Thursday, May 01, 2008

A man and his room

I’m going to be completely honest and say that when I heard Chappy had picked a Virginia Woolf book I was disappointed. I know just enough about Woolf to realize that I was going to be reading something that wasn’t specifically for me, a man. In fact, I immediately emailed Ex and told him, “thanks a bunch for giving Chappy the pick”!

After I got over it, my (happily) typical rationality set in. Here is a classic American writer who I have never experienced in any way. If Chappy hadn’t picked it, I probably never would have on my own. I’m going to read it, so read it with the right attitude, I told myself.

First of all – I can’t remember the last time I read such excellent writing. I could open to any random page in the book, read it, and be sure to find at least one turn of a phrase that I would greatly admire. Had she been writing about a bowling league, it would have been worth it just for the opportunity to read someone who, unlike me, really knows how to write. If I was insecure, it would have broken my heart to read a woman from 80 years ago who could compose circles around me today.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. I’m going to pick up the book right now and flip through the page and stop it with my thumb.

Page 96 –

"There are so many new facts for her to observe. She will not need to limit herself any longer to the respectable houses of the upper middle classes. She will go without kindness or condescension, but in the spirit of fellowship into those small, scented rooms where sit the courtesan, the harlot and the lady with the pug dog. There they still sit in the rough and ready-made clothes that the male writer has had perforce to clap upon their shoulders. But Mary Carmichael will have out her scissors and fit them close to every hollow and angle. It will be a curious sight, when it comes, to see these women as they are, but we must wait a little, for Mary Carmichael will still be encumbered with that self-consciousness in the presence of “sin” which is the legacy of our sexual barbarity. She will still wear the shoddy old fetters of class on her feet".

But that wasn’t the best thing I took from this way-too-short book. We become so complacent in society, thinking that all the issues of inequality are in the past and that everyone today has an equal opportunity. Certainly it’s true that we have come a long way, baby. It’s not the world Virginia lived in, and her world was much better than that of her grandmother. But, let’s be real – even the time of Woolf’s grandmother is less than a couple of hundred years ago!

Thus, this book is a terrific reminder of how difficult life is for any group that has faced discrimination, even a number of generations later. Woolf is brilliant in showing us why this is a truism and does so without whining. She simply sets up the facts and makes analogies and she is spot on with every one of them.

I couldn’t help but think, even decades after her death, things were still pretty bad. As a child, I lived in a world where one never saw female doctors, lawyers, police, fire, professors, bankers, real estate agents, soldiers. It’s become such a normal feeling to deal with females in these occupations that I can (far too easily) forget that even in my lifetime, it was not always so.

23 comments:

Lifeguard said...

I had almost the exact same reactions as you did to Chappy's pick from the moment she announced, through reading it, and writing up my own post.

I did find the first section of the book disappointing, however. Couldn't make heads or tails of it.

The Exterminator said...

Evo, everything you say here is true for me as well.

Except, having read one really memorable Woolf essay in the past, I started the book with a more positive attitude. I highly recommend that short piece of beautiful writing: "The Death of the Moth."

John Evo said...

@ Lifey - You're ALIVE! I thought maybe the bride had you buried in the basement. I actually liked the book right from the first couple of pages.

@ Ex - thanks for the recommendation.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Thus, this book is a terrific reminder of how difficult life is for any group that has faced discrimination, even a number of generations later.

I take the long science view, and say that all that discrimination, looked at with 20/20 hindsight, of course is not desirable. However, I think it was necessary to get us where we are today. One could say that it was an evolutionary process by which we (humanity) assigned roles to women disparate from those of the men, which were necessary to ensure our survival as a species. Once we survived and advanced to a certain point, we could shed those roles, and force a more equitable relationship between the sexes.

The main tool of this survival was reproduction coupled with child rearing to the age where the children could reproduce. It was necessary given our limited insight and knowledge to relegate women to that role. Maybe "necessary" isn't the right word. It was expedient and efficient to do so.

It's only once the species advanced to the point of being automatically sustainable, regardless of gender roles, along with the freeing up of the time away from simple survival, that we could now devote time to culture, the arts, and other non-necessary activities.

OK, I'm babbling here, but the bottom line is that there was no evil, nefarious design to subjugating women to the point that Woolf complains about. It was bound to free up eventually.

the chaplain said...

"Thanks a bunch for giving Chappy the pick!" Glad I didn't disappoint. ;)

***********************
the bottom line is that there was no evil, nefarious design to subjugating women to the point that Woolf complains about. It was bound to free up eventually.

Oh, man, SI! Are you really that much more idealistic than I am (or was)? I'll grant, to a significant degree, your argument that some gender role distinctions probably came about as expedient evolutionary measures. But, do you seriously think Woolf was that far out of touch with the world?

I'm not saying there was a Grand Plan to subjugate women (it wasn't nearly so organized, was probably very ad-lib, actually), but you've got to know that power is one of humankind's strongest motivators. People do all sorts of nasty shit to each other in order to expand their power over them and control them. Since men are generally physically stronger than women, it's easy to subjugate 50-51% of the population on that basis alone. Sheer physical power is often the base upon which men build to exercise psychological and emotional control over women.

Do you doubt that, as awful as male subjugation of other men has been throughout history, male subjugation of women has been exponentially worse? If so, maybe we in the atheosphere need to set aside our science books for awhile and read some history.

"It was bound to free up eventually."

Granted, I've had it far better than Woolf ever did, so I'll concede that gender discrimination has "freed up" quite alot in the past 80 years. But that doesn't mean that there's not a hell of a lot more "freeing up" that needs to be done. You don't think the mission's been accomplished, do you?

The Ridger, FCD said...

Reading the beginning of this book reminded me of reading Sayers - the second-hand experience of university education less than 100 years ago. Women went to school, but their degrees didn't count.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Oh, man, SI! Are you really that much more idealistic than I am (or was)?

No. I told you I was babbling. Idealism has nothing to do with it. It's just that given the confluence of various circumstances, the way women ended up playing second fiddle to men was inevitable, and I think given the fact that most of those circumstances are now de minimus,it's also inevitable that women will share equality. Maybe even gain a toehold on superior power in the gender wars.

Woolf was just reflecting the state of existence, and the history, of the gender relationships. She was not out of touch, in fact she was quite in touch.

What men did to women was natural. Women gaining equality is also natural. Different times and all that. On an individual basis, the weaker still need to keep an eye out for the stronger, but on a societal basis, physical strength isn't the only factor in determining who's weaker and who's stronger anymore. Intellect, money, connections, reputation, lot's of different aspects of life work in favor of women. Actually, in today's society, there are very few circumstances where physical strength is a determining factor.

You don't think the mission's been accomplished, do you?

Absolutely not. Men still run the world, by a large margin.

the chaplain said...

SI: It seems that we are closer in our thinking than I initially thought we were.

To all Literati: Does anyone else find the initial negative response of several of the guys to this selection interesting?

John Evo said...

Personally, I'm unapologetic about having a negative outlook upon hearing what we were reading. First, men and women do have different tastes, it's completely natural and will never change. I admit that it had (for me - can't speak for the others) nearly EVERYTHING to do with gender.

I was actually more surprised at the negativity from Letters From Abroad. I never would have guessed, but there you go. Different tastes.

Lynet said...

Does anyone else find the initial negative response of several of the guys to this selection interesting?

Yes! Yes, I do. Perhaps they could feel the male guilt setting in already at the thought of reading something feminist.

I think Virginia Woolf's interest in intellectual wealth actually helps her here. Sure, women need economic wealth to go with it, but she's looking for a situation where women can write without feeling restricted or combative. That stops her from focusing entirely on oppression and blame. She's constantly aware that the ultimate aim is not to fight but rather to not need to fight, and she has substantial ideas about the sorts of artistic development that will be needed.

Artistic -- that is to say, cultural -- development is too often neglected when it comes to dealing with inequalities. It's so much more subtle. You can't just campaign for what you need and expect it to appear; often you can't even know precisely what you need until some brave artist has created it.

A self is a work of art. Constructing it in a manner different to the standard cultural constructions in existence can be hard! When Virginia talks about women and writing she's also in some sense addressing this difficulty, too. I don't know if she is conscious of that, but it's definitely true.

Lifeguard said...

Chappy wrote: Does anyone else find the initial negative response of several of the guys to this selection interesting?

Personally, my negative response to the first section of the book had more to do with feeling lost in the details than a feminist perspective. More of a style thing, I guess.

If anything, I felt disappointed that I couldn't quite wrap my head around what Woolf was getting at. Things got a lot clearer for me once I got into the rest of the book.

As for male guilt, it's probably what kept me reading past the first section. What can I say? I'm a recovering Catholic, so I'm very at home with guilt.

Lifeguard said...

Wait a sec... just to be clear since I think Chappy meant the initial reaction to her announcing her pick. My initial reaction was disappointment over the genre. I actually expected and looked forward to her choosing something with a feminist slant given her interests, but I felt a little disappointed that it was not a work of fiction.

Lifeguard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Spanish Inquisitor said...

To all Literati: Does anyone else find the initial negative response of several of the guys to this selection interesting?

Well, I'm willing to embrace my latent misogyny, if the rest of the guys will. It'll certainly free me to tell more dumb blond jokes, at the very least. ;)

The Exterminator said...

To all Literati: Does anyone else find the initial negative response of several of the guys to this selection interesting?

I'm going to take exception to chappy's observation. Good writing is good writing whomever it's done by.

However, screeds are almost always poorly written. I think perhaps a lot of the readers -- not only the men -- thought that the book was going to be a feminist rant. Obviously, it's not, because Woolf is such a great writer. But the subject matter seemed to indicate that it might be, if you weren't already familiar with her.

Personally, one of the reasons that I've found the current crop of atheist books such shitty reading is that, for the most part, they're not well written from a literary point of view. Hitchens's book was the exception for me, but the rest I found dull, dull, dull. Even the normally scintillating Richard Dawkins sort of phoned in his book; compare the writing of The God Delusion with, say, The Selfish Gene or Unweaving the Rainbow.

John Evo said...

Ex said: I'm going to take exception to chappy's observation.

But why? It wasn't even an "observation" as much as a question. And even though the underlying point is indeed an observation, it only goes as far as finding it "interesting". I could see it as interesting too. Even if mostly due to the points you make.

And, while it may not be true for you, at least a couple of us have admitted to a possible bias. I just don't think the bias is all that bad of a thing - in this case.

the chaplain said...

Just to clarify: My question was a reference to the author and book I selected, not that I was the selector.

John Evo said...

Chappy - I don't think there was any confusion about that.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Agreed. Chappy, no worry there. IIRC, 4 of the 6 books so far in the NBL were chosen by females.

Unless Evo chose one. I don't remember, but I don't think he has.

John Evo said...

SI - a PLAGUE on you!

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Shit. Sorry, Evo. I tried to figure that out, but there was no reliable source of info, other than my memory (I did say reliable, didn't I?))

Which one was it? The Sparrow? Wait. You picked Lamb, right? I knew it, that Obama-nation.

John Evo said...

Maybe Ex wouldn't mind a little update on the NL page. He has the past books listed. He could name the people who picked them.

The Exterminator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.