Orientius and Occidentius

Ever since childhood, I have been interested in Greek mythology. An important milestone in my absorption of knowledge was the book The Fabled Antiquity of Ellada based on the writings of Tadeusz Stefan Zieliński, which was a retelling that compressed a large chunk of it — starting with Cadmus and the Serpent and ending with Odysseus’ voyage — from originally disjoint myth into a single, cohesive narrative with clear themes and moral messages. The book, which is otherwise unrelated to this post, had a preface about Zieliński’s life, and in it, a parable from another one of his books, Our Debt to Antiquity.

It was written in 1910, and as such, is now in the public domain. I find it insightful in many ways: the conflict between the two protagonists here, in my eyes, goes beyond just the specific dichotomy the author obviously intended to portray.

When the angels had fallen and their evil and insolent devices brought on them a merited punishment, two of the fallen, Orientius and Occidentius, were deemed worthy of pardon as being less guilty. They were not cast away for ever. They were permitted to redeem their sin by a laborious task, that with its completion they might return to the cloisters of heaven. The task consisted of this to go on foot, with a staff in the hand, a journey of many million miles. When this sentence was pronounced on them, the elder of the twain, Orientius, besought the Creator and said: “O Lord, show me yet one mercy! Grant that my path should be straight and even, that there be no hills and dales to delay me, that I see before me the final goal towards which I journey!” And the Creator said to him: “Your prayer shall be fulfilled.” And he turned to the other and asked: “And you, Occidentius, do you desire nothing?” And he answered: “Nothing.” With that they were let go. Then a mist of oblivion enwrapped them, and when they came to themselves, they awoke each one on that place which was the destined starting point of their journey.

Orientius stood up and looked round him. A staff lay close by. All around stretched out, like a sea asleep, an immeasurable flat unbroken plain, over it the blue sky, boundless and cloudless everywhere; only in one place far away at the very edge of the horizon shone a white light. He understood that there was the place whither he should direct his steps. He grasped his staff and went forward. He journeyed on for a day or two and then gazed all round him again, and it seemed to him that the distance which separated him from his goal had not decreased by a single step, that he was still ever standing in the same place and still ever surrounded by the same immeasurable plain as before. “No,” he said in despair, “eternity is too short to cross a space like this.” And with these words he flung away his staff, sank down hopelessly on the ground, and fell asleep. He slept for a long time, right up to our own age.

At the same time as his elder brother, Occidentius also awoke. He rose up and looked round him. Behind him was the sea, in front a hollow, beyond the hollow a wood, beyond the wood a hill, and a white light seemed to be burning on the hill. “Is that all!” he exclaimed gaily. “I shall be there by evening.” He grasped a staff that lay by his feet and set out on his journey. And indeed before evening he had reached the top of the hill, but there he saw that he had been mistaken. Only from the distance it had appeared that the light was burning on the hill; in reality there was nothing on it save some apple trees, with whose fruits he allayed his hunger and thirst. On the other side was a descent, and below ran a river. Over the river a hill rose, and on the hill shone ever the same white light. “Well, what?” said Occidentius. “I shall rest, and after that to the road! In two days I shall be there, and then straight into heaven!” Again his calculation proved right, but again it was not heaven that he found. Behind the hill was a new, broad valley, beyond the valley rose a higher hill, whose top was crowned by the rays of the white light. Of course, our pilgrim felt a certain vexation, but not for long. The hill beckoned him irresistibly forward; there at last for sure were the gates of heaven! And so ever on and on, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, age after age. Hope is succeeded by disillusion, from disillusion rises a fresh hope. He is moving forward at this very moment. Ravines, rivers, crags, impassable bogs delay his progress. Many times he has wandered off the path and lost the guiding light; he has made circuitous marches and turned back till he has succeeded in marking again the reflection of the longed-for brightness. And now boldly, with his trusty staff in his hand, he is climbing up a high hill, the name of which is “The Social Problem.” The hill is steep and craggy. He must struggle through many ravines and thickets and scale abrupt walls and precipices, but he does not despair. Before him he sees the gleam of the light, and he is firmly assured that he has but to win the summit, and the gates of heaven will open before him.

A Quote

This is why different people have different truths. Understanding of the world is always subjective (only subjects think, but objects don’t) and depends on random factors of life: on books you stumbled or didn’t stumble upon in childhood, personality, psychological type, birth traumas, family influence…

Worldview depends more on the view than on the world — that’s the paradox.

This is why completely different worlds are reflected in people’s heads. People cannot agree with each other on everything in principle. But since people need to coexist somehow, they have to compromise. And as there is no such thing as Absolute Truth, there is no need to forcefully bring it to the blind. The advanced political thought in developed countries has come to the conclusion that, since everything is relative, and everyone is right (or not right — same thing), it is pointless to battle for Truth. Let there be pluralism. And those citizens, parties and states that haven’t understood that yet are psychologically located at the level of the medieval crusades — in the romantic youth of humanity. This is why romantics are dangerous, both in politics and in daily life.

Alexander Nikonov. “Upgrade of the Ape.” Translated from Russian.

Toilet Practices, Redux

I’ve written about this before. What prompted this entry was Mackenzie’s welcome news about a switch to unisex rooms.

Some things have changed since my earlier post. For one, I’ve actually used ladies’ rooms a few times now – covertly, taking care not to be seen. Really, I didn’t notice much difference, except that the one at my current workplace has more hygiene products and some funny messages on walls about not clogging it with food residue and used paper. Well, that, and I always sit down. Strictly speaking, I don’t have to, but “when in Rome…”

What particularly bugs me about the Russian toilet segregation practices is that in many buildings, especially Soviet legacy ones, not only are the two rooms completely identical, but also, each is designed for a single occupant. In our local shopping center, both rooms are overseen by an old lady who sits by a table in front of them charging for use. Simply removing the gender labels would lose absolutely nothing – it wouldn’t even introduce the danger of being seen or inappropriately touched – but would increase throughput.

What’s. The. Point?

Sheer power of tradition, maybe? The dentist clinic here only has one small room, with a single toilet. Yet there are still “male” and “female” pointer signs on the wall, except they both point to that single room. Convenience? Inertia? I don’t get it.

The Self-Reinforcing Binary

The late 20th – early 21st century have been rich with various concepts beginning with “post-“. Postindustrial society, postmodernism, post-theism, postgenderism, posthumanism… The opinions on these, as well as the larger trends behind them all, are of course divided, but if anything, this only illustrates the point I’m trying to make.

I think that what happened is that as the barriers of communication fell down, as we learned more about different cultures and lifestyles, so did we realize that many social concepts formerly thought of as absolute and rigid actually weren’t. It will take another generation, or perhaps more than one, just to process this very idea to its fullest. We have come to realize that concepts and ideas, real or fictional, live in the historical and cultural context of their creators, and can only be fully understood in a relative rather than absolute way. No matter how many times literary critics say “death of the author”, you can’t abstract away from the fact that George Orwell had the political trends of early-to-mid-20th century in mind when he wrote 1984, or that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs influenced the cosmology and tone of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

Social ideas and norms are much the same way. Appeal to tradition, “it has always been that way”, is just about the worst argument you can make when defending an existing social custom, right next to “God decrees so”. Even if the God you believe in tells you that someone will go to Hell for the terrible, terrible moral crime of enjoying sex without the intent of procreation, it’s not your business to try and “save” them. Just act yourself the way your beliefs dictate. Hence the “post-“: not in the sense of rejection, but in the sense of outgrowing. A post-theistic society is not an atheistic society, but merely one that got over theism, a society where religion is a matter of personal choice rather than a shaping force in politics.

And yes, I realize that my own writing is influenced by my atheist bias, conscious and unconscious. While I cannot fully abstract from them, I can be made aware of them; let the unconscious become conscious.

So how does it all relate to the gender binary? Well, the way I see it, gender roles and religious dogmas have a lot in common — they are self-propagating memes. A good example to illustrate the problem is the origin of the Russian word for bear, “medved'”. It literally meant “honey eater” in Old Slavic and was originally created as a euphemism, because the real name of the animal was taboo. However, over time, this fact was forgotten and “medved'” became the only known name, and thus itself considered something to be avoided by superstitious hunters.

Religious fundamentalists take the words of their prophets and saints dropped here and there throughout their lives, often out of context, and declare them absolute, immutable truth. Proponents of the gender binary take emergent prejudices that shaped themselves due to a combination of circumstances, sometimes mind-bogglingly arbitrary, and declare them gospel. In any case, we are faced with codification, with social expectations and taboos shaped by minutae.

It’s like if a fictional character had their complexity stripped away and become defined by a single trait based on something they vaguely did in that one episode. Oh wait.

What originally prompted this post was a paragraph I saw while reading Andrew Rilstone commentary on some common themes and tropes in fiction, namely, the points made by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (itself subjected to gospelization: while Campbell himself was only writing about common themes in a distinct kind of stories, some of his followers went so far as to claim that the structure he pointed out was inherent in every story ever written). After a series of posts making logical arguments, the latest of which contrasted stories where the hero returned home with a boon from the travels with stories where the hero reached their destination and stayed there, when I kept going “Yes, yes, that’s exactly it!”, I suddenly stumbled upon this non sequitur.

When I did literary theory at college, it was a truism that stories in which someone set forth to achieve something – stories which rushed headlong to a dramatic conclusion – were Male (and therefore bad). Stories which reached no final conclusion, which described a state of being, which cycled back to the beginning and achieved multiple climaxes were Female (and therefore good). The cleverer students, the ones with berets, went so far as to claim that the whole idea of stories – in fact the whole idea of writing in sentences — was dangerously “phallocentric”. But one does take the point that boys’ stories like Moby Dick have beginnings, middles and ends in a way that girls’ stories like Middlemarch really don’t. The soap opera, which is all middle, is the female narrative form par excellence. You would search in vein for a monomyth in Coronation Street.

For a minute, I just blinked at the text in silence, trying to make any sense out of it. Wikipedia defines a truism as “a claim that is so obvious or self-evident as to be hardly worth mentioning, except as a reminder or as a rhetorical or literary device”. In other words, the author took this piece of essentialist drivel for granted so much that he assumed everyone else shared it.

Which made me think: what, exactly, causes people to assign concepts to genders in such an utterly arbitrary fashion? The answer, I believe, lies in the pervasive, all-encompassing nature of the gender binary. The human society, we are taught from infancy, consists of men and women. We know – some of us, anyway – that it’s merely an approximation in the same sense that Newtonian physics are an approximation of relativistic physics and the real world, one that is valid for most everyday uses but fails when we broaden the horizons of our knowledge. But the idea is tempting. After all, ideas, as Christopher Nolan helpfully points out, are the most persistent kind of infection known to humanity.

And as such, when we encounter a new kind of idea (in this case, a binary), it is tempting to explain it in the concept of another binary we know, even if the analogy makes no sense. The actual mapping is often hard to explain rationally. Ancient paganists knew about the day/night binary and their corresponding celestial bodies. As such, in many mythologies over the world, the gods or personifications of the Sun and the Moon are of different genders, but it varies which is which. On one hand, we have Helios and Selene, Apollo and Artemis; on the other, Sól and Máni, who no doubt inflienced Tolkien’s Arien and Tilion.

Sometimes, it’s not random. The earliest known examples of gender roles in prehistoric tribes, and such basic dichotomies as hard/soft, strong/weak, big/small, outward/inward, are probably influenced by real physical differences. From there, it kept fracturing, expanding since then. Perhaps many concepts declared “masculine” or “feminine” were not assigned randomly, but based on associations with existing concepts already sorted into the binary. The gender binary was not static, but, as geekfeminism.org pointed out, a fractal with internalized sexism (for example, while science itself is considered a “masculine” career, there are individual sciences perceived as predominantly masculine or feminine, etc.; even feminism itself could have contributed to such perceptions, if the “hairy-legged man-hater” stereotype is any indication). And not just a static fractal, but an ever-expanding, path-dependent chain of associations that solidified over time; what might first have been a helpful rhetorical device became unquestionable taboo.

What can be done to break this pattern? Feminism contributes to the reverse process of conflation, of removing gender association stigma from logically unrelated concepts. But a true breakdown of the binary, I believe, will only happen when people en masse change their fundamental patterns of thought, and cast off or at least become aware of implicit assumptions underlying their arguments and actions. It is in the nature of the human mind to think in opposites, but the process of exposing the context can move the mental opposites from socially harmful areas and place more focus on, say, personal beliefs, ethics, and political ideologies – ideas that people choose to accept instead of being assigned to them by virtue of birth. And then, perhaps, we can outgrow the labeling of just about everything as masculine or feminine; in other words, walk into a post-binary world.

Land Ho!

Okay, I’m not sure what I’ll be doing here. Yet. Especially given that I already have a self-hosted blog. But I like it here. No wonder Dreamwidth has a “girly” reputation, with a color scheme like this.

This place is probably where I’m going to move gender-related posts, since I assume the general audience has no interest in them. If I even have an audience, that is.

Maybe — again, maybe — this is where my original fiction may appear. Haven’t decided yet where it would be appropriate.

Before deleting my LiveJournal account, in Russian, I quickly scanned through my old posts, from 2006 and earlier. Apart from an excited post over my first impressions with Ubuntu 5.10, there wasn’t really much worth keeping. I find it interesting that it was in late 2006 when I first posted a comment about hating my body. That feeling was always there, it intensified over time, and only two years after that post did I finally understand why.

By the way, the Dreamwidth favicon bears an uncanny resemblance to the Debian logo…