A spur to prick the sides of my intent

Suppose it were possible to change things about your own birth? What a great idea, right? Just think what that might mean: at the very least, perhaps, that you would not be imprisoned by whatever genetics you were allotted; you might actually have a chance to be the master of your own fate; and if you chose, be able to excel in fields currently beyond your reach.

And yet, would it even matter if it were yours to choose? Surely, not every daughter born to university professors succeeds as well as her parents; not every wealthy scion is able to make use of the educational opportunities he is able to access. It seems to me that there is more to it than the circumstances of birth -or the ticket you were issued in the chromosomal lottery: even hereditary instructions are malleable.

Genes are only blueprints -guidelines in a way- and what gets built in the end, often depends on how consistently each instruction is followed. Sometimes, circumstances prevent, or simply delay, completion of the initial plan. One of the mechanisms that allows this is epigenetic interference with the chromosomal directions: chemical signals that turn genes on or off -changes that are not inherited through DNA but rather result from interactions between genetic processes and experience. And these signals, or switches if you will, can be activated by a variety of circumstances: environment, stress, illness, diet, and even intrauterine factors- just to name a few. Genes are not the handcuffs we once thought they were.

But, I think most of us suspected that the exigencies imposed by birth were not absolute long before we knew anything about epigenetics. Or genes… or inheritance, for that matter. Philosophy has long wondered about who, what, and why we are; I was reminded of this by an essay written by Ada Jaarsma, a professor of philosophy at Mount Royal University in Calgary. https://aeon.co/essays/in-genetics-as-in-philosophy-existence-precedes-essence?

She writes that ‘In the early aftermath of the war, the French philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre used the term ‘existential’ to mark a radically first-person approach to history. Instead of the seemingly implacable nature of an event in time, these existentialists pointed to the subjective meaning that such events hold.’ Indeed, ‘I need to choose the circumstances of my birth, Sartre explained in Being and Nothingness (1943).’

On its own, his statement seems more metaphor than prescriptive, and yet, reality is conditional, isn’t it? To some extent, we all control how we perceive it, and therefore what it is like for each of us. I, like many of those in my philosophy lectures, was attracted to existentialism, and yet, although the poster figures were people like Sartre and Camus, I was drawn to Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s long-time friend. I loved her metaphor of existence being a drama.

And yet, one of their rallying cries was ‘existence precedes essence’ which I never understood. The only thing I could figure was that they were simply saying that you couldn’t become anything unless you existed -and that didn’t seem particularly profound to me at the time. But Jaarsma helped me with this when she explained that ‘Beauvoir and Sartre were drawing attention to the utterly singular way in which we each become the selves that we are, with our own memories, stories and storytelling habits.’ There is for each of us, some control, if and when we weave these into some form of meaning. It’s the process of weaving that marks our humanity: that takes us from being a ‘thing’ into a ‘project’, to paraphrase Beauvoir from her Pyrrhus and Cineas. To choose our own births, in other words.

Jaarsma’s essay deals with far more than my brief précis has included, but I suppose we only take what information we need from any text. For me, it was the memory of those introductory philosophy lectures in my early years at university -my impressionable years, perhaps, but maybe also my formative years.

I loved philosophy and thought long and hard about it for those all-night discussions that my three close friends and I seemed fated for every Saturday night over a few beers. One of them, Arvid, was a Science major, and another, Bertram, was in Engineering, and then there was Judy who was enrolled in Arts, but intended to switch to philosophy when she had enough credits, or whatever. The discussions were really arguments, but isn’t that what philosophy is all about?

At any rate, the time that sticks out in my memory, was when Judy and I had just been to a seminar on Simone de Beauvoir earlier that week and were both primed with her feminist perspective.  Feminism was still considered quite radical at the time- and although I didn’t understand most of it, she decided to spring it on the other two.

“That’s just crap,” was Arvid’s traditional response to feminism -most of us were still trapped in the Zeitgeist of the time, I’m afraid. Even Bertie, who professed to a neutrality he couldn’t maintain for more than two or three sentences in an argument, wasn’t able to see why we men should have to yield anything to ‘the other side’ as he put it.

“We are the stories we tell,” I tried to interject to calm him down.

“Well, I was brought up with a different story, G,” he said with clenched jaws as he tried to stare me down.

Judy was sitting on the floor, her head leaning against the wall in the little dorm room where we had gathered, and had a sip of her beer. “And what was that story, Bertie?”

His expression softened as he tried to put it into words. “Well…” -Bertie hated confrontation- “I guess that I don’t see the need to capitulate…”

“Is that what it would be if you accepted women as equals, Bertie: capitulation…?”

He looked confused. “But I do accept women as equals.” Judy wrinkled her nose at that and he blushed. “I mean, we should all do what we’re good at, right…?”

“And what are women good at?” She pinned him to the wall he was leaning against with her eyes. “Having babies? Cooking? Cleaning the house?” She blinked seductively. “Being a good wife for her man?”

“Well, no…”

“A woman philosopher named Simone de Beauvoir once said ‘I am not a thing, but a project’. What do you think she meant, Bertie,” she said with a glance in my direction.

Bertie seemed flustered at the question. “Uhmm, that she was still working at what she was good at? Or…” He hesitated; he had obviously not thought about women like this before.

“Or that she could become somebody else?” Judy interjected, smiling at his discomfort. “Maybe whatever she wanted…? Perhaps her project was to tell a story –her story?”

“But…” Bertie had a quick swallow of his beer, and stared at her. “Just because you tell a story about yourself doesn’t make it true, or anything.” He thought about it for a moment. “I mean, maybe you’re just making it up -telling yourself something that will never happen…”

“It’s a goal though, isn’t it Bertie? Something to aim for.”

He shook his head. “But suppose it’s unrealistic…”

She sighed and smiled at him -sadly, I thought- then put down her beer. “What’s your story?”

He closed his eyes, as if he wished he’d never said anything. “I… I don’t really have one, I don’t think.”

Judy smiled again, this time like a mother, or maybe a sister. “Yes you do, Bertie,” she said softly. “You want to be an Engineer.”

He slowly shook his head, eyes still closed as if she’d hit a sore point. “I told myself I did, but now I’m not so sure.” He opened his eyes slowly and let his eyes rest gently on her cheek. “I don’t think I can do it, you know…”

Judy got up off the floor and went over to sit beside him. “Sometimes you just have to believe the story you wrote, Bertie.” She touched his shoulder affectionately. “At this stage in our lives, the story is all we have…”

I don’t remember much of the night after that, but I did happen to run into Bertie years later. “So, what are you doing with yourself nowadays, G?” he said after we shook hands and did the man-thing of slapping each other’s shoulder. “You always wanted to be a doctor, I remember…”

I nodded my head. “And you were going to be an engineer, weren’t you…?” I was curious about what had happened to him. Circumstances change as semesters bring new classes, and our little group of friends gradually dissolved. Within a year, we’d pretty well lost touch with each other…

“Flunked out after a couple of years,” he answered. “Anyway, I switched into science like -what was his name? Arvid? Now I’m a teacher.”

He looked happy enough, but as I was leaving, I saw the wistful expression on his face. I think I must have stirred some long-buried memories; I think he remembered he’d had a different story once…

Is time really out of joint?

I imagine there comes a time for each of us when we finally realize we are getting old; a time when we feel that we are just catching up on news so aged that we were only children when it first arose. Information so old that I’m not sure what it should be called –opinion perhaps; or, since it is still around and circulating quietly and seemingly  immune to the cobwebs draped across its shoulders, wisdom…? And although some things may really be changing quickly, others are just now soaking through like water in a thick sponge and seem new to me.

I realize that not even young people can stay au courant with everything -the trick, I suppose, is to specialize one’s interests. Mine were never all that well defined, it seems; apart from my particular professional métier, the rest was spread as unevenly as the peanut butter on my morning toast. Retirement merely allowed me to pile more toppings on it, I fear -some of them dated, albeit untarnished by their ages, and, as far as I can tell, unburdened by a best-before stipulation.

Thus did I discover Simone de Beauvoir’s writings as I began redabbling in the existentialist work of Sartre. The two of them were an item, you remember. At any rate, I soon realized I would need some help, so it was with no little relief that I happened upon an edifying essay by Kate Kirkpatrick, a lecturer in religion, philosophy, and culture  at King’s College London among other things. https://aeon.co/essays/simone-de-beauvoirs-authentic-love-is-a-project-of-equals

‘The desires to love and be loved are, on Simone de Beauvoir’s view, part of the structure of human existence. Often, they go awry. But even so, she claimed, authentic love is not only possible but one of the most powerful tools available to individuals who want to be free… In The Second Sex (1949), Beauvoir argued that culture led men and women to have asymmetrical expectations, with the result that ‘love’ frequently felt like a battlefield of conflicting desires or a graveyard for their disappointments… As a young philosophy student in Paris, she had already recognised that some conceptions of ‘love’ legitimated injustice and perpetuated suffering.’

Some of what she observed in those days no longer obtains, of course -Zeitgeist evolves along with societal values- and yet there are still things to be learned from her writings. Pitfalls to avoid in our headlong rush for change.

‘Beauvoir’s ethics were shaped by a tradition according to which whom and what we love plays a pivotal role in whom we become.’ And love, as difficult to define then as now, ‘was abused to legitimate forms of hierarchy that were anathema to love itself.’ As she saw it in her early writings, love had two components: self-interest (narcissism), and devotion – the former plagued by forgetting there are two in love and that love must seek the good of the other, whereas the latter (devotion) can be suffocating -a form of ‘moral suicide’ in its abnegation of self.

‘Ethical love, by contrast, consists in what Beauvoir calls ‘equilibrium’ and ‘reciprocity’. In equilibrium there is self-giving without self-loss: lover and beloved ‘simply walk side by side, mutually helping each other a little’.’ And yet, suppose one of the two does not feel equal -or feel they have not earned or deserved the love of the other? ‘The ‘most fruitful’ type of love, Beauvoir claimed, was ‘not a subordination’, but rather a relationship in which each person supported the other in seeking an independent, individual life.’

Despite my lengthening toll of years, I have to admit that, although her initial observations make sense, I am more intrigued by the direction in which they evolved. Obviously, unlike De Beauvoir, I had not taken as much time or effort to analyze the question of love. Throughout my life, I suspect I have been more a captive than a general.

Later, reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Beauvoir came to realize that ‘One is not the neighbour of anyone. One makes the other a neighbour by treating him as a neighbour in action.’ Love required action. There was a growing concern about the meaning of life that was rife in France towards the end of WWII that bred the existentialist movement, one of whose champions, was Sartre. Beauvoir (in Pyrrhus and Cinéas) suggested ‘an answer to the problem of how human life could have value, and how ethics could have a foundation, without a God to provide them. Her proposal was that, in the absence of a divine law-giver, our actions should be oriented to the human others because, even without an infinite being, our actions can take on an infinite dimension by being witnessed.’ We need to love and be loved; we need to be affirmed.

But there is a middle road. ‘Devotion can be tyrannical – it claims to want the good of the other but in fact it imposes a value on the other that might not be of his or her choosing. The ‘ethics of self-interest’ [narcissism], by contrast, assumes that only I could meet the other person’s need for justification: it makes the other a satellite, whose value is contingent upon being in my orbit… What is truly needed, on Beauvoir’s view, is that the other be respected as ‘a freedom’: as a person who is perpetually becoming, with projects for her life that must be of her choosing… there must be two freedoms, both of which respect the value of freedom in each other – such that neither of them suffers the mutilation of subordination.’ Reciprocity, in other words.

Much as I continue to have trouble forcing myself to struggle through Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I’m still trying to psyche myself into reading her Second Sex, but like eating, it’s probably wise to stop when you’re full. In a sense, we all have rumens in our brains that allow us to re-chew what we’ve read to make more sense of it -put it in a more contemporary context, perhaps.

I suspect, for example, that most of us are at least more aware of the existence of hierarchical societal roles that still begrudge women their rightful places in the world. Even the ability to see that there are hierarchies is a victory of sorts; it seems almost unbelievable when we remember that at one time men could claim ‘that it was just in their nature to dominate women – and that it was in women’s nature to submit.’ It was culture that was sanctioning this, and just as society has been evolving, so too, however slowly, has the male Weltanschauung.

In Beauvoir’s day, ‘many women were taught that their value was conditional upon being loved by men, girls were encouraged to conceive of themselves ‘as seen through the man’s eyes’, to fulfil men’s fantasies and help them pursue their projects rather than dream dreams or pursue projects of their own… [mistaking] the desire for love for love itself.’

Of course, it’s still deceptively easy for either sex fall into that trap, I fear, And yet, it was people like Beauvoir who helped us to understand that we create our own shadows. I suppose it’s never too late, but I wish I’d studied more about her than Sartre when I was young… although maybe you have to be old to really understand the wisdom, eh?

Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?

What have we done? Have we become so transfixed with definitions –differences– we have forgotten where we started? Where we want to go? Has the clarity for which we strived, opacified as it cooled? Sometimes the more encompassing the definition, the less useful it becomes.

I suppose that coming from the putative dark side -that is to say, the male portion of the equation- I am credentialed merely with Age and a world view encrusted with a particular zeitgeist; I come from an era of binaries, albeit with categories that allow for shades -rainbows which do not seek to define the boundaries where one colour fades into the next. They allow a melange without, I hope, troubling themselves with the constituents. Or am I being hopelessly naïve?

The more I am engaged with the issues of gendered literature, though, the more I suspect I have been misled all these past years. I have, of course, been aware of the lengthening gender acronym -LGBTQIA…- that threatens, like the the old lady who lived in the shoe in that Mother Goose rhyme, to outgrow its useful home. In its quest to include and define each shade of  difference -as laudable as that may seem on first glance- it threatens to fragment like shattered glass: useful to nobody as a container. I am, rather oddly, reminded of the advice of the Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, who felt that we should not attempt to categorize, or name something too finely -God, in his example: the name confines and overly limits the concept being promulgated.

The dangers of over-inclusion surfaced when I attempted to read an essay by Georgia Warnke, a professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, published in Aeonhttps://aeon.co/essays/do-analytic-and-continental-philosophy-agree-what-woman-is

‘The famed online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers separate articles on analytic and continental feminism (although with a separate article on intersections between the two). The article on analytic feminism notes its commitment to careful argumentation and to ‘the literal, precise, and clear use of language’, while that on continental feminism notes its interest in unveiling precisely those ‘non-discursive deep-seated biases and blind spots … not easily detected by an exclusive focus on the examination of arguments’. A few minutes of reflection suggested that neither my vocabulary nor my intellect may be up to the task, but I ploughed on, nonetheless -still curious about the subject.

‘The article on analytic feminism emphasises the importance of the philosophy of language, epistemology and logic; that on continental feminism the importance of postmodernism, psychoanalysis and phenomenology.’ Whoa. What was I asking my obviously non-postmodern brain to assimilate? It was only when I stumbled upon ‘we can begin with a core feminist question: namely, who or what are women? Who are the subjects to whose freedom and equality feminist philosophers are committed?’ that I sensed a meadow just through the trees and across the creek.

There have been waves of Feminist philosophy, ‘Yet for later feminists, references to sex and gender have served primarily to highlight differences between different groups of women, and to underscore the difficulty of defining women so as to include all those who ought to be included, and to exclude those who ought not.’ For example, take genetic sex. If a woman is restricted to somebody who possesses two X chromosomes, then what happens to trans women -or those who don’t see themselves as binarily constrained? Or those who have various abnormalities in the functioning of their hormones which might force them into a different category?

Is it all down to chromosomes then, or can we also include what they look like -or feel like, for that matter? The question, really, is about definitions it seems -equally applicable to the gendering of both chromosomal sexes. ‘When we turn to gender and define women as those who conform to certain socially and culturally prescribed behaviours, roles, attitudes and desires, we run into similar quandaries. Women possess different races, ethnicities, sexualities, religions and nationalities, and they belong to different socioeconomic classes… Such differences can give rise to different concerns and interests… For example, if emancipation for upper- and middle-class white American women who were historically discouraged from working outside the home involves the freedom to take on paid work, for American working-class women and women of colour who historically needed to or were required to work outside the home, emancipation might involve precisely the freedom to care full-time for one’s own family.’ I have to say, that’s a good point -I had not even considered that before. So is there anything that gendered women have in common?

One commonality, suggested by Sally Haslanger, a professor of philosophy and linguistics at MIT, is oppression. ‘To be a woman is to be subordinated in some way because of real or imagined biological features that are meant to indicate one’s female role in reproduction.’ In many ways, this can be inclusive of trans women, etc., but the problem point is somebody like the Queen of England: ‘if one is not subordinated at all or at least not because of presumptions about one’s biological role – perhaps the Queen of England – then one is not a woman according to this definition.’

There have been other attempts at inclusively defining a woman, of course. Simone de Beauvoir (the woman who was close to Sartre) felt that gender was a result of socialization, whereas Judith Butler, a professor of comparative literature at UC, Berkeley, saw it as ‘the imposition of a set of behavioural and attitudinal norms. She suggests that, as such, it is an effect of power.’ An interesting corollary of this, though, is that ‘the challenge turns out to be that women are themselves effects of power, so that emancipation from relations of power and subordination requires emancipation from being women.’

At this point, I have to say, I was beginning to feel like a kitten chasing its own tail. The arguments and counterarguments seemed self-defeating: lofty rhetoric full of sound and fury, yet signifying nothing, if I may borrow from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

An attempt to escape from this paradox was suggested by Butler herself: ‘by replacing emancipation with what she calls ‘resignification’, a process of taking up the effects of power and redeploying them.   Although women are effects of power, this power is never accomplished once and for all but must be perpetually reinforced and, moreover, we reinforce it in the ways we act as gendered beings… But we can also behave in ways that undermine this supposed naturalness. We can poke fun at our gendered ways of acting and we can act differently. Drag performances, for example, can camp up stereotypical feminine modes of behaviours and by doing so demonstrate their performance elements.’

Now that struck me as ingenious -like ancient Greek theatre undressing the powerful for all to understand how much we all share in common. And anyway, my head was spinning by the time I reached that stage in the essay; I needed something to hold fast to -some sort of solution.

Maybe the suggestion about how drag performances demonstrate the foolishness of our stereotypes about sexual roles is a very apt observation. And yet, remember, we are, all of us, together in this world; we need only step back a bit to see how little official definitions matter. After all, whatever -or whoever- each of us thinks they are is all that matters in the end, isn’t it?  We are such stuff as dreams are made on… Aren’t we?