Feminine power has long struck awe into the very heart of humanity. From modern believers in a single female God to the early Pagan religions, which considered every woman a goddess due to the mysterious and god-like power of the “sacred feminine” to create life, people of various faiths and time periods have revered the powers of womanhood. In traditional American culture, however, women are supposedly powerless and fragile, and men supposedly have both physical and political power. Is this true for modern society? Are our gender roles such that women are fragile and powerless, despite the historical prevalence of faith in the mysterious and creative powers of the female? Or are men fragile, and is modern feminine power not diminished but disguised? Dialogue surrounding gender in more recent periods of literature and thought, such as Romanticism, Modernism, and Post-Modernism, gravitate toward the latter argument. To understand their thinking, the following three works are instrumental: Romantic Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “Kubla Kahn” (1797), Modernist Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness (1899), and Post-Modernist Gabriel García Márquez’s short story, “Death Constant Beyond Love” (1970). In these works, an increasing tendency to contain rather than exploit feminine power reveals the fragility of the male personality.
The male speaker’s attempt in Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn” to appropriate feminine mystery and creativity into his own generative capacity – that is, to exploit it – reveals his very fragility. The speaker bestows feeling and color upon the complicated and ambiguous natural scenery by describing female figures: first, a setting “as holy and enchanted As e’er … was haunted By woman wailing for her...
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... Darkness, to efforts to fearfully ignore it, as in “Death Constant Beyond Love”. The latter two options involve containment of feminine power, a strategy that, as the chronologically ordered works above suggest, is growing increasingly common. The principal difference between the techniques of exploitation and containment is the male’s level of acceptance: struggle to contain feminine power betrays a sense of panic and denial, whereas the quest to exploit the power of the female manifests a feeling of more or less calm acceptance of the reality that men are not as strong as they appear. In the end, no modern man can truly conquer feminine power – though he may attempt to do so through language and narrative – but if he could choose between panicked mania for control or peaceful truce with the true dichotomy of the sexes, he would be a fool not to choose the latter.
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