Thursday, September 21, 2006

The silent apartment

Liberalism tells us that the highest aim in life, the very thing which makes us human, is our freedom to be self-determined. This means that liberals use words like autonomy and independence to describe the key goals in life. The problem is that it’s not so simple to make people absolutely autonomous. It means denying that we have any inborn qualities, or any unchosen, inherited forms of identity, which might help define who we are. It even means, as a matter of logic, downgrading the status of love in human life. After all, our highest ideal of love is a joining together of a man and woman in a kind of permanent union or bond. It’s not easy to reconcile this ideal with the liberal one of achieving an autonomous, unimpeded individual will. This problem becomes especially acute for feminists, since feminism takes the basic principles of liberalism and applies them to questions of male and female relationships. As evidence for this, take the case of feminist writer Vivian Gornick. She has written an honest account of her own love life in an article titled “What independence has come to mean to me” (published in the book The Bitch in the House). She begins the article by declaring that her sixty-fifth year is a year of reckoning and that she is brooding now on her “lifelong struggle to become a human being: an independent human being”. (Note how liberalism makes the status of being human contingent: it’s something you only attain through reaching a certain condition of autonomy or independence.) She then quotes an article she wrote nine years ago, in which she looks at people walking along a New York street and is struck by the lack of firm relationships:
This is a population in a permanent state of intermittent attachment. Inevitably the silent apartment lies in wait. Who could ever have dreamed there would be so many of us floating around, those of us between thirty-five and fifty-five who live alone. Thirty years of politics in the street opened a door that became a floodgate, and we have poured through in our monumental numbers, in possession of the most educated discontent in history. Yet, we seem puzzled, most of us, about how we got here, confused and wanting relief from the condition. We roam the crowded streets, in naked expectation of a last-minute reprieve.
And how did Vivian Gornick come to be part of this mass of confused single people? She recalls that as a young woman she,
discovered the promise of revolutionary feminism; and then the loneliness that came with what I took to be independence – turning it quickly into a political position (“this is what we must endure to become ourselves”)
Much later she recognised that it was not so much “sexism” which kept her single but her politically inspired treatment of men:
In the name of equality I tormented every man who’d ever loved me until he left me: I called them on everything, never let anything go, held them up to accountability in ways that wearied us both.
She then decided that work, with its promise of independence, could replace love.
Work … had come to seem everything. Loving a man, I had decided, would never again be uppermost in my concerns.
But this turned out to be more difficult than she imagined: the instinct toward love was difficult to suppress. She wrote an article in which she “examined the matter once more, and this time looked more clearly at the consequence of what I so easily claimed could be dispensed with – love, that is”:
Perhaps, in fact, the two (work and love) were incompatible. Love-as-I-had-always-known-it was something I might now have to do without. I approached the thought blithely, as though it would be the easiest thing in the world to accommodate … The only important thing, I told myself (again), was work … If I worked, I’d have what I needed. I’d be a person in the world. What would it matter then that I was giving up on “love”? As it turned out, it mattered … the idea of love, if not the reality, was impossible to give up. As the years went on, I saw that romantic love was injected like dye into the nervous system of my emotions, laced through the entire fabric of longing, fantasy and sentiment. It haunted the psyche, was an ache in the bones: so deeply embedded into the make-up of the spirit it hurt the eyes to look directly into its influence.
Having admitted that her need for love couldn’t be denied, Vivian Gornick then recognized that her “autonomy” was not really what she had held it up to be, and that:
what I was calling my “choices” weren’t really choices at all, they were simply the impulses of a conflicted being: one of them had to be acted upon. And thus, more often than not, after I had “chosen” I’d end up feeling stranded, confused and disappointed; surprised it was turning out this way; and as shut up inside myself as before – neither free nor independent. Ah, there was the rub. Not independent. Consciously I was undivided in my desire for autonomy. Independence, I thought, was what I valued above all else. But it was turning out that I had not understood the word at all. For years I had mistaken rebelliousness for independence. I thought that every time I treated the men in my life badly because “work comes first” I was asserting my independence. I thought dressing like a slob meant defying the social code. I thought reciting the history of women’s oppression ad nauseam explained all the writing I wasn’t doing.
What is there to say about all of this? Conservatives are by no means opposed to ideals of autonomy or independence. But these are part of a mix of goods which we might seek in life. They are not the be-all defining our humanity. To choose to sacrifice a degree of autonomy in order to enjoy another good, namely romantic or marital love, doesn’t threaten the conservative world view in the same way it does for liberals. It doesn’t undermine a conservative definition of “personhood”. It’s important that we build up our own conservative influence, so that there’s a more effective opposition to liberal orthodoxy. If we don’t, then we will periodically have feminist upswings, in which large numbers of middle-class, intellectual women will suppress the instinct toward love for the ideologically superior claims of autonomy.

1 comment:

  1. "When they pass the age where they hold any real power over individual men."

    Good point, Bobby. I remember thinking about this when I was single. It seemed to me that women could strike the best deal for themselves, marriage-wise, when they were in their 20s. This was when they were at the peak of their beauty and fertility and when men were most likely to have a passionate desire for them.

    It seemed irrational for women to wait until they had less power over men, before attempting to secure a life partner for themselves.

    I still wonder at how so many women of my generation could have let their naturally endowed advantages slip away - did they think that the balance between men and women that occurs in the late teens and twenties stays that way forever?