Hugh Kenner defined the stoic attitude in terms that the historian of Greek philosophy might dispute, or at least modify, but that I find definitionally elegant: “the stoic is one who considers, with neither panic nor indifference, that the field of possibilities available to him is large perhaps, or small perhaps, but closed.”
It strikes me that I can discern a sort of feminist stoic style in the work of certain twentieth century artists: Christina Stead, Nina Berberova, and Elizabeth Hardwick come to mind. They are feminist in having a strong self-consciousness of themselves as women, and, more extensively, of having an idea of the destinies allotted to women in societies filled with destructive male power; they are stoic, however, in having a certain dryness of perception with regard to the sentimental education by which female collaboration is extracted. In other words, they, too often for some tastes, sacrifice the bonds of solidarity to the distance required by intelligence. Sometimes this distance asserts itself by denying any feminism at all, as happens in the case of Christina Stead.
I’ve been reading Nina Berberova’s great autobiography, The italics are mine – the French translation is, I do the underlining – and thinking how tough this woman was. Here literary career, as far as the metropoles of publishing are concerned, occurred when she was eighty, when her stories and novellas and autobiography came out.
She lived the life of a “free woman”, in Doris Lessing’s phrase. There’s a subtle tonal shift from liberated woman – for to be liberated is to be the subject of emancipation, to be freed – to undergo that passive tense – while Berberova, and Lessing, thought of themselves as existing outside of that passive tense. They were in privileged positions – but the privilege was internal. Certainly that was the case with Berberova, who endured starvation in Soviet Russia, and crushing poverty in Paris, and the Nazi occupation, all without questioning her joy in energy, her own energy.
I’m going to write about her again.