With the emergence of man from nature art emerged among the objects. There was nothing to distinguish or exalt it in the beginning. Art did not separate one kind of thing from the others but was rather a quality common to them all. To the extent to which things were made by human beings, art did not necessarily call for the skill of specialists. All things took skill, and almost everybody had it.
This is the way an essayist in the eighteenth century might have begun a treatise on our subject. By now his recourse to a mythical past would sound naïve and misleading, mainly because we have come to pride ourselves on defining things by what distinguishes them from the rest of the world. Thus art is laboriously separated from what is supposed not to be art—a hopeless endeavor, which has more and more disfigured our image of art by extirpating it from its context. We have been left with the absurd notion of art as a collection of useless artifacts generating an unexplainable kind of pleasure.
Rescue from this impasse of our thinking is not likely to come primarily from those of us who, established on the island of artistic theory and practice, look around at what else there is in the world to see; rather it will come from those who are curious about what human beings meet, make, and use, and who in the course of their explorations run into objects prominently displaying the property we call art. Psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists have been driven to view art in the context of nature, ritual, shelter, and the whole furniture of civilization. As a characteristic recent example I mention a thorough interview study, The Meaning of Things, by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, in which three generations of families from the Chicago area were questioned about their favorite possessions.1 Pictures, sculptures, and all sorts of craft work turned up at a more or less modest place in the inventory of the home, and the reasons given for their value make wholesome reading for specialists in aesthetics.
1. See Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, The Meaning of Things: Symbols in the Development of the Self (Cambridge, 1981).
Rudolf Arnheim retired from Harvard University as professor emeritus of the psychology of art. He then taught as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor until 1983. His most recently published book is New Essays on the Psychology of Art. At present he is preparing a new edition of The Power of the Center, a theory of visual composition first published in 1982.
In the fourth section of Goethe’s Zahme Xenien we find the quatrain from which I have taken the theme of such an old and new controversy, which, as I hope, concerns both Germanic studies and the other humanities:
“What was it that kept you from us so apart?”
I always read Plutarch again and again.
“And what was the lesson he did impart?”
“They were all human beings—so much is plain.”1
In the very years when Goethe wrote these lines, that is in the 1820s, Hegel repeatedly gave his lectures on the philosophy of history. Right at the beginning he formulated the opposite view which I should like briefly to characterize as “cultural relativism.”
Every age has such peculiar circumstances, such individual conditions that it must be interpreted, and can only be interpreted, by reference to itself…. Nothing is shallower in this respect than the frequent appeal to Greek and Roman example which so often occurred among the French at the time of their Revolution. Nothing could be more different than the nature of these peoples and the nature of our own times.2
What is at issue here is not, of course, Hegel’s assertion that ages and peoples differ from each other. We all know that, and Goethe, the attentive reader and traveler, also knew, for instance, that the Roman carnival differed in its character from the celebrations of the Feast of Saint Rochus at Bingen, both of which he had described so lovingly. What makes the cultural historian into a cultural relativist is only the conclusion which we saw Hegel draw, that cultures and styles of life are not only different but wholly incommensurable, in other words that it is absurd to compare the peoples of a region or an age with human beings of other zones because there is no common denominator that would justify us in doing so.
1. ‘Was hat dich nun von uns entfernt?’
Hab immer den Plutarch gelesen.
‘Was has du den dabei gelernt?’
Sind eben alles Menschen gewesen.’
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sämtlich Werke. Jubiläums-ausgabe in 40 Bänden (Stuttgart, 1902-7) 4:73; with commentary.
2. See Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorselungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte, Werke, 20 vols. (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1969-79), 12:17.
E. H. Gombrich was director of the Warburg Institute and Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition at the University of London from 1959 to 1976. His many influential works include The Story of Art, Art and Illusion, Meditations on a Hobby Horse, The Sense of Order, Ideals and Idols, The Image and the Eye, Tributes, Aby Warburg, and New Light on Old Masters. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry include “The Museum: Past, Present and Future” (Spring 1977), “Standards of Truth: The Arrested Image and the Moving Eye” (Winter 1980), and “Representation and Misrepresentation” (December 1984).
According to one of the rivals, “poets do not create from knowledge but on the basis of certain natural talents and guided by divine inspiration, just like seers and the singers of oracles.”1 There is “a form of possession and madness, caused by the muses, that seizes a tender and untouched soul and inspires and stimulates it so that it educates by praising the deeds of ancestors in songs and in every other mode of poetry. Whoever knocks on the door of poetry without the madness of the muses trusting that technique alone will make him a whole poet does not reach his aim; he and his poetry of reason disappear before the poetry of the madman.”2 Even knowledge cannot arise in a purely rational way. In his seventh letter Plato explains how “from a long and dedicated pursuit of the subject and from close companionship, [understanding] suddenly, like fire being kindled by a leaping spark, is born in the soul and straightaway finds nourishment in itself.”3 Thus understanding or building a work of art contains an element that goes beyond skill, technical knowledge, and talent. A new force takes hold of the soul and directs it, toward theoretical insight in one case, toward artistic achievement in the other.
The view adumbrated in these quotations is very popular today. Interestingly enough it seems to receive support form the most rigorous and most advanced parts of the sciences. This rigor, it is pointed out, is but a transitory stage in a process which has much in common with what Plato envisaged. Of course, it is necessary to make some changes: Plato’s knowledge was stable while scientific knowledge progresses. Plato assumed that outside forces—madness, divine inspiration—impinge on the soul while the moderns let the appropriate ideas, images, emotions arise from the individual soul itself. But there seem to exist many reasons to recommend a Platonism that has been modified in this way.
In the following essay I shall try to show that the reasons that have been given are invalid and that the view itself—the view that culture needs individual creativity—is not only absurd but also dangerous. To make my criticism as concrete as possible I shall concentrate on e specific group of arguments in its favor. And to make it as clear as possible I shall use arguments trying to show the role of individual creativity in the sciences. If these clear and detailed arguments fail, then the rhetoric emerging from more foggy areas will altogether lose its force.
1. Plato, Apology of Socrates 22c. Translations, unless otherwise noted, are my own
2. Plato, Phaedrus 245a.
3. Plato, Epistles 341c, d.
Paul Feyerabend studied singing and opera production in Vienna, history of theater and theatrical production at the Institute for the Methodological Reform of the German Theater in Weimar, and physics, astronomy, and philosophy in Vienna. He has lectured on aesthetics, the history of science, and philosophy in Austria, Germany, England, New Zealand, and the United States. At the moment he holds a joint appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. His books include Against Method (1975), Erkenntnis für freie Menschen (1981), and Philosophical Papers (1981). Forthcoming works are Farewell to Reason and Stereotypes of Reality.
It is hardly necessary to rent I Spit on Your Grave or Tool Box Murders for your VCR in order to find images of sexuality contaminated by depersonalization or violence. As far back as Rabelais’ Gargantua, for example, Panurge proposes to build a wall around Paris out of the pleasure-twats of women [which] are much cheaper than stones”: “the largest … in front” would be followed by “the medium-sized, and last of all, the least and smallest,” all interlaced with “many horney joy-dinguses” so that fortification would be impregnable, except for the “ordure and excretions” of the flies it would doubtlessly attract.1 Two centuries later, one of Rabelais’ compatriots, the Marquis de Lade, described the rage of a sexually initiated daughter against a woman who refuses to consider her “pleasure-twat” “cheaper than stones.” The Sadeian heroine first sodomizes her puritanical mother with an artificial penis, then has her infected with syphilis, and finally performs infibulations to prevent the infected semen from leaking out: “Quickly, quickly, fetch me needle and threat! … Spread your thighs, Mama, so I can stitch you together.”2
One century later in England, the author of My Secret Life explained that, when in a state of sexual excitement, “he is ready to fuck anything,” from his sister to his grandmother, from a ten-year-old, to a woman of sixty, for a standing prick has no conscience.” To this credo, he adds the admonition, “Woe be to the female whom he gets a chance at, if she does not want him, for he will have her if he can.”3 The sexually aroused man in the contemporary American film Looking for Mr. Goodbar curses the woman who does not want him as much as she wants a room of her own and the freedom to choose a succession of male lovers. After he resentfully determines to have her when he gets the chance (“All you got to do is lay there. Guy’s got to do all the work”), he rapes her and finally knifes her to death, exclaiming “That’s what you want, bitch, right? That’s what you want.”
However these individual works are labeled, such passages remind us of the long history of pornography, a gender-specific genre produced primarily by and for men but focused obsessively on the female figure. In their depictions of female sexuality, narratives from Gargantua to La Philosophie dans le boudoir, My Secret Life, and Looking for Mr. Goodbar explain why definitions of the pornographic have recently moved away from “obscenity,” a term that generally refers to the sexually stimulating effects of a picture, a novel, or a film on the male reader/observer, and toward “dehumanization,” a word that is used to evoke the objectification of women. As Irene Diamond has demonstrated, during the past decade the generally held assumption that pornography is about male sexuality has been qualified by those who argue that “the ‘what’ of pornography is not sex but power and violence, and the ‘who’ of concern are no longer male consumers and artists but women.”4
1. François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. Jacques Le Clercq (New York, 1936), bk. 2, chap. 15. I have used this translation because it is employed in Helene Iswolsky’s translation of Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (Cambridge, Mass., 1968). With no analysis of gender, Bakhtin’s exclusive focus on the grotesque wipes out the significance of Rabelais’ sexual imagery.
2. Marquis de Sade, quoted in a brilliant reading of this text by Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (New York, 1978), p. 127; all further references to this work , abbreviated SW, will be included in the text.
3. My Secret Life ([1984?]; New York, 1966), p. 361.
4. Irene Diamond, “Pornography and Repression: A Reconsideration,” in Women: Sex and Sexuality, ed. Catharine Stimpson and Ethel Spector Person (Chicago, 1980), p. 132.
Susan Gubar is professor of English and women’s studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Together with Sandra M. Gilbert, she has coauthored The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination and co-edited both Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets and the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English. This fall they will publish the first volume of a three-volume work, No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Her previous contribution to Critical Inquiry is “ ‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity” (Winter 1981).
In what is advertised as a “controversial coast to coast bestseller,” most men who were asked “How would you feel if something about you were described as feminine or womanly?” said (surprise) they’d be angry. Consider these voices from The Hite Report on Male Sexuality:
Enraged. Insulted. Never mind what women are really like—I know what he’s saying: he’s saying I should be submissive to him.
To be called “like a woman” by another man is to be humiliated by him, because most men consider women to be weak, and a man doesn’t want to be considered weak.
Chagrined. I may appear soft, but I carry a big stick. So watch out.
If I was described as having something “like a woman’s,” I would be outraged. I would defend my masculinity almost automatically. I wouldn’t like being compared to a woman’s anything.1
About two seconds of reflection should be enough to convince most of us that what is offered in The Hite Report on Male Sexuality as the representative testimony of contemporary American men is, in fact, representative: our relations with women are problematic, those with ourselves something worse. What Shere Hite does not call attention to is an intriguing recurrence in many of the responses: the question is heard as a charge and it is imagined to be coming from another male. The basic point now seems to me inescapable, though to say “inescapable” is in no way to say that the history of literary theory and criticism has found it so (or that I have always found it so). One way of understanding that history is to read it as a series of ingenious escapes from the basic point which is economic and sexual (in that order: the order of repression) and which goes something like this: What we know as “femininity” is internally linked to what we know as “masculinity” because both designations are highly motivated cultural constructions of biological difference that do powerful social work at the moment when they are lived, when they constitute the barely conscious and barely reflected upon substance of belief. The political synonym for “belief” is “ideology” in the particular sense of “ideology” as a constructed thing which nevertheless feels natural and is never (or is only rarely) experienced as a thing bearing interested human intention. The basic ideological point has to do with social engenderment, and it means, among other things, if you’re male, that you must police yourself for traces of femininity. If you’re male it means, among other things, that the great dread is not so much that another man might call you feminine or womanly (in our culture, a pretty dreadful prospect), but that you might have to call yourself feminine or womanly. The political issue of gender has recently been the special concern of feminist criticism and eventually, after a long look at Wallace Stevens, I’ll address feminism directly, in what may be its institutionally most potent form.
1. Shere Hite, The Hite Report on Male Sexuality (New York, 1982), p. 64.
Frank Lentricchia is professor of English at Duke University. This essay is part of a forthcoming book, Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James, Wallace Stevens. He has also published Criticism and Social Change (1983) and After the new Criticism (1980).
I would like to end this questioning of canonical origins by returning to my point of departure, [Lawrence] Lipking’s notion of a “poetics of abandonment.” Lipking’s article was included in an issue of Critical Inquiry entitled Canons, in which it seemingly was held to represent a feminist perspective on canon formation. Lipking centers his attention on literary theory, a domain that has been granted new prominence, sometimes even the status of literature, in the most recent reformulation of the canon. It may be, as Viktor Shklovsky suggested in Zoo, or Letters Not about Love, that literary theory is the novel’s successor, in which case the resurrection of Ovid’s abandoned women would make generic sense. Furthermore, for the first time in the history of literary criticism, there are today numbers of influential female literary critics, many of whom have called for a major reorganization of literary canons. Given the strategies deployed during previous moments of canon formation, it is perhaps inevitable that some of today’s male literary critics would instigate a debasement of theoretical mothers. Contemporary literary critics are no longer attempting to consign women writers to abandonment. However, even as they promote the cause of women writers, some may also be responding in a manner that reveals their perception that feminist literary theory has provided the most forceful recent challenge not only to literary canons but to critical canons as well.
In the final development in his attempt to prove that a mimetic investment in female pain is the basic theoretical strategy deployed by all female readers, Lipking provides an analysis of recent feminist theorists ending with this characterization of the authors of The Madwoman in the Attic: “Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar gaze at the mad and outcast heroines of the nineteenth century as if into a mirror” (“AS,” p. 68; my emphasis). Thus Gilbert and Gubar—Lipking also cites the examples of Kate Millett and Ellen Moers—become the most recent incarnations of the abandoned literary woman, the literary critic whose views originate in her fear of abandonment. If my analysis of strategies of canon formation deployed in earlier centuries is correct, then the pronouncement from Lipking’s article with which I opened this essay may be a red herring. “In the absence of mothers, a father must raise the right issues.” Lipking may be calling for “a poetics of abandonment” not in response to a perceived maternal deficiency, but in order to consign strong female critics to abandonment, out of a Phaeton complex, a fear that, unless female theorists are cast off, critical sons may have an increasingly difficult time proving their legitimacy.
See also: Joan DeJean, Did the Seventeenth Century Invent Our Fin de Siècle? Or, the Creation of the Enlightenment That We May at Last Be Leaving behind · Lawrence Lipking, Aristotle's Sister: A Poetics of Abandonment
Joan DeJean is professor of French at Princeton University. Her most recent book is Literary Fortifications: Rousseau, Laclos, Sade, and she is currently at work on a study to be titled Fictions of Sappho: Sappho’s Presence in French Literature, 1546-1937.
Emily Dickinson is the most paradoxical of poets: the very poet of paradox. By way of voluminous biographical material, not to mention the extraordinary intimacy of her poetry, it would seem that we know everything about her; yet the common experience of reading her work, particularly if the poems are read sequentially, is that we come away seeming to know nothing. We could recognize her inimitable voice anywhere—in the “prose” of her letters no less than in her poetry—yet it is a voice of the most deliberate, the most teasing anonymity. “I’m Nobody!” is a proclamation to be interpreted in the most literal of ways. Like no other poet before her and like very few after her—Rilke comes most readily to mind, and, perhaps, Yeats and Lawrence—Dickinson exposes her heart’s most subtle secrets; she confesses the very sentiments that, in society, would have embarrassed her dog (to paraphrase a remark of Dickinson’s to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, explaining her aversion for the company of most people, whose prattle of “Hallowed things” offended her). Yet who is this “I” at the center of experience? In her astonishing body of 1,775 poems Dickinson records what is surely one of the most meticulous examinations of the phenomenon of human “consciousness” ever undertaken. The poet’s persona—the tantalizing “I”—seems, in nearly every poem, to be addressing us directly with perceptions that are ours as well as hers. (Or his: these “Representations of the Verse,” though speaking in Dickinson’s voice, are not restricted to the female gender.) The poems’ refusal to be rhetorical, their daunting intimacy, suggests the self-evident in the way that certain Zen koans and riddles do while being indecipherable. But what is challenged is, perhaps, “meaning” itself:
Wonder—is not precisely Knowing
And not precisely Knowing not—
A beautiful but bleak condition
He has not lived who has not felt—
Suspense—is his maturer Sister—
Whether Adult Delight is Pain
Or of itself a new misgiving—
This is the Gnat that mangles men— [1331, ca. 1874]1
1. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston, 1960); subsequent references in the text to the poems will cite the Johnson number and the date assigned by Johnson to each poem.
Joyce Carol Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Lecturer at Princeton University and the author most recently of the booklength essay On Boxing. “Soul at the White Heat” will be included in her book of essays, (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities, to be published in the spring of 1988.
Bishop was both fully at home in, and fully estranged from, Nova Scotia and Brazil. In Nova Scotia, after Bishop’s father had died, her mother went insane; Bishop lived there with her grandparents from the age of three to the age of six. She then left to be raised by an aunt in Massachusetts, but spent summers in Nova Scotia till she was thirteen. Subsequent adult visits north produced poems like “Cape Breton,” “At the Fishhouses,” and “The Moose”; and Bishop responded eagerly to other poets, like John Brinnin and Mark Strand, who knew that landscape. Nova Scotia represented a harsh pastoral to which, though she was rooted in it, she could not return. Brazil, on the other hand, was a place of adult choice, where she bought and restored a beautiful eighteenth-century house in Ouro Prêto. It was yet another pastoral, harsh in a different, tropical way—a pastoral exotic enough to interest her noticing eye but one barred to her by language and culture (though she made efforts to learn and translate Portuguese and was influenced by the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade). Foreign abroad, foreign at home, Bishop appointed herself a poet of foreignness, which (as Rich justly says) is, far more than “travel,” her subject. Three of her books have geographical names—“North and South,” “Questions of Travel,” and “Geography III”—and she feels a geographer’s compulsions precisely because she is a foreigner, not a native. Her early metaphor for a poem is a map, and she scrutinized that metaphor, we may imagine, because even as a child she had had to become acquainted through maps with the different territories she lived in and traveled back and forth between. In the poem “Crusoe in England,” Bishop’s Robinson Crusoe, shipwrecked on his island, has nightmares of having to explore more and more new islands and of being required to be their geographer:
nightmares of other islands
stretching away from min, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands,
knowing that I had to live
on each and every one, eventually,
for ages, registering their flora,
their fauna, their geography.
This recurrent anxiety marks the end of one of Bishop’s earlier dreams—that one could go home, or find a place that felt like home. In “A Cold Spring,” a book recording chiefly some unhappy years preceding her move to Brazil, there had yet survived the dream of going home, in a poem using the Prodigal Son as surrogate. He deludes himself, by drinking, that he can be happy away, but finally his evening horrors in exile determine him to return:
Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats’ uncertain staggering flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make his mind up to go home.
[“The Prodigal Son”]
Helen Vendler is Kenan Professor of English at Harvard University. She has written books on Yeats, Stevens, Herbert, and Keats, and is now working on a study of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She has recently edited the Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry.