poetix (old content)

oh build your ship of death

Nervous Sorts

If I were to assemble from memory a collection of “nascent intellectual” characters in literature (the better to look at the way the figure of “the intellectual” is constructed in and through Bildungsroman - as is, often enough, the figure of “the homosexual”), my list would contain few surprises: Paul Morel, Stephen Daedalus, Shevek in The Dispossessed (or Owen Griffiths in A Very Long Way From Anywhere Else), Geoffrey Hill’s “Offa”, Tom in Red Shift, Richard Hoggart’s “scholarship boy”, and so on. Least surprising of all would be that they’re all boys, and all boys who have problems of one sort of another with girls (the protagonist of Richard Ayoade’s Submarine plainly fits the type here).

The strongest female examples I can think of are Lorna Sage (whose Bad Blood still knocks the socks off most male-authored memoirs of growing up strange and troubled), Angela Carter*, Jeanette Winterson (Oranges are not the Only Fruit is as much about growing up clever as it is about growing up gay) and Andrea Dworkin. Virginia Woolf’s reflections on the problems of being a woman writer are obviously invaluable, but as far as I know she doesn’t say much about childhood and adolescence (although I’m not well-read enough to say for sure).

The male type is characterised by a detached, if not outright dysfunctional, sensibility: retreat from a perplexing and frustrating emotional world into an intellectual domain in which their precocious facility with words and images affords them a degree of mastery and skewed self-understanding. “Girls” are then somewhat unfortunately positioned as gateways into the abandoned realm of sensual and emotional connection, and alternately idealised as muses/sex-goddesses and denigrated as (variously) narcissists, seducers, trivial beings, neurotic leeches, etc. (Dworkin’s inventory of misogynist stereotypes remains one of the most comprehensive and deeply-felt). Duncan Thaw’s alternating attraction towards and contempt for Kate Caldwell is exemplary here, as is his delirious observation that “men are pies that bake and eat themselves, and the recipe is hate”.

Young female intellectuals (again, I’m talking about the characters one encounters in books, such as the memoirs mentioned above) seem to have problems not so much with “boys” as with themselves: boys are a nuisance insofar as they behave unfeelingly and unpleasantly, rather than because they represent an unattainable connection with some inaccessible reality. It is a matter of reconciling, or finding ways of living with not being able to reconcile, one’s full and contradictory humanity with the simplified and diminished humanity encoded as “femininity”; resisting (rather than transcending) confinement, the “women’s room” of narrowed scope and lowered expectations. The problem is then one of knowing what to do with oneself, where to put all that stuff for which there appears to be neither place nor name.

  • whom Fran had to remind me of, shamefully. She also made the useful point that the young Carter’s relationship to her immediate social and emotional world, in particular her own family history, was one of intense curiosity rather than disengagement: her fictions are often set up as theatres in which questions and problems from that world can be enacted and transformed.