Tuesday, 15 July 2014

How admirably is Gawain presented in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"?

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most well known medieval poems that survives to this day. Despite this, the identity of the poet is unknown, and indeed very little is known about him. He is referred as the Gawain-poet, and was most likely a contemporary of Chaucer, living in the Cheshire area. The poem, part of the so-called Alliterative Tradition, describes Sir Gawain’s undertaking of “a Crystemas gomen” with a strange and supernatural Green Knight. They agree that Gawain is allowed one attempt at beheading the Green Knight and, a year later, the Green Knight will have his turn at beheading Gawain. And so, at Camelot’s Christmas feast Gawain beheads the Green Knight with one axe-stroke and, to Gawain and Camelot’s amazement, the Green Knight picks up his head and rides off. Gawain is then faced with an almost impossible undertaking that will surely lead to his death. Nonetheless, he is determined to find the Green Chapel (the dwelling of the mysterious Green Knight) and fulfill his side of the agreement. When he does finally arrive after days of travelling and a number of days spent at Sir Bertilak’s court, the Green Knight’s axe only grazes Gawain’s neck and Gawain survives the seemingly impossible adventure. However, Gawain has already undergone his true test: the sexual temptations of Sir Bertilak’s wife. The whole poem can therefore be seen as a test and judgment of Gawain’ character, and this is why a number of critics have studied Gawain’s character and questioned how admirable he really is.

Before we can examine Gawain’s character, we must first examine the court he represents: Camelot. The Camelot presented in the poem is a young one, a place where a “fayre folk in her first age” is ruled over by a “childgered” king, King Arthur, who cannot bear to do anything for long, “So bisied him his yonge blod and his brayn wylde”. The inhabitants of Camelot are childish and innocent, and indeed upon the arrival of the Green Knight they are stunned into a trepid silence. This, in itself, is somewhat embarrassing: the knights of Camelot, renowned for their courage, are shocked and scared by the Green Knight’s proposal. However, this is slightly unfair: the sudden appearance of a supernatural entity at a feast is surely enough to shock anyone into silence, particularly considering his proposal of a Beheading Game. King Arthur, on the other hand, greets the visitor, and accepts the challenge almost immediately. He does, however, get angry with the Green Knight, and Moorman argues that we should compare Camelot with Sir Bertilak’s court. Where Sir Bertilak and his courtiers greet Sir Gawain very admirably and kindly, the Green Knight is received coldly, by Arthur in particular. Thus it is possible to conclude that, in comparison to other courts, Camelot is discourteous and unwelcoming. However, that would be forgetting that the Green Knight insults Arthur and the knights of Camelot, whereas Gawain does nothing of the sort.

Gawain’s response to the challenge is brave and admirable, thus possibly redeeming Camelot’s initial hesitance. Moreover, although the blow will presumably kill him if he does not succeed in killing the Green Knight with his first blow, he takes pains to find out where he must go to keep the appointment. Furthermore, throughout his stay at Sir Bertilak’s castle, he does not forget the terrifying goal of his quest, making his continued display of courtly values to his host and hostess all the more impressive – surely he has no reason to upkeep these virtues if he will be dead soon. However, rather than showing forgetfulness or insensibility, he shows an amazing sense of self-control in his ability to remain courteous, and indeed he repeatedly rejects Sir Bertilak’s invitations to remain at the castle. Although he understands that reaching the Green Chapel means almost certain death, he would rather die than not reach it. We admire Gawain for ignoring the temptations of the Guard and therefore for persisting with his adventure and not avoiding his task.

Gawain is a knight famous for his courtesy, or “cortaysye”. He is known for his skills in the art of love making, and indeed when he arrives at Sir Bertilak’s castle on Christmas Eve, the inhabitants whisper about Gawain: “I hope that may hym here / Schal lerne of luf-talkyng.” Moreover, the Lady believes that she may learn not only love talking, but also love making, from Gawain. Gawain demonstrates his “cortaysye” and deference to ladies when, after the proposal of the Green Knight, he asks for Guinevere’s permission to accept the challenge. However, courtesy is not the only virtue that Gawain sees as important. A.C. Spearing refers to what he calls the ‘five fives’: the five sets of five qualities in Gawain himself that the pentangle symbolizes. He is without fault in his five senses, he does no wrong with his five fingers, his faith is in Christ’s five wounds, he draws his fortitude from the five joys of the Blessed Virgin, and he follows a pentangle of virtues: “fraunchyse”, “felawschyp”, “clannesse”, “cortaysye”, and “pité”, and it is the conflict of these virtues that causes him his trouble. The poet stresses the interdependence of Gawain’s virtues so that they support each other. However, this also means that the failing of one virtue will bring about the falling of the whole pentangle of virtues. Thus this prepares the reader to see, in the test he undergoes, not a single quality being tried, but a whole complex of virtues. It is also worth noting that, as well as being a courteous knight, he is devoted to the Virgin Mary. In fact, he has her image painted on the inner side of his shield to look at in battle, and he also prays to her in his search for the Green Chapel on Christmas Eve. Thus Gawain is admirable for his values and devotion to Mary.

It is this conflict of virtues (between “cortaysye” and “clannesse”) that makes the Temptation of Gawain in the castle so complicated. His courtesy means that he cannot give an outright refusal of the Lady, and to accept the Lady’s sexual advances would obviously be going against “clannesse”.  Although Gawain is proud of his reputation of courtesy, he finds it hard to reconcile this with his dedication to “clannesse”. Thus he can neither accept her nor reject her. The test is one of sexual temptation, and indeed a major danger to Gawain lies in the Lady’s attractiveness. She is described as:

            “Wyth chunne and cheke ful swete,
            Bothe quit and red in blande,
            Ful lufly con ho lete
            Wyth lyppez small laghande”

Moreover, the persistent hint of laughter on her lips make her all the more sexually provocative to Gawain, who finds her attractive, thinking her “wener then Wenore”. It is, for obvious reasons, hard for Gawain to reject these temptations, and indeed he is angry with himself at her advances and his inner response to them. He feels as if he owes to others to keep up his reputation, and the Lady exploits this. This use of his reputation enables the Lady to show him what is expected of him as the knight of courtesy, and thus to tempt him even more. Thus, we admire Gawain for his resolution to keep faithful to his host by not sleeping with his wife, thus remaining chaste despite obvious temptations. Gollancz summarises the poem as “the story of a noble knight triumphing over the sore temptations that beset his vows of chastity.”

However, Gawain’s actions are not completely without blame. Although he is determined not to give her a love token, when he is offered the possibility of survival (the girdle she offers him will save him), he is unable to reject it. A.C. Spearing notes that “He accepts it because it will save his life but as a love-token, a ‘luf-lace’.” He continues: “in wearing it openly, as he sets out to face what he believes to be his supreme test, he is declaring himself the Lady’s ‘man’, even though the inside of his shield still invisibly claims that he is Our Lady’s man.” One could therefore argue that he fails in his devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Moreover, by agreeing to conceal the girdle from her husband, Gawain is breaking his agreement with Sir Bertilak, and thus his test can also be seen as a test of his truth. Burrow writes:

“The hero makes two contracts with his adversary, the beheading agreement and the exchange agreement, and the outcome of his adventure is made to depend on his fidelity to these contracts – what the poet calls his ‘trawpe’… and we are expected to accept this truth-trial as a sufficient basis for the life-and-death moral judgment passed on him by the Green Knight in the last part of the poem.”

It is for breaking the exchange agreement with Sir Bertilak that Gawain receives the cut on his neck. In fact, the Green Knight’s three axe-strokes are explicitly symbolic of the three days of Temptation – it is only on the third stroke (e.g. on the third day of Temptation) that Gawain is cut (as punishment for his error).

One less admirable characteristic of Gawain is his seeming lack of modesty and his concern with his own reputation. In fact, as aforementioned, the Lady uses this to her advantage. When she questions whether he really is Gawain, he betrays himself and his concern for his reputation in his swift response: “‘Querfore?’ quoth the freke, ans freschly he askez, / Ferde lest he hade fayled in fourme of his castes.” Moreover, on her third visit, the question of Gawain’s reputation is brought up again, but this time by himself. He says that a glove would not be worthy of her as a gift, but he also implies, somewhat arrogantly, that a gift from Gawain should be something better: “Hit is not your honour to haf at this tyme / A glove for a garysoun of Gawaynez giftez.”

Another reason not to admire Gawain is that he seems to be trying as hard as possible to escape his fate without breaking his agreement, something that appears almost impossible. Not only does he break his agreement and take the girdle that will supposedly save his life, he is also incredibly impatient upon his arrival at the Green Chapel. There is a lot of emphasis on speed in his words: “If any wyye oght wyl, wynne hider fast, / Other now other never, his nedez to spede.” It is as if he hopes that the Green Knight will not appear, meaning he can escape with his life while still fulfilling his agreement and keeping up his reputation.

After their meeting at the Green Chapel, Gawain immediately begins to accuse himself of almost every offence he can think of. He is first silent, but swiftly becomes full of shame and anger. We admire him for his acceptance of his error:

            ‘Now am I fawty and falce, and ferde haf ben ever
Of trecherye and untrawthe: bothe bityde sorwe
                 and care!
       I biknowe yow, knyght, here stylle,     
       Al fawty is my fare.’”

However, he soon grows angry at the girdle, blaming it for his downfall, and indeed he then diverts his anger to the “wyles of wymmen”. He is angry that he was deceived by the Lady and by Morgan la Fay, and indeed he identifies himself with other men who have similarly been deceived by women, notably Adam. The fault is clearly his, and although he has been tricked, he ought not try to shift the blame. Nonetheless, despite this desire to shift the blame from himself, he inevitably admits his failing and concludes that he is permanently stained with sin. The wound in his neck will heal, but his failing will remain, so he will continue to wear the girdle. Moreover, he is full of shame when he tells his story to the knights at Camelot:

            “He tened quen he schulde telle,
            He groned for gref and grame;
            The blod in his face con melle.
            When he hit schulde schewe, for schame.”

However, the Green Knight sees Gawain’s error as relatively trivial, and indeed he tells Gawain this. He says that he still thinks very highly of his moral standing and the poet says that the Green Knight admires him in his heart. He presents Gawain’s experience to him in terms of sin, confession, penance and absolution. Gawain’s penance is the cut in his neck, and the Green Knight offers him absolution. Thus he does his best to help Gawain to come to terms with his sin peacefully. Many critics have suggested that the Green Knight is actually the devil in disguise, and that his offer of absolution could be tempting Gawain to participate in blasphemy. Moreover, the invitation back to the castle could be seen as another form of Temptation, and Gawain is admirable for seeing through this and managing a courteous refusal. On the other hand, his anger is exaggerated and almost comic, since he is accusing himself of every sin he can think of. Overall, although we admire Gawain for his acceptance of his sin, we struggle to see him as completely admirable because of his erratic anger at having been tricked, and his desire to shift the blame.

It is worth noting that Gawain only admits his fault and feels guilty once he has been discovered. It is not until the Green Knight has revealed that Gawain has been tricked and has been found out that he admonishes himself. Indeed, there is one point in the poem when he seems incapable of analyzing his own situation: just after he accepts the green girdle and agrees to keep it a secret. He shows no guilt or shame, and indeed he goes to the priest to receive full absolution (“And he asoyled hym surely and sette hum so clene / As domezday schulde haf ben dight on the morn.”) To receive this full absolution it is very unlikely that Gawain told the priest about the girdle, since he would have been instructed to give it to the Lord of the castle (because of the Exchange Agreement). Burrow believes that the confession is therefore invalid because of this omission, and claims that Gawain’s imperfections are not made good until he acknowledges his fault at the Green Chapel and receives absolution from the Green Knight. However, it is particularly strange that the poet makes absolutely no note of Gawain’s guilt and concealment during confession. A.C. Spearing suggests that it is because Gawain’s “concience” has failed him, and that he does not include the girdle in his confession because he does not see it as a sin. The guilt that he might have had is ignored because of his thankfulness at the chance of being saved from an almost certain death. In this way, it is hard to admire Gawain because he does not acknowledge his fault when he is making it.

Gawain agrees to take the girdle because he knows nobody could possibly find out (the Lady has no reason to tell anyone, since it would reveal her bad conduct), so he is not worried about public shame. It is not until Gawain discovers that he has been found out (by the Green Knight) that he begins to feel guilty for taking the girdle. When he discovers that the Lady and the Green Knight have been scrutinizing his behavior all along, he loses self-control completely and is overcome by anger directed at himself, the girdle and the Lady. Perhaps it is not that Gawain sees the issues and deliberately acts wrongly, but rather that he fails to see what the issues are – that to take the girdle is a sin in itself. In this way, the reader sees Gawain’s flaws and his inability to realize his error. Gawain’s situation is paradoxical: when he is truly guilty, he is overjoyed at having saved his own life, but when his offence has been discharged and the Green Knight assures him he is “pured as clene / As thou hadez never forfeted sythen thou watz fyrst borne,” he begins to accuse himself of sinning. When he finds himself known to be imperfect, he feels guilty, and this is his true flaw: he is more concerned with keeping his repuatation safe than he is concerned with being virtuous.

Gawain’s sporting of the girdle as a baldric is somewhat absurd. Throughout the poem, Gawain has measured himself by perfection, and when he discovers that he is actually imperfect, he is determined to be the most miserable of sinners instead. It is as if he is so arrogant that he believes that his own imperfection deserves such ostentatious treatment as the eternal sporting of a baldric, as if human imperfection in him is remarkable. The courtiers of Camelot laugh at Gawain’s story and laugh at him for sporting the girdle, and many critics have argued over what we ought to make of this. It is indeed possible that Gawain has returned from his adventure, having lost his innocence and matured, while the courtiers of Camelot are still young and immature. Perhaps their laughter is the laughter of incomprehension. By taking the girdle as a badge of honor the courtiers are perverting its meaning (known only to Gawain himself). However, other critics argue that the reaction of the courtiers should guide our own. They see that he is being proud and giving excessive importance to a minor failing in an impossibly difficult task. By wearing the baldric, the courtiers are pointing out that all humans are imperfect, preventing Gawain from becoming the outstanding figure he wishes to be. Gawain’s sporting of the baldric can therefore be seen as admirable, as he is accepting his guilt, or absurd, as he is doing it out of arrogance and pride.

Thus, the reader is left unsure as to whether to admire Gawain. Of course we admire him for undertaking the Green Knight’s challenge and for persisting with it to the very end. Moreover we admire him for refusing to give in to the Lady’s sexual temptations (although he does take the girdle). However, Gawain’s reputation is not perfect. He breaks his Exchange Agreement by taking the girdle, and he tries, understandably, rather hard to avoid his death. Nonetheless, his least admirable characteristics are his obsession with his own reputation and also his faulty conscience. The fact that he only understands that he has made a mistake once the Green Knight has revealed his trick demonstrates this. He does not see it as a sin until he knows that his reputation has been tarnished, and this is surely a fault in him. As a knight he has a certain arrogance and pride about his reputation, and indeed this is one of his most prominent characteristics, making it very hard to admire him.

Monday, 14 July 2014

A Brief Summary of John Searle's "Minds, Brains and Science"

John Searle, the American philosopher and Professor at Berkeley, originally wrote his book Minds, Brains and Science as part of a lecture, or indeed a series of lectures called the 1984 Reith Lectures. In the concluding pages he writes that his aim has been to “characterise the relationships between the conception that we have of ourselves as rational, free, conscious, mindful agents with a conception that we have of the world as consisting of mindless, meaningless, physical particles.” Searle successfully tackles some very challenging questions (like The Mind-Body Problem, and The Problem of Free Will) by addressing previous solutions to the problems, pointing out their strengths and weaknesses, and then giving his own arguments using constant examples and reasons to support his argument, making his point of view more comprehensible to the reader. In this essay I am going to attempt to briefly summarise each of his arguments.

One point that repeatedly comes across throughout the book is that there are two levels of mentality: “a higher level in mental terms, and a lower level in physiological terms.” This means that the mind and consciousness can both be caused by the brain, and realised in the brain. He goes on to explain that there are two causally real levels of description in the brain: for example, at a higher level, the conscience’s intention raises the arm, but at a lower level, the neurons in the brain cause the arm to be raised. Thus he concludes the Mind-Body Problem by asserting his belief in both physicalism and mentalism: he believes that the mind and body interact, but that they are not two different things, since mental phenomena are features of the brain. This, incidentally, has parallels with Aristotle’s beliefs about the soul. Aristotle, although he was a dualist, did not believe that the soul and the body were entirely independent of one another.

Searle’s solution to the question “Can computers think?” is also particularly interesting. He very successfully articulates what many philosophers have not been able to articulate in the past: that computers are defined by their formal or syntactical structure, whereas human minds have semantic contexts. Thus a computer is able to simulate thinking (i.e. by manipulating meaningless symbols without understanding them), but it is not able to think in the same way the human mind can think. In the next chapter, Searle effectively defeats all the arguments in favour of cognitivism (the belief that thinking is synonymous with processing information and symbol manipulation, suggesting that the mind is in fact very similar to the digital computer). He does not argue that the belief is completely false, but says that a distinction needs to be made between ‘psychological information-processing’ (which involves thinking) and ‘as if psychological information-processing’ (when there are no mental states at all). He also points out that many of the actions that are supposedly calculated, are actually just done by the brain automatically. There is therefore no need for unconscious calculation in addition to the level of our mental states (the level of intentionality) and the level of our neurophysiology. He writes: “The fact that a computational simulation of a natural phenomenon involves complex information-processing does not show that the phenomenon itself involves such processing…” and this is a major flaw of the brain-computer comparison. Thus he concludes that, although our mind does do calculations, they are not the same as the calculations that a computer does, and certainly there is no separate mental level for calculation.

In his Chapter “The Structure of Action” Searle goes in to a lot of depth about the idea of intentionality and the mental states of actions. He states that actions have two components (a mental one and a physical one), and that the mental component is an intention (i.e. a belief, desire, hope) and this causes the action. He refers to this form of causation as ‘intentional causation’, and the mental component has to both represent and cause the physical component. The intentions are also part of the explanation of an action (i.e. we can see why someone did something if we know their motives, and thus the content that causes the action is the same as the content in the explanation), and indeed some intentions can be formed during an action (i.e. when someone is acting spontaneously without prior reasoning). However, he asserts that all prior intentions are the product of practical reasoning and the weighing up of conflicting desires. He then goes on to explain that human intentions are formed with ‘the background of intentionality’. What he means by this is that our intentions are formed on our skills, habits and abilities etc. Searle concludes by saying that, despite the development of scientific accounts of behaviour, the commonsense explanation (like both his and Freud’s) will continue to persist and survive.

In his penultimate Chapter, Searle examines the restraints of the social sciences which, he argues, can also be seen as strengths of the social sciences. He gives a step-by-step argument explaining why the social sciences can never give us strict laws on human behaviour. He begins by saying that for their to be laws of the social sciences there has to be a systematic correlation between phenomena identified in social and psychological terms and phenomena identified in physical terms. He says that social phenomena are in large part defined in terms of the psychological attitudes that people take, and this means that there is no physical limit to what we might regard as money or a house, implying that there can be no bridge principles between the social and the physical features in the world. Finally, there can be no bridge principles between phenomena described in mental terms (the mind), and phenomena described in neurophysiological terms (the brain). Thus, he concludes, no rules for human behaviour can be found, since there is no fixed correlation between the phenomena described in social terms and phenomena described in physical terms. In conclusion he gives a brief description of the character of the social sciences, which he claims are firmly rooted in intentionality. He says that the social sciences (like economics or linguistics) are grounded in human practices, context and history, and that as these practices change, so the rules change. However, the main reason that no fixed rules can be given (he explains that the rules of economics are based on assumptions about the intentions of buyers and sellers etc.) for the social sciences is because they are powered by the mind and by human intentions. The only thing that social sciences can provide is, therefore, theories of pure and applied intentionality; they cannot provide rules.

John Searle then combines this idea of intentionality, and the idea of the mind being both part of the brain and caused by the brain, to answer the Problem of Free Will. In his final chapter he explains that science leaves very little room for the freedom of the will, and indeed he swiftly defeats the indeterminism argument. However, he then writes:

“There are all sorts of experiences that we have in life where it seems just a fact of our experience that though we did one thing, we feel we know perfectly well that we could have done something else.”

This, he says, is the most compelling argument for free will. He then explains the theory of ‘compatibilism’ (the belief that determinism and free will can both work together) and its major problem: that it does not allow for true free will, the idea that humans can choose between two acts, all other conditions remaining the same. He explains that our actions are caused by our mental states and neurophysiology, and thus one could still argue that all of our actions are determined at the basic micro-level of physics. However, it is the fact that we experience acting rather than perceiving, and the fact that our acts are determined by intentionality, that we are unable to shake the conviction of our own freedom. He uses the example of a man at gunpoint: although his actions are determined that he will almost certainly do as he is told, he can still choose to do otherwise, and he puts this down to human consciousness and intentionality. He claims that the experience of freedom is an essential component of any case of acting with an intention, and thus we arrive at a modified form of compatibilism: psychological libertarianism is compatible with physical determinism. Although we may be physically determined, our mind, our consciousness, our intentions, can never be determined, and thus we can never be said to be unfree. He says that we could never “discover that we do not at least try to engage in voluntary, free, intentional actions”.

Throughout his book, while tackling a number of problems, Searle persists in proving that our commonsense mentalistic conception of ourselves is perfectly consistent with our conception of nature as a physical system. He claims that, although we have discovered many of our commensense beliefs to be false (i.e. that the world is flat), our conception of our behaviour and ourselves will never be entirely wrong, since it is only ourselves who can understand the cause of our actions. Our reality comes from within ourselves, making it unlikely that our conception of our reality is completely false.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Feminism, Boobs, and Petitions


Feminism is a pretty hard topic to write about, for everyone. It’s even harder for a teenage boy. Particularly one from a public school where the ‘macho man’ stereotype still thrives. Last year I wrote a blog about the No More Page 3 campaign and why we should all support it and, following its publication, a number of my male friends began to question my sexuality. I know, I was surprised too: I was completely unaware that feminism and homosexuality were linked in the teenage mind. Apparently so. But it’s not just guys who get ridiculed for their feminist beliefs: we all do. Whether it’s fighting for the right to vote or trying to prove that ‘boobs aren’t news’, the feminist movement has been laughed at, mocked and often ignored since it started. There’s even an organisation out there trying to prevent equality for women1! The whole idea of misogyny and ‘anti-feminism’ completely and utterly bewilders me. What is it about feminism that angers so many people? What on earth is wrong with wanting equality?

In my mind, everyone should be a feminist, and I use the word here to mean somebody who wants equality amongst men and women. If you are not a feminist, then you must be delusional. There is no rationale behind the belief that women are inferior and shouldn’t have equality. If you genuinely think there is, please do enlighten me. So why do so many shy away from the word ‘feminist’? Why do some people actually believe that “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians”2?

It’s pretty clear that feminism has a bad rep. In fact, when people say they are feminists a common reaction is: “So you hate men?” There are a number of reasons for this, but this is the main one: there are a few (and I mean very few) feminists who actually do have a problem with men, and sadly these are the feminists that get into the news. It is this same kind of skewed thinking that leads many members of the public to believe that all Muslims want to implement Shariah law in the UK and behead all non-Muslims: because there are one or two extremists, and unfortunately they tend to make the press, giving a bad name to anyone who associates themselves with the same label. Valerie Solanas3 referred to men as walking dildos, and this kind of misandrist belief goes against the fundamental stance of feminism: that men and women are equal. Just because one or two radical feminists express their all-men-are-bastards beliefs does not mean that all feminists hate men. Trust me, I don’t hate myself; I hate patriarchy. And that’s another problem. Some feminists actually end up being sexist themselves. In an effort to dispel patriarchal ideals and beliefs, some feminists of the past have claimed that men are inferior. Obviously, this approach isn’t going to work either, and, in fact, is rather counterproductive. Feminism is fighting for equality, not matriarchy.

In my view, the various nuances and sects of feminism should be ignored and replaced by one single maxim: that people should not be judged and subjugated due to their sex. The failures of feminism in the past and the stigma attached to it ought to be forgotten. People should decide for themselves what they believe ‘subjugation’ entails, and whether they believe that things like porn or different punishments for men and women are sexist. These topics have always and will always divide opinion. However, what should not divide opinion is the drive for equality that ought to be at the center of the movement.

One particularly controversial topic is Page 3 of The Sun. First printed in 1964, The Sun is a national tabloid newspaper that has an average daily circulation of 2,409,811 copies. In 1970, The Sun had its first model standing nude on one of its pages. It seems almost ludicrous to me, for a number of reasons, to have a topless woman in the UK’s most-read newspaper. The No More Page 3 campaign agrees. I personally have few problems with so-called ‘Lad’s Mags’ (although they too are going out of fashion), but the fact that The Sun thinks it is legitimate for a national newspaper to display these images is what alienates me: it is on show for the whole country to see! Anybody could be reading The Sun anywhere, and young boys and girls are therefore likely to be exposed to nudity from a very early age. Now some may argue that it is the parents’ duty to protect their children from this exposure; but is that really realistic if, for example, there is a man sitting next to your child on a train, ogling at the bare breasts on page 3? The fact that The Sun is a newspaper makes men feel it is acceptable to look at nude pictures in public places, where they would be very unlikely to read Nuts or Zoo. There are more appropriate places for sexualized images.

One of my other problems with page 3 is this: it is incredibly embarrassing for our country. To have more-than-soft-porn accessible in a newspaper in the 21st Century makes me feel almost humiliated to be English. We are one of very few countries to still cling to outdated institutions like page 3 and, in my view, it ought to be withdrawn. Moreover, the message that page 3 sends to society is certainly not a good one: that women are simply sex objects and images for men to gawk at. If feminism is about equality, then page 3 contradicts its fundamental thesis. For me, these are the three most convincing arguments.

The reason that the No More Page 3 campaign has caused such controversy is that many people mistakenly believe that the petition is calling for a ban. No More Page Three is not the first attempt to challenge page 3. In 1986 Clare Short MP put a bill forward in the House of Commons explicitly asking for page 3 to be banned, saying that it is a “phenomenon in Britain’s press”. She received huge amounts of ridicule from the public saying she was “jealous” and indeed many MPs at the time sneered at her in the House of Commons, making rude and unpleasant personal remarks. Given the enduring right of freedom of the press, Clare Short’s proposed bill never became law. By contrast, the No More Page 3 campaign is simply calling for Dinsmore and Murdoch to reconsider the whole idea of page 3, in the hope that they will realize how unbelievably outdated and damaging it really is. The campaigners are not trying to ban it, but only suggest to Dinsmore to “drop the bare boobs from The Sun newspaper,4 albeit rather imperatively.

So why don’t we just have a boycott of The Sun? Well, it wouldn’t work. The fact is that nobody (or very few people indeed) who has signed the petition actually reads The Sun on a regular basis. The campaigners may know people who read it, or their partners may read it, but very few Sun readers have signed the petition, and this is because they have no problem with it. If they did have a problem with it, they wouldn’t buy it and they wouldn’t read it. That is one of the reasons why many people argue that this petition is flawed. Perhaps it is trying to take something many Sun readers like away from them? If they want to get rid of it, then they should simply stop buying it. This is perhaps the main reason that I am unsure about the petition: the majority of the supporters are likely to be middle-class women who read papers like The Times and The Guardian and who have only read The Sun once or twice in their lives. It therefore seems a bit unusual for page 3 to be taken away by people whom it affects far less. Nonetheless, I still disagree with page 3 and the message it sends, and for that reason I have signed the petition: not in the hope that it is banned, but in the hope that readers of The Sun and supporters of page 3 realize how outdated and inappropriate it is. For me, that is the most important thing: that the readers themselves begin to support the campaign.

Yes, I support the campaign. No, this does not make me homosexual. Yes, I do like boobs. But there’s a time and a place, and until nude women are taken out of national newspapers, there can never be true equality. The fact that there are versions of Nuts etc. for females makes me less worried about magazines of that sort. However, when the pages of a national newspaper are filled with images of important men in suits adjacent to images of topless ladies, something is clearly not right. This is not equality. For that reason, to be a feminist means to oppose page 3.

1. The organization STOP ERA, now known as Eagle Forum, is an anti-feminist group in the U.S. that lobbies against equal rights for women.
2. Marion Gordon "Pat" Robertson, a former Southern Baptist minister, generally supports conservative Christian ideals, and presently serves as Chancellor of Regent University and Chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network.
3. Valerie Solanas was an American radical anti-feminist, made famous by her assassination attempt on Andy Warhol.
4. The petition, set up by Lucy Holmes, can be found on www.change.org.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Persuasion in Woolf's "A Room of One’s Own"

The conclusion of Virginia Woolf’s feminist polemic A Room of One’s Own states that, in order for a female to write, she not only needs a room of her own, but also £500 a year (which was worth considerably more then than it is now). She comes to this conclusion after hours of thought on the topic of ‘Women and Fiction’; however, rather than simply presenting an argument, the author shows her long and somewhat complicated thought-process through a fictional narrative. She writes:

“I propose making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist, to tell you the story of the two days that preceded my coming here – how, bowed down by the weight of the subject which you have laid upon my shoulders, I pondered it, and made it work in and out of my daily life.”

In order to demonstrate a writer’s need for a room of their own, the author skilfully laces her fictional account with reasons to believe this. She is keen to emphasise the role of interruptions in the reflective process, and she dramatizes the effects of these interruptions on a number of occasions. For example, the narrator is depicted sitting in contemplation on the banks of a river at “Oxbridge”, and her thought process is represented metaphorically in terms of fishing. However, her thoughts are interrupted by a Beadle, ordering her off the grass, an area where women were not permitted to venture. The narrator then notes that, although “no very great harm had been done”, she had lost her “little fish” of an idea just as it was beginning to grow. Moreover, when the narrator attempts to visit the college library in pursuit of another idea, she is told that “ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.” Again, this demonstrates the restrictions of intellectual and creative freedom placed on females and the fact that, historically, they have scarcely had space or leisure for the uninterrupted thinking so necessary for writing. The obstacles that the narrator faces show the effects that a patriarchal educational culture has on female intellectual pursuit.

Through her narrative, Woolf also demonstrates a writer’s need for individual wealth, also denied to females throughout history. She notes that women have always been poor, that they have never had possessions of their own and that they themselves, until very recently, were the possessions of their husbands. The reason that the narrator is able to write is that she was left a legacy of £500 a year by her aunt. She observes that she learnt of this inheritance at the same time as women were first given the vote, and that the inheritance was far more important in securing her freedom. The legacy meant that she was not forced to work for a living. It also meant, she explains, that she was relieved of her anger at men for their superiority. She tells the reader that her financial freedom gave her the “freedom to think of things in themselves”, something which she believes vital for a writer to possess. Thus Woolf is again demonstrating a females writer’s need for money: so that she can not only devote her time to writing, but also so that she can rid herself of prejudiced thoughts and hatred.

Woolf views independent wealth as so vital to a female writer because only then can the frustration and vulnerability that would mark her thinking and writing be dissolved. She sees this incandescence and lack of prejudice as central to good works of fiction. She says that a good novel requires that all traces of the particular self be distilled in the “white light of truth”, rather than in the “red light of emotion”. She demonstrates this through her visit to the British Library and perusal of male writings about women that are characterised by their anger and desire to assert male superiority. She writes:

“When I read what he wrote about women I thought, not of what he was saying, but of himself. When an author argues dispassionately he thinks only of the argument; and the reader cannot help thinking of the argument too.”

This, she explains, is a weakness, and she goes on to express the importance of dispassion in writing. Woolf, citing a passage from Jane Eyre, argues that novels lacking incandescence “do come to grief somewhere”. She writes of Bronte’s passage, which describes the plight of women:

“She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience… Her imagination swerved from indignation and we felt it swerve.”

Thus the author is using an example to argue her case for the importance of incandescence.

However, although wealth is clearly important to allow time for writing, it is uncertain as to whether incandescence and lack of passion really are necessary for a female writer to possess. Surely some of the most highly regarded and exciting passages in literature were motivated by the author’s personal experiences and feelings? She says that Austen’s novels are written “without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching”. Even this is debatable: Austen’s extremely sympathetic depiction of Miss Bates, a spinster like herself, suggests that the author is protesting against the troubles faced by poor and old females, which she herself experienced. Moreover, Anne Elliot’s preaching in Persuasion must be motivated by Austen’s own anger at patriarchy: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.” Austen clearly felt this injustice rather keenly, and wanted to speak out against it. Although this does not undermine Woolf’s overall conclusion (that women need a room of their own and £500 a year to write), it does undermine her belief that a true novel needs to be written with incandescence.

Woolf then uses a very vivid fictional example to illustrate her points. She conjures the imaginary character of Judith Shakespeare, talented sister to the famous playwright. However, since she receives no education and is forced to domestic work, her social role gives her little chance to develop her gift of writing. Whatever she is able to write she burns in fear of punishment or ridicule. She is then forced into marriage, but runs away to London to go into acting. The players and theatre owners simply laugh at her, but she is finally taken up by the theatre-manager; she becomes pregnant, and then commits suicide. This dramatization, although perhaps slightly extreme, shows that women simply were not and could not be writers in the Elizabethan period. Why was this? Because they had no room of their own and no independent wealth.

Woolf uses a number of other examples to support her argument. Moving through the history of female literature, she begins by citing aristocrats Lady Winchilsea and Margaret of Newcastle, who both were childless and had husbands who gave them freedom. She puts their ability to write wholly down to this. She then cites Aphra Behn, who despite being a member of the middle-class, went against convention and paved the way for future female writers. She argues that Jane Austen could only write because she had no children, was never married, and was able to live off her family’s income. These examples again serve to reinforce her thesis.

She concludes by saying that, although it is possible for a writer to be poor and not have a room to themselves, the odds are against them. Keats seems to be the only influential and well-known poet of the hundred years before Woolf’s novel that was particularly poor, and Austen was special in her ability to write in her family sitting-room. Education, she says, is vital for any writer, and this comes with wealth. She sums up her argument thus:

“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time… Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.”

She says that to write “There must be freedom and there must be peace…” and these only come through wealth, privacy and independence. For Woolf, these necessities explain the lack of female literary history. Until now, women have not had the privileges of freedom and privacy. Thus she concludes that they are vital for a female to write. Now that they do have freedom, wealth, and privacy, women can and should write.