Monday, March 14, 2011

in her hair

A comment from Whispering Gums after my last post reminded me of Teresa Petersen's Christina Stead: a Provocative Rereading, a book that hasn't been entirely out of my mind since I finished it more than half a year ago -- a tantalising book -- like the beginning of an idea, a seed or egg, but trapped at this embryonic stage, frozen there forever, or until someone else picks it up and goes on with it, incorporating it into a book of their own, bringing it in as a reference, a footnote, one item in the index of another, vaster work.

Petersen's rereading is provocative because she is searching through Stead's oeuvre for clues that will suggest the author was a closeted lesbian. The book has two problems. One is that it is written in repetitive and dogmatic academic jargon and the other is that Petersen is so eager to shore up her theory that she will ignore or gainsay evidence that threatens to interfere with the presentation of her proofs. The existence of a joyful wedding in The People With the Dogs makes it more difficult for her to argue that Stead's opinion of marriage was strongly negative, so Rereading kicks the troublesome novel away quickly, telling the reader that it is not worth discussing; it is minor.*

But both of those qualities, the jargon and the shoring-up, can be explained if I stop thinking of the book as an examination and start regarding it as a defensive manoeuvre. Following this line of comprehension I wonder if the work seems pinched and egg-bound because it is walling itself in; it resists the expansion that comes from growth because growth (in this case, the admission of heartfelt doubt, a willingness to consider parts of the oeuvre that contradict Petersen's ideas, etc), might disturb its equilibrium.

(Stead herself was not a writer who looked for equilibrium; she was an ungainly ambiguous writer, and this makes it difficult to fix down any wide-reaching theory about her; every helpful ideology you try to posit comes with an attendant but. A writer trying to argue against Petersen, saying that Stead was utterly heterosexual, with no lesbianism in her at all, would come across buts and problems of their own. You could argue that she was a feminist; you could also argue that she preferred men to women; there's evidence for both points of view, and both could be easily refuted.)

Is it outrageous of me to believe that the thing Rereading is defending -- this state of belief it wants to maintain, motionless and shockproof -- is a moment of insight that must have felt very similar to the one I had after The Years, when I believed that Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Jolley were almost identically musical? At that instant everything seemed united, simplified, and streamlined, as though all I had to do was concentrate a little longer and the rest of the evidence would rise up inside me and then fall into place with almost no effort. Opposition to the idea vanished, it didn't exist yet, I couldn't conceive it, I was blind to it, and when the doubts began to come in I regretted them and I wished they would go away. I would have liked to be able to eliminate them from my mind as swiftly as A Provocative Rereading eliminates The People With the Dogs. You want to bat them away -- and Petersen makes exactly that movement: she bats them away.

Was there a moment when this idea sprang into her head, That Christina Stead writes like a closeted lesbian, and she was moved by its beauty, and reluctant to destroy it: the lovely, rounded spectacle of everything in Stead's work uniting under that one idea? When she says that Dogs is too minor to bother about, she means that it is minor to a person who wants to persuade you that Stead was critical of heterosexual pairings. Other kinds of minorness don't bother her; we see that later when she spends time taking apart a few pages in a haunted house story called The Right-Angled Creek. Wider critical opinion is no more interested in Creek than it is in Dogs, but the difference is that Creek can be made to support her theory -- so it swells in importance like the very tiny phrase my brain picked out of Woolf, "something shining in her hair."

"I feel it but I can't quite explain it," as Whispering Gums writes. My experience was like that; the knowledge was there, it was on the tip of my tongue, but where were the words, where was the proof, the footnotes, the quotes, the comparisons between books, that would make other people say, "Yes, of course, you're right, unmistakable, it's obvious"? It's not difficult to see Petersen's frequent reiteration of umbrella jargon words, "paradigm," "heteronormative," as gestures in the direction of that ineffable feeling. Repetition, and the vagueness of the phrases themselves (you could point to a thousand things in almost any book and call them "heteronormative") blur over the individual features that would set her examples apart. They merge together in a mist of agreement, vague, impenetrable, but with the sound or veneer of something that has been considered and definitely named, like that hunch that can't quite be explained but feels so sure of itself: that static instant in which everything is perfect, like an undamaged childhood

* I should point out that the book is packed away, and I haven't been able to get to it in months; it's likely that I'm misremembering parts of it, and possibly the whole tone as well, also, I don't know Teresa Petersen, and I've never seen her interviewed about any aspect of her work, Provocative Rereading, or anything else she's done, and for all I know the idea for the book came to her at a university seminar, or during the course of lunch with friends, happening slowly and not in a flash at all, although if you asked me to pick a moment when such an idea would occur, I'd say that it might happen as someone was reading about the interview Stead gave at the end of her life, during which she said that she loved men, loved them, and how strangely vehement she sounds, really, and why so vehement, wonders the reader: why?


  1. Oh, you make me laugh DKS. Loved, after all that, your last para!

    But love your discussion too ... being a rather wishy washy person who can rarely see something without also seeing the opposite or at least another perspective, I usually find it hard to argue for anything decisively. The reason for this I suppose is that everything is, in the end, itself. And so, no matter how much we try to make it something else, it isn't and can't be. And therein lies the fun - my bit of the "is" it is, can very well be different to yours.

  2. Anthony Gottleib in the New York Times recently, on Montaigne: "Montaigne does often state his considered view, but rarely without suggesting, explicitly or otherwise, that maybe he is wrong." My feeling is that if you (not 'you' specifically, but the general 'you') have doubts then it's wiser to admit them and try to sort them out, than try to pretend they're not there and paste over them, as I think Petersen does. There are some writers who are good at certainty, Ruskin, Robert Hughes, but I'm not Ruskin or Robert Hughes, and it's exploration that's important, in the end. You explore with what you've got, and Ruskin explored certainty, Hughes explores certainty, but if you haven't got certainty then doubt needs to be it.

  3. Samuel Butler, opening a speech with an excellent use of doubt: "I have been asked to speak on the question how to make the best of life, but may as well confess at once that I know nothing about it. I cannot think that I have made the best of my own life, nor is it likely that I shall make much better of what may or may not remain to me. I do not even know how to make the best of the twenty minutes that your committee has placed at my disposal ..." and then goes on to feel his way through the idea pretty brilliantly.