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Battle of the Bien-Pensant

1.

Academic moralism is one of the oldest traditions of the university, which began, after all, as an ecclesiastical institution whose students were mostly destined to be members of the clergy. In the early part of the twentieth century, the ethical voice in the American university was to be heard from the philosophy department as well as the divinity school, both of which were dominated by varieties of Protestantism. When William James or John Dewey spoke to the educated public on the conduct or meaning of life, they were only doing their job. They were not-so-terribly secular clerics, whose voices were heard alongside—occasionally even above—those of the official priesthood.

Sometime before the mid-century, however, professional philosophy in America became more centrally preoccupied with questions in epistemology and metaphysics, which were of less obvious relevance for their lay fellow citizens: the most influential figures in American philosophy in the decades after the Second World War were philosophers—some native, like W.V.O. Quine, some immigrant, like Rudolf Carnap—whose work was dauntingly technical and, by and large, not addressed to the moral life.1 In becoming national and then international, the university had had also to become less sectarian and more secular; and so, as a result, the withdrawal of the philosophers from ethical questions left a gap that could no longer be filled by the divinity school. Questions of public ethical concern were increasingly the subject of the social sciences. But psychologists, sociologists, and economists often proclaimed their “value neutrality.” (That was, to a degree, what made their pronouncements credible: they offered guides to living in the guise of technical, objective, scientific information.) And so when someone had to speak up for values the literature faculty increasingly took up the slack.

It did not always do so comfortably. As the literary scholar John Guillory has observed, modern English departments represent the confluence of two nineteenth-century traditions: belles-lettres and philology. The scientific aspirations of the latter discipline gave rise to an emphasis on interpretative method and theoretical speculation. That focus on literature’s mechanics—the medium rather than the message—now goes by the name of “literary theory.” But these theorists never had the field to themselves; the spirit of moralism in academic literary criticism has a long pedigree in twentieth-century America, ranging across the continent, and alphabet, from Irving Babbit to Yvor Winters. And in the postwar period, as the United States assumed more confidently its global leadership, a professor of English like Lionel Trilling could speak for American values, for liberalism and democracy, and find them embedded, already waiting for us, in the high literary canon. The tone was that of a (progressive) gentleman’s club; the signature color was tweed.

Today’s academic moralism in the humanities sounds rather different. In the Sixties and Seventies of the last century, the liberation movements of blacks, women, and homosexuals often found their voice in literary work; this social fervor crossed the threshold of the English department just as the numbers of blacks, women, and open homosexuals increased at universities that had once been citadels of white and male privilege. The genteel cadences of old did not survive the resulting culture wars, for the liberationists aimed to disman-tle the ethical consensus that earlier critics had assumed: Trilling’s magis-terial “we,” once meant to conjure a moral community, came to be deplored as a blithe “exclusion of difference.” “Essentialism” began as a word for criticizing anyone who assumed that all X’s shared the same charac-teristics. And so, at the turn of the Eighties, the word was first used against nationalists of various sorts and women. There were black and Jewish essentialists, feminist essentialists, lesbian essentialists.

At the same time, in an ironic twist, “essentialist humanism” became a key term of opprobrium, an accusation flung at anyone who did not insist that society had created important differences between men and women, black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor, or who did not accept that those differences undermined the assumption of a shared humanity in the humanities. Now you could be an essentialist both for saying that people were different and for saying that they were the same. The result was to change not just the subject matter but the rhetorical tenor of academic criticism. Trilling, though he might have rejected William K. Wimsatt’s approach to literature—which was text-centered and showed no interest in the author’s psychological processes—would not for this reason have thought Wimsatt wicked. But if African-American literary criticism was an adjunct of Black Liberation—which, as a matter of dignity and justice, was obviously a business of the highest moral importance—then academic disagreements could easily spill over into conflicts more vulgarly political; and the dissemination of intellectual error might not only undermine the movement, it might also reflect bad character.

Of course, it wasn’t the liberation movements that made literary study contentious. When Harold Bloom urged us to trace literary influences not as the transmission of tradition, the cultivation of a precious heritage, but as an Oedipal struggle of the sons against the fathers, his Freudian allegory was offered as an account of relations among poets. But one might be forgiven for suspecting that the idea came not from communing with the souls of Wordsworth and Blake but from Bloom’s own experience of the struggle for existence in the groves of academe. Shelley may not have been battling Milton, but Harold Bloom, the author of Shelley’s Mythmaking, was certainly battling Earl Wasserman, the author of Shelley: A Critical Reading. Individuality in scholarship, as in life, begins with defining yourself both within and against a tradition. What the new context added was the increasing moralization of the process of definition. Since academic generations always define themselves by resisting the interpretations of their predecessors, the moralization of intellectual differences (this is not just a point about the English department) was bound to lead to trouble.2

As you will have noticed, the alliance of liberation movements and literary study hasn’t made criticism politically potent or politics critically informed: the revival of Zora Neale Hurston hasn’t altered wage inequities; nor is her name one to conjure with in the primaries even of her native Florida. But this alliance did bring the conduct of literary scholars under minute “political” scrutiny, at least in the classroom, the conference, and the critical essay. It has raised the heat of literary debate, without always shedding more light. And the feminist shibboleth that the personal is the political—or perhaps one ought to say a particular construal of that shib-boleth—has made the personal conduct of critics fair game for interpretation and “critique.”

I once attended a conference on postcolonial criticism at which one of the speakers mistakenly addressed a young African professor as a graduate student and then left the conference early to catch a plane home. Both of these things were surely, at worst, lapses of manners: and yet the inci-dent led to the publication of densely theoretical, fiercely denunciatory essays among the speaker’s fellow third world, poststructural, and Marxian theorists. It isn’t easy, in such a setting, to distinguish the ad feminam from the substantive objection. Literature may not be, as Matthew Arnold thought, the “criticism of life,” but literary scholarship is, often enough, the criticism of critics.

2.

In 1979, Professors Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar published The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, a work that shaped profoundly the then burgeoning field of feminist literary scholarship.3 Ever since, this book has appeared regularly on reading lists in courses in departments of English around the country. It was not a work of high theory, but one of literary interpretation and textual recovery: it discussed a wide selection of nineteenth-century novelists and their critical reception, among them Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Gertrude Stein. Some of them, such as Edith Wharton, were criticized for their criticism of the work of other women writers. Beginning in 1988, Gilbert and Gubar published three further volumes that continued this work into the twentieth century; and, in 1985, they published the first edition of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English, a work that helped shape, willy-nilly, a canon of women’s writing for the next generation of students of English.

These books were feminist in aim, intention, and self-description. And part of their literary energy came from the fact that they were envisaged as part of the project of combating patriarchy and building a new feminist consciousness, especially for the young women in the classes where they were (and are) so widely used. In their 1979 opus, Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert castigated Harold Bloom for the ostensibly masculine bias of his account of literary relations—a man might attack his literary paterfamilias, but the literary relations among women, we were assured, were far more supportive. Far from seeking to overthrow their literary forebears, women writers were seeking a literary community; and the enemy was patriarchy, not their foremothers.

Despite their own experience of successful feminist collaboration, the response to their scholarly undertaking hardly confirmed this happy conviction. In later years, Susan Gubar writes, she has found herself (as part of “that curious entity called ‘Gilbert and Gubar”’) lambasted by various “insurgent” critics for various purported sins: she was “essentialist,” didn’t sufficiently acknowledge black women or lesbians, failed to keep pace with high theory—the list was no doubt long. (For example, it was pointed out that “Gilbert and Gubar” had made nothing of the fact that the madwoman in the attic of their title—Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre—was a Jamaican Creole.) To judge from her new book, Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century, the experience has been demoralizing. The field of feminist criticism—a field she did much to establish—is now, she tells us, cluttered with alienating jargon and riven by divisive identity politics.

Critical Condition has its origins in an episode that is sketched—I use this word advisedly—in the book’s introduction. At some time (she does not say when) Professor Gubar was “a candidate for a senior position at a school to remain nameless.” Informed by the chairman of the department that there was a risk that her appointment would be opposed by some of his more conservative senior colleagues—and assuming, as one gathers, that she could count on the support of the younger feminists—she gave a talk entitled “Who Killed Feminist Criticism?” in which she referred to some of the ideas of the critics who had attacked her. The talk, she tells us, cost her the job. And the opposition came not from the right but from the left. The visiting feminist progressive found herself condemned, astonishingly, as a troglodyte, perhaps even a racist. When she arrived she was Kate Millett; when she departed, John Rocker.

A final version of this talk is printed toward the end of the book as “What Ails Feminist Criticism?” (Dr. Gubar has, on sober reflection, taken the unusual step of moving the patient from the morgue back to the ICU.) She admits that the original paper was “probably written in too bellicose a manner.” But if it was anything like the essay in this volume, it was its subject, not its tone, that was bound to cause trouble, and for at least two reasons. First, in considering feminist criticism, she objected (as she puts it here in the introduction) to “what Toni Morrison calls ‘the calcified language of the academy.”’ This confirmed the opinion of those who thought her insufficiently theoretical; since, if you object to academic language, it is often assumed that this is because you—unlike your more savvy colleagues—have a hard time understanding it.

But worse was to come; for Gubar also criticized “certain sponsors of African-American, postcolonial, and poststructuralist studies” for “subverting the term ‘woman’ that feminism needs to assure its political agency.”4 That is, she argued (to uncalcify the language a bit) that often, in the struggle for justice, what you need to insist on is not what divides women but what they have in common. Since what divides women, as she argued, was insistence on their differences, she could be pigeonholed by her critics with those essentialists who are allegedly hostile to women of color and lesbians. The effect of her remarks was thus only to confirm the worst suspicions of her detractors. A quondam insurgent critic fell victim to a new insurgency.

What Gubar had done was to respond to the major criticisms of her earlier work in the natural way: by attacking the works of her critics. The effect was only to inflame them. Given the new moralism, this led not just to vigorous disagreement but also to assaults upon her character. She did not give up: she read versions of the paper on several other occasions around the country and finally published it (in 1998) in Critical Inquiry, which is about the most visible journal in literary studies. After the response she reports, this was either courageous persistence or evidence of masochism.

Clearly Susan Gubar believes that her dogged criticism of the new insurgency has left her with a reputation (if only in some soi-disant bien-pensant—or at least soi-pensant bien-disant—quarters) as an essentialist and a reactionary. So her new book is both apology and apologia—or, to put it another way, it is an act of what’s known, on Madison Avenue, as “positioning.” The opening chapters feature sympathetic discussions of African-American art (the quilts of Faith Ringgold, the conceptual art of Adrian Piper, the performances of Anna Deavere Smith); lesbian literature (the poetry of Marilyn Hacker and the “astonishingly diverse productions” of Jeannette Winterson); and her discovery of her own “inner ethnic” as she explores the relations of Judaism and feminism.

Each of these essays is a concession to “difference”: to the recognition that women are, after all, not all the same. If, as the critics alleged, when “Gil-bert and Gubar” wrote “woman” what they had unconsciously assumed was a female heterosexual of the white middle classes, then displaying the range of her interest in women who were neither straight nor white would seem to be a suitable act of clarification, if not atonement. At the very least, as Professor Gubar writes in the book’s introduction, she hopes that her “positive engagement with the insights of African-American, postcolonial, and poststructuralist thinkers in what are now the opening chapters” will “free me from the allegation that I had dismissed or calumniated their labors.” This book is driven by something other than the ordinary academic worry that one might be in error; it is, so to speak, Susan Gubar’s soul, not her mind, that seems to be up for judgment.

Well, I, for one, am happy to acknowledge the essential goodness of Professor Gubar’s soul.5 The question is why she has ended up having to defend herself before a tribunal that is largely unseen and unnamed. Discriminating between what is and isn’t worthwhile is the purpose of intellectual judgment. Why, then, could she not criticize her critics without having her character impugned? The answer is, in part, that the intertwining of academic and social agendas has given rise to an outlandish rhetorical inflation, a storming-of-the-Bastille bombast brought to bear on theoretical niceties. Individuals get taken for kinds: a particular third world literary feminist theorist comes to represent all women of color. Not teaching Jeannette Winterson is taken to mean excluding her from the canon, which is easily inflated into excluding lesbians from it; and soon we have unqualified talk of the “exclusion” of lesbians—or gays or blacks—which sounds as though you’re keeping them out of the class, or the university, or running them out of the neighborhood. This is indeed moralism; but it is moralism run amok.

There is, to be sure, an argument lurking in the background here: it is that literal exclusion somehow stems from literary exclusion. Or, to speak more precisely, that much of the oppression in the world is the result of speaking and writing and thinking about people in the wrong way. If all men thought about women in the right way, fewer men would beat up their wives. I believe this is a truth, even a truism. But there remains a difference between thinking ill of a black woman’s critical writings and thinking ill of her or of all black women. And there is yet a further distinction between thinking or speaking ill of people and beating them up. The point is that not every intellectual error about women—or blacks or lesbians—is as harmful as every other. Once you conflate errors of these different orders, you end up dissipating energy in pointless skirmishes while the vital battles are being lost all around you.

In her introduction, Susan Gubar worries that many women undergraduates today “do not define feminism as equity for women or an awareness of the social construction of gender or reproductive control or political agitation for the ending of sexual violence.” Presumably these young women would be happy to identify with feminism if they did define it as “equity for women” and the like; and one is therefore inclined to ask why they do not. Professor Gubar suggests that at least part of the explanation has to do with the nature of recent feminist debates: what she describes as “mind-numbing battles in which so-called social constructionists faulted so-called essentialists for their naive totalizing, feminists of color blamed white scholars for their racism, lesbian critics accused straight thinkers of homophobia.” Perhaps, if academic disputation looks to her students as it does to Professor Gubar, being a feminist doesn’t seem like much fun.6

Neither, I suspect, does being a literary critic. In the last few decades, as countless cultural theories have jostled and collided, as the concept of literature itself has been relentlessly “interrogated,” academic criticism—which is to say, literary scholarship and interpretation for its own sake and its own satisfactions—has lost a sense of cultural purpose. Accordingly, critics have increasingly turned to writing about each other. (“Garbage is garbage,” a well-known philosopher used to say, “but the history of garbage is scholarship.”) This soon becomes something of a tar pit: Susan Gubar’s new book is, in no small part, criticism about criticism of criticism. Which, I suppose, means that what you’re now reading is criticism of criticism about criticism of criticism. I’m sorry: it’s just the spirit of the times.

Susan Gubar, it must be said, is clearly interested in literature as well as committed to political feminism. The book she’s produced, however, tells us less about literature than about the social tensions in her profession at the end of the twentieth century. There is even a chapter, entitled “The Graying of Professor Erma Bombeck,” devoted in part to discussing the personal and professional relations of older and younger women scholars. Such matters, I have come to feel, are probably better handled by practitioners than by critics of narrative: one finishes her book convinced that the most interesting version of l’affaire Gubar would be a novel by David Lodge, or Molly Hite.^7

And, despite the generality of the reference to feminism in the book’s subtitle, it is actually largely about literary feminism within the academy; which is, as Susan Gubar says in her introduction, “less an activist, more a scholarly enterprise.” A review of her book is not, therefore, the place to discuss whether feminism outside the literary academy is dead, let alone ailing. But so far as the literary academy goes, my sense is that the heyday of the sort of Mau-Mauing to which Professor Gubar was subjected has passed, not just in feminist debates but also in those about race and sexuality as well. “Identity politics” has fallen into bad odor, at least among many members of university faculties (which does not guarantee, of course, that you recognize it when you do it yourself). Theory for its own sake, too, has lost some of its luster, another small victory for the spirit of belles-lettres in its apparently endless struggle with philology. Indeed, mirabile dictu, there are more and more literary critics—feminist and otherwise—who actually devote themselves to…literature. Susan Gubar’s field may well be in a “critical condition,” but there are signs that it is on the mend.

  1. 1

    This process is described and lamented in Cornel West’s American Evasion of Philosophy (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989). It’s per-haps worth observing that, with John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1979), ethics once more assumed a place of honor in professional American philosophy, and that philosophers of distinction have increasingly addressed not only moral theory—which can be as dense and difficult as the most abstruse metaphysics—but also practical ethics.

  2. 2

    The struggle to overthrow the theories of one’s predecessors is central, if in very different ways, to the natural sciences as well—at least, if either Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn (who agree in this, if in little else) is to be believed. But what is at stake is not usually moralized in the natural sciences.

  3. 3

    Reviewed in these pages by Helen Vendler. See The New York Review, May 31, 1990.

  4. 4

    It is, in this context, a none-too-subtle reframing of the original talk—which did not mention Morrison—to put the first complaint into the mouth of the best-known living black woman writer.

  5. 5

    This is probably the place to admit that her first chapter has an epigraph from an essay of mine; though, alas, the suggestions she quotes were glossed by me—in a phrase she does not cite—as “the proposals of a banal postmodernism.”

  6. 6

    It occurs to me that if these young women accept what Susan Gubar sees as feminism’s goals, while rejecting the label, this might be accounted not a defeat but a victory.

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