Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Poke-Em-With-A-Stick-Wednesday (Joseph Wright Takes On Saul of Tarsus)

So, I've finally gotten around to reading THE PARGITERS: THE NOVEL-ESSAY PORTION OF 'THE YEARS', an edition of Woolf's unfinished first-draft attempt at the work that later became her demi-penultimate novel, THE YEARS. I've had a copy since 1986 (when I bought it at People's Bookstore in Milwaukee, on the lower east side), but given that THE YEARS is one of her weaker books I've obviously taken my time in getting around to it, spurred on by my recent reading of two other books on Bloombury or by Bloomsbury figures.

The most interesting thing about THE YEARS, from my point of view, has always been that one of the characters in it was inspired by Joseph Wright, Tolkien's tutor; Woolf had been deeply impressed by Wright's biography (written by Mary Wright) and his enlightened attitude towards women (which might in turn have explained Tolkien's support of women's higher education, which many of his generation at best tolerated and more often disparaged). In fact, in the course of my researches I found a letter Woolf had written to Mrs. Wright unknown to the editors of her Collected Letters (after I drew it to their attention they did get it added in, but I forget whether in the trade paperback reprinting or a supplement -- it's a long time ago now).

What startled me this time was coming across a quote attributed to Wright in the editor's introduction to this volume (p. xii). It so happens that I own the two-volume biography of Joseph Wright (although I confess I haven't read it yet; in this case I've only had the book since 2005, so I shd get to it one of these years), so I looked it up. It's a good thing I did, since the editor in fact compressed the quote, leaving out half a sentence without any indication of having done so. Here's the quote as it appears in Wright's book:

"St. Paul and the likes of him have much to answer for, and it is ever my most pious wish that they will reap their due reward. It is due to them, and them alone, that woman has been such a downtrodden creature in the past. It is only the present generation of women that is beginning to realize the abject state of woman in the past. Not so very long ago -- it still exists in many old-fashioned families -- a woman was regarded as a poor weak and feeble-minded creature who had no right to think for herself, but must leave all that to her husband, however silly and stupid he might be. Nay, things were even worse, for a woman was not generally allowed to chose her own husband, that was practically settled for her by her parents or guardian. I am thankful that all this is passing away. Apart from every other consideration, it is much better for the whole human race . . ." *

This is, of course, overstating the case -- Roman law and Mediterranean/Mid-East culture were both pretty misogynistic all on their own -- but he's right in that Paul of Tarsus put a theological imprimatur on misogyny that lasted for centuries (in fact, in some circles it's not over yet).

And did JRRT absorb this lesson from his mentor, along with his encyclopedic knowledge of out-of-the-way words and thirst to learn all he cd about their origin, or dogged determination to see a lengthy project through until its final triumphant completion and publication? Impossible to say, but it is interesting to note that for an author as old-fashion and traditionalist as Tolkien is generally held to be, there's a marked lack of emphasis on 'Obey'. Might be interesting to go back and re-read "The Mariner's Wife" from that perspective.

--John R.
current reading: THE PARGITERS by Virginia Woolf

*letter of Joseph Wright to his fiancee, Mary Wright; Sept. 5th 1896. Boldface emphasis mine; italic emphasis his. THE LIFE OF JOSPEH WRIGHT, by Elizabeth Mary Wright. (London: Oxford Univ. Pr, 1932). Volume I, page 315. My copy of this book bears a worn sticker in the shape of a green shield that I take to read "[B]oots/[Boo]klov[er']s/[L]ibrary"


Unknown said...

In defense of Paul, many (most?) of the texts used to support Paul's misogynistic views are from letters that most scholars now believe were not written by him. Here's a recent article by biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan on the issue:
In this post he mainly uses the example of slavery, but in his other works Crossan indicates that the same applies to views on women in the Pauline (or pseudo-Pauline) letters.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Unknown

That's a good point, and I'll need to think about it some more to see which parts come from which epistles, and their suspected provenances. I don't think it changes the basic point that the Epistles in the New Testament did a lot of damage over the last two thousand years, but the degree to which Paul vs. pseudo-Paul himself is responsible is something I haven't looked into yet. Thanks for the nudge.

--John R.

Ed Pierce said...

I actually posted the original comment; I wasn't trying to make it "Unknown," but somehow my technical limitations with blog posts caused it to be such.

You make a good point that the authorship of particular scriptures probably has little effect on how said scriptures have been used (and abused) over the years. But I think that part of Crossan's point is that the pseudo-Pauline letters were not just not written by Paul, but they were intended (in his view) to be "anti-Paul;" that is, they were an attempt by later church leaders to counter the radicality of some of Paul's message (e.g, Paul's statement that in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female). The fact that the later pseudo-Pauline letters forbid women from teaching in churches (for example)seems to indicate that prior to that there WERE women teaching in churches, which (Crossan argues) was probably something endorsed by Paul. The later letters were an attempt to move things back into conformity with standard practices in the Roman world.

Ed Pierce