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The Zenobia Problem

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So, here’s the thing.  I am, at the moment, reading The Blithedale Romance, by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  For those of you who haven’t read it or wouldn’t read it or whatever, it’s a novel about a utopian socialist back-to-the-land experimental community in antebellum New England.

For those of you who thought all that started in the 1960s, there were actually several in the northeastern US before the US Civil  War, the most famous of which was called Brook Farm.  Hawthorne himself lived at Brook farm, which was practically a picture-perfect mess of the kind thse communities tend to be.  

You have a bunch of middle class and upper middle class New Englanders of the plain living and high thinking variety, pumped up on Romantic literature flooding in from  England, all desperate to Commune with Nature by throwing off the corrupting influences of artificial civilization. 

Then you have the guy they take on who actually knows how to farm, a process about which our heroes and heroines have no clue.

The  Blithedale Romance is what I think of as a “what it looks like” kind of novel.  There is a basic plot, but the point is mostly to draw a portrait of this place and the people in it, warts and all.   And there are a lot of warts.  There are good reasons why this is considered a minor novel next to something like The  Scarlet Letter, but Hawthorne had no patience for the idiocy he found at Brook Fram, and he isn’t shy about expressing it.

He also has a pretty good eye for pretention, self-importance and snobbery.


Back a few months ago I pointed out that Hawthorne was a good critic of the New  England Transcendentalist movement because he didn’t belong to it, but that it was more than a little ncomfortable to realize that he didn’t belong to it in good part because he wasn’t an abolitionist and he was something of a racist.

And I use the word “racist” here advisedly.   I’m n ot the kind of person who slings it around as an all-purpose accusation, and I do know the difference between actual racism and being, simply, a person of the time in which you live.

But Hawthorne was not just such a person–all of New England would have qualified for that–but a racist in the pure sense, someone who believes that one race is inherently more human than another.

For all their faults, one of the things you have to give the Transcendentalists is the way they approached not only the slavery question–you can of course fault them for their support of John Brown when Brown was behaving like a serial killer–but the issue of race itself.  They not only invited black speakers to address their meetings but black abolitionists to dinner in their own houses, and no matter how difficult they might have found it emotionally, they made an attempt to live by the principles of equaolity they’d inherited and committed themselves to.

Hawthorne had no use for abolition and no use for black people, whom he and his wife consistently referred to as monkeys and apes.  He once complained to a Transcendentalist friend who had had the Hawthornes to dinner to meet a famous black abolitionist that his wife had been forced to dine with animals straight out of the jungle.

It was not a pretty thing. 

Hawthorne felt about women’s suffrage–and women’s rights in general–the way he felt about abolition, although he at least tended to think of white women as actually human.  In The  Blithedale Romance he gives us a character named Zenobia–not her real, but her supposed pen name–who is modeled on Margaret Fuller.

Fuller was an interesting person in some ways.  She was a journalist when women were not often journalists, and a public speaker when women could literally get themselves physically harmed by speaking in front of sexually mixed audiences in public. 

Nowhere near enough has been written about the role of abolition in the American women’s rights movements.  Women who would never have imagined themselves going so far against convention as to speak at public rallies did it in behalf of ending slavery, and the men who ridiculed and threatened them also got gradually used to them as the movement gained steam. 

Fuller was, however, a particular kind of person, and I’ve known dozens of them in my life.  She was not really a first rate mind, and her politics were largely the politics of opposition.  She was desperate for an affirmation of her femininity of the kind that comes when a man agrees to marry you.  In the end, she married an Italian she met on a trip abroad and had a child by him.  There are intimations that the marriage wasn’t happy–and probably couldn’t be, given the circumstances. 

Hawthorne’s Zenobia has all these traits, and a few others. Unlike a lot of other feminist characters in American literature–say, Olive in  Henry  James’s The Bostonians–she’s portrayed as physically beautiful, vigorous and engaging.  Hawthorne doesn’t give the impression that he doubts the woman’s abilities either as a polemnical writer or as a speaker. 

(He does portray her as a God awful novelist, but that’s a different story.)

Zenobia is, however, a master manipulator, self-centered, self-righteous and self-absorbed, willing to wreck the life of anyone around her who gets in her way, and able to do it with no full consciousness that that is what she’s doing.  Like I said, I’ve met dozens of people like this, and certainly enough of them in the various feminisms that have blown through the landscape during the course of my life. 


Zenobia’s big issue, the social reform she wants most to effect and that Hawthorne spends most of the time ridiculing here, is precisely that right to speak in public in front of sexually mixed audiences that I was talking about earlier.

I don’t think there’s anybody reading this blog today who wouldn’t find a restriction on such activity by women to be entirely unacceptable. 

We can read and laugh at the descriptions of our earnest back-to-the-landers discovering that a day at the plow doesn’t inspire poetry and philosophy but rather makes one too tired to even read it, never mind write it–but it’s impossible for me, at least, to laugh at Zenobia when she defends the idea that women should be able to engage in public speaking.  Hawthorne clearly finds his character contemptible and ridiculous for the ideas she holds, but I can’t read his contempt and ridicule without rebelling.


In one way, Hawthorne isn’t wrong.   Much as we’d like our political saints to be all around  Good People, they rarely are.  A great deal of good work has been done, and moral and political proress mae, by people who are objectionable as human beings. 

It’s not just that such people “have their faults,” as it’s common to say.  It’s that many of them are downright dangerous in all the worst ways.  Zenobia is not just ridiculous, or vain  She’s what I think of aa a “soft totalitarian,” the best example of which may be Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratchett in One Flew Over  The Cuckoo’s Nest.

In fact, she’s quite a lot like what Susan  B. Anthony was like, from what I’ve been able to read of Anthony’s letters and speeches–excpe that, in physical form and relationships to men, Anthony was a little more like Olive in The Bostonians.

So, here’s my question–is there something about the things we need to make ourselves better as a people and a civilization that requires that they be done by people who, on other issues, we’d be better to avoid like the plague? 

Why is it that the push for the right thing–for ending slavery, for treating women like equal adults, you name it–so seldom comes from ordinarily decent people without the megolomania, the self-absorbtion, the sheer adversarial objectionableness of the people who have actually led the movements that resulted in these things?

I think we often talk as if we would be better off if these people all just went away, but the more I look into it, the less I’m sure.

Written by janeh

July 9th, 2009 at 9:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'The Zenobia Problem'

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  1. I’m not sure there’s a problem. I think you need a certain level of obsession to achieve great things, and obsessives tend to have a certain amount of disregard for others. That doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable to society. There’s still the weight of all of us nice normal people to keep them (mostly!) from going off the rails!

    There’s a narrow line here. When you phrase the question as you do, it almost sounds like only nice people (or people we think are at least nice, if not actually admirable) should be part of the human race. But we’ve all got faults, some more obvious and more disruptive to community and family life than others. I don’t see any particular problem with having – and acknowledging – that some people who spend their lives fighting for better lives for others are really rather nasty people and need to be called on their behaviour sometimes. There are two other issues that border on this. One is the tendency of some people to justify bad behaviour in the great – it’s expected, even. This is particularly true of people who believe in tormented artistic genius. I don’t think it’s necessary to be a tormented – or tormenting – person in order to function as a genius or great reformer, although some geniuses undoubtedly or one or the other or both at the same time. The other is the desire so many people have to define the heroes of our culture in terms that a saint would have difficulty fulfilling – well, he may have been a great political leader, but he treated women like dirt, so he was really scum, no matter what he achieved in life. She’s only some frigid old maid who’s so desperate to get a man that she made a very bad and stupid marriage – her lobbying for political rights for women were obviously nothing more than a neurotic quirk. I suppose this is a variation on the ‘would you read a book by someone who was a racist/Nazi/murderer/abortion lobbyist (on the side opposite to yours) etc>?) It’s also almost like a mechanism by which the human tendency to want everyone the same is worked out. Another example is all those sayings about people sticking their heads out getting them cut off. We like people like us. We don’t like people whose behaviour or beliefs are abhorrent to us (not many of us can separate the sin from the sinner), and we may also be a bit envious of those who get a lot of attention. So we cut them down to size. We virtuously refuse to read their books, or acknowledge that so-and-so achieved far, far more than most people ever do because we don’t like the fact that he also had a really rotten personal life, or nasty ideas about blacks or women. Behind this, there might be the sneaking knowledge that we might be able to out-compete this person in the ‘best home life’ stakes, but we’d be left in the dust if the competition was on the basis of ‘improved the lives of the most people’.

    So, I do think that some of the characteristics of some people who change society in good ways can be damaging, but I don’t think all reformers have such faults. And I do think some of the criticism of them comes from a desire to have perfect heroes, and a desire to make oneself feel better by putting down those who do achieve great things by focusing on their flaws.


    9 Jul 09 at 10:59 am

  2. Good question — and one that will get you stoned at human rights conferences!

    In Russia during the Soviet period, I knew a number of dissidents — Jews fighting to get out of the country, Christians fighting to attend church, folks fighting for civil and other rights. I knew some who were kind of foot soldiers in the battle: people who for one reason or another almost fell into it. They were asked to do something (say,retype a banned novel on tissue paper) and couldn’t say no because they knew it was neccessary. A lot of people who were involved with chronicling prisoners of conscience and political cases were like this. When the USSR broke apart and the regime ended, most of them went back to doing what they had been doing before, or what they had been trained to do. They did their bit and now it was time to get on with their lives.

    I was in awe of these people, and romanticized them. I thought that people who fought for human rights — risking their lives! — would respect, well, humans. But there was another type of dissident who was more like Zenobia. Men who went to the camps for the right to read Pasternak but treated women like dirt. Some of them were self-centered bastards.

    A friend who spent some time in the camps (as I recall, for passing around Solzhenitsyn) said that all dissidents are martyrs and masochists. They know what they are up against and they are looking forward (subconsciously) to the punishment.

    For us, signing a petition or attending a rally is no big deal. If enough of us come out, we believe that in time we might change things. But imagine being Zenobia or a Soviet dissident. It’s nuts to do what they do. They are risking their lives, their reputations, destroying their families. I think my friend is right, although I’d state it a bit differently. I think they have to believe they are carrying the cross up the mountain — that they are better than everyone else, because they are willing to sacrifice themselves. Thank heaven they exist, but they are not pleasant people to live with.

    My two kopeks.


    9 Jul 09 at 1:18 pm

  3. I always figure that 95% of all people are folks I’d rather not associate with. It’s not that the movers and shakers are extraordinary in their dislikeability except for the issue on which we happen to agree with them, it’s that nearly everyone is that dislikeable. Really.

    Even those seemingly vast numbers of “ordinary, decent” people are dislikeable when you get to know them. It’s finding and filtering out that 5% that you CAN like and associate with that’s difficult.

    The trick is realizing that for everyone, their 5% is a different 5% than yours. People you dislike are perfectly compatible to others. And the obverse (or is it converse?) is that 95% of everyone will dislike you. A person can be decent and worthy of respect without being someone you can like. Or they can be a charismatic reformer and still have many irksome characteristics.

    I suspect people who live large do so in all aspects, and so we might see their less likeable aspects more clearly than those ordinary decent folks who live quietly.

    Will Rogers might differ, but that’s my take on it.


    9 Jul 09 at 1:37 pm

  4. “So, here’s my question–is there something about the things we need to make ourselves better as a people and a civilization that requires that they be done by people who, on other issues, we’d be better to avoid like the plague?
    Why is it that the push for the right thing–for ending slavery, for treating women like equal adults, you name it–so seldom comes from ordinarily decent people without the megalomania, the self-absorption, the sheer adversarial objectionableness of the people who have actually led the movements that resulted in these things?”

    Perhaps it is the force of megalomaniac’s will that effects change. Those of us who are ordinary and well-intended probably lack that force of will. While we might decry the narrow-mindedness of some people, we also should applaud their ability to ‘get it done.’

    Here’s my personal (and not very nice) proposition. Narrow-mindedness of the sort that allows someone to focus (rightly or wrongly) on a single thing also allows for action. There is no distraction by various possibilities, no obstruction from an alternative point of view, and no confusion caused by an unwillingness to deliberately hurt others.

    Those of us who see the complexity of an issue often feel constrained to not take action lest it offend or hurt someone. We become hampered by the ability to see the other guy’s point of view.

    I am reminded of my own sister. She is “born again” – a topic that thoroughly confuses me – and is absolutely sure of her convictions. This single-mindedness enables her to take on the very difficult task of fostering medically fragile children. However, it prevents her from having a meaningful relationship with many people (me included) because she is so willing to condemn me to hell. I may well end up in the City of Dis, but my personal beliefs give me as much solace as do hers.

    As far as the human race goes, I think both types of people make the world function. We need people who are focused, however objectionable they may be. If for no other reason, they give us something to react to.


    9 Jul 09 at 3:18 pm

  5. This is a question which can be answered by careful objective research. I’m not going to do it, of course, but I’ll happily speculate.

    The research first: have one researcher compile a list of, say, 100 notable reformers in some period and place. Have another researcher examine, very superficially, 500 or 1000 politically active and powerful people in the same period and place–enough to be sure almost all your reformers are included–and rate them on a niceness scale. DO NOT LET THE RESEARCHERS EVEN KNOW OF ONE ANOTHER’S EXISTENCE. Then take the results, and see whether the reformers on the list are any worse then the other politically obsessed and powerful.

    My guess would be not. Famous people go under a biographic microscope, and people generally are pretty discouraging. Study famous generals, and you can find some rude and ruthless people, careerists and back-stabbers. You find them among majors, too, only no one writes their biographies.

    As an example, consider the Presidents of the United States. They’re a manageable size, and well documented. They gained the highest political office their society offered–and they’re not, by and large, scheming nutcases. I don’t think they’re even disproportionately “Type A personalities.” And if you limited your analysis to the successful ones, I don’t think that would change.

    A reformer of any sort needs to keep his or her goal constantly in mind, and not to make the compromises which would nullify the effort. The appropriate verses are “cursed be he that puts his hand to the plough and looks back” and “cursed be he that does the work of the Lord with slackness.” (The curses don’t require divine intervention to work, either.) But single-minded devotion to a cause does not require incivility, nor the forgetting of obligations.

    Of course, everyone who speaks in terms of politics will use politics to justify bad behavior. Every bully who ever sewed on sergeant’s stripes justified HIS bad behavior by the needs of the Army–but they were just bullies for all that, and often lazy ones. Training took time and patience. Abuse is quick and easy.

    It’s the same for reformers. Easy to make a fiery speech and denounce people instead of the abuse. Hard to separate people from terrible customs and make them see what they’re doing wrong. Easy to be a Stokely Carmichael or a John Brown. Hard to be a Martin Luther King Jr, or a Lincoln–but they’re the ones the cause really needs.

    Of course, it really doesn’t matter what sorts of people we “need.” We’re going to get the same mix regardless. But we could be a bit more careful who we take seriously or put in positions of power. Me for nice, when possible, and if all my choices are corrupt, give me the one who takes money over the one who takes flattery and a place in the history books.


    9 Jul 09 at 4:34 pm

  6. “I always figure that 95% of all people are folks I’d rather not associate with.”

    This is the kind of statement that makes me feel that I must be interpreting it wrongly, or else I’m really weird.

    I tend to think I’m willing to associate with most people – just about the reverse of that statement. But I put ‘associate’ pretty loosely. Those would be most of the co-workers I see every day but never outside of work; the relatives I would associate with should we meet again, but I don’t bother with otherwise, members of a range of groups I associate with or am part (we share interests, but really aren’t that close) etc etc etc.

    Naturally, the people I might really confide in or trust to collect my mail and care for my cat are a much smaller percentage of the human position. But willing to talk with politely, work with or for, associate with in the pursuit of common interests? I’d put that percent very high, in my life. And I know perfectly well that we often disagree profoundly on a lot of things, but mostly we don’t argue about them, and they don’t stop us from associating with each other.

    In fact, it’s a rare and very close friend that you can discuss things you really disagree on with – and even in those cases, there might be some issue that you both just tactfully ignore for the sake of the friendship.


    9 Jul 09 at 5:02 pm

  7. I think it’s just a matter of definition, Cheryl. When I think of association, I think of *close* association. I’ve worked just fine with plenty of people I didn’t particularly like, keeping things on a professional level. I speak politely to everyone I meet, and in general that’s the response I get back. To me, that’s not association, that everyday encounters. So yeah, your idea of association is far more general than mine.

    However, when we’re talking people with whom I choose to spend time, have open conversations, share my sarcasm and tell the jokes that make most people look at me funny, I doubt if I even get to 5%. These are people that I feel enrich my life, and for whom I’m willing to put forth the effort to be a good friend and enrich theirs. Intimate association, in other words.

    Some people can certainly satisfy some of my needs without becoming intimates…I’ve belonged to several quilting groups, and enjoyed the people a lot, but they’re not in my inner circle.

    As for close friends being not 100% likeable…we also know around here that everybody is an asshole sometimes, including us. We try to minimize that, but nobody is perfect. It’s a matter of finding people whose quirks either match yours or are in areas that don’t upset you.

    Which is why my husband & I feel like it was a miracle we found each other. Our quirks are so compatible.


    9 Jul 09 at 6:22 pm

  8. I think Gail has the right idea about the personality of reformers. A reformer is essentially saying “A major part of our society is wrong and I know how to fix it!”

    That takes tremendous arrogance and self confidence. That is not a combination that makes for a pleasant personality.


    9 Jul 09 at 9:57 pm

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