Woolf at My Door

October 19, 2008

I have not gone in much for feminist polemics. Indeed, I have generally treated them as any bigot treats anyone or anything other than his own kind. That’s an embarrassing admission, but not one for which I am at all inclined to apologize, if I am at all honest. If the various feminine authors feel slighted or even abused by me, it is because those authors have not earned my sympathy or affection, and that in turn occurs because they have written mainly grievances or pleadings. Even the sober Mary Wollstonecraft (The Vindications: The Rights of Men & The Rights of Woman), I felt, thought too much of her sex; and “[…] anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death,” says Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. She is right. She is also right that the looking glass of womanhood has made me feel twice the man I really am, which, in a second embarrassing confession, I have enjoyed immensely and completely without warrant.

So, here I stand, dressed in my best vanity and fine ego, wanting nothing more at this moment than to invite Woolf to a dinner of partridges and port, which she says she would fancy, and both of which I can do rather well. The temptation is to call this a peace offering. The desire is to have some of that “profound, subtle and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational discourse.” I was going to say manly discourse. The cause is that she has seduced me with her complete indifference, her offer not of a white feather nor of a red feather, but of no feather at all—I feel like a schoolboy deliberately trying to shock my teacher, who is much too adept to be baited. The reasons are two:

I do not so much want to write like Woolf; her voice is feminine and strange to me. But I do want to think or see more like she does, with a finer, clearer sense of Truth. My habit is to say “This is the way things are.” I speak too consciously, Woolf would tell me. Her habit is to show the way things are. To paraphrase Socrates: better (and harder) to refute the truth, for Woolf, or Wollstonecraft, or Brad are easily refuted. Woolf handles the contentious issue of gender with a courageous disinterest that is difficult to attack, even in Three Guineas, which is the a more political book.

Secondly, Woolf’s delivery seems the way to reinvigorate the so-called naked public square, Richard John Neuhaus’s central metaphor for the morally empty forum of public discussion. Neuhaus contends that moderns erroneously believe we can have a neutral discussion of politics. One is supposed to check one’s values, one’s maleness or femaleness, for example, at the entrance to the square, as if they were hats and coats. This is, of course, impossible. The best short definition of politics is given to us by Aristotle. Politics, he said, is free people deliberating the question, How ought we to order our life together? The “ought” in that definition indicates that politics is essentially a moral enterprise, not a neutral one. I am impressed, pleased, but not surprised that it is a woman, Woolf, who shows men like me how to speak with moral integrity again. She has a disinterested voice, but never a disembodied or neutral one and, thank Heaven, never a masculine one.