“[…] If we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.”
Virginia Woolf; “A Room of One’s Own”
[Disclaimer: in which I devolve—evolve?—volve?—into a vibrant stream of consciousness feminist literary criticism.]
I’ve always considered myself a feminist but I’ve never been a feminist—not completely, at least. A part of me was always holding back and it wasn’t until I read the very last page of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” that I paused, perplexed, confused—even a little bit shocked—and thought about it.
What is the most curious phrase in the excerpt above?
—and the sky
——-and the trees
————whatever it may be
—————-if we look past Milton’s bogey
"Milton’s bogey." What the fuck is that?
"Milton’s bogey," apparently some inhumane, oppressive, monstrous thing holding women down. Holding people down.
This came as a surprise to me because John Milton—really, idolizing John Milton was what motivated me to major in English. Being able to appreciate Paradise Lost was special to me. It was such an ambitious piece of literature that the fact that someone like me could glean some understanding from it, it made me feel extraordinary. After that, I proceeded to devour any piece of Milton’s work I could get my hands on. To me, he seemed like the prophet of the English language; blind, yet so forcefully full in voice. For a while, I credited Milton with saving my life. Because I could read and understand Milton, I wasn’t worthless. For a long while—and continuing—I’ve been planning to tattoo Milton’s words onto me. To be forever with, stained, and branded by him. Milton’s words are truth.
And suddenly, Virginia fucking Woolf crudely, bravely, directly condemns Milton as the patriarchy. But, I thought to myself, his words are too beautiful to be oppressive! Why do we need to gender everything. Why does everything have to be an issue. Why can’t we just appreciate it as words on a page. The problem, I would later realize, is the immortal power of literary tradition and how it influences the idea of “validity.” The problem is people like me. But, I suppose, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Naturally, I scoured the internet for answers. (This is what I did in my downtime in Kunming—obsessive much?) Someone, explain—justify—“Milton’s bogey” to me. Why is my good pal Virginia Woolf giving Literary God John Milton such a hard time?? (Please don’t let this be a friendship dealbreaker!! It was actually really kind of stressful.) JSTOR to the rescue. Apparently someone named Sandra Gilbert (who I later found out is the author of seminal feminist classic “The Madwoman in the Attic”—added to my reading list) was already concerned about lost souls like me in 1978, having penned an essay entitled: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton’s Bogey.
[At this point in my writing, it would be ideal to quote passages from Gilbert’s essay to support my thought process. Unfortunately, upon returning back to my village, my internet has been too slow to load JSTOR. So please, bear with me.]
Gilbert argues that women authors from Shelley to Brontë to Woolf (and everyone in between, and beyond) have engaged in an eternal struggle against the violence of masculine authorship that literary canon imposes on us. What that means is something we already know. We grow up knowing—almost no matter what written culture you come from—that some writing is socially accepted as “good” and some writing is “bad”. The “good” is what you aspire to be placed next to as an author. The “good” is the literary tradition you inherit because the “good” is generally what we are encouraged to read and the “good” shapes your thinking. The “good” is that ever-present voice in the back of your mind judging the value of your words, your style, your prose and poetry and purpose.
There’s no doubt that Milton is a fantastic writer and a master of language. But, for the first time or perhaps it was the first time I chose to admit it to myself, he propagates an insidiously patriarchal and oppressive society. Indeed, it’s kind of ridiculous how many concessions we women make in order to indoctrinate ourselves into the literary canon. In the canon, women are either evil vaginal monsters named Error or Sin or Eve or waifish dead portraits named Ophelia, Cordelia, Lady of Somewhere. Yes, we say, that’s worrisome, but it’s so well-written! Woolf targets Milton as the source of literary oppression because he took the original story of misogyny in the Western canon—Genesis—and adapted it into a literary blockbuster. Perhaps no writer of note post-Milton writes without reflecting upon Paradise Lost, whether in agony or exaltation. And misogyny effuses throughout literature, in clever metaphor or delicate simile—it’s there and we are led to cherish it.
I guess that is a little fucked up.
Reflecting upon my relationship with Milton is akin to coming to terms with your daddy issues. I loved Milton because he was so respected and feared and dense and grand. He was so unaccessible and I felt more important because I could understand and exalt him. I wanted to please him by praising him, worshipping him, writing under his influence, and I held/hold myself to his standards with everything I write. It feels safe to be in Milton’s circle. You are in the ivory tower. You are above the rest of them; you only need to continue to worship misogynistic writing.
In the reading of Paradise Lost that I was taught, Satan was the Byronic hero (that is, the anti-hero—the real hero in some senses) and, by association as his courtesan, Eve was kind of badass too. She pondered equality, she allowed herself selfishness, she grew dissatisfied with being a glorified rib. Yet, if you look at it objectively, the only way a woman truly breaks out of her fold is by aspiring to be with a different kind of man. Instead of the submissive wife of rather dimwitted Adam, she should become the daring mistress of the bad-boy rebellious Satan. Of course, the consequence for that move was condemning mankind to the eternal suffering of non-paradise reality—particularly women to the pains of childbirth and genesis. It’s hard to find a great role model in Eve, it’s easy to become Eve. It’s easy to hate yourself.
When you grow up in the literary tradition of respecting your respectful elders—Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare—you choose to see the world the way they see it. And in most cases, it does not respect women. Women find their purposes only as the lovers of men, as Woolf notes. If you’ve read Woolf’s passage that I’ve quoted above as many times as I have, in curiosity or rage or confusion, you will notice that she does not hate canonical authors. Nor does she reject good writing. She simply asks us not to worship it and to let it warp our minds. ”If you have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think.” Even in modern times, most women writers are pegged as “soft fiction” or “romance” or “popular fiction” when women are certainly not the only gender with interests in those categories. Woolf asks us to write even when we are not being taken seriously.
"…to see human beings not always in relation to each other but in relation to reality"—fuck the literary tradition, she says! We write not to satisfy our literary father figures. We write not to conform to 16th century meter. We write not to continue someone else’s perception of reality—reality is there, in front of us waiting to be taken. Reality is shared by everyone. Reality is uniquely experienced by everyone. Reality is a human right. Why write if not because something beautiful has happened in your life and you wish to immortalize it.
This is an issue of education and this is an issue of feminism. We have been taught within a structure that exalts patriarchal writing as the gold standard of literature. How can each and every woman not be a little bit mangled if survival has been dependent on satisfying a system which asks you to worship misogyny?
What kept me from understanding the need for feminist criticism is the belief that I could excuse misogyny in the name of art. In this case, I cannot subvert the system if I am the system. I don’t think I will ever stop finding Milton’s writing to be beautiful—for that is not the case—but I will be skeptical of the environment that produced such beauty. How many potential women geniuses were oppressed or maimed in favor of men, how many schools existing for how many hundreds of years exist to ensure that we still find these words beautiful, how many women have suffered due the cultural acceptance of artistic misogyny?
Ironically, Milton himself echoes this sentiment of biting the hand that feeds:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed […]
There is nothing admirable about blind acceptance of value. Sometimes words can be so heavy.