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Feminism and Fascism: An Exchange

In response to:

Fascinating Fascism from the February 6, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

It was a strange experience to read Susan Sontag’s critique [NYR, February 6] of Leni Riefenstahl and the eroticization of Nazism. I was forced to ask myself how the same mind had produced this brilliant essay, and the equally brilliant essay which appeared a year or two ago in Partisan Review (“The Third World of Women”). In her discussion of Riefenstahl and SS Regalia she seems often on the verge of making important sexual/political connections which, in fact, are never made.

First, there is a serious inaccuracy in her essay. She ascribes some of Riefenstahl’s latter-day rehabilitation to “the fact that she is a woman,” and states that “Feminists would feel a pang at having to sacrifice the one woman who made films that everybody acknowledges to be first-rate.” In fact, feminists (and on reading “The Third World of Women” one imagined Sontag not to dissociate herself from feminism) have in at least two cities protested the showing of Riefenstahl’s films. At a women’s film festival in Chicago, organized by both feminists and non-feminist film-makers and critics, and financed by the Chicago Tribune, Riefenstahl had been invited to speak at a showing of Triumph of the Will; the invitation was withdrawn when members of the Chicago women’s movement threatened to picket her. At the Telluride Festival in Colorado, organized not by feminists but by film-culture people, Riefenstahl’s film was picketed by women. It is worth nothing that it is not Riefenstahl or Agnes Varda, but Leontyne Sagan and Nelly Kaplan whose films (Maedchen in Uniform, an anti-authoritarian and lesbian film, and A Very Curious Girl) are most frequently chosen for showings at women’s festivals, benefits, and coffeehouses.

It is, rather, the film culture that has “promoted Riefenstahl to the status of a cultural monument,” as Sontag herself acknowledges later in her essay. The feminist movement has been passionately anti-hierarchal and anti-authoritarian. Feminists have also been justly alert to and critical of women who have “made it” in the patriarchy (and Nazi Germany was patriarchy in its purest, most elemental form). It is impossible not to recognize and mourn the pressures that drive token women to compromise their sisters and to serve misogynist and anti-human values. But there is a running criticism by radical feminists of male-identified “successful” women, whether they are artists, executives, psychiatrists, Marxists, politicians, or scholars.

The failed connections in Sontag’s essay lead me to think back on “The Third World of Women.” (This was a puzzling title, especially since “The Fourth World Manifesto,” an important feminist paper by Barbara Burris and others, reprinted earlier in Notes from the Third Year, had delineated the idea of national culture as male culture, and of the imperialism toward women of “anti-imperialist” movements.) Sontag’s lucid and beautifully reasoned Partisan Review piece begins to seem, after all, more of an intellectual exercise than the expression of a felt reality—her own—interpreted by a keen mind.

Many women, reading that piece, began to look in Sontag’s new work for a serious reflection of feminist values. But there is an absence of integration or even continuity between “The Third World of Women” and, say, the film Promised Lands or the recent series of essays on photography. One is not looking for a “line” of propaganda or a “correct” position. One is simply eager to see this woman’s mind working out of a deeper complexity, informed by emotional grounding; and this has not yet proven to be the case.

What are the themes of domination and enslavement, prurience and idealism, male physical perfection and death, “control, submissive behavior, and extravagant effort,” “the turning of people into things,” “vitality…identified with physical ordeal,” the objectification of the body as separate from the emotions—what are these but masculinist, virilist, patriarchal values? Isn’t the black-leather, brothel, ecstasy-in-death fantasy far less a lesbian fantasy than a fantasy of heterosexual males and the male homosexuals they oppress? And isn’t the infatuation with these themes at this time possibly one aspect of the backlash of a false and threatened virility against the feminist rejection of those values, and their increasing rejection in the pervasively changing consciousness of women who do not call themselves feminists?

I wish that Sontag could have carried her exploration of this cult beyond its encapsulation in a fad, or even in the phenomenon called fascism, and perceived it in the light of patriarchal history, sexuality, pornography, and power, in which the first people turned into things are always women, and female (negative) qualities are attributed to every dominated group as the excuse for domination. It is frustrating, and suggestive of the ways women’s minds, as well as bodies, have been colonized, that this did not happen. And it is this kind of dissociation of one kind of knowledge from another which reinforces cultism and aesthetic compromise with the representatives of oppression; precisely what Sontag herself was writing to deplore.

Adrienne Rich

New York City

Susan Sontag replies:

A quick answer to the puzzle Adrienne Rich has concocted in her flattering, censorious letter: “how the same mind produced this brilliant essay and the equally brilliant essay which appeared a year or two ago in Partisan Review (‘The Third World of Women’).” Easy. By addressing itself to a different problem, with the intention of making a different point.

Ms. Rich implies that I have made a slur on the feminist movement by suggesting that the vested interest and pride large numbers of women now have in all women of accomplishment have been propitious to Riefenstahl’s remarkable comeback. Is that a “serious inaccuracy” on my part? If anything, I think that I understated the matter. The poster that Niki de Saint Phalle produced for the 1973 New York Film Festival (“Agnes Leni Shirley”) accurately reflected the contribution made by feminist consciousness at a certain level to whitewashing Riefenstahl.

As someone who has been contacted by the organizers of dozens of festivals and programs in North America, Western Europe, and Australia devoted to films by women, I can assure Adrienne Rich that, despite the rare occasions when the blue light doesn’t get to shine in person (Chicago) or gets picketed when she does (Telluride), Riefenstahl’s films are invariably selected and shown. Indeed, the multiplication of such events has gotten them shown frequently for the first time since the 1930s. It is simply untrue that Riefenstahl’s films—along with Agnes Varda’s—are often slighted, in favor of Leontyne Sagan’s superb film and Nelly Kaplan’s mediocre ones. (Why, in heaven’s name, exclude Agnes Varda?)

I didn’t stick the blame for Riefenstahl’s rehabilitation on female chauvinism first, then “acknowledge later” the real villain to be what Rich calls “the film culture.” And I never meant to suggest that Riefenstahl’s recent mutation from unperson to superstar has met with no catcalls—although, according to my informants, the conspicuous contingent of picketers at last summer’s festival in Telluride, Colorado, were Jews from Denver, not feminists. I would assume that Riefenstahl offends some feminists (though I wish it were for a better reason than her being on that ominous-sounding enemies list, “male-identified ‘successful’ women”), just as her acclamation has troubled a few notables in the cinéphile establishment—for example, Amos Vogel, in an article in The New York Times (May 13, 1973). The important point is that the dissenters, whether in the women’s movement or in “the film culture,” are bucking a fait accompli brought about by trends running through our culture.

But my alleged misrepresentation of what takes place at specialized film festivals is not what most vexes Rich. Her main charge is that I have further let down the good cause by not exploring the feminist implications of my subject (those “failed connections”): namely, the roots of fascism in “patriarchal values.” Virginia Woolf was, as far as I know, the first woman to make the connection, in Three Guineas (1938): “fighting the tyranny of the patriarchal state” is the same as “fighting the tyranny of the Fascist state.” It is a rousing three-quarters truth when used in a general brief for feminism (what I was attempting in the text published in 1973 in Partisan Review, where Woolf is quoted). It is a skimpy half-truth if your subject is—as mine was in the NYR essay—fascism and fascist aesthetics.

Applied to a particular historical subject, the feminist passion yields conclusions which, however true, are extremely general. Like all capital moral truths, feminism is a bit simple-minded. That is its power and, as the language of Rich’s letter shows, that is its limitation. Fascism must also be seen in the context of other—less perennial—problems. I tried to make a number of careful distinctions, and if my essay has some merit it lies in those distinctions.

Rich wants to persuade me that I’m haggling, unwilling to take the moral plunge. “What are these but masculinist, virilist, patriarchal values?” she asks. The trouble with what-are-these-but arguments is that they lead not just to a devaluation of the complexity of history, but to aspersions upon its very claim on our attention. Thus what I was discussing gets scaled down to a mere “cult” encapsulated in a “fad.” Holding the subject at arms’ length with a pair of verbal tongs, Rich refers to a “phenomenon called fascism” as if she were in some doubt about its reality—as indeed she is since, according to her view, all that epiphenomenal trash is nothing “in the light of” the real stuff, “patriarchal history.”

Suppose, indeed, that “Nazi Germany was patriarchy in its purest, most elemental form.” Where do we rate the Kaiser’s Germany? Caesarist Rome? Confucian China? Fascist Italy? Victorian England? Ms. Gandhi’s India? Macho Latin America? Arab sheikery from Mohammed to Qaddhafi and Faisal? Most of history, alas, is “patriarchal history.” So distinctions will have to be made, and it is not possible to keep the feminist thread running through the explanations all the time. Virtually everything deplorable in human history furnishes material for a restatement of the feminist plaint (the ravages of the patriarchy, etc.), just as every story of a life could lead to a reflection on our common mortality and the vanity of human wishes. But if the point is to have meaning some of the time, it can’t be made all the time.

It is this demand for an unremitting rhetoric, with every argument arriving triumphantly at a militant conclusion, which has prevented some feminists from properly appreciating that most remarkable of recent contributions to the feminist imagination of history, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal. A more specific reproach leveled against Hardwick’s complex book is that it implicitly defends “elitist” values (like talent, genius), which are incompatible with the egalitarian ethics of feminism. I hear an echo of this self-righteous view when Rich characterizes the feminist movement as “passionately anti-hierarchal and anti-authoritarian.”

That phrase, whether as a sample of “feminist values” or simply as a relic of the infantile leftism of the 1960s, seems to me sheer demagogy. However opposed I am to authority based on privileges of gender (and of race), I cannot imagine any form of human life or society without some forms of authority, of hierarchy. I am not against elders having some authority over young people, not against authority that is publicly accountable, not against all meritocracy. The hope of abolishing authority as such is part of a childish, sentimental fantasy about the human condition. Much of feminist rhetoric not only tends to reduce history to psychology but leaves one with a shallow psychology as well as a thinned-out sense of history. (Vide the criticisms made by Juliet Mitchell.)

Rich explains that she is “simply eager” to see my mind “working out of a deeper complexity, informed by emotional grounding.” But it seems to me—from where I stand (sit, write)—that it’s just because the complexity deepens and thickens that I am unable to put my shoulder to the feminist wheel in the fashion she would like me to. Despite her demurrer about “not looking for a ‘line’ of propaganda or a ‘correct’ position,” this is exactly what she is doing. Why else would I be chided for not bending the immense subject of the image-world created by photography (the NYR essays) or a meditation on death and report on the current agony of the state of Israel (my recent film Promised Lands) to the concerns of feminism? But it is surely not treasonable to think that there are other goals than the depolarization of the two sexes, other wounds than sexual wounds, other identities than sexual identity, other politics than sexual politics—and other “anti-human values” than “misogynist” ones.

Even the feminist text that I wrote, for which Rich has such kind words at the beginning of her letter, is now revalued—downward—in view of my presumed failure to keep up feminist pressure at the center of my writing and film-making. Its very title now becomes “puzzling,” suggesting unsuspected ignorance on my part of a dernier cri of feminist polemics, “The Fourth World Manifesto.” (No puzzle. The editors of Partisan Review, after accepting my text—it had been turned down by Ms., to which it was first submitted, as being too long and too abstruse—decided without consulting me to substitute for my boring title—“Reply to a Questionnaire”—their silly one.) Because my subsequent writings don’t dot the i’s and cross the t’s of the feminist case, that Partisan Review text “begins to seem, after all, more of an intellectual exercise than the expression of a felt reality—her own—interpreted by a keen mind.”

If Rich (hardly as ferociously as some of our sisters) is going to start baiting that heavy bear, the intellect, then I feel obliged to announce that anyone with a taste for “intellectual exercise” will always find in me an ardent defender. Truth has need of all kinds of exertion. Although I defy anyone to read what I wrote and miss its personal, even autobiographical character, I much prefer that the text be judged as an argument and not as an “expression” of anything at all, my sincere feelings included.

Adrienne Rich, whom I have always admired as poet and phenomenologist of anger, is a piker compared to some self-styled radical feminists, all too eager to dump the life of reason (along with the idea of authority) into the dustbin of “patriarchal history.” Still, her well-intentioned letter does illustrate a persistent indiscretion of feminist rhetoric: anti-intellectualism. “One imagined Sontag not to dissociate herself from feminism,” Rich observes. Right. But I do dissociate myself from that wing of feminism that promotes the rancid and dangerous antithesis between mind (“intellectual exercise”) and emotion (“felt reality”). For precisely this kind of banal disparagement of the normative virtues of the intellect (its acknowledgement of the inevitable plurality of moral claims; the rights it accords, alongside passion, to tentativeness and detachment) is also one of the roots of fascism—what I was trying to expose in my argument about Riefenstahl.

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