Thursday, 26 June 2014

Iron Age Legends, Mid-Life Crises and the New Sexual Politics

In the last two postings, we looked in depth at a South Asian legend of polyamory and a Burmese legend of traditionalism based on two wives providing a form of equilbrium that was tampered with at one's peril.

Both of these cultures are very different from those of the West, even if the Judaeo-Christian allegedly patriarchal approach to monogamy grew out of a 'two-wife' (or more) approach that is found in many nomadic cultures from the Arabian desert to Mongolia.

The South Asian legend was almost modern in its assumption of freedom and of a negotiated settlement between equals. Perhaps it is now time to look at the tension between the enforced monogamy of the new faiths that emerged across the Ancient World and the wild instincts of the lone male.

With Germanic and Celtic legend (similar but not identical) we add a different element to the pot. Here the increasing assumption is of a marital convention where wives matter. The Greek tragic tradition also introduces the monogamous family as battleground.

Prior to the chivalric re-formulations of the Middle Ages, there is no sense of love that might be multiple as in South India and even the chivalric model ensures that active sexual expression remains monogamous in a pale version of the Burmese model where the household sits to the right and an unrequited love to the left.

There is a lot of 'bad behaviour' of course (otherwise there would be no story). The tale of Arthur and Guinevere early on concerns itself with her abduction though this might be a reflection of Helen's abduction by Paris, with Arthur cast in the role of Menelaus.

However, there is a basic underlying equality in the potential for women to decide their own destinies once they are in charge of a household but only in the household. Patriarchy may be regarded as ideologically dominant before betrothal but a degree of matriarchy (in the household) to be dominant after it.

If the male ethic (the lone heroic wolf or member of a pack) dominates before marriage, he gives way to a separate but equal status after it. A woman can become de facto head of a household, with rule over men, such a servants or sons, in her own right. The matriarch with her 'boys' long precedes Ma Barker.

Assets to be deployed by fathers and carried off by heroes first, women can then be micro-economic warrior queens in their own right, nurturing sons to challenge the father and daughters to trade for power and security.

Nevertheless, the single hero-girl Atalanta and the rare Queen Medb or Boudicca (Celt) tend to raise the possibility of strong political women but little more. The strength is in the household and not in the public person. But then is that not also so with the King once barbarian struggles are over?

Brunnhilde and Kriemhild in German culture are better understood not as decision-makers but as fateful manipulators of a drama. Their passions, demand for love on their terms in the first case and passion as cause for revenge as a matter of honour in the second, set in motion the deaths of heroes.

The relative powerlessness of women in terms of brute force and warrior camaraderie here leads to a culture of psychological manipulation of the conventions that protect their status in a way that has become a trope of Western culture. But this is much more than simple 'women and slave' subversion of 'natural order'.

Even today, feminism has not fully come to terms with the strange mix of biological and cultural drivers for 'woman as necessary manipulator of others' - society and family alike. The alleged propensity to manipulation is often presented as a case of weakness or victimhood. Manipulation as alternative to strength.

However, if, as I suggest, the conventional culture of the West has shifted power from males as lone wolves to males as protectors through 'betrothal', then the male is as often a victim of the conventions (in terms of his inner aspirations) as a participant in an equality of enslavement before the social and habit.

He is 'victim' as much, in these cases, as the woman, especially given the resource constraints and wider risks and brutalities of pre-modern society. It could be argued that what we think of patriarchalism could be a late decadent form in which weak males make illicit misuse of 'Viking' conventions of shared responsibility.

It is as if the Germanic male (in the legend cycles) is fated to 'die' by the honour implicit in monogamy - a miserabilist view but an inevitable one, once a highly-sexed alpha male considers his emotional position in a stable family-based society. Negativity towards full sexual expression becomes a victory against his nature.

So, although we have Cuchulainn and the Greek 'heroes' all playing a successful 'sexual rascal' role in Indo-European legendary cultures, they are seen in the context of a Western culture in which the family has been conventionalised or otherwise within codes of vengeance and honour.

The Greek, Irish (Cuchulainn) and German tragedies are all built around vengeance, honour, loyalty and right behaviour and often have at source the expectation that a man must do something against his natural instincts because this is what is required (there is something of this in the Japanese samurai code).

The 'blonde beast' is actually a creature not of Nietzschean freedom but of obligations and duties that have simply been shifted from the household to honour. If the thesis is household and the antithesis is honour then the synthesis is the Western aristocratic cultural tradition - or at least the code of the mafioso.

An expectation is from others but also from within oneself as a social construction. God has nothing to do with it. Whatever he is, the man observing the legend is now no longer a free animal but a tribal creation even when, like Cuchulainn, his hero is presented as going beyond convention by his very nature.

But the punishment for the hero is always death. The observing male is given a stark choice in this death of a short life that requires superhuman skills to achieve fame or a conventional long one with many joys (and dull moments) but with no relation to the blood instincts that make him feel like a man.

Alhough the 'normal' male desires to be heroic in his imagination (expressed in a hundred video games), he fears his own ability to match the exemplary hero and so falls back into compliance with the given order.

The ideology of family and marriage is thus a necessary compromise that takes place when a man is faced with the fact that heroism will be denied him not by others but by his very nature as an ordinary man. He can blame no one - he chooses that the the costs of the unconventional are far too great to bear.

This is probably at the heart of the famous 'mid-life crisis' which takes place when the prime duty of convention (progeny and economic security) has apparently been achieved and the last chance of 'heroism' (or rather 'being true to one's nature') appears before the hair goes grey and the limbs bow.

Although expressed sexually in many cases, it is really, as always, about power - an attempt to return power to the self after conceding it to the demands of a convention that is seen, rightly or wrongly, as largely geared to the needs and desires of the 'mate' and the progeny.

She, of course, rarely sees it quite like that. In our modern world, even when there is no enforcing Church or tribe and men are still fit when they would have been 'old' in pre-modern times, the rebellion is usually brief. It is generally absurd, A 'not going gently into that dark night' of old age. Balloons are soon burst.

We may see a shift to another conventional relationship (serial monogamy only because that is what women will put up with in general) or a type of adjustment which is simply acceptance that the man will never be a hero or an animal again - if he ever was beyond his imaginings.

The honour system is in its degenerate phase but it is still the base for convention (as ideal) in the Western family yet it is a falsehood to call such an ideology 'patriarchal'. It is a misdirection to do so. It is a system of power relationships where all elements are equally circumscribed and equally bound.

Women were critical to the creation of an ideology whose primary purpose (under the resource-poor conditions of the time) was to protect them materially and tame the male.

Women are not victims of the ideology any more or any less than the men. They are equal victims and equal beneficiaries under appropriate conditions.

If women have found this system often to have become monstrous, it is largely because it is 'unnatural' for many men (who might prefer to be wolves or adopt the strategies of the South Asian St. Sundarar or the Burmese King) and some men, too weak to do otherwise, turn inward and monstrous because the system gets too rigid.

These men, not having the language for their unhappiness, become introvert, break the rules regardless or become nasty under the pressure. The worst become exploitative, sexually deviant in the worst of ways, molest their own kin. They communicate through acts of cruelty and domination. Others are just miserable.

Because the convention appears sanctified by God and society (more by the latter than the former nowadays), those committed to it (including men who have no instinctive hero or animal in them) moralise on its value instead of treating it as a functional ideological tool for maintaining wealth and stability. THey do not consider the possibility of adapting the structures to permit freedom.

Marriage nevertheless can encourage though does not predict love. This is why, against all Western assumptions, arranged marriages can become imbued with love. If it involves coming to terms and not resisting the given, this can result in two persons collaborating well on managing the social and the problems of the material.

New economic conditions have made this system extremely unstable. The acquisition of wealth is now a matter of equality between partners but each is engaged in a separate system of gathering outside the home. And the costs of breaking the system apart are no longer ones of shame but economic loss.

In other words, the calculations that surround love have changed. The social has not boxed people into either enforced love and respect or misery and hate but has created a volatile and insecure negotiation with no boundaries.

Male and female aspirations are now set in a cultural context where very fine calculations are being made as to the costs and benefits of 'being who one is' rather who one is socially dictated to be.

This is not an argument for a turn back to traditionalist forms (because they are no longer truly functional) but to a greater understanding of the adjustments that the ideology of love must take if it is to meet the three primary requirements of those involved:

  • collaboration in wealth creation and maintenance or, more negatively, security against accident
  • a safe and secure environment for children and other loved ones
  • the healthy adaptation of persons from youth to old age in conformity with their inner natures

The old ideology, using the threat of Hell, shame and the law, bound people into fixed property relations, treated children as part of the asset base (because of their role in providing support in old age) and subjugated persons to compliance with collectivism. Individuals could not survive outside their community.

The new ideology (such as it may be) is an unlearning process because it suggests that persons are primary (whether adults or children) and that property value lies as much in the creative and educated potential of persons as in the house they live in.

An iron age mentality was adaptable to industrialisation but not to the new internet world. The modern Western family, tamed by Judaeo-Christianity in ways well if polemically explained by Nietzsche, still existed in these pre-modern codes of conduct.

These have added, alongside the religiosity of texts interpreted by elites, yet another Iron Age level to our modern mind-set. The central point is that families have been or are in transition from structures designed for survival and a relationship with power to associations of persons where power is diffused.

As new technologies liberate us intellectually and emotionally, the imagination and equality of aspiration in the developed world becomes a matter for more direct negotiation (as in the South Asian legend).

But it also suggests that different models for maintaining household prosperity based on 'new traditions' (as in the Burmese legend) may also emerge. This is why we are seeing the lively debates about sexual freedom and alternative lifestyles maturing into a language of responsibilities.

Although traditionalism not only remains in place but intensifies its demands under threat, super-modernity is pushing through new sexual forms and solutions to exploitation simply by abandoning Iron Age texts and ancient legends and inventing structures that actually fit what we are. This should be interesting.