William Faulkner, “The Sound & the Fury”

1929

The Sound and the Fury unfolds in four parts – Benjy’s disjointed narrative (Holy Saturday – April 7th, 1928), Quentin’s last day before suicide (June 2, 1910), Jason’s clear and cruel tale (Good Friday – April 6th, 1928), and Dilsey’s focalized perspective (though not in first person – Easter Sunday – April 8th, 1928). The novel’s title comes from the final soliloquy in Macbeth – “the tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot and signifying nothing” (the “nothing” pun in Naiman’s terms would be interesting here, given the centrality of Caddy’s sexuality). Once again, you could consider these as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Mark being the oldest source material for the other two synoptic gospels and John (the Dilsey section) being that of revelation.

Faulkner originally proposed representing Benjy in different-colored fonts, and to be sure, both he and Quentin are synesthetes (Benjy’s “smelled cold,” etc). Benjy’s narrative is odd because he cannot speak (he repeats “I tried to say”), but we see the world through his eyes. He seems to believe he creates the very world around him “the fire disappeared,” “the bowl appeared.” Benjy’s narrative accumulates moments that conflate all chronology or clock time – a heap of duree in one dose. His obsession with mirrors and what enters and exits their frames is thus interesting: Benjy watches to see his own creation of life, and is upset when the mirror disappears. He listens at the fence for the golfers to say “caddie” to hear the name of his sister, which no one else speaks.

The incest trope (Caddy and Quentin) functions here not so much for the shock, but because the plot hinges on unspeakability. Incest mobilizes the problems of kinship and loyalty, the inability for the characters to communicate – they all suffer from versions of Benjy’s “I tried to say,” a modern condition, perhaps. Dilsey and the other black characters escape/are erased from even the narrative effort: “These others were not Compsons. They were black:… Dilsey. They endured” 427.

Advertisements

Muriel Spark, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”

1961

Set in Edinburgh in the 1930s, this short novel tells the story of Miss Jean Brodie, an unmarried woman “in her prime” who inculcates her “set” of girls with “sophisticated” but misguided information about art, politics (fascism), and sexuality (she refuses to have an affair with Mr. Lloyd, but wants Rose to.) Eventually, she is betrayed by one of her own “set,” but only suspects that it is the plain, beady-eyed Sandy, now “Sister of the Transfiguration” and a writer. I am most interested in the narrative strategy of the text, which is unusual in its persistent use of prolepsis to give away the ending of the story. In this sense, it is a sort of narrative promiscuity, an enactment of the same misguided availability and openness that its title character (Jean Brodie) has taught its focalizing character (Sandy).

Judith Butler, “Gender Trouble”

1990

1999 PREFACE:

It is in sexual practice that gender is destabilized because “policing gender is sometimes used as a way of securing heterosexuality” xii [Foucauldian?].

“The sexist claims that a woman only exhibits her womannes in the act of heterosexual coitus in which her subordination becomes her pleasure… a feminist view argues that gender should be overthrown, eliminated, or rendered fatally ambiguous precisely because it is always a sign of subordination for women” xiv.

While we assume that gender is “an interior essence that might be disclosed,” this is “an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates” xv. This Butler stages as “metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself” xv. The notion of performativity Butler advances is “a repetition and a ritual… a culturally sustained temporal duration… the gendered stylization of the body” and “an hallucinatory effect of naturalized gestures” xv. This narrativization of performance also interests me in terms of duree. (Interestingly, Butler also asks us not to transpose the theory onto race unproblematically, but to consider what happens when it performativity tries to come to grips with race.)

In a way, this is an advocation of surface reading, for if we see a person in drag and take their assumed gender as the opposite of their performed one, we give the first one priority and call the second one “mere artifice, play, falsehood, and illusion” xxiii [Blade Runner]. Butler’s goal is to explore the vacillation of reading between categories as “the experience of the body in question” xxiv.

“To the extent that gender norms (ideal dimorphism, heterosexual complementarity of bodies, ideals and rule of proper and improper masculinity and femininity, many of which are underwritten by racial codes of purity and taboos against miscegenation) establish what will and will not be intelligibly human, what will and will not be considered to be ‘real,’ they establish the ontological field in which bodies may be given legitimate expression. If there is a positive normative task in Gender Trouble, it is to insist upon the extension of this legitimacy to bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal, and unintelligible. Drag is an example that is meant to establish that ‘reality’ is not as fixed as we generally assume it to be” xxv.

While this implies a history of symptomatic reading (the surface belies depth), it also values surface. It is neither pure surface, self-invention, language, or theatricality xxvi. “Those who are deemed ‘unreal’ nevertheless lay hold of the real” xxviii.

1990 PREFACE:

If woman is mystery for de Beauvoir, it might stem from the “trouble” Sartre locates in her ability to return the gaze xxx. For Butler, “power appeared to operate in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender” xxx. In a Foucauldian genaeological approach, Butler will look at gender as a set of effects, rather than causes.

“Gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real. His/her performance destabilizes the very distinctions between the natural and the artificial, depth and surface, inner and outer through which discourse about genders almost always operates” xxxi.

1: SUBJECTS OF SEX/GENDER/DESIRE

Rather than feminism based in identity politics, which glosses over issues of race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and individuality, Butler invites us to consider a coalitional feminism (rather than a universal basis on identity politics, which, as bell hooks suggests, already confronts issues of race) that would undermine the term “woman” and upset the patriarchal linguistic binary. In fact, gender is multiple and unstable 4.

The split between sex and gender is false for Butler, since both, and not just gender, are constructed: “gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or ‘a natural sex’ is produced and established as ‘prediscursive,’ prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” 10. If de Beauvoir sees men constructing their gender against woman’s lack and Irigaray holds that it is One phallogocentric gender that cancels woman altogether, Butler questions the idea of “being” a gender at all, as well as the necessity of being represented as such.

“Gender is a complexity whose totality is permanently deferred, never fully what it is at any given juncture in time. An open coalition, then, will affirm identities that are alternately instituted and relinquished according to the purposes at hand; it will be an open assemblage that permits of multiple convergences and divergences without obedience to a normative telos of definitional closure” 22 [Foucauldian, Deleuze & Guattari]

Gender, instead, is performative. “Intelligible” genders uphold “coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire 23.

“The identification of women with ‘sex,’ for Beauvoir as for Wittig, is a conflation of the category of women with the ostensibly sexualized features of their bodies and hence, a refusal to grant freedom and autonomy to women as it is purportedly enjoyed by men. Thus, the destruction of the category of sex would be the destruction of an attribute, sex, that has, through a misogynist gesture of synecdoche, come to take the place of the person, the self-determining cogito” 27 [Isherwood!]

Institutional heterosexuality has created this, since “gender can denote a unity of experience, of sex, gender, and desire, only when sex can be understood in some sense to necessitate gender” 30. [But where does that leave us now, since we can’t all drag and still get laid?] Another issue is language – Wittig claims it is only problematic in its applications, Irigaray in its content. Wittig ends up making polymorphous perversity a “telos” of human sexuality rather than its former state, however. “Woman itself is a term in process” 45.

 

Gender’s acts of “expression” constitute, rather than reflect, gender [vs. symptomatic reading! Here surface is content.] Both genders are open to resignification. This is where she calls for “gender trouble,” performance that troubles the binary: “a proliferation of precisely those constitutive categories that seek to keep gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions of identity” 46.

2: PROHIBITION, PSYCHOANALYSIS, AND THE PRODUCTION OF THE HETEROSEXUAL MATRIX

In this section, Butler challenges a utopian “pre-patriarchal” ideal as it appears in much feminist literature. Structuralist accounts, such as that of Levi-Strauss, depend on an idea of the transformation of sex into gender by means of the incest taboo, which creates a kinship structure around the exchange of women. Joan Riviere’s psychoanalytic approach claims femininity is a masquerade to hide masculine identification and lesbian desire. Finally, Freud’s theory on mourning and melancholia posits cathexis as identification, as the traits of a lost loved one are incorporated.

Butler challenges all three. In the case of incest, she argues that it is the presence of the taboo that incites incestuous desire. In Riviere, mimicry are the essence of gender, not an outward concealment of it. In Freud, we actually internalize the prohibited object via melancholia as we construct our own gender. This involves homosexual cathexis, but “heterosexual melancholy is culturally instituted as the price of stable gender identities.” Heterosexuality depends on homosexuality for its existence (is it Sontag who says this?). Approved heterosexuality and subversive homosexuality only exist after the law, which is generated and regulated via the incest taboo [Foucauldian]. “Not only does the taboo forbid and dictate sexuality in certain forms, but it inadvertently produces a variety of substitute desires and identities that are in no sense constrained in advance, except insofar as they are ‘substitutes’ in some sense” 103. Incest incites desire for the mother or father but also displaces that desire: “the notion of an ‘original’ sexuality forever repressed and forbidden thus becomes a production of the law which subsequently functions as its prohibition” 104.

3: SUBVERSIVE BODILY ACTS

In this section, Butler addresses Kristeva, Foucault, and Wittig. Recalling Kristeva’s argument that the feminine surfaces in language via the semiotic (vs the symbolic), Butler challenges the notion of writing and womanhood as reclamations of the body, but not homosexuality: “the unmediated cathexis of female homosexual desire leads unequivocally to psychosis” 117. On motherhood: “Kristeva conceptualizes this maternal instinct as having an ontological status prior to the paternal law, but she fails to consider the way in which that very law might well be the cause of the very desire it is said to repress.” In a Foucauldian argument, she claims that ideas of maternity themselves are products of discourse and power. “The female body that is freed from the shackles of the paternal law may well prove to be yet another incarnation of that law, posing as subversive but operating in the service of that law’s self-amplification and proliferation… If subversion is possible, it will be a subversion from within the terms of the law, through the possibilities that emerge when the law turns against itself and spawns unexpected permutations of itself” 127 [faceting!].

Butler examines the journals of the hermaphrodite Herculine who committed suicide when forced to live as a man. Prior to this, Herculine lived in “nonidentity.” Butler sees this idealism as a sort of “confessional” on Foucault’s part of his own (silent) homosexuality, since the idea contradicts what he argues for in History of Sexuality: namely, that there is no sex “prior” to power, and that sex is not a solution to discourse but part of it. “S/he is ‘outside’ the law, but the law maintains this ‘outside’ within itself… the law’s uncanny capacity to produce only those rebellions that it can guarantee will… defeat themselves” 144.

Sex is produced by compulsory heterosexuality – compulsory reproduction. Therefore, the binary of gender only exists in “the heterosexual matrix” and are naturalized there to conceal and reproduce it 150. Butler examines and agrees with Wittig’s formulation of lesbian sexuality. Wittig argues that women carry the burden of sex because they are always identified with/as sex. Thus sex is a way to designate the non-male by absence, and the synecdochic division of the body into parts (which we now feel is fact) fragments what is really a whole. “The body is itself a consequence of taboos that render that body discrete by virtue of its stable boundaries.” In lesbian sexuality, partners might multiply and proliferate signifying parts of the body. Lesbian sexuality must not posit itself all too radically outside heterosexuality, lest it consolidate that hegemony 174.

In the last part of the chapter, Butler asks why bodies are the surfaces on which gender is written. We enforce the boundaries of the body as a means of establishing taboo (thus AIDS being equated with anal sex – a threshold being crossed). Drag is a way to playfully exaggerate and undercut “original” gender.

“If gender attributes, however, are not expressive but performative, then these attributes effectively constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal. The distinction between expression and performativeness is crucial [since the former implies truth, but the latter implies there is no prior truth]… Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived. As credible bearers of those attributes, however, genders can also be rendered thoroughly and radically incredible” 193.

It’s interesting to use the word incredible – unbelievable – here. It ties this to fiction and narrativization, which she has done all along. )It is also, again, a form of surface reading, at least insofar as it makes surfaces count.)

4: CONCLUSION: FROM PARODY TO POLITICS

Butler tries to imagine a feminism free of the binary – the us/them or object/subject divide, as many feminists have thought before, is itself problematic and hegemonic. The subject is formed by repetition as signification (think of Stein!) Drag and other forms of parody destabilize and make apparent hidden assumptions about the “ontological locales” of gender (like Adorno on Beckett!) Butler hopes to have demonstrated how “the signifying practices that enable this metaleptic misdescription remain outside the purview of a feminist critique of gender relations” 202. We have no choice but to repeat the terms – the question is how or “to repeat, and, through a radical proliferation of gender, to displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself” 203 [how multiple is gender already, before this, I wonder?] Feminism’s foundationalist frame “presumes, fixes, and constrains the very ‘subjects’ that it hopes to represent and liberate,” in an “internal paradox” 203. The task is to “redescribe those possibilities as they already exist,” but in “unintelligible and impossible domains” 203. Gender’s “present proliferation might then become articulable within the discourses that establish intelligible cultural life, confounding the very binarism of sex, and exposing its fundamental unnaturalness” 203.

Barbara Johnson, “The Feminist Difference”

1998

Feminism is no longer one thing, Johnson begins. It speaks multivocally and with contradictions. “Double consciousness” in W.E.B. DuBois’ terms is made into a political problem when Freud puts “race” in quotation marks. In the complex interweaving of culture, gender, race, class, and psychoanalysis, “literature is important for feminism because literature can best be understood as the place where impasses can be kept and opened for examination… as a mode of cultural work” 13.

Johnson first examines Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Freud’s “Case of Hysteria” as locations of the figure (the outline or form, for Kant) and ground (the attention, or content, for de Beauvoir). The girl who is the “blank page” in Irigaray is here imagined as the “background” or “negative space” (think of Woolf’s Lily Briscoe). Psychoanalysis would like to suture subject and background neatly. In Hawthorne, the background changes, while the mark remains constant – their relation changes because the background does. In Gilman, the girl creates a form out of the texture of the background (wallpaper). The cost of achieving “definitive femininity” in Freud’s terms is the subject of both stories. What these texts engender is a coda in which the author or narrator steps back as reader to interpret the work. But the image of the body as “blank page implies that the woman’s body is white” 35. The problem of the black woman in American literature is one of Topsy having no origin and Dilsey having no end.

In “Muteness Envy,” Johnson considers Keats’ urn as a silent woman – “thou still unravished bride of quietness.” The chiasmus “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is a cancelling silence as well. The moment of the poem is the freezing right before “ravishing” – rape or ecstasy, we cannot be sure. Women are silent about pleasure or violation, Johnson argues. She reads the silence of Campion’s film The Piano as productive precisely because it can be read as rape or pleasure – it elicits polarized opinions. Feminism disrupts not because it speaks where women should be silent, but because it introduces an interference with male self-pity, which keeps attention and interest on the subjects, rather than the objects, of patriarchy.

In “The Postmodern in Feminism,” Johnson turns to semantics. Is postmodern a ‘good’ word? If postmodernism can be described by intense wordplay, decentered subjectivity, and language as social construction, we should consider in the postmodern era how legal language constructs women. In the indeterminacy of language, how can we speak of “women” if there “is uncertainty about what the word ‘woman’ means?” For Johnson, it is this very “incoherence of woman” that is “encountered in the engagement with the heterogeneity” of real women. Indeterminacy is the result of material existence, not the occlusion of it. She reiterates Cixous’ desire to stop talking of women in a reproduction of the binary in which “women are still standing facing men” 194. We must place difference among women, rather than between the genders, as if it were a war. The difficulty of this challenge constitutes the future of feminism.

 

bell hooks, “Ain’t I a Woman”

1981

hooks’ text takes its title from a speech given in 1851 by Sojourner Truth. hooks explains the way in which the convergence of racism and sexism placed black women on the bottom of the social ladder in every sense (think Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God). By disentangling race and gender, hooks’ text opens onto an important critical turn in identity politics. hooks begins with slavery, exploring how its tropes and stereotypes survive to this day (for example, the way the division of woman into madonna/whore is often drawn along white/black racial lines, displacing the negative quality onto black women alone).

hooks notes that scholarship has talked about slavery as though it only had psychic effects on black men, emasculating them. Instead, hooks argues that slavery masculinized black women by forcing them to do hard labor like men. Furthermore, she points out that while white men raped black women, so did black men – they were not their advocates, but often also their aggressors in a social world where family ties were severed by slave owners. Both were involved in the dehumanizing practices of “breeding” that characterized enforced sexual culture in slavery. “By completely accepting the female role as defined by patriarchy, enslaved black women embraced and upheld an oppressive sexist social order and became (along with their white sisters) both accomplices in the crimes perpetrated against women and the victims of those crimes” 49.

While the black power and civil rights movements were largely patriarchal, asking black women to erase their gender in the service of black male interests, white feminism was not concerned to articulate the needs of poor women and women of color. White feminists overlook the rape of black women as stemming from the image of their sexual “availability” in ways that are different from white women. Relatedly, white women who marry black men are seen as open minded, moving against a history of stereotypical “rape” of white women by black men, whereas black women suffer from both communities when they marry a white man, seen as allying themselves with a traitor. The two stereotypes available to black women are mammy and Sapphire – the first desexualized and maternal and happy, the other seductive, evil, and cunning. Both are characterized by the fear of appearing vulnerable (“available”).

hooks concludes her text by arguing not that black women should distance themselves from feminism because it is racist, but that feminism should distance itself from racism. Black women should reclaim the pioneering tradition of 19th century black feminists like Sojourner Truth for the problems of today.

Eric Naiman, “Nabokov, Perversely”

2010

Naiman’s book is premised on the idea that “the ‘good reader’ of Nabokov must be alert to the hidden meanings suggested by all sorts of seemingly chance or inconsequential details in the text; he must work to distort the normal meaning of language” 2. One of the most refreshing experiences of reading Naiman’s book is the feeling of being liberated from the enslaving attitude of genuflection so many critics of Nabokov have indulged in over the years. Naiman reads closely, carefully, and responsibly, but he also reads Nabokov’s instructions to us themselves as riddles and contradictions, rather than as orders we must follow blindly. Still, Naiman says that his book is about “loving Nabokov as he wanted to be loved. It is also about why it is difficult to do so” 14. 

Nabokov invites us to read perversely, but also ridicules the too-close reader, placing our anticipation in a fearful and anxious place. Nabokov naturalizes “perverse” forms of reading. Lolita, for instance, is “a perverse book, if by ‘perverse’ we mean a book that induces readers to express symbolically and vicariously impulses they normally censor and suppress,” he quotes Sarah Herbold 10. Perversion in the Freudian sense is the lingering over intermediate objects or regions of the body that are not directly involved in genital sex – this is also, however, the erotic. 

The chapters of Naiman’s book exploit the Shakespearean resonance of “nothing” as female genitalia in Lolita and moves on to queerness and aggression in reading Pale Fire and the use of con and chat in Pnin, an argument that has defined my reading of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. 

Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own”

1929

Woolf begins her treatise, as she does so many of her novels, in medias res: “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?” 3. The answer, for Woolf, is quite simple – in order for women to write, they must have the material conditions to write – 500 a year and a room of their own to write in. As in “Modern Fiction,” she says, “I give you my thoughts as they came to me” 7.

She records the horror she caused at a university by being off the garden path. She is refused from the library because she has no letter of entry. She records the evening meal for the men, with rich wines and puddings,

“And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself… how good life seemed” 11.

She compares this to the women’s meal, at which the scholar Jane Harris is in attendance. Everything is plain – broth, beef and potatoes, and dry biscuits, no wine. “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” she insists 18. Women do not individually or as intellectual groups have the tradition of “luxury and privacy and space” that men do 24. Though men write many books about women, women do not write about men. She feels “humiliated” by the titles and categorizing topics available to describe women.

“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size” 35 [think about Lacan’s mirror, the film screen, suture, realism, etc!] 35.

“Mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action” 36.

Woolf abolishes anger from herself, and says (like Eliot would of self-effacement in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”), that one must purify oneself of anger and resentment to write. Charlotte Bronte falls victim to this, Woolf claims, which we see in her writing. She seeks a Kantian disinterestedness: “freedom to think of things in themselves” 39.

Of the vote and money Woolf has inherited, money is unquestionably more helpful, she says. She imagines a world where women can take any occupation, once “womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation” 40.

“In a hundred years, I thought… women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them. The nursemaid will heave coal. The shopwoman will drive an engine. All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the protected sex will have disappeared” 40.

Woolf tries to imagine the conditions of women, beginning in the Elizabethan era. Why did women write nothing in the age of so many great male writers?

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners” 41.

Woolf points out that in literature, woman is central, whereas practically, she is insignificant to society:

“If woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction” 43.

Woolf uses the power of fiction to begin to imagine woman as more than “a vessel.” This she plays out by imagining a sister for Shakespeare: Judith. She would try to write against the obstacles of domestic labor and a lack of education. Eventually she would become pregnant and commit suicide, Woolf imagines:

“It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare” 46.

“Genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people” 49.

Woolf also claims women are less likely to want to impose their values on others, as is the colonial fashion 50. But society will not pay for what it does not want. It will question and suppress women’s writing. It will suggest that the most intelligent woman is inferior to the average man. She considers women like Dorothy Osborne, who never wrote anything but letters, thinking it was outside their domain.

In the late 18th century, however, “middle-class women began to write” for profit 65. Austen she places above Bronte, who was undoubtedly a genius, because her writing is emptied out of anger and hate 68. Again she discusses a mirror:

“If one shuts one’s eyes and thinks of the novel as a whole, it would seem to be a creation owning a certain looking-glass likeness to life, though of course with simplifications and distortions innumerable. At any rate, it is a structure leaving a shape on the mind’s eye, built now in squares, now pagoda-shaped, now throwing out wings and arcades, now solidly compact and domed… This shape, I thought, starts in one the kind of emotion that is appropriate to it… the shape is not made by the relation of stone to stone, but by the relation of human being to human being” 71.

“A book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes” 77.

Woolf holds to some gender essentialism akin to that of de Beauvoir:

“For we think through our mothers if we are women” 76.

“The book has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work. For interruptions there always will be. Again, the nerves that feed the brain would seem to differ in men and women”78.

“Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women” 82. / “If Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it, she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been” 84.

“A man is terribly hampered and partial in his knowledge of women, as a woman in her knowledge of men” 83.

There is no history of women by women to corroborate this, however. The strength of Mary Carmichael’s writing, which has “broken up Jane Austen’s sentence,” is that

“she wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself… she was not a skimmer of surfaces merely, but had looked beneath into the depths” 93.

“What does one mean by the unity of the mind, I pondered… if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting of of consciousness… when from being the natural inheritor of civilization, she becoems, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical” 97.

“Intellectual freedom depends on material things” 108.

“For the reading of [great] books seems to perform a curious couching operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life” 110.

It is because of this that the efforts to write the Judith Shakespeare within us are worth the effort, Woolf concludes.

Katherine Mansfield: Stories

Mansfield’s stories are remarkable for their clarity of image, their stirrings of stream of consciousness, and the way in which they resonate with the work of Virginia Woolf.

“PRELUDE,” 1918

Lottie and Kezia are moving away. Kezia is startled when she goes back into the house to get something. Aunt Beryl and the grandmother put Lottie, Kezia, and Isabel to bed together. The grandmother washes dishes and recalls Beryl being stung by red ants when they lived in Tasmania. The children play at being grown-ups. Kezia tells her cousin to “put head back on” the duck he has decapitated. They eat the duck for tea. The story ends with Beryl writing a letter to her ‘nan’ saying she is bored and false in the country. Kezia calls her to dinner and marvels that a jar of cream that flies off the dresser does not break.

“BLISS,” 1920

Bertha Young’s consciousness unfolds over the course of a dinner party she throws with her husband Harry. She starts out filled with bliss, as though she had “swallowed” part of the afternoon – she plays with her baby and looks at “a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom” in the garden. In attendance are the Knights, as well as the implicitly gay Eddie and the fascinating Pearl Fulton. She thinks Harry is rude to her, and hers is the only perspective we have as readers. She thinks again of the pear tree, which “would be silver in the light of poor dear Eddie’s moon.” Bertha tries to locate her interest in Pearl, which is at the fringes of desire, but ultimately realizes that she shares with Pearl an attraction to Harry. She realizes they are having an affair when she walks into the hallway and sees her husband take Pearl in his arms. She “laid her moonbeam fingers on his cheeks and smiled her sleepy smile.” As she leaves, Pearl mutters, “Your lovely pear tree!” “Bertha simply ran over to the long windows… But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.”

“GARDEN PARTY,” 1922

The in medias res beginning of the story, “And after all the weather was ideal,” reminds me so much of Mrs. Dalloway. The similarities continue as we watch Laura and Jose Sheridan and their mother prepare for a garden party, which is nearly interrupted by a death (recall Clarissa!). The sensations of the house, where all the doors and windows feel open, and there are an abundance of fragrant cut lilies, also remind me of Mrs. Dalloway. When the Sheridans learn that a man from the cottages at the edge of the property has died, Laura wants to call off the party. Mrs. Sheridan considers this “extravagant.” She sends Laura to the cottages with leftovers afterwards. Laura is taken with the beauty of the young man, who seems to be peacefully sleeping. The story ends with her musing, “Isn’t life…” to which her brother says, “Isn’t it, darling?”

“AT THE BAY,” 1922

This story seems almost like the bits of The Waves that begin each section with a time of day and the sea. It is told in one day, like the structure of that novel (which imagines each stage of life as a time of day), and involves the same characters as “Prelude.” It begins with Stanley swimming in the sea, tracks Kezia, Isabel, and Lottie playing, Linda remembering, and Beryl fretting over growing old alone. It ends with a cloud floating across the moon, and then “All was still.” The way the story draws attention to the objective world is also like To the Lighthouse. 

 

Jennifer Hayward, “Consuming Pleasures”

2009

Jennifer Hayward’s treatise on “active audiences” and serial fictions moves from Dickens to melodrama to soap operas in its scope. Hayward highlights the “low” quality of her texts: “Again we see the serial audience equated both with femininity and immaturity, and the texts themselves with pernicious social influences” 7. Yet she urges against using the master’s tools to undo the master’s house [is this really what hooks meant by that phrase?] – that is, she cautions against arguing for the uniqueness or exceptional value of some of these texts above others. Instead, she wants to consider them as potentially collaborative spaces that incorporate many characters and marginalized figures [Woloch]. “It is time to stop mourning a lost authenticity and start acknowledging – and working to increase – the real power that audiences can have over mass culture” 20. (I would like to compare this to Lauren Berlant’s use of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” in The Female Complaint).

Hayward’s emphasis on the self-effacing nature of the serial is clear – Dickens, comic strips, and soap operas are not meant for preservation. (I will have to argue differently for postmodern novels and serial TV.) She flirts with the double-edged sword of gender essentialism in this chapter: “Critics such as Tania Modleski and Robert C. Allen have seen soaps’ decentered narratives and refusal of closure as reflecting essential differences between male and female ways of knowing and experience of temporality… obstacles between desire and fulfillment” 141. However, “the trope of refusal of closure reflects the material conditions of generic development” in the soap, and we should stop before we diachronically represent all female production in a certain vein 141. What she focuses on is the fact that most soaps are still focused on women and written by women, and that women still collaboratively read, write, and respond to them 143. She concludes:

“Serial producers and consumers actively appropriate what has long been perceived as a junk genre and recycle it, transforming it to satisfy audience desire for a collaborative narrative experience. Because of their continued accountability to consumers, inscribing responsiveness to audiences within the production process, serials may offer cultural models for material transformation, models that come not from the directives of academic critics, not from marginal pockets of cultural resistance, but from within mass culture itself as a result of the influence of fans’ voices over time… a past that allows a viable future” 196.

 

dir. Melvin Van Peebles, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”

1971

The film opens with the lines “Starring the black community” and “Dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who are tired of being held down by the Man.” Sweetback, adopted into foster care, becomes a servant at a brothel and loses his virginity at a very young age (the repeating credit sequence of the prostitute’s orgasm). As a man, he performs in sex shows condoned by white police. All the white characters in the film speak like tape recorders – flat and colorless, almost nonsensical speech. Sweetback is arrested, the cops promise, as a distraction from their covert activities. He ends up beating the cops with his handcuffs still on when they begin to beat MoMo, the other guy in the cop car, who insults the police. Sweetback escapes and is beaten. He escapes again, trading sex for the removal of his handcuffs. He and a friend stumble into a Hell’s Angels den. To escape, Sweetback “pays” with sex, “fucking” a white woman in front of all the Hell’s Angels. She experiences wild pleasure. They leave and the rest of the film is occupied by increasingly paranoid, lonely montages of Sweetback fleeing the police in the desert. He trades clothes with a white hippie, disguises himself from the police once more by pretending to be having sex in the bushes, and finally makes it across the border to Mexico. The film ends with shots of the dead police dogs in the river, whose stones are dotted by blood. The screen reads: “WATCH OUT. A badass nigger is coming back to collect some dues.”

Melvin Van Peebles stars in and directs this film, often called the first of the blaxploitation genre. Many blaxploitation films have similar themes (orchestral, improvisational soul/funk soundtracks, a black here sticking it to the Man by a sort of trickster cunning, an overdetermined black male virility and fixation on the sexuality of black bodies, etc.). Still, it may be unfair to label the film this way, since Peeble’s goal was to draw attention to issues facing black culture while providing enough entertainment to garner wider audiences. It is retroactively labeled blaxploitation because it revealed to Hollywood the market for films about black heroes like Sweetback. It came out the same year as Shaft, which may have been the real start of the genre.