Leda And The Swan

>> Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.

Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

-William Butler Yeats, "Leda And The Swan" (1924)

Yet another Republican candidate for national office talks about rape and abortion.  This time, a United States Senate candidate in Indiana, Richard Mourdock, saying "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."  And lots of folks are getting upset because here's yet another anti-abortion Republican saying something misogynistic.

Except he isn't.  That isn't the problem with Richard Mourdock at all.

People are comparing what Mourdock said with what U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin said over in Missouri.  Which is, let's say, a misplaced comparison.  I mean, if we want to be honest, it's actually a dumb comparison, even if some of the people drawing it are smart ones.  Mourdock didn't imply some kind of bizarre distinction between "legitimate" (i.e. "real") rape and fake or fraudulent rape, nor did Mourdock bizarrely recycle a 13th Century medico-legal concept  propped up with contemporary junk science.  Mourdock said rape was horrible, and at least from what I've seen so far, he didn't proffer a dubious taxonomy of violence or engage in troubling semantics; Mourdock merely said that horrible rapes can produce a living creature and that's just God's will.

What Mourdock said isn't exactly a women's rights issue.  Not entirely, though I guess we'll be coming back to that in a moment.  But, no: mostly it's a religious issue.

Because, really, if you believe in a personal, interventionist God who is omniscient and omnipotent and perhaps even preordaining of the future, I don't see how you avoid the conclusion that an act of rape is something God wanted--maybe not something He liked, mind you, but He knew about it (presumably in advance) and He had the cosmic ability to stop it somehow if He wanted.  Keep in mind all those qualifiers: this observation isn't a particularly atheistic observation, the idea that there's a God doesn't necessarily imply any of the rest of it; a creator God who made the universe and walked away, or an omniscient but powerless God, or a God who is all-powerful but doesn't get His hands dirty for whatever unknowable Mysterious Reason--these are all possibilities, and not even an exclusive list of them.

(My own atheism stems not from the absurd pseudo-atheistic argument that God must be evil and therefore doesn't exist(!!), or that the concept of a deity who is omniscient, omnipotent and benign contradicts what is actually seen in the world (so maybe God is real and He's a rat bastard--that's not atheism), but from a lack of satisfactory positive evidence of any kind of deity in the universe at all, combined with ruminations about history, myth and human behavior.)

I don't know Mourdock's religious beliefs.  He got his undergraduate degree from a university affiliated with a Protestant denomination, which means nothing, engaged in missionary activities in Bolivia which is suggestive, his demographics (conservative, American, Midwestern, teabagger affiliations) are certainly also suggestive; and then there are his more-than-suggestive comments that have gotten him this national attention.  I would guess he's an Evangelical Protestant, but I could be dead wrong on that.  It seems, at any rate, he believes in that personal, interventionist, all-knowing, all-powerful deity, doesn't it?  At least that's the inference from "when life begins in that horrible situation of rape... [that] is something that God intended to happen," right?

If that's where you're coming from, who are you to argue with God?

And I'm sorry, but I think one has to concede there's power to that argument if you're going to buy into the premise.  William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, wondered if a woman being raped by a bird (okay, the bird was the god Zeus... because, uhm, that's just how He rolled in those days) had any glimmer of foreknowledge that she was an agent of capital-H History (or capital-D Destiny, if you'd prefer), the consequence of her violation being that she gave birth to between two and four children (depends on who's telling the story), one of whom was Helen Of Troy, who caused so much trouble by being the most famous kidnap victim in human history.  Some versions of the story also claim that one of Leda's kids was Clytemnestra, who killed Agamemmnon (who led the armies of Greece against Troy to recover Helen) while he was having an otherwise nice bath.  You want to talk about pregnancy from rape being something that's the will of the divine, talk about that.

The thing is, though--and here's where we do get back to women's rights in a brief and kind of ironic way--you can make this theological argument about just about everything.  So God wanted you to get raped and pregnant, well maybe He also wanted you to have that abortion.  I don't know why.  He's God.  Moves in mysterious ways, or so they tell me.  Mourdock's still making a value judgment that puts the supposed rights of a fetus over whatever rights we may otherwise feel the woman surrounding it might have.  The will-of-God argument doesn't really get around that, I don't think; assuming there's this personal, interventionist--oh, you know the verbiage, right?--assuming there's this particular kind of God, maybe He likes women to have abortions.  Or it's part of His plan.

But that also sort of segues us to what I find most troubling about someone like Mourdock and what he represents.  Thinking that God, if He exists, does really bizarre and unfathomable things isn't a reason not to believe in God, if you're so inclined, though it may be a reason to wonder what kind of Creature He is; but it is a reason to wonder why someone like Mr. Mourdock does anything at all, or why he cares, or why he isn't just a passive thing drifting through circumstances or why he wouldn't be such a drifting jellyfish as a United States Senator, if elected?  I mean, if it's God's divine will that women get raped and knocked up, maybe it's also God's will that we have Obamacare.  Or that the infrastructure of the United States Interstate System collapses into dust through lack of Federal highway funds.  Or you can use it to justify any positive action, I guess, whether it's turning Medicaid into a voucher program for God or nuking Peoria for Christ.  (I don't know why God hates Peoria.  He just does.  Did.  Sorry, guess we need to change all the maps now.  Maybe that was His Divine Plan all along.  He loves cartographers and National Geographic magazine inserts.)

I suspect if I believed in God, I'd find Mourdock's apparent willingness to second-guess what God wants kind of disturbing, but then I have a hard time imagining I'd ever believe in a personal, interventionist--oh, for fuck's sake, I'm already sick of typing it all out.  (As I get old, I kind of like the idea of the Jewish version of God, which, as far as I can tell, is "So, He's around, you know"; Jewish friends, feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.  Not that I'm looking to convert, or anything.  Still don't see any particular reason I should believe in any deity, or why I'd be obligated to choose Yahweh over Odin, who's much more metal than any of our boring monotheistic offerings--Dude has one eye, rides an eight-legged horse and gets His news from a pair of omniscient, super-intelligent crows.  Rock.)  As an atheist, I find his apparent inside-track on the divine Mind to be just a tad, you know, delusional.

But, either way, this is all part of a larger problem with religion and politics getting their chocolate in each other's peanut butter in a totally non-delicious-and-in-fact-kind-of-nasty-tasting way, isn't it?  That's the real point, here.  There's logic in what Richard Mourdock says, in the simple sense of his conclusions flowing from his premises: if there's this kind of God, if life begins at conception, if said life is valued a certain way, etc., then this must indeed be God's plan.  Pretentious logic, maybe.  Delusional logic, perhaps.  The premises certainly beg a whole lot of questions, however you want to slice it.  But the conclusion?  Flawless conclusion, if you buy what Mourdock's selling, if you're drinking from the same fountain.

I think what I'm really trying to get around to, though, is just this: that lots of people want to knock Mourdock for his conclusion, when it's his premises that are the whole problem.  Is there a God?  How would Mourdock know what He wants if there is?  What else will Richard Mourdock claim God wants, and do we trust Mourdock as an agent of God's will that much, if we even think Mourdock's God is legit?  I'd have to add that this isn't just a problem for the agnostic or atheist who thinks Mourdock is channeling static, but for any theist whose idea of God is maybe a little different from the entity Mourdock's implementing policy on behalf of.

In the universe Leda existed in--this universe of stories, myths, legends, muddled history and apocrypha--we have the benefit of knowing how the whole thing ends, and knowing, yes, that within the context of the story, it's all true.  That is, it may be something people made up a long ways back, but for the purposes of this tale, there is a God and He likes turning into animals and having sex with human women, and those children (however many of them there are, whomever they are) all are a part of the legends, too.  We know Zeus taking Leda has a higher purpose, because we know that Troy burned and Agamemnon bled out in his bathwater, that Orestes avenged his old man but was chased by demons for it into the bosom of Apollo, who was of no use to him.  And Cassandra saw it all coming but couldn't do a thing, poor creature.  And we can say this was all what God intended to happen, what God wanted, because that's how the story ended up being rigged, this is how all the pieces were put together, this is how it was made up.  This is, to borrow a good line, the reconstruction of the fables.

This is all clear, because it's all stories, and anyone real the stories might have been based on is very, very dead.

In this universe, the time is now and Richard Mourdock is telling stories to and for people who may not think much of them at all, and the characters are all real people who may be suffering now.  Does anyone really think the time and place he wants to tell those stories is the right one, or that the version he's telling is so true it ought to be told on the floor of the United States Senate?


sibusisodan,  Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 4:14:00 PM EDT  

erik, just wanted to say thanks. Your recent posts- this especially - have been seriously kicking it.


Seth Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 6:54:00 PM EDT  

I think Mourdock would say that you know which things God doesn't want to leave to His own will precisely because He told you so in His Bible. Which, as you know, is an instruction manual with straightforward prose, and not subject to misreading AT ALL.

Of course, I guess if you want to double down on YOUR point, you could take it one more level -- sometimes people disobey the Bible, which means it's clearly God's will that sometimes people will disobey the Bible, which means that I MIGHT BE AN AGENT OF GOD'S WILL RIGHT NOW for eating this bacon-wrapped shrimp. You never know.

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