Posts Tagged ‘hierarchy’

This is the first time I’ve ever read anything by Calvino, and I was not disappointed. These two novellas are a bit allegorical, and as you can see from the titles, they’re set in the distant past. Calvino’s style is translated in a way that is really accessible, and his cultural tradition is similar enough to mine that the stories, though new, felt familiar.

THE NONEXISTENT KNIGHT

In the days of Charlemagne’s campaigns, when his greatness is a little past but he hasn’t quite retired yet, there exists in his army a knight who doesn’t exist. Agilulf is literally an empty suit of armor, endued with the strictest sense of duty according to the chivalric code. He is everyone’s conscience, which makes him unpopular when the soldiers are relaxing after a large battle. He speaks, but he has no heart to feel with other men. He sees his lack, but like most of us, he doesn’t know how to change.

Raimbaut is a young kid set on avenging his father on the field of battle. Battlefields are notoriously smoky, and wearing the armor of the time limits one’s field of vision, so he doesn’t succeed. But he insists on learning from Agilulf, whether the nonexistent knight likes it or not. There’s another young guy named Torrismund who is a bit more cynical about everything.

But these guys don’t make an interesting story by themselves: they need a girl.

We country girls, however noble, have always led retired lives in remote castles and convents. Apart from religious ceremonies, triduums, novenas, gardening, harvesting, vintaging, whippings, slavery, incest, fires, hangings, invasion, sacking, rape and pestilence, we have had no experience. What can a poor nun know of the world?

Bradamante is fantastic. She fights alongside the men in full armor and saves Raimbaut in a battle. He falls desperately in love, but she doesn’t. She admires men who know what they’re doing, who have the skill and discipline to succeed in the violent world they live in – the type that get called ‘a real man.’ The problem is, when she gets a real man into bed, he’s always disappointing. All that work ethic and self-restraint disappear with the trousers, as the men she’s been with just want to ride her hard and get off as soon as possible. I can see her point, that one wants a partner who will concern himself with the satisfaction of both parties and not just his own, but I can also see things from the men’s perspective – all the discipline and hard work need a counterbalance, and sex can provide the opportunity to be completely unrestrained. But she’s turned on by restraint, so it always leaves her feeling a little flat. Her observations of Agilulf give her hope that he will finally be the man who will fuck the way he fights, by the book and with great success.

Tragedy strikes when we start to examine origins. When did Agilulf become a knight? He saved a woman from being raped by highwaymen, but Torrismund claims that Agilulf didn’t earn his knighthood because the woman wasn’t a virgin. This part of the story doesn’t take long to relate, though it took a long time to perform: a journey all over Europe to find this woman and get proof that she was a virgin fifteen years ago. Because the feudal code of men that we call chivalry is based on women’s chastity. I suppose a woman’s safety was only significant if she was unfucked, as if along with the hierarchy of men based on the accomplishment of brave deeds, there was also a hierarchy of women based on their not having accomplished anything. It’s a bit surprising to someone from the twenty-first century, with all our talk about the importance of every human life, to see social structures that are based on slut-shaming and double standards so widely accepted even while so nakedly exposed. The story is narrated by a woman in a convent, so she always points out such things. She’s like Bradamante, taking the pen/sword out of a man’s hand and using it prove women’s power in a world that considered them powerless. And when her worth is proved, Bradamante is considered more of a curiosity than as a proof that women have an equal claim to the active professions. A man waves a sword about, and he shows that all men are powerful; a woman waves a sword about, and she shows that she’s weird, unfeminine, and probably willing to have sex with anyone who looks at her.

If you think times have changed, rephrase ‘waves a sword about’ to ‘looks in a microscope’ or ‘starts her own company’ or ‘goes to sniper school’ or ‘builds a robot’ or ‘plays Dungeons & Dragons online.’ My sister majored in a STEM field at the university, and she had to carry a dart gun to class to convince the male students to speak of and to her with respect. I guess it’s hard to look virile when a girl half your size lands a plastic dart in the middle of your forehead from across a lecture hall. [Actually, I don’t know if the US army will let a woman go to sniper school. Yes, let the institutionalized misogyny rise from that last sentence like a foul odor.]

THE CLOVEN VISCOUNT

The young viscount was off fighting a war when he jumped in front of a cannon and got blown to bits. Not the hundreds or thousands of bits you’d expect, just two. He’s cleft in twain, and this goes for his personality too. It’s another representation of the Jekyll and Hyde idea, separating the good from the bad in a human, only this guy is visibly separated in two. One side goes about wreaking evil throughout the domain (what is a viscount’s domain called? A viscountry?), while the other side goes about doing good. The evil is absurdly, cartoonishly evil, and the good is inhumanly, implacably good. They meet a girl and each tries to force her to marry the other. The evil tries to force her to marry the good by threatening her and her family; the good tries to manipulate her into marrying the evil by appealing to her parents and her supposedly good nature, as if she wants to save the evil half or something. She moved to a cave in the woods to get away from him, so of course she really wants to marry and reform him. [Sarcasm. Angry-at-misogyny-in-the-supposedly-good-man sarcasm.] As with other stories of separation, the only good result is healing, not dividing. They get stitched back together in the end, creating one person with good and bad qualities, like all of us.

I’ve dealt with quite a bit of my own internal separations, and healing and hugging seems to be the only way to help. For example. I meet a Jesus Freak who acts a little dominant toward me, and my subconscious starts fantasizing about fucking him into submission. It’s not rape because in the fantasy he participates and enjoys it, and rape is a horrible thing that damages everyone involved. I don’t try to run out and seduce a straight Christian, obviously, but I don’t stop at rejecting the fantasy and condemning the behavior. I ask, Why does my subconscious want to do that? It’s because I feel like his religion threatens me, and indeed this is a religion some of whose followers want to deny me basic civil rights, and some of whose branches literally teach that my only hope for salvation is to live a lonely life and to die as quickly as possible. I get so upset by this religion because for most of my life I did let it take my power away from me, my power to choose what life I was to lead and how to live it. In short, it really has little to do with the JF himself, who actually did his best to be kind and understanding and helpful, and if he judges me for being gay, he keeps that information to himself. It’s hard for me to trust Christians since the ones in Texas tried to get me fired – again, nothing to do with this specific JF. Now, why did my subconscious show this specific behavior? Why not another form of power? Because my sex life is leaving me dissatisfied, so I want more control over this area of my life too. The fantasy combines two areas of my life that have been at odds with each other, and combines them in a way that leaves me on top, in a position of power, in control of the situation. Now that I understand what’s wrong with me, I accept the parts of me that feel powerless and love myself even though I don’t have all the control I want. Then I look for ways to feel more powerful that don’t involve hurting other people.

But this is drifting away from Calvino. His book exposes misogyny and injustice, but its aim is reconciliation, combining duty and passion, cruelty and kindness, accepting both ends of the dichotomies as human traits that only exist in community, never in isolation. It’s a symbol of loving all that we find in ourselves, the good and the evil, because it takes both to make a complete human.

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This is the book I really intended to be reading this week. It’s short, but moves slowly. Philosophers tend to write very densely. I imagine that they spend a lot of time thinking and talking about ideas but little time thinking about how to express them clearly. This essay explains concepts at the end that it discusses at the beginning as if the reader already understands them; it’s all very recursive. This is characteristic of academic writing in some countries, but not in mine. When academics from Spanish-speaking countries, for example, move here, they have to completely re-learn how to write an essay.

I was very interested in Derrida back in undergrad; fourteen years ago, I read “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” over and over again until I thought I understood it. It takes a very specific mindset to understand Derrida, and I’m not sure if I had it this week. This essay was originally part of a collection (L’Ethique du don: Jacques Derrida et la pensée du don); it feels a bit like being in a class taught by Derrida, but in my case I didn’t do any of the advance reading. It reflects on and interprets an essay by Jan Patočka, but also includes references to Levinas, Heidegger, Nietzsche, the Bible, and Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The Bible and the Melville I get, but the others are sort of like Berlin. I’ve heard a lot about it, I’ve seen it in films and news stories, but I’ve never actually been there. I don’t know it well enough to discuss it. I’d like to, but not yet. As a linguistic exercise, this essay is a bit dizzying. An English translation of a French essay that interprets a Czech essay, using philosophy written in German and applying it to a story written in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, largely translated into Latin.

Let’s see if I can get to the heart of this. In the beginning, there was orgiastic mystery. People had transcendent experiences that led them to imagine divinity, and in the grip of these experiences they did strange things. Orgiastic mystery, what I usually refer to as mysticism, has never gone away. When Plato came along, he incorporated this type of mystery into his philosophy. He said that people had these experiences to point them (and everyone else) toward the Good. He dressed the mystical experience in abstractions to make it more accessible to the layperson, to introduce an ethical component to the divine madness. He rejected the mad elements of it, and incorporated the rest. It’s like when there’s an artist who advocates restructuring society; Americans will celebrate the shit out of her, ignore the really revolutionary elements of her art and create a sanitized version they can teach to fifth-graders in a unit on celebrating our individuality. It’s like reading Ginsberg with ninth-graders in a public school.

And then there was Christianity, which repressed and sort of covered over the mysticism that preceded it. Plato’s abstract Good became incarnated as God. An ethical response was replaced with a personal relationship. And, this personal relationship, this God, is all based on the idea of death as a gift, a specific death given with a specific purpose, one man dying for all mankind. Which is odd and sort of bollocks.

Every one of us dies. Every one of us will die. There is no escape from that. Someone can give their death to prolong our life, but no one can take our death from us. We will all experience death, and all in our own specific way. In Sense and Sensibility, people are placeholders for social roles and positions. When Edward’s inheritance is settled irrevocably on his brother, his fiancée drops him for Robert immediately. Edward Ferrars is not a man, he’s a destiny. Just as the three pairs of sisters are all pretty much the same, Elinor and Marianne, Anne and Lucy, Lady Middleton and Mrs Palmer, it’s a pattern that repeats, like wallpaper. In real life, we are all unique and irreplaceable, because our experience of death will be utterly unique. Death is what makes us who we are. It’s what we have to offer the world.

We are responsible for our actions. When our actions are bad, we deserve the bad consequences. According to Christians, Jesus gave his death as a gift to cancel the consequences of our bad actions. As the Holy Other, Jesus exists in a hierarchical binary relationship to humanity. He is utterly other, and always above us. Jesus’s sacrifice doesn’t stop us from dying, our deaths being an integral part of our identity; it stops us from suffering afterward. It relieves us from responsibility. This is what that study realized, when they gave kids a test to see how well they shared – atheists behave more ethically than religious people because they have no mediator with their own consciences.

Derrida (and possibly the others as well) uses the example of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, though Ibrahim’s sacrifice of Ismail would work just as well. So, this angel tells the father to kill his son. He keeps this exchange secret, preserving the integrity of the orgiastic experience, being responsible toward God while committing a completely unethical act. Religion demands this sacrifice of all its adherents; God tells people to act in strange, unethical ways, ways that harm or at least confuse the people around them. They have a secret responsibility that supersedes their responsibility to their families and society, what Robinson Crusoe (and Gabriel Betteredge) called the Secret Dictate. Here in the United States, Jesus’s gift gives people the right to hate and persecute those who are different to themselves. Look at the resistance to gay marriage and abortion rights; look at the new laws determining which bathroom transgender people can use. I’d feel much less comfortable urinating in the same room as a person in a dress than a person in a suit and tie, regardless of who has a penis and who doesn’t. But American Christians have a habit of legislating their discomfort. Fuck ethics, we have a Secret Dictate, a responsibility to God to ignore the rights of fellow human beings. Now, I’m generalizing, I know that there are good Christians out there, but the reactionary laws still pass, and Donald Trump has secured the conservative party’s nomination, so the good Christians are either not numerous or not vocal enough. I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but I think Derrida’s right: in the wrong hands, religion destroys a sense of ethical responsibility. And most hands are the wrong ones.

Which leads us to the end, tout autre est tout autre. It looks like nothing, Everything else is everything else, but that’s not what he means. Everyone else is wholly Other. Yes, God is completely different than humanity (Wholly/Holy Other), but every human is completely different from every other human. God and other people are equally alien to us. Which means that that secret responsibility to God, understood properly, is also a secret responsibility to every other person. Derrida tends to see the world in terms of hierarchized binaries, which he then smashes apart or “deconstructs.” Self and Other is one of these binaries, and our natural impulse is to favor Self. But religion teaches us to value the Other above the Self, but every Other occupies the same role in the binary, so it doesn’t matter which specific one I’m thinking of, a two-thousand-year-dead Jewish carpenter, my ex-wife, or the new boyfriend I’ve been texting all week. Every other is the same as every other, Holy or Profane.

We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent, and, what is more – into the bargain, precisely – capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space, of seeing into the most secret of the most interior places. It is perhaps necessary, if we are to follow the traditional Judeo-Christiano-Islamic injunction, but also at the risk of turning against that tradition, to think of God and of the name of God without such idolatrous stereotyping or representation. Then we might say: God is the name of the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not from the exterior. Once such a structure of conscience exists, of being-with-oneself, of speaking, that is, of producing invisible sense, once I have within me, thanks to the invisible word as such, a witness that others cannot see, and who is therefore at the same time other than me and more intimate with me than myself, once I can have a secret relationship with myself and not tell everything, once there is secrecy and secret witnessing within me, then what I call God exists, (there is) what I call God in me, (it happens that) I call myself God – a phrase that is difficult to distinguish from “God calls me,” for it is on that condition that I can call myself or that I am called in secret. God is in me, he is the absolute “me” or “self,” he is that structure of invisible interiority that is called, in Kierkegaard’s sense, subjectivity.

God sees without being seen, holds us from the inside, in secret, and makes us responsible for keeping that secret. Or in other words, God is a voice in our heads; creating a relationship with the divine is an activity of self-revelation, self-approbation, self-discovery. As in Yeats’s poem, we create God in our own image because our gods are in us all along. Walking with God is a way of loving and accepting oneself.

When I was at school, I thought of these two parts of my life as separate, the conservative religious “good boy” in one box and the liberal intellectual free-thinking academic in another. And here Derrida has deconstructed my personal internal binary, explained what I had kept secret, even from myself.

In the end, Derrida talks about what I had previously thought, religion-wise, only he has a much stronger background in philosophy than I do. Which is: Believing in God doesn’t mean shit if you can’t see God in the people around you, or in yourself. There are Bible verses I could use to back that up, but if you think I’m right you don’t need them, and if you think I’m wrong they won’t convince you.

So. Death as a gift. There are many people, including myself, who have considered Death as a friend to be welcomed, one we become impatient to see. To us, the suicides, I say: consider Death not as a person but as a gift. Give yours to someone who really deserves it, in a situation where the loss of you will have meaning. Most suicides are just a creation of an absence. Find a way to make yours matter. Your death makes you unique and irreplaceable; don’t waste it. Even if you don’t value your life, treat your death with enough respect to make it special. As I follow this vein of thinking, I begin to put more value into my life. Making a good death means living a good life. So let’s do that, shall we?