I Swear It All Connects

The Greeks were traditionally a religious people. Yet there had always been a tendency, at the same time, to treat the gods with a certain familiar flippancy – this is already very apparent in the Iliad and the Homeric Hymns. The rationalist movements of the later fifth century had subjected the reputation of the divine personages to a further battering. The inquisitive spirit of Euripides, when not (as in the Bacchae) interpreting the gods as profound psychological forces, was capable of presenting them as shady seducers or discredited figures of fun. And at the same time Socrates was questioning the whole traditional fabric so indefatigably that his prosecutors, who secured his death sentence, were hardly wrong to accuse him of “not believing in the gods in whom the city believes.”

Then the early Hellenistic age that followed produced numerous slighting references to the Olympian powers. Many people had come to regard them as merely symbolic, and even the Stoics, for all their belief in divine Providence, reinterpreted and accommodated many individual deities as merely allegorical explanations of natural phenomena. Like Hellenistic sculptors, who began to represent some of these gods in much less idealistic forms than those their predecessors had favoured, the poets Callimachus and Theocritus showed that they were living in an age when the old gods were no longer a matter of belief or serious concern.

Other writers were even more specific. Thus the idea of Euhemerus that the gods Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus had once been great human kings upon the earth may have been a flattering gesture in favour of worshipping living monarchs as their equals; but it was also, in another sense, little more than a rationalization of atheism; and his younger contemporary Strato of Lampsacus declared that he did not need the help of the gods at all in order to construct an understandable world. Meanwhile, an Athenian’s hymn to Demetrius I Poliorcetes had asserted that the gods of the city, if not non-existent, were at least indifferent: and both Menander (in passing) and Epicurus (in an elaborate series of philosophical arguments) found this latter conclusion an obviously correct one, since the traditional gods seemed able to do nothing to ease people’s daily encounters with the vicissitudes of Hellenistic life. St. Paul, after such ideas had been going round for three or four centuries, understandably saw pagan Hellenism as a “world without hope – and without God.”

All the same, his impression was misleading. Pagan religion was not already dying or dead when Christianity overtook it; it had remained very lively indeed. But it had deviated, and continued to deviate throughout the Hellenistic age, from the traditional mainstream of the classical Olympian cults. They continued, it is true, to receive impressive ceremonial worship, but a person of this epoch no longer pinned his or her faith on those gods, but on a number of Divine Saviours. These Saviours were relied on, passionately, for two quite distinct miraculous gifts, of which their various cults held out hopes in varying proportions: the conferment of strength and holiness to endure our present life upon this earth, and the gift of immortality and happiness after death. And so religion was not moribund at all, but turned out to be one of the most vital elements in the Hellenistic world.

Women who write with an overriding consciousness that they write as women are engaged not in aspiration toward writing but chiefly in a politics of sex. A new political term makes its appearance: woman writer, not used descriptively – as one would say “a lanky, brown-haired writer” – but as part of the language of politics.

Now a politics of sex can be very much to the point. No one would deny that the movement for female suffrage was a politics of sex, and obviously any agitation for equality in employment, in the professions, and in government is a politics of sex. But the language of politics is not writers’ language. Politics begins with premises; imagination goes in search of them. The political term woman writer signals in advance a whole set of premises: that, for instance, there are “male” and “female” states of intellect and feeling, hence of prose; that individuality of condition and temperament do not apply, or at least not much, and that all writing women possess – not by virtue of being writers but by virtue of being women – an instantly perceived common ground; that writers who are women can best nourish other writers who are women.

I deny this. There is a human component to literature that does not separate writers by sex but that – on the contrary – engenders sympathies from sex to sex, from condition to condition, from experience to experience, from like to like, and from unlike to unlike. Literature universalizes. Without disparaging particularity or identity, it universalizes; it does not divide.

Does a “woman writer” have a body of separate experience by virtue of being a woman? It was this myth-fed condition of segregation that classical feminism was created to bring to an end. Insofar as some women, and some writers who are women, have separate bodies of experience or separate psychologies, to that degree has the feminism of these women not yet asserted itself. In art, feminism is that idea which opposes segregation; which means to abolish mythological divisions; which declares that the imagination cannot be “set” free, because it is already free.

A writer – I mean now a fiction writer or a poet, an imagining writer – is not a sociologist, nor a social historian, nor a literary critic, nor a journalist, nor a politician. The newspeak term woman writer has the following sociological or political message: “Of course we believe in humanity-as-a-whole. Of course we believe that a writer is a writer, period. But let us for a little while gather together, as women, to become politically strong, strong in morale, a visible, viable social factor; as such, we will separate ourselves only temporarily, during this strengthening period, and then, when we can rejoin the world with power and dignity in our hands, we will rejoin it and declare ourselves for the unity of the human species. This temporary status will be our strategy in our struggle with Society.”

That is the voice of the “woman writer.” But it is a mistaken voice. Only consider: In intellectual life, a new generation comes of age every four or five years. For those who were not present at the inception of this strategy, it will not seem a strategy at all; it will be the only reality. Writers will very soon find themselves born into one of two categories, woman writer or writer, and all the writers will be expected to be male – an uninspiring social and literary atmosphere the world has known before.