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End-of-the-Century Birth Throes : SEXUAL ANARCHY by Elaine Showalter (Viking: $19.95, paper; 304 pp.)

September 02, 1990|Dierdre Bair | Bair is the author of "Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography" (Summit Books). and

Elaine Showalter is a distinguished feminist critic whose new book, "Sexual Anarchy," is a provocative comparison of the last years of the 19th Century (the fin de siecle ) with the final decade of our own. Her view is optimistic, as she chooses to view the 1990s as "the embryonic stirrings of a new order, a future that is utopian rather than apocalyptic." She soundly rejects the idea that our century's "terminal decade" is in "the death throes of a diseased society and the winding down of an exhausted culture."

In effect, she is agreeing that history is indeed doomed to repeat itself, and even though we have begun the 1990s describing the decade with words like exhaustion, malaise, epidemic and violence, (pretty much the same terms as were used in the 1890s), we can cheer ourselves up if only by thinking back to the early years of this century and the renewal and change inspired by modernism and all that the term has come to mean.

Showalter, chairperson of the department of English at Princeton and a specialist in Victorian literature, has written what might well be called a "crossover" book; that is, one that is solidly grounded in a vast range of scholarship but also informative and appealing to a general audience. She describes the book she has written as being about the "myths, metaphors and images of sexual crises and apocalypse that marked both the late 19th Century and our own . . . and its representations in English and American literature, art and film.

Her book is primarily a study of the great writers of the 19th Century (and this is where it most satisfies), but her stated aim is to treat the "images rather than issues" and to show how fiction reflects the historical development of sexuality through comparisons with contemporary novels and films. A quick glance at some of her chapters will give an idea of how she goes about this.

To discuss women's options, for example, she uses George Gissing's "The Odd Women" (published in 1891) to represent those who for whatever reason could not or would not marry, who "undermined the comfortable binary system of Victorian sexuality and gender roles." Comparing this to Gail Godwin's "The Odd Woman" (1975), she makes the point that "representations of the single woman do not seem to have changed much since the fin de siecle. "

Showalter reinforces her view by contrasting Henry James' 1886 novel about the condition of women, "The Bostonians," with the 1984 Merchant & Ivory film that starred Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Reeve. Although she finds James' view of unmarried women harsh, she views the film as "even less optimistic about the prospects of the modern odd woman," and from that she glides gracefully into a discussion ranging from articles in the New York Times Magazine ("Why Wed? The Ambivalent American Bachelor") to serious feminist studies such as Andrea Dworkin's "Intercourse," which states flatly that "sexual intercourse is the basis and symbol of women's oppression." Throughout this chapter, Showalter roams authoritatively through British, American and even Continental history and culture, citing examples from Punch to Havelock Ellis and Freud to sustain her views.

Showalter both amuses and informs in her discussion of how the realism of "Queen George" (Eliot) led naturally to the great male "King Romance" writers: Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson. Again, she makes some nice ironic points by contrasting Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" with John Huston's 1975 film of the same name starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery.

This allows her to glide into an explication of one of the most important novels of the turn of the century, Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," which she rightly sees as "an expose of imperialism and an allegory of male bonding and the flight from women." Then she contrasts Conrad's novel with Francis Ford Coppola's film version, "Apocalypse Now," much of which is filtered through the perceptions of Eleanor Coppola's journal about how the film was made on location in the Philippines.

Showalter also buttresses her literary musings with examples from her own experience. She relates the fussing, fuming and foibles of academic conferences with a light, ironic touch, and her account of participating in a New York City "porn tour" with the group Women Against Pornography is harrowing simply because much of what she saw is on the one hand so ordinary and banal, on the other so upsetting.

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