Over at Richardus’. Are Men and Women Born Different or Do They Become Such?

Who are we, how do we get our gender identity? Click for credits

We were having a conversation over at Richardus’ coffee shop together with Dafna, Geraldine, Sledpress, Cheri, Cyberquill and Paul Costopoulos on several topics, from Alan Turing (his mathematical genius and homosexuality) to ethology – founded by the Austrian Nobel prizes Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch and by the Dutch-born British Nobel prize Nikolaas Tinbergen – and up to studies comparing animal and human behaviour (human ethology).

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At one point, referring to the sad case of Turing, Richardus observed:

“The story certainly taught me to accept wholly those who are harmless but different. This quiet, troubled, self-effacing, honourable genius leaves a great legacy.”

[For the sake of discussion] I replied:

“Most of those who are different are harmless. We often assume a priori that what is different is harmful. An evolutionary defence mechanism I guess. In stone age we lived in small tribes and whenever we stumbled upon someone very different 90% he / she was dangerous. Such behaviours are not easily erased but they can be overcome in some way and they should. … blah blah”.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing. Image via Wikipedia

And I mentioned ethology (a kind of evolutionary psychology.)

Sledpress: “Oh I want to know more. Some of the most enlightening things I have ever read have involved the concept of hard wired brain responses to the environment.”

Dafna: “dear MoR, thank you for the term human ethology. i will research the topic. it may shed some light on my own condition. is it a respected field?”

MoR: “Dafna,‘respected’ is a relative concept. Who is respecting? K. Lorenz and the rest are more studied in Europe than in the US for example.”

I am convinced many clashes between men and women would be avoided (or sort of) if we understood that the two genders are hard-wired differently and if each gender studied the ‘other wiring’ since school.”

K. Lorenz shared the 1973 Nobel Prize with N. Tinbergen and K. von Frisch for their studies on social behaviour patterns in animals

Paul Costopoulos: “You mean men and women are different? Hide MoR, you are in danger.”

Sledpress: “Good Lord we all know men and women are different. Women don’t kick their used underwear under the bed.”

Richardus:

Love, love, love
Is just like a Settlers Powder
Two little packets of different hue
Men in the white
Women in blue
It’s all right if you keep them apart
The only danger is
As soon as you put them together
FZZZZ – they start to fizz.”

Sledpress: “Actually, to be perfectly serious, I think it’s important to remember that we are more alike than we are different. If you want me to throw something, just mention the name of John Gray, that ‘Men Are From Mars Women Are From Venus’ guy. He even seems to know how I like to have sex. He thinks.”

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir. Via Wikipedia. Click for image source and credits

MoR: “I agree with you Sled. ‘We are more alike than we are different’ as you say. Don’t we belong to the same species??

Let us leave alone those male imbeciles who think they know women better than women themselves: they don’t.

When for ex. Simone de Beauvoir affirms that “one is not born a woman but one becomes one” … as if being feminine (or masculine) were a sheer cultural construct, well, well, well …

[I wanted to add (but didn’t): as if, had I been forced to play with dolls, now I’d chase boys … actually it’s like I were (kinda) forced into dolls, with two sisters and 8 female cousins ALL of us often living together. That is why my next writing will consist of a poem I wrote some time ago in honour of my ‘eldest brother’, ie my best male friend from the age of 4 till 18]

Man and Woman, less different than we think, but different nonetheless. Click for image attribution

I mean, we men have penises, beards, different silhouettes etc… Women have vaginas, swollen breasts, less body hair as a tendency, different silhouettes (God be blessed). Last but not least different DNA chromosome structures (XX-XY).

How can we assume behaviour is unrelated to such physical differences and only culturally determined. We need evidence etc. etc.

Which brings us again to ethology among the rest which by comparing dozens of different species (there including humans) – as Darwin suggested – also as for their sexual behaviours etc. etc. …”

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Ora nel prossimo post la poesia al mio fratello maggiore.

Roba da anni 50s-60s? Certo, ricorda quel periodo. Vedrete però voi.

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1

Sicilian old men. 2008

Secrecy & Omertà

At the end of an earlier post we had invited Naguib Mahfouz (see picture below), the Nobel-prize Egyptian writer, to help us to understand the ancient world of the Mediterranean. Let’s consider today how the charming characters in his Cairo trilogy do tons of forbidden things: they drink alcohol, they cheat and eat pork, but all is done in secret and keeping up the appearances.

Two daughters of Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad – this Egyptian patriarch par excellence and main character of the trilogy – quarrel and one of them angrily denounces her sister’s husband to her mother: “He drinks wine at home without hiding!”

Which reminds us of some Tunisian people who were drinking beer in a coffee house in Tunis and who confessed: “Nous on fait tout, mais en cachette” (we do everything, though in secret).

It is irresistible not to think about Sicily, where doing things in secret is well ingrained (Sicily was under Tunisian rule for 400 years). And what about omertà, which makes defeating Mafia so difficult?

Omertà is a code of silence that seals the lips of men even when innocent and protects mafiosi in Italian southern regions like Sicily, Calabria and Campania. We’re sure there is some connection between the said secrecy behaviour and Mafia’s omertà.

[By the way, is all this so remote from that omertà that protects Osama bin Laden in territories where everybody is so capable of keeping secrets? A weird association? Hard to say. Back to Mahfouz and to the Mediterranean]

The Power of Man on Woman

Naguib MahfouzAnother element is the power a husband exerts on his wife. That same angry sister tells her mother about the other sister’s misdemeanours: “She drinks and smokes, acting against God and with Satan.”
Her disconsolate mother replies: “What can we do? She is a married woman, and the judgement of her conduct is now in the hands of her husband…” (I am freely summing up the text).

This is Islamic society, one could say. Ok, but this patriarchal power is much older than Islam and was present both in ancient Greece and Rome (although from the late Republic onwards Roman women – especially within the upper classes – gained a wider freedom). So it is a misconception to think of all this as Islamic. Many Muslim societies (not all of them) simply stick to ancient traditions widespread in the Mediterranean and elsewhere much before Islam arrived, which doesn’t mean we like women to be submitted to man’s power, no, no. And this is certainly not Italy’s contemporary life, even though in the South something of a more ancient patriarchy still seems to survive.

The honour of the family

Speaking of patriarchy, the honour and dishonour of the family falls upon the father or husband. Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad, called by his daughter’s mother-in-law because of his daughter’s misconduct, thus reproaches her: “Nothing that was raised in my house should be stained by such behaviours! Don’t you realise that the whole evil you are doing brings dishonour to me?”.

Again it is tempting to think about Neapolitan Eduardo De Filippo‘s Natale in casa Cupiello, a delightful comedy in which Luca Cupiello (Eduardo), exasperated with is wife Concetta, cries aloud: “La nemica mia! La nemica della casa!” (This enemy of mine! This enemy of the house!), where he clearly considers himself to be THE house, in such a funny and masterly way, because Eduardo and the Neapolitans are so refined and adorable (the Greek cousins of Rome) despite all the problems now Naples is facing.

Naples. The castle and the Volcano

And again it is clear that patriarchy is prior to Islam, Naples, Sicily etc. It was previously present in Rome, Greece, Carthage etc. And it existed in Mare Nostrum and elsewhere long before these civilisations arrived. Records of it seem to be as far back as the 4th millennium BC.

We have tried to explore some Mediterranean traditions with the help of Naguib Mahfouz, and we have mused about some possible influences between the North and South shores of this sea. It seems clear to us that every study of present ways of thinking (European, Islamic, Sicilian, Neapolitan etc.) is not wholly understandable without looking at the endless past of the civilizations (see also the concept of the mind like a museum in the last section of our post Knowing Thyself).

(to be continued)

Ψ

Other related posts:

Permanences I
The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean
Love Words from Egypt
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 2

Fragments of Greek Beauty

The Greek island of Santorini, the ancient Thera. Click for source

The Greek island of Santorini, the ancient Thera. Click for source

The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace …

Thus Byron chanted, and such landscapes, the Mediterranean Greek islands (and mainland Greece as well), explain a bit how Hellenic beauty in arts developed and flourished: the extreme limpidity of the air, the richness of colours and smells, skies and sea of a magnificent intense blue, and a vehement sun, burning and pervasive. What perfection, what simplicity and yet profundity!

Well, one might say, where has all this Beauty gone? The landscape is still there but is it true that all that was splendid and Greek has disappeared …

as the flowers of the orange tree
swept away by the cold north wind …?”

(quote from here).

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Greece didn’t continue its beauty and civilization like Italy did in the centuries (see the comments section for a discussion on this point.) Some fragments though have survived.

Narrowing the focus on literature, we personally are fascinated by the works of the neo-pagan sublime poet Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933) from Alexandria, or by those of the writer, poet and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 – 1957) from Crete, who lost the Nobel Prize to Albert Camus in 1957 by just one vote and who was spiritually restless, seeking “relief in knowledge, in travelling, in contact with a diverse set of people, in every kind of experience”(Wikipedia). And we are mentioning only those we have some knowledge of.

Crete is the largest Greek island which completes from the south the Greek archipelago (1400 islands!) and which, sung by Homer, conjures up ancient legends like Minos, the Minotaur, Theseus and Ariadne, the labyrinth created by Daedalus etc. (were they mere legends?). It is an island that hosted the Minoan civilization, namely the most ancient Greek (hence European) civilization (ca. 2600–1400 BC.)

Admire the perfection of this Minoan Bull Head from the Heraklion Museum, Crete (click on this and all other pictures for source files and credits.)

Minoan Bull Head. CCommons, psmithson, Flickr.

Let us now listen to the words of Nikos Kazantzakis recalling some decisive moments from his childhood in Crete: his first contacts with earth, sea, woman and fire (from the starry sky.)

Earth, Sea, Woman and Fire

Kazantzakis remembers how advancing on all fours, still not able to walk, he once extended his tender head full of longing and fear in the courtyard for the very first time. Until that moment he had looked out his house windows but had seen nothing. That time though he didn’t just extend his sight, he actually saw the world for the very first time. Extraordinary revelation!

“Our little courtyard-garden seemed without limits. There was buzzing from thousands of invisible bees, an intoxicating aroma, a warm sun as thick as honey. The air flashed as though armed with swords, and, between the swords, erect, angel-like insects with colourful, motionless wings advanced straight for me. I screamed from fright, my eyes filled with tears, and the world vanished.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Earth.

(A landscape from Crete)

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He also remembers how a man with a thorny beard took him in his arms and brought him down to the port. While approaching their destination the little child started to hear like the terrible sighing and roaring of a wounded beast. He got so frightened that he tried to escape from the man’s arms, like a little trapped bird.

“Suddenly – the bitter odour of carob beans, tar, and rotten citrons. My creaking vitals opened to receive it …at a turn in the street – dark indigo, seething, all cries and smells (what a beast that was! what freshness! what boundless sigh) – the entire sea poured into me frothingly. My tender temples collapsed, and my head filled with laughter, salt, and fear.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Sea.

Ψ

He then remembers, when he was three, that a plump and pretty young woman, Anika, a neighbour with nice blond hair and large eyes, came to their little garden while he was playing around. The place smelled of summer and she, newly married and recent mother, leaning over, took him on her lap and hugged him.

“I, closing my eyes, fell against her exposed bosom and smelled her body: the warm, dense perfume, the acid scent of milk and sweat. The newly married body was steaming. I inhaled the vapour in an erotic torpor, hanging from her high bosom. Suddenly I felt overcome by dizziness and fainted. Blushing terribly, the frightened neighbour put me down, depositing me between two pots of basil.”

After that day the woman never took him on her lap again. “She just looked at me very tenderly with her large eyes and smiled.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Woman.

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One night in summer he was in his yard again.

“I remember lifting my eyes and seeing the stars for the first time. Jumping to my feet, I cried out in fear, ‘Sparks! Sparks!’ The sky seemed a vast conflagration to me; my little body was on fire.”

This was how he experienced fire (and the starry sky) for the first time in his life.

Ψ

These four terrible elements – he recognizes – imprinted on his mind to the extent that even the most abstract ideas or the most metaphysical problems, in order to be significant to him, must take on a physical form “which smells of sea, soil and human sweat. The Word, in order to touch me, must become warm flesh.”

It is this special trait, this synaesthetic aptitude, among others, that makes many of Kazantzakis’s pages so vibrant and unforgettable.

References. Quotes from Nikos Kazantzakis’s autobiographical and last novel, Report to Greco, Faber and Faber 1965, translation from modern Greek by Bruno Cassirer, Oxford, 1965.

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