by Arthur Evans
Critique of Patriarchal Reason by Arthur Evans, with Artwork by Frank Pietronigro, San Francisco, White Crane Press, 373 pages, $29. 95.
It was a dank, foggy evening in San Francisco, as I got off the N-Judah train on Cole Street in the Upper Haight. A refugee from the Florida sand dunes, I was shivering slightly in my woefully inadequate polo neck sweater and over-tight blue jeans, as the wind whipped around the corner, cutting through to the very bone, with milky tendrils of fog obliterating sharp corners and angles, enveloping the short street that led to the Ganges restaurant.
I had a dinner engagement with Arthur Evans, the brilliant and controversial author of Witchcraft and the Gay Counter-Culture and The God of Ecstasy: Sex Roles and the Madness of Dionysos. That evening at the Ganges, way back in 1990, will always be a pleasant niche of memory in my mental topography of San Francisco.
Arthur put me at ease instantly— his presence has warmth and connectedness, without overwhelming or intimidating the other. As we sipped and munched, waited on by Arul and Malvi, owners of this gourmet vegetarian Indian restaurant, our conversation had a timeless quality to it— two men very comfortable with each other, discussing everything under the sun, neither wanting to outdo the other.
I had recently read The God of Ecstasy, his book on Dionysos and our mutual admiration for this god created an immediate rapport between us— Dionysos, like his Hindu counterpart Shiva, is a god of paradox: consuming and tender, erect phallus and yet androgynous, a god of wine, madness, and orgy, but also of creativity, inspiration, a celebration of life. Most of all, a gay-friendly god. So different from the Puritan fundamentalist distortion of Jesus.
Arthur's book includes and comments on his own translation of Euripides' Bakkhai, easily the most flowing, relevant translation of this ancient Greek masterpiece that I have read. He directed a production of this version at the Valencia Rose Cabaret in 1984, alas, well before my time in San Francisco.
Arthur and I kept in touch sporadically until 1992, when I returned like a homing pigeon to old Florida haunts. Just a couple of weeks ago, Arthur zoomed back into my consciousness, when I was net-surfing with a friend and stumbled, with surprise and delight, on his latest book, Critique of Patriarchal Reason.
This massive 300+ page volume is Arthur's tribute to an early Columbia love—hate, the history of Western Philosophy. It sparkles with his wit, his fair-mindedness to the 'pro' and 'con' of each philosophical position that he considers and his relentless examination of the destructive hidden agendas of Western Philosophical tradition.
Arthur left Columbia in 1972; all requirements for the Ph.D. completed, barring his dissertation. He was fed up with the narrowness of academic philosophy at Columbia, the university's complicity in the Vietnam War and its homophobic, anti-student stances. He dropped out, to move first to Seattle and then to San Francisco, continuing his gay activist involvement, which dates back to 1969 with the Gay Activists' Alliance (GAA).
Critique of Patriarchal Reason is his attempt to get what did not get said in a dissertation, out of his system— "a personal fulfillment," and an attempt "to serve the common good" (Evans 3). One argument that runs like a scarlet thread throughout Critique is that the Western concept of 'rationality' in philosophy, mathematics, logic and the sciences is a crippling one "that fails to do justice to the richness of human experience" (4).
In particular, it has created a bias, sometimes overt and sometimes hidden, that excludes and oppresses women, gays, ethnic minorities, and the colonized 'Other' in various cultures. Evans points out that various philosophers have openly bashed the possibility of viable alternatives to the grand imperial Western Reason and discounted 'other' logical and value systems as 'inferior', 'delusional' or even 'savage'.
An important part of Evans' critique lies in his dismantling of logic, which, as he underlines has been committed to a straitjacket 'either/or' attitude— a 'bivalent' split between 'true' and 'false', 'being' and 'non-being'. Surely, our zero-sum outlook on life — you're saved or damned, one of us or the Enemy, I love you or I hate you, sinful body or saved soul—is the popular consequence of this motif in Western philosophy.
This split thinking further fueled by Judaeo-Christian tradition tends to prioritize soul, mind, and intellect and to deny the body and feeling. On the other hand, the counter-tradition in the West (a small voice, but powerful in pockets), celebrates the 'both . . . and,' affirms the diversity of experiences and cultures and celebrates the body not as split off from spirit, but as a rich, living manifestation of it.
Evans acknowledges this when he pays tribute to Walt Whitman by quoting these famous lines: "Native moments— when you come upon me—ah you are here now, give me now libidinous joys only, give me the drench of my passions, give me life coarse and rank. To-day I consort with Nature's darlings, to-night too, I am for those who believe in loose delights. I share the midnight orgies of young men," (Leaves of Grass: 'Native Moments').
Whitman transcends bivalent thinking by embracing male and female, gay and straight, the coarse and refined, all in and through the medium of his lived body. Interestingly enough, Jack Nichols, editor of Gay Today and a long standing friend of Arthur's expresses similar views in his ground-breaking 70s classic Men's Liberation: A New Definition of Masculinity. Nichols argues that "an overemphasis on rationality restricts other sensitivities", and produces a sense of blindness to the senses and to sensuality (Nichols 31).
Perhaps Arthur Evans' masterstroke in Critique is his analysis of the tormented 20th century Jewish Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in chapters 7 thru 10. Evans shows how Wittgenstein, (who became the guru of a growing cult surrounding him at Cambridge University), was a closeted homosexual, struggling with his own guilt about his attraction to rough trade. He was also deeply ashamed of his own Jewish heritage.
While Wittgenstein did realize that the Nazis were thugs, it did little to diminish his internalized anti-Semitism and homophobia. Interestingly enough, Evans makes the point that both his homophobia and his anti-Semitism can be traced back to a deep fear of his own internal femininity, and thus, to a primal misogyny.
Certainly, if one looks at the jock braggadocio of masculinist American culture, the extreme homophobia can be traced back to a terrible fear of being labeled 'sissy', 'womanish', 'effeminate' etc. What is interesting about the Wittgenstein case is that we are looking, not at a locker room muscle-flexer, but at one of the genuinely great minds of the 20th century.
Wittgenstein was influenced by another thinker, Otto Weininger, author of Sex and Culture, another philosopher who hated his own homosexuality and his Jewish heritage, so much so that Adolf Hitler reputedly referred to him as the 'only good Jew' and Nazis used Weininger's material in their broadcasts as late as 1939.
Arthur sees the positive side of moral and cultural relativism— the view that moral and cultural values are relative to context. For example, relativism (in general), is good ammo against fundamentalist claims of any kind that there are God-given absolute values, that entitle us to bash or subordinate those that are different.
On the other hand, Critique warns against a glib, extremist relativism of the 'anything goes' variety. The book argues in favor of 'relative objectivism' in that values rooted within a cultural set are valid for that set. Also, Evans (in a recent conversation) stressed the need for "inclusive" dialogue between different cultural contexts, and saw this as a basis for a new humanism.
Arthur Evans is not resting on his oars after the publication of this important work. Among his upcoming projects is a reworked updated edition of his 70s masterpiece, Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture. The original edition was inspired by his neo-pagan world-view that led him to form the 'Faery Circle' in 1975, which inspired the movement known as the Radical Faeries.
The revision of this still-in-print classic is bound to get him a new expanded readership, particularly so, with the rise and consolidation of Wicca in the past 20 years as also the success of cult films such as The Blair Witch Project.
While he is pessimistic about the growing tentacles of institutional control worldwide, he remains stubbornly hopeful about change and about committed individuals creating and sustaining a world less bigoted, conformist, and violent.
Cheers, Arthur! Here's to you!