No. 14: On The Narratization of Gender

What is the basis of someone’s knowledge of their own gender identity? Epistemologically speaking that is. I’ve yet to really see any coherent response to this question….

In order to have knowledge of it, it must be determined within possible experience, which is done by subsuming the subjective perception under the transcendental concepts of the understanding. I have strong reservations about one “feeling” one’s own gender identity, which is obviously only something in idea, and thereby also knowing it. From the perspective of the actual pure science of knowledge, human understanding of reality simply doesn’t function that way.

There’s a book called “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”, Goethe’s second novel, first published in four volumes between 1795 and 1796.

The story is about a young man, vaguely but undeniably based on Goethe himself during the 1770s, which is when the novel was first begun as “Wilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Mission”. In the first of the novel’s eight books, Wilhelm narratizes the story of his own theatrical mission to his girlfriend, an actress named Mariane. He tells Mariane all about how, beginning with an early experience in which his father arranged a puppet theatre performance for him one Christmas, he knew his destiny was to become a famous dramatic poet and actor.

Wilhelm plans out his story for himself from there, and tries to arrange to run away and elope with Mariane so that they can enjoy independence from their various obligations and begin their lives as actors working for a theatrical company. The plan falls apart unfortunately at the end of book one when Wilhelm discovers Mariane’s side-relationship with a wealthy rival. Dejected, Wilhelm resigns himself to a modest career working for his father’s financial business, believing his destiny as a poet has been forever stripped from him.

Ironically, through the course of the rest of the novel, while ostensibly on a business trip, Wilhelm is sucked into financing and leading a ragtag theatrical company in a way he isn’t able to fully understand. This leads him to the book’s centrepiece, a professionally staged, public performance of Hamlet with Wilhelm in the lead role. Despite his success however, he finds his life empty and lacking without Mariane. She was to be the crown jewel of his destiny, and even though he’s managed to accomplish all his earlier ambitions, he realizes he conflated an arbitrary cluster of external circumstances with his “destiny”, as represented to him in his understanding by the figure of Mariane.

The book is a novel about self-narratization, it’s limits, and the tension between my own narrative of self-fulfilment and actualization, and the narratives of others trying to go their own way. Throughout the book, characters tell their life stories to one another, and the reader, knowing all the pertinent details, is often invited to laugh at the misconceptions and misunderstandings that arise in how the different characters interpret the facts of experience into a narrative of life development.

Wilhelm interpreted the facts of his early life in such a way where he felt his own fate. Moving through his story there seemed to be a thread of providence, something leading the actual course of his life to the theatre. Objectively though, what validity that perception of fate actually has for any of us is uncertain. This is the crisis of European Sentimentality, as represented by the novels of Richardson, Rousseau, and others, as well as the philosophy of moral sentiment pioneered by David Hume and Adam Smith. When I tell this story to myself about my own life, and I feel something moving in it, to what extent is that feeling actual knowledge of something objectively real?

I can feel as if my destiny is to be a famous actor, but ultimately that destiny only exists within the story itself, and isn’t something imposed onto my experience by any external entity. I interpret fate into my own narratization in the act of narratization itself, and my perception of a unifying pattern drawing all my experiences together is only valid within that context. This is the only way the ultimately subjective interpretations by each individual of what amounts to a shared social reality can exist independently of one another without infringing upon the right of other individuals to interpret the events of their own lives. It’s the only way to ensure a single experience can serve as a plot point in two diverging novels about two distinct people essentially.

If I say that, when I was five years old, I felt, I knew, I was a “different” gender than what was “normal”, what objective validity does that feeling have? Are we to go back to the theory of moral sentiments and Adam Smith? Is the subjective feeling of a purely abstract notion of gender that only exists within the mind for the purposes of self-conceptualization to constitute objective knowledge now?

I think not.

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