Saturday, May 10, 2008

Revisiting Virginia Woolf’s Room After the Third Feminist Wave


Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) enjoys the status of a mother – I won’t say seminal – text of feminism with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949). Historically older, it is nevertheless treated as a younger sister in academic discourse probably because it is not muscular, bulky, polemical and logocentric like the latter. In short, it is not system(at)ic.

It originated as two papers read to an Oxbridge audience of women scholars in 1928. It its present shape, it is a set of six untitled chapters with occasional footnotes: scarcely worthy of canonization as an academic treatise.

And yet the historians of feminism have been eager to trace the beginnings of expressive-empirical-materialist feminism to Woolf’s text, just as they have been keen to discover the springs of philosophical-universalist feminism in Beauvoir’s. It is certainly a tribute to Woolf’s extraordinary brilliance that the academy should try to account for the trajectory of feminist literary studies by privileging her text as one of the originary loci. But the flip side of this effort could be the appropriative urge that shows in any reductive classification. In other words, the possibility cannot be discounted that the classification might have worked, even if unintentionally, as a strategy of containment and neutralization against the raw and radical polyphony of the text.

I walked into feminism fourteen years ago through Woolf’s Room. As I revisited it recently, I discovered how prophetic a text it has really always been. So much that has happened, or not happened, since its publication falls into perspective when you reread it. And as with any prophetic text, this one too is ultimately validated by the reader’s retrospective vision bearing testimony to the author’s prescience.

The Room disturbs the borders of recognizable textual identities of its time by constructing – in a prefiguration of Hélène Cixous’s work1 – a mutant text genetically engineered from fiction, theory and autobiography. The mutation intensifies the play of différance and inscribes the text in a process of comprehensive deconstruction. Woolf’s project is to theorize the relationship of women and fiction, but she fictionalizes it. And fictionalization works because it can act as a kind of meta-theory, allowing distance, reflection, positioning and imaginative freedom of which theory, in certain situations, may not be capable. Yet at the centre of her fictional narrative is the historical-autobiographical “I” which is foregrounded as a philosophical-fictive structure and simultaneously offered as an authorial fiction around which she spins her entire project. Woolf’s inaugural move is, thus, to problematise the authorial subjectivity and its constituting discourse. Quite explicitly then, she locates herself, as the writing subject as well as the subject of her writing, in the realm of fiction:

‘I’ is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being…. Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please – it is not a matter of any importance) sitting on the banks of a river a week or two ago in fine October weather, lost in thought. (6)

She has been angling for the “fish” of thought, but finding it immature – that is, “small” and “insignificant” – she must put it back in the water and wait (6). The crystallization of thought is, thus, indefinitely deferred and the text proceeds tentatively toward an amorphous resolution. Amorphousness and indefinite deferral mark the resolution as indicated by the nature of hope on which it is centered: it is a poetically conceived utopian hope. Indeed, the fusion of imagination and abstraction in the trope of the fish prepares the ground for the interface of fiction and reality that subsequently matures into the utopian, prefigurative tale of Judith, Shakespeare’s imaginary, yet ‘inconceivable’ sister. The resolution is, thus, deferred in the very moment of being conceived: a move that saves it from the seduction of closure.

Bearing witness to their fading borders, Woolf negotiates tangentially between fiction and reality. Unlike the vendors of essentialisms, she would not offer any “nugget of pure truth” to her audience (6). Nor can she resolve, she concedes, “the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction” (7). Hence the recourse to fictionalized personal narrative, for “[f]iction is … likely to contain more truth than fact” (6). As the discourse of poetic truth, fiction operates in the realm of creation; fact, comparably, in that of representation. To the troublesome question of how one would represent woman in the phallogocentric symbolic order, Woolf’s answer is: fictionally. In other words, through the creative resources of imagination, as Coleridge understood these (94); for fiction and reality are not binary adversaries, just as woman and man are not. They are trans-permeable. Discourse, particularly that of the poetic truth, is the space of their trans-permeability and transformation.

In the course of reconfiguring the relation of fiction and reality, Woolf rewrites also the terms of fiction understood as the novelistic discourse. Against the exclusivist patriarchal conventions of this discourse, she argues for inclusiveness. The conventions that valorize the masculine experience stand challenged for their arbitrariness. And that is done not only theoretically but in demonstrated practice too, for she incorporates the challenge in the text itself:

It is part of the novelist’s convention not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings, as if soup and salmon and ducklings were of no importance whatever, as if nobody ever smoked a cigar or drank a glass of wine. Here, however, I shall take the liberty to defy that convention and to tell you that the lunch on this occasion began with soles, sunk in deep dish …. (12)

Her fictionalized narrative thus proceeds to bring the normally excluded experience in. Let women “write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast” (103). In its context, this is a call for literary consciousness-raising, a validation of the literary value of the feminine experience, and a rudimentary cartography of the écriture feminine. To reset the Writing Machine that has so far functioned phallomorphically, Woolf outlines a tentative programme that comprehends historiography, psychoanalysis and economics. Rummaging through the British Museum Library, she finds that whereas women have written no books on men, even those men “who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women” have thought it fit to authoritatively discourse on women (27-28). In a proto-Foucauldian vein, she remarks that woman is “the most discussed animal in the universe”, which is evidently a result of the prolific and monopolistic patriarchal discourse that has constructed her in man’s image. To set right this historiographic wrong, she argues for salvaging women’s real history from obscure “parish registers and account books” (44). The historiographic reclamation would complement women’s entry into history and discourse by means of their writing “all kinds of books”.

Women have to write themselves into existence by shattering the mirror in which they lie buried behind the mask of men’s Other. The figurative tale of women’s pre-natal burial in men’s mirror deepens the resonance of the prophetic tale of Judith rising from the unborn dead, the apocalyptic vision which rises like a rainbow bridge over history and utopia and welds also the psychic and the material. Having externalised and overcome the “black snake” of her lurking anger against Professor von X, an anonymous representative of the ubiquitous patriarchy, Woolf concludes impersonally that men’s insistence on women’s inferiority might be no more than the expression of a mere need to affirm their own superiority (32-35). A profoundly suggestive observation follows the overcoming, which is communicated through the vehicle of metaphor and which foreshadows the feminist appropriations of and challenges to the Lacanian psychoanalysis: “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” (35). And she goes on to connect this seemingly incidental insight into the psychology of gender to civilizational violence, especially war and violent oppression (36). In place of the monosexual culture in which we live, she therefore posits, like Luce Irigaray after her2, a culture in which sexual difference would bloom and the specificities of both sexes would be preserved and cherished:

It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only? Ought not education to bring out and fortify the differences rather than the similarities? (84)

In literature, the site of women’s difference could be, in addition to the content, the syntax, the genre, even the form of the book, for the book too “has somehow to be adapted to the body”. Moreover, women need a literary tradition of their own: “For we think back through our mothers if we are women” (72-74). The cryptic qualifier (“if we are women”) is poised in the ambiguity between literary archaeology and innovation; it both asserts women’s irreducibility and underlines their impossibility in the prevailing order and recalls their burial in the patriarchal mirror. Here, then, is a rude sketch of Showalter’s project of gynocritics, even with its problematic intact.

Women’s difference, however, is not to be envisaged with reference to men; it must be a value in itself. Adversarial consciousness would “deform and twist” their books (65). The fact of their sex must not interfere with their “integrity” as writers, for they must write with an “incandescent, unimpeded” mind as Shakespeare did (70; 55). Jane Austen was able to do so, despite the “narrowness” of her circumstances (65). So was Emile Brontë (71). They wrote “without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching” (65).

Woolf’s insightful counsel not only anticipates a critique of the early radical feminist writing’s positioning of women in contradistinction to men; it also looks forward to the poststructuralist feminism’s concern with women’s irreducible difference, with their emancipation from confinement in the phallogocentric binary. Commenting on Charlotte Brontë, Woolf notes that the central flaw in her writing arises from her failure to overcome the adversarial sex consciousness: “She was admitting that she was ‘only a woman’, or protesting that she was ‘as good as a man’ (71). Indeed, Woolf frankly considers even the probability of the women’s movement having exacerbated the uneasy self-consciousness of sex among men and thereby damaged their artistic integrity. It probably provoked them to write “only with the male side of their brains” instead of “androgynous[ly]” (96; 94). As a result, one scarcely finds any longer a sentence like Coleridge’s that “explodes and gives birth to all kinds of other ideas….” (97). This profound yet precise poetic expression, violent but with creative fire, evokes volcanic eruption, maternity, multiplicity and meteoric irruption in a semantic lightning-flash that discloses the non-repressive and multiply generative possibilities of language put to emancipatory and transformative uses. Do not Cixous’s experimental discourse and Kristeva’s theorization of the revolution in poetic language knock on these very possibilities? And Woolf goes on to curiously muse what might have been the fate of Elizabethan literature if women’s movement had existed then. It might have made even Shakespeare “impeded and inhibited and self-conscious” (96).

It may be argued that behind Woolf’s candid and bold self-critique as a woman writer stand her personal integrity and courage of the imagination. The unclouded vision that enables her to overcome her anger against Professor von X enables her also to overcome what Nietzsche would have called a woman’s ressentiment3 against the male sex. It is a necessary self-overcoming, for unless it is achieved it would not be possible to have “[the] freedom to think of things in themselves” and “wr[i]te … as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman” (39; 88). Woolf exemplifies, in an almost preternatural, historically precocious fashion, feminism’s self-overcoming. Indeed, it is the carving out of the self-reflexive space in feminism, which the self-overcoming opens up, that makes Woolf a postfeminist also. That she can speak as a woman, to women and men, in her irreducibility as a woman, without being reduced to woman, testifies to her authentic status as a (post)feminist.

Gazing beyond feminism which she evidently regards as a contingency tied to women’s historical situation, she looks ahead a hundred years for better times when women “will have ceased to be the protected sex” (40). Yet the irony is that with history having failed to redeem its promise her optimism seems doomed to remain locked up in utopia. Thus, although feminism overcomes itself in her imaginative and humane vision, it turns out that it had not reckoned with the ironies, detours and impasses of history. The dream that Woolf dreamed has, therefore, poignancy as much as practical urgency.

Today when less than a quarter century remains for those hundred years to pass, there is yet little reason to be cheerful. Even as the world has shrunk, the universe of women’s struggle has expanded. Race, caste, class, ethnicity, location – these have exploded the unitary category of woman to which Woolf seems to have so single-mindedly addressed herself. The accomplishments of women’s movement look progressively fewer and the road ahead infinitely longer as oppression turns imperceptibly subtler and ever more seductive and as other women than those of the white middle class, whose identity defined the first and second waves of feminism, crowd the horizon and dislocate all available scales of perception and valuation. Globalization and immigration have so radically altered home and communities that in most places, including Woolf’s own England, you cannot avoid knocking into other continents and cultures every so often. How should feminism in the west grapple with the third-worldisation of its problematics? How should feminism in the third world cope with the nexus of multinational capital and patriarchy unleashing a high-tech homogenizing media assault on the native structures of representation? Perhaps the most fundamental and common intervention that has to be made in such a situation is, as Woolf rightly intuited in a less complex scenario, against material poverty, for even personal integrity and courage of the imagination depend on the freedom from want: a woman must have money and a room of her own. Only then can she write fiction, and write herself into existence.

In an uncanny and perverse realization of Woolf’s metaphorical tale of Shakespeare’s sister Judith, so many unborn girls are put to death in the third world today that the female sex is virtually facing gynocide. In most of India’s states for example, with years of en/gendered penury conspiring serendipitously with ethically undigested technologies, women do not stand –to use Woolf’s loud and biting phrase– even “a dog’s chance” to survive. Caught between corporate globalism’s media representations (or is it substitutions?) and the persisting poverty of their gender, the third world women badly need a room of their own in the global metropolitan village where they may be finally delivered from the gynocidal machine of patriarchy and into the world of the living. And Judith may at last rise from the unborn dead.

Work Cited

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Grafton, 1987.

Notes and References

1Helene Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”. New French Feminisms: An Anthology, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (New York: Schocken, 1981) 245-64.

2“What is indispensable is elaborating a culture of the sexual which does not yet exist, while respecting both genres.” Luce Irigaray, The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992) 32.

3Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. & ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1989) 38.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

(from Archives 2006)

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