restricted access Literature and Domination: Sex, Knowledge, and Power in Modern Fiction (review)
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Reviewed by
M. Keith Booker. Literature and Domination: Sex, Knowledge, and Power in Modern Fiction. Florida: U of Florida P, 1993. 188 pp. $24.95.

Keith Booker begins his study of Literature and Domination by focusing on Pozzo in Beckett's modernist exemplar, Waiting for Godot. Pozzo is not only "a typical Beckettian tyrant figure," he also represents the traditional structures of authority. His return as blind and lame in the second act, then, signals the breakdown of traditional structures "that so haunts (and inspires) the modernist literary imagination." But though he is now helpless and unable to enforce his authority, he is still able to dominate Lucky. It is "not that there is insufficient structure in the way power is wielded in the modern world," concludes Booker. "On the contrary . . . there is too much structure, even without any authority for that structure, so that a conservative shoring of fragments like that recommended by Eliot would only serve to make the situation more oppressive than it already is." Joyce's Dublin reflects just this oppressive situation, as the large cast of characters [End Page 428] (not just in Dubliners, I would add, but in all his novels) are paralyzed by "preexisting discourses and institutions" that have lost "the legitimating authority of some transcendent originating center."

Booker explores the way six exemplary modernist works reflect, interrogate, resist, and pose alternatives to the traditional forces of domination. And he insists that, though domination is primarily reflected in its control of knowledge, it extends to political and religious oppression—and the relations between men and women.

Samuel Beckett's Watt comically exposes, resists, and undermines the domination of Enlightenment epistemology, scientific thinking, and the drive to master not just the world but the very texts we read and write about our experience. And it specifically reflects the way authoritarian discourses, as critiqued by Horkheimer and Adorno, resulted in the political and religious oppression of Ireland as well as the horrors of fascism. Virginia Woolf's The Waves shifts the focus to gender and the domination by male institutions and discourses that deny women enabling subject positions. But Woolf does not just expose the patriarchal forms of social and psychological domination, she offers an alternative, communal mode of intersubjectivity. And her concern is not simply with social and psychological dynamics; it is also with the very real pain suffered by individuals which drives Rhoda to suicide. In a different way, this painful form of domination is also the central concern of Vladimir Nabokov, whose Humbert Humbert dominates Lolita by seeing this real girl as a literary artifact. Nabokov's parody of Humbert's confession, while seeming to reinforce this artificiality by highlighting the fictionality of Lolita, also illuminates the way Lolita and her mother are constituted as individuals by the discourses of American popular culture and the way Humbert is constituted by the discourse of European high culture. Interestingly, this new-Marxist critique qualifies Nabokov's anti-Marxism in its incipient "dialogue with the Stalinist terror that looms in the margins of so many of Nabokov's texts." Thomas Pynchon's V. also explores the discourses of patriarchal domination, though in much greater depth and scope—especially through recurrent images of sexual violence associated with Western imperialism and fascism. Pynchon lures us toward a dominant mode of reading, while continually undermining those strategies and revealing their ideology. The focus on reading as a form of domination is further developed in Booker's treatment of ltalo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler. And his chapter on Beckett's late novel, The Lost Ones, serves as a conclusion, which "offers a number of useful lessons for those who would seem to oppose dominant reading strategies in both the reading and the teaching of literary texts."

Booker's study of these key modern texts establishes a base for engaging literary representations of power and domination in socially relevant ways, especially since it is well grounded in much relevant theory. But the base needs further development, for the social relevance is established only nominally through brief references and not worked out in historical detail. Indeed, one significant omission from his theoretical as...


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