Friday, July 31, 2009

Republic of women

Republic of Women is a novel that questions the basis of contemporary Western thought. Merrill Findlay's novel rejects Plato's Republic and its influence on modern life and chooses an ideal made from the interwoven beliefs of a pseudo-family of distinctive characters.

Republic of Women centres around a small community of friends and neighbours in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda. Findlay comments that she wrote much of her first novel at "one of Melbourne's most significant cultural institutions," Leo's Spaghetti Bar, located in the bayside suburb of St Kilda, the area where she resides.

Republic of Women is a continuous celebration of women’s creativity, in the meaning of both women’s skills and artistic talent, and capacity to procreate. The lives of Marie, Elle and Lillian constantly intersect with the lives of the goddesses of Sumerian-Babylonian, Greek and Roman mythologies; they develop in parallels with the lives of historical figures such as Alphonsine Plessis, Anita Garibaldi, Giuseppina Strepponi and Nellie Melba. Findlay makes sure she always foregrounds these women, reaffirming various forms of greatness, which have all too often been understated in public history written by men.

There are affinities between Merrill Findlay's Republic of Women and Plato's Republic. Neither has a plot, although both contain novelistic elements such as characters, conflicts and themes. In both texts the dynamic discussion of ideas comprises the action. Findlay also derives her central focus - the oppression of women throughout history - from Plato, charging that when he "defined the future in his own image," he paid little attention to women who, during the Athenian period, were a suppressed lot. Confined to their houses and not formally educated, they could play no part in politics, vote, hold property, participate in or even attend (some say) athletic games or theatrical performances. It was also Plato's student Aristotle who recorded in his Poetics that women may be said to be "inferior beings, mere vessels for male seed". Yet Findlay's imagined recreation of the lives of dozens of brilliant women artists and musicians (drawn from both fiction and "real life") demonstrates that it was their marginalized status that proved disadvantageous. She tells the stories of these talented women in the form of discontinuous narratives, a style many readers will appreciate, for their lives were unrelentingly bleak. At every turn, they were betrayed.

The novel is not entirely bleak, however, for like Plato's disciples, Findlay's characters also consider how to construct a successful society. As they work and love and play, Marie and her friends explore alternative ways of living in their threatened inner-city environment. In doing so they question the philosophical basis of much contemporary western thought, rejecting the tenets of Plato's ideal republic and its continuing hold on the politics of today. The shared joys and tragedies of their daily lives are interwoven with a rich plenitude of stories and myths from the past, in a compelling narrative that culminates in an emotionally charged and satisfying finale. The women conclude that, although much of St Kilda is being destroyed by postmodernist trendiness, it nonetheless remains a vital and fulfilling place to live. Further, they view the community as contributing to a new country which has the potential for greatness, to be the kind of society that has never existed before. And they might be right.

In his Republic, Plato had put forward a model of an ideal, and therefore difficult to implement society, in a period in which he, himself, was forced to acknowledge the flaws of Athenian democracy, as well as the decline of the Greek empire. In a century, which until its very end, has witnessed unspeakable atrocities, in a world where it does not yet seem possible to end racial and sex discrimination, and in a country – in this novel, Australia – which is yet to make a public apology for the massacres and mistreatments of its indigenous people, how could it be possible to envisage a community truly free from prejudice and violence, and supported by the creativity and imagination of its members?

A Republic of Women is the notion conceived by the three protagonists of this novel: an optimistic, rather than utopian, notion. The envisaged society is one where marginalisation, on any ground, would be ruled out, and where the accepted idea of “freedom” would be inseparable from principles of ethics and harmony. Above all, this society would be bold enough to go beyond the barriers of the conventions established by still-patriarchal community structures, and would rely instead on women’s creative potential.

In Republic of Women Findlay asks the questions - "Who are we, where have we come from, where are we going to?" and ultimately proposes some fascinating possibilities.

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