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Against the Feminist Telescope

Elizabeth Hardwick at the Harvard Summer School Lecture Series

By Celia B. Betsky

THE LEVEL of literary criticism in the women's movement today is shamefully low," Elizabeth Hardwick told me, the afternoon before her talk in the Summer School's Literary Lecture Series on July 18. "That's what I'm going to talk about tonight," she confided, "--you'll see what I mean!" Coming from a literary critic of such high standing and such often devastating opinions--an advisory editor of the New York Review of Books, a woman who has accompanied the Review on its way of political radicalization, and who now speaks wearily of her experiences at the recent Democratic Convention as "just like all those peace marches and demonstrations I've gone to"--these words boded ill for "sisterhood's" intellectual efforts.

"Seek first the kingdom of the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigeant, and above all, the interesting," she had once written. Yet her feelings about the current upheaval created by various women's movements, by female liberation and feminist battles for independence are that they are "only for the good." She, too, believes firmly that women must learn to be on their own, and urges her fellow-women towards "consciousness-raising."

How, then, would she reconcile her quest for the kingdom of highest literary standards with a championship of women's rights that might promise a queendom of intellectual anarchy? Her lecture, it emerged, was no attempt to confront contemporary women's literature on shared, upto-date grounds of counter-culture, or politics, economics and sociology. She embarked instead on a delightfully meandering journey through literary history. Along the way, she did not visit the obscure artistic achievements of some long-forgotten authoresses, nor mouldering collections of poetry by some oppressed New England saint; she preferred to scrutinize fictional heroines familiar to us all. Given the title of her lecture. "Seduced and Betrayed Women in Fiction," I had at least expected a descent into revealing murky depths along this pleasant stroll. But Hardwick's approach remained brisk and cheerful. Her "different way of seeing things now" did not represent a rallying-cry to the oppressed, to the long-suffering victims of sexual exploitation and abandonment, but an elementary lesson in power politics: meet your favorite heroine and watch her gain power through victimization. From the bronchial death-throes of Clarissa Harlowe to Pearl in The Scarlet Letter, "a pre-vision of a Fitzgerald flapper," women in fiction seem to have mastered (or mistressed) the fine art of psychological castration.

In undertaking her journey in search of the truly victorious in the battle of the sexes, Hardwick eventually took pity on a bewildered young knight from The Canterbury Tales. Burdened with the task of finding Woman's heart's desire, he was to discover that the answer fit in perfectly with his own feudal society: to dominate. From Hardwick's final hypothesis, it would seem that this struggle for dominance on the part of the female has been the guideline in the fluctuating fortunes of seduction and betrayal ever since.

In a review of a paradigm of socio-historical research. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, Hardwick described her responses to that work as "not like reading a book, but like playing a game." And Hardwick, one finds, is all in favor of this approach when it comes to reading a book she respects or setting up a model for a lecture. For her, the writing of fiction requires the inspiration of first-hand experience (an argument she used several years ago in explaining what she viewed as the limitations of women's literature). The reading of the fiction under Hardwick's discussion becomes a shuffling of "great colorful playingcards," because from Richardson to Hawthorne to George Eliot's Adam Bede, women are neither fully tragic heroines nor psychologically complete people. They are just so many characters composed of arbitrary qualities that work for the author's conception of plot.

CLARISSA HARLOWE embodies the bourgeois, prudish ideas of her family, and Lovelace is the monomanical assailant of the complacent power she wields by virtue of her chastity. Clarissa's latent and unlady-like fascination for Lovelace's sordid reputation damns any possibility of her innocence or heroism in Hardwick's eyes. She complies unconsciously in her own downfall. Hester Prynne, too, is merely a symbolic figure, and she persists marble-like, from the moment she leaves prison--"the place where radicals are made"--by becoming the epitome of the omnipotent New England matriarch, a self-reliant Puritan. Like Tess of the d'Urbervilles, she emerges the stronger in the contest of seduction and betrayal. Tess, "nature's noble woman," shows an earthy complicity in her own seduction; as an unlikely sort of peasant-aristocrat, she floats between opposite poles of believable human characterization.

In the final phase of nineteenth-century literature, the game turns into a complex pattern of tag or "mother-may-I". Henry James's American girls are seduced not by men, but by surfaces, by "their failure to look deep enough into things." And the men perceiving full well the awful depths, sense a mysterious force in women that threatens to undercut their own power. Their outright acts of betrayal and cruelty are breathless attempts to remain one step ahead of destruction.

Hardwick's "playing-cards" provides a thoughtful, if not wholly comprehensive alternative to the "unhistorical feminist telescope made in Japan" she feels the women's movement has been using so rashly in analyzing past literature. Whether it is her Southern background or her long years of literary experience, Hardwick stresses the pre-eminent importance of accurate historical perspective. She condemns the "telescope" as a kind of retroactive method, which ridiculously not merely regrets the trials and tribulations of fictional females, but attacks their authors and authoresses for marrying off so many of their women. In this way, the writers supposedly turn them--oh hackneyed phrase--into "objects", at the mercy of stupid and heartless males.

Hardwick is offended and infuriated most of all, however, by "little things that come floating through the mail"; Women's Lib pamphlets and propaganda whose very language and terminology insult her intellectual sensibilities. "At whom is it leveled, what good do they think it will do?" she asks, understandably, from her position as successful and professionally independent woman. There were those who cringed, however, at an absent-minded answer she gave to the effect that there are "only one or two women writers one thinks of when looking at the nineteenth century." (Maybe some day the pamphlet will come floating through the mail giving the statistics on the high percentage of female writers in the dark ages of Victoriana, although most of them were not the bearers of the "high art" with which Hardwick was chiefly concerned.)

Asking her reasons for stopping short at the twentieth century in her study, produced a more amusing insight on the rules of Hardwick's game. "I think that everything has changed in contemporars fiction," she smiles. "It's no longer a question of seduction and betrayal--there's just activity." Much of her talk was filled with a light-hearted rapport with her listeners. Gracious, delicate, charming, her Southern accent murdering a figure like Lovelace with a characteristic drawl of "ba-a-ad news," Hardwick was able to communicate much of her own personality to her audience. Always sympathetic to them, she would excuse them for not having each novel she discussed at their fingertips, and she imparted a warm femininity through a disarming smile whenever she lost her place or preferred not to answer a question.

A mixture of razor-sharp perceptions and extremely decorous sensibilities, she professes to prefer Gloria Steinem to Betty Friedan, "because she's so pretty, and doesn't talk too much," and dismisses the Story of O because it's a parody of French literature--besides it's pornography!" Seeing everything as a phase in some historical sequence, she dislikes de Beauvoir's existentialism, because it is always searching for conclusions and final decisions. Hardwick's style is more open-ended and experimental; a sense of intellectual vagueness pervades many of her more casual thoughts because she is constantly seeking for an even deeper answer. (Her deeper answers lie in her writing.) She believes strongly in the importance of speaking as a woman, for women and about women, in part to ensure lasting security and accomplishments for a movement she fears will loose its force through faddishness and superficiality. "Next year it will be Children's Liberation" she jokes. With mothers like Hardwick, this future revolution, too, could only be for the good.

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