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Not Always So


The Rise of the Androgyne

Chastity Bono recently announced her plans to transition from female to male, becoming the first American public figure to undergo sex re-assignment surgery. Sex change operations will soon move from the realm of fringe culture and HBO documentaries to take center stage in American public life. Though Bono's transition is an important political and personal step, this essay deals with transgender issues in a purely symbolic way. Because significant rites of passage for the microcosm can be read as an omen for the macrocosm as well, it's important for us as a society to examine what Bono's transitions suggests for our culture at large.

Perhaps most obviously, Bono's surgery will nudge body modifications of all kinds closer to the mainstream. Symbolically, some of this shift will be generational in nature. Chastity herself, the product of a partnership between the hyper-feminine and seemingly ageless Cher and Sonny Bono, a hypermasculine father (search Youtube for "Sonny Bono debate" and you'll see what I mean), is the natural symbolic synthesis of her predecessors. This suggests that it may take another generation for these changes to come to fruition, but soon distinctions such as male/female, human/machine, human/animal will become less sharp and distinct. If it wasn't before, it's inevitable now that we will someday see a Hollywood starlet sashaying down Rodeo Drive with a surgically-attached tail poking out from her skirt.

A public acceptance of sex reassignment surgery leads us, as a nation, further away from a dualistic mindset. This is probably a good thing overall. Interestingly, the teachings of the ancients have been urging us toward this move for hundreds of years. Androgyny was prized in the ancient world and sometimes, as in Plato, even viewed as the state of grace from which we all fell. Carl Jung pointed out that the classical ideal form given to the gods, such as that embodied by statues of Mercury or, later, Michelangelo's David, was considerably more androgynous than we might think our ideals are today, although (as many researchers have covered before me with considerably more depth) we don't have to look far in our own current culture to see androgynous figures such as Orlando Bloom prized as the ideal.

The androgyne or hermaphrodite pops up again and again in occult teachings, particularly in alchemical texts. Practical alchemy, the quixotic attempt to transmute lead into gold, is the most widely-know alchemical tradition, but spiritual alchemy -- the attempt to transmute the human soul -- is perhaps the more important. The literature on both practical and spiritual alchemy are obscure, confusing, intentionally misleading and hopelessly interwoven, but it has been reasonably suggested that one can perform the practical alchemy only as a supplement to the true, spiritual alchemical process. This ties in nicely with worldwide reports of enlightened human beings quietly performing miracles.

The hermaphrodite is also present throughout the Tarot, perhaps most obviously in The World card, the ultimate card in the Major Arcana. Symbolizing transcendence, this card traditionally depicts a nude woman holding a phallus-like wand. She is presented as Jesus typically was in medieval manuscripts and paintings: surrounded by a laurel wreath and the four animals of the fixed signs of the zodiac -- also the symbols of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the traditional authors of the Gospels. A naked woman, holding a phallic object, surrounded by traditionally masculine symbols -- yeah, we get the picture.

To physically change one's gender has only been possible for, at best, the last half-century, so becoming a hermaphrodite was not traditionally a literal goal, but a psychological and spiritual one. Jungians might view the pursuit of the androgyne as the unification of the anima (the female part of the soul) with the animus (the male part), bringing the psyche into perfect balance. Eastern practitioners would recognize it as the balance of yin and yang. Yin and yang are not viewed as fixed points on a spectrum, but opposite energies that gradually and naturally transform into one another. Expertly riding these natural psychological transformations -- one might accurately say "surfing" the waves of yin and yang -- brings one a feeling of completeness and fulfillment. It may not constitute a complete enlightenment, but it's a step in the right direction. Perhaps this is why it is emphasized so much in alchemical texts as being related to the philosopher's stone, the first and most important tool in the alchemist's toolbox.

Knowing the symbolism behind the hermaphrodite, it is not hard to predict that a sex change operation brings much relief to the modern transgendered patient. But it is an outer modification as opposed to an inner one, and the modern intent is not to become genderless, but the other gender entirely. The surgical result stops short of the mark: someone with the chromosomes and history of one sex but the parts of the other, a kind of "accidental androgyne." For real alchemists, changing lead into gold becomes a party trick if it is not accompanied by an inner transmutation. One danger is that we may have, with the forthcoming onslaught of sex reassignment surgery, a nation whose outsides are more and more divorced from their inner reality.

Yet now that we can make the outer modifications, it is likely that our society will become less polarized by extremes in either direction. The superficial differences between us are about to become even more meaningless, and that makes the outlook for a more harmonious society much more promising.