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Feminism and Literature: An Exchange

In response to:

Feminism and Literature from the May 31, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

Sweetness versus Light?

Helen Vendler’s review-essay “Feminism and Literature” [NYR, May 31] is so vitriolic, so contradictory, and so undocumented in its representation of feminist literary criticism that even a disinterested reader would be surprised at its intellectual and rhetorical lapses. As targets of Vendler’s most hectic attack, therefore, we were at first horrified by the piece.

We hardly knew how to reconcile the scrupulously cool and scholarly author of appreciative books on Yeats, Stevens, Herbert, and Keats with the rancorous name-caller who labeled our work “vulgar,” “repellent,” “slap-dash,” “amateurish,” “boring,” “incoherent,” “chaotic,” “naive,” and “didactic” without ever bothering to outline the ideas we explore throughout two volumes on the situation of women writers in England and America from the late nineteenth century to the present. Nor could we relate the famous Harvard professor. New Yorker critic, and former MLA president who supposedly stood for the humanistic values of reason and tolerance to the feverish polemicist who—in discussions of other books treated in the same review—confessed that the idea of community gives her “the creeps,” charged that “the oppressions carried out by schoolmasters and prison guards are not incomparable with those carried out on some children by their mothers during those long days when they are alone together,” and gloated, with no evident irony, that the “most cheering thing, finally, about all political movements is their unsuppressible tendency to splinter.”

Brooding on this review’s illogic, we wondered how the same writer who (with no documentation) accused feminist critics of treating “literary characters as if they were real people” could attempt to rebut the claim that “the ‘great art of the patriarchy’ taught ‘that anger is inimical to creation’ ” with the offhand remark “One wonders what the creators of Lear, Sporus, and Satan might think of this idea” (emphasis ours). (Does Vendler identify Shakespeare and Milton with Lear and Satan? Does she confuse the fury infusing Pope’s satirical “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” with the emotions governing King Lear and Paradise Lost?) And we wondered, too, how one could make sense of the following sentences:

The “aesthetically naive” and the “excessively didactic” are corrupt when their naiveté and didacticism have an ideological purpose. And corruption cannot serve an “important purpose,” at least not any important purpose one would call aesthetic. A political function, of course, is something else.

Puzzled, we pondered the obverse of the first proposition here: are the “aesthetically naive” and the “excessively didactic” uncorrupted when they don’t have an ideological purpose—and how can the “excessively didactic” not have an ideological purpose? In what way is a “political function…something else”?1

[S]he goes on as if assertion were its own evidence,” Vendler writes of Camille Paglia, one of the authors under review, but such a statement actually, if somewhat surprisingly, characterizes her own method in this essay. What might explain such a disintegration of Vendler’s reputed intellectual poise? After studying the piece more than we would like to, we think we have finally found one clue. At a curious juncture, commenting on Rita Felski’s analysis of the connection between “formal complexity” and “ideological frameworks,” the critic bursts into a complaint that is clearly heartfelt: “To which I can only say, ‘Whither away, Delight?’ ” (sic; Vendler is evidently alluding to the first line of Herbert’s “The Glimpse”—“Whither away delight?”) Apparently Vendler fears that the aesthetic delight of literary texts (what Horace called dulce and what Matthew Arnold, echoing Swift, interpreted as “sweetness”) has been hideously endangered by critics who seek to illuminate the moral or sociocultural significance of such texts (what Horace called utile and what Swift, then Arnold, interpreted as “light”).

How strange, though, to find a thinker whom most of us would have defined as Arnoldian quarreling with western culture’s traditional coupling of dulce and utile, “sweetness” and “light.” What could account for such an obstinate, even distraught clinging to the notion that under the aegis of feminism aesthetic delight will (to risk a “repellent” pun) wither away? As unregenerate cultural critics and feminists, we venture an “impertinent” guess that Vendler’s problem is a generational one which we understand all too well. For those of us educated by New Critical teachers who sermonized that literature’s monuments of unaging intellect were and should be ideologically neutral, it was shocking to encounter the suggestions (put forward by reader-response critics and marxist theorists as well as feminists) that no text is above the political/ideological fray. This meant not just that works of art were never merely “sweet” but also that the “light” they shed might be experienced by some as deadly or at least as inimical either to the delight of the audience or to the audience itself.2

Readers of our generation had to unlearn the children’s saw “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Words—stories, poems, images—can, we discovered, be painful. When the wolf gobbles up Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, the sentences of the fairytale can wound an attentive five-year-old. When Milton, despite what Vendler sees as the nobility of his intentions, puts Eve to sleep while the angel prophesies destiny to Adam, or when he defines woman as secondary (“Hee for God onlie, shee for God in him”), the nineteen-year-old sophomore may be distressed. When Wagner reveals that to be an Ur artist, a Meistersinger (Walter), is to be male, and to be female is to be his prize (Eva), the thirty-year-old opera-goer may be disconcerted. These are perhaps epiphanies of such pain that in order to cope with them Vendler must repress them. For her, retaining delight (sweetness) necessitates a self-induced blindness, a turning-away from ideological content (light).

Traces of such repression are everywhere apparent in Vendler’s discussion of “Feminism and Literature,” manifested in the logical inconsistencies and rhetorical peculiarities we’ve already noted. But most striking is the disjunction between this critic’s declared espousal of “the practical and legal goals of the women’s movement” and her vehement distaste for feminist criticism. “[I]n the fields of history and sociology,” she admits, “newly retrieved information about women’s lives…has explanatory power.” Yet at the same time, she confesses to “disquiet in reading” works which attempt to relate such “information about women’s lives” to male- or female-authored literary texts. Disingenuously arguing that, ” ‘Masculinists’ (were there any)” would have as much to complain about as feminists do, she posits a historically unfounded sexual symmetry which eventually leads her not only to compare (some) mothers to prison guards but also completely to ignore the literary implications of social facts that she herself adduces—i.e., that many women of letters were “largely self-educated, and most of them had fathers with large libraries” (emphasis ours).

[T]he genius,” Vendler insists, articulating what is plainly one of her central aesthetic assumptions, “still does the work all alone.” Material conditions (“a wage, a teacher, a study, and a publishing house”) may be necessary to, but are not sufficient for, the artist’s Bildung. As for family history, gender definitions, political changes, ideological imperatives, cultural presuppositions, literary influences, audience expectations—these have little or nothing to do with the transcendent (and virtually inexplicable) achievements of the “solitary genius.” Nor, evidently, have they much to do with the suppression of “mute inglorious Miltons.” Theologizing the aesthetic, sanctifying pure sweetness, Vendler celebrates the mystical inspiration of the artist as if he or she invariably inhabited a kind of sacred cloister. But the “genius” then becomes a saint or god whose words can never be illuminated or interpreted, only worshipped.

Is literary history, therefore, no more than a hermetically hagiographical project for Vendler?3 If so, it is not surprising that feminist criticism “disquiets” her, since, no matter what methodology individual scholars adopt, our enterprise consistently assumes a crucial relationship between literature and life. But of course if such a relationship frequently reveals pain, a zealous acolyte of sweetness might prefer not to shed light on it. Alas, though, as Vendler’s piece demonstrates, zealotry turns into bigotry when a blindness to such disturbing categories of analysis as gender (or race or class) replaces insight into what might be the function of criticism at the present time.

Given Vendler’s cathexis to sweetness, it was probably inevitable that she would completely repress the arguments we advance in volumes I (The War of the Words) and II (Sexchanges) of No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. In the first of these books, as we clearly state in the preface, we examine a social, literary, and linguistic battle of the sexes “set in motion by the late nineteenth-century rise of feminism and the fall of Victorian concepts of ‘femininity,’ ” arguing that ” ‘modernism’ is itself—though no doubt overdetermined—for men as much as for women a product of the sexual battle that we [describe], as are the linguistic experiments usually attributed to the revolutionary poetics of the so-called avant-garde.” (In this connection, it is notable that, although Vendler begins her review with an attack on the vain attempts of feminist critics to prove there is a unique “women’s language,” she nowhere mentions our analysis of men’s and women’s efforts to fantasize about a privileged relationship to language, a patrius sermo or a “mother tongue.”)

In the second of our volumes, postulating that “the sexes battle because sex roles change, but, when the sexes battle sex itself (that is, eroticism) changes,” we investigate a range of historical issues: “the sexual imagery associated with imperialism and its decline, with the intensified consumerism of Gilded Age America, and with the opening as well as the closing of the American frontier”; “the emergence of a lesbian literary tradition constructed by English and American writers”; the “asymmetrical impact of the Great War on men and women”; and the relationship between modernism and tropes of transvestism that was “shaped by an unprecedented confrontation by both sexes with the artifice of gender and its consequent discontents.”

No doubt because sex battles and sexchanges might sour the aesthetic taste buds. Vendler obliterates our account of them. Certainly readers of The New York Review of Books would never have a clue that we discuss these matters—and (to turn to other portions of Vendler’s “review”), they would be left supposing that serious critics of the stature of Carolyn Heilbrun and Nancy K. Miller are somehow girlishly “giddy” while the exhilaratingly frank and inventive contemporary poet Sharon Olds is a “pornographic” author of “dull twaddle.” “Animus,” as Vendler herself remarks, “is not new in literary criticism.” But her sort of animosity seems to us to be impelled not only by a stubborn aversion to critical “light” but also by a deep alienation from a female community which gives her the “creeps.” As we noted in a chapter of The War of the Words entitled ” ‘Forward into the Past’: The Female Affiliation Complex,” rivalry between women is fostered both by a need for (exclusive) male approval and, more importantly, by an anxiety about the contamination associated with a shared oppression. Vendler seems to be involved in such a syndrome.

Conscious as we may be, however, of historical tensions and in particular of the painful light some texts emit, we—along with a number of other feminist critics—find works of art all the more fascinating when interpretation supplements appreciation. Indeed, such diverse cultural artifacts as “Little Red Riding Hood,” Paradise Lost, and Die Meistersinger nurture us not just with some sort of aesthetic NutraSweet, but with precisely the intellectual “meat” of “delight” for which Herbert called in “The Glimpse.” When we understand why what we love does what it does to us, we understand our lives. And what we love is not Sweet ‘n Low, it is sweet and light. To revert to Swift’s parable of the bees and to proffer a final set of “vulgar” witticisms, we want to say that we are as capable as you are, Helen Vendler, of waxing enthusiastic about. Herbert and Milton and Keats—as well as about the Brontës, Dickinson, and Woolf. But our advice to you, intended seriously as well as sardonically, would be Helen, honey, lighten up!4

Sandra M. Gilbert
Susan Gubar
English Departments
University of California, Davis
Indiana University

To the Editors:

Thank you for publishing Helen Vendler’s splendid essay “Feminism and Literature.” It is not only a welcome correction to some of what passes as feminist thought but itself a feminist document. I consider it feminist because I believe that to maintain women write and read differently, think and feel in some unique way, and that they are interested in questions only that pertain to themselves is to confine them to what, in essence, is an intellectual kitchen as narrow, as limiting, as unacceptable as was the domestic kitchen to which they were confined in the past. When I began teaching, thirty years ago, it was only the most bigoted men who argued that women’s minds worked differently. Now, with the best intentions undoubtedly (although, as far as I can see, on the basis of no evidence and with devastating consequences, for division of nature surely argues for division of labor, thus unequal opportunity), it is women supposedly liberated. My idea of liberation is to be allowed to do anything I have a mind to and in whatever way I choose. And I should like to be taken seriously enough in my efforts to be judged and interpreted not by my sex but by the quality of the work I produce.

This is what Helen Vendler has done and what she recommends we all do. I think that novelists like Jane Austen and George Eliot would have agreed. I know that Charlotte Brontë would have. When she learned that George Henry Lewes would be reviewing her novel Shirley, she wrote to beg him to consider it independently of her sex. When he did not, she wrote again in frustration and disappointment: “after I had said earnestly that I wished critics would judge me as an author, not as a woman, you so roughly—I even thought so cruelly—handled the question of sex. I dare say you meant no harm, and perhaps you will not now be able to understand why I was so grieved at what you will probably deem such a trifle, but grieved I was, and indignant too.” Felicia Bonaparte
Professor of English
City University of New York
New York City

To the Editors:

I write to correct a few of the many inaccuracies and misrepresentations in Helen Vendler’s review of my book, Sexual Personae. It is puzzling how a scholar like Professor Vendler, who was celebrated during my graduate-school years for her skills at close reading of texts, could have misread so many things both large and small.

First of all, it is striking that Professor Vendler, who has made her career in poetry criticism, seems to go out of her way to avoid mentioning the massive presence of poetry criticism in Sexual Personae. She says not a word about the detailed treatment of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Baudelaire, Swinburne, Whitman, or Emily Dickinson. I cannot imagine what reasons there could be for this omission, or rather the reasons that come to mind must be quickly dismissed. Moreover, it is odd that Professor Vendler should speak of a lack of “evidence” in the book, since the line-by-line textual documentation, over many hundreds of pages, is, as another reviewer has already noted, “overwhelming,” the result of twenty years of labor.

The one poet Professor Vendler admits is in my book is Spenser, who, perhaps significantly, is not known to be her area of concentration. It was most surprising to learn that I am “utterly indifferent to Spenser’s verse.” I’m sure this will also surprise the editors of the Spenser Encyclopedia, who, on the basis of an earlier version of this chapter, asked me to contribute a major article to that international project. I was also bemused to learn that, reading Spenser, I “yawn” when “idea enter the picture.” I was under the impression that I was one of the first to find ideas in Spenser, whom I hail as the precursor of Sade, Nietzsche, Darwin, and Freud. Professor Vendler’s quotation from me about Belphoebe is a blatant misreading. Like Shakespeare with Polonius, Spenser has deliberately given the athletic Belphoebe bromides to speak, noticed by other critics before me.

Professor Vendler’s main error, so glaring that one can only wonder whether, numbed by the nine other books under review, she actually read the whole of Sexual Personae, is this claim: “To Paglia, women writers remain ‘chthonic,’ earthbound, and swamplike, unable to rise to such inventive Apollonian designs.” From first chapter to last, my thesis is that all writing, all art is Apollonian. Every woman who takes pen or brush in hand is making an Apollonian swerve away from nature, even when nature is her subject. Possibly, Professor Vendler; skimming, has mixed up this idea with another, which runs throughout the book from Egypt on: I make a sharp distinction between the normally synonymous terms “femaleness” and “femininity.” Her careless account of my view of women writers will surely seem grotesque to anyone who has actually read my chapters on Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson. Professor Vendler has evidently confused the epigrammatic and general manifesto of Chapter One with the rest of the book, which proceeds methodically through the works of primarily canonical major authors (another fact distorted and suppressed in the review).

One last small point: Professor Vendler misquotes me in the urination passage. I do not say “To piss is to criticize.” The slang term I use is “piss on.” While it is obvious, as Wilde’s Gwendolen says, that our social spheres have been widely different, surely Professor Vendler, with her care for language, must realize the difference between pissing and pissing on. Camille Paglia
Department of Humanities
The University of the Arts
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Helen Vendler replies:

Gilbert and Gubar write as though the use of literature could be separated from its delight. This is the error of morally didactic critics, against whom (calling them apostles of the Hebraic emphasis on morality, and urging on them a Hellenic emphasis on sweetness and light) Arnold made his criticisms. Our new Puritans, who wish art to be ideologically correct, and reproach everything from fairy tales to opera (with the wisdom of self-righteous hindsight) when artworks do not conform to their twentieth-century rules of ideological correctness, seem incapable of “reading” Eve in Paradise Lost or Eva in Die Meistersinger as anything but a real oppressed woman done ill to by some man (whether God, Milton, Wagner, Walther, or a wolf—it makes no difference). Whether or not this view is maintained by a five-year-old or a sophomore, it cannot be maintained by literary critics, who must understand the role of archetype and convention in narrative (not to mention the need for a soprano part and comic closure in opera). In fact, artworks perform their moral instruction through their aesthetic totality (and not by any single, isolatable strand such as the novelistic fate of any single character, male or female). This does not make them “ideologically neutral”; it means that the ideological character of a work of art is determined by the system of relations in which all its parts—from “ideas” to “characters” to “temporality” to “tone” to “plot”—participate. No New Critic that I know of ever taught (or as Gilbert and Gubar would put it, “sermonized”) that literary works “were and should be ideologically neutral.” On the contrary. New Critics, from Richards to Tate, regarded works of art, including their own, as unarguably ideologically powerful. They investigated literature (from the Bible to contemporary poetry) to discover how literature produced its undeniable moral effects. But they investigated these questions with a learned, historically based, and profound sense of literature; they understood literary means less crudely than those who would regard a fairy-tale godmother, a mythological Eve, a fictional soprano, and living women as interchangeable characters.

I am amused by the ad feminam remarks in Gilbert and Gubar’s letter, accusing me personally of various hysterias, repressions, disintegrations, and bigotries; finally, they diagnose me as “involved in a syndrome” of fear of contamination by association with women. These are merely the demagogic responses of authors who have neither the personal acquaintance nor the professional competence to make such diagnoses. Nor will it do to say, in matters of such consequence, that “Vendler’s problem is a generational one”; after all, Sandra Gilbert and I are only three years apart in age. No: it is a question of judging the means and the effects of art—which deserves better than the simple litmus test of ideological “correctness.”

Camille Paglia, resorting to the last refuge of a wounded author, suggests I have not read her book. I have, of course, every word. She asks why I would not treat “the massive presence of poetry criticism” in her book. For answer, I append an instance of Paglia’s “poetry criticism”:

Dickinson’s world is crowded with deaths…. Dickinson gets her best black comedy from the graveyard: “No Passenger was known to flee / That lodged a night in memory—/ That wily subterranean Inn / Contrives that none go out again” (1406). This is like the commercial for Black Flag Roach Motel, a little box tiled with insecticide glue: “Bugs check in, but they don’t check out!” The Procrustean host of the subterranean inn is probably a Christ of mixed motives, avenging the No Vacancy of his infancy by keeping a perpetual open house with one-way doors.

If a critic finds that Dickinson’s stanza resembles a commercial for Roach Motels, she might also comment on the difference between these two texts. But Paglia is always silent on the ways in which a poem is not assimilable to its bare content, and that means that she is not (whatever she thinks) writing “poetry criticism.”

  1. 1

    What distinctions might Vendler make, in any case, between ideology and politics? And what “important” non-aesthetic purposes might “corruption” serve?

  2. 2

    Our use of Arnold’s allusion to “sweetness and light” is of course revisionary, but it has a recent precedent in, for instance, David Kaufmann’s claim that in “charting new directions” many theorists “have followed an Arnoldian model,” since literature “is still supposed [by such thinkers] to provide central insights into our social and intellectual lives.” (See Kaufmann, “The Profession of Theory,” PMLA [May 1990], pp. 519–530.)

  3. 3

    And would this perhaps explain why she sneers at the “mini-books on particular writers”—that is, the close readings of works by Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Gertrude Stein—that we’ve included in volume II of No Man’s Land?

  4. 4

    We would like to thank Janet Constantinides for invaluable help with the wordprocessing of this document at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. To be sure, we realize that Helen Vendler may regard this sort of gratitude as “vulgar,” since she takes us to task for “amply” thanking those research assistants who often brought us books from the library (though they were in no way responsible for the vagaries of our own scholarship); but, unlike Vendler, we are not given “the creeps” by the community which lends us material as well as intellectual support.

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