A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

A few thoughts on Woolf’s androgynous mind

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Hi all, it’s Emily from Evening All Afternoon. A big thanks to this month’s host Ana and the rest of the fine ladies here at Year of Feminist Classics for letting me guest-post! I love this project almost as much as I adore Virginia Woolf, so it seemed natural to spend a little time here writing about one of my favorite passages from A Room of One’s Own. Hope you enjoy!

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And I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain, the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain, the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilised and uses all its faculties.

I’ll level with you: Virginia Woolf’s theory of the androgynous mind changed my life. The first time I read A Room of One’s Own, the concept served me far beyond positing an ideal mindset for poets and novelists: it illuminated my reality of the time in an exhilarating and mind-blowing way. In Woolf’s portrait of the cross-fertilizing brain, “male” and “female” are still recognizable quantities, yet any individual contains and embodies elements of both. The result is that, although it’s conceptualized as a binary, either/or proposition, the way gender actually manifests in human beings is as unique admixtures of male and female, which body forth differently for each of us—which, indeed, manifest differently for a given individual from moment to moment. To be ideally creative, Woolf writes, is to transcend the limitations of gender roles, then to transcend dwelling on having left those limitations behind—to inhabit one’s own moment-to-moment spiritual amalgam of male and female un-self-consciously. To be, as gender theorist Kate Bornstein suggests, a woman who swaggers, or a man who knits, without approaching the swaggering or the knitting as if one had anything to prove, but as integral parts of one’s identity, “spiritually cooperating” with all the other parts.

On subsequent readings, and in reading others’ reactions, I realized that this idea I was so excited about is also one of the most controversial claims in Woolf’s famous essay. I’ve even come to sympathize with its detractors, although not to the exclusion of my initial enthusiasm. Ana linked to a good overview of the theoretical arguments for and against Woolf’s idea, so I won’t duplicate them here. But there is something that strikes me about two of the major camps of objections. For the first group of critics (Showalter, Rado), Woolf’s glorification of androgyny is a denial of the physical, a dishonest suppression of her own female-ness and a descent into a destructive sexlessness. Essentially, there is not enough of the body in A Room of One’s Own to suit Rado and Showalter.

Personally, I don’t think much of this argument; Woolf explicitly argues for the importance of writing “as a woman” if one is a woman, and she never seems to question that there is a gendered difference between art made by men and that made by women:

But this creative power differs greatly from the creative power of men. And one must conclude that it would be a thousand pities if it were hindered or wasted, for it was won by centuries of the most drastic discipline, and there is nothing to take its place. It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?

Which brings up the second group of critics: those for whom, on the contrary, there is too much body in A Room of One’s Own, for whom this concept of androgyny actually reinforces the male/female binary it’s trying to critique. Wright explores a number of different takes on this, but for me personally the main difficulty is an undeniable degree of gender essentialism necessary to Woolf’s argument. Without something essentially “feminine” or “masculine” to be found in a human mind, her vision of creative cross-pollination, of the mutual fertilization of two opposing forces, ceases to make any sense. Each individual simply presents their own native mixture of qualities, and gender does not enter into the equation. Rather than being a woman who swaggers or a man who knits, in other words, a person is simply an individual who knits and swaggers.

Furthermore, it’s clear from Woolf’s specific examples of writers she considers androgynous, versus those overly masculine or feminine, that her ideas on this subject are mired in Edwardian norms:

The fact is that neither Mr. Galsworthy nor Mr. Kipling has a spark of the woman in him. […] Shakespeare was androgynous; and so was Keats and Sterne and Cowper and Lamb and Coleridge. Shelley perhaps was sexless. Milton and Ben Jonson had a dash too much of the male in them. So had Wordsworth and Tolstoi. In our time Proust was wholly androgynous, if not perhaps a little too much of a woman.

We have the standard breakdown here: flowing prose, circular narratives and a focus on interior landscapes (Proust) are associated with a feminine balance, whereas outward-looking adventure narratives, empire-building, and a preoccupation with the material world (Kipling), as well as epic bombast (Milton) are put down to the male account. I’m in great sympathy with the argument that these traits have become gender-identified, not through any innate propensities of those with xx or xy chromosomes, but via gender-specific socialization. Yet I’m still enamored of Woolf’s portrait of mental cross-pollination, the cooperation of opposites. How to reconcile the conflict?

For me, the solution is twofold. In the first place, even if I believe gender to be completely socialization-dependent, that doesn’t mean it’s not REAL in terms of the lived experience of present-day individuals. I can recognize certain impulses in myself as “masculine” or “feminine” in terms of the world in which I live, without believing they would be so in every possible world. And really, if A Room of One’s Own is to be believed, most so-called facts are contingent and subjective, not just those relating to gender: for what happens if, as Woolf portrays in Chapter One, while walking on an autumn day one is suddenly overtaken by the strong perception of spring?

And this is the second point of reconciliation, for me: Woolf’s emphasis on the importance of disruption and cross-pollination throughout her essay, and how it’s not limited to gender. At most critical junctures, some detail enters the narrative to mix with the preexisting contents of the narrator’s mind and guide the path of her thoughts, adding that extra, necessary catalyst. So, for example, she presents the androgynous mind theory as being facilitated by a vision of a man and a woman getting into a taxi together; similarly, fall threatens to give way to spring along with the narrator’s mood and perceptions. The train of the narrator’s thoughts is continually interrupted by her physical arrival at one place or another, illustrating the intermixing of the physical and mental—which is also supported by her famous line about how one “cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” At times, of course, this experience of disruption crosses the line from subtle influence to active coercion. The narrator is prevented from entering the college library, for example, or from walking on the green (though these coercive disruptions don’t result in exactly the mental thwarting the beadles might have expected). Most of the time the interruptions are less intentional: one of my favorite examples is the narrator’s interaction with the Manx cat outside the drawing room window, which reminds her that “something seemed lacking” in this party as compared to luncheon parties before the War.

It seems to me that the point of all this is the stimulus of difference: how diverse elements intermingle and play off one another in our minds, and how we must both maintain diversity in society at large, and encompass that difference within ourselves, in order to live fully. Since the male/female gender dichotomy is a socialized reality, it is one of these polarizing and fertilizing oppositions in our lives, and one that has been a source of illusions, inspiration and oppression for many. But it’s not the ONLY such spectrum. And what’s more, existing in multiple places on any spectrum does not result in a lack, only a gain. I am female, but I am also, in some way, male. It is currently late Spring, but it is also, in some way, early Autumn. I am 30 years old but I am also, in some way, 3 and 13 and 23 and even 83. I am sitting in my house in Portland, Oregon, but I am also, in some way, present in all the places I’ve been and imagined. We are all shifting and kaleidoscopic, and I think that’s what most inspired me about Woolf’s vision of androgyny to begin with.

But enough about me: what did you think of this section of A Room of One’s Own? Was it more exciting to you, or more problematic? Or neither/nor?

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9 responses to “A few thoughts on Woolf’s androgynous mind

  1. nymeth May 21, 2011 at 8:40 am

    This is such an excellent point: “For me, the solution lies is twofold. In the first place, even if I believe gender to be completely socialization-dependent, that doesn’t mean it’s not REAL in terms of the lived experience of present-day individuals. I can recognize certain impulses in myself as “masculine” or “feminine” in terms of the world in which I live, without believing they would be so in every possible world.”

    Exactly. I need to keep the way you phrased this in mind for the next time I find myself cornered into a conversation where someone says that the very concept of feminism is sexist because it emphasizes gender differences.

    Thank you so much for your contribution, Emily! I can’t wait to hear what everyone else has to say.

  2. Jillian ♣ May 22, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    I think this is an essay I need to read more than once. It was my first Woolf work (besides a couple short stories), and I was swept away by her style, her arguments, her forcefulness. I love her concept of the androgynous mind — a well-rounded writer, rather than a writer biased toward his/her own gender. Her points about writing proudly as a women — were electrifying to me. That she singles out Austen as a person who simply wrote, rather than writing with a gender agenda, really made me see Austen in a new light.

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  4. SilverSeason May 25, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    I like your thoughtful comments very much, including (if I understand you correctly) that Woolf’s own division of masculine and feminine draws very much on the conventions of her day. I am always impressed when I can read an author and, without knowing or caring whether he/she is male or female, find the characters equally-well drawn, whether the characters are male or female. It is rare, but it can happen.

    Gender is both of the body and of the mind. I believe that our own perceptions in our own bodies influence how we perceive others, and our experiences with those others help to shape (develop?) our minds. This is all to the good. It’s a big world out there and literature can add to our understanding of it.

  5. Pingback: Review: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf « Amy Reads

  6. amymckie May 30, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Great post Emily, thank you so much for the contribution. Definitely a really interesting part to pick out and write about, and I have to say that while I had marked it during my own reading I’m glad you talked about it in depth because it really made it clearer. Like Ana I love how you point out that gender differences exist in our world and so we can talk about them without having to believe that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ must always be like they are now.

  7. Emily Jane June 2, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    I thought this part was really confusing, and therefore a bit problematic. I really appreciate your interpretation of it, though. Kind of a “well, when you put it THAT way” sort of thing, for me.

  8. Jess Santiago May 31, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    I really enjoyed your post!

    I cannot say I can really understand what Virginia Woolf is saying here, I had to read it for a British Literature class, but this theme calls my attention, and I’m happy I read it.
    What I understood for androdynous mind, was a mind without prejudice. I think here, she just reinforces, somehow, what she says in chapter II about anger. The man who is writing is angry at women, maybe even afraid of being inferior to then (hat is just what I understood, I might be wrong), by doing or writing things angry you may not be able to develop things clearly.
    So by having an androgynous mind you are not angry at anything, no prejudices. You do not feell inferior or superior to anyone, it doesn’t matter if you are male or female, you are just a human.
    I don’t know if I’m talking nonsense or I’m being rather simple minded. :p

    Kisses

    Cya

    Jess :3

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