Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Kate Chopin-Hauer: Or Can Metaphysics Be Feminized?

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Kate Chopin-Hauer: Or Can Metaphysics Be Feminized?

Article excerpt

Americans are suckers for anything purportedly French. This explains in part the enormous popularity of Kate Chopin's The Awakening, the closest thing to a French novel in the entire canon of American literature. There is, of course, no denying the French influence on the book, but the easy appeal of the French background has blinded critics to another important influence, that of German Idealistic philosophy. In particular, Kate Chopin's career began under the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer's Idealistic aesthetic of renunciation, and her greatest work, The Awakening, was inspired substantially by her artistic development beyond the narrow constraints of that Idealistic tradition. Lured by the attractions of the world as much as by the powers of art to transcend those attractions, Chopin became ambivalent about the aesthetic that first shaped her writing, and this ambivalence generated the creative tension that drives her novel. (1)


The history of Chopin's artistic development is not to be found in the Louisiana settings of her fiction but rather in the St. Louis world to which she had returned in 1884, suffering from grief over her husband's death and probably over the end of her love affair with a Louisiana neighbor, Albert Sampite. (2) Within a year of her return, however, she suffered the greatest loss of her life with the death of her mother, the woman who promised Kate a stable home after the disruptions of bankruptcy, dislocation, death, and longing in Louisiana. Chopin's newest grief was debilitating and required the solicitous care of her friend and long-time physician, the obstetrician who had delivered four of her six children, Dr. Frederick Kohlbenheyer.

Her biographers do not indicate to what degree, if any, Chopin and her physician shared physical intimacies, but beyond doubt he had a profound impact on her during her years as a St. Louis-based writer. As Seyersted put it, he was

   The only one who seems to have been able to help her in her grief.... After
   some time, [he] started reading to her the letters she had sent him from
   Louisiana and urged her to begin to write fiction. He did this because he
   was struck with the literary quality of her descriptions, and perhaps also
   because he knew that with six children and a rather limited income she
   could well use whatever she could earn. But the Doctor's main reason for
   encouraging her to take up writing was probably that he hoped it would give
   her some relief from the emptiness and deep despair to which her losses had
   reduced her and from her longing for the Louisiana that was so intimately
   connected with Oscar. (48-49)

Clearly, Kohlbenheyer's approach presents a marked contrast to the school of medicine we have come to know and detest through Charlotte Perkins Gilman's graphic portrayal of S. Weir Mitchell's practice. Indeed, far from patronizing, Kohlbenheyer's efforts expressed not only his desire for her emotional recuperation but also his admiration of her intellect. He included her in St. Louis's intellectual life, of which he was a central member, and encouraged her to read philosophy and current science. (3) He was, himself, an "expert on such philosophers as Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer" (Seyersted 49; cf. Rankin 175). Besides turning her toward the consolation of art, Kohlbenheyer turned her toward the consolation of Idealistic philosophy, the marks of which are prominent in many of Chopin's works, including The Awakening.

Of the Idealist philosophies that Kohlbenheyer knew best, that of Arthur Schopenhauer, which attacked Hegelian progressivist optimism with a peculiar Idealism of renunciation, offers the most complete metaphysics of consolation. (4) Among other things, Schopenhauer's works argue that art has consoling power in that, in depicting ideal suffering, it removes the artist and his or her audience from egotistical involvement in particular experiences of pain. …

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