Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Friday, September 2, 2016

A Room of One's Own: a review

Dear Hannah,

Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own has the honor of being the first time I've heard patriarchy used as a pejorative and haven't wanted to throw anything at anyone.  Most other times it's said with imbalance; not as though there were moderate and radical ways of saying patriarchy as an insult, but as though the woman who was saying it was imbalanced in general.  None of that is visible here.  None of the blaming of "rape culture" for a man making a pass or a woman making a mistake; none of the irrational calls for an equal wage that isn't equal; none of the blaming society when a woman is fat and she knows it; and none of the crusades against slut-shaming when a woman is dirty and flaunts it*.  Virginia Woolf is sensible, but not in a manly way.  She's a hundred years old and a breath of fresh air.  If feminists knew where they came from they'd be embarrassed at the place where they stand.

Perhaps most striking about A Room of One's Own is how quickly she admits what many modern feminists don't: that if women had always been working like men, there would very likely be nobody to enjoy its results.  It's very easy to say that men have the power because they bring home the bacon.  But it might be just as easy to admit that without women there would be nobody to bring the bacon to.

We oftentimes credit men with the building and securing of society, but this only proves that we've got it all backwards.  Woman builds society, and because she's busy building it, man is left to fashion it.  Man brings home the bacon, and thus becomes the means.  Woman is the end.  Children are the end.  All the glory in warring and exploring and politicking and theorizing and engineering and industrializing is worthless if at the end of the day there is nobody to do it for.  But women are the purpose.  And because women are the purpose, men are terrified of not being loved by them.  And because men are terrified of them, we have a good chunk of our misogyny**.

This is perhaps the most interesting portion of Woolf's essay: that there are lots of nasty things men may say about women (we are very different, after all, and difference is the mother of opinion), but that the majority of nasty things men historically say about women are written out of fear -- and not just any fear, but the fear we have nothing a woman wants.

The strange thing is that Woolf was convinced it was a matter of culture, when in fact this fear is something experienced simply because you're a man.  The immense power that women have over us; the ability to make us feel things that men can't; that sensation that you've got to throw everything away to get her; and the terrifying experience of wondering if you're worthy, is much less a matter of being born in England and much more like the process of being born.  You don't get to choose it or when it happens.  All you know is that the feeling strikes and it strikes often.  And caught between yourself and an endless tide of lust and almost worshipful reverence you begin to feel lost, powerless -- frustrated.  As though you were being pulled in a million directions.  Not enough to get you anywhere you wanted to go, but enough to make you extremely uncomfortable wherever you are.  Perhaps enough to tear you apart.  It's the origin of chivalry and of harems; the West's fawning over damsels and the East's hoarding and hiding them.  Woolf could mock a man for fearing a woman, but she mocked him because she'd never felt what it's like to be a man.

Admitting that women are the end is of course counterproductive to the feminist movement; and so it's in their interest to always play the victim.  They never mention that the reason men do everything is for them, probably because the moment they admit everything is for them is the moment their claims to everything become redundant.  And so what feminists have done is almost as stupid as it is brilliant.  They've decided to no longer be the end.  They've thrown away the one thing they always did better than men, because men were incapable of doing it.  They've decided to stop bearing sizable families and raising their children; and as though they were rid of the ends, they got rid of the means by encouraging men to be homosexuals and housekeepers.  They believe that by sharing the responsibilities equally they will be equal.  What they've done is made sure that nobody will be able to do the responsibilities properly.  Their children (if they have any) are crammed into daycares and raised by strangers who are overwhelmed and indifferent.   When women get home, their womanly husbands are fostering children instead of reading the newspaper.  And then they wonder why our children are terrible and our politicians are worse.  It might partially be because many women are no longer mothering, and many men are not able to focus on politics.

Woolf, on the other hand, was too sensible for all of this.  What we appreciate her for especially, aside from not getting into quibbles about biological things that can never be changed, is her ability to recognize the difference between valuations.  There's no worshiping work at the expense of denigrating childbearing; and no worshiping childbearing at the expense of denigrating work.  Both are work.  Both are necessary.  Both are valued in completely different ways because they do completely different things; and should we say one was more important than the other and force ourselves to choose between them we would eventually get rid of both.  Woolf was wise enough to know that there are many things worth celebrating and many people worthy of celebration -- and that the people worth celebrating do not necessarily need to do the same things.

And this brings us to a very important point about the supposed value of diversity.  Diversity, if it's ever going to benefit us like the liberals say, doesn't mean all the same means and all the same ends.  A beneficial diversity is two people being radically different and still being able to contribute something that we love -- not because we were forced to say that we love it, but because in the spirit of liberty it was pleasing to us and we said so.  The patriarchs (if they can be called such) didn't err in that they valued man's work.  They erred in that they didn't properly value women's.  All the poetry they wrote and all the wars that they fought were a waste if at the end of the day they came home to a woman they didn't appreciate -- a goddess without a cult, a heroine without any praise, and a laborer without any pay.  Feminism doesn't exist because women are stupid.  Feminism exists because men were pig-headed enough to not say thank you for the daily things we couldn't live without, and really from the bottom of their hearts mean it.

Your father,

*It comes as cold comfort to me that half of all "misogynistic" tweets came from women.  Not only because everyone already knows that nobody hates women as much as women, but even more because nobody is more ignorant about misogyny than womankind.  A woman's idea of woman-hating has little do with hating women and more to do with women being called the things that make us hate individuals.  She swears that using the term slut means your opinion of women is low, and entirely misses the fact that it means your opinion is only low about sluts.

**The most obvious example of a misogyny from fear I can think of is Schopenhauer's essay On Women, which was written by a sour, balding, toothless old man who had obviously been hurt or scorned by a lover; and whose happiness consisted less in the enjoyment of women, and more in repeated attempts to convince himself he was happier without them.  His essay is perhaps more insulting for the things he gets right than the things he gets wrong; yet there's one aspect in which both Woolf the feminist and Schopenhauer the misogynist agree: that men's and women's brains are generally different.

Woolf's genius is most obvious when she asserts this and then refuses to explain it; leaving the reader to admit on his own the things we already know but are incapable of precisely defining.  Though she says in maybe half a dozen passages that women think and perceive and write differently from men, she's careful to barely say what the difference is when they do them.

We have an idea why she's silent.  Brushing aside genitalia and the secondary sex characteristics, the qualities of men and women are difficult to sum up with checklists, and are something to be perceived in generalities with the heart rather than defined in too many specifics by the brain.  We simply know them when we see them; and although Woolf was never able to describe the mechanical differences in the organs she was describing, she was perhaps just as capable of recognizing their general effects.

Anyone remotely familiar with the concepts of races and beauty will be remotely familiar with my concept of the sexes; and we know that if we take a thousand photos of random Norwegian women and blend them together, we end up with a picture of a woman who's not only undeniably beautiful, but who has characteristics which are unmistakably Norwegian.  The same goes for the definition of the sexes.  Though many women would variously have or lack the characteristics we might put on a checklist, we understand the idea of women in general; and a woman may miss a box here and there and ruin her picture by making herself freakish, but we can rarely get rid of the idea of her being a woman.

The problem for Woolf, so far as her argument goes, is that women who think differently will eventually do differently; and if we have an unmistakable pattern of behaviors to divide the sexes, we'll eventually have a series of expectations by which to judge them.  The whole idea of culture is the development of our natural inclinations into something beyond their original rudeness; and if we believe that anyone can be expectably different, we begin to build an idea of how they will differ; a process which is most commonly known as thinking, and the development of which is typically known as refinement.

This, of course, puts Woolf back right where she started.  Some women, in fact, can do some manly things as well as men.  And some men can do some womanly things as well as women.  The question is whether we should throw away our generalities for the sake of the exceptions.  We admit that there are difficulties in defining the cultural expectations of the sexes.  But getting rid of our expectations means we would have to take all the great things we love as really manly and womanly, the cultural development of the stuff the sexes are made of, and throw them all away because a few of us were good at the other.  To tell a little tomboy to be good at being womanly may (read: may) be cruel to a tomboy.  But to tell the human race that nobody needs a womanly woman is cruel to all of humanity.

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