A room of one’s own

Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay/lecture A Room of One’s Own expresses a hard truth for women: talented women aspiring to write require money and space — not merely to write fiction, as Woolf’s lecture addressed, but to write, communicate, and enter intellectual and professional circles. That was so in 1929, and the issues have not been resolved a near century later.

“A women must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” Woolf states at the very outset of her lecture, for her immediate concern is the writing of fiction. Her immediate concern, too, is women of substance, of comfortable class and means, those who can even dream of writing, for the right of property and the recent gaining of suffrage Woolf knew were not enough. The rest of the lecture is a somewhat ponderous exhortation to women to enter other professions, engage in social needs and turn back the obscurity of enveloped talents and contributions of those many women who are “Shakespeare’s sister,” equally capable as her male counterparts but forgotten and denigrated by a male-dominant society.

The premise is that the acquisition of a room of one’s own eventually fosters cultivation of creative solitude, as well described by Anthony Storr, for example. But in itself, some money and a room of one’s own only approximates what Philip Koch calls the first of five virtues of solitude, with only the fifth yielding creativity. The first virtue is freedom. Koch quotes Petrarch, who praised solitude and silence first for the “leisure and freedom” that solitude affords, regardless of our particular talents. Wolff may have addressed her audience in terms of creativity, but the physical and social circumstances of one’s life and society are what make the setting for potential creativity. They are a prerequisite, as is what Koch calls freedom, autonomy.

Storr notes that even the creative person loses some drive in renouncing solitude for relationship with others. The stereotype of a Balzac, Hugo, Beethoven, or Wittgenstein is that of the creative genius struggling alone with the muse of art or thought, alone in a room or hut, nurturing the impulses and straining at the discipline. Does not every acknowledgement in a work of fiction or scholarship invariably allude to time stolen from another, from house-holding spouse or children? But these are conventions of creativity. What is lost because of relationship ties or obligations can only be surmised. At the same time, they can be grossly exaggerated, for the creative genius is often in spite of relationships — including relationships with alcohol or drugs — not because of them. Solitude does not prescribe either genius or creativity, not proscribe love and companionship.

Titans of solitude are not necessarily monsters of ego, although those who pursue their creative genius may be more likely or become that way. The hermits of history are as creative as anyone but not as egos, not as one who sees money and a room of one’s own as a reward, as marks of worldly talent. The writer, artist, composer, crafts a life situation to cultivate not creativity but a daemon, a drive, a desire, a grand haunting urge from within — those of the modern age for half of the room/money image, that is, for the money. And the daemon is not kind.

Solitude does not make or foil creativity, though it can abet or frustrate it. The creative are talented people, but probably average people who perhaps eke out of solitude and silence a meaning for themselves. Woolf overlooks this class and psychological factor, being primarily concerned with just the one class dominating all discourse but not all ethics. This class gives opprobrium to all creative efforts other than its own, especially women’s. Today, when egalitarianism of expression is celebrated by society, when the logical results are the technological plethora of self-published as well as mainstream bestselling mediocrities, one wonders what further contrivances money and a room can spawn.

How much better to understand the privilege of a room of one’s own as an opportunity not necessarily for creativity or communication with a fellow person in the world but as an exploration of self and meaning in a mad world and an ethereal, evanescent universe. There need be no more creativity than mere self-development. No one need know one way or another what our room or cell is for. A desire based ultimately on instinct to survive can be channeled in many ways, including its dissipation. A room, a cell, a hut, or the self’s unconscious, is a dwelling place that makes no demand beyond contentment and wonder.

Shitou, the 8th-century Chinese Chan master, wrote:

In my grass hut there is no worldly treasure.
I eat and sleep naturally and with ease.
Reeds were new when I made the hut.
When it gets torn I repair it with reeds.
The one who lives in the hut doesn’t come out.
But he does not belong to inside or outside.
He doesn’t live where ordinary people live.
He doesn’t care for what ordinary people care about.
Though the hut is small, it contains the whole universe …