Vindicating Rights is Messy Business

I began writing this post in my cold little academic tone, and I stopped. It would be very easy. Ms Wollstonecraft was alive a very long time ago, and some of the things she said in her book, in retrospect, feel pretty out of date, even wrong-headed. Some of them even bothered me. But, writing a post about the ways we've grown as a culture since then wouldn't have been possible for me - it would have ended up being a post about how clever I am.

And it wouldn't have done much good. There are a lot of people doing the Feminist Classics readalong, right now, and I suppose the direct analysis of what Wollstonecraft said will be done far better by someone else. And to be honest, the thing that strikes me most powerfully about Wollstonecraft has nothing directly to do with her ideas.

The thing that's most haunting to me about Mary is how ideals can betray you.

All of us are children of our time, all of us, no matter how much genius we might possess. Everything we think is, in this sense, trapped inside a time, it is impossible to say anything that is completely 'timeless.' There's no such thing. This feels like a strange thing for me to say, because I read classic literature, after all, I sit and read books that are advertised as 'timeless classics'. IT's a lie. Shakespeare, if we drop our reverence for a moment, is terrifically dated. Look at, say, how all the women  in his plays fit a short list of basic types. Look at his fawning adoration of kings and aristocracy. And as beautiful as the language is - there's a reason we don't enjoy it until we learn it - because, it's dated. Or the Odyssey: as grand and sweeping and epic as it is, to be perfectly frank, if it were published today, it wouldn't be terribly successful. I honestly don't think it would even be published, and at some level, this is because it isn't really that great for our time in some ways. IT is an artifact. Mary was, too.

And the great pain of literature and poetry is that, after all, for a lot of writers it is a sort of search for immortality. For some this is simple arrogance, they want to continue to be praised, even after they are dead. But not always. There is something innately human in a desire to find absolute truths, to find those things which can be relied on and really truly 'known'. Mythology was born this way, science was born this way, literature was born this way, most great human endeavors are part of this search for pure, incontrovertible truth.

In mathematics, perhaps, this is possible. Euclidean Geometry is as true now as it was when Euclid wrote it. Even in the less 'pure' sciences, perhaps there is some shadow of personality. I'm reading Hippocrates now, and one can feel in his writing, for all that it's largely guesswork and incorrect correspondences, at least the birth of a way of looking at health and medicine, that does continue on today, in some form. But in literature? No. There is no absolute literary truth. There is no provable conception of beauty. Philosophy has this fault, too, so does political science.

But, despite all this, more souls through history have stood and declared in defense of unprovable ideals than will ever stand in defense of Euclidean geometry. More souls have willingly died at the flag of the vague and misinterpreted than will die defending Newton's laws (this is not to attack the power and passion of science mind you). This is why we keep having Wollstonecrafts, and Shakespeares, and Virginia Woolfs, all in retrospect perhaps wrong in some ways, but nonetheless awe-inspiring in their defense sometimes of their very wrongness.

And who knows? Underneath all the veneer of wrongness (I do not think that modesty, for instance, is some great ideal of feminism that should be a measure of the success of women's liberation), there are germs that FEEL so incontrovertibly true, that you want to think there is something absolutely true to them. But, the moment you verbalize or systemize it, it will betray you.

This is what happened, after all, to Mary herself. Her husband, William Godwin, was himself a starry-eyed idealist, one of the early forerunners of the anarchist movement, which was for many years, the gold standard of wild idealism - at it's core, after all, anarchism seems to rely on the supposition that people, when left to their own devices, will do good instead of ill. And Godwin believed this, right down to the middle. So, when his wife died, he wrote a book, telling the truth about her life, because he genuinely and honestly believe his wife was the heroine of her life.

Was Godwin naive? Did he really think this book would not tarnish his wife's reputation? He had to have known. Godwin was an idealist, but he wasn't stupid. He had to have known that what he saw as a heroine, the world's standards saw as a a villainess, or even worse in the world's view, as a despicable, whorish, hysterical woman. At some level, it's difficult for me to grapple with this. His wife was dead, and he sacrificed her public memory to his own ideals. People, his reasoning went, SHOULD like her story, and to lie about it would be to betray the things he believed in. It was a quixotic joust at a windmill - only his used his wife as the lance. Quixote may be knocked off his horse in that situation, but the lance gets snapped in half.

But then, maybe that's how it should be. Mary was herself an idealist, after all, and the idealist is infamous for being willing to give up everything for the cause - everything. Even things that maybe are harder to give up than life. What would Mary think? Would she have been ashamed, if she were alive? Would she have been angry? Angry at her husband, or at the world that wouldn't accept that she acted as bravely as she could under the circumstance? She after all, acted similarly with a sister, who she encouraged to leave her husband, plunging her afterwards into horrible poverty. She was no stranger to the grand gesture.

I know this isn't the same for everyone, but this part of what I love in classic literature: seeing the grand gesture, the grand, quixotic leap towards the unreachable. Every single author falls - when you leap toward the sun, after all, the best you can hope for is that you stay in the air as long as possible. The sun will. not. catch. you. And there is something morbid and discouraging at seeing the places where these great lost souls fall to the rocks, the shapes and texture of their broken bodies. But, before they hit the ground - before that, you see the arc of the flight, the twist of the limbs, the thrust forward of the breast, as if that extra centimeter might be just enough to carry you... somewhere. And that curve, that twist, that sturggling hopelessness, there's no beauty quite like it. IT almost makes my own, tiny worthless little twists and arcs and thrusts seem, in dim reflection, perhaps to have their own traces of dignity


Sara said...

Gosh, my Women's Lit students are reading this text right now, but you articulate so much of their frustration so much more eloquently. We do tend to approach literature like it's supposed to be timeless, infallible, 'true' as you said, and then are disappointed when it turns out to be of its time, messy, human, and highly fallible. Take the N-word out of Huck Finn? A reaction of our time to a book of another time.

But I think authors, at least this one, less desire immortality, but to simply say, and be heard "I'm here, Now. I was here, and I bore witness." Maybe.

Emily said...

I feel like I'm the bitchy cog in this whole Wollstonecraft conversation, so I should probably just be quiet. And yet I continue to comment. Please take me with a grain of salt! :-)

But personally, I think a more striking thing about Wollstonecraft's history is the degree to which her ideas were vindicated (har har) and adopted over the years, rather than the degree to which her ideals betrayed her. Sure, the points that stick out are her odd arguments about the ascendancy of the middle class and how girls shouldn't pee in front of each other, but these things beg the question of her larger ideas. Girls and boys are now, in many countries, educated together in state-sponsored schools whose curriculum does not discriminate between genders. That was a huge, perhaps the biggest, argument of this book. Women are not forbidden or excused from biology tests because their delicate sensibilities just can't handle it. There are even federally-funded programs specifically designed to encourage more girls and women to enroll in math and science classes, and even construction/carpentry programs - the GOVERNMENT investing in the idea of gender equity in academia, even in male-dominated subjects. Wollstonecraft victorious.

And her real-life social experimentation: I'm a modern-day woman who has decided to live with her partner outside wedlock, and my life is SO MUCH EASIER because of brave folks like Wollstonecraft (and to a lesser extent Godwin) who faced social ruin in order to open peoples' minds about what "love" and "marriage" mean and their relationship to one another. Yes, she was castigated for her behavior before and after her death. But I don't think that means her experimentation was wrong or less valuable, or that Godwin's idealistic tribute to his wife was necessarily wrong-headed; maybe (although I'm speculating) he cared more about the few people through the ages who would take his book as he intended it, than about the masses who would take it ill.

Nymeth said...

I started Claire Tomanlin's bio of Mary right after Vindication, and just yesterday I read the chapter about what happened with her sister Eliza and her husband. Tomalin sounds quite harsh, and I understand that the consequences of the separation Mary encouraged were NOT pretty. But at the same time, she seemed to me to be too quick to dismiss Mary's reasons, which I saw in a light close to what you're talking about here. We have thing A) - a not too happy marriage, by the sound of it - and thing B) - a life of poverty and an abandoned child. It seems to me that Mary fiercely believed in thing C), in some other possibility that no one else was considering and in the name of which she was willing to sacrifice everything. Of course there are big issues at stake when what is sacrificed ends up being someone ELSE'S life (or reputation, in Godwin's case), but I get the impression that she would have risked her *own* safety and comfort and means of support to the very same extent.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Sara - I hesitate to call myself an AUTHOR since I've never had anything published, but I think immortality is an incomplete description, as well - it is more... wanting to be understood. Day to day conversation is sort of by default filled with little compromises to identity. Writing gives one the time and the license to be honest, maybe?

Ms Emily - Not at all! I actually largely agree with you - the central tenet of what she said - that women ought not to be treated as separate species from men, that they ought to be educated, that what's good for the goose, as it were, is good for the gander - was both revolutionary, and something far more a part of our lives today then when she said it. Similarly, I admire Wollstencraft's willingness to live her life according to her own terms. I wonder if she would want those decisions recounted in detail - but I just wonder. I don't know. PErhaps she would have been glad to. I think it would depend on when one asked her? Not because it's shameful, but because it's painfl to watch other people despise what you are proud of.

Ms Nymeth- I agree, I think it's very difficult to say if what Ms W suggested to her sister was right, in retrospect - I think we are incapable of really knowing the situation. Even if every detail was available, I think it's very difficult for us to udnerstand what it is like to be in that place. I hope I didn't sound like I was judging her?

Trisha said...

I feel woefully ignorant on the topic and as such, almost didn't leave a comment at all. So I'll just say, you really make me think. And I love you for it. (And I mean that in a totally non-creeper kind of way).

Trapunto said...

I believe I will skip Vindication and read the biography Nymeth mentions. I get the feeling a biography might be a better way for someone, who is not going to embark on a serious study of the history of feminism (unless she is granted another lifetime and a third brain-lobe for such pursuits), to get a balanced sense of MW. I really want to like her. Biographies often do the opposite of making people likeable, but at least the good ones are good at translating someone's ideas out of their time and into ours. It sounds like she is in a particular position to benefit from that kind of help.

Well, *published*, no. But wasn't it oral poetry to begin with? If the Odyssey were pitched as a reality TV show...

Okay, I am going to hoist Shakespeare back on his 400 year old pedestal here. I think one of the reasons people talk about his timelessness and uniqueness is that he managed to escape the (particularly rife in his era) habit of earnest systematizing and the search for the One Thing you describe. Whether by accident or design, one can't draw his ideals from his work. His characters ideals come through and sometimes a few of his own irritations and prejudices--but those are contradictory and all over of the map.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trapunto - I suppose - maybe that's the problem, we don't HAVE an oral tradition anymore. The closest I can come up wtih are urban legends (which are remarkably like the Odyssey) and stand-up comedians. Either of which gives one an interesting perspective on Homer...

To ME, Shakespeare and Homer have a certain similarity on those lines - that both of them when I hear them, sound as if they're simply doing their job - albeit extremely well. Shakespeare seems like a guy who was thrilled he could write because it made for a fun occupation. Which is what it feels to me like gives him some of the strengths you recognize. I think the writers who are deeply attached to the, let's call it, romance of their profession have certain weaknesses built into their style. Shakespeare simply told stories the way that, impassively, he knew would best captivate his audience. There's an honesty to that that we sometimes sneer at, I think.

Care said...

OK, I'm jumping in without a life jacket since most if not all of my knowledge on MW is what I've read on the Feminist Classics website and Nymeth's review. And your post inspired this thought: That her husband actually published that memoir with total understanding that fire and venom make good press. The 'best' publicity is negative? I dunno. But that's what struck me. If he knew that showing her faults and warts only caused controversy, then more people in the future??? might actually read her Vindication publication? Could he have been THAT smart in the long run? However, I suppose that it was hundreds of years before she got her defense from our 60s/70s fems, I could be really reaching here.

Trapunto said...

Astute what you say about Shakespeare liking his occupation. Do you think that might have had something to do with starting out as an actor? One of the best things about live (and some non-live) performance is the utter contagiousness actors enjoying their jobs.