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Human Nature

For some of us, human nature seems an odd topic to discuss. Most people think they understand human nature about as well as they need to. And if their understanding of human nature is about the same as everyone else they know, there's no reason even to bring it up. That would be like starting a conversation about how you know that a chair is a chair. We just know. And human nature just is.

But a lot of us think it's important to bring human nature into slightly better focus than this, for two reasons. If you understand something, you can predict it's behavior, which may have important future advantages. And if you can control something, you can integrate it more logically into your world, and even make the world better for those you care about.

These two needs, to see and to act, seem all-pervasive at several levels. The world is something we partly understand, but also something we partly control. We seek the truth, but we also reach for the right. Genders specialize into female and male. Personalities specialize into introverts and extroverts. The idea of polarity, which ancients called Yin/Yang and Alan Watts called "The Two Hands of God", is an important window into life, offering a viewpoint that clarifies the relationships between many of the otherwise confusing phenomena we see and deal with.

My understanding of human nature was very clouded and confused when I was in college. All I knew was that people were essentially good but that they got terribly fucked up. People born innocent could later commit murder and start wars. Why that is was a complete mystery to me. But I knew that I needed a way to talk about these problems that conveyed full respect for the human personality and how people develop in an ignorant and immoral world. Studying the history of thought in college helped me to appreciate how clouded and confused most other people throughout history felt about these same problems. Modern psychological insight began to provide a platform for teasing apart man's virtues from his vices, but there was much bullshit to wade through as well. Freud brought sex out of the closet, and thought homosexuality wasn't automatically perverse — which was good — but then he indulged in weird fantasies about boys wanting to kill their fathers and fuck their mothers, and girls having penis envy — whatever that is. Even worse was his fantasy about an "unconscious mind" (an oxymoron) which secretly controlled us and made it impossible to understand or to take personal responsibility for our problems — unless we became his patient!

Reading Freud didn't make me understand anything — unless you count feeling sorry for someone who hadn't a clue about the issues I was facing. Then I found Jung's "Memories, Dreams and Reflections." Here was a man I would have enjoyed talking to. He understood completely how the lives we lead are based on how we feel about ourselves, on how much permission we give ourselves to be different, on what we view as human potential, on how much latitude we grant ourselves to experiment with new experiences instead of trusting tradition. But Jung seemed to get lost in a lot of fantastic speculations about racial memory and flying saucers, too. Although I had fun painting a mandala on the wall of my first East Village apartment a few years later, this wasn't where I wanted to get stuck.

In the summer after my second year of college I saw a psychiatrist named Paul Rosenfels a few times. He was very nice, but I didn't know what he was talking about and I wasn't impressed. He gave me a copy of his new book, "Love and Power", though. When I started reading it back at college I found it gripping. A lot of it seemed academic, in the sense of saying what everyone knows in words that no one understands. But in another sense it was fresh and riveting. He seemed to understand intimately the world I was coping with, especially issues like conformity, conventionality and consciousness-raising.

Here is not the place to tell the story of my relationship with Paul. I think it's more important, and probably more interesting, to give a sketch of Paul's view of the world, especially the meaning and value of introversion and extroversion in civilized life. Most people have heard about introverted types vs. extroverted types. And most people have heard about femininity vs. masculinity. Paul and I, and people from the Ninth Street Center, use these terms in a slightly different way than do most people.

Sex began very early in evolution. Bugs, fish, birds and reptiles all have sex. But the character differentiation between females and males only becomes pronounced in mammals with the origin of the extended childhood and family life. An extended childhood allows a species to be much more than can come out of a womb. The family, in fact, is a kind of sociological womb that makes possible a great evolutionary leap impossible for lower life forms. While there are notable exceptions, the general idea is that females, embodying love, nurture the family, while males, embodying power, protect the family. Note that there is no suggestion that one type is better than another. Their roles are different, but equally critical for survival.

But there is a big difference between people and other mammals. Try as they might, women these days don't always seem to be "feminine" and men don't always seem to be "masculine". When they try to hard to live up to these cultural stereotypes, two things happen: they live twisted lives, and our understanding of human nature is set back. Many psychologists could see this in the 19th century and decided that the very terms "feminine" and "masculine" were not scientific and should be discarded. But they felt that they were indeed personality types that needed to be cataloged and described. Some of these "characterologies" were based on three basic types, some on four. But the ones that I think made the most sense oddly paralleled the psychological qualities of female vs. male mammals, even though they were given new names: Apollonian vs. Dionysian, Epimethean vs. Promethean, Furneax Jordan's reflective vs. active types, and William James' tender-minded vs. tough-minded types. In the 20th century Carl Jung came up with the terms introvert vs. extrovert and it's by these names that most educated people refer to this distinction today.

In denuding femininity from introversion and masculinity from extroversion, however, Jung set a trap for himself. He failed to understand why each type would ever have anything to do with the other. Yet everyone knows in their heart why a feminine and a masculine person would want to be together: because together they become more than the sum of their parts. Plato, through Socrates, explains this well in the Symposium, accounting not only for heterosexual romance but homosexual as well. As Paul put it, "Love and power are a natural pair; put apart, love sickens and power runs wild." It's not the genitals that are mating, after all, but the personalities.

One of the reasons Paul wanted to understand psychological polarity so much was precisely because he woke up one morning and realized that he was in some unclear sense "feminine". Unlike lesser men who would react to such an insight by wearing a dress, Paul devoted the next few years to understanding how femininity and masculinity, divorced from gender, could still operate at a psychological level in humans more or less the way they did with mammals. In fact, as Plato had already suggested, this model explained why gay relationships could be as valuable and meaningful as straight ones. Paul, like Jung, was equally hesitant to use the tainted terms "feminine" and "masculine", though, and wrote his first few books using the terms "yielding" and "assertive". It was only when a large group of young gay men began mobbing him in the early 1970's that their adoption of those terms, now rechristened in a completely gender-free context, convinced him to follow their lead. As far as repurposing outmoded cultural stereotypes goes, it was a bit like converting the Bastille into a day-care center.

Once you get rid of the notion that all women are "feminine" and all men are "masculine", a lot of things begin standing out in bold relief. To begin with, it seems as if roughly half of women are feminine and half masculine. And the same ratio goes for men. Why should this be the case? I think Paul's hypothesis, which he only arrived at a few years before meeting me, is quite promising. Paul thought that it was false to believe that daughters identify with their mothers, and sons with their fathers. (They do, of course, when it comes to social roles and obligations, but we're not discussing that here.) Instead, daughters identify with their fathers, and boys with their mothers. Daughters polarize with their mothers, and boys polarize with their fathers.

I'm afraid that a sort of imbalance comes with this territory. Feminines (another Center coinage) can be clumsy and masculines can be idiots. Feminines often cover up their inner indecisiveness with aggressive bluster, and masculines cover up their inner obtuseness with passive pseudo-intellectuality. To escape the burden of such false adaptations is the biggest reason these types are always looking for their other half. There are many other ways they try to compensate for their incompleteness, of course, some of which are healthy (like hobbies) but most of which are rather counter-productive.

Here's the rest of that quote from Paul, by which he ends his first book. It's very important.

"Love and power are a natural pair; put apart, love sickens and power runs wild. If men do not bring their honesty and courage to each other's aid, so that they find a view of life and way of life through each other, the great undertaking which is civilization may still go down under the hammer blows of fear and rage. It is not fitting that men should attempt to make peace with pain and suffering, ignoring the great problems which depth of character exposes and bypassing the fundamental obstacles which vigor of character confronts. Let the truth be told; let right be done."


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