Defining the “F” in Feminist Criticism #1

Katerina Zissouli Defining the F in Feminist Criticism

If all the harm that women have done

Were put in a bundle and rolled into one,

Earth would not hold it

The sky could not enfold it,

It could not be lighted nor warmed by the sun.

Such masses of evil

Would puzzle the devil

And keep him in fuel while Time’s wheels run.

But if all the harm that’s been done by men

Were doubled and doubled and doubled again,

And melted and fused into vapor and then

Were squared and raised to the power of ten,

There wouldn’t be nearly enough, not near

To keep a small girl for the tenth of a year. (Stephen, 1891)

It is well known that women throughout the ages have been treated as Other in a patriarchal society, which for the most part is persnickety and disparaging. Many philosophers, political and religious figures, and theorists have helped in perpetuating the stereotype. Nietzsche’s ideas may be a good place to set some examples in motion. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche claims,

Woman wants to become self-reliant–and for that reason she is beginning to enlighten men about “woman as such”: this is one of the worst developments of the general uglification of Europe. . . . Woe when “the eternally boring in woman”–she is rich in that!–is permitted to venture forth! . . . But she does not want truth: what is truth to woman? From the beginning, nothing has been more alien, repugnant, and hostile to woman than truth–her great art is the lie, her highest concern is mere appearance and beauty. . . . And is it not true that on the whole “woman” has so far been despised most by woman herself–and by no means by us?  (Nietzsche, 1966)

Later authors attest to the perpetuation of the same stereotype. Arnold Isenberg, for example, while commenting on some of Virginia Woolf’s ideas on the empowerment of women by means of writing, viciously attacks and dismisses her suggestions. He quotes Woolf, who in A Room of One’s Own, asserts: “Never mind whether you write like Keats. That’s not the idea. The main thing is that you put down what you see and feel” (Isenberg, 1973). With this, Isenberg supposes that Woolf grants license to women to produce bad writing. He goes on to say:

So reasons one of the best minds of our times, competent alike at writing and at judging. Is this dreadful, chaotic thinking really redeemed by the prose garnishes . . . Consider how extreme these phrases are: “Mean nothing.” “Most futile of occupations.” “Submit to the decrees.” “Most servile of attitudes.” “All that matters.” “Sacrifice a hair of the head.” “Abject treachery.” No, this hysterical prose cannot make up for any fault: it is itself in need of some virtue to balance it. I think I am aware of some of the good impulses behind bad writing. Virginia Woolf, when she started this passage, had just been prophesying. She had foretold a time when women, if given the chance, would become good writers. By a natural association of ideas she then found herself meditating the question, “Yes, but will they ever be as good as men?” (Isenberg, 1973)

In other words, regardless of women writers’ proven skill, and in spite of their acceptance by a good majority of the male writing establishment as successful writers, Isenberg still disputes their ability and creativity. Moreover, by comparing in an utterly sexist way women’s writing to that of men, he questions whether we can elevate female writing enough to compete with male writing. That is to say, he insists (and he is not the only one) that we must hold everything to a male microscope, saturated in male standards and beliefs. According to this view, all that is right, good, and accepted, excellent, brilliant, and accomplished is male produced.

If Nietzsche and Isenberg’s ideas do not make the case, perhaps one should take a look at Freud’s lectures on the subject of women and the castration complex:

The castration complex arises after they [girls] have learnt from the sight of the female genitals that the organs which they value so highly need not necessarily accompany the body. The castration complex of girls is also started by the sight of the genitals of the other sex. They at once notice the difference and, it must be admitted, its significance too. They feel seriously wronged, often declare that they want to “have something like it too,” and fall a victim to “envy of the penis.” (Freud, 1966)

Why does Freud assume that any girl, who either grows up around boys or not, would assign higher value to male genitalia? In whose mind a penis is significant, if not in the minds of males themselves? Clearly, penis envy is a male construct, and the castration complex has been assigned to the female identity because of the fear it has generated in the male psyche.

Works Cited

Cixous, Helene. “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways–Out/Forays,” In The Feminist

Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Catherine

Belsey and Jane Moore, eds. Blackwell, 1989, pp. 101-116.

——. Laugh of the Medusa, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen

and Paula Cohen. Signs 1, 1976, pp. 875-93.

Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Trans. J. Strachey. W.W. Norton, 1966.

Frith, Gill. “Transforming Features: Double Vision and the Female Reader.” 

New Formations 15, 1991, pp. 68-76.

Gossett, Hattie. Presenting…Sister Noblues. Firebrand Books, 1988.

Greer, Germaine. “The Stereotype.” In Philosophy of Woman. Mary Mahowald, ed.

Hackett, 1983, pp. 11-19.

Isenberg, Arnold. Aesthetics and the Theory of Criticism: Selected Essays of

Arnold Isenberg. University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Moi, Toril. “Feminist, Female, Feminine.” In The Feminist Reader: Essays in

Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Catherine Belsey and Jane

Moore, eds. Blackwell, 1989, pp. 117-132.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Walter Kaufmann.

Vintage Books, 1966.

Noddings, Nel. Women and Evil. University of California Press, 1989.

O’Grady,  Kathleen. “Guardian of Language: An Interview with Helene Cixous.” Women’s Education des Femmes 12, 1996, pp. 6-10.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “We Write for Our Own Time,” In A Casebook on Existentialism.

William Spanos, ed. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1970, pp. 133-139.

Stephen, J. K. “A Thought,” Cambridge University Literary Magazine, 1891, pp. 15-17.

Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women. ”Collected Essays, vol.2. Hogarth

Press, 1966.

Book Review: Mediterranean Modernisms–The Poetic Metaphysics of Odysseus Elytis

Katerina Zissouli Book Review

Mediterranean Modernisms: The Poetic Metaphysics of Odysseus Elytis. By Marinos Pourgouris (Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011), 230 pp. $70.99/£55.00 cloth.

Marinos Pourgouris’s Mediterranean Modernisms: The Poetic Metaphysics of Odysseus Elytis is an interesting book that reads more like a thematic collection of short essays than a unified work. Pourgouris states at the outset that his book’s five chapters examine the themes of modernism, nationalism, and the Mediterranean. His contribution to the life, poetry and literary legacy of Odysseus Elytis is indeed methodical. As the title suggests, Pourgouris attempts to disentangle the meaning of Greek identity and aesthetic in Elytis’s work and formulate his interpretation of Elytis’s poetic or more accurately, solar metaphysics. Pourgouris, furthermore, focuses on Elytis’s artistic and philosophic influence. He does so from the theoretical standpoint of poststructuralism, demonstrating the limitations of the cultural/linguistic/literary paradigm’s ability to account for the negative difference embedded in language itself. However, the extensive historical account included in the book becomes burdensome and difficult to navigate.

Pourgouris argues that there are definite similarities between Camus’s Mediterranean and Elytis’s Aegean. In fact, the author does not differentiate between the two, as according to him both Camus and Elytis are writing about and under the influence of the Mediterranean, constructing what he calls “a Mediterranean Aesthetic.” However, the differences in annual average temperatures and the vastly divergent terrain found in Algiers, the capital city of Algeria, and on the islands of the Aegean Sea, I would argue, make for populations with different temperaments, values, traditions and needs.

Pourgouris is at his best when he links history to philosophy, theory and art. On the other hand, Elytis scholars have been well aware of his debt to movements such as Ancient Greek Philosophy, Surrealism, Orientalism and Christianity, just to name a few. What I find most interesting about Pourgouris’s work, however, is his ability to pose critical questions and examine the complexity of the intersections between theory and marginality. Largely informed by a late modernist (globalized) perspective, Pourgouris has compiled a substantial number of sources to argue his points.

In the first chapter, “Modernisms: From Paris to Athens,” Pourgouris gives a historical account of the development of art and poetry in Europe and Greece and the political influences that “necessitated” such development. In the words of Elytis, “1935-1945! An important decade in the chronicles of modern poetry permanently completes its circle. The polemical period is coming to an end” (p. 33).

In the second chapter, “Towards a New Mediterranean Culture,” Pourgouris takes up the limitations of poststructuralism by examining its tendencies toward negative difference, exoticization and othering. In short, he points out the ways in which poststructuralism and its advocates focus on difference without addressing its attendant compulsion: exclusion.

In the third chapter, “Theory of Analogies,” Pourgouris pieces together Elytis’s theory of Analogies, which he says was “constructed . . . from scattered references in the poet’s essays. Elytis himself does not explicitly connect these ideas in the form of a unified theory” (p. 65, N 3). Yet, if the poet himself was not interested in the need to construct such theory, it is not clear why Pourgouris has painstakingly created an idea that does not explicitly exist in the poet’s body of work. Such attempt then is futile, for according to the poet, “Everything can be assembled and disassembled except for the poet’s words” (p. 71).

In chapter four, “Solar Metaphysics,” Pourgouris claims, “Solar Metaphysics is linked to the form or structure of the entire poetic presentation” (p. 112). That is to say, the author seems to suggest that one ought to acknowledge the inevitability of referentiality and look at the challenges of modernity in art and architecture as points of departure in Elytis’s body of work.

The final chapter is devoted to what Pourgouris calls, “Architectural Poetics.” As the author puts it, the juxtaposition between Eros and Light and Death and Darkness is evident, as the concepts merge in The Monogram, Maria Nephele, The Axion Esti and The Little Seafarer. However, accepting the idea that the “modern condition” is in essence only “a condition of loss” (p. 162), negates the positive consequences of the modern condition, such as a more leisurely lifestyle, less time/space barriers, and easier communication across cultures, to name a few. Elytis, whose works celebrate the Mediterranean sun and sea, cannot be seen only as a gloomy, dark poet whose “central concepts” converge on the point where “Eros and Light” merge with “Death and Darkness” (p. 161).

The book’s rather abruptly concluded last chapter explores the ability of poetic architecture to “give shape and significance” to the poet’s meaning and “content” (p. 199). The crux of Pourgouris’s analysis then, lies on the philosophical point that “the crisis of modernism is . . . a crisis of nationality” based on the notion that Greece as the “marginalized other” is “understood both as a personal poetic resistance to the official or imposed historical narrative, and as an effort to illuminate what is suppressed or neglected, and make it public” (pp. 172, 200).

This blog was originally published on here: Katerina Zissouli’s Literature Website

Countries that Ban Books and How it Negatively Affects Their Residents

When we think of censorship, our minds may flicker back to the invention of the printing press and the subsequent crackdown of major governmental entities — specifically, the British Empire.

However, censorship is still alive and well to this very day, with several countries exercising their power to ban literary works religiously.

While there are a number of countries that participate in this act, here is a list of countries whose crimes against literature are the most egregious:

The first and most notable country on this list is, without a doubt, North Korea. Also referred to as the world’s most secretive (and oppressed) state, North Korea is known for its dismal lack of freedom of speech. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the ruling Kim family regime is in total control of every aspect of citizens’ lives.

This particular regime is infamous for restricting the flow of information traveling into the country; the influence of foreign media; the books, curricula, movies, plays, and music that are permitted within the country’s borders; and even citizens’ access to the internet.

By keeping citizens practically cut off from the surrounding world, the Kim regime has received undying loyalty and praise — which may or may not be fueled by fear. After all, it is not uncommon for those who speak out against the extremist government to be imprisoned, tortured, or worse.

Saudi Arabia comes in close second, with its notorious censorship laws that often prevent the publication and sale of books for no announced reason. In fact, many literary works are judged by the whim of the censor, who can ban a book on any logical basis — even if it is as simple as disliking the title.

Unfortunately, this act of banning on a whim is of great detriment not only to the people of Saudi Arabia but to its economy as well, seeing as Saudi Arabia holds the largest market for books in the Middle East.

Finally, this list would not be complete without naming the country whose efforts to censor literary material began in 213 B.C.: China. This authoritarian state has mastered the art of censoring material and making a profit whilst doing so, given its habit of releasing Western films and books with a special condition: that any and all references that place China or its allies in a bad light be removed.

Nine times out of ten, authors and directors will gladly cut out the portions Chinese censors find to be offensive, leaving the work that is released to the Chinese public incomplete and missing vital plot elements. Additionally, any authors, journalists, or directors who refuse to comply with these guidelines will be permanently banned from releasing work in the country.