Gender [a social, rather than biological construct] contradicts the contemporary idea that men and women share a human identity prior to all differences between them. It belongs to a worldview in which an irreducible experience of otherness is fundamental to being alive…There is something I can never do, something I can never know, an interdependence I can never overcome, a gulf that only metaphor can represent and only imagination can bridge….
— David Cayley, Ivan Illich In Conversation (introduction)
“Under the reign of gender, men and women collectively depend on each other; their mutual dependence sets limits to struggle, exploitation and defeat. Vernacular culture is a truce between genders, and sometimes a cruel one…in contrast to this truce, the [money-based economy] imposes continued war and ever new kinds of defeat on each woman. While under the reign of gender, women might be subordinate, under any economic regime they are only the second sex.”
— Ivan Illich, Ibid.
‘But,” said Mrs. Witt, “it would be difficult to open the third eye and see Pan in a man.”
“Probably, said Cartwright, smiling. “In man he is over-visible: the old satyr: the fallen Pan.”
“Exactly!” said Mrs. Witt. And she fell into a muse. “The fallen Pan!” she re-echoed. “Wouldn’t a man be wonderful in whom Pan hadn’t fallen!”
— D.H. Lawrence, St. Mawr
“…those who do not reciprocate the gifts of their genius [i.e.,daemon, personal spirit that comes to us at birth] will leave it in bondage when they die.”
— fr. Lewis Hyde, The Gift, quoted in An Advent Calendar to Beat the Devil by Edward Curtin
At a holiday party I heard a woman telling a group of friends how she had reprimanded the owner of the only remaining local, independent theater in the Utica area for showing “known pedophile” Woody Allen’s latest movie. Her admonishment went on, to include the fact that old Woody can do nothing these days, go nowhere, without the assistance of 2 women, his wife and his sister. I wondered if she felt a little sorry at turning on one whose art has provided so many entertaining hours to the American public.
It is unfair to call the Me too Movement, built as it is upon the growing number of those wronged – and hurt, and scarred – by sexual misconduct and willing to come forward and name their offenders, a “witch hunt.” But reading story after story in the news, hearing the salacious details discussed at parties, one can begin to feel the taking down of successful men of business and the arts as being tinged with that McCarthyist kind of sadism, of puritanical vindictiveness. Like all stories coming from Identitiarianism, it blots out the Much Bigger problems of free market capitalism and imperialist wars, of rule by oligarchy and plutocracy, of which dirty “old satyrs” are but one symptom and not the worst, while forefronting victimhood.
From my perspective, which I call “independently religious,” the excited triumphal coverage of the Me Too Movement – the dubbing of it as that – conveys the fatal devaluing of imagination – and the banning of thoughtful discourse as well as passionate enthusiasm – that defines and shackles the liberal mind during this excruciating Trumpian moment we’re sharing. Not the acts of outing wrongdoing, but the triumphal humiliation of the“satyrs” promises the war for equality between the sexes will trudge on indefinitely and pointlessly. The consequences of this are enormous; besides the sidelining of bigger evils, like ongoing bombing of innocent people, besides the immediate ruin of reputations and careers, it is an attack on the souls of men and women. The harpie-like glee beneath the declarations of ‘the end of patriarchy’ is an attack on “otherness” itself, on the offensive otherness of male behavior that has not been controlled, and, on another level, against the otherness within each woman which is her discarded soul.
While serious feminists like Susan Faludi (NY Times Dec. 28) call women to the longer-haul, no-fun task of building “egalitarian society,” her words have no power compared to the passion evoked by participation in bringing down the powerful. Having left the soul out of feminism, outrage against men is the only available passion, and it is no more positive and “nation-building” than outrage against immigrants.
Prominent writers whose knowledge of the political world exceeds mine – Mark Lilla (whose book The Once and Future Liberal I haven’t read) and Paul Street writing for CounterPunch – have suggested that Identity Politics is an addiction. Addiction, a disease we call “mental,” is a disease of the ego and of the soul. According to the 12-step recovery program, addiction is the refusal to acknowledge powerlessness. It is the ego unchallenged, giving the heady illusion of being in control, and it is considered fatal. Recovery involves, first, the admission that one’s life has become unmanageable; i.e., that there exist things outside ones’ control, over which one has no power. This admission of powerlessness opens the door to the experience of the “higher power,” making it possible for the addict to imagine the “other” that will enable her/him to let go of the absolute fear-driven need to control everything. The 12-step spiritual program wisely chose the term “Higher Power” – God in function but not in name, the quintessential “Other” – to avoid a needless stumbling block for those conditioned in the liberal, secular, often religiophobic, authority-averse context.
Like other addictions, through exercising an illusion of control, Identity Politics functions to replace the sense of exaltation, of positive enthusiasm and passion once conferred through identification with a commanding myth. In addition, it allows the addict to skip over self-inventory, self reflection and contemplativeness, the personal quest for meaning and purpose that make an adult capable of interdependence in community. It avoids the quest for the person’s own distinct and unique “otherness,” the achievement of initiated adulthood that builds what we call heart, and character. When mainstream feminism adapted itself to the global economic rule, its mission equality with men, its assumption that “gender” is an antiquated concept used to keep women in subjugation, it raised Identity Politics to the summum bonum. It let committed feminists off the hook for the difficult inward individual initiatory part of the quest for genuine identity. It meant, in essence, that women do not have to ever admit powerlessness, to grow up, take responsibility for ourselves, accept our lot of suffering and pain as humans must do in service both to their singular “genius” and to the common good. It meant we need not be individuals, our identity forged in our own lived fire, but victims living off the negative passion of our angry resentment at the privileges of whiteness and maleness, at ‘privilege’ itself.
In the capitalist system where money is the standard of value, examples of unearned privilege, of men (and women) cruelly using other people on the road to success, are not difficult to find. But, to those who “pass” on their chance to pursue their unique individual “genius,” the achievement and success of others will appear as ‘privilege,’ not as, for instance, earned reward for the willingness to “suffer for one’s art.” The resentment of that privilege will be driven not by class consciousness but by spite. I prefer to believe the call to us as women is to something more ennobling.
Identity politics, including the Me Too Movement, are expression of a mass neuroses, not a politics. Serving to keep modern secular liberals from existential imaginative (inner) truth on the one hand, they serve also to distract from the unbearable truth of the ongoing destruction of the planet and inevitable despair at the futility of existence. Identity politics provide an authoritative voice for those whose relationship to authority (i.e., to God) is unconscious and therefore pathologized. They provide a way of appearing to present a moral case while completely evading genuine, painful moral critique. This kind of hysteria on the left is fully as baneful and frightening as the fascism of the alt right. Like the extreme right, it’s driving motive, though there is unquestionably healing power in speaking out about abuse one has suffered, is not the positive healing energy the world so desperately needs. One thinks of the poet and writer Maya Angelou, whose sexual abuse as a child at the hands of a family friend caused her to become mute, who went on to become a significant public figure, a creative spirit, a force for peace and the dignity of all men and women.
In the social world, the fundamental otherness with which we have to contend as initiated adults is not that between the powerful majorities and oppressed minorities of Identity Politics, but, as D.H. Lawrence understood, that between the original organic duality of men and women.
The feared “otherness” embodied for men in women and for women in men, is ultimately the fear of one’s own “otherness,” the uniqueness – I would go so far as to call it the “divinity” – we are taught in liberal society to prize but which so few achieve, with which each soul is gifted at birth according to classic Greek tradition. Intractable “otherness,” feared by both the Left and the Right, is genuine religious authority (God or Pan) restored to its proper location in the indigenous soul. Refusal of it is the banning of wonder and mystery, of positive enthusiasm and zeal; its logical consequence the reactionary purging of “satyrs” by the feminists, of immigrants and Muslims by the Trumpists.
Finally, as daughter of a very good, very self-centered artist, who has struggled my entire 67-year old life to claim my own artist genius, I want to speak specifically to the purging of successful artists. The honored but highly ambivalent place of artists in our society is a further consequence of the general refusal of otherness, or, as I am saying it, of the imaginative soul and authentic individuality. We non-artists, resigned to not having the kind genius of a Dustin Hoffman, a Woody Allen or a Peter Martins, resignedly take our jobs in the global corporate economy. It behooves us to remember, referring to the classic Greek tradition echoed in Lewis Hyde’s words in the epigram above, that if each of us took up the supreme challenge and the inherent danger of consciously serving the gift of our genius, we might have little energy for making easy and self-righteous attacks against those who have spent their lives navigating the risks and dangers – as well as the triumphs and satisfactions – of the artist’s life. We might, as well, see the common problem we share with the artists, that of an industrial economy that puts profits before people and demands we serve its purpose by negating our innate, wise and creative, independent and subversive, human souls.