During Women's History Month we celebrate the accomplishments of those who have struggled for equality, but it's also important to remember the role misogyny plays on a global level. Women's History Month needs to be 30 days of action, not 30 days of commemoration. I can think of no better author to illustrate the corrosive power of misogyny and also the deep solidarity and love many men have for women than Gerard Donovan
, whose 2004 debut novel, Schopenhauer's Telescope
, is easily one of my favorite books of all time.
The absence of women in Schopenhauer's Telescope functions as an absence of hope and later an absence of God.
The novel begins as the story of a baker digging a hole in an empty field in mid-winter while a history teacher smokes and talks to him. Little by little the horrific events that brought these characters together are revealed to the reader. Eventually truck loads of men and boys are dropped off, and soldiers show up with machine guns. The hole is to be a mass grave.
Donovan does not give any of his characters' names. They are referred to by their professions — soldier, policeman, baker, teacher — reinforcing the philosophical idea first made popular by Simone DeBeauvoir that "people are what they do," a concept that will become key to the novel's political statement. Soon the baker and teacher are academically discussing the various things that men are compelled to do in war, and why they do them.
They recount various battles, taking on the roles of figures like Ghengis Kahn and talking to one another about strategy and ethics. It is unclear at first if the baker is a prisoner of the teacher — who might be working with the soldiers — or vice versa. The revelation of who is digging the grave and working with the soldiers and who is going to be killed is revealed in their attitudes towards women. Donovan directly ties war, ethnic cleansing, violence, and self hatred to misogyny. While digging the grave, the baker recites an entire alphabet of derogatory words and vicious intent to remove all the women in the world.
"U is for Uterus piled in scrapyards," he says and "X is for roadblocks that capture the last of them." The baker, who has betrayed the people in the town he is from by collaborating with foreign soldiers in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, recounts how he has humiliated women using strategies he learned from The Art of War.
Donovan describes the soldiers as being consumed by violence, weapons, war, self-destruction; their intimacy with these things is like a marriage. This is revealed symbolically when a soldier is feeding ammunition into a machine gun, his bandaged left hand stained with a band of blood like a wedding ring.
The teacher is terrified at the absence of women — the soldiers have taken them somewhere, done something with them. He hasn't seen his wife in two days. He finally drops all academic conversations with the baker, which he had been carrying on to get information, and breaks down weeping. He demands to know what has happened to his wife. He recounts his love for her, which is not typically idealized, but is a memory of them running side by side together on a track, strong and happy in the summer heat.
In the teacher's vision of the world women are essential, loved, respected, desired for many reasons. He detests misogyny and tells the baker that men "say they love women but don't even like them."
"My wife is my friend!" he cries. "I miss my friend."
Just before the plot's culmination the teacher reveals: "I tried to think what god might have been or could be. A child, a girl wandering in me, an instinct of what is right and good. I have seen her often then if that's what God is. One day a hand will slip into mine and a voice will say I've found you."
Donovan presents explicitly and symbolically a world where only unity between men and women, one in which we walk hand in hand, will begin to address the deepest human atrocities and divisions.