Body and Soul: Becoming Men & Women in a Post-Gender Age

We are now seeing the consequences of attempting to live as if “gender” doesn’t in some important way define us,  of thinking we are beyond the antiquated categories of manhood or womanhood and other nature-given limitations.  Having rejected, at least in my boomer generation,  the last popular iterations of these categories (i.e., war maker, killer, brute, or barefoot and pregnant) as being completely unworthy of the advanced stage of progress we’ve attained, we see no need to re-imagine these two basic categories of human difference which are, you could say, our nature.  Free now to ignore the traditions surrounding becoming a man or becoming a woman we no longer bother much over whether we are becoming human, whether or not we exist in a culture in which it is possible to be human.

For instance, is it possible to be human in a society that routinely bombs other people, poor people, darker people, who are no threat to us whatsoever?  Trump initiated the immigrant ban; he did not initiate the bombing. Was it possible to be human growing up in a society that had just dropped atomic weapons on cities in Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of people? What extraordinary feats of sublimation did we have to manage to still believe we were the greatest nation on earth?

A friend in my 60-plus age category and longtime feminist in an academic career,  referring to the Trump debacle, said she was becoming politically active once again, something I have heard repeatedly recently.  She’s following the Indivisible guidelines, she said, online.   Wondering what this was about (I am out of touch in nearly every way with what my contemporaries are up to or following) I checked out the website.  I had heard people in our Cafe in Utica talking with excitement about new apps and things that have been established to make political involvement easier.

On the website it said Indivisible is an effort to do for the “Left” what the Tea Party had done for the Right.  By and large I am quick to concede the superior worldliness of people who keep track of what Congress, as well as City Hall, are doing. What came to my mind, perhaps unfairly, was but the Tea Partiers had passion, some sort of crazed but thoroughly motivating conviction on their side, not just sitting at iphones contacting senators and congressman about how they should vote on bills.   There seems something absurd about this, something out of touch. But I am astounded at how many people appear not to get the depth and the seriousness of the crisis we are in.  It’s not just that they believe they can instill backbone in their representatives, or make them responsive to their constituents.  It’s that they want something to change without themselves changing.  Which means, as my husband pointed out, these are efforts to resuscitate the Democratic Party, to get ready for a Hillary victory in 2020; the only form of politics anyone can imagine,  the banality of lesser evilism.

Last night we watched an old movie, not a great one, but interesting and a favorite of my late father-in-law’s, called Body and Soul (1947), with John Garfield and Lilli Palmer.  It’s the story of a boxer named Charlie Davis from a family of poor Brooklyn shop owners who rises to become The Champ and in so doing becomes thoroughly enmeshed in the corrupt gaming system run by cutthroat capitalists.  His girlfriend Peg, an artist, won’t stay with him under these conditions, and his worn down mother, too, distances herself from him, but the Champ finds plenty of women who are attracted to him for his money and his fame. In the climactic scenes, the championship match that he is supposed to throw, we see him finally recover his senses; he pummels the guy who was supposed to pummel him, and wins the match.  His coming around won him back his true love, but could have cost him his life and certainly did cost him all his money.  In the final shot, he and Peg stroll down the noirish nighttime city street,  toward the family-owned candy shop and presumably a humbler but respectable existence.

In old-fashioned terms, what we were seeing in Charlie’s resolution of his crisis, was his becoming a man.  That is, he threw off the system that had become his mainstay, his preferred identity, his salvation from ignoble poverty, to regain his integrity.  Earlier in the film, just before he discloses to his mother and his girlfriend the fight is fixed, he expresses to them his derision for the neighborhood guy who just told Charlie he’s betting on him.  Charlie says they’re stupid, gambling their money when he could lose.  His mother responds, they’re not doing it for the money, it’s because you make them proud.  I thought of the young kids whose ideals had been awakened by Bernie’s candidacy.  I thought at the time and do now that he should he should have stayed in the race for them, not stay loyal to the crooked Democrats. Today we are supposed to dismiss such sentimental and naïve thinking.  What is a crushed heart or two when we’re talking about the big stakes of the Presidential race?  Who cares about the poor neighborhood schmucks who’ll naively bet on the Champ having no clue whatsoever of the thorough depravity of the system controlled by the money men?

But here it is, the simple naïve human values were the right ones.  Charlie’s triumph, which was quite real, was to become a man, to be initiated and in so doing, to be the man worthy of the admiration and love of the uncorrupted “little guys” from his neighborhood.  To them, the ordinary guys,  through his own remarkable striving and skill Charlie had become the archetype of the hero, a god.  The question for Charlie was could he be humble enough to incarnate that numinous energy shining through him and be the man they perceived him to be.  Charlie’s transformation was dramatic of course, suitable for the entertainment format, but the choice he was presented with is not and never was limited to those who make it to “Champ.”  Taking a term from another, much funnier old movie with a similar theme (The Apartment, 1960 with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine) it is each man’s choice to be “a mensche,” a human being, and each woman’s as well, or else to be something less in a system that demands the behaviors of obedience and servility in order to achieve the career promotions and the envy (so different from admiration and love) of those below you on the ladder.

After watching The Apartment a few weeks ago, I realized a movie like that could not be made today.  The concept of being a human being as a conscious choice, rather than remaining submerged in neoliberal banality has no meaning today.  In our current, dehumanized context we’ve lost touch with the human story, the story of becoming human. We’ve pretty much lost  the awareness of any other choice but the corrupt system that’s fixed.  Everyone to one degree or another is adapted to it and to its mind-numbing banality:  Well, of course you vote for Hillary.  Of course you spend the next 4 years fuming at Donald, obsessed with him, neurotically reviewing his every offense, keeping him and your hatred for him in the forefront of your consciousness, letting it drive you in a kind of pseudo-aliveness, energizing your action, giving your life a pseudo-purpose.

But in reality, you are “beside yourself.”  Your ‘self’ is over across the room there, waiting for you to notice you forgot something, waiting for you to come to your senses.  Peg’s character in the film could be seen as a representation of the faithful but repudiated soul,  never waivering from believing her version of Charlie, his goodness, his determination, his lack of sophistication. The stakes have not disappeared, they have become more critical; each person’s choice whether or not to be a human being, a man or a woman, matters to the outcome, as to whether we will preserve a humanly worthy way of life in harmony with the planet and with other human beings.

The choice is always a humbling one; always there is some “feet off the ground,” inflated way of being that one has to come down from in order to be an ordinary man or a woman.  This “humbler” way is opposite to how we are taught and encouraged to fantasize ourselves, through the exalted version of life available by means of technology,  through absorption in the virtual world of television and the powerful influence of the ideal of ‘success’ – meaning  material success.   The challenge to refuse to “throw the fight,” and risk thereby losing everything is not a light one, and it is everyone’s.  Who am I apart from who I think I am and who everyone relates to me as being? What if I buck the system and there’s nothing to take its place?

The “Peg” character, inasmuch as she represents that merciful inner voice, very difficult to hear amidst the din of the shaming culture, points out one always has a chance, there is something real to “come home” to.

In these post-religious times,  coming down to being “merely” human beings is far trickier than in the past. But only human beings, acting humanly, can be inspiring to others.  Only human beings, through effort and honest struggle, can convey something of the greater, animating, non-banal spiritual reality to their fellow humans.

As we witnessed Charlie’s change at the last moment – we could see his aggressiveness return in those last few rounds – I said to my husband, This is what Bernie should have done.  If Bernie had thrown his career with the Democrats aside, run for the Greens, or had he called out the party on its rigged primaries, that immortalizing kind of light would likely have shown through him; it is always recognizable.  He wasn’t up to it; perhaps it is better he wasn’t.  It isn’t up to him, or to anyone,  to do it “for us.”  We aren’t waiting for the messiah anymore.  Becoming human in the way I’m talking about it is not a matter of imitation, but of initiation.  In these two old movies, you could see transformation; you could feel it.  This is not cornball stuff as we like to think, though it is religious, in my view.  It’s a matter of incarnating that archetype of the whole, integrated, just, good and unsophisticated human being, of refusing to “throw the fight,” and instead fighting (I would call this practicing your art) with all the talent, skill, experience one’s got.  You may win the match or lose, but you will win nonetheless.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: