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In Discourses of Desire Linda Kauffman gives us a comparative study of eight works spanning a period of about two thousand years, from Ovid's Heroides to The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters (1972). The common thread is that all these works are in—or can be slipped into—the category of letters from women to men who have abandoned or ignored them. Such real or feigned love letters (Kauffman insists on calling them "amorous epistolary discourse") form a coherent body of literature that is here profitably analyzed, though a reader may well feel that the sample is not only small, but also skewed. Kauffman subscribes so thoroughly to the current doctrine that literature grows out of other literature and has nothing to do with life that once, when she kicks over the traces a bit, she feels called on to defend herself against an assumed charge of "naive mimeticism." The inclusion of some letters from actual jilted semiliterate women would have improved the credibility of her study without altering its findings except by the admission that the genre is based on life as well as literature. The correspondence between Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (plus a few "Dear John" letters and the replies to them) might unisexify the subject and moderate her chip-on-shoulder assumption that men are the constant betrayers and women the inevitable victims.
Surely a study of literature that has wide range in both time and place should aim at an Olympian point of view rather than a trendy one, but Kauffman's trendiness is pronounced. She knows and refers to a wide range of critics, but they are considered to be of primarily historical interest. When she wants truth, as opposed to the dead notions of earlier times, she always goes to Barthes, Genette, Lacan, Derrida, and their epigones. We are not surprised, then, to see that she combines the virtues and faults of her models. She is subtle, but sometimes far too much so, as in the assumption that any word may have simultaneously (without any hint from its user) any or all of its own meanings and suggestions plus those of its homophones or any other words with a vague phonetic resemblance. The discussion of the name of Miss Jessel (in The Turn of the Screw) and the jesses of trained falcons is a bravura piece of irrelevant erudition. The word "naive" is the automatic and inevitable putdown for any idea that is to be dismissed without a hearing. But even subtle discussions can sometimes be very loose. In the latter part of the book "sentimental" is an important word, but we are never told whether the corresponding noun is "sentiment" or "sentimentality." Occasionally, astonishing pronouncements are simply unsupported assertions. Ipsa dixi.
Since if it is read with due caution Discourses of Desire is both fascinating and highly informative, it is unfortunate that it is unnecessarily tied to a critical fashion so faddish that one is tempted to compare it with the Cabbage Patch dolls. But that would be unfair. The fashion has been around longer than the dolls and is not fading as fast. Still, it is neither so established nor so venerable as Barbie. [End Page 390]