Sunday, July 10, 2011

Towards (Against?) a Lesbiography

Recently, while browsing the literary essays and criticism section of a bookstore, I was thrown for a loop by the subtitle of a new book, This is Not the End of the Book, which consists of a conversation between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere on digital and book culture. I'm not sure that it actually is the subtitle, rather than just a graphic embellishment on the cover that the publisher thought would enhance its prestige-marketing, but in any case, it reads: “Two Great Men Discuss Our Digital Future.”

I mean, seriously? In 2011, we're casually throwing around the term “great men,” like everybody knows what that means (and wants a piece of it)? Who better to discuss a matter of such serious cultural weight than Great Men? Who else is going to tell us anything worth listening to on the subject, in “this twittering world,” as another indubitable Great Man, T. S. Eliot, presciently put it in the 1940s?

I blame Harold Bloom. Back in 1999, the popularity of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human proved that, despite the combined efforts of academic feminists and deconstructionists, there was a huge cultural hunger, at the populist level, for the concept of the Great Man, as some kind of figure of millennial reassurance. That book was a lot of fun, I'm not going to lie, but Bloom's Wildean hyperbole also felt finally oppressive (as Wildean tongue-in-cheek exaggeration-for-provocation never is, but no one ever accused Bloom of having a light touch), and nearly made me nauseated with the Bard (I had to remind myself I was only nauseated with Bloom). He might as well have called the book Saint Shakespeare... except that the titular suggestion that Shakespeare is, well, GOD (or better than God, who only invented human vessels, while Shakespeare invented our subjectivity: he's not God, he's SHAKESPEARE) left mere canonization in the dust. It didn't even seem to help that I knew where Bloom was coming from, and what he was trying to achieve: that he was using Shakespeare as a synecdoche for the power of literature itself, in reaction against attacks on that power, and on the concept of subjectivity, from “literary theory.” Well, except that Bloom himself often seemed to lose sight of this aim and take his own Bardolatry literally. And certainly, the average reader who bought the book to be educated about Shakespeare was taking it literally.

Quiet Riot Girl, with whom I've been forming a relationship on Twitter and here on my blog that inspires me to nominate us, in our quiet moments (except that there haven't been any quiet moments), as the Doherty and Barat of Internet Discourse (can't get away from those Great Men of History...), recently directed me to David Halperin's Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, in explanation of her concept of “Fagiography” and its critique in her recently free-download-published debut novel, Foucault's Daughter. (Or I assume FD is critiquing it; but you`ll have to wait for the review, when I've finished reading.) I haven't read Saint Foucault, but I gather that it marks the moment when, after Judy Garland's death kicked off the gay rights movement by inspiring Stonewall, gay male culture lost its historical allegiance to Mom (celebrated in the form of opera divas, Golden Age Hollywood actresses, and other female performers of gargantuan personality and presence) and started chasing after the ghost of Dad instead. In doing so, however, rather than pioneering it may have simply joined in the chorus celebrating/mourning those Great Men of History, which has, after all, been a homoerotic theme since Milton's “Lycidas.” In an effort to prove that gay men were exactly like straight men, flamboyance and fabulousness had to be shoved in the closet (or, worse, relegated to reality TV shows); machismo was the order of the day. Even if this machismo was limply, hilariously, intellectual. (Or is that the worst kind?)

In the Room the Women Come and Go...

And where does this leave women? In 2011, when most of the feminist battles have been won, where are our Great Women, and what are they talking about, in ways that, apparently, cannot reassure us? And where is our Lesbiography? I never wrote or published my Saint Foucault (or Saint Morrissey), but I did spend the summer I was seventeen continually writing a 50-or-so-page fan letter to Camille Paglia that, luckily for her and me, I could never complete to my satisfaction, because, well, it was my autobiography: Sexual Personae caused me to rethink the entire history of my personal development (through the prism – or prison – of gender identity and sexuality). (I've often thought that if I had completed and sent that letter I might have ended up as Paglia's partner – instead of the mostly-straight, usually single woman I am now – and she would have eventually ditched me and our baby to join the entourage of a Brazilian pop star, as dotty as Dietrich shedding her heels to trek through the desert after Gary Cooper's legionnaire at the end of Morocco).

Speaking of women and deserts, I return to my theme of the strange lack of comment in the generally ecstatic reviews of Bolano's The Savage Detectives on its feminism, which you'd think would be a theme to inspire the liberal intelligentsia. TSD is a boy's-club novel to end all boy's-club novels, focused on the homosocial, Doherty-and-Barat relationship between the two founders of an obscure, outsider, failed poetry movement, based on Bolano and his best friend. And yet these overgrown boys go chasing after an even more obscure, self-erasing female poet who's disappeared into the desert, in what to all intents and purposes is a sort of pilgrimage. Why? What's up with this? Is it a comment on the historical erasure of women, women's art, women's contributions to culture, women's voices? Why does the erased woman stand for poetry, or the possibility (or the impossibility) of poetry? She's not the Muse: she's the Master. Not a saint, though: a prophet, of the fantastic misogyny exhaustively recorded (and participated in?) in 2666. Of all the crimes Bolano could choose to represent the decadence of the West in the early 21st century, and the negative legacy of the 20th century, he chooses misogyny.

I Just Stand Around and Shoot Into the Blue

Female intellectuals talking to, or about, female intellectuals, remains a rare thing. If women (even Great Women) get together and talk, we expect they're going to talk about women. Or men. Certainly not make pronouncements on topics of general cultural interest and importance. And certainly not deify each other. (Paglia never wrote that book on Madonna, either. Although I think we can all be grateful for that. I just hope she never writes the one on Saint Palin.) So that in the annuls of female intellectuals (not feminists) writing about women (pre-Paglia, whose chapter on Emily Dickinson remains extraordinary), Elizabeth Hardwick's essay on Hedda Gabler (the character) stands out for me, even though, as a female intellectual, Hardwick takes offence at Hedda's (at Hedda's; she treats her like a real person, a historical Great Woman, not Ibsen's creation) narrow pettiness (rather than, as I did in my Hedda essay, taking glee in it as the most outrageously, unapologetically, unsentimentally amoral female character in the annuls of literature). (“I'm burning your child, Ejlert Lovborg. Yours and Thea Elvsted's child.” How I've longed to say those lines in performance; right up there with “I have more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in / Imagination to give them shape / Or time to act them in.”)

(I had a real epiphany about that play when I learned, in some book on Ibsen, that in early drafts Hedda, rather than being a creature of motiveless malignity, was given the sympathetic motivation of genuinely trying to help her husband by destroying Lovborg. By the time of the final draft – and this is the originality of Hedda Gabler, Hedda Gabler, and Ibsen – the very concept of that is a joke that sends Hedda into fits of mordant hilarity. Ibsen was the most murderous feminist of them all.)

(Incidentally, I find this excellent, brief review of Antony and Cleopatra by a female blogger very Hardwickian. The Hardwicks of today, they're blogging, aren't they?)

Oh, there's been plenty of feminist hagiography, don't get me wrong. With a few chosen saints, of which Sylvia Plath (forever fixed in the cultural consciousness crushed under the boot of her deified/demonized Nazi Daddy) is so prominent that I found myself grateful for the sacrilege of James Maker's line “A sonnet from a sociopath / I annihilated Sylvia Plath” from “Born That Way.” (Or maybe I just got the mordant giggle-fits at the idea of rhyming “sociopath” with “Sylvia Plath.”)

The thing is, if I did write that book on Paglia, it would hardly be appropriately titled Saint Paglia. If there is to be a Lesbiography, I would want it to take a perspective that's not idolatrous, but iconoclastic. We don't need to celebrate any more Great Men, or sentimentalize our feminist martyrs. We need not new heroes (or heroines), but a new perspective.

If I call myself “gynocentric” (at which Quiet Riot Girl recently – rightly – took umbrage) it's in relation to a cultural context where it's still expected that the intellectual-oriented woman will also be male-oriented. And don't get me wrong, I like the intelligent conversation of men and always have. I don't exclude anyone from intellectual discourse based on gender. But I'm no more likely to want to talk ideas with a man than with a woman (or vice versa). Despite this, I have not escaped the sense of being "honoured" by having male intellectuals bestow their interest upon me, as though my credibility in my own eyes somehow depended upon it, or was enhanced by it. 

Remembering that high school English teacher (rumoured to be gay, although I hardly knew what that was despite Reading All About it in Orton's published diaries) with whom I had antagonistic chemistry because he would not take me seriously (to be fair, I was demanding acknowledgement that I was a genius; then I proved that I might be, but he still wanted me to prove that I could impress him in the context of a high school English assignment, which I did once), who gave me Shaw's Pygmalion to read, which I fancifully half- interpreted as a comment on our relationship, and I thought, "No, you will not be my Henry Higgins. Even though, or because, that is exactly what I want." I was not falling into that paradigm. I would go it alone, lonely, without the male mentor. I would go it alone, lonely, without the artist boyfriend, seeking a Muse. 

I certainly went it alone. 

That incident made its way, in a way, into Live With It. (The Pygmalion fantasy, accepted, and turned into nightmare.)

This in preface to a post on a few of my favourite, mysterious female artists.  


  1. Ha! Excellent stuff.

    Obviously there is loads to say.

    I hope my Henry Higgins reads this. But that might defeat the object.

    I expect none of us can escape the Mother or Father of our psyches so in trying we are fucking up already.

    As for feminine/female hagiography (I like the sudden significance of 'hag' there), I think it is very different from the fag version, and Plath is a good example. I might have to explore that one...

    I have it on good authority too that Mr Maker has an aversion to poetry. So maybe he is just terrified that Sylvia Plath will annihilate him so he had to get in there first. But she got there first by annihilating herself.

  2. I have a feeling he's trying to steal cred for Plath's annihilation from her! It was, after all, her self-canonizing act.

  3. 'We don't need to celebrate any more Great Men, or sentimentalize our feminist martyrs. We need not new heroes (or heroines), but a new perspective. '

    Exactly. So why can't I criticise 'Saint Morrissey' on those grounds? Is it just because it is by Saint Simpson? :D

  4. No, it's because it's about SAINT MORRISSEY, of course!

    No, seriously, this post is my absorption of our discussion and some of your points. But 'Saint Morrissey' (uh-oh, I'm going to start it again...) is a better book than 'Shakespeare: TIOTH.' If only because it's shorter and done with a bigger twinkle, and does give a well-written account of the phenomenon of being a fan.

    Let's say we don't need any more books about heroes *now*. Simpson's can be the last. As Hamlet says. "I say let there be no moe marriage! All those who are married now, may keep as they are. Except one."

    (Yeah. I start (mis-)quoting Hamlet at the drop of the hat. After just waking up.)

  5. I have not read the Shakespeare one. Like I said, I am not interested in Fagiography except as the bane of my life.

  6. I don't feel honoured by the acknowledgment of men in the realm of intellect but I do feel stimulated by them, in a different way from women. I am sure it has something to do with sex but I am not entirely sure what. When I say 'sex' I may mean 'power'

  7. Paglia (although a lesbian) said much the same thing about finding men (including gay men, probably!) more stimulating. I don't think I've ever had that. I know I am *much* more antagonistic in intellectual arguments with men, though that's not always a bad thing - it can be mutually stimulating. (Mark S is a big exception, actually. No antagonism from either corner, so far. It's weird!)

    I don't think I've ever had any trouble conceiving women as "powerful." Certainly not the women I seem to end up conversing with. Or did you mean a struggle for power?

  8. I am not entirely sure you will have to ask my subconscious.

    I think I have enough antagonism towards Saint Simpson for the both of us

  9. Wow--so much to respond to. First of all, this post impressed me as being so very much more thoughtful than most posts out there, especially on this subject. I had a funny moment with Paglia. I was in college and underachieving (reading novels I chose instead of the ones assigned in some misguided rebellion, etc.), and then I saw Paglia talking on Book TV. Yes, I thought she seemed manic and a bit unhinged, but I also saw a sort of knowledge and passion that cemented what I wanted to be "when I grew up"--a writer and thinker. She has said many things that I have disagreed with, and that have even offended me, but I still hold onto that strike of life that I felt when watching her, and later reading her. I've had a similar affair with Plath.

  10. Thank you, Caroline! Yeah, I think it was Paglia's passion for *scholarship*, above all, that inspired me with an idea of something I wanted to be when I grew up. I've decided not to go down the professorial path after all, but that doesn't mean I don't still have that ideal.

  11. I wonder if it is a north American thing.

    In Britain, Paglia didn't make so much of a stir I don't think, except in academic circles, if then. I only remember the interview where she stormed out, taking her mike off as she went.

  12. Gay men in the UK managed to find her, anyway. I don't think Mark and I would ever have got to talking without Paglia. Morrissey alone wouldn't have done it.

    I remember reading about that huffy interview. (I think I've only ever seen one Paglia filmed interview. The one that introduced me to her.) Unlike Courtney Love, Paglia never did figure out how to assimilate in the UK. Courtney Love whom, by the way, Paglia unreasoningly hates. Why? Because she can't stand the existence of another powerful woman. Unless they're Lipstick Butch Dykes, like Madonna or Palin, so she can have a boner for them.

  13. I did know who Paglia was but I was from academic stock.

    Gay men knew who Paglia was because she justified everything they have ever fantasised about themselves.

    Mark read Sexual Personae and probably got a boner himself.

  14. Morrissey is what everyone has in common. Paglia is more niche it's true, but also a bit passe.

    I respect her ideas from 1990 but that was 20 years ago. If her next book is good I will respect her again. If not she's just an old pantomime dame to me.

  15. "Gay men knew who Paglia was because she justified everything they have ever fantasised about themselves" And that is the TRUTH.

  16. I'll await to see how much you like, and I hate, her new book then. I'll be shocked if it's the other way around!