Friedrich Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf, and the Creative Artist: The Birth of Tragedy and A Room of One's Own

By Scherr, Arthur | The Midwest Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview
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Friedrich Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf, and the Creative Artist: The Birth of Tragedy and A Room of One's Own


Scherr, Arthur, The Midwest Quarterly


MANY SCHOLARS HAVE emphasized the misogynistic tendencies of the great German philosopher and literary critic, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), demonstrating his hostility by quoting the notorious remarks in his masterpiece, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), that woman is "man's most dangerous plaything," and, "Let man fear woman when she hateth, for man in his innermost soul is merely evil; woman, however, is mean" (120).

Nevertheless, Nietzsche's view of women had another side. In his poetic essay, Daybreak (1881), denying the existence of gender-specific intellectual or personality traits, he modesty observed: "When man gave all things a sex he thought, not that he was playing, but, that he had gained a profound insight: it was only very late that he confessed to himself what an enormous error that was, and perhaps now he has not confessed it completely" (quoted in Abbey, 256). To some extent, therefore, Nietzsche regards gender distinctions as arbitrary or man-made, and seems to be groping for a genderless or androgynous standard of excellence. Arguing for the benevolence of Nietzsche's outlook toward women in his "middle period's" aphoristic Human, All Too Human (1879-1880), Australian philosopher Ruth Abbey perhaps overemphasizes his acclaim of female skill in conversation, "not a feature of his work usually noted" (241-42).

Although few writers have perceived similarities between Friedrich Nietzsche and the great English novelist, feminist writer, and literary critic, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), her antipathy toward the male gender resembled Nietzsche's against women. A victim of childhood sexual abuse by her half-brothers (and possibly her father), she had additional cause to resent the callous, brooding male patriarchy's domination of the life and literature of her time. Her father, the famous English critic, historian, and biographer Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), epitomized many of the literary and personality traits she despised. She deplored his despotic, hardheaded, and hardhearted rule in the home and his bullying of her uncomplaining mother, which she suspected contributed to her premature death when Virginia was only thirteen. She abhorred the Victorian middle-class British male's analytic intellect as a "prick of steel," which rendered him unable to feel the profound emotions of sympathy, pity, and love of nature (Woolf, Letters, 1: 320, quoted in Brown, 193).

In her famous lecture, A Room of One's Own (1929), Woolf first fully expressed her feminism and her conviction that women could not gain intellectual autonomy and an opportunity for self-realization as novelists unless and until they achieved economic independence and privacy ("a room of one's own") apart from the men who had hitherto controlled their lives. Vaguely purporting to discuss "women and fiction," Woolf's brief classic eschewed specific topics. Inventing the trope of "Judith Shakespeare," William Shakespeare's mythical, "wonderfully gifted" sister, who is denied an education, degraded and beaten by her father, sexually exploited by the men she meets, and never encouraged to develop her literary talents, Woolf vividly depicted women's dehumanization by hegemonic patriarchal economic, social, and educational institutions. She urged women to take pride in their emotions and develop the "female sentence," a language more spontaneous and less rigidly rational than male structures. Feminist scholar Jane Marcus considers A Room of One's Own the "first modern text of feminist criticism, the model in both theory and practice of a specifically socialist feminist criticism" (216).

Few scholars note that Woolf's final pages in A Room of One's Own expound a more inclusive theory of literary creativity. She asserts that the most innovative writers, whether male or female, possessed an "androgynous mind" (a phrase she borrowed from Samuel Taylor Coleridge). The androgynous writer alone achieved true artistic greatness, leaving behind her/his resentments and bitterness and depicting universally resonant themes that transcended differences in gender, class, race, or religion.

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