The following excerpt from John Berger’s Booker Prize-winning 1972 novel, G, contains devastating insight into the social/cultural meaning of being a woman in the world, and how utterly inescapable and deeply formative it is of one’s sense of self. Reading this made me nod and shake my head so hard I felt like I had whiplash afterwards.
Although this passage ostensibly deals with late nineteenth-century constructions of love and gendered identity, such tropes persist as fundamental to our conceptions now, albeit less formally and thus less obviously. So much of the pain and loneliness in my life has stemmed from an unconscious/inarticulate sense of exactly what Berger describes here and my horror and refusal of it all, played out in the choices I have made since childhood.
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“Une Idée” – Henri Gerbault, 1907
The Situation of Women
… [T]he social presence of a woman was different in kind to that of a man. A man’s presence was dependent upon the promise of power which he embodied. If the promise was large and credible, his presence was striking. if it was small or incredible, he was found to have little presence. there were men, even many men, who were devoid of presence altogether. The promised power may have been moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual – but its object was always exterior to the man. A man’s presence suggested what he was capable of doing to you or for you.
By contrast, a woman’s presence expressed her own attitude to herself, and defined what could and could not be done to her. No woman lacked presence altogether. Her presence was manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste – indeed there was nothing she could do which did not contribute to her presence.
To be born woman was to be born within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of man. A woman’s presence developed as the precipitate of her ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited cell. She furnished her cell, as it were, with her presence; not primarily in order to make it more agreeable to herself, but in the hope of persuading others to enter it.
A woman’s presence was the result of herself being split in two, and of her energy being inturned. A woman was always accompanied – except when quite alone – by her own image of herself. Whilst she was walking across a room or whilst she was weeping at the death of her father, she could not avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she had been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she came to consider the surveyor and surveyed within her as two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.
A woman had to survey everything she was and everything she did because how she appeared to others, and ultimately how she appeared to men, was of crucial importance for her self-realisation. Her own sense of being in herself was supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another. Only when she was the content of another’s experience did her own life and experience seem meaningful to her. In order to live she had to install herself in another’s life.
Drawing by Henri Gerbault (1863 – 1930)
Men surveyed women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appeared to a man might determine how she would be treated. To acquire some control over this process, women had to contain it, and so they interiorised it. That part of a woman’s self which was the surveyor treated the part which was the surveyed, so as to demonstrate to others how her whole self should be treated. And this exemplary treatment of herself by herself constituted her presence. Every one of her actions, whatever its direct purpose, was also simultaneously an indication of how she should be treated.
If a woman threw a glass on the floor, this was an example of how she treated her own emotion of anger and so of how she would wish it to be treated by others. If a man had done the same, his action would only have been an expression of his anger. If a woman made good bread, this was an example of how she treated the cook in herself and accordingly of how she as a cook-woman should be treated by others. Only a man could make good bread for its own sake.
This subjunctive world of the woman, this realm of her presence, guaranteed that no action undertaken in it could ever possess full integrity; in each action there was an ambiguity which corresponded to an ambiguity in the self, divided between surveyor and surveyed. The so-called duplicity of woman was the result of the monolithic dominance of man.
A woman’s presence offered an example to others of how she would like to be treated – of how she would wish others to follow her in the way, or along the way, she treated herself. She could never cease offering this example, for it was the function of her presence. When, however, social convention or the logic of events demanded that she behave in a manner which contradicted the example she wished to give, she was said to be coquettish. Social convention insists that she should appear to reject something just said to her by a man. She turns away in apparent anger, but at the same time fingers her necklace and repeatedly lets it drop as tenderly as her own glance upon her breast.
When she is alone in her room and sure of being alone, a woman may look at herself in a mirror and put out her tongue. This makes her laugh and, on other occasions, cry.
It was with a woman’s presence that men fell in love. That part of a man which was submissive was mesmerised by the attention which she bestowed upon herself, and he dreamt of her bestowing the same attention upon himself. He imagined his own body, within her realm, being substituted for hers. This was a theme which occurred constantly in romantic poems about unrequited love. That part of a man which was masterful dreamt of possessing, not her body — this he called lust — but the variable mystery of her presence.
The presence of a woman in love could be very eloquent. the way she glanced or ran or spoke or turned to greet her lover might contain the quintessential quality of poetry. this would be obvious not only to the man she loved, but to any disinterested spectator. Why? Because the surveyor and the surveyed within herself were momentarily unified, and this unusual unity produced in her an absolute single-mindedness. The surveyor no longer surveyed. Her attitude to herself became as abandoned as she hoped her lover’s attitude to her would be. Her example was at last one of abandoning example. Only at such moments might a woman feel whole.
The state of being in love was usually short-lived — except in unhappy cases of unrequited love. Far shorter lived than the nineteenth-century romantic emphasis on the condition would lead us to believe. Sexual passion may have varied little throughout recorded history. But the account one renders to oneself about being in love is always informed and modified by the specific culture and social relations of the time.
„Würden Sie mir böse sein, wenn ich einen Kuss auf diese schöne Schulter drückte?“ „Das werden Sie ja nachher schon sehen“ (Henri Gerbault, 1901)
For the nineteenth-century European middle classes the state of being in love was characterised by a sense of excessive uncertainty in an otherwise certain world. It was a state exempt from the promise of Progress. Its characteristic uncertainty was the result of considering the beloved as though he or she were free. Nothing that was an expression of the beloved’s wishes could be taken for granted. No single decision of the beloved could guarantee the next. Each gesture had to be read for its fresh meaning. Every arrangement became questionable until it had taken place. Doubt produced its own form of erotic stimulation: the lover became the object of the beloved’s choice of full liberty. Or so it seemed to the couple in love. In reality, the bestowing of such liberty upon the other, the assumption that the other was so free, was part of the general process of idealising and making the beloved seem unique.
Each lover believed that he or she was the willing object of the other’s unlimited freedom and, simultaneously, that his or her own freedom, so circumscribed until now, was at last and finally assured within the terms of the other’s adoration. Thus each became convinced that to marry was to free oneself. Yet as soon as a woman became convinced of this (which might be long before her formal engagement) she was no longer single-minded, no longer whole. She had to survey herself now as the future betrothed, the future wife, the future mother of X’s children.
For a woman the state of being in love was a hallucinatory interregnum between two owners, her bridegroom taking the place of her father or later, perhaps, a lover taking the place of her husband.
The surveyor-in-herself quickly became identified with the new owner. She would begin to watch herself as if she were him. What would Maurice say, she would ask, if his wife (that is me) did this? Look at me, she would address the mirror, see what Maurice’s wife is like. The surveyor-in-herself became the new owner’s agent. (A relationship which might well include as much deceit or chicanery as can be found between any proprietor and agent.)
The surveyed-within-herself became the creature of proprietor and agent, of whom both must be proud, She, the surveyed, became their social puppet and their sexual object. The surveyor made the puppet talk at dinner like a good wife. And when it seemsed to her fit, she layed the surveyed down on a bed for her proprietor to enjoy. One might suppose that when a woman conceived and gave birth, surveyor and surveyed were temporarily reunited. Perhaps sometimes this happened. But childbirth was so surrounded with superstition and horror that most women submitted to it, screaming, confused, or unconscious, as to a punishment for their intrinsic duplicity. When they emerged from their ordeal and held the child in their arms they found they were the agents of the loving mother of their husband’s child.