Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How to Read a Misogynist Novel

The current literary climate demands that a book's politics define its readership. However, this demand is incompatible with reading any but the absolute latest works, as everything else soon passes out of immediate relevance, the acceptable vocabulary changes, and former hot-button issues are superseded by new ones. As such, this strict method of judgement, essentially a device to insulate oneself from opposing or complex viewpoints, should be rejected. That doesn't mean, however, that reading books, no matter how beautifully written, that directly and sometimes viciously contradict one's politics doesn't offer particular challenges. As a feminist, how can I laud novels that display misogyny, by writers that behave(d) in misogynistic ways, have said misogynistic things? More crucially, how can I like, or even love, these books?

Gabriele D'Annunzio is a particularly good example both because of the content of his novels and because of his active political life. He was the ideal Italian fascist and appeared to be, for a short while, a genuine rival of Mussolini. His novels are decadent and sensuous, luxuriating in baroque descriptions of art, music, and sex, and were considered scandalous at the time. His female characters are objects to be adored or vilified; his hero Andrea Sperelli, in Il piacere, explicitly pines for the Ideal Woman, a composite of the many women he's romanced, ultimately rejecting real women for their failure to live up to his imagined paragon. A war hero and aviator, D'Annunzio led an assault on the primarily Italian-speaking city of Fiume, which today is Rijeka in Croatia, in 1919, naming himself the Duce of what he christened the Italian Regency of Carnaro. Although he was eventually ousted by the legitimate Italian government and his attempted colonization ultimately failed, his superficially brilliant exploit won him many admirers among the various Italian nationalist and irredentist factions and symbolically he had enormous import to the Fascist party, establishing dozens of their rituals and defining many aspects of the ideology. (It is worth noting that D'Annunzio was not in sympathy with Hitler and told Mussolini that an alliance with Nazi Germany was a mistake, though that doesn't render his Fascist politics more palatable.) Between his extreme sexual objectification of women and total lack of respect for their autonomy and his staunch Fascist politics, D'Annunzio holds few attractions from a feminist point of view... but I still love his writing.

Then there is John O'Hara, whose sexually promiscuous, boozy heroines were inevitably doomed to a miserable end, while he in his private life was an alcoholic, bitter social climber. Charles Dickens had, with a few exceptions, three varieties of female character: the madonna, the whore, and the laughably desperate spinster; newer research indicates that he behaved as badly towards his long-time mistress as he did to his oft-cheated-upon and yet always pregnant wife. And no one beats Ernest Hemingway when it comes to misogyny. His heroes are macho, tortured, violent, and prone to shooting things, while his women are either doomed or too powerful to be anything but a castrating bitch. He lived his life as he wrote his heroes. Then there's F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Philip Roth, V. S. Naipul (writing by women is "feminine tosh" apparently), D. H. Lawrence, and I could go on at length.

How can feminist women read a work like Il piacere, or Sons and Lovers, or Appointment in Samara, and like them? They don't have to like them obviously, but what if they do? For one thing, anything can be read with a feminist lens. That doesn't mean that every work can be granted an organically feminist interpretation or subtext and it doesn't deny that some works are, incontrovertibly, misogynistic. For another, one can be a feminist and not judge every book one encounters by feminist standards, or, one could simply appreciate the many other facets of a given book, the beauty of its prose, the complexity of its characters, the intricacies of a finely crafted plot, the meticulously evoked milieu, even the finely crafted argument that perhaps you don't agree with - none of those pleasures need be negated by contrary politics.

A failure to read any work that disagrees with one's own politics is a failure to grasp one's own political fallibility. By the same token, a failure to read any work that reflects a state of being other than one's own - whether defined by gender, race, nationality, religion, etc. etc. - is a failure to grasp the limited scope of one's own point of view. This is why many feminists argue that men should make a conscious effort to read books by women and white people should make the same effort to read books written by people of color. And the opposite argument needn't be made because books by white men continue to populate the canon, high school and college curricula, and the larger public consciousness, but - and this is a big but - it doesn't follow that those books should be excluded, either for their politics or because they don't represent "diversity" by its current politicized definition.

Aside from a simple desire to be as open as possible, to read as widely as possible, I do think that there is also a particularly salutary boon granted to those willing to brave the waters of opposing political stances. By so doing, a greater appreciation can be won, a greater respect, not necessarily for an opposing point of view, but for one's own. To underestimate one's opponent is to risk ceding the battle by failing to engage deeply enough. If we are willing to examine these misogynistic works with a keen attention and a willingness to suspend judgement without thorough analysis, then we gain a considerable advantage because we gain profounder, more nuanced, and more subtly accurate political convictions.

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