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Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the World.

Sentimental Modernism performs a double operation of feminist revision of the canon and of recuperation. The canonical tradition under scrutiny is high modernism. Clark focuses closely on modernist poetics (antibourgeois, impersonal, obscure, elitist, and oriented towards the erotic) and its opposition to the sentimental (associated with domesticity, gentility, community and the discourse of love), to identify the latter as the "other" of modernism -- what modernism has excluded to establish itself as serious literature. In its role of the excluded other, the sentimental becomes the unconscious of modernism, which (as any repressed) returns, this time in the work of modernist women writers: Emma Goldman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louise Bogan, Kay Boyle, and, as a postmodernist coda, Annie Dillard and Alice Walker.

The question of sentimentality in modernism brings together several issues relevant for the feminist critic: the critique of the canon and the debate over the criteria of "canonization," the relation between author and audience, the politics of the modernist opposition between high and mass culture, and the power or powerlessness of literature to promote praxis. By reconstructing the process through which the sentimental is made "outlaw" and represented as a lower genre by the cultural hegemony of modernism, Clark shows us the "minority" of the sentimental in a new light. In her interesting debate sentimental writing is no longer mere escapism, but rather the stylistic space where women writers negotiate (and not simply dismiss, as their male colleagues do) their relationships with family, love, community, and the everyday. For women, as Clark points out, it is more difficult to reject the physical and discursive space of "home," because historically they have been so closely associated with the culture of the domestic and the sentimental.

Yet there is another reason why the poetics of distance, impersonality, and separation prescribed by modernism can be damaging to women writers: by cutting the ties with "home" and the personal, women are also requested to sever the ties with their literary past, "a rich, elaborated and contestatory tradition which included not only the realm of letters, diaries and personal memoirs, but also a highly successful, highly visible public record in fiction, poetry, essays, critical and historical analysis and journalism" (33). In this sense, modernism functions as a double-edged weapon for women: while freeing them from a threatening family structure, it also cuts them off from a writing past and an empowering tradition.

Modernism demands from the writer not only distance from the past, but, above all, a separation from the masses. In turn, this separation jeopardizes "the rhetorical power of literature," that is, the didactic, moralizing, and persuasive power of art (which sentimentality promotes) -- and with it a communal relationship between the artist and her audience. For Clark, the sentimental must be "restored within modernism" and recuperated exactly for its redeeming power, as "an antidote and political commitment in the contemporary age of postmodern abandon" (5).

Once transplanted to the United States, the aesthetic principles of T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot are deployed by the new critics (Ransom, Tate, Penn Warren) to leave women's writing out of the canon as "anti-intellectual" and make "the sentimental into a term of invective" (34-35). Why was the sentimental threatening? What masculine anxieties are implied in this rejection? The answer is in the overdetermined character of the sentimental, associated both with "valuing the individual, intrinsic value, emotions or pathos" (12), and a long tradition of public intervention in the American political arena -- a tradition to which women's writing greatly contributed from the Puritan period to the nineteenth-century era of social reforms. It is this unique combination of public and private in the American production of sentimentality that gives modernist women's sentimental writing its dangerous, transgressive character.

In this historically and culturally defined context, the sentimentality of Millay or Bogan, which so much disturbed Ransom, takes on a new meaning: one could argue or fantasize, for instance, that modernist women writers could have really "stolen" the audience of modernism and upset the gendered balance of literary and ideological influence in the American constellation of cultural power in the 1930s in an extremely threatening way for the masculine academic establishment. This is merely a hypothesis, which can be only inferred and read between the lines of Sentimental Modernism, but it is never fully developed. Rather, the impact of Clark's elegant and informed narrative of the historical production of sentimentality in modern America is weakened by an overenthusiastic endorsement of Julia Kristeva's theory of desire in language. More specifically, she identifies tout court the sentimental with the semiotic.

By taking Kristeva's semiotic as another a priori (the semiotic is defined as "motility before meaning," and successively assimilated to "the sentimental revolution of the world"), Clark abandons the productive field of cultural analysis to embark on an essentialist critique. In this new territory, the semiotized sentimental loses its ambiguous character (its unresolved lingering between public and private, its being both empowering and dangerous for women) and becomes exclusively and inexplicably the space of revolt and anarchy. At the same time, "home" is valorized as the space of femininity. Perhaps in this case women should be given the benefit of doubt: the femininity that the discourse of domesticity defines might not be, after all, what women are, but rather what patriarchy says they are. Otherwise, one must accept as "normal" a definition of femininity that sees women exclusively as mothers, nurturing beings, and guardians of home.

The initial identification sentimental/semiotic allows Clark to assimilate a series of categories whose proximity is not otherwise immediately evident: the sentimental, the semiotic, the feminine, the maternal, historical women, morality, the rhetorical power of literature, and the revolution of the word are all automatically aligned throughout the book.

In a sort of chain-reaction Aristotelian syllogism, the essentialism that characterizes Clark's discussion of femininity is also referred to two other key terms of her argument -- literature as rhetoric and subjectivity ("At stake is the question of critical rhetoric and of the effective agency of the critical subject" |3~). Both concepts are presented and dealt with through what I would call the "expressive phallacy" of the liberal self -- that is, by posing them as ontological, steady positions from which the subject exercises its power and agency. The question of agency is one of the most crucial for feminism, and I am not willing to dismiss it as a mere bourgeois notion. Yet, in the context of Clark's book, the question of agency as intentionality and "expression" is approached from an Emersonian and idealist perspective. The very notion of agency as the power of the (self) centered masculine subject of bourgeois reason is what feminist theory has critiqued for the past decade. In this perspective, paradoxically, it is male modernism -- together with the experiments of Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein, among the other women modernists -- that contributed to debunk bourgeois subjectivity by delegitimizing the ideology that produced it. The analysis of the silenced sentimentality of modernism cannot simply be a lament for the end of the community or a paean for women's effort to reconstruct it. It must also take into account, realistically, the decline of the community in the modern period, and examine the political and economic conditions that made the idea of Gemeinschaft difficult to realize and accept (for men and women) in the age of monopoly capitalism.

"Literature" is another category that Sentimental Modernism tends to fetishize. By appropriating Kristeva's credo ("the poetic function of language is by nature revolutionary"), Clark poses literature as the redeeming and moralizing force which will reconstruct community out of the ashes of modernism. As she explains in chapter two, in an almost Arnoldian tone: "Goldman's anarchy opened up a space which resembles the heroic position of literature itself in its antagonism against middle class certainties" (48). Although the book's exhortation to recuperate literature to the sphere of political commitment is crucial for feminist critics, Clark's notion of literature as rhetoric remains ineffectual, because it is too directly related to the ontological nature of the liberal self.

Different literary texts feature different degrees of political commitment and impact on their audience. Certainly, modernism represented a moment of withdrawal from the public arena. Yet "the separation of literature from ideology" that feminism is attempting to mend through the sentimental and its rhetorical stance does not accurately describe how ideology works within the text. Here textuality is defined not as a cultural construct, produced at the intersection of different discourses and traversed by conflicting ideologies, but rather as the unidirectional expression of a recognizable subject (in this case the "heroic" feminine, or the woman writer). Perhaps the real is already inscribed in the text and, in turn, the text is what produces the real. And yet the "revolution of the word" is not necessarily the revolution of the world.

The "liberation cry for rhetoric" with which Clark concludes her book is certainly political, a call to commitment, an exhortation to engage in the same anarchism that we see at work in the women writers whose work the author analyzes. The book has a happy ending: "Feminism gives back rhetoric to itself" (191), and "women's writing also recuperates from formalism . . . the power of style" (202). Yet the liberation of rhetoric (the sentimental semiotic) does not automatically coincide with the liberation of women. Perhaps "the power of style" is not enough as the goal of feminism. While acknowledging the achievements of women modernists, feminist literary critics should not forget that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy.
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Author:Boscagli, Maurizia
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:1594
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