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Monday, July 13, 2009

A woman's place

Let’s take up where we left off: with Madame de Stael’s remark that, in our current social arrangements, women are “neither in the order of nature nor in the order of society.”

D’Agoult cites de Stael not to refer to Rousseau’s time, but to the new, post revolutionary society. However, since the very staging of that opposition is, in a sense, signed by Rousseau, it is natural to think that Rousseau would have something to say to women and about women. In fact, when d’Agoult writes that Rousseau “spoke” to women, she could well be referring to the introduction of Emile, in which Rousseau literally says that he is speaking to mothers. Less literally, the Nouvelle Heloise was an event in the third life of women all over Europe, and surely the letters of Julie speak to women, in d’Agoult’s sense.

Certainly, d’Agoult is onto something when she contrasts Condorcet, with his eagerness to end the system of submission that shackles women in the civil sphere, and Rousseau, for whom it would seem that a woman’s place is in the private sphere. By the social logic that opposes independence and dependence, women, then, should be dependent. And yet, this can’t be all the story. Rousseau could see, and even advocate for, the transformation of the order of dependence, the traditional order; by committing himself to this change, he deprives himself of the traditional reasons that women should be dependent. He deprives himself of the social sanction of that hierarchy. Moreover, how can women have a place at all if all places are to be rearranged? If the old order’s corruption calls for revolutionary action? In fact, as Helena Rosenblatt has pointed out in an article defending Rousseau from the charge of misogyny, even in the Letter to D’Alembert, which has often been seen as the most misogynistic of Rousseau’s writings about women, a closer reading will find that Rousseau is not writing against all women, but pleading the case for women of civic virtue. For Rosenblatt, one should never forget that Rousseau wrote: “Every revolution began with the women. Through a woman Rome gained her liberty, through a woman the plebians obtained the consulate, through a woman the tyranny of the decemvirs was ended; it was the women who saved Rome [when besiged by Coriolanus].”

In all of these examples, Rosenblatt claims, we see women in a different light than in the usual Enlightenment discourse about the ‘softening’ power of women. Rather, Rousseau aimed at the opposite.

And yet, those examples of women outside the house are also examples of states of emergency. If the revolution begins with women, doesn’t it end by putting women back in their place?

The theme I’d like to follow, the effect I’d like to investigate in Rousseau, is, in a sense, a detour around the question of whether D’Agoult is right, or whether Rosenblatt is right. It is the question of the place of these beings who are not in nature or society. I am inspired here by the starting point of Mira Morgenstern’s book on Rousseau. Why, Morgenstern asks, is it that the model of a woman’s place in Emile and the Nouvelle Heloise is in such discord with the arc of the narrative in both books? For surely if the author of Emile is right about women, then the education of Sophie should be crowned with success, rather than tragedy. And Julie’s ultimate failure to be happy in her marriage to Wolmar in the Nouvelle Heloise – Wolmar, the man who her father chose, and who does his best to get her to love him – condemns absolutely that marriage and all the arrangement of the idyll of Clarens, their utopian estate?

Why is it that Rousseau does not gild his theme of women’s place with happy endings, in other words? Why does the narrative force seem to perversely turn upon the conceptual advice? Where is a woman’s ‘place’ in all of this?

I am not taking that as a starting place for an examination of the narratives so much as an allowance for seeking the source of the tension created in Rousseau’s work by women. Ultimately, I want to focus on a suggestion of Morgenstern’s in her brilliant chapter on the household set up by Wolmar and Julie in la Nouvelle Heloise. In a subsection about women and power entitled The Benevolent Patriarchy, she shows that the utopian arrangement of the household set up by Wolmar at Clarens, she writes:

“On the face of it, then, Clarens would appear to be the perfect example of benevolent paternalism. However, here the paradox reappears: using the familial metaphor based on love to operate an estate that must be run on the principles of order, although perhaps in a different guise than expected. Wolmar does use love to run the entire estate, servants and family alike. But this love is not a true emotion. Rather, it is a disguise for absolute control. This use of love as a cover for authoritarian domination emphasizes Wolmar’s cynical realization that while different principles ostensibly underlie the organization of family, citizens, and servants, any relationship involving people can be translated into a matter of politics and power, albeit in different strengths and forms.” (208)

The problem of dependence for Rousseau is the problem of attachment. As St. Preux himself remarks about the Wolmar’s schema, the whole thing is based on attachment.

‘They [the servants] well know that their surest fortune is attached to that of the master, and that they will never lack anything so long as the house is seen to prosper. In serving it, therefore, they serve their patrimony, and augment it in rendering their services agreeable. This is their greatest interest. But this word is hardly in its place on this occasion; for I have never seen a place where the rules [police] or the interests are so wisely managed, and where, however, they have less influence than here. Everything is done by attachment: one might say that venal souls are purified in entering into this abode of wisdom and union.” [1873:430]

Rousseau’s utopian solution to the problem of interest has not drawn enough attention, Morgenstern thinks. Underneath Wolmar’s benevolence is a very manipulative economic structure:

The second obstacle to the servants’ developing any independent notions of their own good as distinct from the well-being of their masters lies in the economic structure of Clarens. Wolmar’s aim is to make the small estate of Clarens as self-sufficient as possible. To this end, outside trade is discouraged unless it is strictly necessary. Further enforcing the autarky of Clarens is the internal exchange system fostered among the inhabitants and workers of Clarens. Thus, for example, the grocer is paid with grain for his supplies, while the rents are used to furnish the houses owned by Wolmar. This economic system, dispensing as much as possible with the circulation of money, finds its philosophical justification in the avoidance of any intermediaries that can render human exchange potentially inauthentic. A most important side effect of this self sufficiency, however, is that this exchange system effectively prevents the servants and workers of Clarens from ever leaving.” [212]

Here, indeed, is place – place closed upon itself. It is here that the problem of the place of women finds a solution – a solutin which, on another scale, is the solution for society as a whole. But the problem with this solution is two-fold: it fosters desperate attachments, rather than love; and it prevents and minimizes the chance of a stranger appearing. The latter is, I think, crucial to Rousseau’s unresolvable problem of reconciling love and place.


Anonymous said...

car il n'y eut jamais pour moi d'intermédiaire entre tout et rien. Je trouvais dans Thérèse le supplément dont j'avais besion.

for there has never been for me an intermediary between everything and nothing. I found in Thérèse the substitute [supplément] that I needed.

Rousseau, Confessions


roger said...

That's a great trouvaille!
Now I have a question for you Amie. I'm not sure what I should say about the back and forth between the Confessions and the other autobiographical texts and the, shall we call them less autobiographical texts? Emile, La Nouvelle Heloise. And then there are the mixtes, like the Lettre a D'Alembert.

I've been thinking how Kofmann freely uses what Rousseau says about himself and applies it to what he says about women. It strikes me that something needs to be said about that - some intermediary! - that would, as it were, take the impress of D'Agoult's Jean-Jacques away. Or is that simply denial? Is Rousseau one of those cases where everything is personalized? And if so, why?
A lotta questions! But I imagine you have pondered this too.

Anonymous said...

LI, some great questions though I'm hoping you don't expect me to come up with a great answer in a brief comment! And I'll try not to wander off as I often do and keep to your posts.
So to your question of the personal and intermediaries. Well there are plenty of experts, overseers and caretakers of the corpus of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who can far better than I tell one which part or member is personal or philosophical, political or literary, all very cleanly and clearly partitioned. It's easier to eat and digest a corpus that way. Civilized and educated.
And yet something doesn't pass or move through easily, not without a supplément.

In a way, you have the answer to your question in what you say of framing, of a frame and a support that is necessary and yet has to disappear or be effaced or ignored. As does the supplement. And the supplement is woman, the intermediary between everything and nothing.

So to your question of providing an intermediary to d'Agoult's Rousseau, it would be the text of Rousseau, of the Jean-Jacques who desired living speech and voice and presence and yet had to resort to writing and supplementarity. And maybe we can hear in the "personal" texts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau some other voices, the supplementary others without which it would not be a text. George Sand wrote that she could not forgive Rousseau in the Confessions for not only writing of his own secrets but also those of Madame de Warens.

Marie d'Agout says, as you mention. that Rousseau speaks to women, if only to put them back in place. What happens if it is rather a matter of reading? Rousseau says of La Nouvelle Héloise, "the woman who, in spite of the title, will dare to read a single page is a lost woman." And Héloise in response to Saint-Preux's letters, "you wrote. Instead of throwing your first letter in the fire or taking it to my mother I dared to open it. This was my crime and all the rest followed. I tried to force myself not to answer these nefarious letters which I could not prevent myself from reading."

What is reading? Benjamin says somewhere that the first reading takes place in the entrails.

I should cut this off as it is getting long. But i do want to follow up, particularly about the Mira Morgenstern text you mention.


roger said...

Amie, how funny! I wrote you an email which I erased about how I wished I could ask you these questions, because I am confused a bit about these things. And you answered some of them in the best way! I especially like your connection of the odd logic of the frame to "the intermediary between everything and nothing," the supplement.

Which is resonates with an economic truth as well - since the whole of the neo-classical, neo-liberal ideology is precisely forgetting that nothing in which we all were shaped, that belly, that birth, the food we ate, the warmth we enjoyed, the beds we were tucked into, as ifit never happened - for lo! it turns out the economy is always and only about the market. The frame is kicked away.

The ambiguities of which, like a fabulous city of ice that has swallowed every explorer, I'm headed towards.

Anonymous said...

LI, so I've been thinking of what you say of place, closure and the stranger. I've a couple of questions I'd like to try and formulate. A story to set the stage.

A man - a poor stranger - in exile from his homeland is looking for nothing more in his wandering than for a place to die. The king of a foreign land offers him the hospitality of a place of death. But the poor stranger has one more request. He is traveling with his daughters and he asks the hospitable king to swear a solemn oath that the place of his death and burial will remain a secret and unknown, from the daughters first of all. The place of death is a strangely powerful place, a place of power, place of mastery, mastery of place. From which the daughters are excluded.
The poor stranger is Oedipus.

What is the place of Julie's death in the closed, paternal, autarkic order that is Clarens? When she dies, none of the men are there. Not the father, not the husband, not the lover. She dies in the "sweet embrace" of her friend Claire. Why is Claire's "role" in the text so frequently neglected? Beginning with what her name means and its resonance with Clarens. Julie thinks of her friendship with Claire as an "exceptional blessing...I am a woman and yet have known a true friend." And Claire writes to her fiancé, "when I tell you my Julie is dearer to me than you, you only laugh, and yet nothing is more true. Julie knows it so well that she is more jealous in your place than you are."

A few nights before her death Julie invites Claire to share her bed so she wouldn't worry about her and kicks Wolmar out of the room. When the husband returns the next morning, anxious about what might have "happened during the night" he finds Julie as having "borrowed the vivacity of her cousin...something has given her a secret joy which contributed to it not a little, but of which I couldn't discover the cause." Following this night, Julie assigns Claire to be her children's mother, and has the children come into the room so she can tell them. The children take Claire's hand and call her "their good mamma, their second mother."

Wolmar, the master of the house, is late arriving at Julie's death, but that doesn't keep him from describing the scene to Saint Preux: " I was alarmed at a low, indistinct noise that seemed to come from Julie's room. I listened and thought I could distinguish the groans of a person in extremity. I ran into the room, threw open the curtain, and there -- St. Preux! there I saw them both, those amiable friends, motionless, locked in each other's embrace, the one fainted away, the other expiring. I cried out, and hastened to prevent or to receive her last sigh, but it was too late, Julie was no more."

Julie was no more, the husband writes to the former lover. The master of the house can at at least be sure and remain secure in this knowledge. But how many times does Juile die, how many times does her death take place? Even Julie's father isn't sure, gets it wrong in thinking she died at the moment of saving her child from drowning. After she is dead, a servant of her father looks at her body and thinks it is looking at him and making a sign to him with her head. He promptly announces to everyone that she is not dead, still lives, has come back. And they all believe him. After all, hadn't Julie told them that " I will remain with you."

Wolmar has a devil of a time convincing the people of the house that Julie is "really" dead, and he doesn't want to be accused of being a "parricide of a husband who had buried his wife alive." So he puts her body on display. But in the heat, the body begins to decay and disfigure, and is hastily buried, in the same clothes. With one addition, a veil. It was a gift from Saint Preux to Julie, but it is Claire who places it on Julie's disfiguring face. And she says: Accursed be that sacrilegious hand which shall presume to lift up this veil! Accursed be that impious eye which shall dare to look on this disfigured face!"



roger said...

Amie, that is an astonishingly concentrated and beautiful precis. I'm going to refer to this when I get back to this blog!