Saturday, August 20, 2011

On Reading Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own

Look inside and write; trust the little voice inside you. Be honest, be true, to yourself. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was a revelation. Entranced by the magical prose accentuated by poetic touches and straight-faced logic, I read with appreciation the lines Lady V composed. Cleansing, rigorous prose composed with so much sanity and devotion that a reader is rejuvenated directly she opens the first chapter.

Feminism, or for that matter equity feminism, is a troubled ground that requires great tact and not verbal vituperations to challenge the gender discrimination issue; and many writers who begin well end up losing all rationality when they confront some of the negative dialogues the patriarchal class happen to shower or have showered upon the “delicate class”. In such turmoil Woolf is composed, she is the phlegmatic saint believing in logic and finely pointing out the same for the blindfolded population.  

The arguments Woolf points out in her essay are wholeheartedly applicable in modern days as they were the time Woolf wrote her text. That every woman in order to be a fiction writer, or be successful in the creative field must have some congenial creative space, and that when denied lead to a break in the thread leading to a loss of several natural talents. A creative space and financial independence are two factors that directly affect the quality of prose a writer produces. And Woolf ventures to clarify her points by examples from literatures written by women from the jorum of antiquity, which, by the way, was not before the erstwhile Eighteenth Century when creative situation ameliorated for women, thanks to Aphra Behn who dared to walk outside the satin-folded life (pun intended) and carve a creative niche of her own partly due to unfavorable circumstances and partly because she was a brave female.  Imagine how different situation would be if we were stuck in the mud of patriarchal superiority. Democracy is all for the good, but what about in-home autocracy? How many women dare to come out of the dictatorial home rule? You can defy the government, but can you defy the geriatric rule? Your traditions, at least in India, forbid you, your upbringing stitches your tongue and you end up taking the path suggested and often jettison self-interest in the interest of the family and society. And yet we forever retain a certain grudge, a spoonful of malignancy against the egoistic male sex that made us choose a path we did not want to take.

But there have been women like George Eliot, Jane Austen, and Emily Bronte who made most of their impediments and have written in a voice devoid of malignancy against the then superior sex. The negative capabilities of their fictions give them the universal air that makes their prose glow with the vibrancy of creative celebration. Woolf suggests towards the end of the essay that when one writes one should forget about one’s sex. To affirm male superiority and feminine subservience is to affirm the antinomy of the cosmos, the pity and terror of the confirmation unchain in the human soul, especially in the case of women, an ennobling catharsis and a rush of deep-seated negative assertions. And negativity seldom breeds good prose, or poetry for that matter. But isn’t it difficult to empty the impressions of life, well or bad, and create fictions for the sake of creation or for pleasure? May be this is the most challenging sport in a writer’s life, to write out of oneself, to shut the distractions, to cover the windows, drown out the noise, physically and mentally, and write as clearly, as evenhandedly as possible.

It is evident that Woolf herself could do that in most cases, for most of her creative ventures have been highly successful and you could hardly deny, judging by her refreshing prose in Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, etc., that she had all the qualities of a literary genius. But harking back to the Room of One’s Own, the essay with its various pleonastics, its redundancies and to-the-point avowals suggest, ingeniously, the practical nuisance which happens when a chain of thought is broken; it takes time to mend the bond and re-think, and in the meantime, you talk superfluously. That is the reason why our worthy antecedents chose prose instead of poetry to deliver their thoughts. Poetry is a concatenation of thoughts, imageries, and emotions and can seldom beget awesome results unless written uninterruptedly. And since these women seldom had a room of their own and often used a common living room for creative work such interruptions were more than probable, hence the deluge of prose and paucity of poetry.

One of the most striking ideas presented in the book was the communion of the masculine and the feminine in the human brain for successful creative results. Woolf is of the opinion that a human brain has two sections, masculine and feminine, and writers like Coleridge, Sterne, Keats and Shakespeare managed had androgynous brains which made their works equally attractive to both the sexes. It is when one of the sides dominate the other that the breach of communication occurs that ultimately leads to one sex possessing or declaring antagonistic opinion about the other group. "A collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the art of creation can be accomplished." 

What I liked most about the book is the honesty with which Woolf presents her arguments. She takes you on a ride and gives you refreshments by means of images and descriptions of pedestrian scenery, of London, of her room, of her bookshelf. You feel her presence in your own room, her thin, cold breath on your shoulder, a brushing of her loose hair on your arm, a whiff of feminine scent. In her ways she makes you emulate her methods, she urges you to read, to observe and draw your own conclusions.

“The looking-glass vision is of supreme importance because it charges the vitality; it stimulates the nervous system. Take it away and man may die, like the drug fiend deprived of his cocaine,” says Virginia Woolf in the second chapter of the book. Okay, I agree that as civilization has advanced poetry has declined and the “looking-glass” vision does not interpret in the drug-demonic context anymore; however, inobservance sure reduces vitality, but where’s time to perceive and consider? For those of us who can somehow afford this pastime may continue with this habit. It surely is an amazing pastime judging the world and like a sapient scientist order observations in a well-made rational modus.

To this effect I stepped out of my house to observe the Indian culture with a scrutinizer’s eye and jot down my findings accordingly. The road outside my house guarded by wooly-headed green trees like sentinels droopy under the effect of some anodyne posed solid questions. How is the Room of One’s Own relevant in Indian culture? And how does bookish feminism interpret in real life? Do people care at all about what literature has to saw, or for that matter what Virginia Woolf has to say on the subject of a writer training her eyes? Apparently, nobody cared; however, I was willing to experiment to satisfy myself that I do retain the eye-sight that’s imperative for a writer.

My walk took me to a busy thoroughfare with honking vehicles approaching from all sides and huddling of confusion before a left turn. The corridor had sidetracks which holds a furniture shop, a flower shop where long sticks of sick looking carnation and roses marinated in a small plastic bucket, its proprietor sitting idly and eyeing the traffic and rubbing his eyes. The cycle-rickshaws nosed-in; smells of Chinese food and Indian tandoor, South Indian coffee and other food stuffs amalgamating into a puzzling alchemy; and people, returning from their daily engagements, heading for pleasure spots. What a busy scene it was, active, demanding, rigorous, and un-poetic. Obviously, a room of one’s own was indicated if one was to write poetry under the circumstances.

I concentrated on the feminine population which surrounded me: women dressed in crisp corporate clothes, in cool short dresses, in descent salwar kameezes, and in well-worn sarees travelling alone mostly. Most of them had groceries hanging  from their wrists in cloth-bags; some were driving; one or two of them texting and all were busy in their ways. It is this business, this air of untold confidence they exuded in their movement that made them stand out in their own ways. Of course, it would be erroneous to say that I observed all the women in the vicinity. I earmarked a few of them and followed their movements and came to the conclusion that Indian women prefer multi-tasking and that the percentage of working women has indeed advanced such that in a given public gathering you tend to observe more members of the hitherto considered delicate sex than their male counterparts. I wondered if the women I saw had rooms of their own, I wondered about their roles in public affairs and domestic lives. It was evident that they had equal rights and opportunities; I wondered what they thought about this “equality”, did they really appreciate it; consider it at a boon or a commonplace happenstance of advancing civilization?

It was difficult, if not impossible to accumulate their views, but judging from their appearances it seemed that they do cherish their independence. As I walked back home I began to consider the ideas Woolf so rightly puts on the table and apply it in my own life. I questioned myself what does a room mean to me and discovered that a room has a two-fold connotation for me: first, a creative space, and second, mental independence. A room to me is a space where I live and write the way I deem desirable. It was when I applied the idea personally that I realized that in the absence of my comfortable, creative niche I cannot function; I realized how important it is for a writer to own her own space and unequivocal independence.

 “If a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it,” Virginia Woolf says in The Common Reader. What she means in the passage is that women must write as honestly as possible and express what they feel rather than what they were taught to think. A room is a four-walled barrier that shuts-out outside influences, that hides the adamantine claws of male supremacy, the perforce opinions. Indeed, women must strive and create this niche for her not by force but by intellect. Woolf suggests that deprecating the opposite sex and considering our own sex as the subservient clan is a mistake and women has to actively compete with other forces for a place of prominence in the market place. The new possibilities for individual self-fulfillment are ample, and it is to us to carve out our own place, the rooms we would call our own by our own ability and not by stressing gender differences. 

(Pictures from the web)