Monday, December 18, 2006

Book Notes: Sexual Politics (1969)

Kate Millett’s 1969 work of literary study and feminist theory aims at explaining how misogynous social relations poison sexual relations in reality and in literature. In other words, Millett expands the field of struggle to the bedroom and leaves the bodies of D.H. Lawrence, Sigmund Freud, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer in her wake. Actually, that’s not fair; most of her shots leave mere flesh wounds: for example, she doesn’t really deal with Freud seriously enough to call him “the strongest individual counterrevolutionary force in the ideology of sexual politics in the era” with any real authority. (241) And yet she does.

Most of her portraits of writers and thinkers reduce them to strategic positions on a chess board- were they feminist or anti-feminist? Were they revolutionary or counterrevolutionary? You’re either with us or you’re against us. To reduce the dream world of fiction to political parrying is painfully middlebrow and results in tone-deaf sentences like: “Ibsen’s Nora Helmer is the true insurrectionary of the sexual revolution; Salomé a retreat into archaic slanderous accusation, that symbolic emptiness that predicts the counterrevolution.” (213) What’s amazing about this sentence, for me, is how perfectly it encapsulates a take on these plays that is the exact opposite of my own. My belief: a bourgeois dish towel like Nora Helmer threatens no one, while Salomé still boogies through the nightmares of the civilized.

The worst part about all of this is the ugly idea that literary criticism can be reduced to party allegiances- who cares about an author’s use of language, creative insights, or depth of psychological understanding?! What really matters is whether or not they’re down with the revolution, baby! The most interesting idea here- that it is not possible to have politically neutral sex- is overshadowed by a literary analysis that doesn’t even seem to understand the difference between fiction and autobiography.

So, I think we need to separate the political argument from the literary one here. The political argument as I see it, is that the patriarchal family structure is the basis for all other hierarchal structures in civilization and so has to go. Moreover, patriarchy manifests itself in sex, which has to be dealt with, as well as in literature. Millet draws a surprising amount from Wilhelm Reich, which might serve to date this as a late 60s text. All of these arguments are interesting to me, if only because they're so at odds with the weak willed equivocation that seems to be the case in gender relations today. The fact that a 1950s gender stereotype like Jessica Simpson could be treated as a sex symbol should be cause for some alarm.

But, it's not entirely possible for me to tell if Norman Mailer was dissecting patriarchal sexuality, or championing it- probably a bit of both. And even if we agree that Mailer was a sexual reactionary, what are we to make of D.H. Lawrence? Can we really make him out to be a Jungian version of Archie Bunker, as Millet does? And it's much more difficult to get at the core of Henry Miller for me than it is for Kate Millet. There's something troubling about how quick feminist critics have been to dismiss writers like D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller who are, at least, challenging, if not egalitarian. Millet wrestles with them in a way that seems daring and challenging itself- but, she has to ignore a lot about their work in order to enlist them on the side of Patriarchy in a war that they might not have seen themselves as taking part in. Henry Miller's expressions of wounded masculinity over his chronically unfaithful wife cannot be reduced to a position in the struggle for women's liberation, even if they unsettle us.

At some point, literature has to be taken seriously as literature, and not as political work, or a Rorschach test of its author. Any number of critics since the late 60s have taken the same shortcut as Millet does in reducing art to agitprop, and at no small expense to our culture's sense of the value of art for its own sake.

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