vrijdag 8 februari 2008

Men, women, and all that (part 2)

CLEO: So... About that last post of yours...

MERLIJN: Why do you always come to bother me after the fact?

CLEO: I'm the angel of history, remember? Face turned backward in horror, wings flapping, propelled into the future. Forgot Walter Benjamin? But I need not account for my comings and goings with you. I wanted to talk about that mess of a post with you. First of all, why start off with that link to that godawful Boyd Rice article? I clicked on it and had to hide my face in my wings.

MERLIJN: Part of the point was that it was a godawful article. Here you have someone answering Valerie Solanas, and armed with millenia in which men kicked women around, and what do you get? This. No conviction. Way too low joke-to-word ratio. I'd have done better.

CLEO: But you would not have been serious about it, would you?

MERLIJN: No. And neither is Boyd Rice. It shows. Solanas, on the other hand, carries real conviction. This does affect the force of their writing. Beauty is a pretty reliable guide to truth. I suspect, and it's no more than a vague hunch, really, that the misogyny of say Sade, Boyd Rice, and so forth is ultimately self-defeating. Men cannot in the end but define themselves in relationship with and in opposition to women. With a writer like Solanas, this is very different.

CLEO: So Solanas is right?

MERLIJN: I don't know. But it is an interesting thought, is it?

CLEO: What would you do if she is?

MERLIJN: You mean if my gender would be obsolescent, parasitical, ripe for annihilation? I'd do nothing. I'd just plod on as I've always done. See if I care.

CLEO: You haven't yet explained to me why you believe all this is relevant in a post on sexuality and love.

MERLIJN: Because neither of these are simple things. You start reflecting seriously on these issues, start digging deeper, and things see the light which you did not expect. I dug so deep I'm afraid of awaking the Balrogs.

CLEO: Bit late for that, isn't it? Balrogs not only awake and knocking on the door, but making themselves comfortable in the living room. But we'll get back to that. I'm vaguely disturbed by your notions about misogyny. You're dealing with an attitude which leads to killing people, all over the world. Not some interesting artistic perspective.

MERLIJN: Of course. But then, how is that relevant? I'm trying to sort out my own thoughts and actions, so I'm necessarily taking some kind of ideal, subjective perspective.

CLEO: Fine. What, then, of your glib dismissal of "puritanical" left-wing feminists as standing on somehow the same slope as the Taliban?

MERLIJN: Wasn't being glib. They really stand there.

CLEO: Now, hang on. You speak elsewhere about the commodification of sexuality and all that, so why would you dismiss protests about, say, the objectification of women in pornography?

MERLIJN: Well, sure, porn objectifies women - but what of it? Perhaps it's the objectification part that turns me on.

CLEO: But how can you harmonize that with what you write elsewhere?

MERLIJN: Perhaps I can't. Although, watch me. But there's protest against objectification, the depiction of people as sexual objects, as a matter of principle, and protest against concrete situations and instances of exploitation. Just as there is protest against prostitution as an issue of principle and against the concrete circumstances surrounding concrete instances of prostitution. It's perfectly possible to agree with the latter while disagreeing with the former. And my point is that the puritanical feminist wing in the radical left at least is all about the former, not the latter. And in that sense they position themselves against sexuality as such. And not just straight male sexuality either. I'll stand by that.

CLEO: My final issue. In all of what you've written, I see not a single mention of sin. Why is that?

MERLIJN: What is sin?

CLEO: You tell me. I think you know sin rather better than I do.

MERLIJN: Allright then. I'm unhappy with simply listing morally objectionable actions as "sin". Such as this is sin, that is sin. Sin is something relational, right? It's always a sin against God, right?

CLEO: Go on.

MERLIJN: Likewise, identifying sin with our animal nature, our reptilian brain and all that it whispers, and all that misses the point to me as well. Too static.

CLEO: Right.

MERLIJN: So to me, sin is an infraction against the two commandments: Love God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength; and love your neighbour just like yourself. It's primarily an infraction against love, a focussing on other things. And I sometimes think that the love of God and the love of the Other is highly interrelated. That it is precisely in the love between people where God likes to dwell. Though one should be wary of reducing one to the other as well...

CLEO: Hmmmm... Where does fallenness, original sin come in?

MERLIJN: I believe the first chapters of Genesis deal precisely with alienation - an alienation brought about by the growing self-consciousness, the growing maturity of man. Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil - and one of the first emotions they encounter is shame. Which is precisely the product of our alienation from one another, of our awareness of that unbridgeable gulf between oneself and the other. And I believe that a perfect love - between us and God, or between us each other - is unattainable. For us, that is. There's always a level on which we remain cold and locked in and alone. There's the mortally necessary hope of that alienation being finally resolved at the end of time, there is that.

There's also morality. The normative rules by which we guide our conduct. It is wrong to steal, to lie, to kill. All that. But it's a different thing. Normative moral codes, and at least the presupposition of moral universalism, are deadly necessary to get by. But they do not replace the commandments of love, which in a way transcend them. And the nature of God is precisely love.

CLEO: So no loving relationship can be sinful? Very touchy-feely. Are you some kind of hippie now?

MERLIJN: That does not follow from the argument. Depends on your notion of love. I believe I could be an inquisitor, and get out the thumbscrews and the rack, and go about my business still sincerely convinced I'm acting out of love. Love need not be soft or consoling. Not when the stakes are the fate of immortal souls. Mind you, I have no inclination to start acting in such a manner. I'm just clarifying my argument.

CLEO: Right.

MERLIJN: But there's a catch. If these notions are correct, we might be terribly bad at knowing when we sin and when we do not. Sin is what waylays us, what misleads us - but it does so most effectively when we think we are doing the right thing. Think of Jesus tempted in the desert, the devil promising him all the kingdoms and principalities of the earth. Think of what a temptation that must have been - to rid the world of injustice, to feed the widow, to institute His Kingdom through earthly power!

CLEO: The socialists.

MERLIJN: I was primarily thinking about the Church, which after Constantine happily fell for the temptation that Jesus rejected. But you are right about the socialists as well. And the tragedy is, that no matter how corrupted the Church became, it still remained the Church, the vessel for the heights of human civilization, the heights of theological thought. And the terrible thing about the Soviet Communists is precisely not that they betrayed their ideals, but that they were sincerely convinced they were actualizing them on earth. It's too easy to think in dichotomies here. To see the Church as betraying Christianity. Or to see the Soviet Union as betraying the ideals of socialism. They did, and they did not. The problem with simply regarding them as wholly corrupted, or perfect opposites to the ideals one adheres to, is that there's always the thought that "we can do better". The fiercest critics of Stalinism are the Trotskyists. Atheist condemnation of institutionalized Christianity is mild compared to that of various Christian sects. And that's a very dangerous thought.

CLEO: That's a very pessimistic statement.

MERLIJN: But I think it's correct. Ultimately, we cannot escape sin by ourselves.

CLEO: Is lust a sin?

MERLIJN: If it diverts our attention from loving the other, and loving God, yes. But sexual attraction, as such? I don't think so. I believe it may be very usefully and pleasurably put in service of love.

CLEO: Aren't you privileging sexual love here, to the exclusion of familial love, friendship, and all that?

MERLIJN: Yes, I am. And with good reason. Familial love kind of depends on it. I don't believe any other kind of love between human beings has the potential to go as deep as sexually oriented love. Note that I am speaking about love here. Not casual sex.

But I may be wrong here. It's not that important. In the end, I guess I believe love to be some kind of "merging" without loss of self - to the contrary. To overcome our alienation from the other by entering into a relationship where the other is strange, yet familiar. Intertwined pasts, intertwined futures. What am I?

CLEO: A confused guy at a computer screen.

MERLIJN: No! You of all people. You disappoint me. I am a past! In an ideal fashion, a remembered past. And where we may be able to never share our most private pains and joys, we can share pasts.

There's an element of negativity here which I think is terribly important. Total freedom is meaningless. It is only in the many ways that our past restricts the freedom of our actions, in the way we restrict each other's freedom, that free actions become actually meaningful. So giving space to the other, ending up with some kind of balanced whole of possible (shared) futures, is terribly important here. I think that's one way in which love also means confronting one's own non-being.

CLEO: You still have not answered one of the questions I started with. Where all that stuff about Sade, that Boyd Rice screed, German cannibals, for goodness' sake, where all that fits in with your conception about sexuality and love.

MERLIJN: Well, I think there's very ancient biological connections between the part of the brain responsible for sexuality and that dealing with dominance and power relationships. Just look at how closely intertwined procreation and the struggle for dominance in an animal group are. And...

CLEO: Hang on! Stop right there. You know better than that! Pointing out brain development from the crocodiles to you isn't an explanation. It's a just-so story. Only something in the realm of ideas is.

MERLIJN: Historical explanations aren't explanations? A bit rich, coming from you.

CLEO: Historical ones are, but they are always ideal in nature. Naturalistic ones aren't.

MERLIJN: Well, allright then. Did you go to that fetish party?

CLEO: I peered through the windows. Why?

MERLIJN: What did the clothing, the attire, say to you? The texture of ropes? Metal? Latex - harsh, black, gleaming stuff? What did it suggest?

CLEO: Skin.

MERLIJN: Precisely. Skin with all the opposite attributes. Soft, warm, tender. Beauty is always playing with contrasts. A totally symmetrical face isn't beautiful. It's boring. Punctuated symmetry - that's beautiful. A mole, a slightly assymetrical smile... And I think in this sense often what we are looking for is signified, most of all, by its negation.

CLEO: Where are you going with this?

MERLIJN: To fall in love, to love, does entail in some sense a stepping out of oneself, losing oneself in a sense in the other. Religious mystics, mystery cults, and all those have looked for the same. Breaking those walls, being for a moment one with the universe that seems otherwise so indifferent to us. Love precisely allows one to transcend one's loneliness without losing one's individuality. To become a relational being. But that notion of non-being, of death, is never very far away.

CLEO: I'm not sure I see your point. What does this have to do with German cannibals?

MERLIJN: I think that the thought of being food, of being consumed, of being an object so totally and utterly disposed of, is attractive to some people precisely because it entails such an utter, total losing of oneself. It's an extreme case. But I believe most masochists are looking for something like that. And that what they are looking for - pain, humiliation, the imagery of death, whatever - allows them to conquer that sensation, to enter it and come out more alive as a result.

CLEO: Catharsis?

MERLIJN: That's part of it at least, I guess.

CLEO: Except that the German guy who ended up as food didn't conquer anything! Hard to transcend anything while your various parts are frying in a pan.

MERLIJN: Precisely. And that solves my dilemma.

CLEO: How?

MERLIJN: Remember what I wrote about the ethical issues surrounding that case? I ended up stating that one cannot consent to one's death, as consent should entail that it can be withdrawn at some point. But that of course is nonsense. I can consent to being tattooed. Perhaps I'll have regrets, and have the tattoo lasered off, but that does change nothing of the fact that I Have Been Tattooed, in an eternal fashion. However, if we conceptualize sadomasochistic activities as some kind of dramatic, ritualistic enactment of, well, love through precisely the imagery of its opposite, then it becomes too easy to see that actually eating each other cannot be part of the game.

CLEO: Perhaps you are a wishy-washy liberal after all. "Safe, sane and consensual"?

MERLIJN: Hmmm... Perhaps. But that's a slogan, which encapsulates a set of moral principles. I think here it's more about that which is a precondition for and which transcends morality: the integrity of the other person, and his or her freedom.

CLEO: Also, don't you think you are drawing a much too close relationship between sex and love, here?

MERLIJN: How do you mean?

CLEO: Well, your attitudes seem to imply to me that you would regard sex outside a loving relationship as sinful, right?

MERLIJN: I guess that follows. I'm not sure that notion disturbs me.

CLEO: So we're back at the beginning: Merlijn the liberal vs. Merlijn the romantic?

MERLIJN: So it seems.

CLEO: Allright then. Need to be on my way, anyway. Next time, call me for something easy. Argument from evil or something.

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