the politics of being born

- Martine Francke
As I perhaps clumsily indicated in my last post, one risks falling under the spell of a parergonal logic in trying to “frame” a text, to give it a frame, to approach it from a frame. For from the start, the frame has a fatal tendency to bilocate within the frame. In this particular case, the frame is a woman – who provides the frame for the actual content of the phrase from Rousseau, “all men are born to be free…”, about which the Consolatio dialogue turns. The woman is both the support, the constitution and condition of that birth, and what is marginalized by that particular freedom. Marie d’Agoult in her Histoire provides a very good (and neglected) overview of feminist history from the French revolution to 1848 –giving due credit to figures who were supposedly re-discovered by the feminists of the 1970s, like Olympe des Gouges.

“The Revolution, after having provoked them [women] to appear on the political scene, threw them back into the shadows, on 9 thermidor, without having provided essential changes in their social condition. However the constitutional assembly, not content to render them a striking homage in entrusting the “reserve of the Constitution to the vigilance of wives and mothers” had sensibly ameliorated their fate in the family in establishing the equal sharing of goods and abolishing the perpetuity of monastic vows. The legislative assembly thought they were doing even more by legalizing divorce. But in this as well the legislators were occupied solely with women of the wealthy class. The questions of equal division of goods, of perpetual vows and of indissoluble ties did not touch the daughter of the people, for she did not expect inheritances, her family had no interest in pushing her into a convent, and the uniformity of the habits of her industrious life retained her naturally, without causing her to suffer, in the one matrimonial tie. The ideas which interested the generality of women and their rights in all social situations were not treated again after the long silence of the Empire and the Restoration than by the schools of Saint Simon and of Fourier.” (II, 33)

This is a beautiful passage, both for what it recognizes and its rather destabilizing ultra gesture. The latter became more common in leftist discourse in the 20th century, when, due to the reactionary family policy of Stalinism, the cry went forward that, as d’Agoult puts it here, the women of the people were wholly uninterested in the bourgeois topics of feminism. The game, by that time, was all about suspending indefinitely the cultural revolution (which was frivolous) while pursuing the economic and political revolution (which was serious). Seriousness is a politically charged social thematic – and alas, an all too little investigated one. However, at the time d’Agoult was writing, the sinister career of this theme was well in the future. Instead, one has to credit d’Agoult with the perception that the unity of “women” could easily disguise the social disunity of “women”. That the “long silence” is broken by the ‘utopians” – oh, this is such a rich topic, and one with such bearing on the liberal-radical alienation from the happiness culture, that I can hardly do it justice here. I’ll just point to it.

And so let us leap, following the method of the grasshopper rather than that of the scholarly ant, back to our Herzen text and end this post with a quote from the doctor:

“Did you ever think what the words, ‘man is born to be free’ mean? I shall interpret them for you. They mean, ‘man is born to be a beast’ – no more. Take a drove of wild horses – complete freedom and equal rights, the most complete communism; but development is impossible. Salvery is the first step to civilization. For development it is incumbent that some shall be far better off and others far worse. It is then that the former can advance at the expense of the latter. Nature spares nothing for development. To her man is an animal with an extraordinarily well developed brain: herein lies his power. Man did not feel in himself the agility of the tiger or the strength of the lion. He was remarkable neither for his muscles nor for especially keen senses; but he evinced a world of cunning, a host of humble qualities which, coupled with his natural tendency to live in communities, brought him to the initial step of social life. Bear in mind that man is fond of obeying; he always seeks something to lean upon, or to hid behind. He lacks the proud self-sufficiency of the beast of prey. He grows up subjugated by the family and the tribe. The more involved and tight the knot of social life became, the deeper people sank into slavery. They were oppressed by religion, which played on their fears, and by the tribal chiefs who played on tradition. There is not an animal, but one from the ‘kind corrupted by man,’ as Byron called domestic animals, that would be able to stand the strain of human relations. The wolf devours the lamb because it is hungry and became the lamb is weaker; but the wolf does not demand slavery from the lamb, nor does the lamb submit to him. It protests by bleating and running away. Into the wildly independent and self-sufficient world of the animals man has introduced an element of personal loyalty, the element of Caliban, and it is owing to this that a Prospero could appear.” (426)