Ideas, Not Gender, Are What Should Inspire Readers
A recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times claimed that the greatest works of literature are sexist, even those written by women; this determination was made by contrasting the number of times the pronoun “he” appeared in contrast to the pronoun “she.”
This kind of logic, which bases a whole system of fairness on nothing but numerical frequency, is truly alarming as it promotes the notion that women can only be inspired by other women.
When I was younger, my literary hero was Captain Ahab.
I read Melville’s greatest tome not, as most do, as an allegorical warning of the dangers of absolute power, but as the tragic fate which befalls the man who does not properly balance the dialectic of reason and emotion in his soul, who persists in an irrationality, though his mind alerts him of the folly, because of the seductive powers of sentiment.
There was an intransigence to his character by which I, as one who stubbornly clings to idealism, was steeled. There is a bracing power in the absoluteness of Ahab’s resolve, his total disregard for the judgments of the world, all of which is heightened by the eloquence of his declarations:
“Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!”
As I became older, my regard for his character evolved. The despair which Ahab feels — his knowledge of the madness of his untenable quest — was not unlike my own. I too have been called mad for my unswerving idealism. And there is a grain of truth to the charge that it is a form of madness, for one must live by the rules of an abstract world in the hopes that, someday, it will be brought into being. Yet, if one conceives of perfection, how can do anything but cling to it, even if it means living in a world of anguish and disappointment. My solace was found in Ahab’s exhortative exclamation:
“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable unearthly thing is it, what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare?”
This anecdote may reveal too much of how ingrained my propensity for sober, brooding analysis and a cynical worldview was even at a young age, but I relay it to make a point:
It is ideas, not the people who express them, that are of primary significance as a motivator.
Beyond a familiarity with the same parts of New England, I had nothing in common with Melville or Ahab. I have never been whaling; I suffer from no monomaniacal obsession, unless one counts stubborn idealism and I am not a disfigured middle-aged man living in 19th century America.
The gender of the author or the characters did not matter. Really, even the particulars of the story did not matter.
It was the tragic beauty of Ahab’s soul and the moving words through which Melville expressed them that spoke to me. As my epistemology has evolved over time, the text — which is static — has evolved in the way it speaks to me. There is no way Melville could have possibly anticipated this; his work is not acting upon me; I am acting upon his work.
This is the way literature works. It is a platform for ideals, and an absolute, static one at that. An author’s motivation is not changed by the disparate reactions which readers have to a text. This is a positive, not a negative, for it makes art a rich vein which can be exploited for intellectual growth.
Sadly, this potential has been obliterated by modernity’s obsession with identity politics and demands for social justice, the goal of which is nebulous at best. Worse, it takes the incredible creative power of the mind’s ability to construct ideas and arguments and boxes it into incredibly narrow and venial rationales, asserting that all people of a given identifier possess inherent qualities, including a philosophical bent, and can only identify with those who are exactly like them.
Such thinking is pernicious and false. Ideas are not bound by such arbitrary constructions, nor are they invalidated by the passage of time which might make the form in which they are conveyed, be it novel or treatise, archaic.
Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.