Edith Stein

Woman’s soul

Can we speak in general terms of the soul of woman? Every human soul is unique, no one soul is the same as any other. How can we then speak of the soul in general? But speculation concerning the soul usually considers the soul of the human being in general, not this one or that one. It establishes universal traits and laws; and, even when, as in Differential Psychology, it aims at differences, it is general types which it depicts rather than individual ones: the soul of the child, of the adolescent, of the adult, the soul of the worker, the artist, etc.; so it is with the soul of man and of woman. And to those who have reflected on the potentiality of science, the understanding of the individual appears ever more problematic than that of the general species.

But even if we intend to disregard individualities, is there then one type of woman? Is there something in common to be discovered in the prototype of woman as seen in Schiller’s Glocke or Chamisso’s Frauenliebe und-leben, and in the images which Zola, Strindberg and Wedekind paint for us? Can the complete multiplicity which we meet with in life be reduced to a single unity, and can this unity be distinguished from man’s soul? This is not the place to provide philosophical proof that there is something in the range of the existent which we can denote as species, woman’s soul, and that there is a specific cognitive function which is able to perceive it. Therefore, it will perhaps be more intelligible if we do not begin by outlining this general image of the species but rather sketch a series of types as different as possible one from the other, and then attempt to discover if we can find a general species in them. Since it is through poetry that the soul is most adequately described, I shall now analyze types taken from literary works to which I ascribe a particular symbolic value.

Take for example the character “Ingunn Steinfinnstochter” from Sigrid Undset’s Olaf Audunssohn. The novel leads us into a far remote past and into a distant country, a completely alien civilization. Ingunn grows up free and unshackled in a medieval Nordic manor. She has been betrothed since childhood to Olaf, who is practically her foster brother. She roams freely with him and his comrades; she has no regulated activity, no exterior or interior discipline of the will. The children look to each other for support because they have no other. Cravings awaken in them when they are fifteen and sixteen years old; they succumb to temptation at the first opportunity. From that time on, Ingunn’s entire life is one of insatiable longing. She and Olaf consider themselves insolubly bound to each other according to ecclesiastical law. But the family opposes the marriage, and they become separated for years. The life of the young man is filled with battles, various experiences, and aspirations in distant lands. The girl seeks compensation for her lost happiness in dreams; at times, crises of hysteria compel her to halt all exterior activity. She yields to a seducer although she yearns only for Olaf. However, realization of her fall breaks into this somber psychic existence like a supernatural light; and she rouses herself with astounding strength and severs the sinful relationship. Olaf, returned home, is unwilling to break the sacred bond which unites them simply because of her confessed guilt. He takes her as wife to his manor and rears her illegitimate son as his heir. But the desired happiness does not come as yet. Ingunn is depressed through the consciousness of her guilt, and she gives birth to one dead child after another. But the more she considers herself to be a source of misfortune for her husband, the more she clings to him; and the more vehemently does she crave further proofs of his love. And although she wastes away in this life, consuming his strength as well, Olaf yields as he has always yielded to her. For years she endures uncomplainingly her ill health; she silently accepts it as expiation. Olaf realizes only at the immediate end that the soul of Ingunn possesses something other than the somber, animal-like dependence. He realizes that it possesses a divine spark which lacked only support and a conception of a higher world; this world had not attained sufficient clarity to be of influence on her life. All too literally he has complied with the word of the Apostle: “Husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies” (Eph. 5:28). And because of this, two lives have been ruined.

As in other works of Sigrid Undset, the two worlds, or actually prehistoric worlds, stand in firm opposition: the gloomy, instinctive world of primordial chaos, and that of God’s spirit hovering over creation. The soul of Ingunn, this child of nature, is like land untouched by the plough. There are potent seeds of germinating power therein, and life in them is stirred into tremulous motion through the ray of light which comes from the other side of the clouds. But it would be necessary that the gross clods be cultivated in order for the light to penetrate to the seeds.

Ibsen’s “Nora” is no child of nature; she has grown up rather in the milieu of modern culture. Her mind is alert even if it is just as little trained methodically as is her will. She was the darling doll of her father, and now she is her husband’s darling doll just as her children are her dolls. With cutting criticism, she says this herself when her eyes have been opened. The spoiled child is faced with decisions for which she is in no way prepared. Her husband becomes severely ill, and means are lacking for the trip which can save him. She cannot ask her father for help because he is also ill. So she endorses a note herself with his name as co-signer. Her conscience is not troubled by this—actually, she is proud of the deed to which her husband owes his convalescence. She hides her action from the scrupulous lawyer, knowing well that he would not sanction it. But when the creditor is driven to extremes by his own need and threatens exposure, it is not fear of her husband’s censure which causes her despairing decision to flee. She both fears and hopes that now the “miracle” will occur—her husband will take her guilt upon himself in his great love. But it happens quite differently. Robert Helmer has only condemnation for his wife; he considers that she is no longer worthy of raising his children. Nora recognizes herself and him for what they are in the disillusionment of this moment, that the hollowness of their life together does not deserve the name of marriage. And when the danger of social scandal is removed, when he graciously would like to forgive everything and re-establish their life again, she cannot accept his pardon. She knows that before she is able to try again to be wife and mother, she must first become a person. Certainly, Robert Helmer would also have to develop from the social figure into a human being in order that their joint life might become a marriage.

In Goethe’s Iphigenie, a bizarre decree tore Iphigenie in early youth from the circle of her beloved family and led her to a strange, barbarian people. The hand of the gods delivered her from certain death for holy service in the quiet of the temple. The mysterious priestess is honored like a saint. But she is unhappy here. She yearns always for return to her home. She firmly declines the king’s courtship in order not to cut herself off from this return. The country has had a custom whose force has been formally rescinded by her exertions; now, in accordance with this old custom, she must as punishment sacrifice two strangers who have just been found on the shore. They are Greeks, one of them her brother. Her longing to see one of her own once again is fulfilled. But he is defiled by matricide, agonized by remorse to the point of madness. He is destined for death at her hand. The old curse of her house, from which she appeared until now to be free, threatens to be fulfilled in her also. Faced with the choice whether to save her brother, his friend, and herself through lies and deceit or to abandon all of them to ruin, she first believes that she must choose the “lesser evil.” But her pure soul is not able to bear untruthfulness and breach of trust; she defends herself against these as does a healthy nature against germs of fatal disease. Trusting in the veracity of the gods and the nobility of the king, she reveals her plan of flight to him and receives as reward the lives of those endangered and her return home. Her brother is already healed through her prayer. Now she will carry joy and reconciliation with the gods into the ancient noble house. Before we proceed to look for a common species in all three different types of women, it might be useful to discuss briefly the relation of these types to reality. Are we not dealing here with pure creatures of poetic imagination? With what right, then, are we able to use them to gain insight into real psychic existence? For a solution of this difficulty, we will first try to clarify what the poetic spirit has intended to convey in each of these types.

Hardly anyone could conceive of Sigrid Undset’s work as L’art pour l’art [Art for art’s sake]. Her creativity is reckless confession. Indeed, one has the impression that she is compelled to express that which presses upon her as brutal reality. And I believe that whoever gazes into life as sincerely and soberly as she did will not be able to deny that the types she represents are real, even if they are chosen with a certain bias. There is obviously a method in this one-sidedness: she wishes to emphasize the animal-instinct to better reveal the inadequacies of a mendacious idealism or an exaggerated intellectualism in dealing with earthy reality.

The figure of Nora was created by a man who wishes to adopt entirely the woman’s perspective, a man who has made the cause of woman and the feminist movement his own. His heroine is chosen from this point of view—but she is precisely chosen and depicted with keenest analysis; she is not invented arbitrarily nor constructed rationalistically. The strength and consequence of her thought and action may be surprising in contrast to what has previously transpired; she may be unusual, yet her action is not an improbable or a completely impossible one.

The classical lineaments, the simple grandeur and exalted simplicity of Goethe’s most noble female character may appear at first glance to the modern person as most nearly removed from reality. And idealism is certainly under consideration here; but again, this is no construction of fantasy but rather an idealized image which is envisioned, experienced, and empathized from life itself. From his inner depths and free of all biased perspective, the great artist has presented in almost sculptural form a vision which embraces both reine Menschlichkeit [pure humanity] and Ewig-Weibliches [the eternal feminine]. And we are gripped, as only total purity and eternal truth can grip us.

So much for the “reality” of these types. Do these three women have anything in common? They come from different worlds in the writings themselves; also, they are the creation of very different writers. No traditional discipline shaped the soul of Ingunn, a child of nature; Nora, the doll of The Doll’s House, inhibited by artificial social conventions, asserts nevertheless her healthy instinct to cast off these fetters in order to take her life into her own hands and refashion it freely. Iphigenie, the priestess in the sacred temple, has surpassed nature through union with the godhead and has entered into supernatural clarity. These three women share one common characteristic: a longing to give love and to receive love, and in this respect a yearning to be raised above a narrow, day-to-day existence into the realm of a higher being.

Ingunn’s dream is to live at Olaf’s side in a manor and to have many children. In her torpor, she is unable to imagine any other pattern of existence and consciously to choose another. And when the exterior union with her spouse finally comes as the only fulfillment, it is the physical side of the relationship to which she clings with all her life energy. In so doing, she does not find the longed-for happiness; but she knows no other way to find it or even to look for it, and she remains with what she does have.

Nora’s real life, concealed behind her “doll’s” existence of which she is at first scarcely aware, consists in waiting for the miraculous, which is nothing else but the end of her puppet existence, the breaking forth of great love which will reveal the true being of her spouse and of herself. And as there is no response from her husband, as she becomes aware that nothing exists behind his mask of social convention, she is determined to make the effort alone to break through to her true being, to its very core.

With Iphigenie, it is no longer a question of the breakthrough to true being; she has already achieved true being, in having reached the highest level of human perfection; she has only to put it to the test and to allow it to have its effect. She longs that the level of being she has reached will serve as an instrument of that redeeming love which is her true destiny.

Do these examples suitably illustrate the essence of woman’s soul? We could, of course, provide here just as many types of women as you like; however, I believe, just as long as they are types of women, we will always find fundamentally the compulsion to become what the soul should be, the drive to allow the latent humanity, set in her precisely in its individual stamp, to ripen to the greatest possible perfect development. The deepest feminine yearning is to achieve a loving union which, in its development, validates this maturation and simultaneously stimulates and furthers the desire for perfection in others; this yearning can express itself in the most diverse forms, and some of these forms may appear distorted, even degenerate. As we shall show, such yearning is an essential aspect of the eternal destiny of woman. It is not simply a human longing but is specifically feminine and opposed to the specifically masculine nature. Man’s essential desires reveal themselves in action, work, and objective achievements. He is less concerned with problems of being, whether his own or of others. Certainly being and doing cannot be wholly separated. The human soul is not a complete, static, unchanging, monolithic existence. It is being in the state of becoming and in the process of becoming; the soul must bring to fruition those predispositions with which it was endowed when coming into the world; however, it can develop them only through activation. Thus woman can achieve perfect development of her personality only by activating her spiritual powers. So do men, even without envisaging it as a goal, work in the same way when they endeavor to perform anything objectively. In both instances the structure of the soul is fundamentally the same. The soul is housed in a body on whose vigor and health its own vigor and health depend—even if not exclusively nor simply. On the other hand, the body receives its nature as body—life, motion, form, gestalt, and spiritual significance—through the soul. The world of the spirit is founded on sensuousness which is spiritual as much as physical: the intellect, knowing its activity to be rational, reveals a world; the will intervenes creatively and formatively in this world; the emotion receives this world inwardly and puts it to the test. But the extent and relationship of these powers vary from one individual to another, and particularly from man to woman.

I would also like to believe that even the relationship of soul and body is not completely similar in man and woman; with woman, the soul’s union with the body is naturally more intimately emphasized. (I would like to underline the term “naturally,” for there is—as I have at one time intimated—the possibility of an extensive emancipation of the soul from the body, which now, oddly enough, seems to be more easily accomplished normally in the case of woman.) Woman’s soul is present and lives more intensely in all parts of the body, and it is inwardly affected by that which happens to the body; whereas, with men, the body has more pronouncedly the character of an instrument which serves them in their work and which is accompanied by a certain detachment. This is closely related to the vocation of motherhood. The task of assimilating in oneself a living being which is evolving and growing, of containing and nourishing it, signifies a definite end in itself. Moreover, the mysterious process of the formation of a new creature in the maternal organism represents such an intimate unity of the physical and spiritual that one is well able to understand that this unity imposes itself on the entire nature of woman. But a certain danger is involved here. If the correct, natural order is to exist between soul and body (i.e., the order as it corresponds to unfallen nature), then the necessary nourishment, care, and exercise must be provided for the healthy organism’s smooth function. As soon as more physical satisfaction is given to the body, and it corresponds to its corrupted nature to demand more, then it results in a decline of spiritual existence. Instead of controlling and spiritualizing the body, the soul is controlled by it; and the body loses accordingly in its character as a human body. The more intimate the relationship of the soul and body is, just so will the danger of the spiritual decline be greater. (On the other hand, certainly, there is also the greater possibility here that the soul will spiritualize the body.)

Now, after considering the relationship of soul and body, let us turn to the interrelationship of the spiritual faculties. We see that they are in a state of interdependence—one cannot exist without the other. Intellectual cognition of reality is the necessary point of departure for emotional response. The incitements of the emotions are the mainsprings of the will; on the other hand, the concern of the will is to regulate intellectual activity and emotional life. But the faculties are in no manner equally dispensed and developed. Man’s endeavor is exerted to be effective in cognitive and creative action. The strength of woman lies in the emotional life. This is in accord with her attitude toward personal being itself. For the soul perceives its own being in the stirrings of the emotions. Through the emotions, it comes to know what it is and how it is; it also grasps through them the relationship of another being to itself, and then, consequently, the significance of the inherent value of exterior things; of unfamiliar people and impersonal things. The emotions, the essential organ for comprehension of the existent in its totality and in its peculiarity, occupy the center of her being. They condition that struggle to develop herself to a wholeness and to help others to a corresponding development, which we have found earlier to be characteristic of woman’s soul. Therein, she is better protected by nature against a one-sided activation and development of her faculties than man is. On the other hand, she is less qualified for outstanding achievements in an objective field, achievements which are always purchased by a one-sided concentration of all spiritual faculties; and this characteristic struggle for development also exposes her more intensely to the danger of fragmentation. Then, too, the one-sidedness, to which by nature she inclines, is particularly dangerous: unilateral emotional development.

We have attributed much importance to emotion in the total organismus of spiritual being. It has an essential cognitive function: it is the central pivot by which reception of the existent is transmuted into personal opinion and action. But it cannot execute its function without the cooperation of intellect and will, nor can it attain cognitive performance without the preparation of the intellect. Intellect is the light which illuminates its path, and without this light, emotion changes back and forth. In fact, if emotion prevails over the intellect, it is able to obscure the light and distort the picture of the entire world just as of individual things and events and drive the will into erroneous practice. Emotional stirrings need the control of reason and the direction of the will. The will does not reach any absolute power for invoking or suppressing emotional reactions, but it does adhere to its freedom to permit or to restrict the development of mounting agitations. Where discipline of mind and will are lacking, emotional life becomes a compulsion without secure direction. And because it always needs some stimulation for its activity, it becomes addicted to sensuality, lacking the guidance of the higher spiritual faculties. Thus given the intimate union of body and soul, it results in the decline of spiritual life to that of the sensuous-animalistic one.

Consequently, only if its faculties are correspondingly trained will the feminine soul be able to mature to that state conformable to its true nature. The concrete feminine types which we have cited represent to us not only diverse natural predispositions but also diverse formative levels of the soul of woman. We have seen in Ingunn a woman’s soul which was nearly like unformed matter but which still permitted intuitions of its capacities. Another, Nora, through the influences of chance and social conventions, had found a certain formation but not that proper to her. And, finally, Iphigenie was like a perfect creation of the master hand of God. This presents us with the task of investigating what the formative powers are through which woman’s soul can be led to the nature for which it is intended and can be protected from the degeneration with which it is threatened.

Copyright ICS Publications. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, if this copyright notice is included. Maintained by the Austrian Province of the Teresian Carmel.

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MLA Citation

Stein, Edith. “Woman’s soul.” ----. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 2 Mar 2007. 28 Jul 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/stein/womans_soul/>.

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