Vol. 7 No. 11 · 20 June 1985

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Reading as a woman

SIR: Christopher Norris was right to be embarrassed at being asked, as a man, to review a list of six feminist books (LRB, 4 April) and perhaps it is modesty rather than presumption that made him devote a large portion of his space to the issue of what role a well-intentioned man can legitimately play in the feminist debate. For him this is perhaps the most urgent issue, but it is scarcely more than tangential to feminist criticism. Still, a tangent is as good a place as any begin deconstruction, so let’s consider what ‘reading as a woman’ really is. First of all, a bit of grammar. Unless ‘reading’ here is supposed to be analogous to ‘dressing up’, the phrase describes what only a can do. If A works as a slave and B works like a slave, A is a slave and B is not. However define a woman, a man cannot read as one. Let me define what it is to read as a woman. It is to be not-addressed by public discourse, even (or especially) when it is about you. We are not-addressed, for instance, in all those sentences that invoke the human race as ‘man’ or ‘he’. Man is a mammal because he breastfeeds his young. The reason why feminist criticism is so important that men want to muscle in (!) on it is because it focuses on the politics language better than any other deconstruction. It is a rare utterance that does use and assume gender. But knowing this is not enough to make you a woman. No man, however scrupulous or resourceful, partakes of the insult. Between the woman who reads without deconstructive awareness and the woman alert to all the demeaning usages, there is more in common politically than between a male and a female deconstructor: the first pair are out of the club, the second pair are not in a club together. For the wide-awake male reader, there is, however, the equally testing experience of finding himself incited to collude in a detestable conspiracy – a further twist in the spiral of reading.

It was wrong of you to bypass all the more-than-competent female feminist reviewers and turn to a competent male, not just as a failure of courtesy (though courtesy is of political importance here), but because, as this review demonstrates, the presumption of ‘reading as a woman’ turns in a trice into the far more serious assumption of ‘speaking for’ women. Let me give two examples, from Norris and Kenneth Ruthven. Norris paraphrases Jonathan Culler as arguing that, with the aid of deconstruction, men can, ‘read as’ women; he then cites an objection to this from ‘some feminists’ who, he claims, reject theory as ‘an exclusively male preserve’; he shoots down objection by claiming it is based on a biologistic assumption of innate differences between the sexes. Both parts of his argument are illegitimate. It is mean and meaningless to attribute fallacious contentions to a group who have not asked you to represent them. Correction of Culler’s view need not depend on a loathing of theory, still less on a belief that sexual difference is innate. There is no reason at all why the conviction that gender is culturally-determined should not go hand in hand with the certainty that a man cannot ‘read as’ a woman. Culturally situated we are and remain. The man is addressed and the woman is discussed.

Kenneth Ruthven also apparently (having disposed of any refutation by the old what-about-men-at-Greenham argument) wishes to tell us what we think. Here is Norris’s citation: it has occasionally been possible, Norris quotes Ruthven as saying, ‘for certain male writers to reconstruct themselves temporarily as women for the purposes of creating female characters so untrammelled by contemporary conventional representations of womanhood that women readers even nowadays are amazed that men should have had insights into what it means to live as a woman in a male-dominated society’. This sentence is justifiably twitchy. Ruthven imitates the achievement he attributes to Hardy and others by here effortlessly reconstructing himself into ‘women readers’. Would many of us hazard such a naive image of creative production? I hope not. The fantasy that produces fictional characters is not simply a transvestite. The reading that judges realistic success is another fantasy, similarly complex. Nevertheless, as a judge of how well Daniel Deronda and Emma Bovary succeed as mimesis, I would prefer a Jewish female to a non-Jewish male – not because she has privileged access to the canons of credibility (she might be as naive as Kenneth Ruthven), but because some specifics of the outsider’s existence will be known to her.

On the key question of women’s language, Norris is ill at ease. He dislikes Mary Daly’s style, but is nervous of saying so in case this smacks of authority; so we read: ‘as a male reviewer, and a critical theorist besides, I am frankly at a loss for any adequate response to language like this.’ Here in fact, if you like, we see Norris reading ‘as’ a woman. He feels himself woundingly not-addressed. But the problem goes further than this. I too find the prose of Daly or Cixous unsatisfying and I think it is because of a certain utopianism in their authorial aims. They are not writing towards women and away from men so much as attempting something entirely different: a text without object (in the grammatical sense) that eschews the I-you relation for a giant expression of first-person-plural. They share the wish to speak purely as ‘we’, to be the voice of the female sex. Such an aim is surely delusory and, more important, it evades rather than transcends the sexual politics of writing. What I would identify as women’s discourse (you can hear it in supermarket queues or departmental meetings) is an exchange of reciprocating affirmations, a nondisputatious dialectic cultivates comfort instead of conflict; it depends on a shared experience of the female body and its vicissitudes, and its subject-matter may be adjudged trivia, but these are trivia that lack the self-importance of the male equivalent. It is no accident or moral privilege that makes such interchange lacking in self-importance: it is because it has no access to a public audience, it is never performance, and it doesn’t appear in books. It is an oral tradition not yet found in writing. The writing, such as Daly’s or Cixous’s, which reproduce it fails to do so because it tries to translate the oral into the written, the exchange into the monologue. This, not Norris’s position as a reader, is the problem that these texts provoke.

Norris congratulates Juliet Mitchell (to whom he gives a largely deserved good press) on not being either of two bogeywomen of his own invention. She ‘writes as a feminist who wishes neither to efface her sexual identity nor to it into a kind of defensive mystique against the claims of rational argument’. Again feminists find themselves spoken for. Are these really the poles we are slaloming between? Who says so?

Naomi Segal
Queens’ College, Cambridge


SIR: Much as I enjoyed Mike Selvey’s article in your issue of 23 May, I was astonished to learn that the cause of Women’s Liberation had made such progress in Australia by 1974-5 that a Ms Lillian Thomson was bowling bouncers in a Test Match: it was only in the pursuit of sleep that I caught the joke. Alan Bennett is always witty, but I thought that he excelled himself in his treatment of Auden and Kallman. In a letter of mine which you printed in the same issue, I went a little too far in saying that the ludicrously inept image of Wittgenstein cavorting around his room with a poker had no basis in fact. It does have a very tenuous basis. The facts, as imparted to me at the time by impeccable witnesses, were that Sir Karl Popper addressed a meeting of the Cambridge Moral Science Club in Professor Braithwaite’s rooms in King’s, that both Popper and Wittgenstein referred to a poker within their reach as an example of a physical object, and that Professor Braithwaite seized it and held it as a sceptre between them. Nobody cavorted, and so far as I know, no such scene was ever enacted in Wittgenstein’s rooms in Trinity. In the early 1940s Wittgenstein was absent from Cambridge, being employed a hospital orderly.

A.J. Ayer
London W1

Exasperating Classics

SIR: In her review of Humphrey Carpenter’s Secret Gardens (LRB, 23 May), Patricia Craig is mistaken in saying that the opening of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe imitates the opening of George MacDonald’s Phantastes. It would be difficult to see how an old wardrobe in a professor’s spare room could be in any way connected with ‘a stream of clear water, running over the carpet’ in the bedroom of a castle; and in fact there is no connection. The wardrobe is taken straight from The Aunt and Amabel, a story by E. Nesbit, whose children’s stories Lewis much admired. He takes care to make sure that we shall not miss the derivation. In The Aunt and Amabel, ‘trains leave Bigwardrobeinspareroom all the time.’ In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Faun addresses Lucy as ‘Daughter of Eve, from the far land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe’. Incidentally, the central characters in the ‘Narnia’ series are not, as Ms Craig claims, ‘a lot of dead children’ until the final book of the series, The Last Battle.

Other lovers of the great books for children must have regretted, as I did, on reading Secret Gardens, that a writer of the stature of Humphrey Carpenter should belittle so much that is, and has been for generations of children, of such value. According to him, the Alice books ‘consist, on their deepest level, of an exploration of violence, death and Nothingness’. Mrs Ewing, Mrs Molesworth and Mrs Burnett ‘tried to develop a new kind of children’s literature’, but Mrs Ewing ‘lacked the conviction to continue’ and ‘the others did not have any real understanding of children.’ ‘In The secret Garden, which is in any case ‘largely made up of borrowings’, ‘characters are crudely drawn and predictable and the prose style is sloppy.’ E. Nesbit’s child characters in the three Psammead books are ‘entirely unmemorable’, ‘virtually undifferentiated’, and ‘the degree of originality in [the books] is comparatively small.’

Patricia craig carries this style of criticism further by calling the ‘Narnia’ stories ‘distasteful’, and says that Kenneth Grahame’s Dream Days ‘resurrect a singularly unappealing childhood. Fuss, facetiousness or the routine sneers of the day … make for dismal reading.’ ‘Isn’t,’ she says later in her review, ‘the field [of children’s literature] going to end up somewhat impoverished?’ Well, yes, it is, if parents and children pay any attention to this sort of critical nonsense. Parents may, more’s the pity, but kids now have access to good collections in school and public libraries, and are not so dependent on their parents to give them books. I hope that they will continue to read, enjoy and be nourished by the books that so many generations of children before them have loved.

G.M. Watkins

Patricia Craig writes: ‘Imitates’ is G.M. Watkins’s word, not mine; ‘inspired’ was the one I used, and I think most readers would agree that there is a certain similarity between a bedroom in which the carpet turns into a stream in a woodland glade, and another bedroom (‘spare’ or not) in which fur coats in a wardrobe turn into pine trees in a wood. If I’d set out to enumerate the correspondences between Phantastes and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I didn’t, I might have mentioned the backless broom cupboard in the former: I suppose Mr Watkins will deny that this has any connection with the backless wardrobe of the latter. Lewis ‘admired’ George MacDonald no less than E. Nesbit, and acknowledged the influence on his work of both these writers. As for Mr Watkins’s point about the ‘dead children’ – it makes a difference if they’re only technically dead in one book, does it? Throughout the series the Pevensie children keep visiting a place which Lewis clearly means to be taken as a version of the Christian heaven, complete with God in the shape of a lion called Aslan (eventually promoted to a capitalised pronoun); in the end he kills them off in a railway accident so that they can stay in this paradise instead of being ejected after each adventure. You could say they’re at least half-dead all along, and more than half in love with death. Lewis’s final assurance to his readers is that things are just beginning for the killed Pevensies. (We are reminded here of Barrie’s ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure … ’). I don’t think it’s especially eccentric to call this and other Christian motifs in the series distasteful: however, that is a matter of opinion, and Mr Watkins is entitled to repudiate my view of certain children’s classics as much as he likes, along with Humphrey Carpenter’s and anyone else’s that he finds insufficiently bland in tone. But I’m rather at a loss to understand why it should make ‘critical nonsense’ simply to disown the position advocated by him.

The Case for Geoffrey Hill

SIR: In Timber, Ben Jonson hits off the tedious man with the famous put-down: ‘I spake to him of Garlicke, hee answered Asparagus.’ I was reminded of this when I read Tom Paulin’s reply (Letters, 6 June) to my letter about his slovenly account of Geoffrey Hill’s sonnet, ‘Idylls of the King’. Clearly, the tinnitus has worsened. He should make an appointment with the nearest ENT department before it is too late and his hearing is permanently impaired. Having made a chump of himself (to use the technical term), he is now ‘full of high sentence’ and large issues – nearly all of which are beside the points I was trying to make. I will repeat them, moving my lips as much as possible. They are very elementary and simple – like being able to read what is on the page; like knowing what quotation-marks mean; like being able to distinguish between an echo, a quotation and a random verbal coincidence. In sum, they amount to the unimportant question: is Tom Paulin ‘a bit obtuse’? Will he know that the quotations-marks around ‘a bit obtuse’ indicate a reference to a writer who is not me?

Tom Paulin imagines that my reservations about Hill’s Tenebrae should properly qualify me as an ally. They resemble his reservations as much as garlic resembles asparagus – or as much as Psalm 47 resembles Yeats’s ‘unless / Soul clap its hands’. He agrees that he is at fault in not spotting the Biblical quotation. From a medical standpoint, I am delighted. Clearly, if you shout through a megaphone he can hear. Nevertheless, Yeats is apparently still buzzing indefatigably around in his inner ear. Which is worrying. But I confess I am more worried by his plea of mitigation that he is sure I didn’t recognise the quotation from Psalm 47 but ‘had to go in search of it’. I can’t see that this has anything to do with it. However, I will reveal all. But fist I must illuminate the little red light which blinks to indicate irony. I have to confess to a bit of intellectual magic that any red-blooded critical hooligan would despise. When I saw the quotation-marks around the phrase ‘O clap your hands,’ I realised almost immediately that this wasn’t much like Yeats. I therefore listened to the phrase and, being brilliant, thought it might just be Biblical. At this point, my innate genius hit on the notion of consulting Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments. And lo! it was there. Total search time: three or four minutes. From this I conclude that either I am extraordinarily gifted, or that Tom Paulin is ‘a bit obtuse’.

About Hill’s ‘monotonous’ scansion: out of 14 lines, only four are completely regular. According to Tom Paulin, ‘the obvious variation of stresses in the poem in no way overrides its low glum iambic rhythm.’ He would say that, wouldn’t he? Odd, though, that he made no mention of what is now ‘obvious’. In fact, the variations make an enormous difference – if you don’t have a thick ear.

His point about Wallace Stevens has changed from his original version, I am pleased to say. Well, it would, wouldn’t it? (New Improved Pedigree Chump.) What he was offering in his article was something quite different – one of those garlic/asparagus echoes. I can’t argue with an amoeba.

Diverting as this correspondence must be to LRB readers, this will be my last contribution to the War of Paulin’s Ear. I propose to patch up our tiff by sending him a copy of Cruden’s Concordance – no half-way competent critic should be without it. I only hope he hears the postman knock.

Craig Raine

How many boyfriends had Molly Bloom?

SIR: The discussion between Denis Donoghue (LRB, 18 April) and Patrick Parrinder (Letters, 23 May) in your pages concerning the actual or virtual adulteries of Molly Bloom is a complex and interesting one that has recurred in criticism of Ulysses over many years. I tried to explain this recurring disagreement in my book James Joyce and Sexuality, reviewed by Donoghue along with Parrinder’s book. Since Professor Donoghue wrote that the word ‘infidelity’ had some ‘occult meaning’ in those parts of my study in which I treat these questions, I feel that I ought to offer the following by way of clarification.

As I see it, the character of Molly’s relationship with her so-called admirers is made deliberately uncertain in Ulysses and for good reasons. From the list in ‘Ithaca’ it is possible to distinguish clearly between Molly’s past boyfriends (like Mulvey), Bloom’s rivals for her hand (John Henry Menton) and such casually encountered figures as the ‘farmer at the Royal Dublin Society’s Horse Show’. Even in Molly’s affair with Blazes Boylan, where a full, adulterous sexual act might seem unequivocally to have taken place, Joyce punctiliously describes a contraceptive intent and practice that makes it incomplete in the strictest casuistical sense. William Empson was, of course, quite right to add Stephen Dedalus to the list of so-called lovers. When is an adulterous sexual act, an adulterous sexual act and when is it not? That is the riddle that Joyce’s presentation of the sexual lives of Leopold and Molly Bloom in Ulysses seems to pose and it is surely posed as a deliberate affront to the church morality that needed to distinguish precisely between such acts in order to build an unwieldy edifice of matrimonial law.

Narrow definitions of infidelity are conspicuously broadened in the situations Joyce chose to fictionalise and it is for this reason that I feel justified in talking of Gabriel’s concern over his wife’s ‘infidelities’ in the way that puzzled Donoghue in his review of my book. It is not quite good enough to say that insignificant incidents are blown up into full-scale adulteries by Bloom’s ‘darkest suspicions’, as Parrinder says in his letter. It is in situations presented outside of the refracting consciousness of individual characters that such issues seem to crop up in Ulysses and elsewhere in Joyce’s oeuvre. Neither Parrinder nor Donoghue will need to be reminded of the relevance here of Exiles, which investigates Richard Rowan’s jealousy (or rather his lack of it) so intently, whilst deliberately obscuring from the audience the nature of any act that took place between Robert and Bertha about which Richard might conventionally be jealous. I should add that an analogous broadening of definitions underpins my discussions of onanism as pertaining to Joyce, which also seemed to give Professor Donoghue some trouble. Rather than offer an explanation here. I would respectfully refer your readers to the relevant chapters of my book where these questions and others are aired in full.

Richard Brown
University of Leeds

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