What I am about to say will rile a lot of people. Definitely a lot of women. Judging by the audience of the workshop I attended last Friday – I will potentially, statistically irk 5/6ths of womankind.

But as usual, I’m not going to let that stop me.

Whilst a workshop on Literary Theory in Classics may not sound like the most thrilling event (and if I am honest, it wasn’t what I expected either) my little two hour discussion group at University did have the power to infuriate me. Enough to have me seething for most of the weekend. It was just another one of those events that shouldn’t have been anything about gender – but of course, with an audience of women, just had to devolve into feminism.

Let me set the scene. An open invitation was sent to myself and fellow PhD students for a workshop on Literary Theories in the Classics, and I dutifully attended, though I am dubious of Literary Theory as a concept. I thought it would at least provide two hours of stimulating academic discourse. Admittedly, I was prepared to disagree with some of what was said given my disregard for the topic of conversation. But that is what Higher Education is about, right? Anyway, the attendees of this event were set some reading to prepare for the workshop – one of which was a (very) short story by Vladimir Nabokov (of Lolita fame) entitled: The Return of Chorb. A brief synopsis (lifted from wikipedia) is as follows (bear with me):

“The Kellers’ are a bourgeois couple living in a smaller German town whose daughter has married the Russian emigre writer Chorb. The distrust between Chorb and his father-in-law is deepened when Chorb and his bride escape from the formality of their wedding to spend their first night at a local seedy hotel. On the honeymoon, the bride accidentally touches a live electric wire near Nice and dies. Chorb now returns to recreate her image by visiting the sites they had been to together and to tell her parents. Arriving in the evening he only finds the maid at the Keller’s home who have gone to the opera to see Parsifal. Chorb does not want to break the news to her and tells her that his bride is ill and he will be back in the morning. He returns to the hotel to spend the night in the same room he had been with his wife. Unable to stay in the room alone, he pays a prostitute to stay with him. When the Kellers’ get home, they are too alarmed to wait for the morning and leave for the hotel. There, during the night, Chorb’s grief is amplified by the presence of the prostitute, he screams, and the terrified woman is about to leave: at this moment the Kellers’ arrive.”

We were then invited to discuss our interpretation of this text.

Now, if I may be forgiven, I read the text as a primarily a commentary on grief. Obviously. Chorb returns to all the places visited by himself and his (deceased) wife, so that he can better imprint her upon his memory. He doesn’t say her name because it’s just too damned painful. He runs away from telling the parents about her death because to do so is to admit to, and confront, her death. He fills the empty bed with a prostitute because to be alone would amplify his loss. The subsequent presence of a woman in the bed, who was not his wife, only serves to remind him of said tragedy. This all seemed quite clear to me (I’m not, of course, claiming that this is the only reading of the text).

Yet, when opened up to the remainder of the table – this was a text that was manifestly, and deliberately anti-women. By not naming his wife, Chorb (or the narrator) is purposefully stripping her of her personality because she is a woman. By describing her in snatches of memory, Chorb (or the narrator) is undermining the comprehensiveness of her character because she is a woman. By replacing her with a prostitute he is objectively sexualising her because she is a woman. You get the idea. In short, Nabokov is a misogynist. Whether consciously or unconsciously (though probably the former), he demeans and denudes the female character (just like he treats Lolita by the way) throughout the story. The character Chorb cannot be AT ALL sympathetic in his grief because he neither names, nor comprehensively describes his wife. As usual, because it was written by a man, the text is all about Him. It is therefore also entirely about female oppression. Because, essentially, any piece of literature written by a man is oppressive of women. This, in sum, was the perspective of the other, highly educated. students in the room.

I was stunned.

Especially considering the fact that the poets and writers of history have largely been perceived as romantics, effeminates, or sympathetic and loving people who see beauty and wonder in the world… Nope. They’re all stone cold woman-hating oppressive bastards. And THAT is how we should read their literature. In short, during a workshop which attempted to stress that all texts should be approached without bias, it seemed to be advocated that women should approach literature with an automatic expectation to be victimised and disregarded. Women it seems, (should) seek to be offended. Women yearn to take umbrage at the most straightforward of texts. Unless, of course, that text was written by a woman.

I can’t stress clearly enough how boggled I am by this. It seems to demean and discredit all literature to jump to assumptions about a text because of the gender of the author. What literature does is allow us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Whether that person is male, female, rich, poor, American, Indian, Victorian, Roman… We get to experience something which, as autonomous beings, we are otherwise unable to experience. I thought that was the majesty of literature. That is what The Return of Chorb does. It lets you experience 20th century, pre-War, Russian, grief. It doesn’t matter that both protagonist and author are male. What matters is the experience; is what is expressed in the writing.

The inevitable conclusion which I have extrapolated from this display of hypercritical and querulous feminism is that only women can possibly write about women. Because anything men produce will automatically be a reflection of their male privilege. It couldn’t possibly be true that, as women, we could actually learn something from absorbing male perspectives of womankind, or indeed vice versa. But perhaps this conclusion is right. I have certainly read plenty of stories by women which portray men as either perfectly chivalrous, empathetic and romantic ideals, or lustful, dangerous and abusive Lotharios, neither of which truly conveys real personalities. Clearly women can’t write about men accurately either. Could this possibly be due to the fact that we can never experience holistically the life of another and instead only ever see people in fragmentary ways??? Perhaps we should just appreciate literature for what it is instead of seeking offense where there is none. Of course there will be horrendously sexist or uneducated texts – ON BOTH SIDES. Of course more of these will have male rather than female authors because the simple quantity of male authors throughout history. But this doesn’t mean that we should go into texts, or indeed anything in life, expecting to be offended. Yet that seems to be the only side of feminism I have ever come across – and that is what the workshop epitomized for me.

I guess I just cant get over the irony that for a mindset that fights for female strength, so many women constantly and consciously act vulnerably. If you expect to be victimised – that is all you will see. Accusing the greatest writers who have ever lived of misogyny fails, I think, to appreciate what it is to be human.

 

 

*This blog post has been moved from womeninecstasy.wordpress where it was posted in 2016

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