One thing modern feminism has sensitized us to is the anomaly of male generation. The twin roots of our culture, the Hebrew and the Greek, both imperialistically attribute generation to the male, where their ancestral cultures had more plausibly left it to the female or to some combination of the two.
We are all familiar with the creation scene in Genesis 1; yet in the original version of this scene the world is generated not by the word of the one God but by the sexual union of Earth and Sky. In the Oresteia, which could be called with some justification an Athenian creation-myth, the Areopagus declares Orestes free of the Erinnyes‘ curse on mother-killing, not because Clytemnestra had killed Agamemnon and therefore deserved to die, but because only the father is really the child’s parent, the mother being only a vessel for his seed.
But to reveal the anomaly of these scenes is not to denounce them. Denying history may be fun for a while, but it isn’t conducive to anthropological understanding. These developments, which lie at the foundation of Western civilization, that most successful of human enterprises, lend support to the originary hypothesis of generative anthropology, which alone can offer a useful explanation of them.
The originary hypothesis explains language and culture in general as primarily motivated by the need to defer the violent consequences of mimetic desire, and therefore as an essentially masculine creation. We should appreciate the historical irony of this discovery. A mere generation ago, when humanity was generally called “man,” there was little question that culture was an essentially male domain that women contributed to only marginally. But the originary hypothesis could not have been formulated so long as (male) violence remained sacralized. It is only in the context of postwar feminism, when women for the first time in history are considered to merit equal opportunities with men in all cultural domains, that this hypothesis of the “masculine” origin of culture can be formulated.
Men have always been stronger than women, so their usurpation of women’s generative capacity need not have awaited the beginnings of Western civilization. The idea that we all lived harmoniously under the civilization of the Goddess until the male Gods took over is an extension of the Eden myth as renewed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The latter’s utopia is a reference to primitive equalitarian society before the invention of sedentary agriculture, where there was no property to accumulate and therefore no powerful social hierarchy. The Goddess-world was presumably more advanced, but still peaceful and happy.
These utopian theories make light of the sacrificial nature of earlier societies, as though it were not the anti-sacrificial nature of the Judeo-Christian tradition that inspired their utopian ideals in the first place. As Girard has long pointed out, the idyllic descriptions of the ritual order of these societies are not written by their sacrificial victims.
The myth of paternal generation, however false to human biology, is a great conceptual advance. Monotheism and metaphysics, the Hebrew and Greek components of Western thought, are so central to our way of thinking that no anthropology can ignore their importance. The Bible and the Oresteia present the concept of male generation differently, but for the purposes of this discussion we may consider them in agreement.
To begin with the more profound of the two documents: God is presented as a unique figure referred to in the masculine who creates the world through words. This point has never been given the explanation it deserves. God creates the world, and man, through language because in the originary scene, man and (the idea of) God created themselves through language. It is through pronouncing the first linguistic sign, the name-of-God, that the protohuman becomes human. Naming God gives meaning to God, but only if they who name God conceive of him as existing prior to their naming. Believers and nonbelievers still live within this paradoxical structure, the first group being defined not by its different vision of the present so much as by its hope for a future when we will see God face to face.
No doubt to understand the origin of the world linguistically commits what I would call the cosmological fallacy: that the natural world can be understood through the categories of anthropology. The suppression of biological generation, and of woman’s role in it, is indeed bad biology, but it is excellent anthropology, and it is the latter, not the former, that is conducive to ethical progress, including the eventual recognition of the essential equality of men and women.
Thus although God is traditionally presented as masculine, gender is not really essential to “his” constitution, as has been demonstrated by various de-gendering operations on the Bible and related texts. Language may have been originated by men, but women are equally able to accede to it. The biblical creation scene offers a theory of the human qualitatively more rigorous than naturalistic myths, whatever gender-relationship they may involve. Once I understand that “man” creates “himself” through language, this understanding can be applied to women as well, and to the humanity they jointly create–just as the Biblical text applies it, by affirming the priority of Adam over Eve in one version of the creation story but not in the other.
Aeschylus‘ doctrine of male generation is more specifically “sexist.” It affirms an unscientific doctrine of male dominance in the act of procreation of which feminist biologists have found traces well into our own (soon to be ended) century. But rather than basking in our moral superiority to the benighted Athenians who built the Parthenon and invented philosophy, we should give some thought to the anthropological value of this sexist biology.
Aeschylus was a contemporary of the pre-Socratic philosophers in whom Karl Popper sees the origin of scientific hypothesis. This has led some to remind us that, as opposed to maternity, paternity is itself a hypothesis, for reasons it is wise not to specify over the Internet. But this emphasis perversely privileges the biological domain that the whole point of the new doctrine is to subordinate to the anthropological. Certainly the reign of the paternal hypothesis is associated with patriarchal order and restrictions on women’s sexuality, but that is not the fundamental point of the Oresteia. No one questions who Orestes’ father was. It is rather that the Athenian system of justice, by annulling the Mutterrecht represented by the Erinnyes, declares itself heir to the originary scene of language. The Greek courts were, as far as we know, the first place where logical reasoning was cultivated. Philosophy originates as a dialectical antithesis of these courts, with the Socratic elenchos that opposes and denounces the Sophists‘ unprincipled use of language “to make the worse cause appear the better.”
Why is this adjustment necessary? What does it tell us about the paternalist doctrine of the Oresteia? The Athenian court made its decisions through voting; it was an intellectual marketplace. But in Aeschylus‘ world, the court is presided over by the Gods; its decisions are considered divinely inspired. The speaker before the tribunal is free to reason on behalf of his cause, yet constrained by the sacred aura that surrounds the court from uttering “sophisms,” or expecting to win his case if he does. This double aspect of language, free and sacred, is preserved in the style and content of the fragments of pre-Socratic philosophizing that remain to us: they express hypotheses about the world, but in gnomic and mystical form, as if inspired by the Gods; Parmenides‘ hexameters make this explicit.
With the secularization of Athenian society, this contradiction became overt. Language and its sacred origin were split apart. It was then that Socrates and his pupil Plato created a doctrine in which the words themselves, in the form of the Ideas, incarnate the originary power to prevent conflict. “The good,” Plato tells us to seek is not merely an empirically optimal social arrangement, it is an ideal whose “reality,” if not its actualizability, is guaranteed by the fact that we have a word for it. And as in the Genesis story, Plato’s Republic gives women a surprisingly equal role; once the “masculine” anthropology of the word is made explicit, there is no reason to exclude women from its province.
The unequaled power of these explanations inspires my certitude that some day the originary hypothesis will be generally accepted by both sexes–and all the genders.