I was recently re-reading Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) in the elegant translation by Peter Bondanella (Oxford UP, 2008), when I came across this passage in ‘Chapter XXX: Of Fortune’s Power in Human Affairs and How She Can Be Resisted’: ‘I certainly believe this: that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortune is a woman, and if you want to keep her under it is necessary to beat her and force her down’ (86-87).
I’m still reeling from the force of the slap, for this was possibly three weeks ago and I can’t stop thinking about these words. I didn’t feel feminist indignation at Machiavelli’s blatant misogyny, which should be any thinking woman’s reaction, but a very strong sense of exclusion: I felt as if he was telling me to my face from his grave ‘you are a woman and the words you are reading are not for you’. I also felt positively unwanted in the circles discussing The Prince, perhaps, above all, because Bondanella added no explanatory note to this rude remark (among the many, many devoted to much minor details).
He did explain, as editor, that Fortune was habitually represented as a woman–for, I’ll add, Fortune is fickle and so are women. Bondanella also noted that, as I could check in his bibliography, very few women scholars have done work on Machiavelli; this comes as no surprise because they possibly felt the same rotund punch in the guts that I felt. Incidentally, Bondanella neglected to mention that Machiavelli was married (to Marietta Corsini) and he had six children. It took me a few clicks to get her name and the number of children, not out of idle curiosity but because I wanted to know whether Machiavelli could possibly be gay. I feel even more downhearted than usual when gay men support patriarchy.
Then, last week I was reading Humphrey Carpenter’s selection of Tolkien’s letters (published in 1981) and enjoying it very much until I came to a letter sent to one of his three sons, Michael, dated 6-8 March 1941. Tolkien was in the middle of writing The Lord of the Rings and, so, the female Elf Galadriel already existed, also Lúthien in The Silmarillion, both characters much praised by feminist critics. Incidentally, Tolkien also had a daughter, Priscilla, 13 at the time.
Tolkien theorizes in this letter to his son about how ‘The sexual impulse makes women (naturally when unspoiled more unselfish) very sympathetic and understanding, or specially desirous of being so (or seeming so), and very ready to enter into all interests, as far as they can, from ties to religion, of the young man they are attracted to’ (49). Um, I’ve always had my doubts about this fantasy of the Elf woman (Arwen) who gives up her mortality to marry a mere mortal (Aragorn). Tolkien continues in the same vein: women are not deceivers (what a relief!) but moved by ‘the servient, helpmeet instinct, generously warmed by desire and young blood’ (49).
As an Oxford professor, Tolkien had learned that women ‘can in fact often achieve very remarkable insight and understanding, even of things outside their natural range: for it is their gift to be perceptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male. Every teacher knows that’ (49). That possibly explains why so many male teachers see no difference between different types of fertilization in different rooms. Tolkien, not the kind to have affairs with his female students, explains himself further thus: ‘How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp his ideas, see his point–and how (with rare exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand, or when they cease to take a personal interest in him’ (49). Learning for women, to sum up, is a love affair not with knowledge but with male teachers. I wonder what Tolkien made of female teachers and male students.
So, again the slap in the face, the punch in the gut, though neither Machiavelli nor Tolkien seem to understand, particularly Tolkien, that we women can read in their texts their candid revelations about masculinity. My message to all the feminist critics wasting their time in endless discussions of how empowered poor Eówyn is that they should look, rather, into how the villain Sauron’s defeat matters less than Aragorn’s ‘legitimate’ patriarchal entitlement to the throne of his ancestors. By the way: Tolkien engraved on his wife’s tomb the name of Lúthien, the brave Elf she had inspired. Here’s something the two women have in common: Lúthien, like Arwen, gave up immortality to marry a man; Edith, a fervent Anglican, became a Catholic to please the ultra-conservative Tolkien before they married. Lúthien never regretted her choice but Edith, Humphrey Carpenter informs us, raged and raged (she hated compulsory confession) until her husband allowed her in 1940 (they had married in 1916) to attend church as she pleased.
What I am describing is yet another case of noticing the idol’s clay feet. I don’t mean that either Machiavelli or Tolkien are my personal idols but that most texts, past and present, which are extremely relevant to how we think and read in Western culture exclude 50% of humankind. (Of course, you silly girl!). Those reluctant to changing any rules of grammar concerning genre usually claim that ‘man/men’ is often a generic way of referring to all human beings, and that we women exaggerate when we complain against this usage. What I find, however, is that actually ‘man/men’ refers specifically to the male half of humankind and if you press me actually to its patriarchal top. Take the title of Damien Chazell’s recent film on Neil Armstrong, First Man: what is the word ‘man’ doing there? Does it actually mean ‘person’? Or is it, as I suspect, another neglectful way of telling us women, ‘none of you have travelled to the Moon’ (because we men didn’t allow you)? One more slap… (Now check what the Mercury 13 programme was).
I’m trying to be fair here and think of how often women’s writing excludes men, which is often, I’m sure, particularly in radical feminist works. The difference, I think, is that male readers (and please excuse my essentialism) are less likely to be caught unaware, as we are. If you read a feminist text you know where you stand. The problem with most patriarchal texts is that they tend to conceal their filiation not necessarily out of hypocrisy but because they assume that the whole world is patriarchal. Only when some kind of explanation is offered (e.g. Tolkien’s letter) are the true colours of the man in question displayed. It is, I believe, far less likely for a feminist woman to avoid commenting on her own gender views. Even so, I just don’t see a radical feminist making androphobic comments such as ‘Destiny is like a man and he needs to be grabbed by the testicles to be controlled’ or ‘male students only learn if they feel erotically bound to their female teachers but, even so, their ability to learn evaporates the moment she shows disinterest’. Amazing how things sound when you reverse gender.
Reading recently Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution (a collection of lucid blog posts) I had to agree with her that it is very difficult to relax at the end of the day without being slapped in the face by patriarchy in any of the fictions and non-fictions we consume. I started watching a few days ago 1922, a Netflix movie based on Stephen King’s eponymous novella, and I stopped about 15 minutes into it when farmer Wilf James convinces his teen son Henry that they should kill his mother Arlette (she insists on selling the land they live off and move elsewhere). I did grasp that King and Netflix intended this crime to be a horrendous example of patriarchal abuse, and I knew that Wilf’s and Henry’s lives would be destroyed by it–but is this what I want to see? How does this help male viewers be interested in undermining patriarchy? How many enjoyed the very graphic scene of Arlette’s murder? The difference in relation to either The Prince of The Lord of the Rings is that I can ignore 1922 without feeling that my cultural capital is seriously diminished–but how can I ignore Machiavelli or Tolkien? I must read them, if only to better understand my own marginal position in a patriarchal world.
I think sometimes of what the world was like for, say, Mary Wollstonecraft, who understood so well her own marginal position 200 years ago and I wonder what it was like to know that, as a woman, you were not even a citizen with full rights. Some of us in a handful of Western countries have been told that we are equal to men but we get these constant reminders that we are not. You may be thinking that it is very naïve of me to expect to connect with Machiavelli and Tolkien, as they are instances of very different times and ways of thinking but here’s my question–how do we go on reading what we should read to be cultured persons without being constantly insulted as women? For we need to read men, right? It’s not a matter of not reading The Prince. And I certainly don’t want to ignore The Lord of the Rings (as I don’t want any man to ignore Frankenstein).
Here’s a riddle to finish: this is 2018 and no woman has travelled to the Moon yet–can we, then, say that the human species has reached our satellite? Will there ever be a film called First Woman about how the first human to step on Mars will be/was a woman?
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