If Bertrand Russell was right, my uncertainties make me wise. While I’m not sure that’d be true for me, I think I’d trade most of my insights for a degree of certainty. Of course, that’s hypothetical, I don’t have any certainty that I’d make that trade if ever such a time came.
Philip K Dick was uncertain that the world is real and thought that there was no way of proving our existence. His 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? questioned the basis of human existence. It became the fantastic science-fiction film Blade Runner, one of my favourite movies of all time. And here’s another interesting take on uncertainty, Dick also wrote the short story that was basis for The Minority Report, another of my favourite films. And yet another blockbuster, Total Recall was inspired by the same philosophical uncertainties that gave Dick pause for thought and writing. I’m not sure that women are much more than incidental characters in these scripts so maybe he thought that women don’t exist all. It was in the 1970s that geneticists discovered that all mammalian embryos start life as females. I wonder what Dick made of learning that it’s men that are the dependent gender? pThat women reproduce themselves but are genetically wise enough to spin off a second gender to keep the life cycle going.
Given such genetic gender change, isn’t there an ironic twist in Mary Astell’s question. ‘If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?’ Astell died in 1731 without knowing the genetic truth. All the boys that have ever existed have first been freed from slavery.
Last year, 2019, on the 16th of February, I walked the River Fleet. I took tubes and buses to Kenwood House and walked down from the spring where the Fleet rises. Actually, that’s springs. There are several contenders in the front garden. I realised that Coleridge used to walk these parts and I wondered about Kubla Khan and ‘the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea.‘
The Fleet crossed the railway in Kentish Town. Yes, Fleet in a pipe, not quite a cavern. I trudged on to Regent’s Canal and on to St Pancras Old Church. I stopped at the church to look around the cemetery for Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist and mother of the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley who created Frankenstein. I carried on past St Pancras International station but by now, the Fleet really is a hidden river, culverted somewhere beneath my feet. I saw the sewer-like line that carries the Fleet on the Metropolitan Line and I walked above it at Mount Pleasant. They say the river flowed there and stank as recently as 1749.
Then I walked under viaducts that crossed the still visible declivity that is the trace of the Fleet river valley, easily recognised from roads that rise left and right. The cock fighting in Finsbury is no more and outside The Coach pub I stood on a drain cover to hear the Fleet flowing south. I followed the ancient river course under the Holborn Viaduct, across Fleet Street and on down to the point of discharge into the Thames.
I’m only thinking about this walk along the Fleet today because of a nude statue of Mary Wollstonecraft that was unveiled yesterday and was in the news today.
Artist Maggi Hambling has consistently used controversy to gain attention but this is surely misrepresentation and that’s a different thing entirely. Just because Hambling is a woman doesn’t give her the authority to reinvent Wollstonecraft. This re-interpretation of Wollstonecraft for the first statue of her in a multicultural city dominated by elegantly clothed men is unworthy of the artist. It is a form of intellectual vandalism and inimical for women everywhere.
Perhaps Hambling was seeing subjugated women as did men and the mainly male Romantic painters around the time Wollstonecraft died. Such a regressive, retrograde view seems unwise and does no one any favours in these uncertain times.