Friday, November 05, 2004

Love & Death in the American Novel, continued
It wasn’t until Henry James, says Fiedler, that we had a different kind of American woman in the novel. James wrote of the “Dark Lady-Fair Girl archetype,” mixing that together with “the myth of the American in Europe” (300).

Fiedler points out that actually both Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne tended to mix up that innocent, sentimental blonde heroine with characteristics of women they really knew (301). He gives evidence throughout the chapter—in fact, it’s kind of perverse stuff.

James also mixed that sentimental heroin with “the necrophiliac titillation” of “identifying the immaculate virgin with the girl dying or dead,” for example in Daisy Miller and The Wings of a Dove (301). But it’s interesting to note that James tends to confuse the heroine with the Dark Lady in his work, resulting in “ambiguous undertones” (302).

Nonetheless, Fiedler says that James essentially views women as innocent, which is different from Mellville, who implies that once a woman is sexually involved, she turns into a “Dark Lady” (306). Here Fiedler discusses Melville’s 1849 book, Mardi, which I know nothing about, but I should probably learn of, since he calls it a “mock-documentary,” saying that Fiedler had written it that way in response to criticism of the supposed truth of Typee and Omoo (306). So, whatever the origin, it would be an interesting interlude in my dissertation chapter on Christopher Guest!

Anyway, Mardi is the only one of Melville’s books where a woman comes in, floating in literally on a raft and “disrupting utterly its probability and coherence” (307). Fiedler also notes that Mardi is a honeymoon book, since Melville wrote it on his own honeymoon. In a very kind tribute to his wife, he pictures the groom in the novel “with a millstone attached to his neck, so disguised with flowers that he can scarcely recognize it” (308). She must have been thrilled.

So it began to happen in the 19th century that the “cult of the pure Woman” started to fall apart (309). The Good Good girl stereotype starts to be challenged. Henry James’s Daisy is “unequivocally innocent,” Fiedler says (310). But she is also “the Good Bad girl, only the Good Bad Girl…an improbably sister to the hard-riding, hard-shooting sometimes cigar-smoking, heroines of the dime novel…the Good Bad Girl, with her heart of truest gold beneath the roughest of exteriors….a living embodiment of the American faith that evil is appearance only” (310).

However, it takes another, later Daisy to lead the transition into a more modern character, the “first notable anti-virgin of our fiction, the prototype of the Fair Goddess as bitch in which our twentieth century fiction abounds” (311). It is interesting to note that by the time Fitzgerald writes this character, he is free to transpose “the mythic roles and values of male and female,” which, I infer from what Fiedler goes on to say, the only reason Daisy can go on to be such a powerful person (312).

Fitzgerald got a lot of notice for writing sex scenes in his novels, but really, for him, “love was essentially yearning and frustration,” and really none of it was “consummated genital love….though he identified himself with that sexual revolution which in the ‘20s thought of as their special subject” (314).

Hemingway’s another story entirely. I knew I never liked him. According to Fiedler, he’s “addicted to describing the sex act” because it’s “the symbolic center of his work” (315). But although he seems to want to describe sex a lot, it’s pretty hard to effect, since there are “no women in his books.” Furthermore, especially in the first few books, the way he depicts the act is “intentionally brutal” and “in the later ones unintentionally comic” (315). Fiedler thinks it’s because Hemingway never can quite “succeed in making his females human” (315). Fiedler goes so far as to say that in For Whom the Bell Tolls, “Hemingway has written the most absurd love scene in the history of the American novel” (315), apparently because “it is a give-away—a moment which illuminates the whole erotic content of his fiction” (315).

Specifically, women for him are a problem. As characters, they fall into a few types. The Dark Lady types, who are Indians or Latinas with dark eyes and skin and are “neither wife nor mother,” he treats as “mindless, soft, subservient; painless devices for extracting seed without human engagement” (317). By comparison, the “Fair Lady” types have blonde hair and blue eyes. A Fair Lady “gets pregnant and wants a wedding, or uses her sexual allure to assert her power…[she] is a destroyer of men” (317).

Hemingway has “American bitches” too, “symbols of Home and Mother, as remembered by the boy who could never forgive Mama” (317). He was such an angry bastard! Interestingly, Fiedler says, he was fonder of an androgynous woman, “women who seem as much boy as girl” (318). He describes Brett’s complaint about her lover wanting her to grow her hair out: “To yield up her cropped head would be to yield up her emancipation from female servitude, to become feminine…and this Brett cannot do” (318).

Faulkner is another member of the he-man woman hater’s club. His is the “fear of the castrating woman and the dis-ease with sexuality.” Fiedler captures Faulkner’s sentiments so perfectly that it justifies a lengthy quote:

he reminds us (again and again!) that men are helpless in the hands of their mothers, wives, and sisters; that females do not think but proceed from evidence to conclusions by paths too devious for males to follow; that they possess neither morality nor honor; that they are capable, therefore, of betrayal without qualm or quiver of guilt but also of inexplicable loyalty; that they enjoy an occasional beating at the hands of their men; that they are unforgiving and without charity to members of their own sex…that they use their sexuality with cold calculation to achieve their inscrutable ends, etc. (319).

These last several pages, I have to say, are the ones that converted me to a Fiedler-fanhood. Earlier I took issue with his assessment of the romantic sentimental women writers. But now I respect his opinion. They had to be ghastly, because he’s dead-on about Faulkner and Hemingway. I particularly dislike Faulkner because his characters seem so flat—the women, I guess are the ones I would be likeliest to relate to. They’re subhuman. It’s so insulting; it’s horrible. Fiedler discusses Salinger later, and Salinger does his own objectification and has his own disconnect with women. But Faulkner is a palpable hatred. Hemingway’s is subtler, not so easily observed, but it is there. So I respect Fiedler for being so observant in 1960 and naming that.

Anyway, we see these types begin to blend and become more complicated when “the archetype of the snow maiden as gold-digger, the bad blonde takes over” in movies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Anita Loos). Really, what happens is the Dark Lady takes over and becomes a platinum blonde (324). They’re good girls and bad girls all mixed together, Good Bad Girls.

The evolution continues. Fiedler claims that “the most memorable and terrible woman in an American novel of the 1930s is a portrait of the blonde movie actress, a kind of ersatz Jean Harlow,” meaning Faye Greener from Day of the Locust. We’ll see. I’ll be reading that later. He says even West’s more docile women characters tend to enrage him. It’s rather humbling to read this—humbling to be female.

Really, once American literature undoes the sentimental heroine, it’s a cynical spiral down from there. We hear about the “enjoyment” sentimental heroine Scarlett O’Hara gets from committing murder (326) and the “anti-mother,” Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying, who takes pleasure in beating her children (330).

Fiedler says that the only place the true Good Good girl remains is in the young girl—like in Salinger’s Sibyl Carpenter or Esme (332). Carson McCullers “takes advantage” of the “homosexual implications” of the tomboyish Good Good girl; then again she’s allowed (333). It takes William Faulkner, though, to truly pervert the good girl. It’s not even the Good Bad Girl so much as the Good Good girl who in actuality is bad—like Judith in Absalom! Absalom! (333).

Next is Chapter XI, “The Failure of Sentiment and the Evasion of Love.”

I love Fiedler’s sweeping statements. Here’s a good one: “The failure of the Sentimental Love Religion and the rejection of the Protestant Virgin are the two most critical and baffling facts of the history of the novel in America” (336). In other words, sentimentalism existed and created an expectation that women would always be pure and innocent…but of course women can never remain that way if they are to marry and bear children (and become human!). So, ultimately, says Fiedler, “marriage dismays the American writer” (336). And sex outside of marriage is treated “like an offense against the mother” (338).

But what’s really interesting is that Fiedler says there’s “finally no heterosexual solution which the American psyche finds completely satisfactory, no imagined or real consummation between man and woman found worthy of standing in our fiction for the healing of the breach between consciousness and unconsciousness, reason and impulse, society and nature” (338). What is he saying, then? “Heterosexual” is an interesting adjective there. Is it acting as a qualifier for the whole statement? In other words, is he saying that the only remedy for this breach, the only consummation the American psyche will find satisfactory will be Homosexual? That simply can’t be. Leslie Fiedler surely wasn’t around for this week’s elections to see the anti-gay laws passed in many states (I say sarcastically). Seriously, though, I’m not sure what he’s getting at here.

Ah, but it becomes clear a little later when he describes a certain pattern in our fiction, “an archetype at work, a model story,” evident in works such as Leatherstocking Tales, The Sun Also Rises, Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, and the like. Fiedler argues gently of the “implications of the homoerotic fable” these stories typify, which ironically is so “opposed…to almost everything in which middle-class society pretends to believe” (349). The only way we can understand this phenomenon is “by assuming an unconscious marginal rejection of the values of that society on the part of all or most of its members” (349). So our writers unconsciously reject our deepest values.

If you think about it, that’s a profound split—and one with some interesting cultural implications. Fiedler describes this curious values rejection, but it’s one—like most subtexts—that’s obvious only to an educated few. The rest of the world reads the stories for Huck’s escapades or for Natty Bumppo’s adventures. The literati or the intelligentsia gets that and that “marginal rejection of values.” Maybe that’s where we become that East Coast liberal detached media, the part of America that’s become so detached from America we don’t even feel like we speak the same language anymore. Could this be part of it?

Nonetheless, one thing is for sure and that is that the homoerotic tone is most decidedly and undercurrent, emphasis on the under, because, as Fiedler says, “for a man to love death is not nearly so suspect in bourgeois America as for him to love another man” (349).

No comments: