Friday, November 21, 2008

Looking Backward on the Feminist Literary Theory Class - in the mind of Virginia Woolf


Such a simple proposition as a course discussion should hardly need a preamble, but I’ve recently drunk deeply of Derrida’s Archive Fever and, enamoured of his structure, I find myself wanting to emulate, or copy, though that sounds so banal. Nevertheless, this response is simply a copy so banality may be appropriate. Let me begin with a story—one I was telling someone recently, perhaps you?—for many years, I took a holiday on Virginia Woolf’s birthday, January 25th and often the day she took her final swim in the Thames, March 28th, I found describing it as a final swim gathered me fewer looks askance than to say, baldly, the day she died. The point of this story is simply this: for many years, two days of my life were dedicated to Virginia, reading her, thinking of her, pretending to be in her mind. And while I beg you to tell this to no one, sometimes, I still do it. As I did here, creating a copy, not a reflection for that is too accurate and of an artfulness greater than I could muster, perhaps an emulation, the desire to create a copy with the awareness of the inability to achieve such perfection, of not what Virginia would have said, but rather how she might have said it. So it is here where we begin.


Polemical. Shrill. Strident. Unsubtle. Screed.

Are these words of praise or condemnation? I will return to that question, but let me begin by defining feminism and feminist literary theory with a detour through a definition of feminist theory along the way. It is cold outside today, and the sun sinks now too early in the day. Without leaves on the trees outside my window, it shines in my eyes between three thirty and four thirty in the afternoon. I’m hungry for the sun, though, so I let it shine in my eyes, probably to the future detriment of my cornea. Why does this matter? It seems to me that one of the most fundamental ways that we come to understand the world and more importantly to think critically about the world is through our eyes, through what we see and observe, yes, but also through what we read. This is why in defining feminism I think about my eyes and the sun and where it shines brightly and where it doesn’t, for where it doesn’t shine brightly is where we need to hold up a torch, a lamp, some other source of light and then direct the gaze of the world. What is feminism in this allegory? Feminism is not the torch, the lamp or the source of light, feminism is the hand that holds it and the “still small voice” that asks the world to direct its gaze.

I imbricate feminism here and the voice of G-d that Elijah hears; the story of Elijah in I Kings is also part of the story of Jezebel if you read the prophets not for the stories of the fathers, but also for the stories of the mothers and sisters, which it seems to me that that is part of what feminist literary theory is: a system of both reading and excavating stories of the mothers and the sisters. As Virginia Woolf writes, “a woman writing thinks back through her mothers” and since then, we have all be trouncing around the gardens with Alice in search of our mothers. You will see the way I imbricate here, not feminism and G-d, but Virginia and Alice, and in doing so suggest a matriarchal lineage and an extension perhaps of that definition, which becomes so elusive the further I consider it, of feminist literary theory because you see if we have defined the feminist as the hand to hold the light and the voice to direct the gaze, and the literary as the stories of the mothers and the sisters, I’d like to suggest by the implication above that the literary is both the reading and the writing and re-reading and re-writing of these stories of the mothers and the sisters by the daughters and the sisters and the granddaughters and the sisters. As we’ve seen, the division between the writing and the theory, between the theory and the practice, between the writing and the practice, is as faulty as the division between Elijah and Jezebel, though one’s story is told and repeated in greater detail, but on that I do not want to dwell, so let me return to the garden, the garden where the women are reading the stories of the mothers and the sisters. We find them in the gardens, with their heirloom tomatoes and their large sunflowers and the many roses and daisies and poppies, the time is sometime before now, long ago, perhaps, though not too long ago. These women are joyful; it is the joy of feminist literary theory and feminist literary practice as women sat among the flowers seeing them as if for the first time with the splendor of their new-founded fragrance and the glory of their brilliant colors; although the garden, like the sun outside my window, fades. It is cyclical, in the seasonal way, though, not a repetitive way, and so the garden changed through fall and winter, and the stories of the mothers and the sisters and their readers, which we thought might be unusual or unique, are still tied to the other stories, the old stories of the fathers and the brothers and they raise the palimpsest of Elijah’s despair, “I am no better than my fathers,” and some wonder, are the daughters, the mothers, no better than the fathers and the brothers? And they are unsettled, and it is, as some would say, good.

Lest I be too caught in bombast and aware of your time, I shall return to the original question, which was, as you will recall, not about feminism, nor feminist literary theory, nor feminist theory, which I realize I’ve hardly attended to at all, though feeling obliged I shall remind you of Miss [sic] Rich, “Theory—the seeing of patterns, showing the forest as well as the trees—theory can be a dew that rises from the earth and collects in the raincloud and returns to earth, over and over. But if it doesn’t smell of the earth, it isn’t good for the earth.” Which unwittingly takes me to my original words that occasioned this meditation for I began, you will recall, with these words: polemical, shrill, strident, unsubtle, screed, and I asked you if they are words of praise or condemnation and now perhaps you will see that in fact they are neither though nor are they simply descriptors for they have been tainted too much through improper gendered usage. If I were bold, I might ask, how many have you been called, as though name-calling might be measure of something. . . of what? This I do not know, so I refrain from the question as I wish others would show similar restraint though that is not quite accurate because restraint is exactly what we need less of, though to say it is to risk the assignation of the very words with which I began something that I am neither trying to avoid nor am I seeking to invite. So let me make this plain and hasten to my conclusion. Those five words are simply that: words, yes words. They are with their champions, as we’ve seen, and I’ve recently read a quite compelling analysis of feminist polemics by Miss [sic] Flannery (1) speaking of documents from the feminists in the 1970s, but champion these words they may they remain to me simply words; four adjectives and a verb with aspirations to return.

(1) Feminist Literacies, 1968-1975. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2005.


I’m aware of the perils of positing oneself as other than what is and remain as always at the disposal of the gentle-lady who drives this “mystery ride” and happy to comply with an alternate response which might be, in the end, more directly responsive to the challenge posed and less fussy though inevitably, invariably, less fun.

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