Monthly Archives: October 2014

The gendered economics of literature

“…it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare’s day should have had Shakespeare’s genius. For genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people. …Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes” (600)

“One could not but play for a moment with the thought of what might have happened if Charlotte Bronte had possessed say three hundred a year — but thefoolish woman sold the copyright of of her novels outright for fifteen hundred pounds” (603)

In the “Shakespere’s Sister” and “Austen-Bronte-Eliot” passage of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, a trope that particularly stood out to me was Woolf’s depiction of economic discrepancies of gender. More specifically, women are more or less members of a lower strata. Cultural ideas of women may be the source of this economic distinction, but it is important to note culture’s inseparable connection to labor and economy. The relationship between cultural product (literature) and economy that Woolf depicts is particularly intriguing in identifying the relationship between two concepts we sometimes distinguish from one another, and further, Woolf adds the dimension of gender as an economic variable. (Sociologist Vivianna Zelizer offers three different possibilities for this relationship between culture and economy, all of which can be picked out of Woolf’s writing.)

A little more concerning the first excerpt from “Shakespeare’s Sister” – I think this idea of the economically disenfranchised being incapable of “genius” might be problematic. Of course, it depends on the definition of “genius”. This is part of the eternal nature vs. nurture dichotomy. Here, Woolf seems to take an almost solely “nurture” approach, which is certainly supported by the value of an individual’s cognition being determined by social structure, especially in terms of cultural production (“genius” being defined as far as literature goes seems hugely subject to the social, especially in terms of education). Nonetheless, the idea of “genius” may not be totally nailed down by socio-cultural values.

A women’s literature

Woolf is calling for the creation of an as-yet-unrealized form of feminine literature, or the expression of poetry, which circumstances have denied women the creation of. Woolf’s descriptions are suggestive rather than proscriptive. I think her own emphasis on erudition is part of her desire to explain women’s literature in relation to pre-existing literary traditions:

“Indeed, since freedom and fullness of expression are of the essence of the art, such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women. Moreover, a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes…. There is no reason to think that the form of the epic or of the poetic play suits a woman any more than the sentence suits her. …Yet who shall say that even now ‘the novel’… that even this most pliable of all forms is rightly shaped for her use?”

This notion of feminine art is difficult to reconcile with the excerpt from The Androgynous Vision, and Woolf’s call for an androgynous mind which “does not think specially or separately of sex.” (608) This state of being seems to presuppose an environment in which one faces no gender-based oppression (although this is not explicitly stated). Thus, it seems to remain impossible for women, but not for men.

Two Kinds of Negations with Subtle, yet Important, Differences

The public as a vital (perhaps central?) dimension of literary experience and yet hostile force is the point Woolf pressures in her except of “Shakespeare’s Sister.” Woolf frames the two greatest immaterial difficulties the public represents to the male and female geniuses in the following: “The world did not say to her as it said to [Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius], Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” (601).

Here, Woolf frames the different experienced relationships between the public and the gendered writers as well as projects an objective to writing depending on the sex of the author. For the man, the adversary of indifference indicates the objective of writing (for men) is to make a reaction and/or incite change. Woolf scrutinizes this as a position of privilege by presenting the image of the female author who cannot be admitted into literature at all. The female author envies the man of genius for having the opportunity to advance onto the world stage; yet, if there is no audience, how can any work live? The “guffaw” Woolf inserts is the rebuff of an egotistical, patriarchal society, yet the recognition of the individual, if even through the limitations of the sex to participate freely, excites the type of energy that the male author desires. Since the “guffaw” bruises the ego in assuming female writing cannot be useful–it cannot produce a “good” affect on society–the objective of writing for women is insinuated to be (initially, at least) utility. Being barred from the world stage is therefore the adversary, even though the public is, in fact, incited emotionally to “guffaw.”



Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own”

“Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination” (600).

Woolf uses these adjectives “twisted and deformed” again when she discusses Jane Austen. The pressures and patriarcal structure of society limits the possibilities of the novel (when written by a women.) This is of particular interest to me because I am preparing an honors thesis proposal involving interviews of writers at Rutgers about how their voice has “developed” under the pressures of living in a gendered body and subsequent self policing. I think Woolf is examining how being systematically stifled (she eventually writes about being confined to a common drawing room) created a writing that lacks a certain agency and lends a “looking glass” view of life.

Woolf on Freedom in Literature

“Charlotte Bronte, with all her splendid gift for prose, stumble and fell with that clumsy weapon in her hands…Jane Austen looked at it and laughed at it and devised a properly natural shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it. Thus, with less genius for writing than Charlotte Bronte, she got infinitely more said. Indeed since freedom and fullness of expression are the essence of the art, such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women” (Woolf, 606).”

Woolf’s argument seems to be that while it is understandable that women like Charlotte Bronte allowed their own oppression to infiltrate their narratives, it also was something that limited a text or novel and impaired the writer’s full potential of genius. This is why Woolf compares Bronte to Jane Austen, who wrote Pride and Prejudice with no hint of or influence from her own feelings of imprisonment or limitation as a woman. Instead, Austen worked within her own frame of reference instead of fighting or questioning it, as Bronte did by expressing her own longing for freedom. To Woof, this ability to craft and build a narrative that is free from limitations is essential to a writer’s “integrity”. However, I’m left to wonder if Austen can really be considered someone who was able to fully express herself when her work simply reflected her own world and world view, which was a limited one. As Woolf concludes, the social status and role of a woman could not avoid have a large impact on her writing, so mustn’t the same be true for Austen despite her “properly natural shapely sentence”?

#heforshe #writingisBS

“The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” (Woolf, 601)

There is a bitter taste to the pairing of these sentences. There is certainly a more biting tone to the latter especially with the accompaniment of the dramatic guffaw. However, the perceptions that Woolf depicts on the world’s attitude towards writing in general can be seen as equalized. The questions could be reversed and produce the same message: what’s the use of men writing when it makes no difference? What’s the use of anyone writing when it makes no difference?There is an underlying assumption that men possess the talent for writing because they can write if they choose, but the relevance of written creations from either sex is worthless. I recognize the misogynistic tone that Woolf relays above concerning the idea of women’s writing, however, what I can read beneath this layer of societal bullshit is that whatever anyone writes is not worth a damn anyway.

A Room of One’s Own

“…publicity in women is detestable. Anonymity runs in their blood. The desire to be veiled still possesses them” (Wolf, 600)

One of the most important dimensions of literary practice in Wolf’s feminist argument is that women were pushed to stay in their place despite any literary talent or interest that they may possess. She begins by comparing Shakespeare to his supposedly gifted sister, who is made to remain home and told to do chores rather than read or study theater. Wolf expresses how men deviated women away from their talents/ interest and instead pushed them to do their chores and get married. The fact that society ridiculed these women with hostility is why many women struggled, more than men, in attempting get their talents recognized. Because of the misogynist society at the time, the literary world is now missing out on the great works of art that we could have had!

Said’s “Darkness”

Said spends a good amount of time highlighting the ways imperialism has an effect on culture, and conversely, culture on imperialism. However, he begins an interesting argument about Conrad’s novel on page 29, when he states:

“Conrad’s genius allowed him to realize that the ever-present darkness could be colonized or illuminated – Heart of Darkness is full of references to the mission civilisatrice, to benevolent as well as cruel schemes to bring light to the dark places and the peoples of this world by acts of will and deployments of power – but that it also had to be acknowledged as independent.” (Said 29-30)

Conrad’s choice of the word “darkness” encompasses the physical color of the people, as well as the evils of imperialism encroaching on culture. Said utilizes Conrad’s text to illuminate the independence of the darkness as a power contrary to imperialism. It is not simply something to be conquered by imperialism, but a cultural entity that works throughout imperialist advancement while remaining separate from itself. Said insists, through analysis of Conrad, that while imperialism may progress, it does not mean the simultaneous retreat of darkness. Rather. it emphasizes the darkness of imperialism disguised as “mission civilisatrice“, and in opposition, the light that comes from the “darkness” as a culture.

Shuttling between Personal and Thematic

Said’s method of argument seeks to establish a dialogue between the personal and thematic levels, which he accomplishes by making small concedes between the two levels until finally arriving at the moment of contact. For example, he initiates his conversation about Heart of Darkness with the broad statement that “domination and inequities of power and wealth are perennial facts of human society.” He then guides the argument using a theoretical argument that if “you tell Arabs or Africans that they belong to a basically sick or unregenerate culture, you are unlikely to convince them” and marks the point of convergence by stating “the history of this stand-off is manifest throughout colonies where white masters were once unchallenged but finally driven out” (19). Personally, I find this method appropriate for a critique of Heart of Darkness because it effectively replicates the narrative tendency Conrad employs to shuttle between an intimate account of racism and the greater theological implications his novel seeks to illuminate.