Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Gopnik again!

After os much enjoying Gopnik's piece on Babar (see below), I was so happy to find another of his "Critic at Large" reviews in the New Yorker, this one on a biography of John Stuart Mill. It was fascinating and well written. I confess to not having known much about Mill before this - just a vague idea that he was a Scottish philosopher. His strong support for the rights of women had not sunk in. Look at what Gopkin says:
Mill believed in complete equality between the sexes, not just women’s colleges and, someday, female suffrage but absolute parity; he believed in equal process for all, the end of slavery, votes for the working classes, and the right to birth control (he was arrested at seventeen for helping poor people obtain contraception), and in the common intelligence of all the races of mankind.
And this was written a few years after Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women, which surely Mill had read. (and by the way, I can also recommend Frances Sherwood's fictionalized biography Vindication about Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein).

But as Gopnik points out, the real influence on Mill was Harriet Taylor:
Of all Mill’s causes, his championing of the rights of women is still the most heroic, and its heroism turns out to be rooted in a passionate love for another person. Mill said that he had always been a feminist, but there isn’t any doubt that the engine of his feminism was his friend, love, collaborator, and eventual wife, Harriet Taylor
And listen to this:

Harriet’s own writing of the eighteen-thirties and forties on the oppression of marriage has the urgency of immediate experience. A smart woman who had been obliged to be someone’s idea of a wife, she had been at that table with the dumb little dictator: “The most insignificant of men, the man who can obtain influence or consideration nowhere else, finds one place where he is chief and head. There is one person, often greatly his superior in understanding, who is obliged to consult him, and whom he is not obliged to consult. He is judge, magistrate, ruler, over their joint concerns.” Mill and Taylor, in their later writing, most famously in the 1869 “The Subjection of Women,” aren’t content to show that women would be happier if freer; they go right to the ground and ask what reason we have for thinking that any restraint on women’s freedom is just. The arguments against women’s liberty have to do with what is natural for women to do, or what women are capable of doing, or what some men would be offended by. They take each case and show that its only rationale is our slavery to custom. Women are naturally passive? Go tell Queen Elizabeth. They are happy in their lot? All slaves say as much to the slave master. They are “designed” to have children? No argument from nature can ever alter an argument from ethics: if women want to raise children, excellent; if they don’t, there is no natural reason to think they must any more than there is a reason to think that male philosophers should all put down their pens and go out hunting for mammoths.

Mill makes the point again and again that no one can possibly know what women are or are not “naturally” good at, since their opportunities have been so vanishingly small compared with the length of their oppression. Arguing against the notion that women have no talent for the fine arts, Mill makes the shrewd point that in the one liberal art where women are encouraged as much as men, acting on the stage, everyone admits that they’re just as good or better. In any case, nature has nothing to do with what should be done. In his essay on “Nature,” he writes, “Nature cannot be a proper model for us to imitate. Either it is right that we should kill because nature kills; torture because nature tortures; ruin and devastate because nature does the like; or we ought not to consider what nature does, but what it is good to do.” Mill’s rejection of a natural case isn’t that anything goes; it’s that nobody can really know what goes until someone goes farther. He doesn’t believe in a blank slate on which anything can be inscribed; he believes in the power of the chalk-holding hand to change the sum on the blackboard.

Well - really, I urge you to read the actual article. My own copy (in print at home with marginalia) is already marked up. Enjoy! Meanwhile, having enjoyed two of Gopnik's pieces, I shall hunt down more.