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A society of distaff inquisitives

In Woolf’s story, “A Society”, from the early collection, Monday or Tuesday (1921), a group of young women set out to investigate and evaluate the world by forming “a society for asking questions”.

Clorinda says,

…We have gone on all these ages supposing that men were equally industrious, and that their works were of equal merit. While we have borne the children, they, we supposed, have borne the books and the pictures. We have populated the world. They have civilized it. But now that we can read, what prevents us from judging the results? Before we bring another child into the world we must swear that we will find out what the world is like.

The group having taken a vow of chastity some years before in their quest for knowledge, Castalia confesses, or rather announces, she is going to have a baby and asks for an opinion on whether this should be cause for her expulsion from the group or not. Consensus arrives quickly: no. But one of the younger women shyly inquires into the concept itself.

“What is chastity then? I mean is it good, or is it bad, or is it nothing at all?” She replied so low that I could not catch what she said.

“You know I was shocked,” said another, “for at least ten minutes.”

Purity has it uses, she will say, but let us not fetishize it as men do, even as they are poorest exemplars of it. This recognition permeates Weininger’s characterization of feminine priorities as well as masculine proclivities. Perhaps there has never been a chaste “ten minutes”, even, for a man in the presence of a woman, so why should she be shocked for that amount of time?

We agreed that it was the object of life to produce good people and good books. All this time we have been talking of aeroplanes, factories, and money. Let us talk about men themselves and their arts, for that is the heart of the matter.

“Good books”, or—the whole of culture, books and all, fed to children…. This divvies up vocations admirably: the task each is, or ought, to be saddled with. We can look around and see easily enough how good people turn out or turn out not to be, but are his books up to snuff?

On why men keep so busy:

“Working fifteen hours out of the twenty-four, as I do—” ten thousand professional men began.

“…But why do you work so hard?” “My dear lady, with a growing family—” “But why does your family grow?”

His family grows because he spends too much time loitering.

“…They despise us too much to mind what we say.”

“Ask any journalist, schoolmaster, politician or public house keeper in the land and they will all tell you that men are much cleverer than women.” “As if I doubted it,” she said scornfully. “How could they help it? Haven’t we bred them and fed and kept them in comfort since the beginning of time so that they may be clever even if they’re nothing else? It’s all our doing!” she cried. “We insisted upon having intellect and now we’ve got it. And it’s intellect,” she continued, “that’s at the bottom of it. What could be more charming than a boy before he has begun to cultivate his intellect? He is beautiful to look at; he gives himself no airs; he understands the meaning of art and literature instinctively; he goes about enjoying his life and making other people enjoy theirs. Then they teach him to cultivate his intellect. He becomes a barrister, a civil servant, a general, an author, a professor. Every day he goes to an office. Every year he produces a book. He maintains a whole family by the products of his brain—poor devil! Soon he cannot come into a room without making us all feel uncomfortable; he condescends to every woman he meets, and dares not tell the truth even to his own wife; instead of rejoicing our eyes we have to shut them if we are to take him in our arms. True, they console themselves with stars of all shapes, ribbons of all shades, and incomes of all sizes—but what is to console us? That we shall be able in ten years’ time to spend a weekend at Lahore? Or that the least insect in Japan has a name twice the length of its body? Oh, Cassandra, for Heaven’s sake let us devise a method by which men may bear children! It is our only chance. For unless we provide them with some innocent occupation we shall get neither good people nor good books; we shall perish beneath the fruits of their unbridled activity; and not a human being will survive to know that there once was Shakespeare!”

Actually, men are devising ways to bear children without women. (See Agacinski.) But this is not likely going to be a good thing for the production of either good people or good books. His ultimate children will spring from his forehead and they will excrete destruction.

He has forgotten that while ethics—his own native one—has always enjoined him to treat others with respect (if he could not also bring himself to love them), it has never intimated that it was his business to increase their number. (Editor’s note: Cf. this passage at the head of Luno’s notebooks.)

Posted by luno in Woolf, sex differences, feminism (Friday September 22, 2006 at 12:54 pm)

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