Arthurian legend makes me think of feminism… but what doesn’t?
June 19, 2010 § Leave a comment
As these things go, I watched the film “Excalibur” tonight with my best friend and ended up talking about spirituality and feminist sexual ethics.
The hinge came when I began to explain a theory of four stages of spiritual development that I read about in M. Scott Peck’s The Different Drum. I am a big fan of Peck and his philosophies on love and spiritual growth, and this particular book is about community and community making – also good. First, I will give my understanding of his theory. Keep in mind that all people have areas of all four, but broadly defined, tend to move between those in sequence, either venturing forward or falling back. (For transparency, I would say I am a former stage two and solid stage three trying to get more than just glimpses of stage four.)
Stage one is chaotic and antisocial. It is the place of total self-involved criminality, where appetites are basically all that matters. Everyone begins here and, hopefully, is cultured into at least stage two by their parents at an early age. Otherwise, they meet with big problems in larger society, or learn to mask their behavior and become truly dangerous. They are marked by a lack of integrity, since appetites change readily and so does their behavior, or they are feigning compliance to some authority besides their appetites while truly motivated to serve them.
Stage two is legalistic or formal and institutional. People look to something outside themselves to derive their meaning, usually a religion or code or other leadership. Chivalry, or honoring something above one’s self, comes in here. God, or the Good, is seen as something other, outside, and transcendent. Compared to stage one, they are marked by far more consistency. But since they feel their religion or belief system holds them back from the brink of chaos and totally self-indulgent, antisocial, destructive behavior, they are very threatened and can become aggressive when those things they hold sacred are questioned or contradicted, much less threatened outright.
Stage three is skeptical and individual, but marked by appeal to principles that begin to transcend the merely legalistic. Here you find many highly principled, disciplined people who have little interest and at times little tolerance for the rigidity and dogmatic nature of stage two people. They seek truth that cannot be skewed by human custom or appeal to authority. Scientific method, Peck argues, is derived from this stage of belief/being. While stage two people will likely respect stage three people’s ethics and behavior, they may fear their stated arguments, irreverence, and self-derived ethical code as untrustworthy. As such they will often argue with stage three people trying to budge their legalism into a broader view by arguing as if giving up principles derived from external authority will result in total chaos (example of this to come, when we get to the sex part.).
Stage four is mystical, communal. And I would add visionary. Here you find those who recognize and embrace mystery, seeking to know more while simultaneously recognizing how much there is they do not yet understand. They begin to see people and things as interconnected and see past dichotomies and separations, even those most ubiquitously upheld like gender and nationality. Peck notes that their greatest trait (and the trait necessary to willfully practice and cultivate for genuine community building) is emptying – letting go of what they cling to for their understanding when faced with new truth or mystery or a need to shed some old belief in order to connect with someone. For them the sacred permeates, rather than existing externally, and their practice to learn to recognize it.
I would describe Arthurian legend as a mythology that represents the evolution of people collectively from stage one to stage two. From chaotic hierarchy in which tyrannical leaders shifted in and out of power and territories were constantly reshaped by warfare, you have a single king who unites the warring factions and territories. He accomplishes this not by strength of arms, but an ability to appeal to a vision that calls his knights to something greater than themselves. You get justice and honor, chivalry and lots of questing, and power distributed in the round table, a leader who desires equality and appeal to something greater than himself.
My best friend and I tried to think of other stories that represent a call to move between stages. She postulated Phillip Pullman as a proponent for the move from stage two to stage three, appealing to people to question authority and think for themselves. And I proposed the stories of “the Kingdom” that Jesus describes as a mythology showing those he was urging to move from stage two to stage three a glimpse of the end purpose of stage four.
I think we need more stories, more art that gives us a vision and an incentive to move beyond where we currently reside collectively. In terms of sexual ethics, our culture has basically only a stage two derived, legalistic sexual ethic to offer. Stage three folk see it as body-negative, sex-negative, anti-teen, heteronormative, nuclear family and thus individualistic capitalist consumerism worshiping load of b.s.
This only instigates the fear and corresponding aggression of stage two folk who will immediately crop up with arguments about chaos and total decline of all ethics and decency. In this manner, you get people leaping to arguments like, “If we let gays marry, what’s next? Soon they’ll be marrying animals or having sex with children,” which can totally disorient even people with ready and honed arguments with its illogic. The illogic is: no legalistic moral doctrine equals chaos. Whereas stage three folk see it as the necessary step to evolution and getting to a place where our ethic serves us rather than restricting and stifling us.
I think Jesus was right to appeal to the end goal of stage four to encourage people to pass through the fear of letting go of legalism and dogmatic behavior and to turn a skeptical lens on beliefs they hold precious, not in order to kick the foundation out from under their own legs (as “what next?” arguments suggest) but to free them to achieve stage four visionary realities. It is turning a sharp eye rather than a blind one to the realities institutions and institutionalized authority create that disillusions the stage three folk. The harder work comes in envisioning the alternatives. People will not go through the pain and depression of change willfully unless suffering is made clear in the present and an alternative envisioned to replace the status quo.
The only place I have found where an alternative to our fear-mongering, constraining sexual moral ethics is offered (and believe me I scoured Christian culture for a good while) is within radical feminist sexual ethics.
A major shift I have experienced is that I now see my and other people’s sexuality not as an isolated, specialized piece of a person, but an integrated part of a person as a whole being. Attempting to isolate sexuality into a private, constrained, tabooed part of ourselves and our lives is not a recipe for greater sexual ethics and care in how we interface with sexuality. It’s traumatic. It results in disembodiment, estrangement from our own sexuality and desires, that allows us to further objectify ourselves and others. The search for love continues, even in the face of impossible odds – so people will find ways to negotiate this constricting and stifling of their sexuality and still find ways to come together genuinely and to heal. But I would like to see a world where people are nurtured rather than hindered in handling their sexuality without fear or committing abuse or tolerating abuse.
One major change that took place as I began to see sexuality as an integrated part of my being, and likewise in others, is that the platonic/romantic divide lost a great deal of relevance. Sexuality is not just something I have when I’m having sex, even with a broader feminist definition of what counts as “sex.” It is something that I have all the time. I and my closest friends are very much aware of the way in which each of us relate to our bodies, our beliefs about sex, and the mindset and manner in which we engage in sexual activities. And we are invested in motivating and guarding one another’s development in all those areas. These people have shaped my sexuality, my beliefs and relationship to myself and to others, more than many people I have had “sexual” relationships with. The definitions, therefore, breakdown and lose a great deal of relevance.
I am more mindful now of how I engage, in whatever manner I engage, with my own and other people’s sexuality – be it as sexual partners, discussion partners, or people merely influenced by my example. (As abstinence only sex education has proven: you can still fuck people up sexually without fucking anyone.) I do not care whether or not I have a lot of sex, or hot sex, or sex with hot people. It is not so easy to commodify someone else or yourself when sexuality points to and illuminates broader humanity. Sex is not something you get or give. It’s not a commodity, it is an integrated part of human beings, and thus its relevance is not the status or temporary pleasure you might derive from getting it. In this way, I think passing from stage two to stage three is paying off. Rather than regressing to stage one, I am developing a vision of stage four, visionary sex that offers greater connection to myself and other people.