Nina Auerbach

  • Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century by Susan Gubar
    Columbia, 237 pp, £16.00, February 2000, ISBN 0 231 11580 6

Susan Gubar has kept the faith. Most of the ‘feminist critics’ of the late 1970s, myself included, have drifted away, though not away from feminism: feminist criticism, an exclusive academic sorority, was always distinct from commitment to a political movement. But despite her dismay and even despair at what’s become of academic feminism, Gubar does her best to tend the flame.

Why, I wonder? Why not let it go out? As Gubar describes it, at length and with passion, feminist criticism has degenerated since its harmonious beginnings in the mid-1970s, becoming a self-enclosed hive of accusations and counter-accusations. I believe her. It sounds awful. Why keep going to those conferences, listening to those papers that attack or ignore you? Why cling to the fantasy of a lost concord?

It is hard for the fight against oppression to retain its brio when the oppressor softens. Feminist criticism has soured in part because the issues are subtler today. Society is not perfect; enemies of women’s rights abound; but three decades have overcome the institutionalised contempt that kindled feminist criticism in the first place. I don’t miss being sneered at, any more than I miss the Vietnam War, though I do sometimes miss the buoyant anti-war protests. The songs, the marches, the hysterical belief in the virtue of our cause, were more fun than feminist criticism ever was; but the Vietnam War did, at last, end. I still have my peace buttons, but I’m glad the war is over, and I’m glad, too, that feminist criticism is free to shed its urgency.

In defining Critical Condition as a protest against the present, I may be making the book sound more coherent than it is. Technically, it isn’t a book, but a collection of eight essays, four of which have been previously published. Gubar herself claims that ‘there is no plot to the book,’ but she is too modest: if you like tragedy, the eight essays in Critical Condition can be read from beginning to end or, if you like comedy, from end to beginning. As it goes along, its cohesion becomes compelling, even claustrophobic. Beneath the language of disinterested diagnosis is a lament for a happier past.

The first three essays are variations on identity politics: accounts of African American women artists, of lesbian poetry and fiction, and of the fraught intersection of Judaism and feminism. They are lighter and more tolerant than the later parts of the book. I find the first essay, ‘Women Artists and Contemporary Racechanges’, the most appealing, perhaps because much of the material is new to me. There are vigorous appreciations of the painter Faith Ringgold (Gubar is always at her happiest when writing about painting; visual art brightens her prose) and of the performance artist Anna Deavere Smith. As Gubar celebrates them, Ringgold and Deavere Smith offer visions of impossible reconciliation. Deavere Smith’s one-woman show, Fires in the Mirror, an account of the murderous hostility between Brooklyn’s black community and its Lubavitcher Jews, turns into a healing ritual:

The affliction suffered by many of Deavere Smith’s characters can convince other members of her audience that no just recompense could ever repair the suffering racism has inflicted ... Yet to the extent that the cast of characters emerges through one body – that of Deavere Smith – and that their composite voices elegiacally mourn and thereby memorialise the dead, this woman artist herself becomes the oracular priestess, the shaman of America’s commitment to e pluribus unum, a composite of Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac on the road to becoming a cosmos.

I don’t hear so much as a whisper of reconciliation in Deavere Smith’s excoriating re-creation of hate and murder, but in this initial essay, Gubar finds in African American women’s art the comity that eludes her in the academy. There may be a whiff of stereotyping here – isn’t it the job of women, and especially of black servants, to bring warring factions together? – but the energy with which Gubar illuminates this material is a heartening antidote to the later essays.

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