Sunday Night Journal — February 1, 2004
In an otherwise conventional speech (reported here) [sorry, that link is no longer valid -mh 6/22/2010] justifying an abortion she had in the 1950s before she was married, the novelist Ursula Le Guin recently made an odd and extremely sad statement: that if she had not been able to abort her first child she would have been “another useless woman.”
That this statement implies a great deal of contempt for women whose principal occupation is motherhood is clear, and no surprise. Or at least it shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s always been clear that one of the fundamental convictions of the feminist movement is the belief, once held mainly by men, that the traditional tasks of mothers and wives are trivial, really little more than a form of idleness, and a waste of time and ability for any but the dullest. Yet I always am surprised, just a little, when I encounter it. I think that’s because I persist in expecting women to stick together somehow, at least about this particular matter, since male disrespect for women’s work is such a basic component of the battle of the sexes. I have always imagined that women once shared as a secret the knowledge that what matters most of life is in the small, quiet, and obscure, not in the crashing and strutting of great deeds and fame, and that this knowledge was a comfort to them in the face of male disdain and condescension. If that was ever the case, it is no longer.
But these ironies and contradictions of the feminist movement have been worked over pretty well, and there is not a great deal more to say about them. What is more striking in Le Guin’s remarks is her approach to the question of what might have been. She believes her life would have been ruined if she had given birth to a child at the age of twenty; presumably she believes her consequent “useless” life would not have included her becoming an esteemed writer of fiction. And she is disturbed to think that “her three wanted children” would not have been born. But of course she doesn’t know, and can’t know, that things would have worked out badly. Why should she not have, eventually, become a writer?—if she would indeed have been “unmarriageable,” she might in time have found herself with more freedom to write. I’ve always been skeptical of the idea of the “mute inglorious Milton.” To a young woman intent on becoming, say, an Olympic gymnast, motherhood might indeed mean a definite end to that ambition. But writing has no such biological limitations. Perhaps she would have been a very different writer if she had not given birth at twenty, but I see no reason to think she would have been a worse one; she might well have been a better one.
The question of the “three wanted children” is more difficult. One of the paradoxes of Christian theology and indeed of Christian life is the role of sin in bringing about the good. The Resurrection required the Crucifixion, and the Crucifixion required Judas’s betrayal. Those of us who have sinned not only gravely but in such a manner as to change the course of our lives find our repentant selves in an impossible position: we wish with all our heart we had not sinned, and yet in the years that follow the sinning—I speak as one well along in life— there may be much that we cannot wish undone and which, so far as we can see, would not have happened had we taken the right path at some long-ago juncture. We might have lived elsewhere and in other ways, might have married someone else, and would then not have had the same children. We cannot sort this out and soon abandon the attempt and place it all in God’s hands.
But that of course is something a person like Le Guin, who has, or so I’ve read, described herself as firmly anti-Christian, cannot do. She has things she loves: her writing career, her marriage, her wanted children. If aborting her first child brought her these things, she cannot repent of, and thus repudiate, that action. She cannot simultaneously, as a Christian in her position would be obliged to do, affirm that the action should never have been, yet accept the good things that nevertheless followed upon it.
Nor, it appears, is she willing simply to write the whole thing off as an example of the tragedy inherent in human life. She must say that the action which led to the good things was therefore also good. To repent of the abortion would be to wish her other three children not to exist and would therefore, I suppose, seem contradictory to her. Or (to look at it the other way around) to affirm the lives of her “three wanted children” is to affirm the death of the unwanted. If the effect is good, the cause must also be judged essentially good, as being at worst a regrettable necessity. This is the logic of pragmatic paganism, and it has at least a certain cold consistency. But it is a consistency which solves the apparent moral contradiction by eliminating it, declaring to be good that which was formerly considered evil. Perhaps this is a psychological necessity when forgiveness is believed to be unavailable.
From the Christian point of view this dilemma is an instance of the way apparently opposing truths are dealt with: not by eliminating one or blending the two or explaining away their opposition, but by insisting on both and contemplating the God in whom they are mystically reconciled. That which seems in the eyes of the world a mere contradiction becomes, when consigned to the vast sea of God, a healing paradox, like the wounds of Christ.
Dancing in the Aisles (of the Grocery Store)
I was pleased to find, on my last visit to the local Food World, that the management has resumed its former practice of using oldies—that is, the pop music of the ‘50s and ‘60s—as the store’s background music. All right, I’ll grant the abstract argument that the world would be a better place without background music in stores and offices. But if we must have it, this is great stuff to have, at least for something as dull as shopping for groceries. This store had used oldies for some years, and I once complimented a cashier on the selection. “A lot of people say that,” she replied.
And I also expressed my regret when they decided a couple of years ago to move ahead a decade or two and use the much less engaging radio pop of the ‘70s and later. “A lot of people say that,” replied the cashier this time as well. Now this error of judgment has been corrected, and it really is surprising what a lift in mood some of this music can produce. I once overheard a friend of one of my then-teenaged children say that he had been listening to the oldies station because he wanted to hear something that would make him feel good. One might suppose that affection for this music is only nostalgia, and for me there may be some truth in that, but when this young man was born the music was already a generation in the past. No, there’s something about the music that has proved —against all reasonable expectation— to be evergreen, as capable now as then of inducing good cheer. I’m not sure it would require much instigation to get a few people dancing in the aisles of Food World when they hear a song like “Roll Over Beethoven.” Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, the Drifters, the Platters…we’re going to have to call them artists, after all.
And what does this say about the despised 1950s, that time when, as we are constantly told, a crushed populace moved timidly through a minefield of political fear and sexual repression? The effervescent popular music of the time stands defiantly in contradiction to that silly view.