In Three Guineas, which I am reading at the request of a young friend who tells us she is writing her dissertation on Woolf and James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf answers the question asked of her by a prominent liberal of his day, which is that she give her opinion as to how war – this was 1938, in Europe – can be prevented. In the course of answering, Woolf suggests that the independent aspect of women’s thought, cultivated as (unwilling) outsiders in patriarchal society is what’s needed to address the evil of war. She does not so much answer his question as state that, by virtue of their differences, well-intentioned men and women must seek to “destroy” evil in different ways. Her vision of a just (i.e., sane, healthy) society as one that must include its outsiders, bringing them from the margins into the center, has not come to pass, needless to say. The problem may have been that she did not envision women remaining outsiders, and, moreover, presumed that by the fact of their inclusion, and the breakdown of patriarchy, society would be improved.
What Woolf calls the “advantages” of having been a woman and an outsider in 19th century British society – i.e., obscurity, ridicule and censure – had left women free to critique the dominant society. However, the freedom and independence of mind that could ask the fanciful, but exquisitely sane question: “how can we enter the professions and yet remain civilized (sic) human beings, human beings, that is, who wish to prevent war?” would become irrelevant once women no longer struggled to be accepted into the professional classes and became themselves, bourgeois. The advantages of outsiderhood would be discarded once they’d been overcome. And of course endless war and militarism are now unchallenged among both men and women in the liberal class! Surely, measured by the standard of remaining “humanly civilized,” we might now ask, is it so bad to be an “other” (i.e. obscure, ridiculed and censured)? Might not “otherhood” be preferable to entering the professional class without answering that question?
Instead, professional identity became the Holy Grail for women, hungry to lose our obscurity and the isolation of being homemakers and second-class citizens. While Woolf’s contemporaries dreamed of having paid work as a means to independence (from being ruled by their fathers), modern “liberated” women have entered another kind of bondage which has cost them all of the hard-won independence of mind gained from centuries of “obscurity.” It has made them fully cogs in this neoliberal, war-making, heart-hardened (insane) society, for anyone who takes the prevention of war or the dream of peace too seriously surely is no professional!
The question we who still are interested in preventing war, or, better, in the dream of peace, might ask is how to make a virtue of obscurity, outsiderhood, or “otherness” such that being of that “lower” caste is a meaningful and desirable alternative to professionalism and success! To accomplish this would require an entirely alternative source of identity and meaning than that provided by neoliberal social ordering, its education, career ladder and its health and retirement benefits. As the insanity of our society must by now be apparent to everyone (I write this the week after double-header mass killings in El Paso and Ohio as the incessant babbling of media commentators flows on in their wake) we must be ready now to sit down at the table where we can discuss what we are willing to sacrifice to bring about sanity. Can we at last, question the Holy Grail of professional status and the good salary, which simply puts us in a higher caste than those working for wages? Can we just say no to career advancement knowing, if I accept that tantalizing offer of the “next upward rung” that I’ve worked hard for and deserve, I will accept with it the muzzling of my independence of thought? Can we now see that fear of obscurity is driving us to the sameness of professionalization, a sameness that serves capitalism’s inhuman purposes, war, imperialism, exploitation, destruction of the commons, etc., rather than the human good?
Strange as it at first seems, real independence of thought calls for letting go of the fear of obscurity such that we can inhabit its real freedom, the freedom known to those obscure 19th century English women who could see the potential for evil in succeeding in “the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed,” that’s now hidden from us. Not the freedom to “self-actualize” but the freedom to reclaim the bonds that human beings must have for health and sanity, which are those of mutuality and interdependence, a society of “safe,loving and caring relationships.” (Levine) What’s needed now is the freedom and independence to be sane, and to demand the conditions for sanity – which isn’t possible until each one, in defiance of the one-size-fits-all liberal bourgeois program for success, finds and allies herself with freedom’s source in the “anti-structure” genius of the creative human soul.
The first and necessary step in regaining independent thought, and the possibility of contributing to a society that can repudiate the evil of war, is to find that “other within” (i.e., the creative soul) that dwells in obscurity while the individual concentrates upon joining society’s program for success. In a recent Counterpunch article, Bruce E. Levine reports on the 1990’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, (suppressed for 20 years), which demonstrated childhood trauma is far more prevalent in middle and upper middle classes than might be expected, and that early trauma predicts adult health problems, both physical and emotional. The implications (for those who need science to tell them this!) are that the society itself – not individual abusers and particular dysfunctional families – is making people sick, and thus, we may presume, sanity lies somewhere outside “the center of things.”
My own childhood would not have predicted my becoming a champion of independent thought. As conformist as any white middle-class suburban Upstate NY girl could be, I was jolted out of complacency not by the social tumult of he 60’s, nor by women’s liberation in the 70’s, but later, when forces larger than myself pulled me down into the “illness” end of the mental health spectrum. From there my psyche, humbled and malleable instead of rigidly defended and fear-dominated, followed an innate trajectory toward health, into this “otherness” I prefer to consider sanity (though this has not been confirmed by any psychiatric test).
The ACE findings agree with the conclusions I came to based upon my personal experience of having the luxury of denial taken from me, and having been forced to face the truth, the trauma that darkened my happy childhood. That experience eventually became my major “clue” in the attempt to make my way out of false neoliberal reality, in which, though ill, I could pass for normal but never be well enough to challenge its fundamental orthodoxy, i.e., the pervasive meaninglessness gnawing away at the soul I had not known I possessed, making me depressed. Because by most measures my family was normal and good – no molestation, no beatings – and even admirable, and because I did not want to hate my parents forever, I concluded that my experience must speak to the larger context that shaped my parents, and thus, reasonably, might speak for others as well, whether or not they were conscious of early trauma. More accurately, I felt that I had been left in a position to speak for the souls, or the geniuses of others.
My hope, still, is that by putting this evidence before people, others may be encouraged to make their individual ways out of the closed mental world of neoliberal, top-down society that keeps us crippled, adapting to meaninglessness (in turn making us insane) even though leaving “the center of things” might cost them their “buoyant ignorance.” (Deardorff) I never fully imagined the tenacity of denial, such that the more my life follows the trajectory of my (ongoing) restoration to sanity, the more I find myself a “bewilderingly grave” outsider in relation to the shared neoliberal world.
Sanity, as conscious inhabiting of “otherness,” is a hard sell compared, for instance, to accepting the proffered step up the career ladder, which frequently calls for leaving not the “power centers,” but the real on-the-ground community and relationships one has so far cultivated in that place. (As I write this, yet another friend joins the steady trickle of talented people leaving Utica for a brighter job prospect elsewhere.) “Sanity” cannot be equated with “happiness,” at least not by me. To the contrary, I deem myself “melancholic” because that designation allows me to be true to my unhappiness. Confessing my sad condition, even to myself, frees me from having to compare myself to those more buoyant and successful people whom though they avoid the fall into obscurity, the cost is the alliance with their creative souls!
It’s plausible to me that professionalism, and the education that prepares one for it, play a major part in the denial of childhood trauma, for what could be more ruinous to the phony touted values of top-down professional expertise than masses of people who realized they’ve been cruelly treated and then lied to about it! Americans wishing to retain our humanity could benefit greatly from learning to tolerate, even to love, the unwanted gloomy “other” within, and even more, from standing with that intimate “other’s” independent, anti-structure perspective toward these careerist jobs, as well as toward the war-making neoliberal context.
What I mean to say here is that independent thought, and with it the capacity for agency, are tied – and tied up – in an unconscious way with those earliest dependencies by means of which love became complicated, and much darker. (Freud told us this!) If we are to remain human, this fact cannot be escaped, wished, or imagined away. In 1938, Woolf discusses the “infantile fixation” – the insanity – that, because it was protected by society – allowed educated fathers to behave cruelly to their daughters, preventing their daughters from earning an independent (of them) income. Ironically, although this private obstacle to equality is obsolete in 2019, society’s overall momentum is still largely controlled by unconscious forces, including those which produce so many “abusive and neglectful adults” that, if someone wants to claim families are safer than in Woolf’s time we would have to ask them to clarify in what way. The incontestable authority of the fathers has been replaced by the unquestioned, inverse authority of neoliberalism. This far subtler authority can be contested, but revolution on the left now must begin at “soul level” with individuals loyal to the soul’s poetic aim, which in Virginia Woolf’s words is “the unity that rubs out divisions as if they were chalk marks only…” and with that loyalty, gain the freedom to be human that’s still available in obscurity and commonness.