Women and Creativity: The Demise of the Dancing Dog

PART III Woman work

Young women,... you are, in my opinion,
disgracefully ignorant.
You have never made a discovery of any importance.
You have never shaken an empire or led an
army into battle, The plays of Shakespeare are not
by you, and you have never introduced a barbarous
race to the blessings of civilization.
What is your excuse?
- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

No comradely socialist legislation on women's
behalf could accomplish a millionth of what
a bit more muscle tissue, gratuitously offered
by nature, might do...
 -  Elizabeth Hardwick, A View of One's Own

Several years ago I devoted a year to Examining the Minds of the Young. It was a curious experience, like going into theatre after theatre in a single night, and catching bits of first acts only. How will the heroine's character develop? Will the hero turn out to be captain of his fate or only of some minor industry? I never arrived at the second act, and undoubtedly I will never be witness to the denouement. But what I saw of all those beginnings was extraordinary: they were all so similar. All the characters were exactly the same age, and most had equal limitations of imagination and aspiration. Is »the individual«, I wondered, a sacred certainty, and the human mind infinitely diversified,  as we are always being told? Examine for yourself the Minds of the Young and it is possible you will begin to think the opposite. Democratic theory is depressingly correct in declaring all men equal. Just as every human hand is limited at birth by its five fingers, so is every human mind stamped from a single, equally Obvious, pattern. »I have never in all my various travels seen but two sorts of people, and those very like one another; I mean men and women, who always have been,  and ever will be,  the  same«, wrote  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the middle of the eighteenth century. Human nature is one.
The vantage point from which I came to these not unusual conclusions was not from reading the great philosophers, or even from reading Lady Mary - it was from a job. I was hired by a large urban university to teach English to freshmen: three classes of nearly a hundred young men and young women, all seventeen, some city-born, some suburban, some well-off, some only scraping by, of every ethnic group and of every majority religion but Hindu. Almost all were equipped with B high school averages; almost all were more illiterate than not; almost all possessed similar prejudices expressed in identical platitudes. Almost all were tall, healthy, strong-toothed, obedient, and ignorant beyond their years. They had, of course, very few ideas - at seventeen this can hardly be called a failing; but the ideas they had were plainly derived not from speculation but from indoctrination. They had identical minuscule vocabularies,  made  identical  errors  of grammar and punctuation, and were identically illogical. They were identically uneducated, and the minds of the uneducated young women were identical with the minds of the uneducated young men.
Now this last observation was the least surprising of all. Though unacquainted with the darkest underbrush of the human mind (and here it must be emphatically decreed that deep scrutiny, at indecently short intervals, of one hundred freshman themes is the quickest and most scarifying method of achieving intimacy with the human mind in its rawest state), I had never doubted that the human mind was a democratic whole - that it was androgynous, epicene, asexual: call it what you will; it had always seemed axiomatic to me that the minds of men and women were indistinguishable. My students confirmed this axiom to the last degree.
You could not tell the young men's papers from the young women's papers. They thought alike (badly), they wrote alike (gracelessly), and  they believed  alike (docilely). And what they all believed was this: that the minds of men and women are spectacularly unlike.
They believed that men write like men, and women like women that men think like men, and women like women; that men believe like men, and women like women. And they were all identical in this belief.
But I have said,  after all, that they were  alike in illiteracy, under-education, ignorance, and prejudice.
Still, to teach at a university is not simply to teach; the teacher is a teacher among students, but he is also a teacher among teachers. He has colleagues, and to have colleagues is to have high exchanges, fruitful discourses, enlightening quarrels. Colleagues, unlike Students, are not merely literate but breathtakingly literary; not merely educated but bent under the weight of multitudinous higher degrees; not merely informed but dazzlingly knowledgeable; not merely unprejudiced but brilliantly questing. And my colleagues believed exactly what my students believed.
My colleagues were, let it be noted, members of the Department of English in the prestige college of an important university. I was, let it be revealed, the only woman instructor in that department. Some years before, the college had been all male. Then the coeds were invited in, and now and then in their wake a woman was admitted, often reluctantly, to the faculty. Before my own admittance, I had been living the isolated life of a writer - my occupation for some years had consisted in reading great quantities and in writing embarrassingly tiny quantities. I was, I suppose, not in that condition generally known as »being in touch with the world«. I was in touch with novels, poetry, essays, enlarging meditations; but of »the world«, as it turned out, I apparently knew little.
I came to the university in search of the world. I had just finished an enormous novel, the writing of which had taken many more years than any novel ought to take, and after so long a retreat my lust for the world was prodigious. I wanted Experience, I wanted to sleep under bridges - but finding that all the bridges had thickly trafficked clover-leafs under them, I came instead to the university. I came innocently. I had believed, through all those dark and hope-sickened years of writing, that it was myself (myself - whatever that means for each of us) who was doing the writing. In the university, among my colleagues, I discovered two essential points: (1) that it was a »woman« who had done the writing - not a mind -  and that I was a »woman writer«; and (2) that I was now not a teacher, but a »woman teacher«.
I was suspect from the beginning - more so among my colleagues than among my students. My students, after all, were accustomed to the idea of a »woman teacher«, having recently been taught by several in high school. But my colleagues were long out of high school, and they distrusted me. I learned that I had no genuinely valid opinions, since every view I might hold was colored by my sex. If I said I didn't like Hemingway, I could have no critical justification, no literary reason; it was only because, being a woman, I obviously could not be sympathetic toward Hemingway's »masculine« subject matter -  the hunting, the fishing, the bullfighting which no woman could adequately digest. It goes without saying that among my colleagues there were other Hemingway dissenters; but their reasons for disliking Hemingway, unlike mine, were not taken to be simply ovarian.
In fact, both my students and my colleagues were equal adherents of the Ovarian Theory of Literature, or, rather, its complement, the Testicular Theory. A recent camp follower (I cannot call him a pioneer) of this explicit theory is, of course, Norman Mailer, who has attributed his own gift, and the literary gift in general, solely and directly to the possession of a specific pair of organs. One writes with these organs, Mailer has said in Advertisements for Myself; and I have always wondered with what shade of ink he manages to do it.
I recall my first encounter with the Ovarian Theory. My students had been assigned the reading of Wise Blood, the novella by Flannery O'Connor. Somewhere in the discussion I referred to the author as »she«. The class stirred in astonishment; they had not imagined that »Flannery« could connote a woman, and this somehow put a different cast upon the narrative and their response to it. Now among my students there was a fine young woman, intelligent and experimental rather than conforming, one of my rare literates, herself an anomaly because she was enrolled in the overwhelmingly male College of Engineering. I knew that her mind usually sought beyond the commonplace - she wrote with the askew glance of the really inquisitive. Up went her hand. »But I could tell she was a woman«, she insisted. »Her sentences are a woman's sentences«. I asked her what she meant and how she could tell. »Because they're sentimental«, she said, »they're not concrete like a man's«. I pointed out whole paragraphs, pages even, of unsentimental, so-called tough prose. »But she sounds like a woman - she has to sound that way because she is«, said the future engineer, while I speculated whether her bridges and buildings would loom plainly as woman's work. Moreover, it rapidly developed that the whole class now declared that it too, even while ignorant of the author's sex, had nevertheless intuited all along that this was a woman's prose; it had to be, since Flannery was a she.
My second encounter with the idea of literature-as-physiology was odder yet. This time my interlocutor was a wonderfully gentle, deeply intellectual, young fellow teacher; he was going to prove what my freshmen had merely maintained. »But of course style is influenced by physical make-up«, he began in his judicious graduate-assistant way. Here was his incontrovertible evidence: »Take Keats, right? Keats fighting tuberculosis at the end of his life. You don't suppose Keats's poetry was totally unaffected by his having had tuberculosis?« And he smiled with the flourish of a young man who has made an unanswerable point. »Ah, but you don't suppose«, I put it to him cheerfully enough, »that being a woman is a disease?«
But comparing literary women with having a debilitating disease is the least of it. My colleague, after all, was a kindly sort, and stuck to human matters; he did not mention dogs. On the other hand, almost everyone remembers Dr. Johnson's remark upon hearing a woman preacher - she reminded him, he said, of a dog dancing on its hind legs; one marvels not at how well it is done, but that it is done at all. That was two centuries ago; wise Lady Mary was Johnson's contemporary. Two centuries, and the world of letters had not been altered by a syllable, unless you regard the switch from dogs to disease as a rudimentary advance. Perhaps it is. We have advanced so far that the dullest as well as the best of freshmen can scarcely be distinguished from Dr. Johnson, except by a bark.
And our own Dr. Johnson - I leave you to guess his name - hoping to insult a rival writer, announces that the rival »reminds me of nothing so much as a woman writer«.
Consider, in this vein, the habits of reviewers. I think I can say in good conscience that I have never - repeat, never - read a review of a novel or, especially, of a collection of poetry by a woman which did not include somewhere in its columns a gratuitous allusion to the writer's sex and its supposed effects. The Ovarian Theory of Literature is the property of all society, not merely of freshmen and poor Ph.D. lackeys: you will find it in all the best periodicals, even the most highbrow. For example: a few years ago a critic in The New York Review of Books considered five novels, three of which were by women. And so his review begins: »Women novelists, we have learned to assume, like to keep their focus narrow«. And from this touchstone - with no ground other than the »we have learned to assume« - falls his praise and his censure. The touchstone, of course, is properly qualified, as such touchstones always are, by reverent asides concerning the breadth of George Eliot and the grasp of Jane Austen. Ah, indispensable George and Jane! They have come into the world, one concludes, only to serve as exceptions to the strictures of reviewers; and they are exceptions. Genius always is; it is how genius is defined. But if the exception is to be dragged into every routine review of novelists and poets who are women, then the rule must drop equally on all. Let every new poet, male and female, be reviewed in the shadow of Emily Dickinson and Coleridge. Let every unknown novelist, male and female, be reviewed in the blaze of Anna Karenina and Wuthering Heights. If this seems like nonsense, then reviewers must take merit as their point of concentration, not the flap of skirts, not the glibbest of literary canards.
Still, the canards are, in their way, great fun, being as flexible and fragile as other toys. A collection of canards is bound to be a gaggle of contradictions. When, for instance, my bright engineering student identified Flannery O'Connor as »sentimental«, she was squarely in one-half of a diluvial, though bifurcated, tradition. Within this tradition there are two hoary veins of woman. One: she is sentimental, imprecise, irrational, overemotional, impatient, unperseveringly flighty, whimsical, impulsive, unreliable, unmechanical, not given to practicality, perilously vague, and so on. In this view she is always contrasted with man, who is, on the other hand, unsentimental, exact, rational, controlled, patient, hard-headed, mechanically gifted, a meeter of payrolls, firm of purpose, wary of impulse, anything but a dreamer. Description One accounts for why throughout her history she has been a leader neither of empires nor of trades nor of armies. But it is also declared that, her nature having failed her in the practical, world, she cannot succeed in the world of invention either; she is unequipped, for example, for poetry, in that (here is Description Two) she is above all pragmatic, Sensible and unsentimental, unvisionary, unadventurous, empirical, conservative, down-to-earth, unspontaneous, perseveringly patient and thus good at the minutiae of mechanical and manipulative tasks, and essentially unimaginative. In short, she will wander too much or she will wander not at all. She is either too emotional or she is not emotional enough. She is either too spontaneous or she is not spontaneous enough. She is either too sensitive (that is why she cannot be president of General Motors) or she is not sensitive enough (that is why she will never write King Lear).
But none of this is to imply that woman is damned, and damned from every direction. Not at all. The fact is that woman qua woman is more often celebrated. If she cannot hear the Muse, says Robert Graves, what does it matter? She is the Muse. Man Does, Woman Is is the title of Grave's most recent collection of poetry. If we are expected to conclude from this that woman is an It rather than a Thou (to use Martin Buber's categories), why deplore it? The Parthenon too is beautiful, passive, inspiring. Who would long to build it, if one can be it?
And even this is unfair, for it is simultaneously true that woman is frequently praised as the more »creative« sex. She does not need to make poems, it is argued; she has no drive to make poems, because she is privileged to make babies. A pregnancy is as fulfilling as, say, Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium. Here is an interesting idea worth examination. To begin with, we would have to know what it cost Yeats - I am speaking physically - to wring out a poem of genius. Perhaps we cannot know this. The writing of great and visionary literature is not a common experience and is not readily explorable. A. E. Housman - a lesser poet than Yeats, to be sure, though as pure a one - said of the genesis of a poem that it affected his flesh: that if a wisp of a line came to him while he was in the middle of shaving, for instance, he could sense the bristles standing on end. Most poets, if they speak of it at all, report extreme exhaustion accompanied by supreme exaltation. Yeats himself spoke of the poet living amid whirlwinds.  Virginia Woolf,  a writer of a kind of prose very near poetry in tone and aspiration, was racked in the heat of composition by seizures of profoundly tormenting headaches. Isaac Babel called himself a »galley slave«. Conrad was in a frenzy for weeks on end - «I turn in this vicious circle and the work itself becomes like the work in a treadmill - a thing without joy - a punishing task. ... I am at it day after day, and I want all day, every minute of a day, to produce a beggarly tale of words or perhaps to produce nothing at all.... One's will becomes a slave of hallucinations, responds only to shadowy impulses, waits on imagination alone«. Dostoevski said plainly: »I worked  and was tortured«. Flaubert wrote, »You don't know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word«. Tolstoy told a friend, »One ought only to write when one leaves a piece of flesh in the ink-pot each time one dips one's pen«. For Isak Dinesen,  the  »great and difficult task« was pursued »without faith and without hope«. And George Eliot said of the writing of Romola - it occupied two years - that she began it young, and finished it old.
That is what »creativity« is. Is a pregnancy like that? The fact is, given health (and one must never assume the abnormal, since being a woman is really not like having a disease), the condition of pregnancy is - in the consciousness - very nearly like the condition of non-pregnancy. It is insulting to a poet to compare his titanic and agonized strivings with the so-called »creativity« of childbearing, where - consciously - nothing happens. One does not will the development of the fetus; one can be as dull or as active, or as bored or as intense, as one pleases - anything else is mere self-absorption and daydream: the process itself is as involuntary and as unaware as the beating of one's own heart. Of course, it is a miracle that one's heart goes on beating, that the fetus goes on growing - but it is not a human miracle, it is Nature's miracle. If we want to talk about Nature, very well - but now we are talking about literature. To produce a new human being out of a pair of cells is a marvel, but it is not our marvel. Once we, male and female, have joined two disparate cells by our human wills, the rest is done for us, not by us. The woman's body is a vessel, thereafter, for a parasite. For the presence of the parasite she is thereafter no more responsible than she is for the presence of her intestinal tract. To call a child a poem may be a pretty metaphor, but it is a slur on the labor of art. Literature cannot be equated with physiology, and woman through her reproductive system alone is no more a creative artist than was Joyce by virtue of his kidneys alone, or James by virtue of his teeth (which, by the way, were troublesome). A poem emerges from a mind, and mind is, so far as our present knowledge takes us, an unknowable abstraction. Perhaps it is a compliment to a woman of no gifts to say of her in compensation, »Ah, well, but she has made a child«. But that is a cheap and slippery mythology, and a misleading one. It induces the false value of self-inflation in mediocre women. It is scarcely our duty to compliment the mediocre for their mediocrity when we are hardly employed enough in celebrating the gifted for their gifts, wrung out by the toil of desire and imagination. It takes something away from Yeats to compare a mediocre child - and most children, like most parents, are mediocre - with Sailing to Byzantium. But it is just as irrelevant to compare a brilliant child with a brilliant poem. Biology is there: it does not need our praise, and if we choose to praise it, it is blasphemous to think we are praising not God but ourselves.[1]
All this is, one would think, almost stupefyingly obvious. It is embarrassing, it is humiliating, to be so obvious about the quality either of literature or of woman. She, at any rate, is not a Muse, nor is she on the strength of her womb alone an artist. She is - how stupidly obvious - a person. She can be an artist if she was born talented. She can be a Muse if she inspires a poet, but she too (if she was born talented) can find her own Muse in another person. Mme. de Sevigne's Muse was her daughter, and what male Muse it was who inspired Emily Bronte's Heathcliffe, history continues to conjecture. The Muse -  pace Robert Graves - has no settled sex or form, and can appear in the shape of a tree {Howard's End) or a city (the Paris of The Ambassadors) or even - think of Proust - a cookie.
Yet in our culture, in our country, much is not obvious.
With respect to woman and with respect to literature (I refer you again to the reviewers), ours is among the most backward areas on earth. It is true that woman has had the vote for fifty years  and  has  begun  to  enter  most professions, though often without an invitation. We are far past the grievances Virginia Woolf grappled with in A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas - books which are still sneered at as »feminist«.  In  1929,  when Virginia Woolf visited Oxford (or was it Cambridge? she is too sly to say which), she was chased off a lawn forbidden to the feet of women.  By then,  of course,  our colleges were already full of coeds, though not so full as now. And yet the question of justification remains. Only a few months ago, in my own college, a startling debate was held -  »Should a Woman Receive a College Education?« The audience was immense, but the debaters were only three: an instructor in anthropology (female), a professor of history (male), and a fiercely bearded professor of psychology (ostentatiously male). According to the unironic conventions of chivalry, the anthropologist spoke first. She spoke of opportunities and of problems. She spoke of living wholly and well. She did not ignore the necessities and difficulties of housekeeping and child-rearing; she spoke of the relations of parents, children, and work-in-the-world; she talked extensively about nursery schools. She took as her premise not merely that women ought to be fully educated, but that her education should be fully used in society. She was reasoned and reasonable; she had a point of view. Perhaps it was a controversial point of view, perhaps not - her listeners  never had the  chance  of a serious evaluation. Her point of view was never assailed or refuted. It was overlooked. She spoke - against mysterious whispered cackles in the audience - and sat. Then up rose the laughing psychologist, and cracked jokes through his  beard. Then  up rose the laughing historian, and cracked jokes through his field - I especially remember one about the despotism of Catherine the Great. »That's what happens when a woman gets emancipated«. Laughter from all sides.  Were  the historian and the psychologist laughing at the absurdity of the topic the callow students' committee had selected for debate? An absurd topic - it deserves to be laughed out of court, and surely that is exactly what is happening, for here in the audience are all these  coeds,  censuring  and  contradicting  by  their very presence the outrageous  question.  Yet look  again: the coeds are laughing too. Everyone is laughing the laughter of mockery. They are not laughing at the absurdly callow topic. They are laughing at the buffoonery of the historian and the psychologist, who are themselves laughing at the subject of the topic: the whole huge room, packed to the very doors and beyond with mocking boys and girls, is laughing at the futility of an educated woman. She is the absurdity.
The idea of an educated woman is not yet taken seriously in American universities. She is not chased off the campus, she is even welcomed there - but she is not taken seriously as a student, and she will not be welcomed if she hopes to return as a serious lifelong scholar. Nor will she be welcomed afterward in the »world«. A law firm may hire her, but it will hide her in its rear research offices, away from the eyes of clients. The lower schools will receive her, as they always have, for she is their bulwark; their bulwark, but not their principal, who is a man. We have seen her crawling like Griselda through the long ordeal of medicine: she is almost always bound to be a pediatrician, for it is in her nature to »work with children«.
I will not forget the appalling laughter of the two mocking debaters. But it was not so appalling as the laughter of the young men and the young women in the audience. In the laughter of the historian and the psychologist I heard the fussy cry - a cry of violated venerable decorum, no doubt - of the beadle who chased Virginia Woolf off the grass in 1929. But what of that youthful mockery? Their laughter was hideous; it showed something ugly and self-shaming about the nature of our society and the nature of our education - and by »our education« I do not mean the colleges, I mean the kindergartens, I mean the living-rooms at home, I mean the fathers and the mothers, the men and the women.
In this country the women, by and large, are at home. Let us consider that first. Most of the women are at home. Why are they at home? Well, plainly because they belong there. They are there to rear the children, and if they have a whole lot of children (in our country they have an amazing number of children, without regard to the diet of algae they are imposing on their children's children), there will usually be a helpless baby. The mother is at home to take care of the helpless baby. That is right and reasonable. Everyone agrees - Nature agrees, the father agrees, Society agrees. Society agrees? That is very interesting. That too is an idea worth examination. It is very useful for society to have the mother at home. It keeps her out of the way. If, say, she stopped at only two children (but if she stopped at only two she would be in danger of reducing the birth rate, which now rivals India's), those two might be half-grown, and safely shut up in a school building most of the day, by the time she is thirty-five. And if she were thirty-five - a young, healthy, able, educated thirty-five - with no helpless baby to keep her at home, and most of the day free, what would she do? Society shudders at the possibility: she might want to get a job. But that would never do. Why, if you counted up all the young, healthy, able, educated, free women of thirty-five, it might come to nearly half the population! And, as things stand now, there are not even enough jobs for the other half of the population, the truly breadwinning half. And what about all those three-quarters-grown persons we call adolescents? Society shudders at them too: the economy is an inn with no room for adolescents and women. But if it will not allow adolescents and women to share in its work (How can it? So much of the work is done by machines), society must at least provide something else to keep the adolescents and women occupied, if only artificially. So, out of the largesse of its infinitely adaptable lap, it gives women knitting and adolescents transistor radios to dance to. (And for the adolescents of even mediocre capacities - here there is not so much discrimination by sex - it comes up with colleges, and fraudulent debates, and more dancing.) Society provides a complete -  and in essence custodial - culture for each group it is forced to keep out of the way. It is a culture of busywork and make-believe and distraction. Society is very clever and always has been. Once upon a time, before machines, women and adolescents were needed and used to the last degree in the economy. Women were not educated because an unautomated house requires a work horse to maintain it, and a woman who cannot read or write is somehow better at hauling water in from the pump than one who can. (Why this should be, only the experience of society can explain.) But now society - so long as we fail to renovate it  - can furnish work for only a quarter of the population, and so the rest must be lured into thinking it is performing a job when it is really not doing anything beyond breathing.
That is why there are in our society separate minority cultures for adolescents and for women. Each has its own set of opinions, prejudices, tastes, values, and - do not underestimate this last - magazines. You and I are here concerned only with the culture of women. Society, remember, is above men and women; it acts in men and women. So you must not make the mistake of thinking that the culture of women is the conspiracy of men. Not in the least. That is an old-fashioned, bluestocking view of the matter, and it is erroneous. The culture of women is believed in by both men and women, and it is the conspiracy of neither, because it is the creature neither of men alone, nor of women alone, but of society itself - that autonomous, cunning, insensitive sibling of history.
The culture of women consists in many, many things -  products as well as attitudes, but attitudes mostly. The attitudes generate the products, and the products utilize the attitudes. The most overriding attitude is summed up in a cult word: »home«. (Notice that builders do not sell houses, they sell homes - a case of attitude and product coalescing.) But what does »Home« mean? It means curtains, rugs, furniture, a boiler in the cellar, magazines with dress patterns and recipes and articles full of adulterated Freud, a dog, a box of cereal bones for the dog, a kitchen floor that conscience insists must be periodically waxed, and so forth: but mostly, of course, it means »Children«. And »Children« are not regarded as incomplete or new persons, as unformed destinies, as embryo participants in the society; above all, they are not regarded simply as children: they are a make-believe entity in themselves, a symbol of need and achievement, just as the dog biscuits (not real bones) are a make-believe entity in themselves (does the dog think they are real?). »Children« as a concept have, in their present incarnation, a definite function, which is to bolster the whole airy system of make-believe. »Children« are there to justify »Home«; and »Home« is there to justify a third phantom entity - the heroine of the fairy tale, also an invention and an abstraction, the »Homemaker«.
In this sense, neither »Home« nor »Children« nor »Homemaker« has any reality at all. All are dissemblances, fables, daydreams. All are abstractions designed to give the prestige of sham significance to a fairy tale. Nothing here is in the least related to living persons or to life itself. »Home« and »Children« and »Homemaker« are fabrications in the same sense that a bank is a fabrication: we pretend we are passing something called money, but meanwhile a bookkeeper (that is, a computer) is simply balancing the columns in an account book, more on this side of the line, less on that side. If we should all insist on exchanging metal again, the bank fabrication would dissolve. And when the »Children« grow up a little, refuse to be players in the game of gauze, and insist at last on being real persons, does »Home« dissolve, does »Homemaker« dissolve? Only partially. Because now society steps in and sweeps up the remains under the heading of »Womanhood«. The children go away, the dog dies, the house wears out, but »Womanhood« is eternal. Its possessor, the creature in whom »Womanhood« is immanent (divinely as it were), has her magazines to prove her reality - her reality, mind you, as a concept called »Woman«, endowed with another concept called »Womanhood«; she has the benevolent chorus of society to prove it, she has the bearded psychologist and the professor of history to prove it, she has the laughing girls and boys to prove it.
They »prove« it perhaps - the Ptolemaic system was also in error, and its proofs were magnificent - but they do not justify her. No fabrication can be justified. Only a person can be justified. A person is justified by the quality of his life; but a daydream is not a life, no matter how many propose to declare it so.
This is our »problem« - the problem of a majority's giving its credence and its loyalty to a daydream. And it is a bigger problem than any other we know of in this country, for the plain and terrifying reason that we have not even considered it to be a problem. Whenever the cliche-question is put, »What is the number one problem in America today?« the cliche-answer comes: »Civil rights - the Black Revolution«. Scarcely. The solution to that problem is there - we have only to catch up to it, with all our might. If the debate at my college had dealt with civil rights it would have been serious, passionate, and argumentative. We had a Vietnam teach-in: it was serious and passionate and argumentative. But until now no one has been serious and passionate, and certainly no one has been argumentative, concerning attitudes about woman. Once a problem has been articulated, the answer is implicit; the answer is already fated. But this problem was never articulated; there was no answer, because no one ever asked the question. It was a question that had not yet found its Baldwin. Its substance was, on every level, the stuff of primitive buffoonery.
Virginia  Woolf  is  the artist-pioneer, the  Margaret-Sanger-as-bard, so to speak, of this social question.
Among  artists she has no successor. Not until art has seized and possessed and assimilated this question will it begin to interest the scientist-humanists.
But what are the components of the question? Perhaps they can once again crudely be set out, though they are so old and so tiresome, though we have no poet to speak them forth once and for all, though we handle them with the weariness of overuse. Here they are: no great female architects, painters, playwrights, sailors, bridge-builders, jurists, captains, composers, etc., etc. Everyone knows that list; everyone can recite it at length, now and then hesitating to allow for a Saint Joan or an empress or an influential courtesan or a salon wit. But the list of omissions is long, as long almost as history, or, to use a more telling simile, as long almost as the history of the Jews.
And here I think of a curious analogy. Say what you will about the gifted Jews, they have never, up until times so recent that they scarcely begin to count, been plastic artists. Where is the Jewish Michelangelo, the Jewish Rembrandt, the Jewish Rodin? He has never come into being. Why? Have oppression and persecution erased the possibility of his existence? Hardly. Oppression and persecution often tend to reinforce gifts; to proscribe is more effective than to prescribe. Where then is the Jewish Michelangelo? Is it possible that a whole people cannot produce a single painter? And not merely a single painter of note, but a single painter at all? Well, there have been artists among the Jews - artisans, we should more likely call them, decorators of trivial ceremonial objects, a wine cup here, a scroll cover there. Talented a bit, but nothing great. They never tried their hand at wood or stone or paint. »Thou shalt have no graven images« - the Second Commandment - prevented them. And it is not until a very, very little while ago, under the influence of a movement called »Emancipation« or »Enlightenment«, that we begin to see creeping in a Chagall, a Modigliani, an Epstein, who have ceased to believe that art insults the Unity of God. It will be a long, long time before the Jews have their Michelangelo. Before a »David« can happen, a thousand naked Apollos must be hewn. (And Apollo did insult the Unity of God.) There must be a readied ground, a preparation - in short, a relevant living culture to frame the event.
The same, I think, with our problem. Gifts and brains are not transmitted, like hemophilia, from the immune sex to the susceptible sex. Genius is the property of both sexes and all nations alike. That is the humanist view. The Jews have had no artists not because they have had no genius for art, but because their image of themselves as a culture inhibited the exercise of the latent gift. And all those nonexistent female Newtons and Bachs and Leonardos and Shakespeares (all? surely they would be very few indeed, so rare is genius of that degree) - they have had no more chance of leaping from the prison of their societal fates than any Greek slave, or a nomad's child in Yemen today. The emancipation of women is spectacularly new. As with what we now call the Black Revolution, it is clear that emancipation does not instantly result in achievement. Enlightenment must follow. And the enlightenment has, for women, and especially by women, not yet occurred.
It has not yet occurred even at the most expressive point of all - in the universities. It is the function of a liberal university not to give right answers, but to ask right questions. And the ultimate humanist question, as we have seen, has not yet been expressed (my students had never in all their lives heard it put); the components of the unrealized question, as we have seen, are the experiences and needs and omissions and premises of a culture. A culture can have a seemingly unchanging premise, and then suddenly it will change; hence, among the Jews, Chagall and Modigliani and Epstein; hence, in literature, the early epistolary artists - Mme. de Sevigne and Lady Mary - and then, close on their heels, the genius novelists, Jane and George. Literature was the first to begin it, since literature could be pursued privately and at home. But here let us listen to Elizabeth Hardwick: »Who is to say that Remembrance of Things Past is >better< than the marvelous Emma? War and Peace better than Middlemarch! Moby Dick superior to La Princess de Clèves? But everybody says so! It is only the whimsical, the cantankerous, the eccentric... who would say that any literary work by a woman, marvelous as these may be, is on a level with the very greatest accomplishments of men«.[2] I am not sure it is whimsical, cantankerous, or eccentric not to feel the need to make such distinctions, but even if the distinctions are justified - perhaps they are, I cannot tell - who is to say that Emma and Middlemarch and La Princess de Clèves are not simply forerunners? In England Lady Mary preceded Jane. In France Mme. de Sevigne preceded George Sand. Cultivation precedes fruition. Perhaps - we cannot have our great women architects, painters, playwrights, sailors, bridge-builders, jurists, captains, composers, and so forth, until we have run-of-the-mill women in these roles, until all that is a commonplace - until in short, women enter into the central stream of mankind's activities, until woman-as-person becomes as flat and unremarked a tradition as man-as-person. Reproduction, trick it out as you will in this or that myth, is still only reproduction, a natural and necessary biological function, and biology, however fancied up with tribal significance and mystical implication, is not enough. Unless you are on the extreme verge of death, it is never enough just to keep on breathing.
Even woman's differing muscular capacity - much is made of this, unsurprisingly - is, in the age of the comprehensive machine, an obstacle to almost no pursuit. It would be difficult to insist that a woman on board the sort of ship Conrad describes in that remarkable novella Youth would be as efficient as most male members of the crew; but muscle is no longer an issue anywhere. Evolution has now become, in Julian Huxley's words, a »psychosocial process« - that is, man is now able consciously to contribute to his own development. He lives, Huxley writes, »not only in relation with the physicochemical and biological environment provided by nature, but with the psychosocial environment of material and mental habitats which he has himself created«, and those habitats include the muscle-augmenting machine and its incalculable influences. Might a woman have written Youth? Who would dare to say yes? In Conrad's day - in the scope of technology a very short time ago - almost no woman and very few men could have the stamina to wrest out Conrad's incredible sea experience. Yet the machine widens experience for everyone and equalizes the physical endurance of men and women. A long journey is no longer a matter of muscle, but of jet schedules. Presumably it will become harder and harder to maintain that novelists who are women are condemned to a narrower focus than men because their fives are perforce narrower. The cult of Experience is, more and more, accessible to anyone who wishes to be lured by it: though it might well be argued that novels and poems grow out of something other than raw physical experience. »It is not suggested«, Elizabeth Hardwick continues, »that muscles write books, but there is a certain sense in which, talent and experience being equal, they may be considered a bit of an advantage. In the end, it is in the matter of experience that women's disadvantage is catastrophic. It is very difficult to know how this may be extraordinarily altered«.[3] Huxley's self-propelled evolutionary view is more optimistic, though perhaps both views, Hardwick's and Huxley's are at bottom equally irrelevant to the making of literature, which is, after all, as unknown a quantity as mind itself.
The question is then, I believe, a question touching at least peripherally on art. Not merely literary art, but all the human arts, including those we call science. And I have ventured that the question must be formulated as a humanistic issue, not a sectarian one, not a divisive one. Art must belong to all human beings, not alone to a traditionally  privileged  segment;  every  endeavor,  every passion must be available to the susceptible adult, without the intervention of myth or canard. Woman will cease solely to be man's Muse - an It (as she is, curiously, for writers as disparate as Graves and Mailer, as she was for Freud) - and will acquire Muses of her own when she herself ceases to be bemused with gaudy daydreams and romances - with lies reinforcing lies - about her own nature. She limits - she self-limits - her aspirations and her expectations. She joins the general mockery at her possibilities. I have heard her laughing at herself as though she were a dancing dog. You have seen her regard her life as a disease to be constantly tended and pacified. She does not yet really believe that she is herself  accessible to poetry or science: she wills these into her sons, but not into her daughters. She surrounds herself with the devices and manipulations of an identity that is not an identity. Without protest she  permits  the  intractable  momentum  of society to keep her from its worthiness and larger adventures, from its expressive labor. She lives among us like a docile captive; a consuming object; an accomplice; an It. She has even been successfully persuaded to work for and at her own imprisonment. No one can deny that imprisonment offers advantages,  especially to the  morally lazy. There have been slaves who have rejoiced in their slavery (think of the Children of Israel yearning day and night for the fleshpots of Egypt), and female infantilism is a kind of pleasurable slavishness. Dependency, the absence of decisions and responsibility, the avoidance of risk, the shutting out of the gigantic toil of art - all these are the comforts of the condoning contented subject, and when these are combined, as they are in this country, with excessive leisure it would almost seem that woman has a vested interest in her excluded role. If one were to bow to the tempting idea that her role has come about through a conspiracy (as it could not have, for custom is no plot), it would appear as though it were a conspiracy of sluggish women, and never of excluding men. The fervor and energies of the women who are not lazy, those rare activist personalities who feel the call of a Cause, are thrown pragmatically [4] into the defense of that easy and comfortable role; the barricades of the pleasant prison are manned - no, womanned - by the inmates themselves, to prevent the rebels from breaking out.
But the rebels are few.
That is because, among us, for a long time no one rebelled, no one protested, no one wanted to renovate or liberate, no one asked any fundamental question. We have had, alas, and still have, the doubtful habit of reverence. Above all, we respect things as they are. If we want to step on the moon, it is not to explore an unknown surface or divine a new era, but to bolster ourselves at home, among the old home rivals; there is more preening than science in that venture, less boldness than bravado. We are so placid that the smallest tremor of objection to anything at all is taken as a full-scale revolution. Should any soul speak up in favor of the obvious, it is taken as a symptom of the influence of the left, the right, the pink, the black, the dangerous. An idea for its own sake - especially an obvious idea - has no respectability.
Among my students - let us come back to them, for they are our societal prototypes - all this was depressingly plain. That is why they could not write intelligibly - no one had ever mentioned the relevance of writing to thinking, and thinking had never been encouraged or induced in them. By »thinking« I mean, of course, not the simple ability to make equations come out right, but the devotion to speculation on that frail but obsessive distraction known as the human condition. My students - male and female -  did not need to speculate on what goals are proper to the full life; male and female, they already knew their goals.
And their goals were identical. They all wanted to settle down into a perpetual and phantom coziness. They were all at heart sentimentalists - and sentimentalists, Yeats said, are persons »who believe in money, in position, in a marriage bell, and whose understanding of happiness is to be so busy whether at work or play, that all is forgotten but the momentary aim«. Accordingly, they had all opted, long ago, perhaps at birth, for the domestic life, the enclosed life, the restricted life - the life, in brief, of the daydream, into which the obvious must not be permitted to thrust its scary beams.
By the »obvious« I mean, once again, the gifts and teachings and life illuminations of art. The methods of art RTe Variegated, flexible, abstruse, and often enough mysterious But the burden of art is obvious: here is the world, here are human beings, here is childhood here is struge, here is hate, here is old age, here is death. None of these is a fantasy,  a romance,  or a sentiment none is an imagining; all are obvious. A culture which does not allow itself to look clearly at the obvious through the universal accessibility of art is a culture of tragic delusion, hardly viable; it will make room for a system of fantasy Offices on the one hand, and a system of fantasy Homes on the other, but it will forget that the earth lies beneath all. It will turn out role-playing stereotypes (the hideousness of the phrase is appropriate to the concept) instead of human beings. It will shut the children away from half the population. It will shut aspiration away from half the population.  It will glut its colleges with young people enduringly maimed by illusions learned early and kept late. It will sup on make-believe. But a humanist society -  you and I do not live in one - is one in which a voice is heard: »Come«, it says, »here is a world requiring architects, painters, playwrights, sailors, bridgebuilders, jurists,  captains, composers,  discoverers,  and a thousand things besides, all real and all obvious. Partake«, it says, »live«.
Is it a man's voice or a woman's voice? Students, colleagues, listen again; it is two voices. »How obvious«, you will one day reply, and if you laugh, It will be at the quaint folly of obsolete custom, which once failed to
harness the obvious; it will not be at a dancing dog.