Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Existence Precedes Essence

To be is not, as Bishop Berkeley thought, to be perceived; to be is to do the perceiving.

People are animals by nature; there is no getting around that fact. Humans are mammals. Humans need to eat, breathe, defecate and reproduce, like other animals do. The traits and needs of animal existence, however, do not determine our essence. Aristotle thought that our essence as humans was to be rational creatures, to reason. Nice as it is to think so, there is too much evidence that there are many people who are anything but rational.

The attempt to give us an essence has plagued history. Religion is perhaps the greatest inventor of essences, creating classes of people, castes, racist and ethnic ideas about identity,  and inborn traits of various people. Nationalism, greed, economics, and pseudo-science have complicated the ideas of essence. From religious texts like the Bible, proclaiming that some people are chosen by god, to eugenics and genetic studies of ethnicity, those in positions of authority have attempted to define those who were not. 

The creating of essences also includes gender as well as race. Patriarchal societies have defined women as inferior and dependent on men. Similarly, heterosexuals in power have degraded men who desire men. In all cases the people in power have defined those not in power with some sort of inferior essence that suited their needs and perpetuated their power.

Such misguided concepts of essence have made the lives of many of us not only painful in our attempts to conform, but also have made us despise ourselves for our negative traits. Shame, self disgust, our own sense of self and worth are all diminished by the dominant paragon of humanity the rulers hand to us.  By our very nature, we are told, we are inferior and our essence, therefore, includes the need to submit and serve the more perfect humans above us. 

Never have we needed to resist, to overthrow, to eliminate essence theory more than now. The existentialists have shown us the way. Simone de Beauvoir's profound study of what it means to be a woman in The Second Sex is a brilliant repudiation of the essentialist dogma. Her life-long lover and philosophical partner, Jean Paul Sartre,  spelled out clearly how freedom to become the essence we choose, rather than some essence another gives us, is the basis of the value of our lives, the meaning of ethics and humanism. 

Contemporary evolutionary biology confirms the existentialist insight. Our DNA and the historical make-up of our brains (as well as our minds) are self directed by our experience. We are the agents of our evolutionary development rather than passive to some ancestral need for aggression or past relationships of sex and ethnicity. The essence of womanhood is not motherhood. Each woman chooses this path or not freely. The essence of manhood is not to be aggressive or warlike, to be a father, to be a hunter or a farmer, to have and to hold, whether women or property. There is no essence of manhood. There are no genetic chains of molecules binding us. We choose what we become; for our actions, there is no one else to blame. 

Personally, I feel no allegiance to my race, to my country, to any religious point of view, and certainly not to any ancestors I have. As I said at the start of this short essay, I see myself as an animal with the needs of an animal that are based on survival. As an intelligent animal, reason, education, contemplation and sharing ideas are important to my existence. So, likewise, is my sense of harmony with nature and others. When it comes to ethics, I agree with both Kant and Mill. I think all people could live with the ethical life I have chosen to lead: limited possessions, love, population control, respect for nature, empathy for fellow humans. I agree that the greatest pleasure for the greatest number is a worthy goal of society. That includes respect for diversity of many sorts-- racial, sexual, religious, artistic, and so on. With population control and environmental care, there is no need for aggression, much less war. Reason and freedom lead in that direction. Sadly, however, the essence of humans does not exist, we are not beings who reason. We are condemned to be free, as Sartre put it, free to destroy the planet and ourselves out of ignorance, superstition, and self-absortion. 


Simone de Beauvoir

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Call Me Again

Call Me By Your Name
received Academy Award
nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor today

A decade ago, I published a review of Andre Aciman's novel of passion and first love, Call Me By Your Name. Now, there is a film by the same name. Set on the coast of Italy, the film is as sensual as the novel. It is a dazzling vision to behold. The actor who portrays the 17-year-old narrator, named Elio,  is the remarkable Timothée Chalamet, a perfect embodiment of a young man of intelligence and sensuality arriving at manhood. He falls in love with his archaeologist father's assistant, a graduate student named Oliver, age 24, who is as intelligent and sensual as himself.

The road to bliss is challenging. The two have chemistry from their first meeting on. Yet the awkward first passes are mis-understood or fail to lead anywhere. Both men are beloved of and sought after by young women. Both men feel obliged to return those flirtations. Elio, like many gay men coming of age, experiments with straight sex. There is never any doubt, however, that it is Oliver he longs for. Elio reverses the more usual progression of straight men willing to experiment early on with another guy. But where straight men then go on, more sure than ever, in their attraction for women; in Elio the more powerful and lasting love is for men. Chalamet shows brilliant insight, as an actor, into this deeper need for a same-sex relationship in a young gay man; revealing with subtlety and nuance, the difference between casual sex and friendship with a young woman, and the primal love for a man.

Unfortunately, some of this subtlety is lost in the film itself. The title of the story, Call Me By Your Name, is a vivid and powerful sentence in the novel. It is key to understanding the merging of the identities of the two lovers. They see the other in themselves. In the most profound relationships we take on our lover's identity to a degree. We learn who we are through learning of the other. The thought is further embodied in the scene with the peach. By eating the peach, Oliver consumes Elio's identity, his essential self. The film simply leaves the title as an intimate line unexplained, just as it leaves the peach uneaten. In this respect, the director misses an important key to the depth of the relationship, and fails to see what the title and peach scene tell us about the characters. 

Another difference between book and film is in the character of Elio's father. Here the film makes a great contribution, providing us with a wise and gentle parent who not only understands his son's love for Oliver, but also understands the value of love, even when it is not everlasting, even though it does not endure. Once again, superb acting and direction make the film rise to a higher level of art. As was the case with Aciman's novel, we are given an exquisite, much needed look into the human heart and psyche.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Model Beauty

" ...despite appearances to the contrary, the course of true love never does run smooth." (link to a BBC article)

Today's New York Times details accusations of male models that they were sexually abused by famous photographers. The article is meant as part of the Me Too movement to expose how much those in positions of power have exploited those who worked for them. The problem is pervasive, one experienced directly mostly by women in jobs and careers of all sorts. In more cases than most want to acknowledge, it has also happened to men, perpetrated by both male and female employers. The problem is really not about who and whom; it is about the objectification of some people by other people, the treatment of others as means, not ends. The problem is as old as the Golden rule, as studied as Kant's Ethics, as ingrained in our present society as cell phones.

("Handle so, dass du die Menschheit sowohl in deiner Person, als in der Person eines jeden anderen jederzeit zugleich als Zweck, niemals bloß als Mittel brauchst." - Immanuel Kant  **)

One explanation is that it is a Darwinian example of survival. Males of the species are biologically predisposed to be sexually aggressive. Men butt heads with other men. The one who wins takes his reward. Overpowering the woman leads to survival of the species. Though no one in their right mind believes this literally, it is the symbolic backbone of a theory that males want to fuck females and females want to raise and protect babies. In its most reasonable form the theory is a polite Victorian view of human relations, not unlike Freud's, that people need to suppress their desires, their Id, in order to make for civilization. The good ego properly balances Id and Super-ego, raw instinct and the rules of good society.

Science has debunked this simplistic, deterministic view of the human psyche. Men are not born aggressive, much less sexually aggressive, any more than women are born wanting a protective family that includes children. It is education, upbringing, and society's norms that have shaped our behavior and produced these traits we now find so deplorable. The particular trait I find most egregious is objectification. Our materialistic, capitalistic country is responsible for the mistreatment and abuse we want so desperately to eliminate. 

Take the Times article. Attractive young men go into a career of modeling. The magazines they dream of gracing do the very thing they now complain about, namely, treat them as objects of desire. No one cares who they are or what they feel and think. They are presented the way an expensive sports car is displayed, or a fine home. They are meant to be possessed, not respected. Our society is corrupt to its core. The photographer also sees the model as an object of desire and acts accordingly, perhaps trying to shift the boundary between desire and ethical behavior, but not interested in the person, only the body. This is the same with female models. 

That is not to say that it is impossible for the artist and model to come to a more ethical relationship. History gives us many, many examples of relationships that began in objectification and ended in love. Once objectification becomes subjective, once empathy, compassion, communication, and all the other aspects of friendship and/or love develop, we attain a transcendence of materialism.  The selfish need for things, the selfish need for power, the loneliness of separation from any other human being as essential to our lives, all dissolve. Humanistic values replace material ones; others become existentially real, rather than spokes in the capitalist machine. 

The task at hand, the challenge facing us now, is to resist not only this objectification of others, but to resist as well the selfish need for revenge and treating the agents of objectification as themselves objects of scorn. Forgiveness is difficult. It is also more human, a higher understanding, as those who have forgiven atrocities know. To improve our situation, to eliminate abuse, we have to start with ourselves, our words and actions toward the young, our educational system, the way we talk and act toward others. We have to praise treating others kindly, with respect and compassion. Consider the woman a hospital "dumped" in the middle of the night on the subfreezing streets of Baltimore. How could anyone do this, to treat an ill, helpless, unprotected, almost undressed human being in such a way? This is the objectification I mean, failing to see the person and thinking of a patient as a glyph, a number only. Sexual abusers treat people as numbers also, hence the slang expression.  Let's not make the same mistake in creating a solution to abuse, asking for written consent about specific acts. Is a kiss OK, may I kiss you? Those are not the words of love, they are the words of a materialistic negotiation. When there is compassion, empathy, love... one doesn't need a permission slip to give someone a kiss. 


** Translation of the Kant quotation: