The Magazine


Jun 2, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 37 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The form has been given various names -- "personal criticism," " autobiographical criticism," "confessional criticism," the "personal voice," the "personal turn" (echoing the "linguistic turn" of postmodernism). A symposium on "The Place of the Personal in Scholarship," in a recent issue of the Publications of the Modern Language Association, opens with an essay by Michael Berube who tells us that he has done a word count of the first- person-singular pronoun in his writings in the previous six years. "I" appeared 7,300 times, not including, he wryly observes, the six times in the first sentence of his present essay. One enthusiast has compiled a bibliography of book-length works (not mere essays) on this theme; it runs to seven single-spaced pages. Although the personal turn is most conspicuous in literary criticism, it is by no means confined to it. History, philosophy, classics, art, anthropology, sociology, jurisprudence, even the sciences, have all been affected by it. (Among French historians, it goes by the name "ego-histoire.")

Within the past year, Routledge (the trendiest of commercial publishers) has issued a volume of essays originating in sessions at the American Philological Association and the British Classical Association. The contributors to Compromising Traditions: The Personal Voice in Classical Scholarship describe the intimate relationship between their analyses of particular classical texts and their personal lives: alcoholic parents, depression and mental breakdown, feelings of inadequacy induced by a malecentered profession, a woman's memory of her sexual arousal as a teenager, a man's consciousness and practice of his homosexuality. Another Routledge volume, Confessions of the Critics, includes some dissenting voices, but is dominated by the celebratory tone of the editor, H. Aram Veeser, who describes confessional criticism as a "performative" event akin to performance art, and thus a form of "erotica." He explains: "Theatrical, sexy, flashing their bodies between the folds of theory, they could hardly stand further from the neutered "third sex of Ph.D.s.'"

That "third sex of Ph.D.s" -- referring to the "white mainstream feminism" that consciously sought to depersonalize feminism -- comes from one of the founding texts of this movement, Nancy K. Miller's Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts (published, again by Routledge, in 1991). The final essay of that book, "My Father's Penis," almost literally carries out Veeser's promise of "flashing their bodies between the folds of theory." Recalling childhood memories of her father walking about the house in his pajamas with a telltale gap in the fly, Miller, 40 years later and sharing an apartment with her ailing father, finally has the opportunity to touch his penis as she helps him urinate and then, while he lies naked and asleep on a hospital bed, to examine it more closely.

Miller does not deny the voyeuristic element in her behavior, but she gives it a large theoretical significance by comparing the penis with the "phallic" mode of traditional literary criticism. She wrote the essay, she explains, " in the aftermath of an intensely charged academic performance in which the status of "experience' in feminist theory had been challenged with a certain phallic -- what would a better word be? -- insistence. . . . Born of the troubled intimacies of the autobiographical penis and the theoretical phallus, [the essay] had unexpectedly come full circle back to feminist revision."

If the other critics take Miller as their model, Miller herself pays tribute to another influential feminist critic, Jane Gallop, whose essay " Phallus/Penis: Same Difference" was reprinted in Thinking Through the Body (published in 1988). This volume was also made memorable by another essay dedicated "Aux hommes de trente-six ans," a tribute to the series of 36- year-old "unavailable" men with whom she had had affairs. The book jacket features a photograph taken by her husband of Gallop giving birth to their child.