Review by Theresa Wolfwood
“Mental fight means thinking against the current, not with it. It is our business to puncture gas bags and discover the seeds of truth.” Virginia Woolf
This fascinating and informative study of independent thinkers since the 1700s makes compelling reading in a time when media and other social forces discourage and suppress expression of dissent. But it appears that mainstream society has always suppressed and often, still does, persecute those who dare to resist. Starting with the early Quakers in England with their opposition to war and slavery and their persecution as a consequence of their beliefs, Oldfield writes about Thomas Paine, a citizen of her hometown, Lewes. Although coming from a Quaker family, he went further in his radicalism to become a non-believer and in spite of sharing many Quaker values, he was denied the right to be buried in their graveyard.
Paine was deeply involved in both the French Revolution and the American Revolution, authoring many pamphlets in favour of independence from Britain and is considered a founding father of the American Revolution. Oldfield includes many other writers – including Dickens and Hazlitt; I found particularly interesting her essays about Shelley and Blake because poets are not usually considered as thinkers against the current. Oldfield writes that Shelley’s vision of a society was one hundred years before its time. Perhaps it is useful to reflect that poets and other writers can be prophetic and need careful attention.
Shelley was both a theorist and an activist, standing up against the many injustices he saw in society and at the same time writing about his vision of an equalitarian, progressive society where poverty, capital punishment, and armies would be eliminated; that love would be a private and public value. However, as Oldfield shows later, Shelley’s poetry expresses doubt and pessimism about these goals. His idea of enlightened, intellectual leadership certainly has not been realized in present day world.
Blake is considered still as one of the great mystic poets of English literature. He was also a radical thinker and like Shelley had visions of a better world which could be achieved by humanity. Oldfield writes, “William Blake’s great strength was his attempt to connect the disparate, conflicting aspects both of the personality and of society: body and spirit, reason and emotion, human creativity and human destructiveness.” His beautiful lyrical poetry is still read and quoted today. Who has not heard of Tiger, Tiger? It gains new meaning when one sees the tiger as a metaphor for both creativity and destruction.
Blake was not without critics who claimed to respect only part of his values; as the author says, “all his life Blake championed individual liberty and social equality… all the time as Blake resists the politicians’ demands that he choose between the rights of the individual and the needs of the masses, insisting instead that they be recognized as inseparable aspects of the same problem…”
Part 2 is titled ‘Enter the Women’. Oldfield has written, researched and taught about women thinkers and campaigners for most of her life – check her extensive publication list. She opens with a poem by Carole Satymurti, “Ourstory”. It begins with these lines, “Let us now praise women/ with feet glass slippers wouldn’t fit;/ not the patient, nor the embittered/ ones who kept their place…” A great way to begin a richness of women’s’ resistance in words.
The bibliography of notable women from 1550-1900 in Britain who accomplished much in public life, literature and the arts is indeed impressive. This bibliography, Oldfield writes, is also intended to be, “…an aid and stimulus to further 21st century research in women’s history. Then, when our granddaughters, the venal and the inhumane, in the decades to come, they will know that there were countless women of integrity, creativity and courageous sympathy before them. Thinking back through such ‘mother’ should give them strength.”
It was not until 1800s that women as organizers and models for women’s rights began to emerge. Women I did know of; Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon merits a chapter as the ‘mother’ of the 19th century women’s movement. She did not choose to work alone for the liberation of women; she encouraged and enabled many women to support the cause. She is quoted as writing, “We must work…We must each leave the world a little better than we found it…” She is an important, if much neglected, figure of British 19th century history.
Oldfield goes on, introducing us the first women member of the British civil service, Jeanie Nassau Senior, an out spoken critic of education and the accepted values of childcare. In the early 20th century the women’s suffrage movement arose and spread, through action and writing, the call for equal citizenship for women and the struggle against oppression, to Europe, North America and Australia. Groups were organized, leaders emerged, and Finland could claim to be the first country to elect a woman to parliament in 1907. Mary Sheepshanks, an English editor of the journal, Ius Suffragii, went further than calling for women’s rights and called for women to unite and oppose the war-making policies. Women all over Europe did unite against war-making, but as we know and still know, this vision is yet to be realized.
After the WW1, the struggle for equality continued. Eleanor Rathbone MP had strong positions on a ‘family allowance’ for mothers – a policy adapted in many countries eventually – and the status of refugees, post-war civilians and female sex slaves. She stirred much controversy on her attacks of child marriage in India; she was called ‘cultural imperialist’ by many. This dichotomy between national rights and women’s rights is still a matter of controversy today.
Again in the 20th century there were many women thinkers and writers ‘against the current’ who are still not well-known. The anti-militarism position of many feminists caused splits with women who wanted to confine the struggle to “women’s issues.” That discord also continues to today. The USA activist Jane Addams won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work; she was both a social reformer and a peace activist. She was one of the many leading women writers, thinkers ‘against the current’ and activists who participated in a major international women’s congress in 1915 in The Netherlands. After the war, Addams was a major force in the work to feed and give dignity to the millions of victims of the war in Europe. Oldfield writes, “From our own perspective, with another order dying, and another new order yet unborn, perhaps we should give serious thought Jane Addams’s advocacy of adequate international aid as the essential prerequisite for a more just and, therefore, a more peaceable world.”
The French philosopher, Simone Weil, was called many things, most commonly a religious mystic. Humanist Albert Camus called her, “the only great spirit of our times.” As a child she we was deeply affected by the horrors of war and became a fervent pacifist. She did think that the Spanish Civil War was being fought for justice and she signed up; only to regret her participation later, in fact, “strengthening rather than weakening her anti-militarism…” Weil became a member of the resistance to Nazi Germany based in UK, after the failure of her call for women to unite to counter Nazism – an idea considered crazy by many, including de Gaulle. She could see the dangers of nationalism, “including French nationalism, and its expression in righteous war…” Like Blake she saw public and private as indivisible. She “…regarded the contradiction between our personal morality and our public immorality as fatal.” She died an unhappy and disturbed woman at the age of thirty-four, seeing only too well the terrible world we live in today.
The title of this book was taken from Virginia Woolf in her “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” written in 1940. Woolf remains today as one of the most influential writers and thinkers of the last century; her words are treasured icons of contemporary feminists. Oldfield goes into depth about her reading and analysis of Antigone. I find it difficult to be brief about Woolf; fortunately, her books are still available today. Her diverse interests and participation in feminism, anti-militarism and social change can be gauged by the overwhelming reaction to her death which Oldfield has compiled in “Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf”. She opposed war, including WW2 and continued her mental fight against war to the end. Oldfield writes, “…And she also longed for men to free themselves from their confusion of virility with domination and warriordom… And she like Antigone went into the dark.”
In the chapter on German women and the Resistance to Hitler, Oldfield makes up for much of the neglect of this important part of German history. She has dedicated the book to her grandmother, Anna Haag, a ‘fierce resister’ whose diaries of her life in the resistance have been recently published (Anna Haag and her Secret Diary of the Second World War: A Democratic German Feminist’s Response to the Catastrophe of National Socialism (Women in German Literature) edited by Edward Timms).
Oldfield puts this resistance in the context of the post WW1 depression, the role of women in the German suffrage movement, the speed of the rise of Nazism and its effect on women and resistance before and during WW2. Resistance was extremely dangerous, and if caught, resisters were quickly and brutally punished. Oldfield writes, “Never have so many of the kindest people, the least selfish, the most capable of pity and generosity and moral courage had to risk a hideous death because they were decent human beings.” She names many of them and says that an incomplete Gestapo list states that 300 women were executed for acts of resistance.
Probably now the best known of German women resisters was Sophie Scholl from Ulm. With her brother Hans and others she formed the White Rose movement of students in Munich who opposed Nazism on religious and moral grounds. Sophie and Hans were caught distributing anti-Nazi leaflets and were beheaded. Her Life is now the subject of a film which can be seen online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=baRvF6ZBK18 A whole chapter: Germany’s Antigone Sophie Scholl (1921 -1943), is devoted to the story of this remarkable young woman. In the excerpts from her diary she shows that she had been a ‘resister in spirit’ but when her brother and others began active opposition to Nazism, she became an activist also and started writing and giving out pamphlets in hopes that people could be persuaded of the right moral choice to make and to oppose Nazism.
She wrote that, “…when many join the cause, then in a great final effort this system can be shaken off. After all an end in terror is preferable to terror without end.” Sadly her work and life were ended in terror. But her colleagues continued their resistance and resistance grew as a result of the news of the brutal deaths of Sophie and her brother spread in Germany and other countries; her words are still relevant today as those who think, write and work against the current are aware. And in one of her last letters to her friend, Hartnegal, she holds fast to her faith in humanity and writes, “Life can only come out of life.”
Helen Keller of the USA is remembered in mainstream culture as an extraordinary woman – who overcame blindness and deafness to learn how to communicate and triumph over her condition – which indeed, she was. She is less known as a clear and powerful thinker and writer ‘against the current.’ Oldfield writes, “…her lifelong pace-witness lay at the very heart of Helen Keller’s inner vision.” She understood there is an alternative to the iron fist. She did learn to communicate and graduated from university; she committed herself to work as a social interventionist and stated her anti-military convictions very clearly. She joined the Socialist Party and spoke to thousands about the waste and horror of war. She supported the radical IWW (International Workers of the World) contributing to strike funds and writing and speaking on their behalf. Her whole life was a struggle and she herself said, “The eradication of disease, poverty and exploitation was the only kind of war” she believed in.
Moving thorough the 20th century and to the cause of opposition to the USA war on Vietnam, Oldfield quotes American poets who were resisters in their writing and often in their lives, including Denise Levertov, Sharon Olds and Muriel Rukeyser, an activist in many causes against the current who wrote, “We are the living island,/ We the flesh of this island, being lived/ Whoever knows is part of us today./ What can happen to anyone can happen to me.”
In the last chapter Oldfield raises many of the questions of personal and public values, the despair that can overwhelm us at times, the dichotomy of love of family and hatred for others, and often the violence that is inflicted privately as well as publicly. She asks what have we learned from our failures? We can take courage and strength from those who are now history, but we can also find and give courage and strength today as we share our work and our visions with others and give mutual support. Finally Oldfield keeps the inspiration of past thinkers alive; she believes and, through her writing, inspires us to believe, “Hurting and killing do not have to have the last word, there are also love, birth, desire…”
This collection of literary/historical essays, written 1970–2010, covers political subjects as diverse as 17th Century Quaker persecution history, the social impact of Malthus, the self-emancipation of English women, Eleanor Rathbone on the human rights of girls and German women’s resistance to Hitler. The more literary subjects include the social thinking of the English Romantics, Dickens’ Great Expectations, Simone Weil’s great essays attacking militarism and Virginia Woolf’s opposition to the State – as well as contemporary American women poets on the problem of war. But despite all its diversity, this collection has one unifying theme – the necessity for resistance, for ‘thinking against the current’, as Virginia Woolf wrote in ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air-raid’. The torch of resistance to oppression and militarism is shown to have been continuously handed on through the generations from the seventeenth century to our own day by men and women who had the courage, at whatever personal cost, to ‘fight with the mind’. This book of passionate, lively essays is not merely a treasure trove for biographical researchers; it is also a strengthening medicine, introducing us to unfamiliar forebears who can help us in our current struggle for a better world. As Simone Weil said: ‘We can find something better than ourselves in the past.’