Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Thoughts prompted by reading A Room of One's Own

The last post began as an opening to this one, as I considered how to--or whether to--account for my use, or abuse, of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. It went off the rails a bit, so I moved it. I'm still left without a suitable explanation for what follows. So I'll leave it as it is.

There is much in A Room of One's Own that speaks eloquently to my own ongoing concerns, some less obviously so than others. I will try to say what I can. But what are my concerns? I am concerned with existence. Ha! How ridiculous. Have I earned the right to speak of "existence"? But what could this mean? (The right?) What else am I concerned with? Or what does my concern with existence entail? I am concerned, very broadly speaking, with modernity, with capitalism, with time, with politics, with family, with feminism, with literature. It is no surprise to learn that A Room of One's Own should have something to say about literature (and the history of literature and the history of the novel) or that it should be relevant to feminism. So much is obvious. But what kind of feminism? What kind of literature? What else does it have to say? ("I wish to write about A Room of One's Own," I almost began this post, "but ironically, I lack the very things Woolf says are needed for one to write." I faltered, decided the opening is facile. I nonetheless leave it in as a parenthetical.)

Woolf says that what is needed in order to be able to write is, very simply, money and a room of one's own (and not, for example, a common, heavily trafficked sitting room). I'm always complaining about time, but of course, in her formulation, money very clearly equals time. She means money free and clear. Time free and clear.

(How much falls by the wayside if we simply have time? If we had the time we needed to be ourselves, not forced into some kind of soul-crushing work, to spend countless hours away from the practice of living, free from the abstracted effort of making a living. If this were true for all of us, what then? What might we do?)

Being a good partner and a good parent also requires time, it would seem to go without saying, though our society is structured around the refusal to allow people the time needed. Woolf notes that, if the ancestors of the women of the 1920s had made money, amassed wealth (had they even been allowed to), enough wealth to endow scholarships and universities, in short if they had done the kind of fortune-building work done by men, then the women of the 1920s she's talking about would not have existed. For women were busy doing other things, namely bearing and raising children, and if they were not doing that, those things would not have been done. Everything stops.

Woolf, more than once, uses the word "civilized", and of course she means it as a positive attribute. We are many decades since Benjamin in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History" wrote "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." It's become something of a cliche, and a truism. We might observe, calmly, from the quiet of a sitting room, or in front of a computer monitor, that the countries of Western civilization have engaged in appalling brutalities. That calmness, that quiet, depends on those brutalities. Our way of life, our privileges, depends on the privations of others. Others must suffer so that I may--what? So that I may sit in comfort, sit in front of a television, in front of a computer, at all hours of the day or night, with electricity at my fingertips, with light, so that I may walk at my leisure into my kitchen and open a refrigerator, so that I may have a refrigerator, and open it at any and all hours, with the expectation that it will be there, that it will work, that it is endlessly replaceable, so I may open it and pull out a soda, some wine, some cheese, meat, processed meat, pounds and pounds of processed meat (or perhaps cage-free organic chicken, because we are not monsters, we're environmentally conscious, are we not? we're liberal-minded, we wash the guilt away and go on), anyway all of it at hand, always available, always wasteable, always replaceable. (Isn't this what Obama means when he says we will not apologize for our way of life?) (Are we prepared to give up anything so that the suffering of others may be diminished? Are we even prepared to give up anything to lessen our own suffering? Can we realize that our lives must change?)

What does this have to do with A Room of One's Own? I know I haven't sufficiently accounted for it. The previous paragraph sounds like so much liberal guilt, and this post is not approaching what I mean to say. One problem is that I have not yet taken the time to explore in writing my current conflicted thinking on civilization and technology and work and time, though several of my anti-capitalism (and financial crisis) posts hint towards some of what I might say. But it's too much to hang on a single reading of an unrelated essay. So I will leave these thoughts as they are for now. I will have to return.

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