Introit for the Third Sunday in Lent

Mine eyes are ever looking unto the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net: look thou upon me, and have mercy upon me, for I am desolate and in misery.
Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: my God, in thee have I trusted; let me not be confounded.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Spear and the Distaff, Part Two: The Mythical Archetypes

To read this shambling attempt at a queer Catholic gender theory from the beginning, go here.

So the simultaneous distinction and interdependence of gender -- a reality Charles Williams delighted in describing as coinherence, in this context and others -- this is itself rooted in the Trinity, which is the fundamental reality. Fine; everything real is going to be related to reality somehow or other, I dare say. And the biological expressions of sex contain suggestions of the nature of gender: the masculine being initiatory and protective, the feminine receptive and nurturing. But these seem like awfully restrictive concepts. Does this mean that a gentle man is less masculine than other men, or that an independent woman is made unfeminine by her independence?

I would answer with a firm and resounding no. I have no special liking for feminism (mostly, having had it blasted in my ears for a quarter of a century, I am merely bored by it), but here it is absolutely right. The point is worth some attention.

Radical feminists, who argue that traditionally masculine traits are simply strategies for socio-cultural success and dominance, have drawn the conclusion that emulating these traits is the best thing to do; thus leading to the (somewhat unfair) stereotype of the aggressive and arrogant feminist, of the sort that provoked the remark, "When a woman acts like a man, why can't she act like a nice man?" The mysterious contempt of motherhood evinced by many radical feminists suggests something deeply wrong with this approach. Cultural feminists, on the other hand, argue -- quite rightly -- that, while women have certainly been treated unjustly throughout history, servility was never a genuinely feminine attribute in the first place. Feminine gifts and talents have always had a distinct and rightful place in human society; if that place has not been appreciated, or if women have been muscled out of it by men, that is a specifiable injustice, not a sign that the nature of gender needs to be reinvented.

Turning to the atypical masculine -- that which exhibits traits often thought of as feminine, such as gentleness, tact, and romanticism -- this too has been denigrated. Contempt for men who exhibit these things, often taking the form of accusations of effeminacy, seems to be causally connected with disdain for women. Not all of these traits have been equally or always derided by all cultures or in all times: good manners, for example, were not in the least unmanly to a Victorian, and neither was a romantic sensibility. The supposedly advanced culture of the twentieth century actually showed a marked retrogression into childishness in its ideas of gender, inventing restrictions and taboos unknown to earlier ages (e.g, that physical affection between two men is a sign of homoeroticism). One of the promising things about queer theory -- though this has by no means established itself, given the extreme diversity and, at times, infighting of gay culture -- is its potential for dismantling false notions of the masculine: what I like to call machismania. Preoccupation with the aggressor impulse, which is a valid biological expression of maleness but must be subordinated to the lordship of an integrated psyche, is a very silly way of defining masculinity.

Okay, so stereotypes are not the same thing as archetypes. And where does that leave us?

To be honest, I don't entirely know. I feel that I understand gender better now than I did five years ago, but at the time I had no grasp of gender so that isn't saying much. However, I did come across a quote from (I think) Angelo Cardinal Scola once, in a little pamphlet from the Knights of Columbus,* that has been one of the few Christian resources to offer more than a superficial approach to gender: "Men receive love by giving love; women give love by receiving love."

This statement is like a mental lozenge -- it has to dissolve in the mind over time in order to take effect. But think of some examples, stereotypical in themselves, maybe, but useful as illustrations of the larger principle. If a man holds the door open for a woman, he is attempting to give love; if she goes through it and thanks him, he will receive love through that gift, but if she rejects his kindness he will feel, well, rejected. Conversely, one of the most characteristic things a wife or a mother will say to her husband or her son on their arrival home is "Tell me about your day." Here, her attempt to receive them is the manifestation of her love; if that gift-of-receiving is met by silence (or the sort of reply that amounts to silence), her love will be frustrated.

Cardinal Scola's statement is a summary of the genders' coinherence: it illustrates their interdependence just as much as their contrast in emphasis or psychological style. Both feminine and masculine are designed both to receive and to give. Similarly, Carl Jung, whose psychological theories sometimes bordered on the mystical, thought that each gender contained elements of the other, which had to be integrated into the psyche as a whole for proper balance, and that these outposts of our own opposites were a major factor in erotic affection (healthy or unhealthy).

Taking that maxim as a starting point, I believe we can begin to understand why the types represented in art, from ancient myth down to postmodern pop culture, are at once so tied to the cultural standards of gender and so apt to subvert them -- sometimes in socially destructive ways, but at other times in a manner that displays real insight into the artificial limitations of a culture's view of gender. Every "spear" character concept will have a "distaff" counterpart; sometimes the strength of the contrast between the two will emphasize how really different masculine and feminine are, while other times the similarity between the spear and the distaff types will show their inter-animation of one another.

This in turn, since one of the functions of art is to express our subconscious to us in a safe way, can deliver us from false or overly-narrowed concepts of gender. Our own culture seems replete with these confining stereotypes, though the trend is changing, largely (though not exclusively) as a result of the feminist and queer movements; the cultural confusion caused by these movements does of course do damage, but so did the repressions and restrictions of their artificially clear predecessors, particularly in the fifties. There is no social order which gets everything right -- except "that Rome where Christ Himself is Roman," i.e. Heaven itself.

I think that a general acquaintance with literature, preferably over a period of several hundred years at least, will give us a fairly good, comprehensive approach to the real archetypes of both genders, which is a good antidote to wrongly narrowed definitions. So, for instance, the aggressive character is often thought of as exclusively masculine; but it was a far more fastidious age than our own which produced the refrain "The female of the species is more deadly than the male," and the stories of the Amazons and the Valkyries suggest that the Warrior-Maiden archetype may be as old as humanity; nor is it without historical and wholly Christian expression in Saint Joan of Arc. Conversely, the traits of gentleness, peace, and sensitivity are frequently taken to be specifically feminine -- yet these received a pretty unambiguously masculine expression in the boyish boisterousness of Saint Francis.

This, I think, demonstrates one of the ways in which a simply conservative approach to society will not do for a Christian, and especially not for a Catholic. Every culture -- however baptized and catechized it may be -- has flaws, and it is among the special tasks of the Church to help a culture recognize those flaws and compensate for them, and to repent of them when they become sins. It is also one of the places where Christianity and the queer world can find common ground, albeit a limited one. Given how few those are, we should try and make as much of this as we can. If St. Paul could take advantage of an altar to an unknown god to proclaim the invisible Deity, I believe we can do the same; and if he was not embarrassed to quote pagan playwrights and poets, perhaps we need not be ashamed of Tony Kushner and Camille Paglia.

*No, Matt Curley, I am not becoming a Knight of Columbus. Shut up forever.

1 comment:

  1. Good evening Gabriel.

    You have a highly engaging writing style and a well-stocked quiver of rhetorical arrows to deploy.

    Or, better than a quiver, a well-stocked cabinet of mental lozenges!

    It seems to this reader that the common ground between "Christianity and the queer world" is but an isthmus, and whether it is not completely submerged by tidal waters (of misunderstanding perhaps).

    Indifference to the quarter century of feminism blasted at your ears notwithstanding, I have to allow the suspicion that to stand that the theory of coinherence of the genders does in fact continue to enshrine a hierarchy: yes, the integrated personality of either gendered person does in fact include giving and receiving, initiating and completing, for each, without reduction. Yet does not one have greater privilege of agency and initiation? From the position of masculine privilege, the man can consider himself able to discover adopt, integrate and (appropriate) the aspects of feminine gender into himself, all the while enjoying a position of greater advantage within the greater scheme of things. No?

    Just offering what I see as an obvious criticism: the coinherence of the sexes allows for diversity within each, while yet maintaining the privileged position of one over the other (as the initiator and giver).

    Are men biologically structured as a initiators? Or is the production of the ovum not also an initiation too, which the addition of the sperm brings to completion? The fact that many species reproduce parthogenesis would indicate a biological structure for female initiation in reproduction.

    Wishing you well, in tracing the lines of understanding and agreement yet to be found on the shore line.