sirens

Cary Nelson: On "Portrait d'une Femme"

For some poets an attack on women became a kind of set piece of their early careers, almost a necessary apprentice undertaking, one of the decorously validated component of an appropriately marketed literary career. The two most famous instances are no doubt Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady" (1911) and Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" (1912), poems that embody attitudes quite characteristic of their authors' work at that time. In both cases the poets have apparently come to believe that Western civilization, in a period of decline, has erroneously given over to women the authority to maintain its threatened traditions. Yet women's essential being itself either threatens or diminishes everyone who becomes entangled with them. For Eliot, women's precious triviality makes for a life of empty, gestural anxiety. Pound admits these creatures have their allure; one alas repeatedly turns to them in fascination to see glittering "trophies fished up," bright riches that distract but have no substance. Indeed that is the core of female being -- gaudy found objects masking an inner emptiness: "In the whole and all," the speaker in Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" concludes, there is "Nothing that's quite your own. / Yet this is you."

Yet neither of these two poems is quite uniformly or simplistically misogynistic. Eliot's is a historically specific engagement with the early twentieth-century culture of female patronage, salons, and hostessing and thus partly a class- rather than gender-based critique. Nevertheless, its picture of a certain time and class is clearly gender differentiated, and the structural maintenance of this fragile world of empty forms seems to fall distinctly to women. What Eliot implies in his style of partly self-reflexive revulsion Pound explicitly projects and personifies. Thus the two poems are written in quite divergent voices. Eliot, whose quintessential male protagonist at this time was Prufrock, adopts the voice of self-incriminating critique; he returns to sample the very social world he savages. Pound, on the other hand, casts out and castigates the alluring if vacant sirens whose voices would drown him. Pound's prototypical male figure at the time was Mauberley, and unlike Eliot he saw himself as a man of action. Eliot to some degree shows us both men and women implicated in the world of fallen social relations women have come to oversee; Pound here is Odysseus trying to get past the sirens. Both, however, can be seen as revising and reversing James's map of gender relations in Portrait of a Lady (1881), which offers us a woman who in some ways is the one uncorrupted, if assimilated, figure in a corrupted world. Thus Eliot in his much looser, more meditative and dialogic "Portrait of a Lady" and Pound in his rhetorically focused and almost univocal "Portrait d'une Femme" both show us women of baubles and bric-a-brac who lead men and their civilization to its collective doom.

That is not to say that there is nothing to admire in these poems. Eliot presents a world in which no position external to social life exists from which we might securely critique it, a stance many contemporary theorists would endorse. And there is unquestionably pleasure to be had in the layering and counterpointing of elegance, exhaustion, and wit in his rhetoric. Pound on the other hand offers a bravura performance that elevates complex metaphoricity to something approaching declamatory public speech: "For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things, / Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff." Yet both poems are also instances, whether deliberate or not, of the backlash discourses that swept across America in the wake of nineteenth-century feminism's gains and that would intensify in response to early twentieth-century feminism. It is not anachronistic, then, to question what sort of cultural work these poems do; there would have been good reason for a reader sensitized to feminism to have found them offensive when they were first published in journals or later reprinted in books by Eliot and Pound. In tracking grounds for both approval and disapproval, in recognizing that both textual and socio-historical complexities are at stake in any full evaluation of the poems, I am of course undermining and purely aesthetic response to them. Marketed for decades by academic readers as unproblematically aesthetic objects, the poems in their own time were arguably efforts to reach out to audiences troubled by women's changing roles and identities. Indeed, the poems are clear enough in their distaste for women that some readers of this essay have found anything other than their unqualified rejection unacceptable. On the other hand, a more conservative reader thought my criticism of them seriously misguided. Such are the politics of contemporary criticism; it may be that I can please neither of these camps. It is the conservative reader, however, whose position seems to me to be the least defensible.

In case such a reader were inclined to underread the attitudes toward women unhesitatingly put forward in these and other poems, or to find some exculpatory explanation for them -- note, for example, Pound's "Canto II" and his gendered offer to breathe a soul into New York ("a maid with no breasts") in his poem "N.Y." -- one could turn to Pound's most remarkable programmatic statement of his misogyny, his substantially more than half mad introduction to his translation of Remy de Gourmount's The Natural Philosophy of Love. In putting forth the notion that the human brain is basically "a great clot of genital fluid held in suspense or reserve (p. vii)," Pound allows that this is so obvious and reasonable a hypothesis that it needs little proof. In human creativity and on the evolutionary scale, of course, men predominate. The brain is, after all, essentially male seminal fluid. Insects, on the other hand, are inherently female: "the insect chooses to solve the problem by hibernation, i.e., a sort of negation of action (p. ix)." Men act, "the phallus or spermatozoid charging, head-on, the female chaos . . . . Even oneself has felt it, driving any new idea into the great passive vulva of London (p. viii)." It takes Pound eleven pages to lay all this out in detail and by the end it is quite impossible to take it as Swiftian satire. By now, of course, the effect is partly comic, at least in part because Pound mixes his overwrought paeans to phallic creativity with a clubby, chatty style that implies he is casually gathering representative anecdotes from the limitless evidence available to all of us. But make no mistake about the bottom line: Pound believes all of this, and the arguments here underwrite his poetry.