10 September 2005

Carol Bly

From Carol Bly’s Beyond the Writers’ Workshop:

Our efforts to think and feel beyond simple love of family or love of nature are a fragile enterprise! We will have to keep reminding ourselves of how this civilization, the stuff nonfiction writers [CP: poets and novelists, too] write about, works out cruelly for some, cruelly for all at some times, cruelly all their lives for still others.

Literary colleagues may assure us that such thinking will make us shrill. “I used to love your work so much,” they will say, “back when you just described how people are and you didn’t press for change.” Such friends and colleagues far prefer rereading Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to reading Three Guineas all through once. In Mrs. Dalloway the character Hugh Whitbread was still only an emerging shadow of a villain. He was still just one of Woolf’s aesthetic achievements—an interesting character vaguely benefiting, but only vaguely, from being a privileged player in “the system.” By the time she wrote Three Guineas, Woolf recognized the Hugh Whitbreads as the beneficiaries and manipulators of unethical entitlement because by then she had asked the question: “Who is the victim for whom this civilization doesn’t work out fairly? And now that I have shown you the victim, we had better ask who, exactly, is the predator?”

Of course, the Woolf of Three Guineas is less charming than the scrupulous but still merely sensuous novelist of Mrs. Dalloway. It is odd how easy and gratifying it is to think of men in ascot and waistcoat and striped morning pants, yet how awful it is to think of a major perpretrator of war and poeverty (not just to women—to everyone) in that same morning dress! We may wish that someone had not pointed it out to us that the villain often wears the correct school tie, but the pyschological fact is that once it has been pointed out to us we are pinned. We will look at Hugh Whitbread but see poor women’s buckets and dead soldiers’ heads and limbs on the beach.

Copyright 2001. Who in the world by the late date of 2001 found it “easy and gratifying . . . to think of men in ascot and waistcoat and striped morning pants”? I don’t even find it easy to think of women decking themselves out to attract men. That aside, Bly proceeds convincingly:

Once we . . . writers have asked either question, “Who is the victim for whom this civilization doesn’t work out fairly?” or “Who exactly is the predator?” we can never go back. We will never again equate a sojourn in the wilds with a spiritual journey. From then on, we will see the wilds wistfully, as someplace not yet intruded on and misused by our lot. Enjoying nature is from then on only escape.

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