Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism

By Laura Claridge; Elizabeth Langland | Go to book overview

Job's Wife and Sterne's Other Women

MELVYN NEW

Those who hold the pen -- write. Moses was a man. That's why he wrote that a man could have ten wives, but if a woman looked at another man she had to be stoned. If a woman had held the pen she would have written the exact opposite.

I. B. SINGER, The Magician of Lublin

IN A RECENT ARTICLE on Sterne's handling of sexual relations in Tristram Shandy, Ruth Perry suggests one way in which some "French feminists -- Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Helene Cixous preeminently -- " would have discounted Singer's wry, seemingly evenhanded comment: Convinced by Lacan, they would argue "that the entire symbolic, verbal order is male, no matter who holds the pen. This is how the culture maintains and upholds male privilege at the profoundest level of thought, and disenfranchises female reality." With this conviction in mind, Perry goes on to find Tristram Shandy to be "a man's book if ever there was one," which is not too surprising given the fact that Sterne's culture and language ("the very laws of grammar, syntax, and semantics reproduce the patriarchal order") are the same as our own and hence phallocentric.1

I would like to disagree with this reading but have difficulty locating a language that is not "phallocentric" and hence not guilty of reproducing those patriarchal (or colonizing) tendencies that Perry so deplores. What I will suggest in this essay, therefore, is simply that when such a new language does come about, Sterne's writings will, I suspect, seem closer to it than will Perry's -- or Irigaray's, or Kristeva's. I am not at all certain what literary criticism will sound like in its new language, but here is a typical passage in the old that might serve as a touchstone: "We recognize that Walter is a hopeless intellectualizer, and that he takes refuge from life in endless theorizing, but it is a loved, familiar foible, and we do not read it as callousness about her pain and danger" ( Perry, "Words for Sex,"35). What I most respond to in this passage is the voice of authority, telling me what "we recognize," what we "love," and what "we do not read"; it is, in that important sense, a patriarchal reading despite its content.

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