The Thinking 

A Card Table of One’s Own

September 8, 2009

Virginia Woolf


Genius, possibly mere brilliance and shining talent as well, will always be more abundant in men than in women. Perhaps this is Nature’s way of compensating men for their exclusion from the creative and imaginative art that is motherhood at its best, work that is superior to any endeavour in mere words or paint or scientific invention. All these things are ephemeral. Human beings are immortal.

Why then do many artsy and literary women persist in the delusion that their art is more exalted than raising children and loving men? I blame one person. Her name is Virginia Woolf.

Woolf, whose ubiquitous long-faced image can be found on everything from T-shirts to tote bags, published her small book A Room of One’s Own in 1929 and it has been continuously in print ever since, with new editions issued every few years. It is probably the best-read book in the immense Virginia Woolf industry, which includes not only Woolf’s many fiction and non-fiction works, but dozens of biographies, many thousands of dissertations, movies, plays and songs. Woolf is a high priestess of secular feminism. She was also an immensely gifted artist and a tragic figure who suffered from mental illness and eventually killed herself. She obviously suffered greatly and found little salvation in the group of nihilistic artists who were her pals.

I feel sorry for Woolf and yet I cannot forgive her. She has poisoned several generations of the best and brightest. She ultimately infected millions of intelligent women with her rancour and passion. How many gifted women have not had children, or have had very few children, non-committal marriages and bleak, messy homes, under the spell of the lyrical Woolf? How many have tolerated personal unhappiness so they could go off alone (something Woolf never did) and cultivate their talents? How many have tried to live up to her androgynous ideal by becoming lesbians? I would guess they are legion.

The main thesis of A Room of One’s Own is but, then there is no thesis. It is a maddeningly contradictory work, reflecting Woolf’s modernist preference for shifting images and illusory reality over settled truth. Though every assertion Woolf makes in A Room of One’s Own is in some way retracted, there actually is a dominant point to the work. Women have been banned from the halls of artistic and scientific genius by misogynist men. Women need money of their own and rooms of their own. In time, they will evolve and reveal their latent creative genius.

A Room of  One’s Own  was originally a series of lectures to young women in college at Cambridge. Woolf gives a summary of women’s history that forms the template for hundreds of future women studies courses. Women have been intelligent through the ages of course, but their intelligence has been stifled by lack of education. This is the reason they have failed to produce enough tangible works and achieve the heights of genius. Nothing is more sacred than the work of art. Though art merely expresses “things in themselves,” rather than notions of higher meaning or coherence, it is the only possible route to individual transcendence. Any form of selfishness is excusable for the sake of art and women must single-mindedly pursue intellectual activity. Woolf urges the women to go off and write books “for the good of the world”:

There runs through these comments and discursions the conviction – or is it the instinct? – that good books are desirable and that good writers, even if they show every variety of human depravity, are still good human beings. Thus when I ask you to write more books, I am urging you to do what will be for your good and for the good of the world at large. How to justify this instinct or belief I do not know, for philosophic words, if one has not been educated at a university, are apt to play one false. [emphases added]

Woolf makes oblique references to the chains of sexual chastity. Women must experience sexual freedom, as well as travel and adventure, in order to truly create. And, “by hook or by crook,”  she tells the young students, women must make money of their own. By hook or by crook. A woman cannot think for herself if she is supported by a man to whom she has vowed lifelong fidelity. With this sort of wisdom, women have happily traded their dependence on husbands for dependence on corporations or government.

Woolf’s description of a fictitious woman who was Shakespeare’s doomed sister is famous. As with much of Woolf’s prose, she displays luminous charm. Shakespeare’s sister was so frustrated by the unconventionality of an artistic gift comparable to that of her brother that she ultimately threw herself into a river and drowned, an imaginary event eerily foreshadowing Woolf’s own decision to throw herself into a river:

To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was a poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her. Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination.

Of course there was never any woman that we know of who possessed Shakespeare’s talent. If there were many women who threw themselves into rivers because they could not write plays or books, all traces of them have vanished. Certainly, men have been cruel to women, at times exaggerating their relative lack of abstract intelligence. But human society is like a narrow doorway. Only one sex can walk through that doorway first. When men are first, receiving the greater share of society’s attention, praise and honors, there is relative social order. When women are first, as we see now, there is growing chaos and the gradual decline of civilization. The very conditions that sustain thought and intellectual effort begin to disappear. This reality is connected to the unchangeable differences, biological and psychological, between male and female.

I hear Woolf admonishing me. She is hovering by my shoulder and standing by my card table, a big sister who is angry and disapproving. I do not appreciate the many women of talent who have been discouraged and frustrated, she tells me. You see, she says, you have no room of your own. That’s your problem.  I could point to my card table and say, But, Mrs. Woolf, isn’t this enough?  A card table is a vast and exciting place, a universe to itself really, especially when situated in the midst of a happy home. I look across at its outermost reaches and sense the familiar thrill.

But no. I don’t think Mrs. Woolf would find my argument persuasive or even amusing. We differ too dramatically. In my opinion, the most essential thing to the life of the mind is not privacy or money or status. I don’t particularly care how many women jumped into rivers because life denied them the opportunity to create books. A room of one’s own is not necessary. Even a card table of one’s own, as nice as it is, is not necessary. The important thing is, and always will be, truth.

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