Casualties of Peace
Green Lights Are Blue
The unfavorable reviewers of Edna O’Brien’s last novel, August Is a Wicked Month, were subjected to a counter-attack which asserted that they were blinkered and mean-spirited males, unable to take the full implications of female emancipation, and openly quaking before any frank assertion of the sexual nature of women. The tired old argument about women does, I think, suggest a way of looking at Miss O’Brien’s new and also very bad novel. One position is the traditional one, advanced by most men and quite a few women, that the difference is deeply biological; Freud expressed it when he wrote that “woman’s anatomy is her destiny.” At the opposite pole is the idea that “femininity” is solely the result of acculturation, as in Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that “one is not born but becomes a woman.”
In a strange way, Edna O’Brien seems to embrace both extremes at once. Certainly the female characters in her recent fiction act like poor stunted wretches and manifest victims of cultural deprivation, asserting the autonomy of their sexuality in a pathetic act of defiance against an oppressive male order. Yet at the same time Miss O’Brien clings to a conviction—which pervades every line of her writing—that woman’s anatomy is her destiny, that women can, in spite of everything, glory in their biological difference. This is apparent in her characters’ love of physiological introspection: they are acutely aware of their inner twitchings and liquefactions, especially, but not exclusively, in sexual activity. For Miss O’Brien, the inmost secrets of femininity are strongly biological. If I were a woman I would be pretty disturbed by the way in which Miss O’Brien implicitly accepts and even reinforces traditional male prejudices about women, of the kind advanced by the ideologues of European reaction and most available in English in the writings of Wyndham Lewis. This view of woman sees her as certainly biologically different from man and, in most respects, inferior; a creature rooted in matter, whose main function is reproductive and who is correspondingly mindless; quite incapable of rationality, judgment, or any form of intellectual activity. Miss O’Brien doesn’t, I imagine, accept this objectionable view in any conscious way, but her fiction certainly embodies it, for she is essentially a primitivist writer who has unexpected affinities with those infinitely more talented writers such as Beckett and Burroughs, who look forward to what Leslie Fiedler calls the “post-human future.”
In Casualties of Peace Miss O’Brien dwells on the lives of two women living intimately but uneasily together in a London suburban house: Willa McCord, an artist in glassware, and her Irish housekeeper and companion, Patsy, an assertively vital specimen of the Ewig-Weibliche who seems to be drawn from life and from Mollie Bloom in proportions I would not care to be exact about. Patsy is on the point of leaving her husband Tom, a wholly contemptible fellow who is presented with the concentrated sexual …
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Our Town December 7, 1967