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New Humanism

In 1932, Aldous Huxley’s negative utopia Brave New World showed the terrifying image of humanity conceived in a purely biologistic and manipulated manner, where humans were produced in an industrial way and educated collectively. In that world there was a word which was strictly forbidden: the word “mother”. Once their brainwashing had been achieved, that word unleashed feelings of revulsion. The new human should not consider himself as generated or brought to birth, but rather as manufactured, a mere factum, neither genitum nor natum. He should believe his existence to be due to the technological society and nothing else, not to any older personal Thou nor indeed perhaps to God. Likewise the word “father” did not exist anymore either, it had evidently been even easier to eliminate than mother. 

Roy Lichtenstein, «The Ring» (1962)

On the basis of The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir’s classic work, only structural questions might still be entertained: “How does one become a woman?”, but not essential questions: “What is a woman?”. In fact, according to de Beauvoir, to be a woman is an invention of man’s cunning to free himself from unpleasant chores. Thus the category of “female” should be banned from the outset as repressive, and even maternity becomes a victim of this. Indeed there would exist two “traps” of being a woman: children and men; both lead to the desire to be bound and so to permanent duties. Above all the child, because of its psychophysical dependence, would constitute the natural “chains of the woman”. The female body must be “transcended” and neutralised: by chemical levelling of biorhythms or, in the most extreme case, by abortion. Being a woman thus continues to be determined only by the abstract autonomy of one’s own being. This egalitarian feminism (“the woman must become a man”) prevails even today in debate. Naturally in the context of the Catholic Church there has always been a defence of motherhood, yet in large measure it has failed to penetrate this discussion. Furthermore, with gender theory a further disregard for the body has been imposed, which does speak of women and of men, but which has replaced biological constants with social constructs. Thus the body becomes reduced to a neutral organism, and maternity is predominantly dealt with in the context of technically feasible fertility.

Surprisingly, however, there are new intellectual drives which move in the direction of motherhood, especially in the context of a psychoanalytical and phenomenological understanding of the body. Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian philosopher and psychoanalyst who lives in Paris, drew attention to herself when, with a boldly titled essay Stabat mater (1976), she called for a reflection which was lacking and dare one say forbidden on motherhood. The pages of the German edition of the book are divided in the middle: the right-hand column contains theoretical reflections on motherhood. Surprisingly, there appears also the figure of the Virgin mother; at the same time homage is paid to the cultural effect of this “imaginary construction”. In the left-hand column, in language clearly inspired by feelings, Kristeva notes her own sensations during pregnancy and the birth of her child. Already the very change lived out in the mother’s body would indicate, according to her, a reality which, during the birth and breast-feeding of the child, releases incomparable experiences. Kristeva has developed “Ten principles for a new humanism”, in which she demands clearly that the body be included in the understanding of human existence. To exists means to be a body, with different consequences respectively for women and men. Thus is discovered what up to now has been the blind spot of the feminist movement, against keeping silent, even in Christian households, and against the fear of “pre-modern” internal Catholic thinking on motherhood. “The struggle for economic, juridical and political parity demands a new reflection on the choice and on the responsibility of motherhood. Secularisation has produced a civilisation in which the only thing now missing is a discussion of the role of the mother. The bond of love between mother and child, this first Other, which represents the dawn of love and of becoming human, this link, through which biological continuity becomes meaning, otherness and word, is a double link. The double link with the mother is distinct both from religiosity and from the paternal function, which completes both of them, thus becoming an integral part within humanistic ethics.” Finally, Kristeva demands a reformulation of an “ethics of the modern era”; even feminine subjectivity in ethics still is as yet unspoken of. According to her thesis, women, “with their desire for reproduction (stability)”, characterise a different political and cultural ethics. For this reason, Kristeva promotes a “new articulation of motherhood”. 

One must “identify the extraordinary structure of maternity”, realised by the Virgin Mary, “and analyse it carefully in its complexity and multiplicity”. The balance between “aspects of equality and of difference” between men and women today is distorted and must be urgently re-established. Sibylle Lewitscharoff, who comes from a Protestant environment, with her “Dresden Speech” of March 2014 on the possibility for medicine to dispose of life and death, has touched on a issue which is no less burning. In particular she has attacked artificial insemination (in vitro fertilisation), as well as, implicitly, the subsequent methods of screening and, explicitly, also the renting out of the uterus, the semen catalogues and the “fertilisation” to order by “concubines”. She has formulated her theses in a most exasperated way, erring however in part when she spoke of a child generated in a test-tube as a “half-being”: that is, “doubtful creatures, half human being and half with something artificial” (an expression which she later withdrew). Even after receiving harsh criticisms, she has fundamentally continued to reject technically manipulated procreation, particularly in consideration of the mothers, who must undergo humiliating procedures, not to speak of the fathers, who with the aid of pornographic material must procure sperm through masturbation. Lewitscharoff is disgusted by the “excesses of the delirium of feasibility and (…) by the reducing of children to mere means for helping to realise their parents’ projects.” Therefore “her tirade merits respect (…) in seeking not to eliminate, in the ambit of birth and death, all that is destiny. Here the position of Lewitscharoff can be understood as a conscious response, as an objection to the fantasies of omnipotence entertained by medicine and as a mise en guard against excessive claims made for himself by modern man.” What has however not been made clear in the critique of the “Dresen Speech” is the lack of the intentionality with which human procreation ought to come about, to which Lewitscharoff refers. Substantially this refers to the respect for the freedom of the one to be created, since through it he becomes removed from the start from the utilitarian ideas of his “producers”. Where children are generated in a targeted way (in vitro fertilisation, prenatal diagnosis, even cloning), if they fail to please or in the case of a “failed attempt”, they can be killed in an equally targeted way, since according to this mentality they have become products of their producers. Regarding humans in this utilitarian way is the working method of the homo faber of the modern age, and the society which aborts, selects, or is unwilling to beget, is his workshop. The human is never merely nature, but always person, hence cultivated nature. Still, in theory the natural base of human existence, his bodily gender, cannot be suppressed as a bearer of personality. The phenomenology of the body makes an illuminating contribution here. Thus Edith Stein begins substantially from the natural constants of bodily form which clearly determine female existence: readiness for welcoming and motherhood. Both of these qualities lead to a psychological inner reality: “The primary mission of woman is to procreate and educate children (…). In woman [is manifest] the attitude of protecting, taking care of and helping to develop a being in formation and growth: thus the gift, of a more bodily character, of knowing how to live closely joined to another, of calmly gathering strength, and of bearing pain and deprivation, and adapting; the gift, of a more spiritual character, of having an inner orientation more towards the concrete, the individual, the personal; of knowing how to grasp them with their own characteristics and adapt to them; the desire to collaborate in their development.” Psychologically, the readiness to welcome is transformed into specific “empathies”: in the relationship as partner with a man, but also in the arts and sciences; motherhood is transformed into identification with that which is weakest or greatest in its appeal, and hence it becomes a capacity to engage in multiple forms, to help in the development of the lives of others, to the preservation of human values precisely in the risk-filled area of technology. According to Stein, precisely in this kind of capacity is the fundamental feminine strength of being passionate about all that is human, especially all that is beautiful, but also the truth, that is, all those things “that from a world of beyond act with mysterious power and attractive force in this life.” The attempt to represent the specific form of the female spirit turns out to be extraordinarily difficult. Stein sees in it above all the “desire to receive love in exchange for love, and therein an aspiration to be raised up from the anguish of one’s present concrete existence to a higher being and acting.” The active-passive process of this spirituality consists as much in her own maturation as in “stimulating and favouring maturation in others until it is complete (…), the deepest female aspiration, which can appear in the most diverse disguises, and even as distortion and depravity.” Phenomenology, in the last analysis, finds difficulty in separating the species man and woman through spiritual characteristics “according to gender”. What comes to light easily in the body is less easy to grasp at the psychological level, and utterly difficult to understand in the determinations of the spirit. Every person, to be sure, must achieve, in their individuality, their own proper forms of what is prescribed, indeed the skill (and the risk of failure) lies precisely in learning this. Thus, Stein’s strongest words on the particularity of woman are when she places being female in second place to being a person. On Ibsen’s Nora she writes: “She knows that she must above all become a human being before trying again to be a wife and mother. (…) No woman, in fact, is just woman.” Still, to determine a woman, the bodily dimension, understood as an “animated body”, remains fundamental: “The human spirit’s being immersed in a physical body (…) is not an indifferent fact (…). Everything that is bodily has an inner side, where there is body there is also an interior life. It is not just a physical thing that perceives, rather as a body it necessarily belongs to a subject, who perceives through it, of whom it represents the external aspect; by means of the body it is placed in the external world, and within it, it can intervene in a creative way; it perceives the body’s conditions.” Stein has traced in a threefold way the richness of tensions of female being globally: the body (“nature”) is the starting point and the supporting base of the personal project of the self; this includes the conditions and social projects of being a woman (“culture”). Still, nature and culture are determined by a third element: the source and destination of existence. The question which has been excluded by feminist discussion concerning the Creator of one’s being finds expression in Edith Stein. The biblical texts, indeed, place among personal, redeemed humanity only the natural or culturally determined female existence. “The more one ascends in likeness to Christ, the more man and woman become equal (…). Thus the domination of gender is eliminated on the basis of the spiritual.” In Edith Stein, therefore, the polarity “nature” is lived out historically and personally: nature itself, indeed, is not simply “whole”, rather it has need of a divine “solution”, of a transcendent healing in harmony with its own formation. There remain three elements of tension in female life: “nature” as a bodily-spiritual indication; “culture” as a personal modelling of self, and “grace” as divine guidance. These elements are in contrast with the current undervaluing of female existence, since they bring a corrective in method and content to women’s project of a self “without a body”. To conclude with the words of Mark Twain: “What, Sir, would the people of the earth be without woman? They would be scarce, sir, almighty scarce.”

by Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz

the author

Lecturer in Philosophy at the Higher Pedagogical Institue of Weingarten from 1989 to 1992, Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz received her doctorate honoris causa from the Higher Institue of Philosophy and Theology of Vallendar (1996). From 1993 to 2011 she held the chair, which had just been established, of Philosophy of Religion and Sciences of Comparative Religion at Dresden Technical University. Since 2011 she is president of the European Institute of Philosophy and Religion (also a new institution) at the Benedict XVI Higher Institute of Philosophy and Theology at Heiligenkreuz (Vienna).

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