Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The sexual rage of Elliot Rodgers and the dangers of reductionist explanations

 John Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the greatly misunderstood works of English literature, and theological poetry. His epic, an attempt to 'justify the ways of God to man’, is thought to be an apologist manifesto of misogyny and Eve-hating, a perfect example of blaming women and reducing them to inferior, and infantile animals driven by emotional contradictions that subvert the masculine rationality of humanity. Now to deny that Milton’s classic has repeated examples of misogyny would be dangerously naive.

However, what is equally destructive is to turn that same puritanism towards male sexuality entirely. More often than not, the very word ‘misogyny’ is used as a by-word of hate and resentment against all forms of male sexuality. What men and women alike don’t want to admit is that male sexuality is driven by dark forces. These dark forces are extremely necessary forces. They require hate, they require a blood-lust, they require rage and jealousy, in order to be fully expressed. Violence and hate are at the very heart of male sexuality, just as much as love, compassion, sensuality and tenderness.

What constitutes an empowered man is not the extent to which he has denied the drives and the hidden forces of his psychic needs, the narcissism and the pride and the rage, but the extent to which he has looked these realities in the face and transcended them. However, unlike the hippy-dippy angel-lovers of modern New Age religions, to transcend does not mean denial. To transcend one must experience the darkness before one sees the light. In fact, without the darkness, there is no light.

This brings us back to Milton.  The point of Paradise Lost is to show the role of the devil in the Kingdom of God, and the role of evil rebel in the human heart. The very glory of the good, the supremacy of God’s love and compassion and his power, can only be understood in relation to the works of the devil. The sacred needs the profane, and this is the war of the heavens.

It is not beyond Milton to have understood that this war in heaven was really the war of the human psyche, the continual battle between self-destruction and survival, the need to destroy what one loves because what one loves leaves us feeling powerless.

At the beginning of Book III of the poem, God sees Satan flee hell on his journey the Garden of Eden where he intends to corrupt mankind and thus corrupt the rule of heaven. Rather than interfere God tells his ‘Onley Begotten Son’ why he allows Satan to trespass, and how he predicts The Fall. However, God sees the grande plan, that man must fall in order that he can show his grace, forgiveness and mercy.

‘Onely begotten Son, seest thou what rage
Transports our adversarie, whom no bounds
Prescrib'd, no barrs of Hell, nor all the chains
Heapt on him there, nor yet the main Abyss
Wide interrupt can hold; so bent he seems
On desparate reveng, that shall redound
Upon his own rebellious head. And now
Through all restraint broke loose he wings his way
Not farr off Heav'n, in the Precincts of light,
Directly towards the new created World,
And Man there plac't, with purpose to assay
If him by force he can destroy, or worse,
By some false guile pervert; and shall pervert
For man will heark'n to his glozing lyes,
And easily transgress the sole Command,
Sole pledge of his obedience: So will fall,
Hee and his faithless Progenie: whose fault?
Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of mee
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
Such I created all th' Ethereal Powers [ 100 ]
And Spirits, both them who stood and them who faild;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
Not free, what proof could they have givn sincere
Of true allegiance, constant Faith or Love,
Where onely what they needs must do, appeard,
Not what they would? what praise could they receive?
What pleasure I from such obedience paid,
When Will and Reason (Reason also is choice)
Useless and vain, of freedom both despoild,
Made passive both, had servd necessitie,
Not mee. They therefore as to right belongd,
So were created, nor can justly accuse
Thir maker, or thir making, or thir Fate,
As if predestination over-rul'd
Thir will, dispos'd by absolute Decree
Or high foreknowledge; they themselves decreed
Thir own revolt, not I: if I foreknew,
Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,
Which had no less prov'd certain unforeknown.
So without least impulse or shadow of Fate,
Or aught by me immutablie foreseen,
They trespass, Authors to themselves in all
Both what they judge and what they choose; for so
I formd them free, and free they must remain,
Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change
Thir nature, and revoke the high Decree
Unchangeable, Eternal, which ordain'd
Thir freedom, they themselves ordain'd thir fall.
The first sort by thir own suggestion fell,
Self-tempted, self-deprav'd: Man falls deceiv'd
By the other first: Man therefore shall find grace,
The other none: in Mercy and Justice both,
Through Heav'n and Earth, so shall my glorie excel,
But Mercy first and last shall brightest shine.’

Man has free will, and God cannot interfere. But the issue goes deeper than that. It is only through a confrontation with the devil, it is only by looking the beast in the eye, that we understand the glory of God.
To put it in more secular terms, for us as humans to fully experience the fulfilment of our potential - moral, political, sexual - we have to be prepared to face the truth of violent natures. Our abilities to subvert primal desires through moral purpose, do not come from our ability to deny Satan, but our ability to confront him and beat him. The weakness of our natures is what enlightens us to the strength of our potential. Milton’s epic poem is a pre-Freudian allegory for the struggles of the human heart. What Milton tell us is not that we must revert to the Garden of Eden, but through our sins, we come to know the true face of God.

‘Man shall not quite be lost, but sav'd who will,
Yet not of will in him, but grace in me
Freely voutsaft; once more I will renew
His lapsed powers, though forfeit and enthrall'd
By sin to foul exorbitant desires;
Upheld by me, yet once more he shall stand
On even ground against his mortal foe,
By me upheld, that he may know how frail
His fall'n condition is, and to me ow
All his deliv'rance, and to none but me.
Some I have chosen of peculiar grace
Elect above the rest; so is my will:
The rest shall hear me call, and oft be warnd
Thir sinful state, and to appease betimes
Th' incensed Deitie while offerd grace
Invites; for I will cleer thir senses dark,
What may suffice, and soft'n stonie hearts
To pray, repent, and bring obedience due.
To Prayer, repentance, and obedience due,
Though but endevord with sincere intent,
Mine ear shall not be slow, mine eye not shut.
And I will place within them as a guide
My Umpire Conscience, whom if they will hear,
Light after light well us'd they shall attain,
And to the end persisting, safe arrive.’

Milton’s work then is concerned chiefly with the theological ‘problem of evil.’ However, this problem, and its solution, is often misunderstood. If evil exists, and tragedy is the most common human experience, why doesn’t God interfere? The answer is, as Milton’s God tells us, free will. But rather than being a Christian cop out, the principle of free will is an important piece of the psychological puzzle. Beauty, truth, moral goodness, and the triumph of the rational will are meaningless unless they are in some sense achieved. That is why God stands by and watches the tragedy of the The Fall unfold. For love to be worth anything it must be freely chosen, actively pursued. Otherwise we are not truly human.

We are not entitled to our integrity, to the moral boundaries of our true selves. Just as Milton knew all too well that a country cannot be ruled through entitlement. We earn the right to be ourselves, by conquering the inner darkness, by looking deeply into it and seeing the light of our own powers not to be consumed by it. If we fail to confront Satan, he will haunt us and flag us down. Our inner rage and narcissism, if it is not faced, will dominate our actions.

Milton’s message reflects the injunctions of Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. In Chapter 11, Krishna explains that Arjuna will find God not by shying away from his duty, or from hiding behind false morality. He must be who he is, a warrior, and face the terrors of battle and sanctify the life that is before him. Only then will he understand the true nature of God. God, or truth, or Self, are not things other than life. We do not transcend and fulfill ourselves by denying our reality, but facing it head on. Only then will the power of bondage through the senses release its grip on us. But we must face it:

‘Thou seest Me as Time who kills, Time who brings all to doom,
The Slayer Time, Ancient of Days, come hither to consume;
Excepting thee, of all these hosts of hostile chiefs arrayed,
There shines not one shall leave alive the battlefield! Dismayed
No longer be! Arise! obtain renown! destroy thy foes!
Fight for the kingdom waiting thee when thou hast vanquished those.
By Me they fall—not thee! the stroke of death is dealt them now,
Even as they stand thus gallantly; My instrument art thou!
Strike, strong-armed Prince! at Drona! at Bhishma strike! deal death
To Karna, Jyadratha; stay all this warlike breath!
’Tis I who bid them perish! Thou wilt but slay the slain.
Fight! they must fall, and thou must live, victor upon this plain!’

In her book Men In Love, feminist author Nancy Friday shows that the sexual desire men have for women is one driven by rage. it is in the confrontation with that rage that the love is expressed. Men she insists, begin their sexual lives in a state of conflict and that conflict is played out throughout the rest of their erotic encounters.

Friday describes her own shock at reading case studies she had requested of men, men who gave meticulous accounts of their most depraved fantasies and repressed desires. Many of these men were polite and and extremely grateful to be heard, but what she read was disturbing, violent and far more aggressive than the female fantasies she had come across in similar research.

‘ research tells me that men’s love of women is often greater than their love of self. They worship women’s beauty to the unhealthy exclusion of of their own narcissistic needs. They discredit the male body as aesthetically displeasing, only to be labeled bestial when they adore women’s bodies too openly and enthusiastically.’

She later adds on the same page: ‘Rape or force may be the most popular theme in female fantasy (though I have yet to meet a woman who wouldn’t run a mile from a real rapist), but men’s fantasies of overpowering women against their will are the exception. A closer reading will usually reveal that a woman is a volunteer or has given her consent first. Even in the grimmest S&M fantasy...pain or humiliation is usually not the goal.’

So what Friday found in her research was that the majority of men develop their sexualities in a bizarre paradox of the subconscious. Yes they are looking for their mother. Yes, they want power over women, and yes that power is often violent and comes from a violent place. They fear women, and they fear that power. But rape is not the gal. Submission, perhaps, but it is a loving submission, a submission that admits to love and gives into to a need for him.

The conflict is between a desire to emulate and remain loyal to his mother, but at the same time express and fulfill his sexual identity which he intuitively knows very early on, makes him separate from the mother. He needs the love of the mother, but the sexual needs, and his own selfish sexual desires, draw him away from the mother. Thus, the sexual experience of men is inherently complex and conflicted.

Men either seek a reconciliation of their internal conflicts, or they give in to them. They reject the power of the mother entirely and misogyny turns into a monstrous character trait, rather than a necessary process of psychological growth.

Nancy Friday’s own opinion, though not scientific but authoritative, is that violent rage is part of the male psyche in a very necessary way. Men need to hate women as much as they love women, but they must grow through this process. They must experience this ‘healthy misogyny’ if you like, in order to come out the other a well-rounded and powerful sexual creature. The masculine, procreant urge is violent because sexuality itself is violent. Life is violent. But it needn’t be cruel and savage. When the rage and the love, the sacred and the profane are fused into a healthy and balanced male psyche what you get is creativity and passion and a form of sexual disciplined that avoids repressive tendencies. The ultimate outcome is a love of women that runs deep in the DNA of the man.

‘Men may love women, but they are in a rage with them, too.  I believe it is a triumph of the human psyche that out of this contradiction, a new form of emotion emerges, one so human it is unknown to animals even one step lower in the evolutionary scale: passion.’

The rage that Elliot Rodger felt, whether men will admit it or not, was something that all men go through to a varying degree. I would imagine too that there is a female equivalent. On this score the extreme misandrist camp are correct. It is a prevalent emotion. However, like rape fantasies and suicide ideation, and other more extreme violent dreams and internally visualised scenarios, such rage and aggression does not represent a threat. What was lacking in Elliot Rodgers was a regulatory power. The natural rage against the other, was not tempered by a healthy input of counter-narratives. This was a vulnerable man.

It is convenient for some people to further their own extremist ideology to make dangerous reductions about Rodgers, and male sexuality in general. We are an adolescent culture and we like simplistic explanations, especially when it comes to the complexities and contradictions in the masculine experience.

Instead of playing victim, we should examine the infantile way in which we allow men to develop and explore their natural urges, and the ways in which licentious cultures like ours actually deepen violent repression, rather than let men develop in a way that they can trust their own needs. Misogyny is a society-wide problem, but it is not an ideology, and nor is it a form of terrorism. To make these kinds of reductions is extremist and ultimately unhelpful. The best help we can be, as men and as a society, is to examine more deeply and more aggressively, and fearlessly, the truth about male ambivalence and the role misogyny plays in our sexual development. To do so is not to be an apologist for anyone, but to actively take responsibility for the way that masculinity, and everything that comes with it, impacts the society at large.


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