CHAPTER 8: The Rebellion against Nature


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Withdrawal…expresses alienation from the physical and its powers over us.

Cf. Leslie Dewart The Foundations of Belief Herder & Herder, NY, 1969, p52: “Endowed by nature with the ability to know good and evil, to discriminate between what actually is and what he would like to bring about, man is doomed, not by the distressing events that befall him, but by the peculiarity of his nature, which makes him able to conceive an alternative to what actually is.”             But such withdrawal into alternatives may be more a masculine than feminine theme. The developing consciousness of the male collective—as of the male child—finds satisfaction in ascensionism, asceticism, and mortification of the body; in idealism, metaphysics, intellectualism, and spirituality; in rejection of the feminine and in domination, when not hatred, of women. An essential point of both the rites of aborigines and the initiation ceremonies of contemporary adolescents is to establish conscious superiority over the body. [Eric Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness Bollingen Series, Princeton UP, 1970, p310]


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…war is a way to proactively disarm death and injury by rendering them deliberate.

The first power of nature appropriated by men was the ability to take away life. Woman had the power to create life, which men surely must have envied; furthermore, she could bleed and then regenerate herself. But men found a compensating power of their own: the ability to destroy and to make themselves and others bleed. Through war, death itself could be idealized, appropriated, embellished, transformed into a part of the deliberate human world, an answer to the mere passivity of being prey or victim to mortality. Freud tried lamely to explain Man’s bloodthirstiness as an instinct toward death, rather than as a way of coping with fear of death by boldly intentionalizing it. Men fight wars, and flirt with death in dangerous sports, not because they are unconsciously attracted to dying, but in order to take charge of death and fear, making mortality a willful consequence of human action rather than a doom imposed by nature or fate. (See Barbara Ehrenreich Blood Rites: origins and history of the passion of war, and also Ernest Becker The Denial of Death.)


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The conquest of nature… has been largely a male enterprise.

Obviously, this is so in part because men went forth to create and rule the world while women remained, perforce or by choice, in nurturing roles at home. In part, it is also because the efforts of women to make their marks in a male-dominated world have been systematically ignored, thwarted, or appropriated by men. See Richard Tarnas The Passion of the Western Mind Ballantine 1991, p441: “The Western intellectual tradition has been produced and canonized almost entirely by men, and informed mainly by male perspectives… The masculinity of the Western mind has been pervasive and fundamental, in both men and women, affecting every aspect of Western thought… The ‘man’ of the Western tradition has been a questing masculine hero, a Promethean biological and metaphysical rebel…”


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…celibate or solitary, in a long tradition repudiating women and family life.

Walter Charleton, a founding member of the Royal Society, expressed his dim view of the fairer sex in 1659: “You are the true hyenas, that allure us with the fairness of your skins; and when folly hath brought us within your reach, you leap upon us and devour us. You are the traitors to wisdom, the impediment to industry… the clogs to virtue, and goads that drive us all to vice, impiety, and ruine. You are… the grand Error of Nature” [quoted in David F. Noble A World Without Women Alfred A. Knopf 1992, p230]

While Galileo had three children by his mistress, he never married, but exiled his children the better to pursue his studies. Even Einstein, philanderer and father twice married, was essentially of the monastic disposition, shunning the complications of emotional embroilment, and longing for the peace and simplicity he found in the eternal truths of mathematics. Freud, the grand patriarch, took pride in the virtual celibacy of his later life. This might seem ironic for a thinker whose monumental contributions centered on sexuality. But in Freud’s view, while libido might provide the driving raw energy behind civilization, it was the heroic quest to transcend its bounds and shape its expression in sublimated forms which defined culture and human consciousness.


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…ready to rebel against Heaven and Earth, to dominate the planet.

Neither feminine protest, religious caution, nor a greater wisdom could prevent early modern science from developing an exploitive stance toward the natural world, which Christianity had previously regarded as divine property. The early Christians had held the position of the believer to be inherently feminine (the Church being described as Christ’s bride). The teachings of Jesus himself were essentially feminine and feminist, and attracted many female followers. However, after Christianity became a state religion, and certainly by the time of the Renaissance, the feminine stance of early Christianity had given way to masculine hierarchy and power.


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The power of abstraction…enabled men to turn the natural order upside down and re-create it in a male image.

As eloquently expressed by Neil Postman [The Disappearance of Childhood Delacorte Press, NY 1982, p48]: “The book and book learning represented an almost unqualified triumph over our animal nature… It is stretching a point only a little to say that print—by separating the message from the messenger, by creating an abstract world of thought, by demanding that the body be subordinated to mind, by emphasizing the virtues of contemplation—intensified the belief in the duality of mind and body, which in turn encouraged a contemptuous regard for the body. Print gave us the disembodied mind, but it left us with the problem of how to control the rest of us.”


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…a shift…to an invisible, immaterial abstraction, of which men are the masters.

The paradigm of female creativity is the power of nature acting through the woman in childbirth. In embracing this biological role, she does not set herself against her body in trying to create a personal identity. Male creativity, in contrast, depends on the separation of self (ego) from the world. He can only imitate the creative power of nature and woman, and can only “give birth” to new things by acting on material that lies outside the body, by imposing thought and imagination upon it from an external and “heroic” position. The man can but study and imitate natural process from outside it. In his own perception, he does not embody it, has no default identity, and seeks to create himself in opposition to nature and in contrast to the female. Of course, these are gross and unfair generalizations. Many individuals do not conform to such stereotypes. I do not mean here to stigmatize individuals, but to characterize two contrasting mentalities, which individuals of either gender may embody to varying extent.

While reductionism and domination of nature are largely masculine projects, even at the beginning of science there were dissenting voices. In the view of Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), nature was a feminine presence with which she could identify as a woman, not the alienated abstraction in the male scientific mind. She celebrated the independence and “wild inconstancy” of nature as cosmic life force, cyclical in the way of woman’s life cycle, and as productive as a good housewife. Her ideal scientist did not dominate nature but observed it non-intrusively, with respect. Nature was autonomous and active in impressing on the human mind its truths. Cavendish criticized the arrogance of the new masculine science, which presumed Man to be the lord of nature and chief among creatures; she recognized that (patriarchal) society held both woman and nature in contempt. In particular, she criticized the notion that nature is dead, inert or passive. The male scientist, she charged, has “great spleen against self-moving corporeal Nature… and the reason is his Ambition; for he would fain be supreme… he would be a God, if Arguments could make him such.” [Margaret Cavendish Observations 114, quoted in Deborah Taylor Bazeley “An Early Challenge to the Precepts and Practices of Modern Science: the Fusion of Fact, Fiction, and Feminism in the Works of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673)” Dissertation, U. of Calif. San Diego, 1990, chp 4]


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…the human forges a world of ideas, and attempts an ideal world…

Cf. Ernst Cassirer The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms Vol 1: Language Yale UP 1955/1980, p81: “Thus, with all their inner diversity, the various products of culture—language, scientific knowledge, myth, art, religion—become parts of a single great problem-complex: they become multiple efforts, all directed toward the one goal of transforming the passive world of mere impressions, in which the spirit seems at first imprisoned, into a world that is pure expression of the human spirit.” Cf. also Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Translated by Rodney Livingstone MIT Press 1971, pg. 83: “[M]en are constantly smashing, replacing, and leaving behind the ‘natural’, irrational, and actually existing bonds, while, on the other hand, they erect around themselves in the reality that they have created and ‘made’, a kind of second nature which evolves with exactly the same inexorable necessity as was the case earlier with irrational forces of nature…”