Is Repression a Bad Thing?

This is one of my first posts — eight years old, would you believe?! I repost it here because it stresses one of my favorite themes and it still seems to me to be relevant, and the fact that it brought about needed change shows how powerful and influential my posts have been.

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about our most private lives. We think ourselves superior to the Victorians, with all their hangups, their unwillingness to discuss sex or to see one another naked. We have been taught by every pop psychologist who can set pen to paper that we must let it all hang out to be healthy: it’s not good to repress our feelings. Though they may never have read him, these people are playing fast and loose with some of the ideas of Sigmund Freud who knew whereof he spoke. But it is no more clear that these ideas are truly Freudian than it is that we are any healthier than the Victorians, for all our “honesty” about sex and the widespread display of naked bodies on the TV and movie screens. Wallace Stegner, who has a way of asking troublesome questions, wrote about this and — like all good novelists — presents us with an interesting set of questions.

In his Pulitzer-winning novel, Angle of Repose, his hero is writing a history of the marriage between his grandmother and her husband, whom he greatly admires. His grandmother was an unadulterated Victorian woman, a lady, and one who bore all the burdens of womanhood in an age when women were supposed to be handmaids to their husbands — a quality that has come under severe scrutiny from the feminists among us. In his novel, Stegner also presents us with a young, liberated woman named Shelly Rasmussen, who helps the wheelchair-ridden narrator in his attempts to gather material for his history and get it ready for him to work with. Shelly is in her early 20’s and has already had a failed relationship with an “acid-head” who has forced her to flee back to her parents where she finds work with Lyman Ward, historian. While musing about one of the chapters Ward has written about his grandmother, Shelly admonishes him for being prudish about his grandmother’s sex life. If this “history” is largely a novel, why not juice it up and make it more interesting, instead of turning out the lights just when things get interesting? Ward muses:

“I felt like asking her, if contemporary sexual attitudes are so much healthier than Grandmother’s, how Grandmother managed to get through a marriage that lasted more than sixty years, while Shelly Rasmussen hides out in her parents’ house at the age of twenty or so to escape the attentions of her liberated and natural lover.”

Stegner’s novel was written in the early 1970s, soon after the radical movement had blown the top off pretense and restraint, as one might say, and started “telling it like it is.”  Stegner may be reeling somewhat from the aftershock of that experience, but his questions still seem bothersome many years later: are we really better off for all our “honesty”? We have been told we are, but it is not all that obvious.

Freud, of course, never said we should let it all hang out, and if we were leaning on Freud for our psychological insights, instead of a bevy of pop-followers who may never have read the man’s works, we would learn that civilization presupposes repression, or at the very least, sublimation, in order to provide us with the many benefits we so much take for granted. It does result in neuroses, but there never was a time when humans were completely free of those — caused early-on by numerous tribal taboos. He knew all about repression, and he borrowed Nietzsche’s notion of sublimation to instruct us about the mechanism that makes creativity and real progress possible. It’s not all about “letting it all hang out,” it’s all about being honest with ourselves and acknowledging those things that inhibit us, facing up to them, and redirecting our energies in productive ways.

Lyman Ward sits imprisoned in his wheelchair in almost constant pain, looking at a picture of his grandmother on the wall, a face that reflects “discipline, self-control, modesty. . ” Then he notes Shelly Rasmussen sprawled on the floor, disheveled, unkempt, bra-less and full of rage, letting it all hang out — literally and metaphorically. Readers are aware not only of the stinging things this young woman says to an elderly, retired professor of history who is racked with pain, grilling him and critiquing his book and his prudery as well as his grandmother’s. But we are also aware of the fact that she would have the audacity to do so in the first place. Without a doubt, we are less civilized than the Victorians; we live such shallow, self-absorbed lives. We are asked by Stegner to question whether we are happier.

A Woman’s Place

In this post I want to play the devil’s advocate, to see if any sense whatever can be made of the conservative position regarding women that would keep them in the home rather than have them compete in a man’s world (as it has come to be called). I repeat: I am playing the devil’s advocate here: I am not committed to this point of view, though I do not find it silly or frivolous — especially when those on this side of the issue can enlist the likes of George Eliot. It is an issue that requires careful and dispassionate thought, not knee-jerk reactions and name-calling.

In her influential book, The Female Eunich, first appearing in  1970, Germaine Greer told the world that:

“Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They’ve become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master’s ulterior motives—to be fattened or made docile—women have been cut off from their capacity for action. It’s a process that sacrifices vigor for delicacy and succulence, and one that’s got to be changed.”

Many have taken this to mean that women should become more like men, aggressive, assertive, even vulgar. But there was another feminist voice that directed the conversation toward a broader interpretation of the preferred role of women while, at the same time, insisting that women should be accorded the same rights as men. That was the voice of the psychologist Carol Gilligan who in 1982 insisted in her book In A Different Voice that women should not seek to imitate men and their ethics of duty and responsibility but, rather, follow their feelings toward an ethics of care, which is more natural to women and allows them to carve out for themselves a healthier and more embracing ethics, a more positive ethics than one based on the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant, for example. Gilligan stresses the fact that women naturally feel a sympathy for other humans and should build their ethical system around that. As Gilligan herself put it:

“The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognizable trouble’ of this world. For men, the moral imperative appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment.”

Thus we have conflicting views within the feminist camp. On the one hand, Greer stresses the need for women to grasp and hold some of the territory men have always claimed for themselves, while Gilligan stresses the differences between men and women and the need to develop a feminine ethics of care. But are these two points of view really so much in conflict? I think not, because each stresses in her own way the need for women to acknowledge their differences while, at the same time, refusing to accept an inferior social role. The problem is in determining what that “inferior” role might be.

For many feminists that inferior role is in the home raising children. Thus, in order to achieve autonomy they must go off to work each day leaving their kids (if they have any) in Day Care and hoping that television doesn’t do too much damage to their children’s psyches. The assumption here is that self-worth is predicated on having a job that pays less than a living wage and fighting against the glass ceiling each day in the hope that at some point women will be paid what they are worth. This is an assumption that will not withstand scrutiny.

People like Lord Acton, a self-proclaimed “Liberal Catholic,” argued against women’s suffrage in Victorian England on the grounds that “in the interest of humanity” taking their place in the hurly-burly of the world outside the home would destroy their essential nature and eliminate the much-needed influence of the woman at home with the children teaching them right from wrong and helping them to grow into responsible adults. This view was echoed in many of Joseph Conrad’s novels as well, since that author regarded women as somehow too “pure” to mix in the world of men without losing their feminine nature entirely — a nature that society as a whole requires in order to achieve and maintain some sort of moral perspective. In Heart of Darkness, for example, Marlowe is reluctant to tell Kurtz’s “intended” how the man deteriorated and became bestial toward the end of his ongoing orgy in Africa for fear that it would disillusion her and make her cynical and hard, like a man.

This is not to say that women are the “weaker sex.” On the contrary, it suggests that they are the stronger sex because the role they play is more basic, and at times more difficult, than the role of provider that is played by the male in the traditional view. Strength is not a matter of what we do but how we do it. Men tend to be aggressive and bellicose and bring those qualities to the competitive job arena; the role of women is to temper that aggression and bring calm to a masculine world — behind the scenes, as it were. But both Conrad and Acton would insist that this role is essential to a healthy society. Surprisingly, George Eliot would agree with Conrad and Acton. In opposing John Stuart Mill’s amendment to the Reform Bill of 1867 which would have enfranchised women she noted that:

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

In saying this, Eliot sided with such other notable women as Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Florence Nightingale.  Note that this view doesn’t fly in the face of what Greer and Gilligan are insisting upon, either. Not really. There is no real conflict between the claim, on the one hand, that women should assert themselves as women, demand their rights, and insist that they be recognized as essential to a complex society, and the claim, on the other hand, that if they have children their basic role is in the household (with a room their own as Virginia Woolf would have it) raising those children and helping them achieve adulthood in the face of the undue pressures of a commodified culture, the entertainment industry, and their peers. If the goal is to achieve autonomy, the issue is not what women do, it is what women think of themselves. As Greer herself said, twenty years after the publication her book:

“The freedom I pleaded for twenty years ago was freedom to be a person, with dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood.”

Autonomy is inner freedom and does not require that women (or men) play specific roles.  The fact that in our society self-worth is predicated on what we do (rather than how we do it) is a mere accident of our capitalistic ethos and should not be the driving force behind basic social choices.

Is it possible (I ask, somewhat facetiously) that the movement to demand that women and men play the same roles in society not only ignores important differences but has weakened the fabric of society and eliminated almost entirely that essential, if often ignored, effect women traditionally had raising the children and taking charge of the household — again, assuming that they have children? To even ask this question in this day and age seems like heresy, but it is worth pondering if we are to penetrate to the causes of the current American malaise: the fact that our society increasingly shows signs of social unrest, political deterioration, and the absence of a moral compass.

At the very least, we seem to be on the horns of a dilemma, devil or no devil.