Gender and Transcendence: Sexing Melville's Whale

Gender and Transcendence: Sexing Melville's Whale

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Gender and Transcendence: Sexing Melville's Whale

Mention Moby-Dick to most undergraduates and their response is either a yawn or a groan.Of course, few of them have actually read the novel; rather, their trepidation is usually based on hearing over and over again that it's a Great Book.If it's been a Great Book for over 150 years, they ask, what could it possibly teach us now, on the brink of the 21st Century?

Such thinking seems to have created a rather large hole in what most undergraduates know about 19th century American literature--a hole large enough to swallow not only Melville's whale but all of R. W. Emerson and most of Emily Dickinson, as well.Without such foundational works, most undergraduates--even those interested in a serious study of American literature--miss out on a great deal in 20th Century American texts which builds on the philosophical themes present in those Great (Old) Books.

For instance, Transcendentalism was one of the major intellectual centers to much 19th century American writing; and of course thousands of pages have been written about transcendentalism as a theme in Emerson and Dickinson, and an anti-theme in Melville.But most undergraduates are for the most part unaware of this deep vein of transcendentalism running through American thought and letters, and thus portions of modern prose and poetry that respond to it are largely unintelligible to them.If they've studied Emerson at all, it is as the high priest of American individualism, a sort of early American "self help" guru.

On the other hand, most of today's undergraduates considergender criticism supremely relevant; many are even somewhat familiar with its terms and principles.Examining literary and cultural texts in terms of what they have to say about gender is a practice with which they are relatively familiar, and one about which they usually already have opinions.It is, in short, a vocabulary in which they are far more conversant than that of transcendentalism specifically and 19th Century American literature generally.

As I began thinking about a class which might bring these two topics together, some questions immediately occurred to me: Are examinations of transcendence at all gendered?Is transcendence figured as possessing gender, requiring gender, confounding gender?If the new gender criticism seeks to go "beyond" the boundaries of our traditional concepts of gender and sexuality, then shouldn't one expect to find some connections with works which examine the very philosophy of going beyond common boundaries of self and other?

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And thus was born a course, "Gender and Transcendence in American Literature."I wanted the course to begin with early 19th Century American speculations about transcendence, and then use those speculations to read the intersection--if there was one--between transcendence and gender in modern American writing. I also wanted the course to transcend typical limitations on genre, to deal with essays and poetry as well as fiction.My first three choices--Emerson, Dickinson and Melville--were fairly obvious.But when it came to deciding which 20th Century texts we would use to continue our explorations, the path was less clear.

Part of the difficulty lay in that fact that, while I believe issues of transcendentalism are never far away from modern American literature, the theme itself is dealt with far less directly than in the work of Emerson et al.A second problem was the uniqueness of the course itself, in that there were no texts or anthologies to which I could turn for guidance.And finally, my own work in this area was only beginning, so I wasn't at all certain what to look for in a candidate text: grandiose plots of escape from the confines of class or race or family?Discussions of the theoretical complexities of gender?Books with lots of philosophical dialogue?Books with lots of non-traditional sex?

I finally decided on a set of texts which all deal with issues of norms: the role they play in social cohesion as well as social repression; the ways in which the forms of resistance which are available to the members of a community work to form the identity of those individuals; the extent to which norms are historically, culturally, biologically, and even statistically constructed.But in addition to questioning the concept of norms I wanted texts which questioned the very concept of asking questions, as it seems that the ways in which we can imagine asking "Is transcendence of X possible?" determine and limit the range of answers we obtain.

The final syllabus represents an extremely diverse set of texts.In addition to Emerson, Dickinson and Melville, I chose Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, Ratner's Star by Don DeLillo, and Beloved by Toni Morrison.Each text not only represented a considerable artistic accomplishment, but each revolutionized the way its period thought about various norms: either the stylistic norms of writing, the political norms of revolution, the personal norms of warfare, or the cultural norms of sacrifice.Each also, I felt, offered innovative and significant scrutiny of the manner in which gender is assembled and deployed in various communities in the service of disciplining and maintaining that community.

Of course, I knew the students would need support in reading and discussing these texts, and so the syllabus also contains a healthy dose of critical essays, many (but by no means all) of them writers of contemporary feminist criticism.(The complete readings for the course are appended at the end of this article.)

How did the students react to the course?I began by emphasizing that I had no preconceptions about the direction or goal of our discussions.We might even discover, I offered, that the literature of the 19th Century Transcendentalists was in fact markedly different from 20th century American fiction.While the 20th century might be uninterested in transcendence, perhaps we'd find the 19th century was uninterested in gender.Rather than unsettled by this open-ended approach, they seemed pleased that the course was not a pre-conceived journey to a specified destination, that they would in fact participate in shaping what the course was all about.

I was first surprised--and delighted--to hear that nearly all of them enjoyed Moby-Dick far more than they expected to.I think the fact that we were at all times reading Moby-Dick through a lens of topical and to their minds relevant questions of sexuality created for them a bridge to the novel that might not have been there had we simply been reading it as a tome of Am Lit--one of those fat novels with big ideas and long speeches that are as readable as a brick.I was even more delighted when, after viewing John Huston's film of the novel, the majority opinion was that, for all of Ray Bradbury's nifty tricks in the screenplay (like Ahab beckoning to the Pequod's crew from his nest of harpoon cables on the side of the whale), still it wasn't nearly as "exciting" as the novel.

But I was particularly heartened by their immediate recognition of the role gender played not only in Melville's all-male whaling tale, but also Emerson's idealized concept of innocence and Dickinson's representations of a seductive but indifferent God.And such recognitions prepared them to look deeper into the apocalyptic visions of Barnes and Ellison and Heller, to see not only how those visions transcend common-place boundaries and expectations, but also to question the assumptions about transcendence and gender from which those visions were derived.

But most importantly, many of the students told me they planned not only to take a second look at Moby-Dick, but that the course had sparked an interest in 19th Century writing generally, now that they could see its relevance to the writing of their own age.As one of the students said to me afterwards, "Whoever would have thought that Melville could be so, well ... sexy."

I believe I learned as much from this course as any of my students. Generally, I am more convinced than ever that literature departments, when it comes to organizing courses as well as granting degrees, need to think less in terms of periods and more in terms of topics; otherwise, the study as well as the teaching of literature becomes historically myopic and artistically constrained.Specifically, this experience encouraged me to be more willing to consider radical approaches to forging links between the contemporary literature students consider interesting and pertinent, and the older literature they consider, well ... old.


Section 1.Definition of Terms

-Butler: ìSubjects of Sex/Gender/Desire," Gender Trouble

-Buell: ìIntroductionî & ìEmergence of the Transcendentalist Aesthetic,î Literary Transcendentalism

Section 2.Emerson & the Gender of the Transcendent Self/Other

-Emerson: "Self-Reliance," "The Oversoul," "Circles," "Compensation," "Nature," Selected Essays

-L. R. Brown: "Emersonís Transparency" (unpublished essay)

-Van Leer: ìThe Practice of Divinity," Emersonís Epistemology

Section 3. Dickinson's Mr. Death: Transcendence & Seduction

-"Introduction" to The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

-Dickinson: (from The Complete Poems)

Ambiguity: 328, 378, 398, 474, 458, 520, 594, 599, 650, 875, 943, 1649, 1695, 1712

Scenelessness & Horizon: 510,280,721,216,615, 784,974, 712,564,365

Temporality: 547,160,258,287, 406,448,465,783,812,906,1056 1084,1068

-Stonum: ìThe Dickinson Sublime," The Dickinson Sublime

-Cameron: ìEt in Arcadia Ego"; "Representation, Death, and the Problem of Boundary,î Lyric Time

-Hartman, ìThe Voice of the Shuttle: Language from the Point of View of Literature," Beyond Formalism

-Anderson, ìCenter,î Stairway of Surprise

Section 4: Melville & Are We Not Men?

-Melville: Moby-Dick

-Cameron: ìMoby-Dick; Or, the Whale,î The Corporeal Self

Section 5: Melville's Male Bonding

-Essays by Gilmore, Smith and Zoellner from Twentieth Century Interpretations of Moby-Dick

-Baldick: excerpt from Frankensteinís Shadow

Section 6: Barnes & the Millennial Sexuality of Nightwood

-Barnes: Nightwood

-T. S. Eliot: "Introduction" to Nightwood

-Lacan: "God & the Jouissance of Woman," Feminine Sexuality

Section 7: Ellison & The Transparency of Transcendence

-Ellison: Invisible Man

-Bentson: ìIntroduction" to Invisible Man

-Nadel: "The Masks of Ralph Ellison,î Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison

-Nadel: ìInvisible Criticism: Melville & Emerson Revised," Invisible Criticism

Section 8: Heller's Catch 22 (That's Some Catch)

-Heller: Catch-22

-Cixous: "Sorties: Out & Out," The Feminist Reader

-Sedgewick: ìThe Beast in the Closet?î The Epistemology of the Closet,

Section 9: Atwood and Transcendence's Handmaiden

-Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale

-Rigney: ìAfter the Failure of Logic,î Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist Novel

Section 10: DeLillo & the Calculation of Transcendence

-DeLillo: Ratner's Star

-Irigaray: ìThis Sex Which is Not One" and ìLa Mystérique,î This Sex Which is Not One

Section 11: Morrison & the Cost of Transcendence

-Morrison: Beloved

-Haraway: "A Manifesto for Cyborgs," Coming to Terms

-Dearborn: ìGender & Ethnicity in American Culture,î Pocahontasís Daughters

Glen Scott Allen is Associate Professor of English at Towson University in Baltimore where he teaches courses in American and World Literature, Creative Writing and Critical Theory.For more information about this course you can visit his web page at
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