Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Should Womankind Visit a Psychiatrist?

There are obviously many questions addressed (though not necessarily answered) throughout A Room of One’s Own. I think perhaps the purpose of Woolf’s narrative is to cause the reader to ask these questions of herself outside of the context of the work. I found her to be successful, as several of these questions stayed with me after I put the book down, indeed, several times I put the book down for the express purpose of contemplating the questions in personal self-reflection. The first of these questions was “Why are women so much more interesting to men than men are to women?” The question seems obvious, though I don’t believe I’ve even asked it of myself before. I suppose the contemporary answer would be a tongue-in-cheek comment about women being more interesting to both sexes because they are simply the more interesting gender. Women are frequently baffled by their own minds, actions and emotions, and that's to say nothing of how baffling women are to men in practically every respect. Both sexes seem to be content to wave men off as “essentially simple creatures” (I’m not suggesting I agree with this statement, but it does tend to be a prevailing social conception). What does this mean for the ability of women to contribute to the body of literature, art and history? Well, if men believe they have already said what there is to say about women and they believe they’ve said it better than any woman could, why should they invite reciprocal observation? Why should men, in other words, bother to listen? A discouraging thought, to say the least, and one that squeezed women out before Woolf’s time and probably (even in today’s enlightened times… right) continues to do so today. After all, it's so frustrating to speak if nobody will listen.

Chapter 2 is devoted to research into what OTHERS think of women. For me, this begs the question, why should the opinions of Napoleon and Dr. Johnson and Pope and Mussolini matter more than what Woolf herself, as a bright and capable woman, can bring to the conversation? The intentionality of her research seems to say something of the nature of and need for self-reflection rather than reliance on the observations of others. After all, modern psychology suggests that a person who basis their self-image entirely upon the opinions of other is more likely to suffer self-esteem issues than a person who has a strong personal sense of self based upon their own perceptions mingled with those outside opinions. Does the female sex suffer from low self-esteem? I can’t imagine that those trying to make a meaningful contribution to a male dominated field, particularly one so guarded as literature or art, would not, to some extent.

I found several instances in the piece that seemed like Woolf was deliberately playing off the self-conception of women in general. The most glaring was the use of capital letters for the title of Professor von X’s work: “THE MENTAL, MORAL, AND PHYSICAL INFERIORITY OF THE FEMALE SEX.” Writing it like that seemed to be a technique for commenting on the idea that that concept is shouted into the ears of all humanity through the mouth of culture (Sorry, I’m borrowing a metaphor from a favourite book here - Ishmael by Daniel Quinn - you should all read it) While it is rare that a person would sit another down and tell them, “now listen, you are mentally, morally and physically inferior,” that does not mean that the construction of our culture doesn’t teach that message, indeed, scream it to us constantly from the day we are born.

I also have to mention the concept of Judith Shakespeare. I had heard the theory before, told elaborately, though I’m dashed if I can remember where. Quite possibly from Jasper Fforde, but I can’t say for certain. What I can say is that I shamefully had no idea whatever that it was of Woolf’s invention. I’m glad I know the provenance of the tale now, as I think it’s a fascinating and instructive one.

On a closing note, I think the line “Women have served all these centuries as looking–glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size” may be one of the greatest damn things I’ve ever read. I love that Woolf may speak passionately about a serious topic and never loose her incredible capacity for sly wit. A new favourite quote, to say the least.

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