September 07, 2008

Kill That Woman!

HEROD

She is monstrous, thy daughter; I tell thee she is monstrous. In truth, what she has done is a great crime. I am sure that it is a crime against some unknown God.

HERODIAS

I am well pleased with my daughter. She has done well. And I would stay here now.

HEROD

[Rising.]

Ah! There speaks my brother's wife! Come! I will not stay in this place. Come, I tell thee. Surely some terrible thing will befall. Manasseh, Issachar, Ozias, put out the torches. I will not look at things, I will not suffer things to look at me. Put out the torches! Hide the moon! Hide the stars! Let us hide ourselves in our palace, Herodias. I begin to be afraid.

[The slaves put out the torches. The stars disappear. A great cloud crosses the moon and conceals it completely. The stage becomes quite dark. The Tetrarch begins to climb the staircase.]

THE VOICE OF SALOME

Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on thy lips. Was it the taste of blood? . . . Nay; but perchance it was the taste of love. . .They say that love hath a bitter taste. But what matter? what matter? I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth.

[A ray of moonlight falls on Salome and illumines her.]

HEROD

[Turning round and seeing Salome.]

Kill that woman!

[The soldiers rush forward and crush beneath their shields, Salome, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Jud├Ža.]

[CURTAIN.]
-- Oscar Wilde, Salome
You need to understand one very simple foundational point: Women are evil. More than that, women are the ultimate source of all evil in the world.

Almost no one will admit the belief in this form, but this is what most people in the West believe, to one degree or another. Western culture is saturated with this perspective; it directs and finds expression in our films and television, in books, in our relationships, in business -- and in our politics. Whatever one may think of their political convictions (and I myself would never vote for either of them), Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin both represent historic candidacies. It is the belief that women are evil that underlies the blindingly intense hatred directed at them.

I explored the roots of this belief in, "Of Abortion, and Women as the Ultimate Source of Evil." I refer you to the earlier essay for a discussion of how the view of women as evil distorts the abortion controversy, and of why so many are determined to deny women the right to control their own bodies. Here, I will briefly review some critical points related to the genesis of this damnation of women, this damnation of Woman as such.

And Genesis is, of course, of central importance to this question. In an earlier piece, "Let's Talk About Sex!," I considered the Adam and Eve myth, noting that "the unfathomably negative [version of this story] suffuses our culture, even today. It is almost impossible to capture just how negative and damning this myth is with regard to women, especially when you add in all the attitudes that flow out of it. And this is just one myth." In the subsequent essay concerning abortion, I went on to write:
It is critical to understand that the particular version of this myth that suffuses our cultural attitudes toward women didn't just fall from the sky, as much as the adherents of certain religions might wish to believe it did. It was invented -- and it was invented by one man in particular.
That man was Augustine. In my analysis of the roots of the abortion debate, I offered an excerpt from Jamake Highwater's wonderfully valuable book, Myth and Sexuality. The earlier article has a longer extract. Here is the paragraph most relevant to this discussion:
In the late fourth century, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, was living in an entirely different political world from his Church predecessors. Christianity was no longer a dissident sect but the state religion of Rome. Christians were now free to follow their faith and were officially encouraged to do so. Such a drastic transformation of the social circumstance of Christians required yet another revision of the reading of Genesis. It was Augustine who undertook this new interpretatioin of Adam and Eve, resulting in a viewpoint vastly different from the majority of his Jewish and Christian predecessors. As [Elaine] Pagels notes, what had been read as a tale of the right to quest for human freedom now became an Augustinian story of human bondage. Hitherto, most Jews and Christians had understood from Genesis that God gave humankind the right of moral freedom, and that Adam had misused it and thereby brought death and pain into the world. Augustine, however, was not content with the travails of such an interpretation, and he went a good deal further. He contended that Adam's sin not only caused our mortality but also corrupted our sexuality. If these notions contradicted the notorious sexual conduct of Rome, they indirectly sanctioned the limitations placed on the political freedom of Romanized Christians, a forfeiture that the followers of Jesus paid to Rome for its sanction of religious freedom. It was Augustine who reread Genesis to fit the limitations of Christian freedom within the Roman world. He observed that Adam's sin had not only made sex irreversibly corrupt, but it also cost us our free will, rendering us incapable of genuine political freedom. "Augustine's theory of original sin offered an analysis of human nature that became, for better or worse, the heritage of all subsequent generations of Western Christians and the major influence on their psychological and political thinking." (Pagels)
I then offered these thoughts, which focus on the manner in which women became the target of deeply embedded cultural loathing, and why men seek to control them:
Our culture today views the body as inherently sinful; this belief is treated as an axiom beyond challenge. Sex is especially sinful -- and the final responsibility for the evil of sex and of the body is located in woman. Adam would not have sinned but for Eve's initial transgression.

Evil is located in woman, and in her body and its potentialities. Such evil must be channeled and controlled: it must be brought under the whip of righteousness. The campaign to limit or even eliminate abortion is not about pregnancy or the fetus at all: it is about controlling the body, and controlling pleasure, especially sexual pleasure.

For the most part, men run the world. They are not interested in controlling themselves, and they will still pursue their own pleasure as they choose -- but evil must be resisted. So they turn to their eternal scapegoat, and what they view as the final source of evil in this world, the barrier between themselves and redemption: woman. If our world and men are to be saved, they must be saved from woman.
In very general outline, this is, I submit, the ultimate explanation for the hatred directed at politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. To see the endless manifestations of this hatred, you can consult several valuable sources: Hillary Clinton Sexism Watch (a lamentably interminable series, undoubtedly with new entries as I write this), Sarah Palin Sexism Watch (a series likely to be just as long, if not longer, before this campaign is over), and "Why Won't that Stupid Bitch Quit?" (including numerous entries). Also see this post, and Anglachel in general for much more on this topic.

The conclusion of Oscar Wilde's play, Salome, introduces this essay. Wilde himself tragically knew far too much about the experience of challenging the conventional morality and institutions of power of his time, of living outside the bounds of "acceptable" behavior. Salome is an extraordinary work; in purely literary terms, it is breathtaking. When you have time (it's short and doesn't require a lot), I recommend you read it. Pay special attention to the scene between Salome and Iokanaan. It contains writing of very rare quality. Richard Strauss wrote a spectacularly effective opera using Wilde's full text. If you wish to see a magnificent performance of the Strauss work, I give my highest recommendation to this one. Teresa Stratas is shattering and sublime in the title role.

I chose the conclusion of Salome to highlight this piece for several reasons, only one of which is Wilde's superb imagination and use of language. The last line -- "Kill that woman!" -- captures the final meaning of our culture's loathing of woman, and it captures this all-pervasive attitude in just three terrifying words. But there is a further point that deserves mention, especially as it relates to the political battles that so consume us.

Consider the following aspect of the Salome story, an aspect set into high relief in Wilde's retelling. Herod is a brutal, murderous ruler; his court is noted for its debauchery. Herod is Salome's stepfather -- and he revels in his lust for Salome in front of everyone, including Salome's mother. It is Herod's desire for Salome that leads directly to the play's final moments. Herod wants Salome to dance for him, so that he may enjoy the contemplation of her body more fully. Salome refuses at first, but Herod declares, "whatsoever thou shalt ask of me I will give it thee, even unto the half of my kingdom." Salome extracts a solemn oath from Herod that he will fulfill his promise to give her whatever she demands once she has danced for him; Herod swears, "By my life, by my crown, by my gods." Herod is so consumed by his desire for her that he agrees. Salome shall have "whatsoever thou shalt ask of me..."

Salome performs for Herod, and then makes her demand: "I would that they presently bring me in a silver charger . . The head of Iokanaan." Herod is deeply shocked, not by the bloody violence involved, for that is commonplace in his world and under his rule, but by the possible religious implications, according to his particular superstitions. This is the same Herod who casually orders murders without end, who brutalizes his subjects in unimaginable ways, who lusts for his stepdaughter in front of her mother, who also happens to be his wife. Herod offers to give Salome many other treasures. But Salome reminds Herod of his oath, and she insists that he fulfill his promise. She will have Iokanaan's head on a silver charger. And she does.

Set aside the particulars of Salome's demand and her actions, and whatever revulsion you may feel. (You might ask yourself why you feel such revulsion, if you do, about fictional events when you do nothing about this, and when you may well vote for one of two men who will continue such horrors. Revulsion is much safer when confined to the imaginary.) Focus on the underlying dynamics in play. To put the issue in other terms, and these are the exact terms you should apply to women in politics today: she beat him at his own game. Herod had set the terms of the contest, and Salome used them for her own ends. She fought on his terms, but she outwitted the man who had set the rules. She humiliated him -- and she got what she wanted.

For Herod -- for most men -- this is intolerable. It is inconceivable to Herod -- just as it is inconceivable to most men -- that the fault or the responsibility should be his. The fault and the responsibility must be Salome's. The fault and the responsibility must always be woman's. In any confrontation between a man and a woman in our culture, there is only one party to be punished: the woman. So it was with Salome, and so it is with Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.

Kill that woman. That is the motive, and that is the goal. To the extent women are successful, to the extent they threaten men's monopoly on power and control, they must be demeaned, diminished, treated with unending cruelty, and mocked. When all else fails, they must be eliminated. Kill that woman.

So ends our story for today.