Our Bodies, Our Statues
Review of MONUMENTS & MAIDENS: The Allegory of the Female Form. By Marina Warner. Atheneum. 417 pp.

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 bodies.

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 clear."

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 public art.

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´┐Żneur 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 quotation.

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 saints:

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 bears examining.

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 11, 1986

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