By Mursi Saad El-Din
Still with the book The Spiritual Woman : Trustee of the Future, a collection of essays edited by Marion Turner Sheehan, the theme I will focus on this time is "women in literature". The writer is Helen C White, professor of literature, University of Wisconsin, and president or vice president of a number of cultural associations.
White's chapter deals with women as both writers and subject of literary works -- in other words as novelists, poets, essayists, on the one hand, and victims of male writers, on the other.
If we are to take some of our contemporary writers at their word, writes White, "they certainly do not seem to know the right kind of women". What bemuses her is the fact that they could know so many of "the wrong sort of women". In contemporary fiction and drama one comes across "immoral, amoral, or premoral women", and very rarely women who are good. In many of the literary works women are depicted "not as human beings, but as passive complements, or even props, to the main action".
White seems to be writing not only about the American woman, but about women at large. Her complaints echo those we hear in Egypt, for instance.
When writers about women recognise the importance of fairness and frankness to honesty, then there is probably no reason to worry, White suggests. But, she continues, "there is always that hasty impulse to the unscientific generalisation. And even when an author happens to embark on developing an image of a good woman, she is presented in such a way as to make goodness itself dull and unappetising". These good women are delineated as "wives, mums and the presidents of the ladies' auxiliaries."
The writer claims that the portrayal of women in literature is apt to irritate any self-respecting woman. But there is another conception of woman which is not so much presented as tacitly taken for granted. This portrayal occurs in much of the literature addressed to women by supposedly respectful writers, including not only men but women, too. It is the type of writing offered by newspapers and magazines, by radio, TV and films. This writing is supposed to be about good women for good women. The women depicted are taken as a matter of course to be silly, gullible and sentimental, without enough mind or moral sense to know whether what they are reading or listening to or watching makes sense, or any difference in any real world.
The question, according to White, is "What can we do about it? Is it useful to set up a code of moral standards and regulations and try to apply them in a wholesale fashion? Can there be some topics which are taboo, and other topics to be handled in a certain way? This imposes some kind of censorship which is against freedom of expression."
Before we try to set up standards for literature, writes White, "we need to ask ourselves what it is that we want of literature, what is its place in our scheme of things, individual and collective." Literature, she offers, is a source of entertainment, of delight and of refreshment. But it is more than this. At its best "it stimulates the imagination and it enlarges the sympathies of the individual human being."
Literature can widen our horizon. Human life is larger than the experience of one person and no one would knowingly remain imprisoned within himself. Literature can guide us towards "an understanding of ourselves and of others and between these understandings there is an interaction that enriches both. Literature can help us to penetrate the meaning of our lives, to give body and substance to our values and ideals, to reach towards those things that are beyond our human limitations."
The writer then asks what the relationship of women to the conception of literature is. We shall turn to this issue next week.