Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

VIRIGINA WOOLF: A Room of One’s Own 2011

After reading Virginia Woolf’s essay about A Room of One’s Own it’s tempting to think of the battle of the sexes as a relatively modern phenomenon. It is not. Even a casual glance at Great Books readings tells us that the battle of the sexes began early on. In fact, it began at the very beginning with Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. The earliest reading in the Great Books other than the Bible is Homer’s Iliad. It’s a war story but what is the conflict really about? A woman. The Trojans had taken Helen and the Greeks came to take her back. The poem begins with a quarrel between the commanding general, Agamemnon, and the best fighter, Achilles. What were they arguing about? A woman. Shakespeare’s plays are full of the interplay between masculine and feminine powers: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Othello and Desdemona, Romeo and Juliet, the list goes on and on. And one of the most engaging Great Books readings has to be the Wife of Bath’s Tale. She summarizes in great detail the primary interest of most human beings: trying to figure out the opposite sex. So with this background in mind Virginia Woolf is really just carrying on the latest installment of a long conversation in Western literature about relationships between men and women. She asks Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? Back in those days Woolf didn’t have the Internet so she had to go to the library. This seems logical: …If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where, I asked myself, picking up a notebook and a pencil, is truth? This is a good question. Where can we find the truth? In the library? That’s where Woolf starts. But she is soon overwhelmed by the sheer number of books about women. She does find out something very interesting though: Have you any notion of how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Here’s something we might not have guessed: most of the books written about women are written by men. At least it seemed that way to Woolf. Of course, until recently it would be just as true to say that most of the books written are written by men; whether the subject was women or anything else. She goes on to say that …Women do not write books about men… Why are women, judging from this catalogue, so much more interesting to men than men are to women? That’s interesting too. Men write books about women but women don’t write books about men. If that’s true then Woolf may be on to something. If it’s not true then she may be reading and thinking too much. Woolf lived in an age fascinated by Freudian theory and this may have influenced her whole outlook on life, for better or for worse. She writes that it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. A very elementary exercise in psychology, not to be dignified by the name of psychoanalysis, showed me, on looking at my notebook, that the sketch of the angry professor had been made in anger. Woolf does a simple psychoanalysis of herself and it turns out that deep inside she’s angry. Is there such a thing as “submerged truth” that only comes to the top in idleness and dreams? Maybe; maybe not. But here’s a more practical question: are we better off going to work every day and earning a living like most people, or would we be better off with a fixed income so we would have time to ponder the great questions of life? Woolf says that Society gives me chicken and coffee, bed and lodging, in return for a certain number of pieces of paper… Money buys us the things we need to survive. How do we get money? To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave… was not something Woolf wanted. Do any of us? Who wants to work like a slave at a job they don’t enjoy? In the end she notes that …it is remarkable, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. This was a liberating experience for her, not just materially but psychologically. She could have a room of her own.


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