Masculinity as the “Greatest Darkness” in Sanshiro

Sanshiro by Natsume Soseki is a novel about Japanese masculinity in which Sanshiro, our hero, comes to terms with his role as a college-educated man from the country.  Sanshiro is a Modern(ist) hero who develops a heightened sense of self-consciousness as a result of the industrialized and urbane environment of higher education in the city, a confusing confrontation with “unintelligible” Western literary artifacts that seem important in Japanese education, and from his indomitable fear of women.  In the city, Sanshiro finds himself among flowers with “no fragrance to speak of.”  The lectures that he initially painstakingly transcribes come to “neither cheer nor depress him,” and he is “quite unable to determine whether they were boring or not.”  In fact, he comes to find it “strangely pleasant that he could not understand the lecture.”  This period of Japanese history is referred to as a time in which “a freedom of the mind” is necessary and desirable through education.  For this reason, Sanshiro reads his literature closely but “when he asked himself what he read, there was nothing. There was so much nothing, it was funny.”  His journey to become an academic becomes meaningful due to its meaninglessness. Sanshiro “could not say he felt satisfied, but neither was he totally unsatisfied.”  He is positioned in the lukewarm existence of a Modern hero who straddles — often confusedly — disparate states of being.

Such a contradictory journey leads Sanshiro, of course, to a different — perhaps somewhat related — journey of finding love. The novel begins with an embarrassing encounter with a “dark” woman on the train who weasels her way into his hotel room in order to, apparently, have a sexual encounter after much staring-down.  After putting herself in Sanshiro’s way in just about every way imaginable, the woman observes, “You’re quite a coward, aren’t you?”  Sanshiro thinks and over-thinks whether he should approach the willing woman. After an uneventful night together, he reflections that  “He should have tried to go a little farther.  But he was afraid. She called him a coward when they parted, and it shocked him, as though a twenty-three-year-old weakness had been revealed at a single blow.” He comes to the conclusion that “desire is a frightening thing.”  Women, really, are frightening things for Sanshiro as we learn through his similar, unproductive affair with Mineko.

Mineko is a Modern Japanese woman who has the license to wear mismatched sandals, bright kimonos, and to give her money to whomever she pleases. She scares Sanshiro but also attracts him.  For whatever reason, she likes Sanshiro — seems to want to marry him.  Sanshiro wants to marry Mineko the “hypervillain,” too, but doesn’t.  He has things to say but “cannot verbalize them” because “women are terrifying.” Mineko is disappointed and marries a very attractive friend of her brother’s.  Sanshiro is disappointed and returns to his constant awareness of his body, which reflects the observations that he hears from Professor Hirota (a kind of academic hero) on his way to the city:

“‘We Japanese are sad-looking things next to them [Americans]. We can beat the Russians, we can become a ‘first class power,’ but it doesn’t make any difference. We still have the same faces, the same feeble little bodies.’m […] Sanshiro had never expected to meet anyone like this after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war. The man was almost not Japanese, he felt.”

At first disgusted with Hirota’s observations about the Japanese male body, Sanshiro comes to think like-mindedly as he observes “the awareness that he was a youth of the new age had been strengthened […] but nothing else had been strengthened; physically he was still the same.”  This sense of Sanshiro’s physicality is contrasted with Mineko’s eventual husband, who is very attractive. Mineko marries the hot friend. Hirota, that all-admired “Great Darkness” doesn’t get a real position with the university.

Sanshiro ends with Sanshiro’s verdict that “Tokyo is not a very interesting place.”  We are led to believe that Sanshiro, too, is uninteresting despite all the effort he has put in. His journey is disappointing.  He hasn’t changed from the coward that he has been “since childhood.”  We are left to acknowledge the role of the Japanese male — especially in contrast to the progressive Japanese female — is an impoverished enterprise.


Heroics in the Arctic with Satan

The motif of arctic exploration is not unique during the Romantic period in which many authors, such as Mary Shelley and Coleridge, utilize the setting of a sub-zero climate and its  dangers to highlight the macabre and mysterious nature of their plots and characters. In Wilkie Collins’s short story “The Devil’s Spectacles” the artic setting is reminiscent of such Romantic literary locations where characters are confronted with what they fear most — in this case, the devil and the dark nature of humanity.   Septimus Notman propels the tale by admitting on his deathbed to being a cannibal through eating his dead friend during an arctic adventure to save himself from starvation.  Upon his contemplation appears the devil with a pair of spectacles for Notman, which will give him the extra push needed to turn him from borderline sinful to full-fledged brute.  These spectacles allow their wearer to  “read everything in [one’s] mind, plain as print” and must be passed on to a different man before Notman can die.

When Notman dies, Alfred, his rich, empathetic, moralistic caretaker finds interest in the spectacles because he wants to determine whether he’s made the right choice to betroth himself to his poor maid, Cecilia, or if he should have followed his mother’s wishes to marry his young cousin Zilla.  “Cecilia,” which means “blind,” proves to have some indecipherable thoughts running through her mind: either they are very deceitful, or they are completely innocent and benevolent.  Alfred falls under the sway of the spectacles to believe that Cecilia is cheating on him with Sir John — a vague figure who once proposed to her and was refused.  After hiding in the bushes with his mother and eavesdropping on Cecilia’s conversation with a wayward maid, they both learn of Cecelia’s noble heart and Alfred never returns to the spectacles, passing them into Sir John’s hands.

The tale is rather more drab than it pretends to be in the first chapters, but it signals a couple important transformations and continuations between the Romantic and Victorian functions of the artic adventure.  Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, exclaims of his artic trespass: “Prepare! your toils only begin: wrap yourself in furs and provide food; for we shall soon enter upon a journey where your sufferings will satisfy my everlasting hatred.”  It is the scene of hellish retribution.  Frankenstein here comes head-to-head with his creature-ish creation.  There is, perhaps, little less than the sublime element in the arctic, and it brings about deep pain that seems to continue on into infinity.

Collins’s artic is punctuated.  The devil is there — perhaps an ode to Dante’s Inferno in which Satan, weeping from his three colorful faces, is planted beneath a sheath of ice — but he doesn’t permeate beyond the artic; his malignancy is short-lived in England.  England undoes some of his evil work.  Here, the poor, innocent, faithful, and in-love Cecilia comes with a message to be “blind” to the devil’s spectacles; in her is the truth: in woman.

Woman is almost wholly missing from the Romantic confrontation with the arctic.  Where she tries to enter, she is silenced, ineffective.  But in this Victorian landscape we witness some permeability in which saving the tainted man is possible through, of course, the sweet truth of a pure, angelic woman.  That is fodder for another discussion.  But here, the artic, Dante-esque devil meets his foil and one soul has been saved.  The heroic act occurs within the domestic sphere in the safety of the English shrubbery.

The Drought of Time: A Woman’s Plague

Timelessness is the cure for a 10 year drought in Ballard’s novel The Drought, in which Dr. Charles Ransom learns how to navigate the desolate new landscape that surrounds him.  Around him people change into picaresque, circus-like versions of their previous selves: they morph into who they truly are.  For some characters, such as the “grotesque Caliban” Quilter and the wealthy, wayward Lomax siblings, the metamorphosis between presenting a façade and allowing their true natures to appear is like blinking an eye.  For other characters, such as zoologist Catherine Austin, the change takes some extreme close-reading to identify. The world ravaged by a lack of rainfall has pressed humanity to expose itself for what it is.  If humans seemed to exist in a world “like a disaster area” before, then they are pressed to tap into their survival reserves here. In the case of the main character Ransom, being human means that he needs to surrender to the inevitable realization that “time” — especially time past — holds no truth worth remembering.  He must learn to let go of who he believed he was and adapt into what the world demands that he become.

On one hand, Ransom seems willing to transform into a Drought-man — lacking the essential circumfluous camaraderie that is so often associated with humanity — from the first chapter, as he seeks to disassociate himself from others.  He insists that he has consciously stayed behind while families migrate to the shores, because he wants to play with his desire for solitude.  This desolate world might jive with the person that Ransom thinks he is, as he “had at last found an environment in which he felt completely at home, a zone of identity in space and time.”  Yet, throughout the novel, Ballard makes clear that this space is the antithesis of time. The identity with which Ransom associates the apocalypse is not exactly correct.  In a timeless epoch Ransom persists in surrounding himself with other people and even in the deficient “community of the river.”   He struggles to become truly isolated.  He cannot disassociate his mind from the memories of what being “human” has meant for him in his past: “For Ransom, by contrast, the long journey up the river had been an expedition into his own future, into a world of volitional time where the images of the past were reflected free from the demands of memory and nostalgia, free from the pressure of thirst and hunger.” The future for Ransom is tied to his past: as both a doctor and as a heartbroken, deserted husband.

He thinks that he might stay behind in his hometown of Hamilton until the bitter end and die.  But he, like others, is drawn eventually to the shore: “a zone without time, suspended in an endless interval as flaccid and enduring as the wet dunes themselves.”  Here, he again tries to isolate himself and succeeds more than he had in his hometown — except he now has become the chaperon of his ex-wife who has come back for survival purposes.  Ransom finds himself saddled again with his past, which he cannot shake off. Although he knows that “each of them would soon literally be an island in an archipelago drained of time,” Ransom’s “real Odyssey” has yet many more miles.

When he and a small group of friends decide to head back toward Hamilton, he is a changed man.  He has left his wife, reversing the tables on her, separating himself from his feelings of duty.  But when he admits that Miranda Lomax, an “imbecile Ophelia” who had previously threatened him with her female power and hideous appearance, is “attractive” in her new cannibalistic, corpulent body, Ransom’s true reformation is apparent.  He has become monstrous.  He has embraced himself as a shadow.

Once he reaches this initiation into the shadow world, a first drop of rain falls, signaling that Ransom has accomplished a redemptive task.

The redemptive action of this novel seems to rest in the tumultuous characters of Lomax, his sister Miranda, and her disfigured lover Quilter. These characters offer contrast for Ransom, and he eventually joins their ranks.  Miranda, especially, provides a thermometer for measure.  She is what Ransom fears most: she is “frightening.” As a woman, she is presented as man’s “companion” but “an isolated woman is isolated absolutely.”  According to Ransom, no man can be isolated in such a way that a woman can.  For him, this extreme isolation is scary.   He observes that “women’s role in time is always tenuous and uncertain,” suggesting that the timelessness enforced by the Drought is somewhat feminine.  It is a woman’s plague.  It requires a womanly approach.  Miranda’s brother becomes an acidic representation of masculinity, as he transforms into a heinous androgyny who is outcast by everyone in the society.  The “tottering desert androgyny” has a sexuality that is deemed obscene because he “was reverting to a primitive level where the differentiation into male and female no longer occurred.”  The group murders Lomax.  Ransom is faced with two options: submit to femininity or become a shadow.

He apparently makes the right decision for the future of humanity.  There are, evidently, worse fates than becoming nothing.  A man might become womanly.

What Ballard has done is found a way to avert  what we gender theorists would call the real apocalypse.

I Can’t Forgive Alice Vavasor

Victorians were skeptical, to say the least, of forgiveness.  The process seemed destabilizing at best, insincere at its worst.  Forgiveness never really leaves the map of the Victorian literary landscape and yet authors attempt to push it to the margin.  Dismissing forgiveness as impossible or undesirable appears to be an unrealistic a goal in many of the texts of major and minor writers of the period.  An obvious reason for this quandary is that forgiveness is deeply engrained in gender issues that seem difficult to resolve.  In Tess, Thomas Hardy manifests the nature of gender and forgiveness when he writes of Angel’s response to his abused wife’s confession of past errors.  Tess, ravaged by Angel, forgives him and admits to her own sexual transgressions, seeking a kind of equal ground.  Angel cries that such absolution is outlandish: “O Tess!  Forgiveness does not apply to the case!”  Numerous instances like this in Victorian literature manifest that gender and forgiveness are intertwined.  What is forgivable for a man is often at odds with pardonable actions from a woman.

In his novel Can you Forgive Her? Anthony Trollope makes the connection between gender and forgiveness apparent.  Here, readers are asked to pardon the wayward yet irritatingly proper Alice Vavasor her sexual transgression, as she takes her place in literary history as one of the earlier female jilts in the British canon.  She — and readers, no doubt — are perplexed and perhaps a little angered that characters in this novel as so quick to forgive her societal sins in which she breaks off an engagement with a handsome, rich, and even-tempered Parliament shoe-in for her macabre, facially-scarred, violent, and disinherited cousin.  Like Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist in Mary Anne Evans’s Middlemarch, Vavasor looks to a man to manifest her own dreams.  Brooke craved intellectual acclaim; Vavasor wants to be a member of Parliament.  Both women project their desires — which are beyond their prescribed gender role — onto their male lovers in the hopes of finding fulfillment through them.

John Grey, the jilted but devoted lover of Vavasor, forgives his lover as soon as she breaks off their engagement. Her cousin Kate — whom appears asexual at times or in love with Vavasour at others (perhaps I will take this up in a later post) — has no problem ignoring Vavasor’s second rejection of her brother.  Her noble relatives — all of them! — immediately acquit her of her emotional trespass.  There never was so much easy forgiveness in a Victorian novel.  Vavasor feels this, and it pisses her off.  She doesn’t want to be forgiven.  She pleads with her friends and family to consider and reconsider her actions and to judge them  harshly.  End at the end of the novel, Vavasor is quite disgusted by the fact that society at large can turn its head the other way and allow her to rejoin the ranks (as a government-official’s wife, no less) as a decorous woman.

If all of the world forgives Alice Vavosor then she is determined to never forgive herself, come what may.  No, never.  Readers are taught through Trollope’s novel that Vavasor, despite her mistakes, is an exemplary woman.  She has a heightened sense of justice, morality, and propriety despite her obvious errors: more than any other character.  So, Trollope teaches his readers to trust Vavasor to show them the way.  And the way is quite clear: a woman ought not to ever forgive herself — no matter who else might forgive her — her sexual transgressions.

Self-forgiveness is the thing, perhaps, that Victorians can’t let go.  This type of forgiveness, more than any other, is so bound to gender issues and also to the rhetoric of the times, that authors can’t seem to leave it alone despite their apparent desire to dismiss forgiveness altogether as a necessary or possible action.

Forgiveness is a return to the self, to the individual…and we all know how much Victorians adored the individual.  The individual was the goal, the backbone, the god.  Individuality was the saving grace in the face of error.  Individuality was a social performance, like gender.

At the close of Can you Forgive Her? readers are asked to follow suit and forgive Vavasor — easily — for what she has done.  As a reader in the 21st century I could really care less about her jilting Grey; I once jilted a lover.  What I struggle to forgive in Vavasor is her insistence that she can never want to forgive herself.

Murder Fantasies in 20th-Century Male Fiction

I didn’t intend to read book after book in which men fantasize about murdering or torturing women but this is exactly the kind of ride I’ve been on just by undertaking reading some random twentieth century fiction.  This month I read four novels that seemed to be connected to each other through the trope of fantastical misogyny.  Nabokov’s Lolita, Thompson’s The Nothing Man, Ellis’s American Psycho, and Hamsun’s Hunger(ok, this novel isn’t quite 20th century –1890 — but is considered an important landmark novel that inspired 20th century fiction).  In each of the these texts the hero’s actions are propelled forward through his obsessively imagining the physical abuse of the women around him.  The thought of brutally murdering these women — anyone from strangers and ex-wives, to wives and mothers — seems, at times, to be the only force  pushing him onward through his unique journey.

I can’t help, of course, but to view the murder fantasies of male heroes in male fiction as a continuation of sorts from nineteenth-century sensational fiction (and even, while I think of it, even of amatory fiction of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — Eliza Haywood and Aphra Behn come to mind).  I find Nabokov’s, Thompson’s, Ellis’s, and Hamsun’s writing of ravaging, segmenting, eating, or stabbing women very “sensational” in just this nineteenth-century sense.  Just as Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Wilkie Collins used the sensational genre to expound upon the unique life of women and men in the the domestic sphere, these twentieth-century novelists are also interested in exploring issues of gender and sexuality in their historical moment, and in their modern spaces: particularly that of masculinity.

The texts reveal something about a fear of masculinity unraveling.  Thompson’s novel, perhaps, is most clear in presenting this overarching theme.  The body of his protagonist, Clinton Brown, paints the entire picture of this fear.  Without a penis, Brown will go to great measures to keep his lack a secret.  He will take any measures to cultivate a feeling of masculine power.  What seems to make him feel most powerful is fantasizing — and perhaps actually performing — the murder his lovers, past and present. Patrick Bateman, too, turns to misogyny in order to hide characteristics of his sexuality that might emasculate him — in this case, his homoerotic desire.  The fantasies of both Bateman and Brown are relayed through a baroque style in which every movement is exaggerated in order to emphasize the reality of their dreamworld.  By using such a style, Thompson and Ellis conflate reality and fantasy for the reader, making it difficult to determine if their heroes’ violent actions actually take place or if, as we might expect, these men lack the drive to perform their part in their own delusions.

For the unnamed protagonist of Hamsun’s novel and for Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, the line dividing fantasy and reality is a bit more distinct.  Humbert, for example, daydreams about killing Charlotte Haze, the mother of his beloved nymphette Lolita, but readers are able to distinguish between his real and make-believe actions, for the most part.  When Haze is run over by a car we know that although Humbert would have liked to have been driving that car, he wasn’t.  Similarly, Hamsun’s hero stalks a prostitute through the streets of Oslo and imagines inflicting on her all kinds of terrors.  It is clear, however, that he does not act on his desires, mostly because he is far too weak from starvation.

In each of these novels, the male protagonists seem generally “too weak” in contrast with the forceful power of their fantasies, to take action. The only character who does eventually move forward is Hamsun’s, who boards a vague ship — to which he makes reference through the novel — that may symbolize death.  He goes  on to places unknown, but at least he ends the novel in a place different from that in which he began.  The same cannot be said for Humbert, Bateman, or Brown.  Not really.

Fantasizing about murdering women serves the characters in these twentieth-century novels by allowing them to remain, for the most part, stagnant.  Dreaming of violent action pushes them to remain mostly inactive.  Imagining their own uber-masculinity highlights their diminutive roles as players in the patriarchal apparatus. It seems to me that the role of misogyny of these texts does not help the male protagonists accomplish anything significant.  So what, then, is the function of such  murder fantasies?  At least the women in Braddon’s novels got something done.

“The Art of Pushing His Brutal Point:” Fanny Hill and the Futurists

Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure could be the anthem novel for the early twentieth-century movement inspired by Filippo Marinetti except Cleland’s work predates Futurism by nearly two centuries. 

Taken out of historical context, Cleland and Marinetti seem contemporaries in their metaphysical treatment of pleasure and pain. Futurists, in their romanticization of war and the machine, emphasize above all else their idea of the male as superior. Cleland too utilizes the tropes of war and the machine to marginalize women. By sexualizing war and the machine Cleland anticipates the philosophical trend that the Futurists embrace two hundred years later.
Although Fanny Hill predates the Industrial Revolution — by just a hair — in which machinery is more critically held against the human body, the rise of the machine and its implications are shown clearly. Cleland ascribes the male phallus to “that wonderful machine […] the instrument from which I [Fanny] was to expect that supreme pleasure.” In doing so, he responds to the growing cultural issue of industrialization, searching for a way to integrate the machine into human experience by personifying it and making it a limb of human interaction, just as the Futurists later attempt. And like the Futurists, he easily equates the machine with power. When Cleland allows the male phallus to become a machine, he endows the male sex with superhuman power.

Futurism responds to pertinent cultural issues that have evolved since the eighteenth-century. While striving the locate human nature against the ever-changing nature of the machine, some modern interpretations arise. Marinetti is concerned with the materialistic attributes of the machine: the marketability of the machine. In the correlation between the human and industry, the human too becomes marketable. Cleland describes male genitalia as “that enormous machine,” showing that the human is marketable. The incredible penis is made into a selling point. In Fanny Hill, the male sex becomes the popular consumable good. Fanny is only fully a woman once she realizes this: “I laid me down on the bed, stretched myself out, joining and ardently wishing, and requiring any means to divert or allay the rekindled rage and tumult of my desires, which all pointed strongly to their pole: man.” Futurism too ascribes a masculine sexuality to the straight, cold, metallic protrusions of the modern machine.  

Politically, the Futurists marry fascism with aesthetics as they celebrate gross machinery and the machine’s relationship with war. Despite the political differences between the 18th and 20th centuries, Cleland uses the trope of war in a similar way. The act of sex is always described in Fanny Hill by its brutality. The “imminent attack” of intercourse results from the vengeance of “that terrible weapon” or “unmerciful machine,” in which the female is always left with a “mortal wound.” Two hundred years later, the Futurists celebrate the materialism of machinery and the violence it brings in the same way that Cleland celebrates the violence that intercourse brings via the mechanical penis. Like Cleland, the Futurists feed the binary relationship between men and women, emphasizing the more powerful role of men. Faith in machines allows the Futurists to reject death, giving them a superhuman power. They can easily, from this point, reject women, which they do without remorse. The feminine to the Futurist is weak. As Peter Nichols argues, “the Futurist strives to abolish a culture of romantic love in an aesthetics of deliberate brutality.” Women are seen by Futurists to represent the soft and permeable which, held against the iron nature they ascribe to the male sex, places women in a position of constant inadequacy.

Cleland anticipates, too, this Futuristic form of gendering. The Futurists build on Freud’s theory of penis envy in which women are in an unconscious state of constant feelings of inadequacy due to a lack of phallus. Freud’s psychological theory supports the Futurist’s binary of male over female. However Cleland, who predates Freud by almost a century, utilizes the theory of penis envy to support Fanny’s feelings of sexual inadequacy. Once encountering the “tender hostilities” brought about by the “weapon of pleasure,” Fanny is quick to ascertain the difference between men and women; “For my part, I now pin’d for more solid food, and promised tacitly to myself that I would not be put off much longer with this foolery from woman to woman.” She immediately recognizes that a woman lacks the same thing that the Futurists — and Freud — believe a woman lacks: brutal machinery. In her narrative, Fanny describes her own genitalia against the machinery of her male counterparts. Her vagina is “flat,” “blank,” a “warm and insufficient orifice” and her desires are always “merely animal,” all adjectives which Cleland employs as proof that women are lacking an essential piece of their humanity by lacking a penis.

For all the ways that the Futurists uphold Cleland’s ideals of the sexes in Fanny Hill, Cleland
does split from the Futurists in one key part of Fanny’s narration. Only when the discovery of the female sex is new as it is to Will, the young letter carrier with the “maypole of so enormous a standard,” does there seems to be vagina envy. In the first virginal encounter between Fanny and Will there is a sense of awe at a woman’s sexuality. After several impersonal “attacks” Will, overcome with “natural curiosity,” must see Fanny’s vagina: “Novelty ever makes the strongest impressions, and in pleasures, especially; no wonder, then, that he was swallowed up in rapturesof admiration of things so interesting by their nature, and now seen and handled for the first time. On my part, I was richly overpaid for the pleasure I gave him, in that of examining the power of those objects thus abandon’d to him, naked and free to his loosest wish, over the artless, natural stripling.” In this passage and this passage alone is there any reference made to Fanny’s “power” or the fact that she possesses something that men don’t. “Those objects thus abandon’d to him” are never again mentioned in Cleland’s text as a point of envy as they surely seem here. Something must be said for how Fanny’s genitalia is represented here, as it goes against all other representation. Will’s naivete is probably the factor in Cleland’s description of the young man’s amazement. Later in the same paragraph Fanny describes her vagina as “that soft pleasure-conduit,” again using language about her own genitalia never employed before or again. That language thus ends after she “thrusts a guinea into his [Will’s] hands.” A new critical stance suggests itself.  

Perhaps Cleland is subtly implying that the suppression of a woman’s power in society arises from the act of prostituting that power. After Fanny pays Will for his services the vagina envy dissipates and all genitalia recovers its initial value in the text. That Will has the largest penis of all other men isn’t a slight symbol. He should, if the Futuristic similarities remain intact, never feel vagina envy with a penis like that. Will is the only one who actually views the vagina, taking time to see it. All other intercourse is conducted in a gross disregard for Fanny’s sexuality. Fanny consciously pawns off her own power by slipping the guinea into Will’s hand, reducing her role in the love affair to where she has been accustomed. This small section of the text removes Fanny Hill from the Futurists, although everything before and after it returns Cleland’s text to the sphere. Fanny Hill can stand to criticize Futurism by subtly implying a lack of education. The misogyny of the Futurists may be attributed to their miseducation of never taking time of observe the genitalia of a woman. If seeing is believing, as I think it is for our modern sensibilities, then the Futurists miss what Will seems to know instinctively. Lifting the petticoats over Fanny’s head and blindly performing sex becomes an insufficient mode of discerning the true powers of the female sex. Since Cleland judges “true” manhood by penile power, Will is perhaps representing the truest of men. The Futurists, and every other man in Fanny Hill stand to learn a few lessons from a man who takes time to study “that delicate glutton, my nethermouth” and what the vagina has to say about female power.

The Devil is a Woman, Part V: Unless She Isn’t

After much effort I finally finished Mikail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which a student recommended to me years ago when she heard that I was interested in exploring how and why the “devil” becomes female in literature.  This, my seventh installment, presents what may seem at first a challenge to the rule that the devil is feminized or female, at least at some point, in most texts.

I generally enjoy reading Russian literature of the 20th century but my first dance with Bulgakov had me shooting in all kinds of directions.  I was enamored with his satirical imagery that often bordered on surrealism.  At times he painted such vivid pictures of the most ridiculous acts and people that I found myself pausing to imagine these images as they would appear in a film.  Maybe one directed by Maya Duren or David Lynch.

While the imagery verged on the cinematic, the prose read, for me, very much like a play.  The dialogue was so much like a tennis match that I couldn’t help but play out the conversations in my mind as if they were happening on the stage.  So, Bulgakov comes packing some not-amateur flair.

On the other hand, on nearly every page of the text appears a phrase that was funny at first but then quickly became the bane of my reading experience.  Characters are constantly interjecting remarks relating to the devil: “The devil take you!,”  “The devil I did!,”  etc.  A subtle touch of irony would have been nicer than the gratuitous overuse of such phrases.  I almost stopped reading the text because I just couldn’t take it anymore. Yes.  Yes, this book is about the devil in Russia.  Got it.  Thanks.

My primary interest in the text was to understand how Bulgakov fashions the devil and gender.  Unfortunately, he seemed not to take up the topic very interestingly.  The devil is Woland, male.  He has an entourage, mostly male except for a naked green witch.  (The cat Behemouth reminded me lovingly of Hoffmann’s Tomcat Murr.)  Gender matters in Master and Margarita because a woman is responsible for the first catastrophe and a woman is also responsible for the redemption of the soul.  Margarita believes in “the master,” her extramarital lover: a writer who, much like Geoffrey Tempest, is undervalued during his time as a creative thinker adhering to “old-fashioned” ideas.  Margarita believes in the master’s power of conjuring the story of Pontius Pilate. Bulgakov shifts his narrative between the story of the devil in Russia and the master’s story of the crucifixion.  Caught between these two stories is the love story of Margarita.

Margarita can withstand Hell for her lover.  In fact, she can even relish it.  Woland likes this.  The master, not so much.  She, in many ways, becomes the devil for some shining moments.  Like Hella (the female witch of Woland’s entourage), she performs devilry in the nude.  Her mischief, though, is for avenging her lover, who has ended up (with most of the other characters) in the insane asylum.  Margarita’s sins are the only ones forgiven — forgivable — in the text.

So, the devil has a soft spot for love.  But he isn’t feminized nor does he slip into a performance of female-ness at any point in the novel that I could find.  Then again, it was hard for me to stay focused.  The text was arduous reading; it didn’t hold my interest well.  Maybe Master and Margarita is an exception to the rule.  But I don’t want to read it again to find out.