If there is a bigger turnoff than the persistent misogyny of the Abrahamic religions I haven’t stumbled on it. Without the slightest evidence, the testament of my intuition is that it’s at the heart of the American obsession with being right.
Being right is to me the second biggest turnoff. It won’t even get you a seat at Starbucks. What’s it to you, or to me? And yet if I myself were not infected by this typhus I wouldn’t sitting at my laptop pontificating, would I?
Photo Credit: WikiMedia Commons
And while being right wouldn’t do much for you in the retail world, it’s a pass that will get you into all sorts of clubs. By being right you get to give yourself all sorts of self-righteous titles and airs and the right to get high and stay high on perhaps the worst drug of them all, self-righteousness. But nobody is spending trillions of dollars fighting a war on self-righteousness.
I got to thinking about all this because between the holidays I escaped the Manhattan mobs-some 800,000 visitors, according to one estimate- by ducking into the Onassis Cultural Center at 645 Fifth Avenue. An exhibition, largely of small sculptures, described the transition of the classical world to Christendom.
My mind was spinning and I only half took in the exhibition until I found myself staring at a bust of Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt and the moon. Some Christian fanatic had destroyed her lovely, mysterious face and crudely gouged a crucifix into it. In horror I remarked to my daughter, Darya, “I’d rather be a pagan.”
The Christians were convinced demons inhabited these works of art. I believe the demon of being right, brain-dead right, wearing Savonarola’s face, inhabited the Christians. But it seemed inescapable to me that misogyny was also at work. Why else would the goddesses have been targeted?
Artemis is perhaps the most enigmatic inhabitant of the Greek pantheon. She probably preceded the Greeks. She is definitely not to be messed with, so of course the Christians, like all fundamentalists and all misogynists, had to defile her, just as they murdered the mathematician-priestess Hypatia, the pagan Alexandrian scholar, murdered her for being Hypatia, murdered her and tore her to pieces with abalone shells.
This is the point at which I should say I’m a Christian, but I no longer subscribe to the brick-and-mortar church, because I believe that it, like all institutions and ideologies, exists to distinguish itself from everybody and everything else and therefore creates outsiders. I regard clubs as instruments with which to beat up others for not belonging, for not being allowed to come to the party, if only because you look as if you might think or say something subversive.
My particular church, the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States, has been eating itself alive for many years over what I consider a palpably idiotic dispute about the ordination of women. I once asked the African-American rector of my parish in Washington, DC, why he opposed women serving as priests and he evaded my question for a year or so, pleading the theological complexity of the issue. But I persisted and he relented. “Djelloul,” he said portentously, drawing a deep breath, “the best way to describe it is that our lord called no women as his disciples.” Incredulous, I indulged one my worst vices, the snotty comeback. “Well, Father,” I said, “He didn’t call any Africans either, or any Slavs or any Asians, did he?”
The simplemindedness of his long-awaited exegesis convinced me that I was in the presence of a highfalutin con, a scam. This is the reason my church is eating itself alive? I mused. Are you kidding me? Was I born yesterday that I should be expected to swallow such a lunacy? But Bob’s your uncle, as the British say. There it was, spectacular in its vapidity-but in a direct historical line from that Christian oaf who defaced Artemis. Over time the creepiness of this conflict assumed for me more significance than its politics or theology. I simply began to feel that people who eschew women as priests are creeps. Alexander the Great revered the priestesses he consulted. The Greeks, progenitors of our Western civilization, revered women in their households. The pagan Arabs believed feminine deities held the stars in their traces. And here we are running backwards as fast as we can from the very idea of a woman offering Christ’s blood in a chalice.
To defend such an idea, it occurred to me, you would need a powerful if not psychotic compulsion to be right, a compulsion that would easily overwhelm any body of evidence, any argument. It would have to be so important to you to be right that it justifies turning on fellow believers, disrupting communities, and making enemies of fellow humans of good will. And this, I saw, is a picture of our society, driven as it is by our grand compulsion to be at all costs right.
In the last few days the Roman Catholic Church has once more reached out to disaffected Episcopalians, knowing full well the root cause of their disaffection is largely contempt for women and gays. You’re club is corrupt, the Vatican is saying, so join our club where the contempt is pure and unadulterated.
The upside of this meditation, for me, is that I began to reconsider my own life, its values, its failings and its virtues. I saw that the most enduring impulse in my life is to comprehend. I saw that I love my ignorance because it sets the stage every day to inquire into the cloud of unknowing, the vast unknown. I saw that I’ve never minded being wrong as long as I could find some light to stand in. I saw that what I don’t know and perhaps might yet know keeps me alive day to day with its magnificent promise. I saw that each poem I write is an attempt to understand something, an attempt to see something in a new and greater light. I saw, like Albert Camus, that ideologies are prisons and that by guarding them we diminish ourselves and society. I saw that what I had taken for an eleventh hour penchant for shooting myself in the foot was in fact a lust to see something another way, for turning a belief upside down and on its side. I saw that I was not so much self-defeating as mad for comprehension and distrustful, deeply distrustful, of institutions. And why wouldn’t I be, having been so betrayed by them in childhood? As I stared misogyny in the face, as I stared with increasing anger at the defilement of the endlessly intriguing Artemis, I realized that by hook or crook, by trial and error, mistake after mistake, I had finally at age seventy-seven made a giant stride towards growing up. And I saw that if I should ever think I had grown up, that would be the day I stopped thinking.
Del’s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother’s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt’s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com