Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Room of One's Own

by Virginia Woolf, 1929

This was an incredible work, mindblowing and provocative, putting intense subject matter and scope into a very short little account. Of the work I've read so far in 2010, it does the most with the least space, giving a fundamental feminist branching point for reflections on literature, politics, war, culture, family, psychology, the academy and identity. This final element is particularly effective, providing a rich understanding of how conditions of patriarchy determine not just power, not just social roles, but the very self. Starkly, this account delves into the scope of such politics, in framing how self-regard and the regard of others. Woolf perceives and expresses very clearly that men and women both have twisted psyches from the power disequilibrium, and some of her most resonant passages are the musings on why exactly the entrenched male intellectual elite show so much passion in denying female publications. Across the work there are areas where Woolf is no longer as applicable, where she reflects on conditions in our day that are substantively changed for the better. But this is far from total, and a lot of this writing still rings very true. That's not exactly a positive reflection on the state of our world ninety years later, but it makes this piece still a vital piece of thought for policy brokers and regular citizen here and now.

Perhaps the area Woolf most impressed me was her thorough understanding of how systemic realities and power structures work. Long before historians had really started taking cultural history seriously or understanding the role of discourses in positioning individuals, Woolf paints a clear understanding in the feminist context. Specifically, her question of what would happen to a woman of literary genius in a society where she cannot express herself poses some stark look at structures, while her answer (probably go insane) reveals again how fundamental this type of control is, how non-negotiable basic equality should be to avoid this kind of intergenerational anguish.

In addition to Woolf's effectiveness in analysis of many given topics, there's also a great energy and value to the way she moves from one angle of focus to another. There's apower fluidity in here that reflects both the power of her thought and the inherent interconnectivity of the issues she faces, women's place in literature leads smoothly into the cultural changes of Britain since the war, which leads to reflections on basic power distribution and the scope of nature. What the question ultimately returns to, and what Woolf powerfully voices, is how widespread the power gap is between men and women, how much the later have been abused, coerced and silenced, and how intolerable this situation is. Woolf's writing is self-consciously a record of main themes of that oppression and a challenge against it.

In a more minor note, it's a bit surprising to encounter repeated references to Mussolini as the archetypal figure of masculinized, militaristic fascism. Pre '33 that makes sense, and works as a reminder on how rapidly political symbols of evil and violence can shift in global vocabulary.

Similar to and better than: Woolf's Three Guineas

Similar to and worse than: Butler's Gender Trouble

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