On The Other Hand
Cherchez la Femme, or, The Nanny's Revenge

Peter L. Berger

Copyright (c) 1993 First Things 49 (January 1995): 10-16.

Some of us have hardly gotten over the shock of Harold Bloom's discovery that a good portion of the Pentateuch was written by a woman (Ms. J., as I recall), and now we have to face yet another staggering blow to our phallocratic smugness.

I'm referring to John Fuegi's recent biography of Bertolt Brecht. If Fuegi is to be believed, much of Brecht's opus was in fact written by a long series of mistresses whose work he shamelessly appropriated and passed off as his own. Thus even The Three-Penny Opera, which launched Brecht's worldwide fame, was (or so Fuegi claims) written for the most part by one Elisabeth Hauptmann. Brecht's own contribution to this great success story seems to have been as a sort of editor, and he did choose Kurt Weill as the composer. (Fuegi does not claim that the music was actually written by Lotte Lenya, the singer whose raunchy voice helped to make the work's triumph, and who was Weill's wife and may or may not have been one of Brecht's innumerable mistresses.)

This is all very encouraging, because it suggests a solution to a serious problem faced by those who wish to revise the canon so as to give adequate representation to the cultural contributions of women. It happens that, in a fair number of intellectual and artistic fields, there is such a paucity of plausible female candidates for canonization that even the most imaginatively constructed quota system fails to produce the desired representation. Now, I'm not for a moment suggesting that Bloom or Fuegi have been motivated by this sort of affirmative action thinking; their feminist credentials are, in any case, doubtful or nonexistent. But they have certainly given me an idea and, as I will point out in a moment, others seem to have had the same idea too: What if one could show that, in fact, many allegedly male creations were in fact stolen from the women who were the original authors? A whole new ballgame!

For the record, let me state that I do not necessarily approve of such an undertaking. I fail to be persuaded by both the traditional and the feminist explanations of the underrepresentation of women among the classics of most disciplines. The traditional explanation that women are congenitally incapable of intellectual or artistic achievement is as false as the feminist explanation that, though fully capable, they have been kept from achieving by their male oppressors. I believe, on the contrary, that women are congenitally superior to men and that they have proved it by being otherwise occupied. Specifically, they were occupied in raising children and thus building civilization, and in order to be able to do this they convinced their silly mates to write books, make war, or do just about anything as long as it got them out of the house.

That, however, is another story. For the moment, I'm satisfied that the aforementioned idea may launch a thousand ships of feminist scholarship- and ipso facto keep these ladies so busy that they will stay out of any field that may be relevant to my own work.

As readers of First Things know, I keep a foot in the feminist camp by my (let us say) association with Aglaia Holt, the distinguished Professor of Wymyns Studies at California State University at Poco. (I have been criticized for this by my conservative friends, who call it fraternizing with the enemy, but I'm mindful of the highly conservative wisdom observed by every Chinese family to the effect that one should have contacts in all camps, because one never knows.) On my recent visit to Poco I mentioned my idea to Aglaia. She broke out in her notorious Homeric laughter (pardon, Bacchic laughter), which is almost as raunchy as Lenya's, and said: "My dear friend, you have just verified this idea by having it in the first place. Don't think that we've been waiting for you guys to come up with this!" She then told me the following, which I am passing on, in strictest confidence, to readers of this journal.

It seems that the National Endowment for Feminine Huwymynities has initiated the Rainbow Canon Project (RCP). Its purpose is to go over all the humanities [sic], discipline by discipline, and revise their respective canons by including the appropriate texts or works of art by women, gays and lesbians, racial minorities, and persons with handicaps. RCP operates through a number of specialized task forces. Some have it easier than others. English literature, for example, has a more than respectable number of female and/or homosexual authors, the contributions to music by nonwhites are not hard to enumerate, and there is no problem with the visual arts if madness is included in the category of handicap (as indeed it has been). Aglaia, never one to shy away from a challenging opportunity, has joined the task force on philosophy. It is there that the idea I falsely (and phallocratically) proposed to her as my own has been most useful.

The task force, needless to say, has given a prominent place in the new philosophy canon to a number of already well-known authors in that field, such as Hannah Arendt, Suzanne Langer, and Simone de Beauvoir (the last deserving her place even if one leaves aside the well-founded suspicion that she wrote the better part of Jean-Paul Sartre's books). But Aglaia and her colleagues have not stopped there. Indefatigably they have burrowed into the underside of all the great male philosophers, and they have come up with some truly astounding hypotheses (or, as they would prefer to say, subtextual disclosures). A woman who teaches classics at Our Lady of Perpetual Outrage A&M in North Dakota has published a monograph arguing that Xantippe, the much-maligned wife of Socrates, actually had most of the ideas that chauvinist Plato ascribed to her husband. Another publication proposes that Thomas Aquinas plagiarized heavily from the recently discovered opus of one Sister Placida, a Benedictine nun who was the sister of Thomas' favorite maiden aunt. An entire subcommittee is working feverishly on Hegel. But I'm most impressed by what Aglaia told me about the job being done on Kant. (As she put it: "This gives a whole new meaning to neo-Kantianism!")

It seems that the RCP task force has made contact with the Feminist Philosophy Collective at the University of Heidelberg. A leading member of this highly productive team, Professor Dr. Ursula Hartmund, has just written a hard-hitting (nomen semper est omen, or, if not semper, frequently) scholarly article entitled "Warum war Kant immer so puenktlich?" ("Why was Kant always so punctual?"), published in the quarterly Feministische Philosophie und andere Weibergeschichten, 1993:3. Hartmund was referring, of course, to Kant's well-known orderly habits, which allowed the citizens of Koenigsberg to set their watches by his daily walks to and from the university. Kant's monomaniacal orderliness appears to have been inculcated in him early by his nanny, one Katarina Kowalski, called by him Trina and by his family "die dumme Drine" ("stupid Drine," a pejorative term applied to women of Polish ethnicity in those benighted regions of eastern Germany).

Well, it turns out that Katarina/Trina/Drine was anything but dumm. She lived to a ripe old age on a pension paid to her by Kant himself, not generously but out of malevolent calculation. According to a contemporary source, Katarina was also a writer of obscure tracts combining ideas later ascribed to Kant with Swedenborgianism. Unfortunately, none of these writings has survived, though Kant's hostility to Swedenborg is well documented. But Hartmund does not rely exclusively on this particular source. In a brilliant deconstructionist analysis of the Critique of Practical Reason she shows that Kant's text is full of idiosyncratic formulations best explained as coming from someone who spoke and wrote German with a Polish accent. She concludes by hypothesizing (a subtextual disclosure indeed) that Kant's over-punctual peregrinations through the streets of Koenigsberg were dictated by Katarina's peculiar lifestyle. Every day, before he went to the university and then before he went home, he revisited Katarina during the two short periods in her daily schedule when she was not engaged in Swedenborgian mystical exercises. Thanks to Hartmund, we now know what he did during these visits.

I conclude with the final words of Hartmund's article: "Worse than men's exploitation of female sexuality and labor has always been their exploitation of the female mind." Natuerlich!

Peter L. Berger is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.