

Maybe women don’t understand, Rene thought, as he rocked his child in his arms. Maybe bound by vows of obedience to men they hadn’t the same taste for freedom. Or maybe, bound by laws of nature in ways no man was, they didn’t require freedom.

Rene’s little insight rocked all of Europe and it wasn’t long before others required the freedom to use what they called the “light of reason” as their only guide for living. Some of them, more honest than practical, realized that if God, King and Pope had lost their authority over men, men had lost their authority over women. Men had no god-given, church-sanctioned right to enslave women in marriage, and women had no god-given requirement to obey men. These seventheenth century male philosophers were the first feminists, using reason to unfasten men from the servitude of women.

One problem: reason owes no allegiance to truth. Reason can uncover facts, real and probable, but only the human can know truth. That knowing seems to come from some faculty other than the reasoning mind.

It didn’t take long for men to compile a list of reasons why women should continue to serve and obey men. For one thing, they said, women aren’t reasonable: “ They’re … why they’re emotional and emotion is … why it’s the opposite of reason!”

And so reason provided them their first lie. And their second.

It shouldn’t have taken more than a minute after the first man made the pompous announcement that men are rational and women are emotional for people to start laughing. You don’t have to be a genius to see that men are not only emotional, they’re possessed by their emotions. Almost their every action is a reaction to emotion, born out of emotion and beyond their ability to control.

Men kill their wives and lovers by the thousands every year out of the emotions of jealousy and vengeance. They kill other men out of the emotions of hatred and greed; they start wars from the emotional need to be better than, to be proved right, to possess what’s not theirs.

I don’t know why women have spent decades trying to prove that women are rational too, when any idiot can prove that men are not.

The second lie is the proposition that emotion and reason are opposites. Reason is a tool; emotion is a state of being. To assert opposition is the same as asserting that a tree is the opposite of a saw, or a boat the opposite of a lake.

When we’re drowning in the waters of emotion, reason can help us navigate out, but it’s a reason that requires the ability to look within, to notice our drowning state, to wish for a different state of being, to untangle the weedy threads that have bound us to the one we’re in. All this information is available in the body, where the states of being reside, and where the causes also live. Reason that refuses to descend the neck to the heart, the belly, the groin is reason that will lie to us, that is capable of heinous crimes the very opposite of truth.

Reason tells us that the elimination of rivals and enemies is good – in the wrong hands, reason can justify genocide. But something else in us revolts from the mathematical calculations of this head-bound reason. What is that, and where does it live?

Rene ran from child-like, unquestioning obedience to father-figures. But he ran into a cave, where deceit and self-deceit could not help but grow. From his new prison, all of Europe was endarkened by reason unchained. Revolution succeeded revolution, war became the massacres of the twentieth century, the holocausts of Jew and Slav and common men and women. Billions slaughtered by reason misused by men who hadn’t read the handbook, who were drowning in unacknowledged emotions.

Only women feel, they intoned from within bodies rigid with hatred and fear and grief and need.


The Most Beautiful Names

People with a high degree of spiritual enlightenment (regardless of religious affiliation) say the soul has no gender. The numinous has no gender. The divine, if there is such a thing, has no gender. Personally, I think gender is just one of the illusions we live within during our stay here on earth.

The Sufis, a divergent group of Islamic mystics, say the world was created from the ninety-nine most beautiful names of God. Ninety nine is just a number that symbolizes many, and “names” means attributes or qualities. They speak, for example, of “God the merciful”, in which “merciful” is one of the names of God. If the entire universe is formed of divine attributes, everything is made up of unique combinations of some, but not all, of these attributes. In this way the divine is the gene within the gene, and our genetic heritage stretches beyond matter.

All the divine attributes can be divided into two almost limitless categories: those that give us a sense of closeness with the divine, and those that keep us at a distance from the divine. Those that give us a sense of closeness include names like God the beautiful, the tender, the gentle, the loving, the merciful. Those that keep us at a respectful distance include things like God the strong, the wrathful, the judge, the violent. For Sufis the divine invites people to intimacy with itself, while at the same time reminding people of the importance of boundaries.

Think, for a minute, of babies being born, each with an individual, unique selection of divine attributes. These, and the ways that they combine with each other, will form their personality.

It seems that in civilizations run by People of Power (POP), all the qualities associated with keeping distance from God have been assigned to males, and those associated with feeling close to God have been assigned to females. If you’re biologically male, your caregivers, acting in the name of society, are going to squash all the divine qualities associated with closeness out of you, and try to squeeze into you the distance qualities, whether you have them in potential or not. And the reverse if you’re female.

In effect, in this view, society kills some of the divine in each of us as soon as possible.

This makes it almost impossible for people to be authentic.

It’s been too hard for women for too long, of course, and so there have been “women’s liberation” movements again and again. Women have only to find their god-given strength to start lobbying, maneuvering, fighting for the right to be accorded equal status, as human beings, with men.

Men, on the other hand, gain too much from their inauthenticity. Those who do not have the divine names of “strength” or “ferocity” or “leader” have to pretend to those qualities. That makes them brittle, and, frankly, dangerous in the way that men who have to prove themselves always are. In exchange, they get to set the rules of all the games, they get heard when women are not, they get to speak when women don’t get that privilege, they get higher pay, or they just get the job. A man who’s good at faking it can have a good life.

Too many women still fake it too, because no movement can liberate the individual from an internalized prison. Movements can only make change in the body politic, not necessarily in the psyche.

Some days I am beyond believing that whole societies, whole civilizations can prefer such fakery of their members to authenticity.

Can you even imagine a world in which some men can invite closeness by their natural warmth, empathy and willingness to listen? And a world in which some women can effortlessly command attention and respect because their intelligence and problem-solving skills make them the obvious leaders?

The Sufis also say that we each worship a god of our own creation. Since God isn’t out walking and visible to all, we have to conceptualize a God to worship. And we conceptualize based on what we’re familiar with. Mostly religious people conceptualize some version of their own fathers. If their own father was distant, cold, withholding of approval, quick to punish, well then that’s the God they worship.

I like a short passage from the biblical book of Hosea, in which the Jewish prophet has a vision of the divine speaking to him. The divine presence seems to say “I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Is the divine not describing itself by the attributes of motherhood?

An Idiot’s Guide to POP Cult 3

Why Men can’t stand the word “Men”

Have you noticed that men rarely talk about “men”? If it’s possible grammatically, they’ll just avoid using any subject at all in the sentence about men. Here’s an example “In the U.S. more people are murdered than in any other country in the developed world”. This sentence is structured in the passive voice, which means it doesn’t specify the subject, the agent that does the killing. The passive voice, which writing handbooks say should only be used when either everyone knows the agent, or when nobody knows the agent, allows for obfuscation. This sentence hides the fact that in the U.S. more men are killing more people than in any other country in the developed world. Men don’t like to read that more men are killing more people. It gives men a bad reputation.

No kidding.

Men will do anything to avoid giving men a bad reputation. This is hard to do when you’re writing about human history, which is full of men killing and raping and pillaging and betraying. Or when you’re talking about current events. Listen to the evening news and you’d have no idea people are divided into genders and one of them is the most violent and destructive. “Police brutality is at an all-time high” – would that be among male police officers, female officers, or both? It’s a no brainer, right? I was just listening to a report about sexual assault in the military. The announcer said “The problem lies both with those who commit sexual assault and with those who stand idly by.” Right. He really means that the problem lies both with those men who commit sexual assault and with those men who stand idly by. That sounds so accusatory , doesn’t it? Like men are being accused of misbehaving. Uh huh. That’s exactly what they need to be accused of. By other men.

I’m ready to swear that as soon as anyone starts a sentence with the word, “men”, all men within earshot panic. I guess that’s understandable given that only women start sentences with “men”, and they are accusing men. Naturally all men within earshot begin asserting that they aren’t actually men themselves. They don’t conform to masculine conditioning themselves, oh no. They may have biologically male bodies, but masculine conditioning did nothing to them, nope. They’re simply “themselves”.

I think fear of being accused is one principal reason that men prefer to use the term “mankind”. As a generalization, that term immediately absolves men of responsibility. They can simple say it’s a human problem, not a masculine problem.

Women live their whole lives identified with a specificity – they are one particular gender within humanity. But this allows them to see themselves as part of two categories, the specific “women” and the general “human” and to compare them.

When men prefer to think about “mankind,” they are refusing the same specificity. They want to think of themselves merely as human, representing the totality of humanity, rather than as one specific gender among others. This doesn’t allow them to make the comparison between the categories, “men” and “human”. Such comparisons can be really fruitful.

If men would start naming men as the killers and rapists and warmongers, they could have a chance to recognize that those behaviours and attitudes are specifically masculine behaviours and attitudes, not human ones. Those behaviours and attitudes are constructed as part of gender construction. Until men learn to see and speak more specifically, they will be blind to their gender conditioning and wholly unable to make the choice not to conform. To undo the conditioning. To refuse to perform as constructed, no matter how strong the internal script. Because what is a man if he’s not a man? Were he to recognize that he belongs to two categories, he could realize he could fall back on being human.

I think men are ashamed of being men these days. They’ve been accused of so much by women — and the facts support women’s accusations — that men have been foundering. They throw up their hands and dig their heads into the nearest sandbox and pretend everything is fine. It’s not fine. It’s not okay for men to be ashamed of being biologically male.

As women have been learning that they are more than their gender, that they can drop some of the requirements of femininity and still be human women, so men need to learn that they can drop some of the requirements of masculinity for the sake of being better human men.

We’re all crippled caricatures of human beings, really. When you think about our awesome potential, you have to wonder how we can be so mean and petty and brutal, to ourselves and to others. And it’s interesting to note that the more we conform to gender stereotypes, the more cartoonish we are. Think about the ultra-feminine ditz teetering about on spikes, placating all the men she encounters in a day. And think about the graceless goon whose every second word is “f*ck” and who has to yell as loud as possible so everyone knows he’s there.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if both those types could see themselves as separate from the constructions of their gender, worthy of letting go of their gender identities? We can be so much more.