To be a modern woman: A social tragedy

Were the fate of the modern woman to be written today, doubtless it would be cast in the genre of a social tragedy. Where once she was held in bondage, now she is free to choose: free to choose her own poison. The endings of many nineteenth and twentieth century novels bespeak a sense that the heroine must die, must commit suicide, must go into exile, or will sink into quiet despair. Choose your own ending, the woman is told, knowing that none will do you any good. The tab is left, as it ought, at society’s doorstep, a fee which it has yet to acknowledge or pay.

That modern women are caught in a social tragedy, one that begins with a sense of fatedness to suffocation yet ends with their ability to choose from a menu of unsatisfactory ways of life, stands in stark contrast with the novels of Jane Austen. In Sense and SensibilityPride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Emma, Austen, despite her arch criticisms of the social order and in spite of her sharp satire and ironic asides, thinks nothing of ending her novels, without blushes or smirks, with marriage. Has there been a time since when marriage, the union of one with another, of lover and beloved, of friend with friend, could be so earnestly believed in? I doubt it. More often than not, marriage is construed either as straitjacketing and oppressive (think of Madame Bovary and Hedda Gabler) or as melodramatic and overly sentimental (call to mind any Hollywood romance). What goes for marriage also goes for child rearing, cooking, work, friendship, leisure, and political involvement. It is worthy of criticism, it is presumed, or it is good only for a wry, ironic laugh, the stuff that undergraduates are keen to mock, but neither is to be believed. If not to these, then to what form of life can women commit themselves wholeheartedly?

It would be nice to conclude, after the successes of feminism, that we–men and women both–know better what lives would be suitable for modern women, but the truth is we don’t. Regardless of its achievements, feminism left the job halfway done. For women have been ripped free of social roles that were embedded in and native to previous ways of life, have been freed, financially and socially, to lead other ways of life, but without due accommodation for imagining better, more sensible, more radiant ways of living with grace and beauty, with strength and courage, with harmony and femininity in the here and now. This is to say that there has been no social or metaphysical “compensation” for social disembedding, no sensible models for leading flourishing lives after the great unraveling.

Instead, women, so disembedded, have been doubly and triply burdened, burdened all the more with conceptions of success and ambition; with sentimental love and its feckless affections; with the value but not the substance of genuine friendships; with becoming the most caring parents conceivable quite apart from how this is to be done or in what ways it is to be rewarded. If women are reticent with speech, if they speak of “being privileged” in one breath and cannot speak of crying maddeningly to themselves in the next, how can we blame them? And why do they insist, also to themselves, also keep insisting on blaming themselves? But if they do not blame themselves, then must they court bitterness for the world to the end?

Insofar as living this ampersand existence, this life of the A&B&C…, is at once overly demanding and utterly impossible, at the same time desired and loathed, both unthinkable and unendurable, one would imagine death, suicide, flight, despair, self-sacrifice, and ennui as being the only exits available from tragic feminine life. When I do not find all this appalling, I find it chilling. I can see why women, whose longings and imaginations can flourish amid disquietude, make for excellent poets, for pens bleed well.

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One insightful woman who follows this blog suggested I read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. I finished the novel yesterday afternoon and thought I would speak about Wharton’s book as being one important chapter in the much longer story I wish to tell about the plight of modern women. (The novels of Gissing and Flaubert, the middle tragedies of Ibsen, the recent works of Margaret Atwood also come to mind.)

The House of Mirth is set in fin de siecle New York where money from finance has allowed the nouveau riche to take over Society. (Twas always thus in New York, no doubt. Apart from Joan, whose first father-in-law purchased the brownstone in 1920, my block is filled with the nouveau riche and the young Turks, all of whom are flush with Midtown cash.) Lilly Bart, the beautiful heroine of the novel, is raised to desire the luxury afforded by wealth but is not fortunate enough to be born into wealth. Her harried father makes the mistake of investing poorly, of losing his shirt, then rectifies the problem by dying swiftly. He leaves Lilly and her mother to become transients with outsize desires and mostly empty pockets.

As she is well aware, Lilly has been groomed to wed a wealthy man. This is her way out as well as her way in. The trouble is that she cannot put her whole heart into the conquest, and so when the prey is in the trap, as often happens, she flees the scene and the prey runs free. She is not without her scruples, for she understands that Society’s luxurious decadence is hollow, soul-sucking, and boorish at its core, yet she is also not courageous or free spirited or clear thinking enough to have cultivated an imagination that would allow her to see things differently.

Around her is decadence and toward this fate she is disposed half-heartedly. According to John Armstrong in his book In Search of Civilization, for barbarians, understood in the Matthew Arnoldian sense, “[G]reat material prosperity… do[es] not serve any higher purpose than their own maintenance.” Barbarians, he sums up, “have a very high degree of material prosperity but no corresponding spiritual prosperity” (136). So it is with the nouveau riche set. Theirs is the decadent life of card playing, snubbing, and chitchat; of operas, summer homes, and dinner parties; of snubbing some more, conniving, and insincerity. It affords lavish pleasures but, to Lilly, those pleasures always fall short of fulfillment.

Juxtaposed with the decadent life is that of the working class. For Lilly, who grew up betwixt and between but whose mother carefully kept up appearances, the dinginess of drudgery is so unattractive as to be unendurable. I cannot blame her. On the bus I took en route to La Guardia Airport just before Christmas, I was saddened by the sheer shabbiness–these were the words I wrote down later in my notebook–of it all, the sheer shabbiness of Queens. Squatted homes amid the squalor. Treeless, browned, and yellowed. How, I thought, could one live amid the shabbiness without feeling one’s soul crying out for relief? One can go on but why bother? When at the end of the novel Lilly is brought low by poverty and is forced to live in a boarding house, she nearly goes mad. I do not blame her.

The alternative Wharton presents to decadence and dinginess is a Platonism seen through a glass half-darkly. On a few occasions that Lilly spends with Selden, she experiences luminous beauty, the opening of sincerity, and an intimation of a higher form of love. Yet the Platonic vision of a radiant life is not only dim and transitory; not just hazy and dubious; for all intents and purposes, it is only a fancy, a play of the imagination, a thing ineffable that seems to have no native home in the present social world. For once the stroll in the field is over, once the touch of the hand has gone cold, in what avenues and in what homes will such a life take root? How will imagination sink down and stay put in the unwelcoming New York soil?

I think you know how this will end. The novel, another example of a lived indirect proof, shows that neither decadence nor dinginess nor a dimly lit Platonism can be truly lived out under the material and social conditions provided by fin de siecle New York society. The conclusion, to quote the novelist Nella Larsen out of context, is “death by misadventure.”

*

And today?

Because I’m free to do what I want any old time. Today, the tableaux (or should I say “triptych”?) of women that come to mind:

  • The decadent hedonist of Sex and the City: alone, ironic, cynical.
  • The frenzied single working mother ground down by “the great speedup.”
  • The mid-20s female whose unmade bed, in Tracey Emin’s provocative “My Bed” (1998), is cluttered with used condoms, cigarette butts, empty alcohol bottles, worn panties, stained sheets, and a stuffed animal off to one side.

One thought on “To be a modern woman: A social tragedy

  1. A philosophical post-script.

    I think it would be more accurate, i.e., more conceptually accurate, to say that the final scenes aren’t tableaux but cliches. A cliche could be defined, somewhat roughly, as a trope that (a) “gets something right but also overshoots the mark” and (b) is “played out” or “worn out.” A fashion statement, for instance, becomes a cliche not because it doesn’t get at something but because, in being overused, it seems to have lost its life, its vital force.

    The nice thing about a cliche is that, for those of us of an aesthetic cast, the phrase, idiom, or image ‘calls for’ going past it. If the cliche is tired or worn out or stale and if we feel the pang of displeasure with the cliche (as we ought), then we can sense, aesthetically but also ethically, that something more is ‘needful.’

    One of the approaches I’ve taken in my philosophy practice is to see whether some simple cliches can be transvalued (Nietzsche). One conversation partner once likened my style to “persistent intellectual improvisation,” which I thought was a nice way of putting it. So take 2 simple examples. If I say, “You’re all right,” in most settings I’m turning away from the other or putting aside my responsibility or, in any case, saying something cliche. But I’ve found in my practice that we can sometimes take everyday sentences like these and turn them around: “You’re all right,” said at the right moment, in the right way, *in the right tone of voice* (soft, textured, a hint of cooing, a hint of masculine garble…) can be an affirmation of ALL of her. You’re ALL right (not partially right but wholly right.) And YOU are all right (you are all right with yourself, in the world, all right w/ yourself in the world).

    Of a conversation partner’s friend, occasionally I say with a sweet turn, “Oh, she’s really a keeper.” As if new sentiment could be breathed into the breech, overcoming the cliche.

    * * *

    More generally, modern American English is lacking in a ‘middle style.’ Warm, intimate bonhomie words–words of genuine friendship and intimacy–are hard to come by. I don’t imagine this was always the case. Words of mutual affection seemed to be available to Englanders in the 18th and 19th C. (It’s hard to imagine what’s call the “moral sense theory” of ethics as arising then without drawing from a rich vocabulary fund.)

    But I’m finding we can do it. During my philosophical conversations and walks, I can speak to me in intimate but public words; and I can speak to women in intimate but public words. As we do so, we are learning the art of overcoming the social alienation between men and men, between men and women. Philosophy as its best is like that.

    * * *

    I think this is also where philosophical inquiry, of the best kind, parts ways BOTH with the genre of confession and with the genre of the interrogation. In an inquiry, I may be asking John or Jane serious questions about J’s life. And it can be quite hard. But it’s also playful, and J can also turn it back on me and invite me to share something of myself. In this way, philosophical inquiry is about learning how to give and receive properly and, once again, about setting relationships between men and women to rights.

    A gift economy would therefore be the ‘representation’ or ‘image’ of philosophical inquiry. Better yet, it may be the ‘allegory’ of the just right tete-a-tete.

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