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The World Wars through the Female Gaze
Theory And Cultural Studies
Jean Gallagher. The World Wars through the Female Gaze. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1998. 191 pp.
On the second page of The World Wars through the Female Gaze Jean Gallagher explains the mysterious and unnerving picture of two strangely [End Page 1049] masked female figures on her cover: "a 1940 photograph taken by Lee Miller for Vogue magazine shows two women perched on the edge of a Hampstead bomb shelter, looking toward the photographer and viewer. Each wears an elaborate mask or visor, protective eyewear suggested for use during incendiary bombing raids." The picture serves as a "parable" for this intriguing study of gender, vision, and war: the construction of women as "actively seeing subjects who are at the same time exposed to the dangers of wartime vision." In six critically sophisticated chapters, Gallagher looks at a series of diverse texts by female American fiction writers, poets, photographers, and journalists who lived in Europe during the First and Second World Wars. Her choice of subjects does not make her task easy, as she contends with World War I propaganda works by Edith Wharton and Mildred Aldrich, the antifascist projects of journalist Martha Gellhorn and photographer Lee Miller, H.D.'s oblique meditations on the bombardment of London, and Gertrude Stein's problematic and controversial writings about Vichy France.
Jean Gallagher sets her analyses of the implications of gendered visuality against a range of contemporary theories of vision--for instance, theories by Paul Virilio, Martin Jay, and Norman Bryson--that are themselves grounded in modern philosophical interrogations of the privileged role that sight has played in Western epistemology. The technological and topographical nature of modern warfare, with its constriction of sight in ground battle and its expansion and distortion from aerial vantages, disturbed the military's fictitious totalized overseeing of specularized "theaters of war." Gallagher shifts this problematized specularity to the female noncombatant, sidelined yet enlisted into functioning as an observer who is obliged to contend with the compromised authority of her perspective. Scrupulously respecting the historical and aesthetic specificities of the diverse texts she explores, Gallagher elaborates the heterogeneous responses of her subjects as they both thematize and enact their visual roles in their texts.
Gallagher treats Edith Wharton's "Writing a War Story" and "Fighting France," and Mildred Aldrich's "A Hilltop on the Marne" as propaganda texts that, in a sense, ended up "seeing through" themselves by representing their lack of sight and their military regulation. Conversely, in Gallagher's reading of "The Stricken Field," Martha Gellhorn resists her text's fascist control of visual positions that oscillate to allow them [End Page 1050] to point to the invisibility of Nazi atrocities. The chapter linking Lee Miller's roles as Vogue model, fashion photographer, surrealist, and Holocaust journalist may be the most provocative in the book, while that linking H.D.'s ocular meditations and tropes in her autobiographical writings to her response to wartime bombardment may be the most conventional. The final chapter, which interprets Gertrude Stein's Vichy regime propaganda as self-subverting in its ambivalences and refusals to interpret, is certain to engender productive debate and controversy.
Its theoretically sophisticated and critically astute focus on "the troubled nature of vision for women in a belligerent culture" makes World Wars Through the Female Gaze an altogether fascinating addition to a growing body of theory and criticism in the study of war and gender--and gender and vision--in twentieth-century writing.
University of California, Irvine