The phrase the bitch goddess derogatorily denotes material success.
It was first used by the American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910) in a letter written to the English novelist Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) on 11th September 1906—William McQueen, a native of Scotland, was unjustly serving five years’ imprisonment for allegedly inciting the silk dyers’ riots at Paterson, New Jersey, in 1902:
from The Letters of William James, Volume II (Boston, Massachusetts – 1920):
To H. G. Wells.
Chocorua, Sept. 11, 1906.
Dear Mr. Wells,—I’ve read your “Two Studies in Disappointment” in “Harper’s Weekly,” and must thank you from the bottom of my heart. Rem acu tetegisti! [see footnote] Exactly that callousness to abstract justice is the sinister feature and, to me as well as to you, the incomprehensible feature, of our U. S. civilization. How you hit upon it so neatly and singled it out so truly (and talked of it so tactfully!) God only knows: He evidently created you to do such things! I never heard of the MacQueen case before, but I’ve known of plenty of others. When the ordinary American hears of them, instead of the idealist within him beginning to “see red” with the higher indignation, instead of the spirit of English history growing alive in his breast, he begins to pooh-pooh and minimize and tone down the thing, and breed excuses from his general fund of optimism and respect for expediency. “It’s probably right enough”; “Scoundrelly, as you say,” but understandable, “from the point of view of parties interested”—but understandable in onlooking citizens only as a symptom of the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success. That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease. Hit it hard! Your book must have a great effect. Do you remember the glorious remarks about success in Chesterton’s “Heretics”? You will undoubtedly have written the medicinal book about America. And what good humor! and what tact! Sincerely yours,
The American author Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) quoted William James in The Goose-Step: A Study of American Education (Pasadena, California – 1923):
Yet another professor compared his students to the crackers which are packed in tin boxes by the wholesale bakeries; all cut from certain patterns, and stamped with certain standard designs. We have sheltered them from realities, and kept them ignorant of the problems they are to confront. We have taught them a few formulas of morality, utterly unpractical and impossible to apply—as we prove by not applying them ourselves. From their social life the students learn what the real world is—a place of class distinctions based upon property; they learn the American religion—what William James calls “the worship of the bitch-goddess Success.” They throw themselves into the social struggle with ferocious determination to get ahead; and when they go out into the world, they carry that spirit into the commercial struggle.
The reference to William James is implicit in the following from The Utah Chronicle (Salt Lake City, Utah, USA) of Tuesday 10th March 1925, which quoted the McGill Daily, the student publication of McGill University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada):
We realize now that all we can hope for is that the college man of today will be a a [sic] go-getter, a worshipper of the bitch-goddess Success, a hustler, a good mixer, a credulous believer in efficiency, ideals and service—with nothing to worship or idealize but his own cheque book.
The phrase appears in several passages of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), by the English novelist, poet and essayist David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930).
For example in Chapter 6, when Constance is deliberating while walking home—the bitch goddess is misattributed to the American-born British novelist and critic Henry James (1843-1916), brother of William James:
Money, Success, the bitch-goddess, as Tommy Dukes persisted in calling it, after Henry James, that was a permanent necessity.
Another example is from Chapter 9, in which Clifford elaborates on the image:
[Clifford] realized the distinction between popular success and working success: the populace of pleasure and the populace of work. He, as a private individual, had been catering with his stories for the populace of pleasure. And he had caught on. But beneath the populace of pleasure lay the populace of work, grim, grimy, and rather terrible. They too had to have their providers. And it was a much grimmer business, providing for the populace of work, than for the populace of pleasure. While he was doing his stories, and ‘getting on’ in the world, Tevershall was going to the wall.
He realized now that the bitch-goddess of Success had two main appetites: one for flattery, adulation, stroking and tickling such as writers and artists gave her; but the other a grimmer appetite for meat and bones. And the meat and bones for the bitch-goddess were provided by the men who made money in industry.
Yes, there were two great groups of dogs wrangling for the bitch-goddess: the group of the flatterers, those who offered her amusement, stories, films, plays: and the other, much less showy, much more savage breed, those who gave her meat, the real substance of money. The well-groomed showy dogs of amusement wrangled and snarled among themselves for the favours of the bitch-goddess. But it was nothing to the silent fight-to-the-death that went on among the indispensables, the bone-bringers.
The phrase is said to be used by “modern artists” in the following passage from Flecker’s “Hassan”: Poetic Play of Haroun’s Bagdad, published in The Shields News (Tynemouth, Northumberland, England) of Monday 28th May 1934. This article is a review of the production at the People’s Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne, of Hassan: The Story of Hassan of Baghdad and how he came to make the Golden Journey to Samarkand (first published in 1922), by the British novelist and playwright James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915). In the play, Hassan becomes enamoured of the widow Yasmin, beautiful but fickle, who spurns him when he is poor and obscure, but who fawns over him when he has become the caliph’s friend:
Joan Graham as Yasmin [is] surely the greatest dramatic representation of what modern artists call the “Bitch Goddess”.
Note: Used in particular by the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (circa 1469-1536), the Latin phrase rem acu tetigisti means, literally, you’ve touched the matter with a needle, i.e., figuratively, you’ve hit the nail on the head. It is from Rudens (The Rope), by the Roman comic playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (circa 250-184 BC), in which Labrax says to Gripus tetigisti acu, you’ve touched it with a needle.
One thought on “origin of the phrase ‘the bitch goddess’ (material success)”
I found this word in Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight
P.36 penguin modern classics