If you are lucky enough to visit the Appian Way in Rome this summer, you will no doubt come upon gravesites and monuments with epitaphs extolling the virtues of the middle class. You’ll probably see graves for bakers (pistores), engravers (lapidarii), public building supervisors (aediles), merchants (mercatores), and even, yes, gladiators (gladiatores). Many of these ancient Romans were eager to leave the rural life to reinvent themselves in the big city (the “Big Fig”?). They wanted to escape not just the farm but the social and economic class into which they were born. If you were anything but the first-born son from a relatively well-off family, your life was already determined, a fait accompli with little chance of hitching your wagon to anything but the southern end of an ox.
Rome with its one million inhabitants changed all that. It gave people an opportunity to rise above the particularities of birthplace, family, name, and even birth order. They were free (more or less) to hitch their wagon to a star. It required hard work and commitment, of course (per aspera ad astra), but possibly for the first time in history, individuals had a say in who and what they were to became. The idea of “becoming,” as opposed to “being,” may even have gotten its social impetus here. You were a new man or woman (homo novo), a shaper of your own destiny (faber fortunae suae), a self-made Roman (homo a se ortus).
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. We inherited this tradition and have been trying to work through it ever since it landed in the New World with the Pilgrims, who, of course, were looking for the same thing. It was reinforced by Transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, lauded by Walt Whitman, exhorted by Aimee Semple McPherson, and enshrined in American icons like the rebel, cowboy, renegade, and maverick; to wit, James Dean, the Marlboro Man, Clint Eastwood, and Paul Walker.
With Caitlin Jenner, we have entered a new era. Instead of changing what we do to define us, we are now changing what we are. In fact, we could be doing the same things before and after our transformation. Caitlin’s daily routine probably does not look much different from Bruce’s. She didn’t need to change her lifestyle, job, or appointment calendar. She changed her gender. Today, this is no longer a rare occurrence. We can now change our gender, ethnicity, class, and identity without fear of social stigma. Rachel Dolezal (“I identify with blacks”) is an exception to this, if only for the absurdity of her situation. Michael Jackson, who became progressively white, isn’t. Gone are the days of Renee Richards.
The question I am left wondering concerns “gender reassignment surgery.” Is it yet another example of Western decline, where the truth has been replaced by many truths or perhaps no truth at all? Or is it a reflection of a new American myth, one with an androgynous icon that eventually will take its place next to the others? I don’t know. What I am sure of is that having the technology to do something and actually doing it are two different things. The former does not justify the latter. I also find the speed with which such surgery has been embraced by the public and medical community troubling. There doesn’t seem to be critical reflection about what the trend means other than to note that it is “trending” and we should follow it on Twitter.
The fact that I have not decided one way or the other does not make me a “hater,” the term the Left likes to lob at people like a molotov cocktail. It has about as much intelligence and grace as referring to an enemy as “the bad guys.” Neither am I a “sheeple,” which is what the Right uses to describe anyone with an iPhone. When I say I don’t know, I mean just that: I don’t know.
In Act II, Scene 2 of Hamlet, Hamlet says, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” I’m sure there is an entire room at the Library of Congress filled with doctoral dissertations about whether Hamlet was a nihilist. He could have been, even if the term hadn’t been invented yet. But then, if you think he was, he was.
I wonder what the Romans would say.
Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli and, for summer reading, Laura Fedora. Note to self: Find out why people argue over who’s going to put the folding chairs away. Top photo from The Guardian; middle photo Flickr.com Creative Commons (HuTDoG83).