EDMUND WILSON SEEKS TO ADVANCE OVER JUDITH BUTLER IN POST-MODERN BRACKET CLASH

Wilson. Knew everybody: Edna Millay, Hemingway, Nabokov, LBJ; a blue blood Harold Bloom, he called Lord of the Rings “trash.”

WILSON:

 

We are not accustomed, in our quarter of the world, either to having the government attempt to control literature and art or to having literary and artistic movements try to identify themselves with the government. Yet Russia, since the Revolution, has had a whole series of cultural groups which have attempted to dominate literature either with or without the authority of the government; and Trotsky himself, in his official position, even in combating these tendencies, cannot avoid passing censure and pinning ribbons. Sympathizers with the Soviet regime used to assume that this state of affairs was inseparable from the realization of socialism: that its evils would be easily outgrown and that in any case it was a great thing to have the government take so lively an interest in culture. I believe that this view was mistaken.

Under the Tsar, imaginative literature in Russia played a role which was probably different from any role it had ever played in the life of any other nation. Political and social criticism, pursued and driven underground by the censorship, was forced to incorporate itself in the dramatic imagery of fiction. This was certainly one of the principal reasons for the greatness during the nineteenth century of the Russian theater and novel, for the mastery by the Russian writers—from Pushkin’s time to Tolstoy’s—of the art of implication.  The stories of Turgenev, which seem mild enough to us today, were capable of exciting the most passionate controversies—and even, in the case of A Sportsman’s Sketches, causing the dismissal of the censor who had passed it—because each was regarded as a political message. Ever since the Revolution, literature and politics in Russia have remained inextricable.

But after the Revolution, the intelligentsia themselves were in power; and it became plain that in the altered situation the identification of literature and politics was liable to terrible abuses.

Lenin and Trotsky, Lunacharsky and Gorky, worked sincerely to keep literature free; but they had at the same time, from the years of Tsardom, a keen sense of the possibility of art as an instrument of propaganda. Lenin took a special interest in the moving pictures from the propaganda point of view; and the first Soviet films, by Eisenstein and Pudovkin, were masterpieces of implication, as the old novels and plays had been. But Lenin died; Trotsky was exiled; Lunacharsky died.

Friedrich Engels, in the letter to Margaret Harkness, warning her that the more the novelist allows his political ideas to ‘remain hidden, the better it is for the work of art,’ says that Balzac, with his reactionary opinions, is worth a thousand of Zola, with all his democratic ones. (Balzac was one of the great literary admirations of Engels and Marx, the latter of whom had planned to write a book on him.)

The recent damning of the music of  Shostakovich on the ground that the commissars were unable to hum it seems a withdrawal from the liberal position.

The truth is that the talk in Soviet Russia about proletarian literature and art has resulted from the persistence of the same situation which led Tolstoy under the old regime to put on the muzhik’s blouse and to go in for carpentry, cobbling and plowing: the difficulty experienced by an educated minority, who were only about 20 percent of the people, in getting in touch with the illiterate majority. In American the situation is quite different. The percentage of illiterates in this country is only something like 4 percent; and there is relatively little difficulty of communication between different social groups. Our development away from England, and from the old world generally, in this respect—in the direction of the democratization of our idiom—is demonstrated clearly in H.L. Mencken’s The American Language; and if it is a question of either the use for high literature of the language of the people or the expression of the dignity and importance of the ordinary man, the country which produced Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn has certainly nothing to learn from Russia.

 

BUTLER:

 

Contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism.  Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence. To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.

I read Beauvoir who explained that to be a woman within the terms of a masculinist culture is to be a source of mystery and unknowability for men, and this seemed confirmed somehow when I read Sartre for whom all desire, problematically presumed as heterosexual and masculine, was defined as trouble. For that masculine subject of desire, trouble became a scandal with the sudden intrusion, the unanticipated agency, of a female “object” who inexplicably returns the glance, reverses the gaze, and contests the place and authority of the masculine position. The radical dependency of the masculine subject on the female “Other” suddenly exposes his autonomy as illusory. That particular dialectical reversal of power, however, couldn’t quite hold my attention—although others surely did.

Power seemed to be more than an exchange between subjects or a relation of constant inversion between subject and an Other; indeed, power appeared to operate in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender. I asked, what configuration of power constructs the subject and the Other, that binary relation between “men” and “women,” and the internal stability of those terms? Are those terms untroubling only to the extent that they conform to a heterosexual matrix for conceptualizing gender and desire?

Female Trouble is also the title of the John Waters film that features Divine, the hero/heroine of Hairspray as well, whose impersonation of women implicitly suggests that gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real.

To expose the foundational categories of sex, gender, and desire as effects of a specific formation of power requires a form of critical inquiry that Foucault, reformulating Nietzsche, designates as “genealogy.” A genealogical critique refuses to search for the origins of gender, the inner truth of female desire, a genuine or authentic sexual identity that repression has kept from view; rather, genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin. The task of this inquiry is to center on—and decenter—such defining institutions: phallogocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality.

Is “the body” or “the sexed body” the firm foundation on which gender and systems of compulsory sexuality operate? Or is “the body” itself shaped by political forces with strategic interests in keeping that body bounded and constituted by the markers of sex?

In what senses, then, is gender an act? As in other ritual social dramas, the action of a gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation.

Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived.

 

It is a truism that in any contest, success depends on unity and cooperation (including “healthy competition”) while division and strife leads to failure.  A whole is comprised of parts, but here’s the question: what are the parts doing to make the whole a healthy one? But how do we know this “whole,” in its context, is a good thing, unless we see it, in turn, as a part behaving to make a larger whole healthy, the health of everything eventually sweeping up all in its global good?  All philosophical investigation must be concerned not with parts, nor with their combination into something greater, but with the largest possible cooperative assemblage: here is where the lone philosophical genius seeks philosophical truth and the philosophical good—everything else is mere power-grabbing, strife and lies.

Edmund Wilson, a Critic more historian than theorist, a Modernist speaking of male Russians, faces off against Judith Butler, a Post-Modernist gender theorist, of French and German influence.  If the differences are profound, profound, perhaps, the match.

Wilson speaks from, and during a time of great American influence and power; confidently he asserts the 96% literary rate of the U.S., how in his country “there is relatively little difficulty of communication between different social groups,” and that “the country which produced Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn has certainly nothing to learn from Russia.”

Today, the remark about Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn sounds naive; Wilson, the historical critic, is interesting only as a look back into history.

Butler, meanwhile, belongs to those who would change history as she speaks not for “communication between different social groups,” but rather exploding “social groups.”

Gender as a new, fluid identity within the realm of bodily desire is Butler’s focus—politics, history and aesthetics are thus, in Butler, replaced by psychology, a rather narrow psychology—the psychology of the drag queen.  Butler conspicuously fails to mention children as she comes to grips with gender.  The larger world is puzzlingly absent.  If desire is at the heart of heterosexuality, other kinds of desire can never be proven to be anything but a variation of heterosexual desire, and sexual desire can never be proven to be anything but a breeding device, unless we add aesthetics to the equation, and this, too, leads away from Butler.

 

WINNER: EDMUND WILSON

 

 

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14 Comments

  1. Laura said,

    March 27, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    We’re in agreement to an extent on this one, Tom–EXCEPT, for example, for Wilson’s conclusion about Russian literature.

    The two great “Russian stylists” are widely regarded as Tolstoy and Chekhov. (Dostoyevksy used a much larger Russian vocabulary than Tolstoy did, but the latter was privileged in terms of socioeconomic class.)

    Chekhov, on the other hand–a much more prolific short story writer than playwright–was the son of a man who had been a serf. He was friends with Tolstoy, his elder, but he believed that Tolstoy inaccurately romanticized Russian peasant life. After becoming educated and entering the medical profession, Chekhov became what we call today a full-blown “liberal,” though not at all in the sense that Judith Butler is considered by some to be.

    So one of the two great Russian stylists had quite a bit to say to the “ordinary man,” even as he wrote about people of a class he had barely even glimpsed at as a child.

  2. Laura said,

    March 27, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    A more common spelling (though there’s more than one, given Russian’s cyrillic alphabet): Dostoevsky

  3. drew said,

    March 28, 2014 at 1:09 am

    I feel sorry for that Butler woman…

  4. powersjq said,

    March 28, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    Butler: “The task of this inquiry is to center on—and decenter—such defining institutions: phallogocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality.”

    She has not understood either Nietzsche or Foucault.

    And also: “Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived.”

    She doesn’t understand the idealizing function of language either.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    March 28, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    I’m glad we all agree Butler deserved her drubbing. All the quotes come from the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism…

    • Laura said,

      March 28, 2014 at 3:16 pm

      I don’t read Powers’ comments anymore. He’s one of the most obnoxious personalities I’ve encountered online, and his reasoning is often abysmally bad because his ego gets in the way.

      Sorry, but I’ll trust the judgment of my many gifted professors over his.

      When, in response to his comment that one opinion was given by a non-poet, he never did respond when I asked him if he himself is a poet (he was certainly full of opinions on the subject).

      The thing is, I no longer care what he does or thinks.

      • thomasbrady said,

        March 28, 2014 at 3:22 pm

        Laura,

        You sound like a heart-broken school girl. It’s nearly adorable. Powers is alright. He’s just a typical opinionated male. Surely you’ve met a few of those….

        Tom

      • powersjq said,

        March 28, 2014 at 5:03 pm

        Laura,

        I write poems. Does that qualify me as a poet in your book?

  6. Laura said,

    March 28, 2014 at 5:46 pm

    Sorry, Tom, but I don’t share your assessment of him. I think he’s an ass, and I’m far from alone in that opinion of him.

    Thus, I not only refuse to interact with him, I won’t even read what he has to say.

    The faculty I studied under can think circles around him, so why would I want to waste my time on what he has to say?

    • powersjq said,

      March 29, 2014 at 3:51 am

      “I think he’s an ass, and I’m far from alone in that opinion of him.”

      I hardly think three or four personal friends and mentors of yours–especially given that they think in circles–should justify “far from alone.”

  7. thomasbrady said,

    March 29, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    Her faculty hate you, Powers. Just accept it. Her cat doesn’t like you, either.

    • powersjq said,

      March 29, 2014 at 3:43 pm

      Well, I’m saddened about the cat.

  8. noochinator said,

    December 20, 2015 at 9:09 am

    Speaking of Russia (as Mr. Wilson does above), below is a stunnink homage to Russian music by the late great pianist Thomas Manshardt:

  9. noochinator said,

    July 7, 2018 at 11:38 am

    Speaking of Turgenev, this is an excerpt from a piece by Anthony Daniels:

    Turgenev was a good man without having been a saint. Gentle and tolerant by nature, he was lampooned by Dostoyevsky and somewhat despised by Tolstoy, who did not even bother to open his final letter to him straightaway, which was written from his deathbed and was one of the last he wrote to anyone. Tolstoy at the time had entered his ideological stage, having turned his back on the kind of writing at which he was supremely good, preferring instead to write religious and philosophical essays, at which he was extremely bad. Turgenev’s letter, which is one of the most moving I have ever read, deserves to be quoted in full:

    My dear Lev Nikolayevich,

    I have not written to you for a long time because I was and still am at death’s door. I cannot possibly recover and it is useless to think it. I am writing especially to you to say how glad I was to have been a contemporary of yours and to express my final, sincere request. My friend, return to literature! This gift comes to you from where everything else comes. Ah, how happy I would be to think that this request would have some effect on you! I am finished; even the doctors do not know what to call my illness… I can’t talk, can’t eat, can’t sleep—nothing! It’s tedious even to repeat it all! My friend, great writer of the Russian land, heed my request! Let me know if this note reaches you, and allow me to embrace you… I can write no more. I am tired.

    Turgenev died just under two months later, without having received a reply from Tolstoy; I don’t think anyone could read it without recognizing the nobility of him who wrote it.

    http://takimag.com/article/a_measure_of_greatness_theodore_dalrymple/print#ixzz5KZGa5UF8


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