International Women’s Day, 2013

Books by Women Writers

Today is International Women’s Day. A few of the books pictured above go back to high school days and were given me by my two older sisters (I grew up in a family of six girls). “The River,” by Rumer Godden, was required reading at SBHS; the copy in the stack has my sister Shirley’s name in the inside cover. Shirley passed away a few years ago.

Susan and I lived near the beach in some courtyard apartments across from the writer Sylvia Wilkinson. I was in my first two years of teaching, in Venice. I showed Sylvia something I had written, and she said to Susan, “Tell Joe not to quit his day job.” But I never gave up on the idea of the novel and reading and literature and the whole idea of being a writer, whatever that was to come to mean. I got a corporate job, cementing the idea of a day job, but I don’t think one’s occupation necessarily prevents one from writing. What is writing? In any case, 30 years later I finally did quit my day job and finished the novel, having reworked it several times in different formats over the years. Interested readers can find a link to excerpts in the sidebar.

Sylvia had given us a copy of her 1977 novel, “Shadow of the Mountain,” thanking Susan for proofreading and the title. If I were to suggest books by women for International Women’s Day, I might suggest any of Sylvia’s books (I think she may have thought “Cale” was her best), and also “The Solitary Self,” by Mary Midgley. Both Sylvia and Mary warrant wider reading.

Sylvia Wilkinson, Mary Midgley

E. O. Wilson’s Happy Ant in Mary Midgley’s Primate Picnic

Human freedom creates morality, for to exercise our freedom we are held in a cage of motive. The stuff of motive is found in literature, and we thought we might there experience freedom unrestrained by complicity, and our awareness of others’ actions might be total. Through literature we would enjoy our freedom without ourselves being questioned as to our motives.

Those are the sorts of things I found myself jotting down in my notebook while reading Midgley’s book. Why was I reading Mary Midgley? I’d been meaning to read some Midgley ever since her interview last year in The Believer – which she consented to only after being assured it was not a religious magazine.

Midgley takes on E. O. Wilson, who viewed humanity as a dysfunctional ant colony, saw the potential for individual happiness from a sociobiologist’s viewpoint, the neurobiologist the queen of the ant hill. The Humanities work best when non-specialized, and acknowledging a plurality of motives, looking behind the Main Street facades, but enjoying the stroll. But when the Humanities also buy into reductive thinking, and fragment, capabilities are lost, for, as Buckminster Fuller showed, specialization leads to extinction – when the organism loses its ability to adapt. Midgley’s term of Wilson’s progress is “bilogicised,” where he excludes “amateur thinking,” and the “merely wise,” as if there is such a thing as an amateur human, people who live just as a hobby. But looking at today’s superhighways one wonders if Wilson wasn’t on to something with his ants. But do ants cry? Laugh? Stray from the scented path? Take irrational risks? Celebrate birthdays? Humans are not ants, even if they both do like to picnic. 

Midgley explains that moral judgments are not only possible, but necessary, and not only necessary but mandatory, compelling, and binding: mandatory in that to be human is to be moral; compelling in that our moral judgments forge our path through the otherwise inhospitable jungle of the universe; binding in that we must live the results of our judgments – we can’t escape our own judgments.

If we are in the universe, and we have a moral purpose, how can the universe not have a moral purpose? For why is there something? Why is there simply not something, but nothing? Does not this fact of something trump the possibility of nothing, and suggest a moral to the story? Perhaps we are short-lived, but if we are short-lived why have we evolved to a moral purpose, that moral purpose evolving consistent with our evolving consciousness? Perhaps we are the universe’s only chance at a moral purpose, of realizing a moral purpose for itself.

If the human is denied a moral purpose, we lose our freedom, are literally “demoralized,” and we are our own cage, a bag of genes. 

Specialization leads to extinction, which explains why the specialists practice reduction of their competitors, wanting to “cannibalize” every threat to the dominance of their singular point of view, and thus lose the ability to adapt. The cannibalization takes the form of propaganda, a disguised values’ trap, where one is led to miscalculate the future results of one’s current actions.

Sung to the tune of Teddy Bears’ Picnic: If you go out in the woods today you’re in for a big surprise, for today’s the day the primates have their picnic.

Midgley, M. (1994). The ethical primate: Humans, freedom and morality. New York: Routledge.