The price of a humanity that actually grows and changes is death.
— Read on www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/04/how-dying-offers-us-chance-live-fullest-life
Interesting New Statesman article on a topic dear to my heart.
The price of a humanity that actually grows and changes is death.
— Read on www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/04/how-dying-offers-us-chance-live-fullest-life
Interesting New Statesman article on a topic dear to my heart.
I often read several books simultaneously and I’m doing just that now. Sometimes it’s hard to keep them all sorted out, especially if they’re treating the same subject matter. That’s especially true right now in terms of my interest in misogyny. Books on the same theme tend to overlap a lot. Books on misogyny are no exception. Same for books on our denial of death although it does depend on whether a book is psychological, philosophical, sociological, historical, or anthropological in its orientation. I just finished reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014, I think). It’s psychological in a sense while being a quasi-ethnography of hospitals and nursing homes. I give you a bit of a review of this book later in this post but I can tell you right now that it’s all a bit depressing. But, don’t let that discourage you from reading it. It seems the truth is often depressing. Read it anyway and enjoy your depression. At least you’re not dead yet. Ahem.
I usually have at least one art book on the go, but they are more of an ongoing thing rather than a one-off read. Right now I have The Art of Drawing next to my chair. It’s by Richard Kenin (1974, Paddington Press). It soothes my sometimes inexplicably jangled nerves as I leaf through the pages looking at images drawn by the masters of the Renaissance. Well, I’ve been a stress case my whole life as far as I can make out so I need all the help I can get. Renaissance drawings have a calming effect on me. So, I look at them.
The other books I now have on the go are not designed to soothe my nerves. I don’t know why I read some of the books I do, because they can sometimes leave me drained and mentally exhausted, but I read them anyway. It has occurred to me that I may have some masochistic tendencies. Don’t tell my doctor. For fun, I’m reading Iain M. Banks’ book Surface Detail. This is my third Banks novel and although he sets his complex and multilayered stories on a galactic scale, it’s still all about our earthly human level frailties, our fears of life and death and our often undeniable utter stupidity. Banks is a great read but his stories do tend to overlap thematically with my other, non-fictional reads. So, I don’t always get a reprieve from my depression by reading him, but he is entertaining and that’s a bonus.
I read a lot of books about mortality and lately quite a few on misogyny. It turns out the two themes are intrinsically and historically intertwined and interdependent. It sometimes amazes me that after most of my adult life, going on 50 years now, reading and thinking about mortality that I can still get excited about reading something new and different yet on the same topic. It’s too bad I can’t get equally as excited about other things but I am getting on, you understand. If you haven’t read them yet, you may want to read my last few posts on misogyny and its relationship with our immortality striving.
For a long time, I’ve had a passing notion that misogyny and our denial of death were related, but I had no idea how closely related until I read Misogyny by Jack Holland. Now, on misogyny, I’m reading From Eve To Dawn by Marilyn French. It’s a study on the history of women from a feminist perspective first published in Canada in 2002. I wrote about this book in a previous post. This reading follows others by Simone de Beauvoir and Germain Greer to name just two. Busy, busy, I am. I must admit that I’m getting a bit saturated with this topic, but it does get at the heart of what human history has been all about so I carry on reading about it.
I have read a lot of books on how we, as humans, have devised multitudinous means of trying to deny our mortality. The latest book in my quiver on mortality is by Atul Gawande. I told you in my opening paragraph that I would give you a bit of a review of his book and here it is. Gawande’s book is close to home because I’m feeling my age, and time passes so quickly that I can see myself in his book at a very personal and immediate level. One day soon, I will die. That’s a given. Tomorrow is promised to no one. How my demise plays out is up in the air at the moment but I would like a good death if you can relate to that. I have no expectation of imminent death, but at 71, my days are numbered. That’s a fact.
Gawande is a surgeon. His book is personal in the sense that he follows his father’s (he was also a surgeon) physical decline late in his life, especially after his father learns that he has a massive tumour that has invaded his upper spine and neck causing him no end of pain. Gawande is a fixer. Like most medical doctors he is programmed to fix things that go wrong with us. He’s good at that. What he understands, however, is that there are things that go wrong with us that can’t be fixed, like death. He writes that modern medicine and the whole ‘health’ system is geared to fixing things that go wrong with our bodies. Inevitably, of course, all the fixing is in vain and we die. He argues that in large measure medicine does not understand chronic pain and illness, cannot fix it, and is completely flummoxed by death. It’s the ultimate failure for modern doctors. Moreover, modern medicine can increase pain and suffering at the time of death by pushing treatments that falsely promise more than they can deliver. This is especially true with patients who are terminally ill with cancer, no matter at what age.
Gawande also goes after how we are treated in our last months, weeks and days of life particularly if we live in a nursing home. He has a special hate on for nursing homes that warehouse the ill and aged and he praises those that allow ‘inmates’ a certain amount of freedom in determining how they will live, ever with their disabilities. He argues that safety and efficiency are highly overrated as nursing home goals. He presents case studies of nursing homes that respect the dignity of their residents.
Gawande tells a good story while he argues that our obsession with immortality is killing us and denying us respectful deaths. The case studies he presents of young and old people struggling with terminal illness as they interact with their doctors who try to fix them are heart wrenching. I’m not looking forward to this type of scenario myself, you can be assured of that. There will be a big fat Do Not Resuscitate sign around my neck when my time comes. His work remind me of Kübler-Ross’s epic study of The Five Stages of Grief in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Her book is much more theoretical than Gawande’s, but it had a huge impact when it first came out because people were shocked that someone would write so openly about dying.
Maybe reading several books at a time is my way of denying death. Then again, maybe not. I concluded long ago that life is largely meaningless in the grand scheme of things but while I live I have to do something. I can’t just stand around picking my nose. So, I might just as well read several books at once while I wait for the final call. It won’t matter shite when I’m gone anyway.
Oh, and by the way, I’m about to start another book. It’s by Yuval Noah Harari and is called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Wish me luck.
The link above is to a piece published by the Ernest Becker Foundation and answers a lot of questions I’ve had about the absence of a women’s perspective in Becker’s work. It’s a fitting end to the series on misogyny that I’ve published here over the last few posts.
This is really worth the read.
Seniha Çançar was a woman who was born in Turkey in 1926 and who died in Victoria in 2015 at the age of 88. How do I know her? Well, I never knew her personally and we certainly wouldn’t have met socially although I think it would have been wonderful to meet her. She and I have a very tenuous connection. I own a book she previously owned:
The image on the left is of the book that Seniha Çançar owned at one point and that I acquired in 2010 at Russell Books in Victoria. Her obituary says that she left Turkey to settle in Calgary in 1966 but then moved to Victoria in 1973, the year that I married. I wonder if Calgary winters had anything to do with her move!
The reason I know that she owned the book is because of the writing on the left. This text appears in three places in the book. I guess she wanted to make sure people knew it was her book. One of the texts is ‘Se” Çançar. Se must have been a short version of her name. I’m sure her intimates called her that.
I got curious about this inscription. I ‘Google’ translated 21 Eylül, 1977 and it came up as September 21, 1977, probably the day she bought the book. Then I googled her name and her obituary from 2015 came up. The internet makes this kind of research so easy. I learned a little about her family and her life, the kinds of things one can learn from an obituary. I learned that her daughter, Saide, died of cancer at age 64 in a Victoria hospice. I read her obituary. She had married James E. Sullivan who died in 2017 at the age of 82. From his obituary in TheWesterlySun.com in Norwich, Connecticut:
He was a professor and Head of Academic Programs in the School of Art and Design at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., from 1969 to 1998. After his retirement Jim relocated to Victoria, B.C., and founded the Hope Through Achievement Foundation, eventually returning to his Rhode Island roots in 2014.
I can’t help but wonder if Jim Sullivan, of Rhode Island, had relocated to Victoria because of a previous connection with the highly artistically-inclined Çançar family. After his wife died in February, 2013, he probably felt ‘released’ to return to his roots. Who knows. This is speculation on my part, obviously. However, there are family connections to Connecticut. Saide had previously been married to Sherwood Fehm. Their daughter, Saba Fehm-Sullivan died at the young age of 13 in 1993.
There are many other details in the various obituaries of Çançar and related family members that I have no need to share with you here. I do not intend this blog post to be a voyeuristic intrusion into the Çançar family. Family members are out there and I have no desire to offend. Whatever I write about the family is pure speculation. What interests me here is the connection Seniha Çançar and I made through a book she once owned and which I now own. I felt almost compelled to find out as much as I could about her and her family. I’m not at all sure why.
The book in which we shared an interest is an ‘art’ book. The Art of Drawing: From the Dawn of History to the Era of the Impressionists is a history of drawing rather than a how-to book. I have a number of books like this one and some that teach one how to draw. I have no idea whether Seniha Çançar, later Seniha Çançar-Birch, was an artist. Her obituary says that she worked as a high level assistant in NATO in the 1960s and that she ran successful businesses. I wish to think that if I sat down to tea with her we could discuss her life, her work and her passions. We shared a book but we couldn’t share anything else. She was my mother’s age. I think of her whenever I pick up The Art of Drawing, and I think of how many ways we are connected to people we don’t even know, in ways we can only dream of. Norbert Elias was very perspicacious when he concluded that we humans are essentially interdependencies and interweaving, both in time and space. We are connected to each other in so many ways, even by the simple fact that we leafed through the same book. I bought the book in 2010 but Seniha Çançar died in 2015. I wonder if she brought the book to Russell Books herself or if it was a member of her family cleaning out her belongings. I’ll never know.
By sex in the title here, I mean sexual intercourse and sexually related activities. I never could understand the reference. It seemed (and still seems) ridiculous to me. I understand it now, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept because it’s a metaphor that is deeply demeaning to women of course, but frankly, to all of us. The reference could make sense if it aimed at describing sex in a mud bath, but that’s never the intention, of course.
You all know this. It’s no secret. Men are never referred to as ‘dirty sluts.’ It just doesn’t happen. However, women are routinely called dirty sluts, particularly by the porn industry, but also by some segments of the population with very categorical views of when, where, and with whom it’s okay to express one’s sexuality.
More basically, I heard with my very own ears parents chastising their children for having their hands ‘down there.’ “That’s dirty, don’t do that!” I’m hoping that it doesn’t happen with younger parents these days but I somehow doubt it. There are people on this planet who are pathetically if not pathologically ignorant, so nothing should surprise us. Moreover, cultural references are pretty pervasive and consistent in linking our ‘private parts’ with dirt. The word pudenda, the plural of pudendum, refers to “a person’s external genitals, especially a woman’s,” that according to the very reliable Google dictionary. Pudendum literally means: “thing to be ashamed of,” according to the same reliable dictionary. So, not only are genitalia dirty, they’re also something to be ashamed of. Now, even as a long time social researcher and somewhat cynical sociologist, I still find this reference to genitalia and sex, especially with reference to women as entirely perverse.
On another tangent, but still on the language train, if I want to refer to someone as not being entirely nice, I may call that person an ‘asshole.’ There we go again. It’s no surprise too that our swear words are pretty much entirely focussed on our genitalia and on sex. In French, swearing also involves the genitalia and such, but in Québec, you’re also liable to hear swear words referencing the Catholic Church and items used during the mass.
Since who knows for how long we’ve been alienated from ourselves. We refer to ‘my’ body. What is the ‘my’ that owns a body? We should’t be surprised, though, because that’s language and our language reflects our morality and our preoccupations and we are silently, unconsciously, subconsciously, and daily reminded of death. Language is entirely metaphorical so we express our fear of death not in direct terms, but obliquely, using metaphor. [By the way, if you want a good read: Talking Power: The Politics of Language, by Robin Tolmach Lakoff, Basic Books, 1990). It’s all about metaphor and politics. She’s got a great chapter in there on women and language.]
Alright, I’ll grant you that excrement is not far from being dirt and if mommy doesn’t want you playing ‘down there’ it could be partly because she doesn’t want you spreading shit all over the place. But that’s not the whole story, nowhere near. Excrement has much more meaning for us than that. Norman O. Brown notes in Life Against Death (p.295):
Excrement is the dead life of the body, and as long as humanity prefers a dead life to living, so long is humanity committed to treating as excrement not only its own body but the surrounding world of objects, reducing all to dead matter and inorganic magnitudes. Our much prized “objectivity” toward our own bodies, other persons, and the universe, all our calculating “rationality,” is, from the psychoanalytical point of view, an ambivalent mixture of love and hate, an attitude appropriate only toward excrement, and appropriate to excrement only in an animal that has lost his own body and life.
What does Brown mean when he writes that we are “an animal that has lost his own body and life.” ‘His’ in this sentence refers to humankind, all of us. In some ways I find it strange that Brown uses ‘man’ to include women and ‘his’ whenever a general possessive pronoun is on his mind. However, Brown is right. Taking a shit is a daily, unconscious, subconscious, reminder of our death and that’s distinctly unpleasant. If we thought about it consciously, we would be traumatized. So we use all kinds of metaphors to try to forget all about death or we joke about it. Few are the people who have come to grips with death and live a full life in their bodies, as their bodies, taking pleasure in them and accepting their aging and their annoying aches and pains. These are people who don’t yearn for a life beyond this life, because for them, that just doesn’t exist.
Just one more thing: What the fuck does ‘taking a shit’ mean? Of course we know what it means, but what can we make of it literally? I really don’t know. However, I’d rather leave a shit than take one, thanks. Enough silliness for one day. More later.
Is it possible to have equality between the sexes?
Given the history of sexual relations on this planet, a logical answer would seem to be a resounding NO. But I don’t think that’s so.
Yes, absolutely, I do think that equality is possible. However, it can only be possible when humankind, especially the male fraction of the species, agrees to give up its apotheotic quest for the god-like status of an immortal being. There are hints that there is movement in this direction (more on this later), but we have a long way to go before the bulk of humankind can reconcile itself to the idea that our bodies are all we are and souls do not exist except in our collective conscience.
I sincerely have sympathy for people who want to live forever. Our quest for immortality is the basis for a lot of our sociality. We share a belief in eternal life with others like us. We build institutions and organizations to perpetuate and nurture this belief. It’s an appealing prospect until one begins to read the fine print or we begin to kill each other to defend ‘our’ god against the gods of ‘others’ who dare to try to usurp our vision of the way to eternal life. The way gods work, there can really be only one that is the true god. All others must be pretenders. (This isn’t strictly true. Even one god, the one proclaimed by Moses and Abraham, can be the source of real division, death and mayhem). That said, let’s get to the nitty gritty.
It’s evident that males and females of many species of animal are dimorphic, meaning that the sexes vary in body size, shape and weight, hairiness, and in other easily ascertainable ways. Us humans are significantly dimorphic with males being on average stronger, bigger, etc. So, men and women are not equal in many respects. This has lead a whole lot of conservative thinkers and philosophers going back as far into history as the eye can see to make the logical leap to conclude that these physical inequalities are the natural basis for the social, economic, and political inequality of the sexes. This is patently absurd but it doesn’t stop those who claim a logical basis for their arguments in natural human variation from making their claims on clearly ideological grounds.
It’s certainly true that there is huge variability in male human size, strength and shape. Some theorists might dare to suggest that the Nilotic peoples, especially the Dinka and Nuer, being very tall and thin on average, must be superior to the BaMbuti people of the Ituri Forest in central Africa, who are what we used to call pygmies, and who are very short and compact. The same is true for intra-female variability. The variability of human form is quite evident still, of course, but there is evidence that with international travel and population mixing that the variability that we have seen historically is very slowly attenuating.
Of course, we’ve seen evidence in history that skin colour, eye shape, etc have been significant bases for the imposition of social inequality. We ‘other’ people for all kinds of convenient reasons especially social and economic power. We deny people equality for whatever reason we can dream up or make up as long as it’s in our interests. So, what about the inequality that exists between men and women? Well, I think I’ve repeated it often enough, but it may be worth repeating again. Men have longed for immortality for as far back as we can ascertain. Their literate representatives who have gotten into the history books and have written a huge range of proclamations on the topic going back further than ancient Babylon have been pretty well in agreement that women are a huge stumbling block to achieving the objective of immortality. Women just can’t help but get most of us poor men all lathered up sexually and by that process, take our limited attention away from our focus on our spiritual salvation and eternal life.
It’s pretty common to read in historical documents, including the Bible, of course, that any form of pleasure of the flesh is sinful and leads to eternal damnation. In her book Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and The Catholic Church Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s focus is on Church writers, theologians, popes and the like. She also, however, goes beyond her analysis of women and the Catholic Church, to consider relations between men and women taken more broadly. She notes that although it seems that proscriptions and interdictions regarding sex are pretty straightforward in historical texts, we cannot assume that everyone was on board with those specialists, philosophers, theologians, etc., who were often celibates and who lorded it over the masses. It seems the masses weren’t always in agreement with the high and mighty and often ignored interdictions even to the point of suffering persecution and social exile.
Of course, it’s really quite ridiculous to expect people to not enjoy sex. Plainly, there are many circumstances where sex is not at all pleasurable, especially for women and even ejaculation can be painful at times for a small minority of men. Still, essentially, sex and pleasure go hand in hand. I (and I daresay most men) would find it very difficult not to feel some pleasure upon ejaculation. Ironically, according to many writers historically men are not supposed to even experience ejaculation (during masturbation or coitus) unless it’s sanctioned by the authorities and only under very socially proscribed situations. In fact, Ranke-Heinemann notes that church authorities even discouraged sex between spouses, some going so far as to dictate time of day, day of the week, months of the year. Needless to say, the Church fathers were only concerned with male sexual pleasure and regulating it, not female pleasure, which they often assumed never existed.
Let’s not fool ourselves either to think that regulation of sexuality is a thing of the past. Female (and male) genital mutilation is still commonly practiced as well as segregation of the sexes. It’s also still common for states to try to regulate what you can do in the privacy of your bedroom.
One last thing before I move on. It’s clear that not all men are misogynists and women victims. Humans will always find ways of sharing intimacy and revelling in sensual, sexual pleasure no matter what the ayatollah, the pope, imam, rabbi, or whoever goes on about how bad it is and how it detracts from our main goal of immortal life in the presence of our preferred deity. It’s also true that women can have just as much of a stake in immortality as men do. The only difference between men and women in this regard is that men have made up all the rules and women must obey or live eternally in hell.
It’s also clear to me that men and women can equally be jerks, self-serving, mean, nasty, and violent. They may choose different paths to meanness, nastiness and jerkiness on occasion, but elimination of the search for immortality will not necessarily do away with the human condition although I really am optimistic that there will come a time when there will be less basis for stupid, vapid, ignorant human behaviour. The elimination of competition for favour in the eyes of God or just for individual specialness, even on the football field, will take us a long way to equality of the sexes. Just don’t expect dramatic results too soon.
It’s also true, I’m pleased to say, that we can love profoundly and unconditionally. Problem is that we do that in spite of all the social forces that work to divide us when they should be working to bring us together romantically, whether it’s woman with man, woman with woman, man with man or a combination of the above. I’m not saying we should abandon all restraint and engage in all out debauchery, but we should all be engaged in figuring out as we go along what we want rather than have the high and mighty do that for us in the name of a false hope of immortality.
Next: how little innocuous things like words, sayings, and practices can reinforce and even exacerbate sexual inequality.
 See de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex for a detailed exploration of this topic. Germaine Greer takes a slightly different look at sexual dimorphism in humans in her book, The Female Eunuch.
 New York, Doubleday, 1988.
Or, they ‘commune with the devil’, i.e., have sex with him. That’s not much better.
For men who dream of immortality, women, who are so clearly associated with Eros, with the pleasure principle (as psychoanalysis would have it) are a clear and present danger. God is always associated with light, the devil with darkness. It’s a sad state of affairs that men, as long as they’ve been men and not ‘merely’ animals, have felt that women are a major source of their downfall. In fact, Aristotle and many others considered that the ‘vital’ factor in making children rested solely with the male. Women were simply the receptacle for the fully formed life in the sperm. The sperm was where it was at. Aristotle never considered the fact that women might have eggs, embryos that are at least half of the picture in fertilization and mitosis. We can forgive people in the past for not understanding how babies come about but it’s still a mystery for some people apparently.
And procreation is all mixed up with pleasure and sexual desire. Sex is not just about making babies even if the Abrahamic religions denied the notion that orgasm or pleasure were anything more than a distraction from the main goal of sex. Pleasure in sex was always bad, evil, because it drew attention away from the ultimate goal of humankind in bartering with God for access to eternal life. Symbolically, God is spirit, the Devil is body, earth, dirt. Spirit leads to eternal life, the Devil leads to death, eternal death. Our bodies are our own worst enemies. Women just add a double jeopardy to the situation. The equation of women with the devil is clearly derivative of the kind of logic behind original sin, a logic that has prevented equality between men and women for as long as we know.
Historically, artists have not shied away from depictions of women consorting with the devil or as the devil themselves. Look at this image. It’s from a book called On Ugliness edited by Umberto Eco (Rizzoli, 2007).
It’s on page 190 in a section called The Demonization of the Enemy. The image is from Thomas Murner and is entitled: The pastors of the Lutheran Church make a pact with a buffoon or a madman and the devil. (in Von der Grossen Lutherischen Narren, 1522). Now, that’s pretty weird in itself, but the image contains one representation that is of specific interest to me here. Look at the picture of the devil. Do you see what I see? Breasts and a vulva?
It’s pretty hard for me to escape the idea that Murner had it in his mind that the devil is a woman, dragging men into sins of the flesh by her vile seductions. Poor men! How can we resist the temptation? Well, we can’t. Why? Because we’re animals. No matter how stridently we try to deny it, we are animals and we have all the animal urges needed for a sexually reproducing species, urges that can be diverted to aims of pure pleasure in any number of ways. Simple. Well, not so simple for a species that wants to live eternally. We see or know of animals dying all the time, hit by cars, in slaughterhouses, on farms. That couldn’t possibly be our fate. So denying our animal nature is, well, kind of natural for a big brained animal like us. To gain access to heaven we need to deny our animal nature.
According to Murner (and he has a lot of company), women are the source of the fall of man. Original sin was perpetrated by a woman when she convinced poor Adam to eat forbidden fruit. Seductress! Devil woman who leads man into sin, into death, the death of all living things! The only way ‘man’ can convince himself that he deserves eternal life is by denying earthly existence and by putting all his energy into cultural forms of death-denial often in the form of institutions that depict nature as dangerous and deadly to be dominated and tamed at all costs. Include women in the definition of nature in the previous sentence and you have the perfect recipe for misogyny.
The photo below also from Eco’s book reproduces a painting by Franz von Stuck. It’s called Sin and was painted in 1893. The painting is of a young woman wrapped in a huge snake, an obvious reference to Satan, the same one who was the culprit in all the nastiness that went down with Adam and Eve. So, in one stroke, von Stuck clearly associates women with the devil. The snake is a most consistent symbol for the penis in all of human history. So, Von Stuck, the consummate misogynist suggests that this woman may very well be having sex with the devil. So bad! So evil!
Well, it’s all fine and dandy, but in my world, the devil doesn’t exist, making it difficult for women to have sex with him. That didn’t stop The Doors from putting out a song called Woman is a Devil or Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels from releasing a song called Devil with a Blue Dress On.
That said, there’s no way I could even begin to scratch the surface of historical and modern depictions, in the visual arts, literature, poetry, and other cultural forms, of women as devils, as evil temptresses, out to seduce us poor men thereby denying us a life of eternal bliss in heaven with God.
More to come. Stay tuned. Why aren’t men and women equal?