[Begun 8/20/13] I’m writing this section at Satellite Coffee, where, in order to plug in this contraption, I had to sit next to a twentysomething man and woman who were having an animated conversation that I couldn’t help hearing. (I apologized for crowding in on them.) At the moment when I arrived, they were vehemently decrying the feminist movement and the way it had denied women choices and encouraged them to act like men. If only those early feminists had really understood anything about the true relationship between men and women, they could have done so very much better!
[A moment for a long, weary sigh.]
Ten seconds online will find you any number of saddened and frustrated rants from old biddies like me, and those considerably older, about how the young women today totally don’t get it and how they aren’t putting much effort into keeping the gains their elders won for them at such costs. We are appalled that the War on Women is continuing and accelerating with what seems like so little response from the women of reproductive and working age who are most affected. Although my opinion of the high intelligence, awareness, and activism of people my daughter’s age is on record, sometimes, I’m afraid, the elders have a real point. This chica at the coffee shop came off as well-educated and articulate, but she seemed to have no clue about what was going on in the ‘70s, well before she was even born. Women her age never lived under the most blatant of the conditions feminists were working to change. I didn’t even have to face the worst types of discrimination myself, since by the time I was an adult a lot of the heavy lifting had been done already.
The word “feminist” is out of fashion in many quarters, but there is still the old definition that feminism is “any behavior that differentiates one from a doormat,” and I think most females young and old can agree about that being a good idea.
Or maybe not.
The other day my friend Suzanne posted a conjecture on Facebook about possible reasons that the situation for women is worse in some countries than in others. She postulated that most countries that treat women especially badly are Third World places and that poverty and lack of education and development were major contributing factors. While this must be true to an extent, I thought, some of the worst offenders, such as Saudi Arabia, have become quite wealthy in the past century, so poverty must be far from the only issue. As I considered the picture of the whole world, I realized that I could not think of a single country in which women are truly treated as equals to men. Not one.
[9/3/13] Because I am a very inefficient blogger, it took me two weeks to get back to this post. In the meantime, I had a fascinating conversation at Bubonicon with an author I greatly respect, who some years ago wrote a trilogy of novels exploring the war between the sexes (which she presented as an actual war). She told me that she likes Scandinavian mysteries, and that she’s noticed that even in those ultra-progressive, egalitarian, well-educated and economically sound northern countries, there is a strong thread of misogyny and violence against women. We couldn’t come up with a reason, except that there is always a backlash, or I suppose an undertow, whenever progress is being made.
Although evolutionary biology does not always lead to a clear explanation of human behavior, it’s a useful place to get started. When a trait is so universal in a species, one must suspect that there is a solid biological reason for it. I have wondered for many years why misogyny is so persistent among humans and what advantage it might give. Refusing to recognize the gifts and intelligence of more than half of the population hardly seems like a practical survival strategy. But it finally hit me: All of it can be explained by the desire of men to control women in order to make sure that their own genes are passed on in preference to those of other males.* The rest is details. That desire is so fundamental, pervasive, and powerful that it trumps everything else. Women must be controlled.
A recent harangue by a particularly loony right-wing politician left me perplexed– how could he even make this stuff up?– until I thought of it this way. He (I’m not going to look up his name– he’s not worth it) came up with a convoluted theory about the precise way that same-sex marriage was going to destroy American society. This was a new one, and incredibly creative. It seems that women are going to decide to marry each other in order to get welfare benefits so that they can raise children at government expense, because heaven knows women don’t care to do any paid work. Then– get this– they will deceive unsuspecting men into getting them pregnant. They will even (how?) particularly recruit gay men into performing this service. They will turn men into their slaves! He really said that!
Okay, I’m calming down now. So we see that if women get a chance, they will make their own decisions about reproduction, and they will find ways to survive financially without living with a male breadwinner. They will be totally out of control. Men who have these irrational thoughts have convinced themselves that they are acting for the good of the human race, making sure that society stays stable and is structured in accordance with the will of God. In reality, I suspect, they are acting upon deep, unconscious biological urges, and then justifying it all with their moralizing.
With much of the world finally beginning to figure out that about 10% of the population is homosexual and that nothing can be or needs to be done to change this, Russia has suddenly had some sort of strange psychotic break in which reality is even more irrelevant than usual, and has made even talking about homosexuality illegal. I hope that if people come upon this post in a few years that bizarre fugue state will be only a memory, but for now, gay people are being humiliated, tortured and killed right and left, and more of Eastern Europe, never a very gay-friendly place, is going in the same direction.
I thought and thought about what could have caused this turn of events. If it had been a matter of just a few crazy people at the top, it wouldn’t have been quite so incomprehensible. But polls show that a majority of the population, maybe a very substantial majority (poll numbers vary), is going along. So it’s a LOT of crazy people.
Aha, I finally realized, their population must be shrinking. I started googling, and yes, Russia has been considered a dying country for quite a while, no great surprise there. Naturally we can blame people who don’t (usually) engage in reproductive sex for that, can’t we? Well, politically, at least within Russia itself, that seems to be working quite nicely. The situation isn’t quite that simple, though. One article I found said that actually, as bad as the recession has been, in historical terms the Russian economy is relatively good for the average worker, not hopeless. Their birth rate is even a bit higher than that of white residents of the US. Hmm. But the writing is on the wall. Those born in the ‘80s are now in their peak reproductive years, meaning this is as good as it gets, and the cohort born in the ‘90s is much smaller, so that fewer children will be born to that group.
Many nations are facing an aging population. The US has a chance of dealing with this if it finds a way to accept immigrants in large numbers without criminalizing them. Russia is not such a desirable destination. They’re scared, and they’re showing it. Making themselves pariahs and killing off or exiling a goodly chunk of their population is not going to help their structural problems, far from it. Their actions still make no sense in the end. But they’re reacting to their innermost biology, and the forebrain can go hang.
And there’s nothing new about any of that.
On August 12, some friends and I went to see Theodore Morrison’s Oscar at the Santa Fe Opera. It was a world premiere, so we had little idea of what to expect. It was a worthy effort, and I can’t complain about sets, costumes, or direction as I have with some other SFO productions. We all felt that it had a distinct lack of tunes, though. There were some lovely melodic bits, but very little in the way of aria-like objects. The story was by turns lightly witty and deeply disturbing.
We left with plenty to think about. Anyone who contemplates Oscar Wilde’s downfall is likely to fantasize about scenarios in which things would have gone very differently and our hero could have been saved. What if he had never started that insane libel suit? What if he had followed the advice of his friends and colleagues and taken that boat to France? What if, for heaven’s sake, he had never become involved with Bosie Douglas in the first place?
One of my companions complained about what an idiot Wilde was to refuse the offer of that boat ride to freedom. I realized, though, toward the end of the opera, why things could only have been the way they were, and he could only have acted in the way he did. Oscar Wilde was a playwright. He knew very well how a play should be constructed and how a tragic hero should conduct himself. How could his own personal drama be any less brilliant than the products of his pen? A play in which the hero slunk off in the middle of the night instead of facing his destiny would be no play at all, and would never attract an audience. Instead, he created a tragedy which has engaged audiences for over a century.
And this was indeed tragedy; the central character was brought to his inevitable doom by the workings of his own nature. In Oscar’s case, pride was the overwhelming trait that went before his stunning fall. Of course “gross indecency” should never have been listed as a crime, and of course being gay should not lead to imprisonment and death. But it seems to me that the fact that Oscar had made an entire career out of being cleverer than everyone else, and making sure that they all knew it, caused the backlash against him to be all the more harsh. “Let’s see how smart you are now!”
But there may have been more insidious political reasons for the disproportionate punishment visited upon Wilde as well. In his program notes, John Cox, the librettist for Oscar, mentioned the possibility that Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had threatened to take down the prime minister, Lord Rosebery, if Wilde should be let off or given a less extreme sentence. Queensberry’s eldest son had committed suicide a few years earlier, and there was talk that this was the result of an affair with that very prime minister. One may feel a bit of compassion for Queensberry, who had lost one son and who, from his point of view, was doing his best to save another.
Being proudly Irish can’t have helped Wilde’s cause in a British court, either.
Seen from one angle, Oscar Wilde was a martyr, killed for no more than simply being a gay man. From another, by making himself the embodiment of outrageousness, hubris, and lust for fame, he asked for what he got. But then he came to embody enlightenment and redemption with the new profundity and empathy he developed in prison, while conversing and suffering with men so much less privileged, “lower” than himself, and understanding their humanity. I doubt that this growth would have occurred without such an intense catalyst, though it is possible that, eventually, the scintillating wit could have developed into true wisdom on its own.
I wonder, most of all, whether Bosie was ever, for even a few minutes, the person Oscar thought him to be. It seems unlikely, and that in a way ruins the tragedy. To die for love might be noble, at least in a play, but to die for someone so unworthy seems like just throwing away one’s life, cheapening it. But then, I wonder if the beloved is ever the person a lover thinks he or she is. Probably not, at least not exactly; we love projections, sets of beliefs, products of our own minds. We may never entirely know the other person because we are involved with our concepts about them instead. This is depressing to think about too much. Perhaps Oscar would say that it made no difference whether Bosie deserved his love or not, that his interior experience would be the same in either case.
In De Profundis, written in prison as a very long letter to Bosie, Wilde wrote:
I don’t regret for a single moment having lived for pleasure. I did it to the full, as one should do everything that one does. There was no pleasure I did not experience. I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine. I went down the primrose path to the sound of flutes. I lived on honeycomb. But to have continued the same life would have been wrong because it would have been limiting. I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also. Of course all this is foreshadowed and prefigured in my books. Some of it is in The Happy Prince, some of it in The Young King, notably in the passage where the bishop says to the kneeling boy, ‘Is not He who made misery wiser than thou art’? a phrase which when I wrote it seemed to me little more than a phrase; a great deal of it is hidden away in the note of doom that like a purple thread runs through the texture of Dorian Gray; in The Critic as Artist it is set forth in many colours; in The Soul of Man it is written down, and in letters too easy to read; it is one of the refrains whose recurring motifs make Salome so like a piece of music and bind it together as a ballad; in the prose poem of the man who from the bronze of the image of the ‘Pleasure that liveth for a moment’ has to make the image of the ‘Sorrow that abideth for ever’ it is incarnate. It could not have been otherwise. At every single moment of one’s life one is what one is going to be no less than what one has been. Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol.”
I have another question: Could Wilde have acted differently, more kindly and more responsibly, toward his wife, and if he had, would that have affected public opinion or his ultimate fate? We’re told that Constance’s second pregnancy made her physically repugnant to her husband. I don’t know how to digest that. Of course one cannot force oneself to be attracted to someone, but to tell a woman that because she has borne a child she is now unredeemably repulsive is a great cruelty. It strikes me as an excuse at best, and a pathetic one. Apparently his attitude toward her was common knowledge, adding to her humiliation. Surely Oscar could have somehow continued to give Constance emotional support and love, if only a platonic love. Surely he could have spent more time with his family instead of being away with his young lover for months on end. He could have been a responsible husband and father to a much greater extent, even while pursuing other romances. At least that’s how I see it, but you know how I am.
In an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, Stephen Fry, who so convincingly played Oscar in the movie Wilde, weighed in on the Russian situation and pleaded for the world not to give Putin legitimacy by going on with the Winter Olympics at Sochi: “I am gay. I am a Jew. My mother lost over a dozen of her family to Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Every time in Russia (and it is constantly) a gay teenager is forced into suicide, a lesbian “correctively” raped, gay men and women beaten to death by neo-Nazi thugs while the Russian police stand idly by, the world is diminished and I for one, weep anew at seeing history repeat itself.”
He ended the letter with “Yours in desperate hope for humanity.”
I am gay. I am a Jew. My mother lost over a dozen of her family to Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Every time in Russia (and it is constantly) a gay teenager is forced into suicide, a lesbian “correctively” raped, gay men and women beaten to death by neo-Nazi thugs while the Russian police stand idly by, the world is diminished and I for one, weep anew at seeing history repeat itself.
“The Orthodox Church’s role in Russia’s anti-gay laws” http://ncronline.org/blogs/grace-margins/orthodox-church-s-role-russia-s-anti-gay-laws
*This is not a new concept, I admit. It’s been postulated many times that there was some golden age of goddess worship in which men treated women with far more respect, and that this ended when men figured out their role in reproduction. I find this theory unconvincing, because it seems to me that humans must have been smart enough to understand cause and effect in the mating process for a very, very long time, perhaps since before we even became Homo sapiens. Even male lions and zebras understand this at some level and act upon it, killing the offspring of rival males. I am saying that the propensity of human males to try to control females is most likely coming from a deep, unconscious biological level, not simply from cultural belief. I am NOT saying that this makes it acceptable.