The Jury Room  (Week 11)                                                                                                                                         Posted 27th July 2014

A corner of the pull-out table or...                                                        From The Herald : Sat 30-May-1998

            A Little Room of One's Own          


It is seminar night in The Jury Room.     It is probably always seminar night in The Jury Room but this night the seminar is taking a more official form. It is the turn of O.U.Wilson's wife, Samantha Very Sapiens, to choose the bar where she and her Open University friends will have their meeting. She has chosen as usual the snug of the hotel.

These nights always come in two parts. After a concentrated, academic session in the snug, they spill out into The Jury Room for a more relaxed, free-association discussion. But it is never all that relaxed, not unless you regard Wittgenstein, Roland Barthes and Nietzsche as fun company.

O.U. is standing with us at the bar when Samantha's group come in and instal themselves at a couple of tables close to us. Samantha, ever a thoughtful women, stands with O.U. for some minutes before she rejoins her friends. This is always her routine. I think it is supposed to put O.U. at his ease. But it never works.

I can see why. From where we stand, we can hear the exotic references in their conversation. Metafiction and intertextuality and non-anthropocentric. Not a mention of bricklaying, O.U.'s chosen area of expertise. No wonder he is looking at his boots. He is probably trying to work out where his heart has gone.

He isn't the only one whose head is lowered, as if weighed down by a dunce's cap.  The rest of us aren't talking much either. I think we all feel a little out-of-date. Modernity seems to be a dialect we haven't mastered. What gets me is that they aren't talking about  molecular structure or nuclear physics. They're talking about books. Why talk about such an act of basic human sharing in such abstruse and exclusive terms?

So when they mention a book I have read, I can't resist it. I join in. I probably shouldn't do this or I should at least marshal my arguments. But I can't wait.

The book is A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. It was recommended to me some time ago by my daughter, when she was doing her very feminist D. Phil. on two French women writers. Knowing that To the Lighthouse had long been a favourite book of mine, she suggested I should catch up with this one. This means that I have what I think are some pertinent comments to hand. I don't expect them to be received with acclaim. I'm not sure they went down too well with my daughter, either. But what the hell.

The starting-point of my lecturette is, I suppose, that an anti-semitic snob with a distinctly patrician set of attitudes is a curious choice of champion to challenge the undemocratic prejudices of traditional culture. But I admit that, with the decontextualisation of texts these days, perhaps that doesn't matter to them.

Given the expressions on their faces, it is not a promising beginning. I press on. Two things, I say, weaken the book's central argument for me. Firstly, its basic premise is polluted at source.

Having a room of one's own was a problem among the Bloomsbury set? Those people probably had several houses of one's own. To be asked to sympathise with Virginia Woolf's struggle for the cultural space to be a writer, with such leisured ease in her life and a husband who was a publisher, seems to me like being asked to feel sorry for the princess who couldn't lie comfortably because of a pea in her bed. The peasants outside would have known how to solve the problem of a pea under the mattress. They would have eaten it, and maybe even the mattress.

Come on, I say. Like a lot of people from my background, I was lucky to get a space on the living room table when I started to write. There was TV and there were records playing and arguments about religion and politics. Trying to write in that atmosphere was as easy as taking an afternoon nap on a traffic island on Great Western Road.

And another thing. That famous idea about the cultural injustice of being Shakespeare's sister. What chance would an imaginary sister of his have had to fulfil her talent? Get a grip. Can they imagine what it would have been like to be Shakespeare's brother and wanting to be a writer? Enough to make you want to commit suicide by falling on your quill. How could anybody have generated the confidence to write when sharing a house with the most lavishly gifted word-smith in the world?

You see, I tell them, Virginia doctored the evidence. A lot of her complaints about the dead weight of cultural assumptions stifling the creative potential of middle-class women could apply more forcefully to both men and women of working-class background. (I know of a man who was severely beaten up by his brother, with the approval of the rest of the family, for his limp-wristed aspirations to be a writer. Shame, shame upon the familee. How's that for a stifling cultural attitude?)

But that would have destroyed the neatness of her feminist case. I see her lecture/essay as one of the forerunners of a modern trend I despise - intellectual sectarianism. The injustices we're complaining about may also affect your life but, if you're not in our gang, we don't give a shit. We're only concerned with us.

Intellectual sectarianism, I tell them, has several recognisable characteristics. It never judges the quality of the thought for itself but always according to the source from which it comes. Not, are you right or wrong? But, what camp are you coming from? What you say may be true but I can't endorse it because the position you are speaking from is heretical.

Unlike honest thought, which tries to find links connecting people in their various conditions, sectarian thought seeks to divide them from one another, to herd them into separate mutually exclusive categories. I don't care about men, I'm a feminist. I'm not concerned with heteros, I'm gay. Social injustice is not my bag, I'm an animal rights campaigner. It creates from its own obsessive agenda a series of sub-species, so that you can find a woman talking glibly on television about being part of the Lesbian Nation, as if lesbians have somehow contrived to declare independence from the rest of the human race.

Intellectual sectarianism leads to a fierce, blinkered arrogance because it reduces the problems we all face to a sub-category of personal preoccupation, where it is presumably easier to make absolute judgments without having to take into account the complexity of other people's experience. I remember meeting an example of this once when I hosted a late-night discussion on television on the subject of child abuse.

The programme itself had troubled me greatly, thanks to several opinions which were expressed on it. One was that, at the moment in our society,  there could be no such thing as a good father. (It was conceded that perhaps in the future some men might learn how to be acceptable fathers.) Another was that it was doubtful if any mother had ever condoned the sexual abuse of a child by her partner. The patent prejudice of these opinions took my breath away and left me wondering at the machinery of minds that could take the raw horror of child abuse and process it into a blatant political agenda: man bad, woman good.

But there was more. In the hospitality room afterwards, a young gay man, who had taken part in the programme, informed me that women were 10 years ahead of gay men in understanding their sexuality and that gay men were 10 years ahead of heterosexual men.

Some women around us clapped like pentecostalists. I puzzled briefly about how he had arrived at such an exact time-scale and then about the vastness of the generalisation. Then I withdrew quietly, as one who does not wish to disturb the inmates.

Until we progress beyond intellectual sectarianism, I tell my stunned audience, we will merely compound the problems we have, not solve them. There is only one agenda - social justice for all. If that justice isn't all-inclusive and mutual, it isn't justice.

I could say more but I am now aware of slight traces of froth forming on my lips. I rest my case.

It is just as well. I have already outraged them. If I say any more, they may tear me to pieces. As it is, they content themselves with dismembering me verbally.

A man I take to be the tutor instructs the others to disregard everything I have said, rather like a judge saying 'let the testimony of the last witness be stricken from the record'. Various insults to my intellectual capacity ensue, like sniper fire. My favourite comes from a woman who says I am a DWEM-in-waiting.

Mary Contrary, who happens to be standing at the bar at this time, once explained to me what a DWEM is: a dead white European male. There is no escape from an insult like DWEM-in-waiting. It's equivalent to being told that you are you. It's hard to deny.  (I find it interesting how politically correct insults tend to be generic rather than individual - rather like racist slurs.) The continuing exchanges between the seminar group and myself are of just as high a calibre as that until I return, at their request but firing over my shoulder, to the bar.

Mary Contrary is waiting for me with one of her smiles that are as easy to interpret as a Delphic oracle.

Exit bleeding? she says.

Well - I say - there's always a gain. At least I've got a title for the piece I'm going to write.

What's that?

I decide it will attempt to suggest how all of us, locked each in our individuality, are operating from a position of social marginalisation. My title is a lot clumsier than Virginia's. But then I come from a much clumsier place than Bloomsbury. I roll it awkwardly around on my mind's tongue before I voice it.

A corner of the pull-out table of one's own, I say.

Gonny let me read it? OU Wilson says.