Virginia Woolf, Western culture, feminist critics, Emily Dickinson, feminist criticism, English departments, rejection, Sandra Gilbert, indifference, Wallace Stevens, literature, Carolyn Heilbrun, J. Hillis Miller, critic, feminist movement, Athenian women, literary styles, Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, critical vocabulary, Walter Ong, feminist literary criticism, feminist theory, Harold Bloom, fundamental assumptions, Virginia Woolfs, Jane Austen, ancestral property, Gerard Manley Hopkins, literary genres, Charlotte Bronte, Columbia University, ADE, literary criticism, The Association of Departments of English, Association of Departments of English, Kate Millett
What Do Feminist Critics Want? or A Postcard from the Volcano Sandra Gilbert ADE Bulletin 66 (Winter 1980), pp. 1624 ISSN: 0001-0898 CrossRef DOI: 10.1632/ade.66.16 Copyright © 1980 by The Association of Departments of English All material published by the The Association of Departments of English in any medium is protected by copyright. Users may link to the ADE Web page freely and may quote from ADE publications as allowed by the doctrine of fair use. Written permission is required for any other reproduction of material from any ADE publication. Send requests for permission to reprint material to the ADE permissions manager by mail (26 Broadway, New York, NY
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WHAT DO FEMINIST CRITICS WANT? OR A POSTCARD FROM THE VOLCANO
AT THE risk of revealing something that will be bad for all feminist critics everywhere, I must confess that I have hardly been able to make up my mind what aspect of feminist criticism to discuss here. I have therefore decided to offer you not a single, unified paper but what may well seem to be three mini-essays, complete with three different (and I think rather impressive) titles: (1) "The Revisionary Imperative: Feminist Criticism and Western culture
"; (2) "Redundant Women: The Economics of Feminist Criticism"; and (3) "Feminist Mysteries: Male Critics and Feminist Criticism." Before I launch into the first of these "essays," however, let me take a moment to explain my odd selfdivision, for I'm sure you'll agree that so bizarre a rhetorical strategy does require some justification. To begin with, I should note that when I was first asked to participate in this seminar, I felt not only honored but extraordinarily pleased and excited. I knew that as a feminist critic I was going to have an exceptional opportunity, an opportunity to tell an important audience (which would consist largely of chairmen rather than of chairpersons) about the work I do and the field I represent. Few feminist critics have such chances. Indeed, as I complain below, we seem lately to have been left to speak more and more to one another rather than to those of you "out there" whose minds we passionately wish to reach. Thus, flushed with comfortable anticipation, I accepted this opportunity in the most optimistic mood. Alas, however, my mood soon darkened. For when I began thinking about what I ought to say--discussing the matter with friends, organizing priorities, considering possible titles--my confusion grew. As a representative feminist critic, I must make this occasion count and therefore, so my feminist friends told me and so I heartily agreed, I must not only outline a theory of Literary criticism
but also summarize a number of crucial moral and political points. Here, in brief and in no special order, are some of the suggestions that were urged on me: Tell them what we can do for them. Tell them what they can do for us-. Tell them to hire feminists. Tell them not to fire feminists. Tell them about the case of X or the fate of Y (feminists who were fired or feminists who weren't). Tell them to come to our talks. Tell them to read our books. Tell them what we do. Tell them we don't do what they think we do. Tell them why they think we do what we don't really do.
Sandra Gilbert* Tell them why they think we are what we really aren't. Tell them who we really are and what we really do. Well, I'm sure you can see that such a bewildering proliferation of points made three distinct essays almost inevitable. Each would deal in some sense with a pair of central questions--namely, What do feminist critics want? and, How can English departments give it to them?--or with the converse of those questions--namely, What do English departments want? and, How can feminist critics give it to them? But one of these presentations, the most important in the long run, would have to outline a theory of what feminist critics want philosophically, as a way of thinking about literary text
s. A second, perhaps more immediately pressing discussion would have to analyze the politics of what feminist criticism wants from the structural realities of English departments--that is, what jobs and courses it imagines for its proponents. And a third, the most interesting to a social and literary historian like me, would try to bridge the gulf between the first two. This last little essay would have to present, in other words, a kind of sociology or psychohistory of feminist criticism as it has functioned in today's academy, explaining why and how the philosophy underlying this particular critical "ism" has so far had comparatively little effect on such political realities of English departments as hiring, promotion, and curriculum development
. Of course, all these potential discussions do have even more in common than their concern with different aspects of feminist criticism. As some of you may know, an axiom of the women's movement is that the personal is the political: the very title of Kate Millett
's influential analysis of feminism and masculinism today-- Sexual Politics--insists on an inescapable connection between private relationships (bedroom or parlor politics, as it were) and public ones. For feminist critics, however, the axiom can be modified and expanded: not only is the personal the political, the aesthetic is the political, the literary is the political, the rhetorical is the political. In other words, even what appears to be the *The author is Professor of English at the University of California, Davis
. This paper was read at the 1980 Summer Seminar in Spokane, and a portion of it is adapted, with permission, from her essay "The Revisionary Imperative," in Columbia, The Magazine of Columbia University
theoretical cannot easily be disengaged or abstracted from the practical, for every text can be seen as in some sense a political gesture and more specifically as a gesture determined by a complex of assumptions about male-female relations, assumptions we might call sexual poetics. Perhaps you can most readily see that this is so if you look back and notice the form in which both I and my feminist colleagues conceived of the points my presentation should make: "Tell them what we can do for them. . . . Tell them what we do. . . . Tell them who we really are." On reflection, doesn't my constant reiteration of the word "them" seem odd? Wouldn't it have been more natural not to dwell so obsessively on the otherness of my audience? Couldn't my friends and I have devised a list that would read, for example, "describe what we do, explain who we are, analyze our assumptions, defend our poetics," and so forth? Yet I think that we all felt it inevitable to list things in terms of what /, representing us, should say to you, representing them. For women's alienation from the sources of power is profound, and I want to argue here that it is not just a personal or a political alienation but that--at least until quite recently --it has also been a philosophical alienation, an aesthetic alienation, a literary alienation. Ultimately, in fact, it is women's ubiquitous cultural alienation that necessitates what I have called a "revisionary imperative." Thus, as both a problem and a perception, women's otherness is the intellectual center around which my first discussion revolves. For of course women--especially educated women like me, a representative feminist critic--do not seem obviously alienated. On the contrary, in our use of academic tools--texts, techniques, terminology--I imagine we must appear as deeply implicated in cultural/intellectual styles and subjects as our male colleagues are. What, then, do I mean when I speak of the cultural alienation of women and what is this revisionary imperative that I insist on as a solution to the problem? I can best begin to answer these questions by telling you one of many stories about my own feminist "conversion." Ten years ago I had a job interview with an English department chairman who quite unexpectedly confided in the middle of an otherwise ordinary conversation that he was alarmed by the demands of some female graduate students
. These radical young women believed that classes ought to be devoted to the study of women-- women in literature, literature by women! "They want to throw out a thousand years of Western culture," he suddenly said. He spoke bitterly, with a soft, regretful Southern accent. "A thousand yeahs of Westuhn culchuh!" I was shocked. "Surely not," I exclaimed. Looking something like the majestic procession that passes through the third act of Die Meistersinger, a thousand years of Western culture paraded across my mind: grave monkish scholars, impassioned poets, thought-worn philosophers, and beautiful stately ladies,
all dimly glowing, all holding out faintly imploring hands to me, their heir and guardian. Remember us, they seemed to signal as their noble robes swept by. Don't throw us out\ "Surely," I added (a bit priggishly, I now realize), "we're all equally committed to the preservation of Western culture." But of course I was wrong. For what feminist criticism and scholarship have taught me in the last ten years is that, although we obviously can't "throw out a thousand years of Western culture," we can and must redo our history of those years. Nothing may have been thrown out of that record but something has been left out: "merely," in Carolyn Kizer's ironic understatement, "the private lives of one-half of humanity"--the private lives of women and sometimes their public lives, too.1 When I say we must redo our history, therefore, I mean we must review, reimagine, rethink, rewrite, revise, and reinterpret the events and documents that constitute it. I should note here, incidentally, that words beginning with the prefix "re-" have lately become prominent in the language of feminist humanists, all of whom feel that, if feminism and humanism are not to be mutually contradictory terms, we must return to the history of what is called "Western culture" and reinterpret its central texts. Virginia Woolf
speaks of "rewriting history"; Adrienne Rich notes that women's writing must begin with a "re-vision" of the past; Carolyn Heilbrun observes that we must "reinvent" womanhood; and Joan Kelly declares that we must "restore women to history and . . . restore our history to women."2 All, I would argue, are articulating the revisionary imperative that has involved feminist critics in a massive attempt to reform "a thousand years of Western culture." I myself began to experience this revisionary imperative a few years after my interview with that harassed chairman, and at first my revisionary activities seemed minor enough. My nine-year-old daughter was reading Little Women and loving it so much that I reread it along with her. A few months later we read/reread Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Rereadings led to reinterpretations, and my revisionary impulse became so strong that I was delighted when Susan Gubar, a colleague who was also revising her ideas about these books, suggested that we team-teach a course in literature by women. Revisionary as we felt, though--and we were both by now reading and rereading key feminist texts--my colleague and I were not entirely prepared for the new view of literary history that our classroom reinterpretations revealed. We'd believed, I guess, that women and men
participate equally in a noble republic of the spirit and that both sexes are equal inheritors of "a thousand years of Western culture." Rereading literature by both women and men, however, we learned that, though the pressures and oppressions of gender may be as invisible as air, they're also as inescapable as air; and, like the weight of air, they imperceptibly shape the forms
and motions of our lives. Assumptions about the sexes, we saw, are entangled with some of the most fundamental assumptions Western culture makes about the very nature of culture--that "culture" is male, for example, and "nature" female--and we decided that, at least until the nineteenth century
, even apparently abstract definitions of literary genre
s were deeply influenced by psychosocial notions about gender.3 Again and again, moreover, as we explored such sexual poetics, we encountered definitions of cultural authority and creativity that exluded women, definitions based on the notion that (in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins) "the male quality is the creative gift."4 The treasures of Western culture, it began to seem, were the patrimony of male writers, or, to put it another way, Western culture itself was a grand ancestral property that educated men had inherited from their intellectual forefathers, while their female relatives, like characters in a Jane Austen
novel, were relegated to modest dower houses on the edge of the estate. This distinction between male patrimony, on the one hand, and female penury, on the other, can be seen of course in countless self-defining texts by male and female writers. But perhaps quotations from two volcano poems, besides being particularly pertinent here, will begin to illustrate both my meaning and my final subtitle. As you may recall, Wallace Stevens' "A Postcard from the Volcano" employs very much the same metaphor of the world as ancestral property that I have just used. Imagining his own and his generation's extinction by the symbolic Mount St. Helens that annihilates every generation, Stevens prophesies also the imaginings of his heirs, "children picking up [his] bones" who will never entirely comprehend his passions. But these uncomprehending children will inherit a cosmic mansion that has been in some deep way transformed by his language, his literary authority, his power: "We knew for long the mansion's look," he notes, "And what we said of it became / / A part of what it is . . . ," adding that when he is gone "Children . . . will say of the mansion that it seems / As if he that lived there left behind / A spirit storming in blank walls." Emily Dickinson
, who wrote many more volcano poems than Stevens did (a point to which I'll return later), had quite a different attitude toward both the mansion of the cosmos and her own Vesuvian presence:
On my volcano grows the Grass A meditative spot-- An acre for a Bird to choose Would be the General thoughtHow red the Fire rocks below-- How insecure the sod Did I disclose Would populate with awe my solitude.
For Dickinson, the gulf between appearance and reality is bleaker, blacker, and more unbridgeable than the one Stevens records. Trained and defined as a lady, she is
conscious that she herself seems to be a sort of decorous (and marginal) landscape, "a meditative spot" on the edge of the patriarchal estate, a quiet "acre for a Bird to choose." What is unimaginable is her volcanic (and powerful) interiority: the fierce fire, the insecure sod, and the awesomely quaking rock that not only enforce but create her "solitude." Moreover, it is that solitude, so different from Stevens' authoritative wistfulness, which in turn both determines and defines her alienation. Alone, unknown, and unimaginable, she is other and possibly awful to everyone, even to herself. Reading many texts like these two volcano poems and trying to understand their implications for a sexual poetics (as I have tried to do here in an abbreviated way), I began to have a different vision--literally a re-vision--of "a thousand years of Western culture," that grand procession from Die Meistersinger. Those grave scholars, impassioned poets, and thought-worn philosophers were all male; the cosmos was their hereditary home, their ancestral mansion, as it was Stevens', and thus they were the apprentices as well as the lords and masters who marched across Wagner's glittering stage, while the beautiful stately ladies of my vision, like Wagner's Eva, were quite conscious of being their goals, their prizes, the objects of their desire. And if, like the voice that was great within Wallace Stevens or like Wagner's master singers, the men had the power of speech, the women, like Emily Dickinson, knew that they had, or were supposed to have, the graceful obligation of silence. But what of the women who refused to be silent or who (again, like Dickinson) could not manage an enduring silence? My colleague and I realized that, more than most other participants in a thousand years of Western culture, these women had been forgotten, misunderstood, or misinterpreted. Yet it was they who inspired Virginia Woolfs remark that "towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully, and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write" (Room, p. 64). Significantly, as my colleague and I reread the literature of these women, we saw that what they wrote may have seemed docile enough--may have seemed, indeed, "A meditative spot / An acre for a Bird to choose"--but that, like Dickinson's work, it was often covertly subversive, even volcanic, and almost always profoundly revisionary. In fact, we came to understand that the revisionary imperative we had experienced was itself both an essential part of the female literary tradition we were attempting to recover and a crucial antidote to the female cultural alienation we were trying to overcome. Thus, as we have argued elsewhere, women writers have frequently responded to sociocultural constraints by creating symbolic narratives that express their common feelings of constriction, exclusion, dispossession (Madwoman, esp. Ch. ii, "Infection in the Sentence").
In these narratives madwomen like Bertha Mason Rochester function as doubles through whom sane ladies like Jane Eyre (and Charlotte Bronte) can act out fantastic dreams of escape, or volcanic landscapes serve as metaphors through which apparently decorous spinsters like Emily Dickinson can image the eruption of anger into language. But in creating such symbolic narratives these literary women were revising the world view they had inherited from a society that said women mattered less than men did, a society that thought women barely belonged in the great parade of culture, a society that defined women as at best marginal and silent tenants of the cosmic mansion and at worst guilty interlopers in that house. Replacing heroes with heroines, these writers insisted, like Jane Eyre, that "women feel just as men feel . . . they suffer from too rigid a constraint . . . precisely as men would suffer" (Ch. xii). Revising the story of Western culture, they looked at an ordinary woman--a shopgirl, for instance--and declared, with Virginia Woolf, that "I would as soon have her true history as the hundred and fiftieth life of Napoleon or seventieth study of Keats which old Professor Z and his like are now inditing" (Room, p. 94). Creating new accounts of the Creation, they asked, with the eighteenth-century poet Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, "How are we fall'n? fal'n by mistaken rules? / And Education's, more than Nature's fools . . .?'5 In other words, over and over again these women writers asked, as we feminist critics did and do, what has caused the cultural alienation--the silence, the marginality, the secondary status--of women. But of course, to ask and to try to give revisionary answers to such questions about literary women is also to ask and answer questions about literary men, questions about the dynamics of male-female relations in the world of letters, questions about the nexus of genre and gender, questions about the secret intersections of sexuality and textuality. That these questions address long-standing problems and long-established texts is undeniable, and it is equally undeniable that, as I've been insisting, literary women have asked and answered them for centuries. I would also argue, though, that until quite recently such literary questions and answers have been as prudently disguised, as decorously encoded, as all the symbolic and revisionary narratives the female imagination has produced. What may most distinguish the new literary movement called feminist criticism, however, is precisely its effort to bring to consciousness such ancient, half-conscious questions about textuality and sexuality. Indeed, if I were to try to tell you very succinctly what feminist criticism, as a way of thinking about literary texts, wants philosophically (which, as you may recall, was to be my first topic), I would tell you that at its most ambitious it wants to decode and demystify all the disguised questions and answers that have always shadowed the connections between textuality and sexuality, genre and gender, psychosexual identity and cultural authority.
Obviously, or so it seems to me, such an enterprise is profoundly exciting. The impulse to revise our understanding of Western literary history and culture is, after all, energizing (and here I understate the case); as a well-known (male) medievalist remarked to me not long ago, "everything has to be done again," and at the very least our awareness of such a revisionary imperative makes us feminist critics feel needed. Moreover, the questions about sexuality and textuality that we have lately decoded or brought to consciousness seem equally invigorating, for all touch on issues that are almost bracingly ontological. What, for instance, could be more fundamental, more a matter of ultimate realities, than an exploration of the relationships between sexual selfdefinition and literary authority, or an examination of the hidden psychosexual meanings of writing itself, the quintessentially cultural activity that distinguishes us not only from animals but also from one another? Sadly, however--and here I move into my second essay--many of our male colleagues and students (and a few of our female ones) seem indifferent to the crucial questions that concern us feminist critics; worse, some even seem rather scornful of the excitement our enterprise has generated. Of course, I don't want to generalize too drastically; like every feminist critic, I must confess that some of my best friends are men, for I have a number of male colleagues who not only support and encourage my work (like the medievalist I quoted before) but engage in what I would call feminist criticism themselves. Yet it is nevertheless true--and I imagine I hardly need to document this assertion--that even the word "feminist" often evokes masculinist snickers or worse. Even if we aren't seen as wanting to "throw out a thousand yeahs of Westuhn culchuh," we are perceived as self-indulgent, trendy, frivolous, polemical, or marginal. Indeed, where Bloomians, Derrideans, Marxists, or Freudians sometimes encounter the rage with which people respond to ideas that seem genuinely threatening (because truly important), we often meet with the kind of scorn that people reserve for notions they find boring or irritating (because merely trivial). In an essay that appeared last year in a Special Issue
of the ADE Bulletin Carolyn G. Heilbrun puts this point so woefully well that I think I can do no better than quote her here: "I, thirty years girl and woman in the field of English studies
," she writes, "wonder anew that among all the changes of 'the life and thought of our age,' only the feminist approach has been scorned, ignored, fled from, at best reluctantly embraced. . . . Deconstruction, semiology, Derrida, Foucault may question the very meaning of meaning as we have learned it, but feminism may not do so."6 And of course Heilbrun is by and large perfectly correct. Countless new journals of feminist thought have sprung up in the last decade--Feminist Studies, Women's Studies, Signs, Frontiers, Chrysalis, Michigan Papers in Women's Studies, Women and Literature, and so forth--most of which regularly publish interesting and useful feminist criticism of literature
from classical antiquity to the present. In addition, the pages of more general literary/ intellectual periodicals, ranging from PMLA to Partisan Review, from Critical Inquiry to Contemporary Literature, have begun to include essays in feminist literary criticism with fair regularity. Even the annual MLA convention, as I'm sure most of you have observed, has lately devoted what seems to be at least a fifth of its sessions to feminist literary issues. Yet within most English departments, as Heilbrun suggests, business goes on pretty much as usual, as if the intellectual transformation recorded in so many journals and meetings simply had not happened. Or, rather, business goes on with the usual ferment over the new ideas of newly interesting men--Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, for instance--just as if no significant feminist transformations had taken place. More specifically, I would elaborate on Heilbrun's statement by noting that what amounts to the massive rejection (or perhaps more accurately the denial) of feminist criticism has taken three separate but related forms: simple indifference, apparently supportive tokenism, and outright hostility. The first--indifference--is by far the commonest and in some ways the most vexing form of rejection. As every feminist critic knows, many-- indeed, most--of our male colleagues (and a few of our female ones) don't come to our talks, don't read our essays and books, don't in fact concede that we exist as thinkers, teachers, and writers who are part of a significant intellectual movement. Of course a number of these nonlisteners and nonreaders are probably infamous types we'd all, alas, recognize: people who rarely go anywhere except to the supermarket or the faculty club and whose most common out-of-class reading is TV Guide. I'm sure, too, that some apparently indifferent souls are really overworked administrators kept late at their desks by affirmative action
forms and budgetary crises, persons whose indifference is more a matter of appearance than reality. Nevertheless, of those who stay away--those who neither read nor listen, those who claim to be ignorant and those who claim to be bored-- it seems to me that at least forty or fifty percent are in some sense denying or rejecting the whole enterprise of feminist criticism, and doing so for reasons that at first seem quite inexplicable. The second form of rejection, which I've called "apparently supportive tokenism," is almost, though not quite, as vexing as simple indifference. Unlike the indifferent nonreader, the tokenist does concede the existence of feminist criticism and even, so it seems at first, the importance of this new literary approach. The tokenist occasionally reads or approvingly quotes an article by a feminist critic and quite genuinely believes that, in Lillian Robinson's words, "every good department should stock one" such creature.7 But really--and this is why tokenists are tokenists--these apparently supportive colleagues only support feminist criticism because it is "in," it is popular, it is trendy. In fact, however, they cannot distinguish between one feminist
and another, or even between one woman and another. An editor of a very well-known anthology, for instance, told me that, yes he'd just added some poems by an eighteenth-century literary woman to his book; but when I asked him which eighteenth-century literary woman he'd used, he couldn't remember her name. She was a woman, period: a nameless token of trendiness. In the same way, the tokenist believes that feminist courses should be offered because they bring up enrollments, like classes in sci-fi, film, ecology and lit., or the detective novel. But he doesn't differentiate among them because they aren't, of course, serious, like courses in Great Books from Plato to Pynchon. The tokenist's point of view is best expressed in the almost liturgical academic credo that J. Hillis Miller offered at one of last year's ADE Seminars: I believe in the established canon of English and American Literature
and in the validity of the concept of privileged texts. I think it is more important to read Spenser, Shakespeare, or Milton than to read Borges in translation, or even, to say the truth, to read Virginia Woolf.8 Note here that the Serious (indeed, the "privileged!") Literary Canon is the traditional masculinist one-- Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, not, for example, Shakespeare, Milton, Jane Austen, or Shakespeare, Wordsworth, George Eliot--while the interesting otherness of a feminist writer like Virginia Woolf is equated with what Miller evidently perceives as the spurious brilliance of a trendy foreigner: "Borges in translation [my emphasis]." The third form of rejection suffered by feminist criticism is outright hostility, and of course it is tautological even to name this. Nevertheless, as I'm sure you all know, it exists: if the indifferent person never heard of feminist criticism and the tokenist thinks every department should stock one feminist critic, the hostile man or woman is obviously the person who demands "What need one?' Lately--and this is not a tautological point-- our male colleagues are increasingly reluctant to express such hostility (though a few female colleagues seem to feel "privileged" to do so). Hostility does linger in some benighted places, however, and gets expressed in all kinds of sadly or comically misogynistic ways. In one department, for instance, the measured, elegant, and theoretical work of an accomplishEd Young
critic was dismissed as "the last war whoop of feminism." In another, members of a Search Committee
rejected almost every feminist critic who applied for a job in Victorian literature (and three quarters of the female applicants for the job were feminist critics) with the wonderfully ambiguous phrase "fem. dupe." (Consciously, they meant that because these women defined themselves as feminists their credentials must inevitably duplicate those of the one feminist critic who already taught in that department. In other words, "what need two"! Unconsciously--well, I wouldn't venture to articulate what they meant unconsciously by "fem. dupe."
In any case, though this form of rejection is distressing (and sometimes costly) for feminist critics, it is certainly clearer and thus less puzzling (and therefore less irksome) than indifference or tokenism. But of course all these modes of rejection are in some sense both bewildering and painful. Metaphorically speaking, they define those of us who do this kind of work as what the Victorians used to call "redundant women"--women, said the social critic W. R. Greg, "who in place of completing, sweetening, and embellishing the existence of others are compelled to lead an independent and incomplete existence of their own."9 Defining us as "redundant," moreover, they devalue our work to students, discourage our admirers, dishearten our junior colleagues, and force us into destructive competition with one another for a few token jobs. Why? To return to my quotation from Carolyn Heilbrun, why is it that "among all the changes of the life and thought of our age, only the feminist approach has been scorned, ignored, fled from, at best reluctantly embraced"? I want to be very fair, so I'll concede that a few feminist critics may be at least in part to blame. Some of the early work in the field, and to a lesser extent some work still being done, has been naive. Some feminist critics, for example, have confused the political with the polemical; quite natural feelings of frustration and anger at injustice have got italicized into shrieks. Other feminist critics, confusing desire with reality, have made what psychologists call "positive role models" out of personages in literary texts or movements who were probably anything but positive. Still other feminist critics have confused fiction with reality and taxed imaginary beings with not being "positive role models." But these failings are minor and I suspect each is associated with the intellectual excitement, the revisionary passion, and the undissociated sensibility that are the unique strengths of feminist criticism. Indeed, since feminist criticism does have such strengths, it seems disproportionately hostile to reject or deny its central ideas because of the naivete of a few of its proponents. Recently, moreover, so much good work has appeared that it seems in another sense disproportionate to blame all feminist critics for the failings of a few. On the contrary, we feminist critics know what our revisionary passion can create because we have produced overviews of women's literature like Showalter's A Literature of Their Own and Moers's Literary Women, fine biographical studies like Wolffs A Feast of Words and Rose's Woman of Letters, anthologies like Bernikow's The World Split Open, and essay collections like Rich's Lies, Secrets and Silence. We know, too--and we wish more of our colleagues knew--that, although lately almost everyone thinks Literary Studies
are in the doldrums, the intellectual excitement generated by feminist criticism is especially able to regenerate literary studies. As you may recall, my second topic was to be "what feminist criticism wants from English departments"--in other words, what jobs
and courses it imagines for its proponents. But that issue is inextricably related to yet another one of my subjects: what feminist criticism can do for English departments. Because, as Heilbrun also notes, feminist criticism does bring a unique vitality to both the classroom and the curriculum, I think we need, not token jobs and courses, not concessions to trendiness, but as many jobs and courses as the economy of literature will allow. Feminist revisions of traditional periodization and of the received literary canon, for example, suggest that there is far more to learn and to teach than we ourselves were ever taught. At the same time, feminist connections between the personal and the political, the theoretical and the practical, renew those bonds of feeling and thought that T. S. Eliot, that paradigmatic patriarchal critic, regarded as irrevocably severed. In fact, the feminist classroom, as anybody who has entered one will tell you, is the home of w/idissociated sensibilities and thus--do I dare to say it?--a volcanically energetic place. But (of course) it is or should be productively volcanic, for the competent teacher of, say, literature by women must learn to harness or channel the powers of Vesuvius. Finally, though all feminist approaches to literature are, as I have already argued, in some sense revisionary, our approaches to literature are also as various as those of our most scornfully masculinist colleagues: we are Marxists, Freudians, deconstructionists, Yale rhetoricians, and Harvard historians. Thus we can contribute to jobs and courses in all the ways that all such theorists can. At the same time, however, the revisionary imperative that we have in common gives us also a common interest not just in the social, rhetorical, or psychological strategies of writing but in the meaning of writing as a psychosexual act, a matter I have already called "bracingly ontological." It would seem, therefore, that only the most artifically depressed economy could define us as "redundant." Why, then--why, for the ritual third time around--why doesn't everybody think our work is as necessary as we think it is? Here, at last, I move into my third "essay": "Feminist Mysteries: Male Critics and Feminist Criticism"--or perhaps it would be more accurate to say "masculinist mysteries," since it is the behavior of both male and female masculinists that has been puzzling me. In any case, a mystery is a mystery is a mystery, and I want briefly, as I conclude my exposition of what feminist critics want, to explore the associated mystery of what masculinist critics don't want, and why. Putting aside the possibility that feminist criticism really is boring and trivial, a possibility I am not only unwilling to discuss but am constitutionally unable to consider, I suppose I should begin my investigation of these feminist/ masculinist mysteries by speculating that many of our colleagues may really find us alarming, or at least unnerving. Precisely that passionately undissociated sensibility which gives volcanic energy to the
feminist classroom may appear quite threatening. After all, those who have long been silent, those who have not revealed "how red the fire rocks below" their decorously meditative surfaces, would seem to be the Vesuvian creatures most likely to erupt into murderous rage. This is a point deeply understood by Emily Dickinson, to whose volcano poems I did promise I would return. In a fairly early piece, Dickinson observes that once volcanoes stop being acres for birds to choose, one discovers that
those old-phlegmatic mountains Usually so still
Bear within--appalling Ordnance, Fire, and smoke, and gun. Taking villages for breakfast. And appalling Men---
In another poem she elaborates on this vision, noting in particular what we might only half-frivolously define as the deadly critical vocabulary of the volcano; she speaks of the
The lips that never lie--
Whose hissing corals part and shut--
And Cities ooze away--
Yet, though some of our colleagues may flatter us feminist critics by seeing us as solemn symbols, we are surely not very torrid, and though we may write about madwomen, we are rarely madwomen ourselves. As for appalling ordnance and villages for breakfast, we may perhaps fantasize such possibilities but--especially in this time of lowered enrollments, a time when women have actually lost rather than gained ground in the academy-- our ordnance tends to be muted and ourdiet abstemious. The feminist mysteries whose rituals we enact in lecture room
s and learnEd Journal
s, moreover, are certainly not death to look upon (though a classicist friend did suggest to me that some men might hesitate to come to our talks on feminist theory
for fear of finding themselves in the position of Mnesilochus and Euripides in Aristophanes' The Poet and the Women, the play in which male interlopers at the Athenian women's festival called the Thesmophoria become the prisoners of a set of furious females, helpless hostages in the battle of the sexes). Nor does it seem likely that our feminist critical speech, powerful as I consider it, is so powerful that when we open our truthful mouths "Cities ooze away." After all, no cities of the mind seem to have oozed away lately, though some mental sidewalks may have been covered with a few inches of ash. Or is it possible that cities, civilizations, literary styles, and subjects have begun to ooze away? Though I think feminist criticism is the very opposite of destructive-- indeed, I think it is reconstructive rather than decon-
structive--I want for a moment to meditate on the possibility that many of our colleagues ignore our work because its very existence is somehow a sign of profound changes that have recently shaken Western culture in general and English departments in particular, changes whose implications they do not want to acknowledge. Metaphorically speaking, perhaps whole intellectual villages and cities have disappeared, settlements that once seemed the strongholds of a thousand years of Western culture. In the largest sense, of course, I am referring to the democratization of society that has profoundly transformed most Western cultural institutions, including schools and universities, since the beginning of the nineteenth century. In this sense, too, I am thinking of the accelerated democratization of education that has particularly transformed English departments since the late fifties, giving us (among other phenomena) open enrollment, the sixties, enormous classes followed by tiny classes, extra sections of remedial English, generational squabbles on the faculty, and a whole new literary canon, including not just the works of Borges in translation and the novels of Virginia Woolf but also science fiction, films, women's literature, black literature, Chicano literature, Asian-American literature, native-American literature, and more, much more. More specifically, however, I am thinking of the often disregarded but volcanic eruption of women into the public realm of literary and political culture, as opposed to the private, semiliterate domestic world that most women inhabited until the early or middle nineteenth century. As the director of the United States Census Bureau pointed out not long ago, this explosive transformation of women's lives was especially marked in the 1970s, the decade during which most feminist critics became feminist critics: "Women changed their attitudes dramatically over the decade," he remarks, and "the effects can be seen in almost every aspect of society."10 But of course these theatrical-seeming changes had begun quite some time ago, with a feminist movement whose events and effects have been massively and I think deliberately forgotten until recently. More important, I would argue that the turn-of-the-century feminist movement was until recently forgotten for the same reason that feminist criticism has been, in Heilbrun's words, "scorned, ignored, fled from": it has been forgotten because it is central to most aspects of all our lives11-- central, crucial, and volcanically influential. To be quite plain, I am saying that we live the way we live now, and think the way we think now, because what was once a wholly masculinist patriarchal culture has begun--fragmentary, haltingly, sometimes even convulsively but, I suspect, irreversibly--to evolve into a masculinist-feminist culture, a culture whose styles and structures will no longer be patriarchal in the old way, even if they remain patrilineal. I am saying as well, therefore, that the way we read and write now, the way we imagine literary texts and traditions now. must
inevitably and irrevocably change under the pressure of the sociocultural changes we are experiencing. And I am saying, finally, that it may be unnerving or even enervating to confront such changes, especially for those to whom they bring a diminution of authority (and of course I mean men), but also for those to whom they bring an accession of responsibility (and here of course I mean women). Lest I seem entirely solipsistic in suggesting that changes in male-female relations must and will significantly transform our relation to literary studies, let me remind you that a number of quite respectable, unimpeachably masculine (and perhaps even masculinist) literary critics have made very similar assertions. Harold Bloom, for instance, declares in A Map of Misreading that "the first true break with literary continuity will be brought about in generations to come, if the burgeoning religion of Liberated Woman spreads from its clusters of enthusiasts to dominate the West. Homer will cease to be the inevitable precursor, and the rhetoric and forms of our literature then may break at last from tradition."12 Bloom, you will note, speaks prophetically, using the future tense. But what if he too is simply evading his own secret recognition that this transformation of Western literary tradition has already begun? Certainly so astute a literary historian as Walter Ong does believe it has begun. As I'm sure you will also recall, Ong tells us in his. lectures on Vie Presence of the Word that the late eighteenth- and early nineteenthcentury "movement to give formal schooling to girls was associated with the growing together of the academic and bourgeois worlds, and . . . helped wear down on several fronts" classical traditions that included the disputatious (and masculinist) art of the polemic, which had been central to academic life, as well as the specialized (and masculinist) use of "language teaching
"--specifically the teaching of Latin and Greek--"as a male initiation procedure."'1 Psychoanalytically oriented critics of eeriture like Derrida and Irwin would perhaps influence us to observe that much of the old masculinist energy of oral culture may have been projected into sexualized fantasies about the relation of the phallic pen to "the virgin page."'4 But Ong's vision of the female invasion of history is surely supported by the Derridean perception of the very nature of writing, which, once women were taught it, allowed a detachment, an anonymity, that in the long run had to be liberating, even transformative. If I may return to Virginia Woolf one last time, I should say that it was no doubt her understanding of the transformative nature of writing that made her dwell so dramatically on that crucial moment in history, that moment "of greater importance than the Crusades or the War of the Roses [when] the middle-class woman began to write." In fact, I would argue that we feminist critics are still dwelling on and in that moment, still coming to terms with and through it. I believe that our terms, however--and here I arrive at my long-awaited perora-
tion--must eventually be yours and, indeed, everybody's, for as Ong and Bloom and others have also perceived, we are still living in that moment of cultural transformation, even if we aren't dwelling on it. In fact, what feminist critics most want from English departments is the chance to define the terms to which we are coming as we dwell with the volcanic changes we have experienced. What English departments should want from feminist critics are rigorous and responsible revisions of ourselves, our texts, our traditions. Such re-visions should function in two ways: as new visions or understandings of our literary lives and as new versions or transformations of those lives. Both approaches should suggest a possibility that I think unifies all three of my essays but that few people have taken seriously since the Romantic period: the possibility that through literary study we can renew our lives. NOTES 'Kizer, "Three," from "Pro Femina," in No More Masks!ed. Florence Howe and Ellen Bass (New York: Doubleday, 1973), p. 175. 2See Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (New York: Harcourt. 1929); Adrienne Rich, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," in Adrienne Rich's Poetry, ed. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi (New York: Norton, 1975); Carolyn Heilbrun, Reinventing Womanhood (New York: Norton, 1979); Joan Kelly-Gadol, "The social relation
s of the Sexes: Methodological Implications of Women's History," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1 (Summer 1976), 4. 'See Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), esp. P. I. "Toward a Feminist Poetics." See also Sherry Ortner, "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?" in Woman, Culture, and Society, ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1974). "Hopkins, The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, ed. C. C. Abbott (London: Oxford Univ. Press. 1935), p. 133. 5"The Introduction," in The Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea. ed. Myra Reynolds (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. 1903), pp. 4-5. ''Heilbrun. "Feminist Criticism: Bringing the Spirit Back to English Studies," in 77«> State of the Discipline, I970s-I980s, A Special Issue of the ADE Bulletin, No. 62 (Sept.-Nov. 1979), p. 35. 'Robinson. Sex, Class & Culture (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1978), p. 19. "Miller, "The Function of Rhetorical Study at the Present Time." in The State of the Discipline, 1970s-1980s, p. 12. 'William Rathbone Greg, "Why Are Women Redundant," literary and Social Judgments (Boston, 1873), pp. 276, 282-83. '"Vincent Barabba, quoted in the San Francisco
Chronicle, 20 May 1980. p. F-5. "For an analysis of this massive cultural "forgetting" of the first wave of feminism, see Theodore Roszak, "The Hard and
the Soft: The Force of Feminism in Modern Times," in Masculine/ Feminine: Readings in Sexual Mythology and the Liberation of Women, ed. Betty Roszak and Theodore Roszak (New York: Harper, 1969). l2Bloom, A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975), p. 33. l3Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for
Cultural and Religious History (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 249-50. MSee, e.g., John Irwin. Doubling and Incest. Repetition and Revenge (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. 1975). p. 163. See also Susan Gubar, "'The Blank Page' and the Issues of Female Creativity," forthcoming in Critical Inquiry.
Modern Language Studies
Modem Language Studies, thejournal of the Northeast Modern Language Association, welcomes articles on topics in English literature and linguistics. Manuscripts
should be sent to David H. Hirsch, Editor, Dept. of English, Brown University
, Providence, RI 02912.