By Perry Meisel
Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde. By Susan Rubin Suleiman. Illustrated. 276 pp. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. $27.50.
It is something of a commonplace to observe that the conjunction of three trends of thought over the last two decades - feminism, psychoanalysis and deconstruction - has produced a powerful style of American academic criticism that cannot be ignored, especially since some of its practical implications, canon-bashing and the reconstruction of liberal arts curriculums chief among them, will have real and far-reaching consequences for college education in the next century. Susan Suleiman, a professor of Romance and comparative literatures at Harvard University, is an exemplar of this kind of syncretic criticism. As its title suggests, Ms. Suleiman's new book, Subversive Intent, takes as its subject the history of the avant-garde, from Surrealism through the New Novel to post-modernism.
Well aware of the manifold ironies that attend the notion of an avant-garde tradition (how can ''subversive intent'' be a function of the continuities that foster a tradition?), Ms. Suleiman carefully deconstructs many of the paradoxes that accompany such a presumably radical enterprise. Through close examinations of the French writers Andre Breton, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Georges Bataille, she goes on to uncover a sexual-political dimension to the work of the male avant-garde that has been left unexplored.
While confined mostly to French writing, Ms. Suleiman makes forays into the contemporary American scene, using the 1960's French ''Tel Quel'' group of writers and the post-structuralism associated with it as a pivot between past and present. She concludes with an excellent bibliographical essay that details the history of the idea of post-modernism and nicely organizes the debate on that subject.
She also has a prescription in mind for a renovated avant-garde esthetic that is both feminist and post-modern: ''A double allegiance,'' Ms. Suleiman says, ''characterizes much of the best contemporary work by women: on the one hand, an allegiance to the formal experiments and some of the cultural aspirations of the historical male avant-gardes; on the other hand, an allegiance to the feminist critique of dominant sexual ideologies, including the sexual ideology of those same avant-gardes.''
Ms. Suleiman is herself a liberal or ecumenical feminist who honors both the biocentric wing of international feminist thinking, which takes the body alone as the essence of gender, and the structural wing, which views gender as a cultural construction, in order to present a united front to the outside world. While the result tends to conceal the rifts within feminism itself, it also results in a dauntingly comprehensive demonstration of the way different feminist approaches may be combined to engage a wide range of meanings from a tradition like the avant-garde.
What Ms. Suleiman is saying at any given time, however, is hard to summarize; her prose reflects the kind of fluid, feminist poetics for which she argues thematically. Feminist criticism, it appears, like feminist fiction, must be a kind of writing that refuses the straightforwardness of male writing, including its armory of values such as clarity, concision and pointedness, all of which can be interpreted as masquerades for the male lust for power, replicating the structure of male sexual pleasure.
If the male Surrealists historically suppressed the women who were allowed access to their inner circle, they also maintained a notion of woman as object in their esthetic practice, a point Ms. Suleiman makes lucid in readings of Breton's novel Nadja (1928), Max Ernst's painting The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses (1926) and Marcel Duchamp's mustachioed Mona Lisa (1919). The same kind of ''ordinary sexism,'' as she calls it, also contaminates the work of avant-garde novelists such as Bataille and Mr. Robbe-Grillet.
Too great a focus on Mr. Robbe-Grillet's technique, she argues, requires readers to bypass the ''sado-erotic core'' of his novels, particularly Project for a Revolution in New York (1970). ''Formalist rationalization'' obscures this core by neutralizing the scenes of bondage and torture and the humiliation of women that crop up so often in the novel.
Mr. Robbe-Grillet does not deploy such sexist representation, Ms. Suleiman says, as a revolutionary strategy that disrupts sexism. She suggests that, like Bataille, he uses it to resist ''the female body, in its duplicity as asexual maternal and sexual feminine'' - the specter of woman as mother and lover at once. Using Roland Barthes's remark that ''the writer is someone who plays with his mother's body,'' Ms. Suleiman explains Mr. Robbe-Grillet's ''fury toward women'' as ''hatred of mothers,'' a reflection in turn of a ''desire to dominate - be it one's language or the body of one's mother.'' Ms. Suleiman takes this to be a ''fantasy of self-engenderment'' that corresponds to the art of the male avant-garde as a whole, which pretends to have no precursors.
A properly feminist avant-garde, by contrast, looks toward ''parody and the multiplication of narrative possibilities.'' Key are the strategies of ''parodic appropriation'' and ''revisionist mythmaking'' common to the contemporary work of Angela Carter in England and Cindy Sherman or Barbara Kruger in the United States. Here patriarchal ideologies like classical myth, Hollywood or advertising are reconceived rather than simply rejected.
Ms. Suleiman's favorite example of revisionary mythmaking is The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington (1976). The novel is narrated by an old woman and mother banished by her family to an old-age home. Reversing the structure of the Arthurian Grail, Carrington's parodic rewriting of myth also supplements the traditional image of Venus by adding to it her neglected historical role as ''mother.'' In Carrington's fable, Venus even turns out to own the chalice.
The figure of woman as both maternal and autonomous organizes Ms. Suleiman's entire book; it is best symbolized, she tells us, by ''the figure of the playful mother.'' Drawing on ''the maternal metaphor'' advanced by French feminism to offset the notion of ''the patriarchal mother,'' Ms. Suleiman concludes that ''a woman can be politically radical, artistically innovative, and yet a mother.''
The union of mother and play is also a solution to the Oedipus complex, whose importance Ms. Suleiman likes to underplay. While she wonders aloud whether ''the 'real' logic of Oedipus'' is ''the elimination of the mother, and a fortiori of female subjectivity,'' its logic is actually the one represented in her own positive image of the mother playing. Woman as both maternal and erotic, as Ms. Suleiman imagines her, is precisely the double image of women that the concept of the Oedipus complex requires of boys and girls alike. This is a deep and moving insight, and one that Ms. Suleiman's ecumenical approach validates despite itself. Indeed, the extent of her liberalism should not be underestimated. ''For the sake of some literal-minded readers,'' she writes in a footnote, ''I want to emphasize that I do not consider castration or sex-change operations as solutions, political or other!''
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, August 5, 1990