Gender And The Fallacy Of Perception Research Paper Example
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It has long been held that a writer’s socio-economic standing is what dictates their capacity to produce great literature. While this does have truth in it (as explained in works such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own), it is arguable that this belief is a construct of a patriarchal society trying to appease their feminist critics as to why women writers are ignored. This paper will argue that despite the difference of gender, between the writers of the Ramayana and the Pillow Book, it is cultural construction (especially from the perspective of a ‘masculine’ western translator working on ‘effeminate’ eastern works), not socio-economic background of the writers themselves, which dictated the categories into which these two works now slotted in World Literature.
This paper will use for its reference gender binaries as described in Helene Cixous: Live Theory (2004) by Ian Blyth and Susan Sellers. It will adopt many of the arguments, especially those dealing with intellectual binaries between the male and female mind. It will also use as a guide Woolf’s notion of ‘Androgynous Writing’ as she posited it in her essay A Room of One’s Own. By and large, these dichotomies are between emotion and intellectuality; factuality and imaginativeness; physicality and mentality; and, finally, phallogocentrism in language.
These points will not be questioned, rather the assumption that it could only be a man who could produce a work such as the Ramayana and a woman, one like The Pillow Book will be refuted and thereby a re-categorization of these texts the will be attempted. To begin with, one must consider the social position of each author. Sei Shonagon was an attendant to the Empress of Japan in the eleventh century, during the Heian era. Fay Beauchamp, in her review of The Pillow Book, refuted Arthur Waley in his characterization of the book as an example of Japan’s intellectual passivity and effeminacy, cited the work’s exceptional stylistic skill and shrewdness of the observations made by Sei Shonagon and the Empress (Beauchamp 75-76). If nothing else, this places the work, at least formally, on par with Valmiki’s Ramayana, the stylistic perfection of which has never been questioned.
This is fascinating, given that Valmiki’s and Sei Shonagon’s social positions, though not the same, could be considered analogous between their two cultures. Valmiki, who was a Brahmin, and Sei Shonagon who was a woman of the Court, were both cloistered and experienced little of the world outside what society sanctioned for them to see. This statement will require some qualification as far as Valmiki is concerned. Kancha Illaiah, in his famous(-ly polemical) work Why I am not a Hindu noted that the life of a Brahmin consisted of mere intellectual pursuit to the exclusion of all else. For a Brahmin, any ‘productive work’ (as defined by Illaiah himself) was seen to be in the province of the lower castes and therefore ‘inferior’ and to be blotted out (Ilaiah 71-101).
The legend of Valmiki’s life itself confirms this theory. Valmiki was said to be a highway man who killed all his victims before robbing. While going about his business, Valmiki attempted to murder and rob the sage Narada who questioned him asking whether or not his family would share in the repercussions of his sins. When he asked his family whether or not they would do so, they all emphatically denied that they would. In despair he turned to the sage to find out what he was to do next. Narada gave him a salvation mantra to chant, however, being a robber, he could not be told the name ‘Rama’, which was considered divine. Instead Narada made him chant the word ‘Mara’, the phonic anagram of ‘Rama’. After several years of chanting, meditation and penance (during which time an anthill was built around him, hence his name, which means ‘anthill’) he came to see the truth and began composing the Ramayana (Chandra 262-263).
In this narration one sees that there is a dichotomy being formed between earthly living and a spiritual existence which denies the world. In other words, for Valmiki to write the Ramayana, he had to cloister himself in a manner very similar to the way Sei Shonagon was kept behind screens her whole life. Furthermore, Valmiki’s penance amounted to a complete denial of his entire life up to that point. Another interesting dichotomy that forms in this case is that of ‘intellectual equals male’ as opposed to ‘emotional equals female’. To refute this point, one must look straight into the texts themselves.
It is true that owing to the Ramayana’s construction as an epic, a heady intellectuality is what one first encounters, especially in its many didactic passages, such as the ones where Sita expounds the virtues expected of a woman (Goel 639-65), there is an underlying poignancy, especially in Sita’s declaration at the end of the epic where she, in spite of being pregnant is unjustly banished. In fact, it may be argued (as many scholars, including Goel, have) that the structure of the poem at these points is specifically crafted to evoke emotion. In other words, the Ramayana is, much like Aristotle’s conception of art which leads to catharsis, a work of intense emotion.
On the other hand, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book is, at first glance, believed to be a highly emotive work. However, when one reads the Pillow Book, despite the fact it chronicles personal experience, it is not so much an emotive work (which is how Waley had conceptualized it) as one which follows the Wordsworthian paradigm of ‘powerful emotion recollected in tranquility’. As noted by Joanne Cooper, women’s diaries, especially ones like The Pillow Book serve more as chronicles of the times the authors lived in than a statement of personal opinions and feelings (Cooper 95-99). Moreover, as noted by Beauchamp, Sei Shonagon’s use of words such as okashi, meaning ‘delightful’ is such that it cannot be meant to evoke the emotion of the experience, but the experience in and of itself. It can therefore be argued that Shonagon was as much a detached observer as Valmiki. The real difference lies in the fact that while the former uses a personal, emotive experience to arrive at an intellectual base, the latter begins with an intellectual ‘impetus’ and arrives at an emotional base.
Another important misconception about these works is that of imagination and fact-finding. The Ramayana is considered (from the mythic perspective) an account of actual events as revealed to Valmiki through divine intervention, historians generally agree that the Valmiki Ramayana is certainly the work of one mind setting a vast story to a written format (Dutt 208). Furthermore, the Ramayana was part of ancient India’s vast oral tradition – many bards and poets had recited the events of the story, possibly for centuries, before Valminki set it down in writing. This, implies that, in spite of its claims to a divine origin, there was certainly an amount of observation, listening, and compiling which was behind to construction of the Ramayana. In other words, the construction of the Ramayana and the Pillow Book are essentially the same insomuch as they are works of experience, not imagination.
However, just as with any text which claims to be ‘literary’, one must take this point of factuality with a pinch of salt. When considering the Pillow Book, one must account for the variety of forms beings used – there are passages of poetry interspersed between passages of prose. This structuring alone implies that there is a kind of ‘selection’ going on. In other words, imagination is being employed – not the sort of imagination which divorces itself from reality, rather, it is one which picks and chooses from the facts presented to it. The Ramayana hardly needs qualification on this front. Being essentially a poetic work, there is always a filtering which must happen so that the lines and stanzas are accurately formed. Extending this argument a little further, one sees that it is analogous to the argument about emotion and intellectuality – imagination equals female whereas factuality equals male.
This argument cannot hold water in any way. As already explained, right from an average reader’s first impression, it is the female who is considered factual and the male who is imaginative. However, this point, though itself flying in the face of convention, is not wholly correct. As explained earlier, both works have an admixture of factuality and imaginativeness. In this way, both the Ramayana and the Pillow Book cannot be placed securely either in the category of fiction or non-fiction, given that they contain elements of both and can claim to have some of the elements of Woolf’s ‘androgynous writing’.
Stemming from this argument, is the next point about physicality and mentality. The traditional notion is that the male is ‘physical’, meaning Valmiki’s writing should stem from personal, physical experience, whereas Sei Shonagon’s should be a more ‘second-hand’ sort of writing, stemming from the experiences of her male counterparts. If one is to believe the legends behind the writing of the Ramayana, this argument could be held insomuch that it was through penance and physical suffering that Valmiki arrived at the Ramayana. However, using only historical evidence, this point cannot stand. Valmiki wrote his Ramayana, arguably, through his contact with Indian troubadours and poets who most likely provided him with the essential facts of the story, if not its form itself.
On the other hand, this form of ‘second-hand writing’ is not seen in Sei Shonagon’s writing. As noted by Beauchamp, Sei Shonagon derived her material from personal, physical experience – especially through the sense of touch. There is an extraordinary level of visceral feeling imbued in her writing (which would place her as one of the first, if not the very first practitioner of Cixous’ idea of ‘Ecritiure Feminine’). This is one of the few dichotomies which do hold strong between these two works, but they hold for the opposite reason to the one which was intended by traditional thought.
So far, Valmiki’s Ramayana and Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book have evaded all categorization, except that of physicality and mentality, and this point is perhaps too abstract for one to derive a solid literary category from. The last point one can look to is the nature of language itself. Language, according to Cixous has been extremely phallogocentric, meaning that it was driven by male thought and the male experience (Blyth and Seller 6-10). While this may hold good in the case of the Ramayana, which was written in Sanskrit, which is a sister language to the ancient languages of Europe and consequently subject to many of the facts which European languages contain. However, The Pillow Book was written in Japanese, a culture which was, and is, renowned for its gender fluidity.
When considering the Ramayana, one is tempted to write it off as a pillar of patriarchal values, which it most certainly is if one only considers its contents. However, if one considers its emotive value (as explained in the earlier section on emotion and intellectuality), one sees that it could also have within it the tools for creating a counter-patriarchal voice by causing the reader to sympathize with Sita and her suffering.
In the case of the Pillow Book, this question hardly arises. As Jennifer Robertson noted in her essay Gender-Bending in Paradise: Doing Female and Male in Japan, Japanese itself, is a highly fluid. Even if in practice, male and female gender roles are ‘set in stone’ the language provides a way out. The conspicuous absence of strong gender classification in categories such as pronouns, honorifics, etc. means that one must invariably write in the androgynous mode.
In other words, one can carve out a niche for these two works in the realm of androgynous writing. It might at first seem a heretical act to place the Ramayana and The Pillow Book together on such a pedestal, a closer examination shows that they do indeed fit in. This is because, the very idea of Woolf’s ‘androgynous writing’ and Cixous’ ‘Ectriture Feminine’ demand that traditional boundaries be broken and newer, more fluid frameworks be created.
This is a point which is essential when considering works of world literature – works which evolved in separate, unique and diverse cultures. The Ramayana of Valmiki and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon are an excellent place to start when constructing this ‘fluid’ category – they fit perfectly into this post-structuralist paradigm.
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Chandra, Sarup. Encyclopaedia of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. New Delhi :
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Cooper, Joanne E. "Shaping meaning: Women's diaries, journals, and letters—
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Ilaiah, Kancha. Why I am not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy,
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Japan." Genders 5 (1989): 50-69. Print.
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Waley, Arthur, and DENNIS WASHBURN. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon.
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