...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Transcendence, immanence, Ulysses, Mircea Eliade, and my period

I consider everything I talk about here to be within the realm of polite discourse. However, I acknowledge that for some, it might be considered Too Much Information. Consider yourself warned.

I feel that, in a lot of ways, "transcendence" and "immanence" have been the watchwords of the semester. Traditional structuralist gender philosophy has held that men occupy a transcendent, objective, active space, while women are left the immanent, subjective, passive space: women are the subjects upon which men act. This framework quickly leads to the analogy/aphorism that women are to nature as men are to culture. I struggle against gender essentialism every day and I wouldn't describe myself as a structuralist. However, I do think that structures such as "transcendence," "immanence," "nature," and "culture" are useful and necessary as heuristic devises: you have to set up the structures before you can knock them down. I don't think you can be a poststructuralist without passing, however briefly, through structuralism.

One way that the nature/culture, immanent/transcendent dichotomy manifests itself is in the discourse surrounding menstruation. The other day in Joyce/Woolf we were talking about the Gerty McDowell episode in chapter 13 (recap: in a chapter designed to evoke the "Nausicaa" episode of The Odyssey, Leopold Bloom masturbates to the sight of young Gerty McDowell on the beach. See me if you want to read--and I can't believe I'm writing this on my blog--Bloom's ejaculation scene, because it's totally great); after Bloom's orgasm, his mind sort of drifts into this free-flowing, free-association string of thoughts and musings. In particular, he wonders why all women don't menstruate at the same time, since their cycles are controlled by the moon (there's a great passage later about the similarities between women and the moon; ask me if you're interested). We were discussing this in small groups, and one of the girls in my group was like, "Oh, if you live outside and subsist only on natural products then your cycle aligns to follow the moon." And in the group, I was like, "Oh, interesting. I didn't know that." But in my head I was like, "BULLSHIT!" I simply do not believe that women have an innate connection with the moon or with the earth on the basis of having ovaries and a uterus that bleeds once a month. I just don't believe it. Even Mircea Eliade, in The Sacred and the Profane, a classic tome of Religious Studies, propagates the notion that women have sacred knowledge, a kind of one-ness with the earth, based on their womanly essence, that men are not privy to.

Note my underlining of the words "innate" and "essence," though. Like I said, I'm not a complete gender essentialist, but I do think that women and girls are socialized to be hyper-aware of their connections with the earth and with the process of regeneration, more so than boys and men are socialized to be aware of their role in the life-giving process. As a result of the process of socialization, I think women are much more attuned to the processes of their own bodies, and the ways in which those reflect the processes of the earth. The fact is that women can grow babies in their bodies and men can't; the fact is that women have a menstrual cycle and men don't. I just object when the conclusions drawn from those facts are "...and therefore women have a sacred mystical unity with the earth and the moon."

I completely understand the emotional pull of those fictional immanent, essentialist characteristics, though. This month marks the tenth anniversary of my first period and I would be lying if I said that in the past ten years I haven't felt some sort of "mystical pull" or "earth-mothery" kind of feeling around the third or fourth day of my period. There is something incredible about the menstrual cycle in that way, that it's a ritualized process nearly all women participate in; it's something that, strange as it sounds, draws women together in both superficial and deep ways. Any woman who's ever been stuck in a public restroom without a tampon and has had to beg one from her stall neighbor knows the sense of cameraderie felt by menstruating women, for instance. Until I was seventeen, I could pinpoint the exact moment when the egg was released from my ovary every month (a sensation called Mittelschmerz, and I liked knowing my own body so well; I felt some sort of cosmic connection, each month, with women going through the same thing. It's hard to have those experiences and not come to gender essentialist conclusions.

Hard, but in my opinion, necessary.