Reality is fluid like water-it takes the shape of the container which holds it.
“Supposing that Truth is a woman–what then?”
Nietzsche asks us to consider the possibility (in his preface to Beyond Good and Evil) that “all philosophers … have failed to understand women,” and by extension, the Truth that she represents.
Maybe a feminine conception of truth will be opposed to the dogmatism of western philosophical history.
A feminist epistemology would approach the nature of truth differently. Instead of looking for one objective Truth, it would acknowledge the many relative Truths that we are able to experience.
“And why don’t you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it. I know why you haven’t written. (And why I didn’t write before the age of twenty-seven.) Because writing is at once too high, too great for you, it’s reserved for the great-that is for “great men”; and it’s “silly.”
Besides, you’ve written a little, but in secret. And it wasn’t good, because it was in secret, and because you punished yourself for writing, because you didn’t go all the way, or because you wrote, irresistibly, as when we would masturbate in secret, not to go further, but to attenuate the tension a bit, just enough to take the edge off. And then as soon as we come, we go and make ourselves feel guilty-so as to be forgiven; or to forget, to bury it until the next time.”
She is right, I have personally always felt that way. But now I’m the same age Cixous was when she started to write, and I’m finding I can’t escape it anymore. I’m encouraged by her words, urging me to finally take ownership of my body and my mind and my work.
When I was 23 years old, I took a walk by the river near my father’s house on an early summer day. While walking behind our neighbor’s yards, my eyes fell on a single red rose, the only one of its kind behind the fence. Stunned by its singular beauty, I stopped for a only moment, before I shuddered and hurried to continue on my way.
I quickly rushed away, scared my neighbor would see me and confront me. I walked away as fast as I could manage, but not because I was afraid he’d be upset at my intrusion on his land, that was only an incidental afterthought.
Without wanting to, I imagined the man would come down to where I stood, smile, and hold out to me the severed bloom, this innocent wounded beauty.
“What’s wrong with that?” I questioned myself. “You should be thinking of how fortunate you’d be instead.”
But my allegiances had spontaneously established themselves.
I now only had sympathy for the rose.
Not long afterwards, I discovered the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. I accepted it as a gift, and I felt thankful that she had written what I’d been too timid to even admit to myself.
So in gratitude to her, I chose to translate a poem of hers which spoke the words I’d never even allowed to become conscious.
Proof of the Apparent Danger that, Once Possessed, Beauty is then Abandoned
Rose incarnate flaunts proudly to the meadow,
bathed in cochineal and carmine:
luscious, in lush open fields;
but no, for being beautiful
you will also be sorry.
Do you see, the first white light rushing
towards the Dawn?
So the risk becomes more imposing
as much as one’s beauty grows more impressive.
Don’t believe it makes you invincible:
If, misguided, you consent,
to be cut by an insolent hand
for the seduction of beauty and fragrance,
When guilty cheeks can no longer blush
you will also be sorry.
You see that charm which collects
assurance with his courtesies?
Then don’t esteem beauty
more potent than lust.
Run from the calculated caress;
if, imprudent and ingenuous,
you convince yourself that you are loved,
you’ll find yourself coming;
who, in coming to be possessed,
will also be sorry.
Surrender your beauty to nobody,
for it’s a crime that your perfection
should serve as conquest for his vanity.
Take pleasure in ordinary eminence,
without finding yourself the servant
of one who, once conquered,
won’t properly respect you;
you who, singularly had,
will also be sorry.
Anyway, even today, I think of the rose with compassion. I don’t believe we’re really that different, after all.
My eyes are often open, but it is rare that they see.
This morning, I saw fear. I thought I didn’t know fear, that I somehow lived bravely. The outcomes in my experience weren’t consistent with that analysis, but I brushed it off. I’m not afraid, it was just that simple.
But maybe I couldn’t see my fear because I was swimming in it. I’ve been floating through life, suspended in a scared world, held up and held back by what I thought I didn’t want.
I have rejected even the acknowledgement of my own desires because I was afraid they could never be fulfilled. I haven’t tried, or even admitted I wanted to.
But I want to live with integrity now. I want to be honest about and with myself.
So I’ll share a dream of mine with you, one that I’ve held for decades now, since I was a child.
As a young girl, my world was filled with books. Like Borges, my heaven was a library (and it still is). When people would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew immediately: I wanted to be a writer.
I’ve pretended for years now that I don’t want that! Maybe it was right for others, but definitely not for me. Come on, didn’t I pretend I was an “epistemological nihilist”? What right I did I have to buy someone’s attention with counterfeit bills of “knowledge”?
Maybe there’s something to those ideas, I really don’t know. But I recognize today that the real reason was not disinterest, but fear.
And I’m still afraid, but I’m going to turn around and walk toward it.
Maybe I still don’t believe I have any Truth worth telling. But I would like to offer you a map, instead, a phenomenology of the territory inside I believe is my soul.
As I dream, images arise: a guiding star, a loving mirror, a bell that awakens. Objects of beauty and agents of change, I will keep you in mind with this first step forward.
I went down to Grand Ave this afternoon for lunch and ended up picking up two new books. One of them is an essay by Michel de Montaigne, On Solitude. It seemed an appropriate read for a day spent almost entirely by myself.
So far, it’s making me reflect more deeply on my reasons for leaving Los Angeles and moving to a previously unknown city in the Bay Area.
Rupi jam vincula dicas:
Nam luctata canis nodum arripit; attamen illi,
Cum fugit, a collo trahitur pars longa catenae.
[‘I have broken my chains,’ you say. But a struggling cur may snap its chain, only to escape with a great length of it fixed to its collar.]
-Persius, Satires. V, 158-60.
Damn, Montaigne. Way to call me out. Yes, maybe I moved to Oakland, but have I really left my burdens behind? Am I not still troubled by the same problems in my own soul that I had months ago ago in LA?
Montaigne says, “We take our fetters with us; our freedom is not total: we still turn our gaze towards the things we have left behind; our imagination is full of them.”
It’s true. I may feel a sense of freedom, but my heart is still heavy with the sadness from days long gone. The same fears and desires still dominate me to an extent I would rather not admit.
I finally got around to starting Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (find it here as a PDF). I’ve been wanting to read it since a professor of mine mentioned it in a class a year or two ago.
So far I’m only into the first few pages of the novel, but I would already recommend this book to anyone, if only for the brilliant introduction. It’s a wonderful contemplation of the goals and methods of science fiction and literature in general.
Le Guin says that there are two types of science fiction, those which are extrapolative and those which are thought-experiments. Le Guin isn’t interested in writing extrapolitive fiction–it only carries things to its logical extreme, and “almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.”
Instead, Le Guin wants to write thought-experiments. Contrary to popular belief, these thought experiments of science fiction don’t attempt to predict the future; rather, they describe the present, according to the experience and imagination of the author.
That’s what all fiction tries to do, she says: it describes the present reality. How? It attempts to tell the truth by creating a vast web of lies, invented people, places and events that never existed except in the mind of the author.
Later, Le Guin raises an interesting point regarding the supposed purpose of language. She says, “Our philosophers, some of them, would have us agree that a word (sentence, statement) has value only in so far as it has one single meaning, points to one fact which is comprehensible to the rational intellect, logically sound, and—ideally—quantifiable.”
This hints at an age-old philosophical debate, which asks if it is possible for language to truly express reality. For centuries, the entire field of rhetoric has been looked down upon because it would seem that this is not always the case. Plato, for example, distrusted rhetoric, believing it did not always lead to truth, but was more often could be used in the service of dishonesty and lies.
Underlying these assertions is the assumption that words should have a tight and unbreakable bond with what they refer to. The purpose of rhetoric, at least according to Plato’s Phaedrus, is to lead the soul to truth. Aristotle took up a related view, which is that there is a deep reality that underlies our varying experiences of it.
This created the “common sense” view that most people hold of reality: to most, it obviously exists “out there” in the external world. We can experience and know reality through our senses, and words are only useful in that they convey this deep reality to other people.
However, in this past century, the concept of a deep reality that exists objectively has come under fire. With the advances in quantum physics, we became aware that we cannot separate the measured from the measurer. The instrument used “creates” reality just as much as the object being observed.
This isn’t just abstract theory, fun to think about but impractical or even useless in the real world. It’s actually quite the opposite. Our epistemology is absolutely critical to the way we think about and respond to people and events around us. According to Robert Anton Wilson, Aristotelian certainty and assurance of an underlying, objective truth plays a huge factor in every single one of the major conflicts which have occurred in our world, are occurring now, and (most likely) will occur in the future.
Seems like a stretch? Think again. An epistemology that asserts an objective reality that has an independent existence is divisive: it splits the world into those who are “right” and those who are “wrong.” Religion and ideology depend upon us being right, with an accurate appraisal of the real, against those who are “wrong,” apparently either deluded fools or evil antagonists.
Wilson is brave enough to propose an alternative with disturbing ramifications (to many). If we accept a constructivist view of the world, where truth is created by the observer instead of being simply discovered, we might have to accept that our enemies have never been wrong the way we have always believed. When there is no deep reality, there is no “Truth” as commonly believed, only a variety of experiences of the world that vary according to who we are.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin
Going back to Left Hand‘s introduction, Wilson would probably join Le Guin in opposing those philosophers that are desperate to find certainty in language. Not only is there no certainty in language, there is (most likely) no certainty in what we know as reality, period. Le Guin invites us to be wary of those who need “one single meaning” from our words and our world.
Le Guin is on the side of the artist, the visionaries who intuit a different kind of truth, who have a flexible idea of what the fabric of this truth consists of. It is the artist who opens the way for a multiplicity of meanings, which gives us the freedom to claim our experience as valid and real for us as individuals.
Perhaps Wilson and Le Guin would agree that the world needs more artists, people who have the ability to cast doubt on our certainty and self-righteousness. If we ever hope to resolve our conflicts on any scale, we need this consciousness of the variety of truths that exist among us.
BONUS: Read this commencement address Ursula K. Le Guin delivered to Mills College in 1983! Discussed in this address are the differences between what the author calls “men’s language” and “women’s language.”
Men’s language is “the language of power,” of dominance. In other words, of certainty, of binaries of right/wrong (among others).
She calls on us to abandon our fear of women’s language. We need to be comfortable with uncertainty, and even failure. We need to find hope in the darkness: “What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.”
In sum, it’s a beautiful exploration of the different perspectives men and women tend to have, on two (of probably many) varieties of epistemology and their consequences.
One of Teresa’s confessors, Fray Diego, wrote that God revealed to her:
- “…a most beautiful crystal globe, made in the shape of a castle, and containing seven mansions, in the seventh and innermost of which was the King of Glory, in the greatest splendour, illumining and beautifying them all. The nearer one got to the centre, the stronger was the light; outside the palace limits everything was foul, dark and infested with toads, vipers and other venomous creatures.”
Even better is Teresa’s own description. She describes the soul as “a castle made of a single diamond . . . in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.”
Teresa describes the exploration of the castle’s many rooms, leading to the center where she finds union with God.
But in my vision, the castle is still unfinished. My role here is not to explore, but to create. I like to believe that this interior castle is what I am devoting my life to build. Each room is a world I have set aside in my own heart. Every corner is filled with experiences I have collected on my travels, the walls covered with paintings I have thought and felt into being.
I’m not sure the construction on this castle will ever be completed. As I learn every day, there is something to be done: a new room will be built, a wall will come up, an entire wing is demolished.
Unlike Teresa, who finds an end to her explorations in union with God at the center of her castle, I don’t perceive any end in sight. My castle is illuminated by a diffuse divinity, ruled by a God outside time and space, which cannot be touched but is always felt.
Anyway, I’ll admit, it’s been difficult reading. A Catholic nun in the 16th century wouldn’t seem to have much in common with me. And indeed, I do find her constant reflections and appeals to the personal God of judeo-christian tradition cause me some intellectual/spiritual discomfort.
There’s a lot for me to disagree with here, but I believe I can still appreciate elements of her work and derive some benefit from her core message. She advocates the importance of meditation and prayer, and emphasizes the value of self-knowledge.
Teresa is at her best when she advises us “not to think much but to love much”. If I could give myself any piece of advice, it would be this! We shouldn’t forget that love, after all, is the key that opens all the doors to the castle.