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Idealized, Debased, and Ordinary:
Gender in (Post) Modern Circuits of Desire
Rita Felski. Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture. New York: New York UP, 2000. 221 pp.
Beryl Schlossman. Objects of Desire: The Madonnas of Modernism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999. 245 pp.
I must admit that I awaited my review copy of Beryl Schlossman's Objects of Desire: The Madonnas of Modernism with great anticipation. Perhaps, I speculated, I'll finally learn something interesting about Marianne Moore's love life. Or--having a certain music video remake of Metropolis in mind--I imagined a rich and provocative analysis of Modernist as Diva: from Colette, the performance artist; to Harriet Shaw Weaver, the dominating patroness; to Gertrude Stein, the self-fashioned celebrity; to H. D., the poet-turned-film-star-turned-occult-prophetess. My expectations were dashed, however, when I opened the book to find that the madonnas under scrutiny were not the modernists I had imagined, but rather the whorish virgins conjured up in the erotic imaginings of Gustave Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire, William Butler Yeats, and James Joyce. [End Page 977]
My dashed expectations were no doubt produced by the disjuncture of competing narratives about gender and modernism. In other words, as Rita Felski points out in The Gender of Modernism, one's understanding of the gender-saturated discourses of modernism (informing subjectivity, production, consumption, and desire) depends on one's choice of "exemplary subjects" (4). Joyce's debased and idealized erotic madonna does different cultural work from Djuna Barnes's campy Dame Musset or H. D.'s synthesis of Isis, Mary, and Mary Magdalene. That said, it doesn't seem unrealistic to expect that at least H. D. would be mentioned as someone who thought seriously about the significance of madonna representations in modernist literature, especially given that H. D. and Joyce shared similar interests in classical mythology, theology, sexuality, and experimental prose. Both published in the same journal (The Egoist), appeared in the same anthology (Imagist Anthology 1930), and shared significant mutual friends (Sylvia Beach and Ezra Pound). Comparing H. D.'s and Joyce's different contributions to similar cultural scripts would have illuminated much about how differently-gendered fantasies of the feminine inform various strains of modernism. The particular strain of modernism under analysis in Objects of Desire, however,is Joycean, as all theoretical roads in the text lead to Ulysses and FinnegansWake. Resetting my expectations to account for this circumscribed focus, I found Schlossman's analysis of masculine madonna fantasies enlightening--a valuable contribution to our understanding of an important facet of modernism.
Schlossman goes well beyond identifying the virgin/whore dichotomy in Joyce's depiction of female characters, and is justly wary of overestimating the feminist potential of Joyce's representation of female subjectivity or desire. Instead, she provides us with an impressive genealogy of the complicit discourses of virginity and Eros as they construct a feminine subjectivity made by and for masculine desire. Beginning with an intriguing discussion of Plato's Symposium and continuing with analyses of Don Juan and Tristan legends, Schlossman argues that Christian representations of the sublimely seductive, yet virginal, madonna take up and transform classical discourses on the "daimonic nature of Eros" (32). Diotima, the priestess who instructs Socrates in the mysteries of Eros, and who locates sexual desire as an initial step toward desiring the beautiful and good, eventually becomes Molly Bloom ruminating in her bedroom. Along the way, masculine erotic aims are sublimated (transformed [End Page 978] to adoration and directed at the "virginwhite" madonna) or projected onto debased, carnal females. Discussing Mozart's rendition of the Don Juan legend, for example, Schlossman argues that, "Christian ethics breaks Plato's link between Eros and the good (between Beauty and Truth); Don Giovanni emblematized that break, and his end awakens us from dreams of Eros. In the name of the fathers, Eros is condemned as evil, and relegated to the hell that swallows Don Giovanni at the end of the opera" (105).
Eroticized madonna figures...