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"The Consequences of Language Theft: Stealing the Language Twenty Years Later" by Marianne DeKoven
Stealing the Language has aged incredibly well. Some books from that heady heyday of second-wave feminist criticism now seem dated–too utopian, too doctrinaire, too wedded to one or another theoretical approach to the questions of gender and literature and of women’s writing, too lacking in nuance and in faithful attention to the literary text. Stealing the Language suffers from none of these quite understandable impediments to longevity.
For a specific example, I will look at Alicia’s brilliant, still-fresh treatment of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own of 1929. No other text has been, or remains, more important to the feminist literary theory and criticism of the past thirty-five years. I return to it regularly, always finding something challenging or useful, always deeply moved. It was the subject of one of our more notorious debates. Elaine Showalter, in her great founding work A Literature of Their Own, 1977, saw Woolf’s work in general, and A Room in particular, as a flight from feminist anger into androgyny (her chapter on Woolf is entitled “Virginia Woolf and the Flight into Androgyny”), and also into the rarefied, private, inner space of the psyche, indirectly expressed in literary writing through beautifully inaccessible modernist imagery. Toril Moi, in her influential Sexual/Textual Politics of 1985, uses the treatment of Woolf as a kind of feminist litmus test, which pragmatic Anglo-American feminist criticism fails, and Continental French theory aces by recognizing in Woolf the creation of a multiple, fluid, shifting feminine subject position in writing.
It is the question of women’s anger, so central to many feminist considerations of this book and to a great deal of feminist work in general, that, like Showalter, but very differently from Showalter, Alicia addresses in Stealing the Language. Alicia is not caught on either side of this debate. She discusses A Room early in her crucial chapter “Herr God, Herr Lucifer: Anger, Violence, and Polarization.” This chapter refuses either to glorify or to condemn the inevitable expression of rage in women’s writing. Rather, Alicia amply gives feminist anger its due, while at the same time remaining alert to, and, characteristically for her, keenly honest about, the kinds of writing anger produces. I would like to do a close reading of Alicia’s stunning reading of A Room of One’s Own.
Alicia begins with a complex and surprising sentence. Here is the first half of that sentence: “To remember the history of the shrew is to begin to understand the suave tone of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own” (124). The juxtaposition of the words “shrew” and “suave” is inspired. We see here the poet’s gift: two words of one syllable, both beginning with “s,” balanced within their surrounding phrase, but charged with mightily opposing worlds of sound and connotation. Alicia first grabs hold of the worst, most oppressive and enraging force of the misogynist patriarchal tradition and calls it by name: “shrew.” We are reviled, belittled, and kept down; we try to strike back; we are labeled “shrew.” So, we are asked by Alicia to “remember the history of the shrew,” but not in order to understand Woolf’s actual expressions of rage in A Room, of which there are many, or to attack her for trying to escape from that rage into an anger-denying and feminism-negating theory of androgyny, but, rather, to “begin to understand” her “suave tone.” It might sound at first, from “suave tone,” as if Alicia is indeed about to recapitulate Elaine Showalter’s argument about Woolf’s flight from feminist anger. She is not. Rather, she will forge a powerful, complex, multiply-valenced link between the history of the shrew and the suave tone of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own.
The first sentence continues: that suave tone is “ironically wondering why there are no great women poets while imagining one or another potentially great woman poet over the centuries, ‘crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to’” (124). Alicia makes clear here the complexity of Woolf’s strategy for negotiating the tightrope she must walk, the closed box full of sharp, pointed daggers through which she must maneuver. Woolf must not seem to be angry; she must seem to accede to the consensual male judgment that there are no great women poets. That is a given fact of the nearly impossible situation within which she writes about women and fiction, an assignment that she describes, in that suave ironic tone, as a heavy “weight” “laid upon [her] shoulders,” a weight by which she feels “bowed down” (4). Nonetheless, in pointing out that Woolf posits a number of potentially great women poets, Alicia makes it clear that Woolf does not accede to the consensual male judgment that there are no great women poets because women are incapable of great poetry. Rather, “potentially great” women poets are thwarted in their greatness by the torture inflicted not by their gift itself, but by the world that calls them “shrew.” In the very suaveness of her tone, precisely in her indirection, in what she refuses to say, as Alicia shows, lies the bite of Woolf’s feminist critique.
Alicia’s next sentence draws us deeper into this many-layered text, and advances the argument to its next phase, by summing up the book in a compact and witty paradox: “The most eloquent argument against anger in women’s writing appears, duplicitously enough, in a work which seems designed to induce it” (124). This sentence acknowledges Woolf’s argument against anger in women’s writing, refusing to try to rationalize it or explain it away. It also acknowledges, without being particularly judgmental about it, Woolf’s central duplicitousness in A Room, a duplicitousness that is at the core of Alicia’s feminist reading. The most radical element of this sentence is its final claim, that A Room seems “designed” to “induce” anger in women and, by implication, also in women’s writing. The book that is attacked for evading or denying anger, or that is analyzed in relation to multiplicity of feminine subject positions rather than in relation to the question of anger, is, by Alicia, reframed as a book designed precisely to make its women readers angry.
Alicia follows this complex, elegant, pungently expressed staking out of the territory of her analysis with an equally powerful, seemingly neutral critical unpacking, that refers to without either explaining away or fully accounting for the claim of the text’s “duplicitousness”: “Woolf has several linked objectives in A Room of One’s Own. One is to dissect the economic, social, and intellectual system of patriarchy under which women have been barred from writing. A second is to define the conditions of economic and social independence under which creativity can occur. A third is to define art itself, in its highest form” (124). Despite the disinterested, scholarly tone of these sentences, and the use of the time-honored scholarly trope of enumeration, Alicia is actually making another radical claim about this text here. The second and third sentences are noncontroversial: Woolf says very clearly that women need privacy and minimal economic security, independent of male control, in order to write without impediment, and she does devote considerable effort and space to trying to describe what writing without impediment might mean. It’s the first of Alicia’s sentences that is radical: Woolf never says, in A Room, that “women have been barred from writing.” In fact, as we have seen, she discusses the ways in which gifted women writers have been tortured, and the ways in which that torture inevitably marks their writing. Alicia undoes in this sentence Woolf’s carefully constructed protective camouflage, revealing, in the directness of her own statement, how clear the feminist statement Woolf is camouflaging actually is in A Room. As Alicia says, Woolf shows us how “the economic, social, and intellectual system of patriarchy” actually prevents women from writing.
Alicia then proceeds as if she hasn’t in fact just made a major revisionary intervention into our understanding of this crucial book. She goes on to adduce, without fear or heat, as Woolf might put it, precisely the material in A Room that second-wave feminist critics found most troubling and troublesome: “Woolf argues neither that rage defeminizes a woman nor that it subjects her to hostile criticism, but only that it produces inferior art” (124). She quotes Woolf’s encomium to Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s freedom from the impediment of anger, and her attacks on Lady Winchelsea, Margaret of Newcastle, and, most notoriously, Charlotte Brontë, for their inability to prevent their anger from marring, twisting, and deforming their poetry and prose. Describing Woolf as “summariz[ing] her contention that art and protest are intrinsically incompatible,” Alicia quotes this passage: “It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman . . . for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death.” (125). Alicia then more or less allows the painful overstatement and tormented excess of this statement to speak for itself: “The tuned ear,” Alicia says, “may hear faintly echoing, in Woolf’s metaphors of artistic deformity, the conviction that the unsubmissive woman is unnatural, a physical monstrosity” (125). Alicia attributes Woolf’s sense that “great art is sublimation” to “a modernist creed which she shares, for example, with Eliot and Joyce–and which has an unmistakable aura of sexual taboo clinging to it” (125). But isn’t Woolf also, I would add, I hope in the spirit of Alicia’s argument, doing precisely the thing she says women must never do?
Alicia goes on in fact to say her own version of what I take to be the same thing: “A few passages near the conclusion of A Room of One’s Own directly subvert the author’s position.” She quotes Woolf’s injunction to her audience to “write what you wish to write,” never to “sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision,” and says, wonderfully, “what if a woman’s vision is angry? What if the hair on the head of her vision stands up hissing like Medusa’s?” (126). She then returns to her founding idea of Woolf’s duplicitousness, and develops it with such power and deftness that I will quote her at length:
We have arrived at the core of A Room of One’s Own. There is no flight from anger to androgyny, and, though there are of course multiple, fluid and de-defined feminine subject positions constructed in and through writing, there is also, make no mistake, a feminist manifesto. This feminist manifesto is delivered to us by Alicia with wit, subtlety, the highest intellect, and immensely powerful language.
Woolf’s own strategy, of course, is quintessentially duplicitous. On the one hand she defines the sufferings of female intellect under patriarchy, employing novelistic and rhetorical skills that might make a stone weep with rage; on the other hand her tone remains light, arch, merely mocking, condemning the passion she provokes. It is as if the Communist Manifesto were written in a charmingly ironic style and expressly reminded the working classes at all costs to avoid revolution. (126)
To conclude, I would like to quote a very moving statement from the last chapter of Stealing the Language, the chapter entitled “Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythology.” Again, I will quote Alicia at length:
I wondered, as I re-read this inspiring passage, whether I could do a Woolfian Mary Carmichael experiment: whether I could open any book written in the past few years by a young woman, writing strongly as a woman, and find a vigorous and varied invasion of the sanctuaries of existing language, an intention to subvert and transform the life and literature she inherits. I approached this experiment with some trepidation, as I think you can imagine. So many, for so long now, have ceased to write or to believe as Alicia did, as we did, in 1986. I scanned my shelves. Too many of the books by women I was very certain would meet Alicia’s criteria were not written by young women, and were written themselves in the 70s, 80s, early 90s. Have we returned to the Woolfian necessity for camouflage? Have we decamped altogether in hopeless dismayed failure?
My argument throughout this book has concerned the already very large body of poetry by American women, composed in the last twenty-five years, in which the project of defining a female self has been a major endeavor. What distinguishes these poets, I propose, is not the shared, exclusive langage des femmes desired by some but a vigorous and varied invasion of the sanctuaries of existing language, the treasuries where our meanings for “male” and “female” are themselves preserved. Where women write strongly as women, it is clear that their intention is to subvert and transform the life and literature they inherit. (211)
Then I saw on my shelf Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and I was relieved. We can look for a moment, as an example, at Chapter Eleven, “The Miseducation of Irie Jones.” Irie has dreams about a sign on a lamppost near her house, a sign that reads “LOSE WEIGHT TO EARN MONEY.” “Now, Irie Jones, aged fifteen, was big. . . the girl had weight; big tits, big butt, big hips, big thighs, big teeth. She was 182 pounds and had thirteen pounds in her savings account. She knew she was the target audience (if there ever was one), she knew full well, as she trudged schoolward, mouth full of doughnut, hugging her spare tires, that the ad was speaking to her. It was speaking to her. . . . A little Caribbean flesh for a little English change” (221-2). The self-hating monstrous woman is still with us, the traffic in women is still with us, the colonialist sex-gender relation is still with us, but here is Zadie Smith writing hilariously, pungently, knowingly, and transformatively about it in order to blast it all wide open. I can’t imagine that Alicia Ostriker doesn’t love this book.
Marianne DeKoven is Professor Emerita of English at the Rutgers University. She is the author of Utopia Limited: The Sixties and the Emergence of the Postmodern (2004), Rich and Strange: Gender History, Modernism (1991), and A Different Language: Gertrude Stein's Experimental Writing (1983). She is also the editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Gertrude Stein's Three Lives (2006), and of Feminist Locations: Global and Local, Theory and Practice (2001). She has published numerous journal articles and book chapters on a range of topics, including modernism, postmodernism, gender, feminist theory, and twentieth-century fiction. She is currently working on a book project on gender, ethics, and animals in modern and postmodern fiction.