Saturday, April 4, 2009

Tolstoy on Women

I've been reading Tolstoy short stories now for a while (I know, I didn't post that under the What I'm Reading section. I'm a fraud). I found this remarkable segment in The Kreutzer Sonata. I have a very old translation, and what I found interesting is that most online translations in English do a massive editing job of the text. I was going to highlight the parts that are removed by most modern translations, but they are too numerous. Also, most use inclusive language that makes this text almost impossible to recognize as the same one. It took me a while to find this old translation by Aylmer Maude online. Of course, I think that Tolstoy's Calvinist tendencies betray him a bit here and he goes overboard. Nevertheless, I won't edit the text so that you can read it and think what you want. Why should I tell you what is good and bad about it?
The education of women will always correspond to men's opinion about them. Don't we know how men regard women: Wein, Weib und Gesang, and what the poets say in their verses? Take all poetry, all pictures and sculpture, beginning with love poems and the nude Venuses and Phrynes, and you will see that woman is an instrument of enjoyment; she is so on the Truba and the Grachevka, and also at the Court balls. And note the devil's cunning: if they are here for enjoyment and pleasure, let it be known that it is pleasure and that woman is a sweet morsel. But no, first the knights-errant declare that they worship women (worship her, and yet regard her as an instrument of enjoyment), and now people assure us that they respect women. Some give up their places to her, pick up her handkerchief; others acknowledge her right to occupy all positions and to take part in the government, and so on.

They do all that, but their outlook on her remains the same. She is a means of enjoyment. Her body is a means of enjoyment. And she knows this. It is just as it is with slavery. Slavery, you know, is nothing else than the exploitation by some of the unwilling labor of many. Therefore to get rid of slavery it is necessary that people should not wish to profit by the forced labor of others and should consider it a sin and a shame. But they go and abolish the external form of slavery and arrange so that one can no longer buy and sell slaves, and they imagine and assure themselves that slavery no longer exists, and do not see or wish to see that it does, because people still want and consider it good and right to exploit the labor of others, and as long as they consider that good, there will always be people stronger or more cunning than others who will succeed in doing it. So it is with the emancipation of woman: the enslavement of woman lies simply in the fact that people desire and think it good, to avail themselves of her as a tool of enjoyment. Well, and they liberate woman, give her all sorts of rights equal to man, but continue to regard her as an instrument of enjoyment, and so educate her in childhood and afterwards by public opinion. and there she is, still the same humiliated and depraved slave, and the man still a depraved slave- owner.

They emancipate women in universities and in law courts, but continue to regard her as an object of enjoyment. Teach her, as she is taught among us, to regard herself as such, and she will always remain an inferior being. Either with the help of those scoundrels the doctors she will prevent the conception of offspring -- that is, will be a complete prostitute, lowering herself not to the level of an animal but to the level of a thing -- or she will be what the majority of women are, mentally diseased, hysterical, unhappy, and lacking capacity for spiritual development. High schools and universities cannot alter that. It can only be changed by a change in men's outlook on women and women's way of regarding themselves.
I find this text remarkable because of how it addresses so many issues: from women's liberation, to contraception, to the human libido dominandi, to questions about women's alterity. The primary question it seems to me of the contemporary women's movement is the question that Jacques Lacan asked once: Is there such a thing as 'woman'. Or, is she really only a projection of man. I also find it interesting that this question dominated both the mind of John Paul II, and most constructivist feminists. What exactly is the genius of women? Can she be seen for herself? Can she truly appear?

Unlike most feminists, I do not have a problem with the language of complementarity, as long as it is used carefully. For example, in Genesis 2, when the woman is called the "helpmate" of the man, the word used is one that in most other places in the Bible is applied to God. God helps Israel just as woman helps man. Does this flip on its head the symbolism of Israel as a wife and God as a husband that is found in other OT texts and that is used by Paul in Ephesians 5? I don't know. I don't think so. But it does temper it a bit. Remember, in this text in Genesis 2, a text which has been used in the past as weapon against women, man actually clings to women, because she is his helper, just as Israel must cling to God in faith and trust since he is Israel's helper. Women are only condemned to yearn for man as a curse of sin. Anyway, I figured out would get this out of the way before we move into Holy Week and all of those rich themes as material for reflection.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

1 comment:

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ / Mason Slidell said...

I really like your image of clinging Nathan. Embryologists tell us that the building block of embryo development is the X chromosome. In order for the Y chromosome to be activated, the zygote is bathed in testosterone, which specializes the male and moves the genitalia to the outside of the body. In a way then, the male is a specialized female.

The female expression is universal, while the male expression is specialized. The male, who is focused and myopic, must cling to the female, who is broad and encompassing.

Mason Slidell