Mastery and Escape: T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism

By Jewel Spears Brooker | Go to book overview
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Tradition and Female Enmity
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar Read T. S. Eliot

One of the most promising aspects of feminism in general is related to values: feminists, in theory at least, make up the party of peace. They are associated with building community and enhancing conversation, with reconciliation. In practice, however, many feminists seem dedicated to perpetuating old wars. The work of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar is a case in point. They have contributed a great deal to our understanding of nineteenth- and twentieth-century women novelists and, in their anthology of writing by women, have rescued powerful writers from near oblivion. But their work is scarred by its presumption of a gender-based cold war. By insisting on interminable sexual warfare as an explanation of literary modernism, they limit their understanding of both men and women writers; by using binary logic, they preclude an understanding of one of their central texts, Eliot's influential "Tradition and the Individual Talent."

Gilbert and Gubar's account of feminism and modernism is developed in The War of the Words, the first volume of their three-volume series on twentieth-century women writers. Taking war as their controlling image, they filter everything through metaphors of conflict, enmity, and violence. Modernism, they argue, is a product of sexual battle; modernist techniques are weapons against women; literary history is an exercise designed to retrieve male heroes; tradition involves an attempt to define and protect the territory of male combatants. The series of which their book is a part also takes its title, No Man's Land, from the lexicon of war. A no-man's-land is a strip of land between the most advanced units of opposing armies; it refers to ground not controlled by either side, dangerously ambiguous territory in a lethal conflict. The conflict at issue is the ongoing battle of

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