Thursday, 13 October 2011

Power and Illusion

There is a school of thought rampant in theology schools called "the hermeneutic of suspicion." The hermeneutic of suspicion is obsessed with power, although usually just who has it. It helps you to lose your love for and trust in Holy Scriptures and tradition because it demands that you read them thinking "And if this is so, who has the power?"

In my experience, theologians who worry so much about power and who has it are quite powerful themselves. Academia is about political alliances as much as it is about grades. The successful theology student is the theology student who is lucky enough to find professors he or she agrees with (and therefore doesn't threaten) and a thesis adviser who cares enough to get him or her through the whole awful process of getting a PhD and--if he or she is lucky and their professor-patrons have enough clout--a good teaching job. The power professors have over their job-hungry students is quite scary, and even scarier is that they do not notice it as they fulminate about "who has the power."

Catholic North America is full of intensely powerful academics who are afraid that the CDF is going to swoop down on them and take their power away. Thus, they think they are the powerless ones, even as they hold the careers of the next generation of Catholic theologians in their hands.*

Even without a professorship, priests have a lot of power. A lot. Possibly the best cinematic example of this I have seen recently is the scene in "Doubt" where the priest--who may or not be a child-abuser--demands of the hard-as-nails nun who believes he is if she has ever committed a mortal sin. She bursts into tears. "Yes, Father," she quavers. And that's not just a 1950s thing.

We are talked to about self-empowerment, and we hear the expression "power to the people", and we hear "fight the power", and we are told to discover our own power. Feminists, in recent decades, have talked about sexual power. In the 1970s, feminists were all about modest clothing that was comfortable and did not highlight secondary sexual characteristics. By the 1990s, however, feminists supported power-dressing and women using their sexuality to get what they want "in the boardroom AND in the bedroom."

The problem with sexual power, however, is that it is largely illusory.

I'm hammering out a philosophy about sexual power, and I think ultimately the winner in the whole power game is power itself.

Take, for example, two characters in my favourite novel, Turnip-Tops by Ethel Boileau (1926). (It is an odd favourite novel to have, but we do not choose our favourite novels: they choose us.) One character is an intensely intelligent, art-loving and fastidious Oxford student named Colin. The other is a middle-aged, married socialite named Arlene. She is beautiful and married and takes rather a shine to Colin, the son of her friend Alison, the narrator.

Now, who do you think has the power in their relationship? Is it the single young man, or is it the aging if beautiful married woman? We all know of course that the young have oodles of sexual power because they are so young and so attractive and so... and so... and... Um...

Actually, Arlene has a history, it turns out, of attracting earnest young men and then breaking their hearts for fun. Her husband is disgusted by her behaviour, but won't divorce her because "she has all the money" and the scandal would be enormous. So when the narrator discovers what is going on, she desperately figures out how to put a stop to the affair before Colin fails all his exams.

So it would seem that Arlene has the power, and why not? She has a husband at home, money and everything she could possibly want. Colin, on the other hand, is an intensely idealistic, unmarried man of 20 or so, and therefore a seething mass of hormones and unrequited desire. (And by the way, the love of an honest younger woman could mean squat to Colin. Yours truly has been dumped for ten-years-older women twice.) Colin is very flattered by Arlene's interest in him and his ideas, and I can just imagine him explaining his philosophy of life, as brainy young men like to do, as she nods, pretends to listen and brushes the hair out of her face with a perfectly painted fingernail.

And indeed poor old Colin suffers intensely indeed. His ideals are besmirched and he cannot believe the cruelty of women, etc. But--now that I am 40--I am left feeling even sorrier for Arlene, because it is now obvious to me that Arlene is bored of her life, which is why she is addicted to the kick of attracting young men and making them smile and then eventually cry. Arlene is a slave to her own sense of sexual power.

Now that I am even older than this fictional Arlene person, I feel very protective of the young and their illusions about their own sexual power. It blows my mind that there are undergrad girls who intentionally dress like tramps because they think they will get better grades if their lecturers are sexually attracted to them. How crestfallen would they be if they ever heard what professors and T.A.'s think about THAT.

The young are very beautiful, but they are not often very smart about sexual politics, which we tend to learn not from real life but from Hollywood. Pretty Woman, I regret to say because I enjoyed it, is a movie that did great evil, a complete and utter fairy tale which too many girls around the world took as a documentary, just as now others take Sex & the City as Gospel.

(This reminds me of a photo of myself at 20. I have beautiful, beautiful skin and big blue eyes and look as worldly-wise as your average bunny rabbit. All that kept me out of serious trouble for so long was Catholicism and the kindness of older people.)

I was thinking about all this yesterday because, in contrast to who I was at 20, I am now a middle-aged married lady with insane levels of confidence. (Unlike many women, when I look in the mirror I think I look thinner than I am.) Yesterday--I say this not to brag but to illustrate--I was out with girlfriends and as I walked through a snazzy bar in my quest for the loo--various faces turned to watch me. (When I was 20, I would not have noticed.)

The faces probably turned because, even when ironed flat as it currently is, I weirdly have more hair on my head than anyone else, but I felt very attractive and powerful all the same. People are, after all, very attracted to happy, confident people, no matter how far from the model-perfect beauty standard they are.

And then I was brought up short because I realized that I could become very quickly addicted to this feeling of power. And that would not make me very powerful at all, but merely a slave to power. And, then, bottom line, I would be in danger of hell.

This is not really an issue for you, my little Singles, since you are much more likely to be the exploited than the exploiters. (Honestly, and by the way deciding to remain chaste is in no way exploitation, whatever manipulative men may tell you.)File this away for later.

Mostly I suggest that right now you not put too much trust in your "sexual power." As the narrator of Turnip Tops concluded, that kind of power is a weapon that can break in your hand. Really, you should think about the good influence you might be having on the people around you in your determination to follow Christ and the bad influence you might be having when you fail.

*The Holy Spirit might have something to say about that, however, as I silently pondered in the studio of Radio Warszawa last week.


theobromophile said...

In my younger years, I instinctively rebelled against the idea of sexual power, or sexuality as power, but could not begin to articulate why I thought that it wasn't really power (or the type of power that I want), or why the idea seemed to repulsive.

Then again, I also really hated when people said that women had "all the power" in relationships, because it was pretty clear that I didn't have much, or any at all, power, especially where hormonal and morally adrift young men were concerned. (I refer to "morally adrift" not as inherently bad, but as those who have absorbed the "morality" of our culture, which says that chastity is actually a patriarchal construct, etc., and other things not appropriate for your nice Catholic blog.) The power to say "no" is a negative power: the power to not let someone hurt you too badly. It's not the power to make people act well, treat you nicely, or grow in understanding of our psyches and souls.

Which is to say, if you want to see me do full-head revolutions, suggest that young women have all the power. GRRRRRRR.

Eva said...

I totally agree with your assessment of the actually quite powerful location of academics who advance the "hermeneutic of suspicion." For example, once when my husband (we are both theology students) was wheeling our infant daughter down the halls of our institution of learning, he ran into a certain professor/important administrator in our department. Apparently our girl didn't like the look of this woman, or just didn't want to stop moving, because she immediately became fussy. The professor apologized, saying, "I know--I can be intimidating." Finding that her bizarre comment didn't make the situation less tense, the professor then quipped, "Can she [the baby] say, 'hermeneutic of suspicion'?" My husband told me he had to bite his tongue, and laugh awkwardly, instead of saying, 'Why yes, she is familiar with that hermeneutic, in fact, she is suspicious of it!" Because, after all, the professor/administrator has, you know, all the power--over our stipend levels.

We both laughed about the incident, but, actually, it strikes me as incredibly perverse to propose that a helpless baby, who is busy with the profound developmental task of learning to trust/bask in unconditional love shown by her parents, would benefit from the hermeneutic of suspicion. It's like the theological equivalent of sexy clothes for little girls.

Seraphic said...

Oh dear. I'm trying to get into the head of a powerful woman who takes it personally when a baby bursts into tears. All I can say is that some academic environments are very neurotic, and you're left with the impression that whatever got the profs where they are inflicted severe psychic damage on the way. Very powerful people who never consider how much power they wield = scary.

Even very nice profs are like this. They ramble on and on, digressing and digressing and digressing, for two hours or even three hours at a stretch, and all the young grad students before them are riveted to their seats because the Great Man is so important and nice and has published so much (rather more focussed) material. The minutes tick on and on, and the personal anecdotes about and quotes from dimly remembered important 20th century philosophers mount up and up, and then this reminds him of the junior senator from Illinois who is our hope and promise of salvation.

No-one allows themselves to think, unless me years later, that this kind of thing is so unbearably rude, that we have spent hours reading intensely difficult material that is not being addressed with any clarity but is merely a jumping-off point for his wool-gathering.