Our Bodies, Our Statues
Review of MONUMENTS & MAIDENS: The
Allegory of the Female Form. By Marina Warner. Atheneum. 417
THIS IS A BOOK YOU CAN TAKE OUT FOR A
BEER. At its best, it is wry, witty, opinionated and
gossipy. You can't always trust it to pay its own way but every
so often the prose itself picks up the tab. Trouble is, the
book wants to be treated like a Royal Academician. It flaunts
its research like Jane Russell's cleavage, thrusting data under
your nose with voluptuous abandon. This would be O.K. if it
weren't for the recurring clues that the bodice is padded. If
you are impressed by this sort of aggressive pedagogy, the book
will give you what you deserve. It will blow smoke in your face—elegant
spirals of fumy scholarship, but smoke nonetheless.
The purpose of Monuments & Maidens is to examine how women's identity
has been defined, since classical times, by symbolic uses of the female form.
The book is an intricately contrived, extravagantly documented tour de force
which is more convincing in its asides than in its axioms and lines of argument.
In the rare moments when she forgoes the postures of the don for the prerogatives
of the essayist, Warner is a gifted observer capable of flavorful irony and
grace. She is also an inspired scavenger. Some of the book's most commanding
portions are to be found in its quotations and paraphrases: William Gass on
monuments ("The' monumental monument tends to be, in this way, an open
emblem. It tends to be FOR RENT"); Robert Musil on the invisibility of
statues; Edith Wharton's description of Lily Bart posing as a painting by Reynolds;
the precis of Svetlana Alpers's meditation on Vermeer.
In setting out to demonstrate "the continuing vitality and presence"
of allegory in our lives, Warner takes her cue from C.S. Lewis. In The Allegory
of Love, Lewis remarked: "Allegory, in some sense, belongs not to medieval
man but to man, or even to mind, in general. It is of the very nature of thought
and language to present what is immaterial in picturable terms." At first
glance, she seems suited to build on Lewis's reminder. She herself has an allegorical
mind, wondrously loaded with images.
The book is valuable as long as Warner remains true to her first purpose (as
in the fine discussion of allegorical motifs in Thomas Eakins or the clever
digression on Claes Oldenburg). This is hard for her to do because she is less
interested in allegory than in grievance: "Every day, in public and private,
we exchange goods, both as commodities and as ideas, as shared aspirations,
desired proofs of status and badges of identity through the symbolic form of
the female figure." Behind the language of transaction here is the hum
of axes grinding. Even if you assent to the assumptions implicit in the word
"commodities," you have to ask, Is the male any less a commodity,
any less a vulnerable participant in this living allegory? What do we learn
about ourselves it we scrutinize Pandora and forget about Pan? There are nymphs
but there are also fauns, satyrs and sileni. Are the nymphs denigrating but
the others not? Since the human figure cannot be depicted without gender, does
it follow that every decision about gender is an exploitation and a confiscation?
By omitting the male from the discussion of this symbolic order, Warner sets
the stage for yet another sermon on the ways in which Western "phallocracy"
has "exploited and violated," "reified and colonized" women's
Instruction begins with Warner's pledge to reveal how the false promises of
classical and Christian culture are "conveyed by the bodies of women."
"Women's bodies." "The bodies of women." The book is peppered
with the phrases. They are code words more highly charged than "the female
form" of the subtitle although she uses the terms interchangeably.
Warner's insistence that all the touchstones of Western imagination are a direct
assault on women's bodies is not the result of conscientious, informed inquiry.
As presented here, it proceeds from an a priori indictment for which evidence
has been accumulated with manic single-mindedness. She loads the dice by ignoring
any distinctions between symbolism and allegory. (They have "different
histories and different values," Lewis cautioned.) Allegory comes to mean
anything that stands for anything else. The "female form" is interpreted
as any reference to the female made at any time and in any medium: folklore,
classical cosmology, patriotic exhortation, medieval legend, political cartoons,
logos on olive oil cans, Renaissance frescoes, easel painting, playing cards,
the structure of Indo-European languages.
Clarity is less appealing to Warner than demolition. The wrecking ball first
swings into view in the book's opening quotation from Walter Benjamin. Benjamin
likens the course of history, with its procession of collapsing regimes, to
a child's kaleidoscope: "The ideas of those in power have always been the
mirrors thanks to which the picture of an 'order' came about.—The kaleidoscope
must be smashed."
This will to destroy runs throughout the text, signaling an intention that
does not scruple to maim its data for effect. There is no shortage of trumped-up
inferences. The most conspicuous of these is the suggestion that the history
of art is one long smirk.
Warner's discussion of the nude is a hodgepodge of art-historical fact, pseudofeminist
umbrage ("We won't play nature to your culture") and fabricated conclusions.
Having absorbed nothing from Kenneth Clark's explorations of the classical nude,
it all leads up to the single maudlin pathetic fallacy:
She [the female nude] is a "negative imprint of domination"
whose own erotic drives do not matter, only those she excites.
The nude lies on architraves, holds up portals, ministers to
great achievers in the streets of cities from London to Vienna
to New York, and we are rarely asked to care what she is feeling,
rather to feel better because of what she makes us feel.
Forced inferences move from the fustian to the flimsy to the salacious. In
describing the reaction of a ferryload of schoolchildren on first sighting the
Statue of Liberty, Warner describes their roar of delight as "a visceral
response, quite like the sound of a male audience in a strip joint when one
of the girls promises to uncover big boobs, but here issuing from the mouths
of girls, not just boys . . . and perhaps too young to intend anything openly
dirty-minded." [Emphasis added.]
This is fun to read and to repeat. It isn't offered as entertainment, however.
This is the kind of distorting mechanism that marks a tract. Behind the facade
of polite, well-formulated discourse is that predictable hostility toward male
doings that takes us out of the arena of serious criticism and into the pub
for a night of bellyaching. In this episode as elsewhere there is the Dark Hint
that something not quite savory, something voyeuristic and offensive, is going
on. The Dark Hint makes racy what might otherwise be bland and prosaic. It lends
ordinary supposition the frisson of pathology. Were the Statue of Liberty's
features modeled on those of sculptor Bartholdi's stern-looking mother? Well,
then, he "never shook himself entirely free of her, as the statue makes
All that the statue makes clear is that Liberty has something to be dour about.
Her expression is appropriate to Bartholdi's first conception of the statue
as an elegy for the assassinated Lincoln. The expression is equally appropriate
to the condition of France in the year when work on the project began—1871,
the year of the bloody Paris Commune, which followed hard on the heels of France's
humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. In grafting his mother's expression
onto the body of his wife, Bartholdi, as a sculptor, was doing what artists
have always done. He was verifying Ins intentions with whatever was handy, most
easily observed or remembered. Warner's emphasis on the maman mystique,
apt as it may be as biography, is irrelevant to the way in which down-at-the-mouth
Liberty is true to its creator's intention and his times. It is equally irrelevant
to our understanding of the way in which the statue fulfills its function as
The book's disconcerting shifts of tone, from the coy to the solemn to the
lyrical, are the result of Warner's tendency to mimic her sources. The most
thoughtful part of the essay on Liberty is a rewriting of Roland Barthes's motifs
in La Tour Eiffel: the statue as an infinite cipher, an empty
sign to be made into meaning; its scientific uses vis-a-vis its greater usefulness
as myth; the exploration of the interior as an adventure of the eye and the
imagination; the mythic potential of the panoramic view from the top and from
without. Barthes on the nineteenth century's conquest of the sky and its obsession
with technological feats are paralleled by Warrior's remarks on the American
conquest of size and its obsession with the colossal. [While everything else
by Barthes is listed in the bibliography, La Tour Eiffel is not.]
Her chapter on Paris owes its structure—the walking tour of the fl�neur
educated in the art of straying—and its Baudelarian sensibility to Walter
Benjamin's travel reminiscences. Full of Benjamin-like phrases and observations,
the entire chapter is Warner imitating Benjamin quoting Baudelaire: "Everything
for me becomes Allegory."
Perhaps this is simply homage to Benjamin's contention that one never knows
a book until one copies it. The flood of documentation obscures Warner's lack
of original ideas. The book owes more to its sources than is indicated. Warner
comments at length on the fact that many abstract concepts (justice, charity,
etc.) are personified by female figures because the Greek or Latin word for
the concept was feminine in gender. That was an essential insight of Joan Ferrate's
influential study Woman as Image in Medieval Literature. Ferrante is
not credited with this but, instead, earns a footnote later on for an obscure
In the end, the book is tiresome. The liveliness of the early chapters trails
off into unrelieved pedantry. The relentless citing of sources becomes a substitute
for a personal voice. This is scholarship by the pound. Two pounds of Homer,
Hesiod and Hobsbawm. Six ounces avoirdupois of Panofsky and Plato. A slice of
Max Weber and Simone Weil. The Berenson looks good, so does the Philippe Aries
and the John Berger. A little of each, please. It's all here, lined up like
hams in Harrod's deli case. And sliced just as thin.
The book wearies, too, for graver reasons. It is bad feminism. Attracted to
the myth of female moral advantage, it flirts with an ideological stance that
deserves more scrutiny than it gets. Taking potshots at patriarchy, Peeping
Toms and the ruling class is child's play, but the delicate task of examining
one's own assumptions, developing an ear for one's own cant or confronting the
failure of one's own ideals is far harder, more vital.
The spirited essay on Margaret Thatcher, so full of heart warming malice, is
ultimately frivolous. The finely wrought conceit of Thatcher-as-Britannia-as-Boadicea
is grand reading. Thatcher herself would enjoy it for the tribute it actually
is. It refuses to draw the lesson toward which it points and which allegory
demands. The moral of the trope is that the stench of lethal arrogance is not
limited to one gender.
Warner backs away from Thatcher and pushes on to the alternative image of the
Greenham Common women. The section is an ecstatic chant to the communion of
Greenham Woman dances, keens, picnics in fancy dress,
wears witches' costumes; constantly, she has recourse to archaic
female customs and tasks, as mother, mourner, midwife and wisewoman.
. . . The female order presented by Greenham is nurturing, peaceable,
kind, fostering, forbearing; women soothe, they comfort, their
nature is sacrificial.
The encampment is idealized as a celebration of symbolic power and a moral
victory in "the drama of the sex war." Image here is at odds with
substance, a fact Warner overlooks in the service of her own premise. When the
missiles rise to incinerate us, moral victory will be indistinguishable from
obscenity. It would be helpful to us, in the time we have left, to consider
how the self-congratulatory, solipsistic theatrics of the more flamboyant women
contributed to the encampment's failure to gain support from those not already
in sympathy with their purposes. It is worth pondering to what extent Greenham's
identification of nuclear war and sexual war undercut its own antinuclear commitment.
Whether or not the encampment collaborated in its own bad press by brandishing
menstrual rags, banners of mother goddesses, moon deities and the like, also
The litmus lest of the quality of Warner's feminism is her handling of Judy
Chicago's The Dinner Party. A thirty-nine-plate invitation to cunnilingus
by a radical feminist Hummel, it was promoted around the country as a breakthrough
in the class struggle between men and women. Ignoring the disparity between
the project's self-important feminist purpose and its silly, reductive imagery,
Warner applauds Chicago for "aiming at ambiguity, at plural significations,
and at a positive iconography of the open orifice of origin, the vulva."
She accepts Chicago's "avowed and idealistic purpose" at face value.
The only reservation Warner dares show is couched in a demur so rarefied as
to be meaningless:
The problem is that such methods perpetuate the old distinctions,
they still pivot on contrasts between open/ closed, wet/dry,
hard/soft, clean/dirty, culture/nature rather than dissolving
altogether such oppositions in sexual difference as it is perceived.
This is tommyrot, an abuse of language. Warner might have mustered more courage
if she had attended to the-funding structure of The Dinner Party. The
cost of the project, estimated at a quarter-million dollars, was absorbed by
volunteer female labor. Of the hundreds who worked on the project (paying their
own transportation to and from Chicago's West Coast workshop and their own living
expenses there), only four people were paid: Chicago and the three men without
whose technical expertise the enterprise would not exist. Groups of women everywhere
volunteered to work with Chicago's (paid) public relations firms to bring the
party to their town.
It's curious that a project purporting to celebrate the abilities of women
couldn't find a living female potter or industrial designer or tapestry expert
with enough know-how to justify a salary. The symbolic import of the difference
between the salaried and the nonsalaried is not to be ignored, particularly
in a project thai roots its appeal in the abolition of hierarchy and class distinctions.
There is a difference between being a feminist and being enamored of the spectacle
of oneself as a heretic. One is a moral commitment, the other a pose. This book
muddles the two. Consequently, it applies its arguments like stage makeup to
half-examined premises. It never penetrates the secret of how all of us, male
and female, conspire to create these culprit cultures of ours.
Reprinted from The Nation, January