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Reviews149 His Other Half: Men Looking at Women through Art, by Wendy Lesser; 294 pp. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991, $24.95. The dustjacket would have us wish that Wendy Lesser displays "daring" and "courage." Does she? If Lesser were in pursuit of academic tenure, the answer would be yes. She practices the sort of literary criticism "nowadays deprecated by semioticians and post-structuralists as 'intuitive' or 'impressionistic' " and she is unlikely to be embraced by radical feminists with their "gender theory obsession ." Instead she aims "to say things about art that matter outside the walls of the academy. I want to talk about subjects—not just men's and women's feelings about each other, but also my feelings about works of art, my sense of the relationship between evasion and directness, my concerns and convictions about the roles of will and chance—that are not, these days, seen as proper subjects for academic literary criticism." While such a standpoint must modify beliefs in Lesser's "courage," I hope this book will provoke the frequently professed academic desire for free, open, intellectual debate and inquiry. Somehow I doubt it, as does she. The subject of His Other Half is man's relation to the feminine as reflected in a cross-section of male artists including Degas, Gissing, James, Hitchcock, and Beaton. While the chapters can be read as self-contained essays, their correspondences identified by Lesser give the book its impact. These can be both unexpected and perceptive, as when she notices how Preston Sturges's heroines have much in common with those of Henry James. Lesser observes that James wrote for a public that "hadn't been invented in his own time: the moviegoer, the beneficiary of the close-up shot." Lesser challenges common labelings of artists and their works: King Vidor's Stetta Dallas is not crassly patriarchal in its treatment of Barbara Stanwyck in the tide role, nor are Degas's nudes misogynist. Politically correct art historians who still assert the latter, an old cliché given a new lease of life by feminism, provoke Lesser to say "Ifbeauty is in the beholder's eye, then so, one is tempted to say, is misogyny." If anything, the nudes show the reverse and "represent the vanishing point toward which the best forms of erotic love strive to move: that imaginary place at which the other being is left alone in her self-contained privacy even as one identifies with her body to the point of feeling it as one's own." Such an observation penetrates yet respects Degas's prickly, private character and vision. Lesser contrasts the privacy of Degas's women with Cecil Beaton's photographs which "deal unremittingly with the female awareness of being looked at." Narcissism is implied but ultimately denied, "as if to catch out the viewer in his (or her) own presumptions about female vanity." No image shows this better than Beaton's photograph of his sister, Baba. The mirror reflects a face 150Philosophy and Literature other than that looking into it; it is the "perfect mediator not only between the artist and his female creation, but between the artist and his androgynous audience. He and we look in the mirror and see her—a nonexistent self who is both our twin and our opposite." Baba is the creature that Beaton would have been had he been born female, like Dickens's (or rather David Copperfield 's) Betsy Trotwood,James's Olive Chancellor, and Miller's Marilyn Monroe. Lesser concludes: "If a male artist can imaginatively transform himself into a woman character, then alternative lives may exist for all of us. We aren't limited to what we were born with." By now an image of Lesser should have emerged: intelligendy post-Freudian (her mentor, if any, is D. W. Winnicott), liberal but not wishy-washy, commonsensed, and accessible. Inevitably the breadth ofLesser's range makes her open to specialist criticism. She misrepresents the Pre-Raphaelites as the "storytelling" contemporaries of Whistler and she unconvincingly contrasts the misogyny of Picasso's late works with his "deep love of women." Yet an essay on Picasso might have snatched some love out ofthejaws ofmisogyny. I...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 149-150
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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