Emma Goldman, Modern Ethos and Reverence for Life

Updated: Mar 31


"Young Women Going to a Procession", Jules Breton (1827 - 1906), French

Emma Goldman was an anarchist writer and activist. Although a self-described feminist, she was a controversial figure - standing against many of the ideals set by suffragettes, one of them women's right to vote. The opposition to voting was in alignment with her anarchist ideals - she believed that conventional politics could not solve any deeper problems. In today's post, I decided to bring up parts from her essay "The Tragedy of Woman's Emancipation" written 1906 (full text is linked at the bottom) and reflect on certain parts of it. At the very beginning of her essay, Goldman says: "Peace or harmony between the sexes and individuals does not necessarily depend on a superficial equalization of human beings; nor does it call for the elimination of individual traits and peculiarities. The problem that confronts us today, and which the nearest future is to solve, is how to be one’s self and yet in oneness with others, to feel deeply with all human beings and still retain one’s own characteristic qualities." Just as witnessed in our time, the desire for absolute equalization, seems to be desire for uniformity. One would get an impression that behind "superficial equalization" as Emma suggests, is but a lack of ability and desire to truly accept, to truly see humans as individuals with unique set of characteristics, abilities, virtues and flaws. To truly relate to them as "I-to-Thou" as Martin Buber claimed. A human being is in need of, both, a healthy community to connect with, and healthy solitude, contemplation in which his or her individual being can flourish. It reminds me of another essay, written by Béla Hamvas, a Hungarian philosopher and social critic, when he says: "Individual life cannot be achieved without a community". He suggests, in the essay, that only a community, togetherness creates common values, languages, myths, poems, epics, means of communication, ability to recognize and ability to have friends and to find love. Without a community, all there is, are uprooted, separated "selves" in the ocean of other separated "selves". In separation human is lost and uprooted, and uprooted and lost, human cannot see or produce, beauty and meaning. Uprooted humans cannot trust and believe and they feel unloved and uncared for. When Emma speaks that our challenge is to "feel deeply human and still retain one's own characteristic qualities", she echoes Hamvas's idea. Individuality and diversity of our time are defined by the most superficial terms and it is expressed by being loud and provocative, seeking only to bring disharmony. It lacks any true, deeper sense of inner life. To return to Emma's essay, the part that, upon reading it first, has stuck in my mind for the longest time, is the part that tells about general inversion of what is meaningful to human beings. " (...) results so far achieved have isolated woman and have robbed her of the fountain springs of that happiness which is so essential to her. Merely external emancipation has made of the modern woman an artificial being, who reminds one of the products of French arboriculture with its arabesque trees and shrubs, pyramids, wheels, and wreaths; anything, except the forms which would be reached by the expression of her own inner qualities. (...) The narrowness of the existing conception of woman’s independence and emancipation; the dread of love for a man who is not her social equal; the fear that love will rob her of her freedom and independence; the horror that love or the joy of motherhood will only hinder her in the full exercise of her profession--all these together make of the emancipated modern woman a compulsory vestal, before whom life, with its great clarifying sorrows and its deep, entrancing joys, rolls on without touching or gripping her soul.

Emancipation, as understood by the majority of its adherents and exponents, is of too narrow a scope to permit the boundless love and ecstasy contained in the deep emotion of the true woman, sweetheart, mother, in freedom. The tragedy of the self-supporting or economically free woman does not lie in too many, but in too few experiences. True, she surpasses her sister of past generations in knowledge of the world and human nature; it is just because of this that she feels deeply the lack of life’s essence, which alone can enrich the human soul, and without which the majority of women have become mere professional automatons." Anti - feminist media is full of polls and surveys that intend to show the, seemingly, collective existential crisis that exists among women. The feminist media will try to push a different narrative. I desire to be neither "pro" nor "anti" modern day feminism, as I deeply believe that modern feminism just reflects general heavily materialistic values of modern culture and culture that enjoys reductionist, cynical approach to anything that is not it. Just as in Emma's time, the form of feminism she opposed was the one that brought all the superficial values of the time into ideals about woman's emancipation. Our culture is a culture that does not see beauty in life, in the simple and elegant. It is a culture that needs to constantly indulge in the grotesque excess - nothing is ever numbing enough. It sees love as an obstacle towards one's "development". Parenthood and friendships as annoyances. It is the culture that constantly echoes how children are "parasites", and how one "hates people" and does their best to avoid them. A culture that claims that "love and peace" are its principles, but culture that fears to truly love. It fears to love, serve, surrender and be vulnerable. Those I believe are the only means towards real freedom and fullfilment. Love is reduced to giving blind, superficial approval and validation even if it comes at the cost of health, well-beings of those that are supposedly loved. The culture that is hostile towards true love and service to others is culture that is hostile towards life itself. People are sad and depressed and lonely because they "lack of life's essence" as Emma said. Men or women, we need to drink from that spring, we need to feel, sense, talk, have healthy laughters and healthy tears, we need to feel that we are part of life, of its richness and that there is more to life than being an automaton that mindlessly produces and consumes. I believe life to be a consequence of a perennial force and that it has breath of its own, that if not truly lived and felt, will leave one hungry and barefoot. It is always there though, always offering, always opening, always full of scents, sounds and tastes and all one has to do is to come to the essencce and sense, hear and feel. Life's fullness will as a result, come into one's being, the body will be reminded that it carries a life, a soul, a psyche. Then, one is able to both share one's humanity with others, truly connect, relate, serve and indulge in the richness of one's individuality and inner life.

Links: "Tragedy of Woman's Emancipation", Emma Goldman "Mađarski Hiperion", Bela Hamvaš (Serbian) "I and Thou", Martin Buber Become a Patron

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