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Paperback Originals

August 24, 1986|JONATHAN KIRSCH

The uneasy struggle of men and women to find some way to get along with each other--in love and marriage, in the bearing and rearing of children, and in the world at large--is one of the great and enduring themes of both life and literature. To the extent that the theme has been explored in fiction by women, according to British educator and feminist critic Jane Miller in Women Writing About Men (Pantheon: $8.95), such novels may be seen as "a form which women writers have used to question and challenge men's appropriation of women's experience." Miller's book is an intimate re-reading of the literary work of women--from Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and George Eliot to Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing and Alice Walker--with an emphasis on how they have perceived and depicted men as sons and brothers, husbands and lovers, heroes and villains.

Miller declares her intention "to develop a feminist theory of reading and of writing that is both political and necessarily and willfully eclectic." But "Women Writing About Men" is not really an ideological tract. Rather, what Miller has given us is an extremely civilized survey of literature by women which, at the same time, explains the context from which the work arose, and considers the work entirely apart from that context in a way that allows us to see new dimensions of meaning. At its best, "Women Writing About Men" is less a feminist manifesto than a contemporary reader's companion to English and American literature.

Still, Miller never lets the reader forget her premise that writing by women wells up from a profound sense of alienation. Significantly, Miller's focus as an educator has been the teaching of bilingual immigrant children in the English schools, and her studies have suggested one of the central metaphors of her book: "(W)omen are bilingual," she writes. "All women who read and write about literature . . . have learned to do those things as if they were men." And she likens women to strangers in their own lands: "One way of looking at women's fear is as an immigrant's fear, the disorientation of anyone who leaves the place where they were born, its people and its language, to enter a foreign country alone. Miller's self-appointed task is to act as a kind of translator of women's words, and it is a task that she performs with ardor born of pain, but also with a scholar's intellectual discipline and a reader's abiding love of language.

An authentic woman's voice sings out in the work of Ginette Paris, a professor at the University of Quebec, who draws on the imagery of classical Greek mythology to express her own notions of feminism in Pagan Meditations: The Worlds of Aphrodite, Artemis and Hestia (Spring Publications, P.O. Box 222069, Dallas, Tex. 75222: $13.50), translated from the French by Gwendolyn Moore. Paris stands apart from the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition ("A religion of after-death") and embraces Greek polytheism as a collection of redemptive metaphors for the salvation of men and women in the modern world: "(I)t is not a 'religion' at all," she insists, "but stands closer to an ecology of the living than to that totalitarianism that underlines the Western idea of religion."

While there is something undeniably eccentric and even slightly zany about Paris' book, she treats her subject with the utmost respect and seriousness; her prose--like the very concept of "Pagan Meditations"--is lush and extravagant, sometimes frankly erotic, but always thoughtful and thought-provoking, always fresh and surprising.

In her hands, the myth of Aphrodite becomes "an alternative to both the Judeo-Christian attitude of sexual repression and its corollary, contemporary sexual promiscuity and the insignificance which accompanies it . . . the Goddess of beauty and sexual love represents a civilizing power." Artemis, as "protectress of fauna and flora," is not only a symbol of ecological activism but "comes to sanctify solitude, natural and primitive living to which we may all return whenever we find it necessary to belong only to ourselves." And Hestia "is the center of the Earth, the center of the home, the center of ourselves . . . Hestia is above all concerned with bringing together, in space and time, those who form a household."

Essentially, "Pagan Meditations" is one woman's effort to fashion the tools for spiritual and personal growth in our troubled times out of the myths of Greek antiquity. Paris is always at risk of being taken too literally, but she reminds us that "one must avoid confounding a Goddess, who is an archetype, with the real, historical, everyday woman." Indeed, the notion of polytheism itself reflects Paris' abiding belief in the freedom of choice available to women: "There are as many feminisms as there are Goddesses, at least," she concludes. "(W)e can . . . change our vision of the world, our mode of communication, and our 'feminism' with each Goddess, each archetype who inhabits our minds, hearts and bodies."

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