The crime that Teacher Fei had been accused of amounted to nothing more than a few moments of gazing —Yiyun Li
Almost half a century has passed since the English poet Philip Larkin memorably reminisced that "sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three" (34). Though not a literal historical statement (Roth, Reading 16), Larkin's stanza tenders such chronological exactness—"Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles' first LP"—as to prompt readers to treat this "annus mirabilis" as a discursive watershed. It seems to mark the embrace of "sexual intercourse" (already common in practice) as discursively unremarkable.
The early careers of two novelists both celebrated and reviled for making the most of this opportunity, Robert Stone and Philip Roth, roughly coincided with this discursive sea change. For Stone this change authorized writers "to value the Dionysian" (Prime 228) or, as Roth recalled, to "legitimize" "intimate sexual revelations,"a "vocabulary" of "obscenity," and men's "obscene preoccupations" as "usable and valuable" subjects (Reading 16-17, 41). Ever Zeitgeist-sensitive, both novelists came to be associated with writing about the pursuit of "sexual intercourse."
Larkin heralded 1963 as the "beginning" of "sexual intercourse" in a collection published in 1974, the same year that another English writer further enlivened the sexual discourse of English-speakers: the feminist critique that Laura Mulvey introduced in 1974 with her now-ubiquitous phrase, "the male gaze." Yet to find its Larkin and its pithy poetic summation, this shift would also come to roil and enliven Roth's ands Stone's subsequent narratives. Mulvey argued that this male gaze sustained an exclusively male freedom "to command the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which" the gazer's desire "creates the action" on screen (20). First appearing in the journal Screen, Mulvey's formulation marked a watershed in film studies, literary theory, and art history (Kipnis 8) and made an indelible imprint on academic feminism, the reverberations of which continue to be felt throughout academe and beyond (Walters 53; Lane; Butterfield 14).
This discursive diffusion extends beyond naming and describing the male gaze. Mulvey's argument and analysis aimed to make both heuristic and "political use" (20) of her concept to explain and resist the impact of this gaze. Mulvey's very phrase became a watchword of a generation-long polemic on behalf of an ideologically contradictory "left aesthetic vanguardism" (Paglia; Kipnis 108). As a heuristic, the phrase has become a staple of literary criticism, a tool for disclosing the way men writers have traditionally skewed their accounts of women characters to sustain traditional forms of male dominance and to affirm the primacy of heteronormative male desire. The ubiquity of Mulvey's insurgent insight among academics and intellectuals and its diffusion throughout mass culture (Burger) provided an opportunity for novelists with reputations like Roth's and Stone's, as phallocentric and masculinity-obsessed (Amidion, Anderson, P. Smith), to demonstrate their "the keen ability to adapt" (Max) to the Zeitgeist shift Mulvey instigated.
The very titles of Roth's and Stone's novels from the late 1970s and early 1980s indicate these reputations. Roth's 1970s novels sport such titles as My Life as a Man (1974) and The Professor of Desire (1977). The less prolific Stone's 1981 novel, A Flag for Sunrise, takes its title from an Emily Dickinson poem (#461) voicing a woman's submission to her "Sire." Both novelists went on to complicate the ideological implications of such titles and the reputations their earlier fiction earned them by adapting to the critique implicit in the emerging attention to male gazing and by meeting the challenge this emergence presented. Both novelists' critical fascination with male-gazing surfaced most strikingly in 1998 with the publication of novels featuring women performing in public, soliciting male gazes and making a living as gaze-objects. The narrator in each novel looks askance at the "traditional exhibitionist role" in which "women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness" (Mulvey 19). Roth's I Married Communist documents the career of a star of stage and screen: a woman whom Roth's narrator "hadn't been able to stop looking at...a beauty hovering between the darkly exotic and the softly demure...beauty that must have been spellbinding at its height...A beautiful woman with pathos and a story to tell" (53, 55). Roth ironically ends this crescendoing hyperbole on a deflationary note: "A spiritual woman with décolletage." In a similarly wary vein, Stone's 1998 novel, Damascus Gate, features a cabaret chanteuse whose career began with her "wriggling into the black thing that hung in her tiny dressing room" and who learns over the course of her career to sport "a sweet professional smile" (93-95).
By both following and questioning Mulvey's pervasive provocation, these novelists staked out for themselves what Jennifer Glaser characterized, in reference to Roth, an "ambiguous place" in the late-century "the culture wars" (1465). Their fiction over the past three decades consequently shares a recognition that educated audiences will embrace both gender equality and sexual candor, even though these practices have often and influentially been treated as incompatible, thanks to much breached, awkwardly and anxiously policed boundaries between candor and exploitation, erotica and pornography.
Addressing this problem, Stone and Roth, both of whom have emphatically steeped their work in Eros, more notably in forthright lust verging on lechery, have increasingly aligned the gaze of their narrators with what has made the male gaze a linchpin of feminist theory. Mulvey's discursive innovation has made it virtually obligatory to recognize how desire operates as an instrument of power. As novelists keen to "adapt" (Max) to such conceptual turns, Roth and Stone have, over the past thirty years, increasingly confronted readers with the troubling implications of male gazing. In evoking and probing the male gaze, moreover, both novelists also allow for a plurality of male gazes, demonstrating the limitations that subsequent theorists came to ascribe to Mulvey's "monolithic" account of the male gaze as "invincible" (Modleski 9-11).
Plotting, narrative perspective, and signatures of style in Roth's and Stone's fiction anticipated and progressively registered the increasing reach of Mulvey's concept and the reading public's consequent appreciation of the inseparability of desire and power. By incorporating this recognition into their work since the 1980s, both novelists pique the passionate curiosity that drives the male gaze while discrediting the will-to-dominance that Mulvey and critics following her associate with male gazing, and the desire it has customarily purported to express. As a result, Roth's and Stone's novels have come, more and more, to dwell on conflicts between regulated libido and the "omnipotent" libido dominandi Mulvey's paradigm challenges (20).
In Stone's Children of Light and Outerbridge Reach and in Roth's Sabbath's Theater and The Human Stain, the novelists transform the male gaze from an index of a perennial power differential into a heuristic for investigating the possibilities and limits of mutual recognition between men and women. These narratives also reflect on the feasibility of heterosexual intimacy and on the challenges of representing heterosexual male desire without sanctioning the sexism or misogyny implicit in the gaze, as Mulvey and her followers theorized it. The website "Reading Guide to Mulvey" characterizes this misogyny as a power play for subordinating "female figures" to "appear in accordance with male fantasies," for "deliver[ing] the main female character into the hands of the main male protagonist," and for "deliver[ing] pleasure to the gazer with 'an illusion cut to the measure of [male] desire'."
The late-century preoccupation with male-gazing, from both the gazer's and the gaze-object's perspective, became most pronounced in Roth's 2002 novel, The Dying Animal, which Roth framed with male gazing (and which Hollywood rendered as Elegy in 2008 featuring Ben Kingsley as the aesthete gazer and Penelope Cruz as his gaze-object ). The novel features in its final pages the narrator's reflections on "a painting of Stanley Spencer's...a double nude portrait" of the artist and his wife, which depicts not only the object of male gazing but the gazer himself, inside the frame, in the act of "looking ruminatively down at her from close range through his wire-rimmed spectacles" (142-43 Cherolis). As a nonverbal introduction to Roth's narrative, the book jacket displays a supine Modigliani nude.
Published a year later, Bay of Souls, Stone's first post-millennium novel, encapsulates how male-gazing at once inspires and confounds the gazer, deepening and impoverishing his gaze. Stone's English-professor protagonist in Bay of Souls cultivates the persona for which students honor him and the traits they ascribe to him: "the beauty that you have absorbed, the poetry and the wisdom" (238). From the outset of the narrative, this absorption takes the form of male-gazing. One Sunday after Mass, for example, the professor envisions his mistress, an accomplished scuba diver, as "a picture...among coral arches, her long body gliding past luminous tendrils or against the silky surface" and then watches his wife as she "took off her church clothes and put on a pair of tight jeans that caught his attention" (115). Just as Stone showed the gazer framing his lover as a "picture," Stone shows him framing his wife through "the front window" where he "stood...watching her rake winterkills in the yard." Stone's attention to framing here illustrates the control-seeking deliberateness of customary male gazing and recalls how male gazing requires gazers to "adjust our visual apparatus," ever trying and always failing to reconcile the mutually exclusive "incompatible operations" of seeing the object of our gaze and its mediating frame, as José Ortega y Gasset influentially explained in, "The Dehumanization of Art," one of the charter documents of European modernism (9-10).
The effect of this seminal modernist trope and its implication for male gazing, according to Walter Benn Michaels' explanation of "Modernist work," lies in the way such framing "excludes" the beholder from what he beholds and from being "absorbed into" the framed "site" (90). Ortega's insight has colored Stone's work since the narrator of his first novel, Hall of Mirrors (1966), described a "little window" as "quite piece of show business" (87). The "incompatible operations," the vicissitudes of the "different adjustments" that Ortega registered, surface in Bay of Souls, where Stone's gazer edits out the foreground frame, a television, which he had consciously planned on observing in the first place. Stone follows this editing by showing the gazing professor divided between a here-and-now gaze and a mind's-eye male gaze:
Those warm curves at the hip and the choice ones at the seat. The center seam cut taut, deep in. It was strange, ever since Lara had come into his life he had been in a state of sexual tension that focused itself equally on the two women. He was in different ways besotted with both of them. The high-pitched ache of desire was always one sensation away. (115, italics added)
The narrator's conclusion stresses the extent to which male-gazing distances what it sees, instead of closing in on it or embracing it. Stone highlights how male gazing defers, instead of gratifying, desired "sensations."
Stone aligns this gazer with perennial Romantic longing that at once ennobles and thwarts male gazing. This gazer's failure to live the "life of sensation," the failure of which John Keats lamented in an 1817 letter (365) and reflectively enacted in his odes, leaves Stone's gazer "endlessly waiting for the consequences" of his desire (237). Leaving him powerless, "passive and numb," and enduring "paroxysms of anxiety," this failed career as a gazer produces a frame of mind that in Keats's phrase "perplexes and retards," a "fugue" state (235) reminiscent of Keats's "perplexed" Nightingale Ode speaker. Though the status of the male gaze as a literary commonplace has a long and varied pedigree among Romantics and modernists, Mulvey's late twentieth-century coinage enhanced its availability as a conceptual tool and the challenge its waywardness poses for male-gazing novelists, for their narrators and for other male characters.
The emergence, out of early Film Studies, of the male gaze as a heuristic and as a challenge, and its broader discursive appeal coincides roughly with the emphasis in Stone's fiction on movie-making and with the interest among moviemakers his narratives prompted, beginning with the adaptation of Stone's first novel, Hall of Mirrors (1966), into WUSA (1970). Published within a year of Mulvey's essay, Stone's second novel Dog Soldiers also became a movie three years later. Starring an actress long notorious as a popular object of the male gaze, Tuesday Weld, director Karel Reisz adaptation of Dog Soldiers, as Who'll Stop the Rain, confounded the consensus that the popular male gaze helped enforce. Reisz achieved this effect by casting Weld against type as an addict and drug smuggler on the lam. Reisz's move challenged a generation of male gazers accustomed to viewing Weld as an implicit on-screen enforcer of gender boundaries—the star of every gazer's dream—in such movies as Sex Kittens Go to College and the Elvis Presley vehicle Wild in the Country or as the relentlessly nonplussing temptress, Thalia Menninger, in the early sixties TV series Dobie Gillis.
tone's prose darkens the dream Weld popularly incarnated by enabling Marge, the character Weld plays, to revert to a luminous gaze-object only with the help of heroin "instead of sex":
The glow had come back to her skin the grace and suppleness of her body flowed again. The light came back, her eyes' fire. Hicks marveled. It made him happy...Hicks touched her breast. (171)
The coming-and-going of "the light" that illuminates what male gazers see became Stone's foremost concern in his 1986 novel, Children of Light. Mulvey's treatment of movies as the master medium for the male gaze, the site where the gaze preeminently transforms desire into power, reverberates throughout Children of Light. Stone's plot places the male gazer both in and at the movies, among the men who make movie and the gazers who watch them.
Children of Light takes place mostly on a movie set along Mexico's Pacific coast. Stone's characters are working on—or sabotaging—a long-delayed screen adaptation of The Awakening, Kate Chopin's account of one nineteenth-century woman's fatal accommodation and resistance to the male gaze. Stone's focus on The Awakening prompted one feminist critic, Elaine Showalter, to single out Children of Light for broadening her perspective as a critic, judging Stone's novel "the most significant contemporary rewriting of The Awakening" (84). Underscoring Showalter's observation, The Awakening surfaces again as a prominent intertext for Stone and as an object of disdain for "class feminists" twenty years later in Bay of Souls (49).What Showalter calls Stone's "dialogue with Chopin" focuses on one of his signature male gazers: Gordon Walker, the screenwriter who adapted Chopin's novel and then waited nearly a decade for production until "the book was discovered by academics and declared a feminist document" (Children 11).
After sketching in Walker's solitude and his sex life, his writing and acting careers, Stone's narrative moves to and devotes the bulk of the narrative to what happens during the Awakening shoot. Stone shows Walker approaching the location along a mountainous coast road where Walker stops his car on a promontory that puts him within binocular viewing distance of cast and crew as they shoot the end of Chopin's novel, where Chopin's heroine drowns herself off the Louisiana coast. As he does in most of his novels, Stone operates here as a limited omniscient narrator and ascribes to his protagonist a decidedly "male gaze," directing Walker's and the reader's attention not so much to what Walker sees but to what Walker wants to see.
He saw a woman in an old-fashioned gray bathing suit walking toward the water...saw her...remove her bathing suit and stand naked and golden in the sun. He was seeing, he supposed, what he had come to see....tiny distant figures at the edge of an ocean, acting out a vision compounded of his obsessions and emotions. He had never been so in love, he thought, as he was with the woman who stood naked on the beach before the cameras and several dozen cold-eyed souls. It was as though she were there for him, for something that was theirs. He felt at the point of understanding the process in which his life was bound, as though the height on which he stood was the perspective he had always lacked. Will I understand it all now, he wondered, understand it with the eye, like a painting? The sense of discovery, of imminent insight excited him...that's poetry, he thought. (129)
Stone's narrator's reiterated tentativeness, "he thought" and "he supposed," signals questions about whether or not what Walker sees legitimately passes for "poetry" and constitutes an epiphany. Or does this "revelation" foster cruder fantasies of ownership and control? The question of whether Stone and the reader side with Walker and Stone's narrator speaks directly to this narrative's investment in or resistance to male gazing and the prerogatives it customarily legitimates.
On reflection, Walker's conviction wavers as he worries, "perhaps it wasn't poetry" but "only movies": a purely sensory, largely visual apprehension of "the coming and going of light," a preemptively mediated mass gaze. As an instrument of male gazing and as an image-magnifier (like movie projectors and movie cameras), Walker's binoculars prompt him to treat his vision as "only movies." These binoculars thus become a rudimentary analogue for seeing cinematically, like Mulvey's hypothetical male gazer. With his first binocular glance, Walker believes that he's looking at the star of The Awakening, a former and never fully relinquished love of his; however, his second gaze proves Walker mistaken. "The naked figure he saw" turns out to be the star's body double. "A younger woman who somewhat resembled" the star (130), she bears the name Joy. In calling attention to Hollywood's practice of dividing, between actresses and their doubles, the "traditional exhibitionist role" that Mulvey ascribes to women on screen, Stone calls into question both Mulvey's lumping together of "spectacle and narrative" (19) and male gazers' tendency to fuse carnality and Romantic idealism reflected in Stone's allusive naming. This allegorical tease prefigures Walker's temptation to treat Joy as "poetry," recalling Wordsworth's sonnet on "faithful love" and "grievous loss," "Surprised by Joy." This allusion also nods, salaciously and tactilely, to Keats's "Ode on Melancholy," which voices a longing to savor the sensation of "burst [ing] Joy's grape."
The initial resemblance between Joy and Lu Anne, the star of The Awakening fools Walker later on the same day when he sees Joy close up (130,147). Stone's description of these gazes signals the extent to which a male-gazer, even with the aid of technological enhancement, often ends seeing what isn't there and substituting desire for perception. Finding at once a muse and an object of desire and investing a nameless woman spied prosaically at work and at a distance with "poetry" has long been a staple of male gazing, at least since the speaker in Wordsworth's "Solitary Reaper" hailed "yon highland lass" and seized her "music" as his exclusive possession over two centuries ago.
Walker's second look at the star's body-double highlights the tenacious appeal of such Romantic substitutions:
Walker saw the figure of a woman...The sight brought him to his feet...She was wearing her hair as she had worn it fifteen years before, he thought. He knew her silhouette, her moves, her aura...‘I'm not her,’ said a small antipodean voice. (147)
Though a literal reference to Joy's Australian nationality, "antipodean" also stresses that the body double has become more distant from Walker when seen close-up and when speaking with a voice of her own—for herself —than when viewed from a distance as the object of Walker's gaze. The interjected "he thought" further impeaches the credibility of what Walker's male gaze has constructed without diminishing its authority of what he "knew," which obliges Joy to be answerable to him before he even speaks.
Having thus highlighted the authority and dubious cognitive reliability of male gazing, the narrative begins in the interval between these two encounters to differentiate Walker's critical, disenchanted gazing from that of the other gazers in the novel. Arriving on the set, Walker finds himself at a meeting in the director's trailer part of an entourage of professional male gazers assembled, which includes the director Walter Drogue, Jr., and his father—a legendary director turned curmudgeonly Hollywood eminence grise. As they "watch tapes of Joy undressing...her stripping" stuns "the group" into "a reverend silence" (130). For all its seeming force here, though, the male gaze proves to be a precarious means of control, "a big fuss...wild, unpredictable" (130-31), because the body double has refused to play the scene entirely naked. She resists the demands of the male gaze imposed by the director. She claims to understand male gazing better and with more nuance than do her bosses: "She had the nerve to tell me her problem was with the Mexicans" on the crew who would "take it wrong."
Joy's resistance also discredits the assumption implicit in the very concept of the body double: the understanding that, visually at least, the star and her body double share a single identity. Consequently, Joy rejects pleas from the director who reminds her that the star herself would "show her ass." The ensuing exchange ends up swaying "the group" to concede that gazing on the star, Lu Anne, and gazing on Joy differ radically: "With Lu Anne, you might have her bare breast and it's tragic," but with Joy "it's weird and it turns you on." Their resistance notwithstanding, both Joy and Lu Anne struggle and fail to free themselves from the demands of the various male gazers shown throughout the novel striving to "command" various "stages" (Mulvey 20). Soon after dramatizing her fleeting, carnal star turn, Stone shows Joy mercenarily ("careerwise") succumbing to a familiar, "boring" showbiz cliché by "like, balling" the most celebrated Hollywood player on the set, the elder Drogue (148).
Lu Anne's defeat, excruciatingly protracted, in contrast to Joy's ephemeral encounter, occupies much of the rest of the novel as numerous male-gazers—Walker, the Drogues, various studio functionaries, and her patronizing husband (a prominent physician with "a stare" that "made "him seem cruel and unfeeling") who briefly visits Lu Anne on location (26)—claim her. One such gazer, a reporter writing a feature on the making of The Awakening, "watched her hungrily...gazed at her with drunken ardor" prompting Lu Anne to "return his look, pitying ...his fecal eyes" (217, 204). Embodying the male gaze at its most mercenary and predatory, he ends up blackmailing the production company with photos snapped though Lu Anne's bedroom window (182-83, 189-90).
Stone shows Walker striving to differentiate himself from these stock gazers and so rescue Lu Anne from the constraints to which a lifetime of being gazed upon—as a star, a lover, a mother wife and daughter—have subjected her. Lu Anne, however, resists Walker's chivalrous designs. First she chides Walker to "stay home and fuck your fecund imagination" (176). Finally, the narrative culminates with her decisively censuring the hackneyed romance rhetoric with which Walker voices his unwelcome ardor (231-32). Just as Walker melodramatically proclaims, "I would die for you," he understands that though "true," this sentiment isn't "really helpful." With Lu Anne's riposte, "I don't need dying for," Stone shows her gaze subduing Walker as it becomes not just sensually but intellectually omnipotent: "She had grown so thin" during filming (in other words, as a professional gaze object) "that her face contracted to its essential lines, which were strong and noble and lit by her eye with intelligence, generosity, and madness."
This resistance confounds the view voiced earlier that an actress's face radiates her star quality. Citing Janet Gaynor in A Star is Born as the consummate instance of such stellar radiance, Drogue scoffs at judging actresses at face value, declaring that Gaynor's "face looks like a cunt...makes you think of her pussy "(180). Lu Anne's face, by contrast, "represented" to Walker's idealizing, sublimating, mythological, oxymoronic gaze "a Juggernaut" of comforting "philosophy" (232). This juggernaut moves during the protracted bout of ecstatic, masochistic love-making that follows this revelation. Playing the "juggernaut," Lu Anne at once takes charge of both seeing and of sex: "standing naked over" Walker as "a great thunderclap echoed" and "the earth shook under him like a scaffold" (234). These storm images at once associate Lu Anne with Zeus and a state executioner. Walker, by contrast, appears physically subdued, "unable to gain his feet" while facing Lu Anne, who was
raised up, as though she hung suspended between the trembling earth and the storm. Her hair was wild, her body sheathed in light. Her eyes blazed amethyst.
The remainder of this spectacle increasingly obscures her nudity, the coupling bodies, and the Shakespearean storm in the background (Cartelli 171-72). Instead Stone's narrator focuses exclusively on the force of Lu Anne's gaze. Lu Anne commands Walker to attend to her "secret eyes." Then, "marking a line between his eyes and hers," she ascribes to her gaze the powers of "hunting and recognition," the capacity to "see the things you never saw," including "eighty-two thousand colors" (235-237).
This ceremony of intimacy whereby Lu Anne exorcises Gordon's gaze sets the stage for a final escape from the male gazing of Hollywood's honchos and moviegoers everywhere. In drowning herself, like the heroine of The Awakening, Lu Anne escapes, once and for all, from all male gazing, ensuring that her body will be eternally unseen (255). Finally, Stone shows Walker challenging the Hollywood gazers' posthumous claims to Lu Anne's missing body, by a studio publicist. He laments the lack of corpse and a coffin and pronominally equates Lu Anne with her body, by fretting "that she wasn't found." Walker counters that "it was better" not to have found a corpse—a visible body—so as not to encourage further male-gazing.
Nevertheless Lu Anne does become, posthumously, a contested object of male gazing. In a barroom conversation, a corpse-less wake, two of her colleagues reminisce about her greatest stage performance (258). As Rosalind in As You Like It, Lu Anne played a heroine who foiled the male gaze with "a swashing and a martial outside" (i.3), by cross-dressing and retreating to the forest of Arden. Only by means of disguise and tactical retreat from male gazing could Rosalind attain the heterosexual intimacy she sought. Children of Light seems to culminate in the argument that if Hollywood's gaze "poisoned" Lu Anne, as one of these reminiscers suggests, then becoming Rosalind, not simply playing her, might promise an antidote, at least a bold challenge to male gazing. Featuring a renowned documentary maker as its prime gazer, Stone's next novel, Outerbridge Reach (1992), also aligns the corrosive force of the male gaze with moviemaking. Though "not from Hollywood" (313), Strickland, the documentary-maker, exhibits a gaze like Walker's, in that it compounds his vocation with concupiscent obsession, along with a dominator's affect. Stone initially presents this gazer as both more professional and more effective than Walker. A self-confessed male-gazer (256), as all filmmakers must be in Mulvey's schema (Walters 57), Strickland vaunts his gift for reducing his subjects to powerlessness—getting them "to piss all over themselves" (30) and to "feel violated" (325).
As the object of his gaze, Strickland fixes on Anne Browne, the wife of a solo circumnavigating yachtsman whose voyage Strickland has been commissioned to film. On first seeing Anne, Strickland pegs her as "a big creamy bitch" (137). Strickland revises this image as Anne's resistance to his gaze spurs an "impatient" determination to gaze on her more intently, which provokes further resistance: "it seemed to Strickland that she avoided his eye," an "interesting sign" he decides (173). Gazing at Anne along the seat of a darkened car, Strickland "managed a secret look at her" and finds himself bemused at "how she had worked her way into the scheme of his senses" (173-74). At this juncture, Strickland alters his view of Anne as "creamy"—soft, smooth, milky, maternal—deciding rather that she seems "wary of him...her face...strong, willful and austere, wonderfully softened by her smile." Anne's "brazen, faintly androgynous, pre-Raphaelite beauty" proves "daunting, almost more than he thought he could handle" in contrast to his habitual preference for "mysterious and perversely turned" women, like Pamela, the suburban demimondaine and part-time hooker Strickland keeps on retainer and whom he films obsessively (31-36). What differentiates Anne from Strickland's "type," the sexually and visually ever-available Pamela, emerges as Strickland gazes on Anne and concludes:
No one had ever instructed her in concealing her intelligence or moderating her enthusiasm. Nothing about her spoke to his particular desires. But somehow everything about her did. (174)
Stone shows Strickland here exercising the male gaze, as Suzanne Danuti Walters describes it: having "sexualized" his object, the gazer proceeds to subject her "under the scrutiny of" an "ideal" (56). As the narrative unfolds, though, this move to subjugate fails. Stone turns Strickland into a troubled, less than "invincible" (Modleski 9) gazer.
Once Anne starts reeducating Strickland's desire and managing his gaze, he phones Pamela, "asking her to come over...dialed her again and said, 'Forget about it.'" As this reeducation takes hold, Stone elaborates the realignment of Strickland's perspective on both sex and seeing, his growing awareness that "his penetration" as a moviemaker and his "readiness to fuck" might rest entirely on "what he failed to see" (326). Such reflections on his failures to see prompt Strickland to view himself as others see him, as "the average asshole in the street...just another asshole" (326, 330). "All at once," this chapter concludes, Strickland finds himself, his gaze redirected, "afraid of losing" his hold over Anne.
Spurning Strickland, Anne reduces him to "a child" and denies him all "proprietary rights," all "hope," to such an extent that she disarms his gaze and so obliges him to resort to forms of expression over which he has no mastery (379-81). His first resort to language, "vain words," leaves him "stammering" and unable "to explain." Words failing, Strickland resorts to violence. In league with her father, a powerful shipping tycoon, Anne retaliates. She commissions the theft of Strickland's footage and production notes, his copies of her husband's navigation logs, and even his cherished Manhattan parking space. Adding injury to insult with a savage, bone-breaking beating that renders him "bloody-faced, bent double at the waist, his crippled, broken left hand supported by his right," Anne has reduced the gazer to the object of others' callous gaze, to fleeing his assailants "under the unseeing gaze of busy passers-by." By depicting Anne as more resourceful and more ruthless in defeating Strickland's gaze than Lu Anne was in disengaging herself from Walker's gaze, Stone shows Anne triumphing over what Strickland embodies: artful visual exploitation, purportedly "in the service of truth" (22), as a vehicle for sexual domination.
Stone's novels of the 1980s and 1990s register both perennial vindications of male gazing and the emerging imperative to censure it. Such questions as whether to thwart or reward gazing, whether to celebrate or humiliate the gazer, became even more pronounced four years after the publication of Outerbridge Reach, in Philip Roth's fifteenth novel, Sabbath's Theater which at once acknowledges, repents for, and vindicates Roth's controversial reputation as a "phallocrat" (Allen). This reputation rests on the candor with which Roth's male protagonists and narrators indulge in voyeurism, masturbatory fantasizing, and unreconstructed fascination with women's bodies. These characteristics of Roth's work date back to his first book, especially its title novella, Goodbye, Columbus, in which the narrator cites gazing as a formative preoccupation during a boyhood recollection of "lying about my age in order to see Heddy Lamar naked" in the movie Ecstasy (31). The association between Roth and male gazing peaked notoriously ten year later, in 1969, with the publication of Portnoy's Complaint.
Goodbye, Columbus opens with its narrator unabashedly gazing, reminiscing about "the first time I saw Brenda." The long paragraph that follows first homes in on Brenda's eyeglasses and her dependence on them, which limits her power to see, despite her accomplished intellect, her sharp wit, and her "knack for asking practical infuriating questions" (27). This stress on her myopia overstates her susceptibility to being seen and objectified. After registering Brenda's "clipped" coif and her bathing suit, the narrator "watched her move off," noticing how "she caught the bottom of her suit between the thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged." This gazer peers microscopically at his gazee's "thumb and index finger" in contrast to the features that drew looks from Stone's more conventionally lecherous male gazers. Still more contrary to male gazers' customary foci, the squeamishly qualifying appeal to propriety, the relative clause "where it belonged," apparently reflects the narrator's preference for the concealment, rather than the exposure, of Brenda's "flesh." Whatever faint erotic charge this paragraph sparks lies in the vaguely clinical, and biblically redolent noun "flesh" and the recollection that this glimpse stirred the gazer's "blood" to "jump."
This narrator has his next opportunity to fix his gaze on Brenda as a fierce competitor, playing tennis at twilight. In contrast to the "poetry" in motion Stone's Walker found in looking across a rugged coastal landscape, Roth preoccupies his narrator Neil with Brenda's sweat. Even before seeing her he hears her shouting "deuce again" and "sounding as though she was sweating considerably." His first sighting during this encounter fixes on her tennis "racket...spinning up in the air" and her catching it "neatly" as the narrator "comes into sight" (9). With Brenda standing still in gazing range, "she ceased being merely a voice and turned into a sight again" (11). Noting this reversion of Brenda to a silent object, Roth's narrator permits himself to gaze at will, recalling that "I let myself appreciate her." The zoom lens of this gazer's appreciation fixes again on sweat, "on the wet triangles on the back of her tiny-collared white polo shirt" and the ensemble "she wore to complete the picture, a tartan belt, white socks, and white tennis sneakers." With his appreciation of her "polo shirt" and "tartan belt," the narrator (in a move reminiscent of Cole Porter's famous adversions to "a glimpse of stocking" or "a Bendel's bonnet") leavens his interest in Brenda as a purely bodily object with his cognizance of her as a social construct and an economic product, as a socially located consumer.
Despite these status- and fashion-conscious refinements, Roth repeatedly shifts the gazer's focus away from the local to the exotic, from the suburban princess to the nude-filled landscapes by the once notorious, now canonic male gazer Paul Gaugin (37. 47, 59). Gaugin's paintings reverberate throughout the novella as a utopian countertext as Roth follows these gauging references with reminders of the ubiquity of male gazing, as reflected in the "illustrations of women so dreamy" in calendars on countless walls in American workplaces (92). These turns to visual representations by and for male gazers position this narrator unequivocally in the cultural milieux, both elite and mass-market (in museums and in warehouses), that sustain male-gazing.
Roth's male gazer again played the socio-cultural observer a decade later in his most famous—and infamous—novel, Portnoy's Complaint. Though "chasing cunt...roaming the streets with eyes popping," Roth's eponymous narrator can't picture himself as a gazer without scrupulously evoking the socially produced milieu of his gazing "as he makes his way across the major arteries of Manhattan" (100-101). Even the notorious "whacking off" reveries fix the adolescent Portnoy's gaze on language and narrative, by "pretending that the cool and mealy hole" carved into an apple core "was actually between the legs of that mythical being who always called me Big Boy" (18, emphasis added). However much Portnoy plays the deranged satyr, he never falters as a narrator in the obligation to embed his crude, solitary, and generic vision of womanhood culturally and economically: a family picnic, a butcher shop, a billboard (108, 134), even language and literature. "So galvanic," did Portnoy find "the word 'panties'" that he became "the Raskolnikov of jerking off" (18-20).
Like Raskolnikov, Portnoy ends up punished (for gazing rather than homicide), humiliated by the final woman upon whom he casts his gaze: "a hardy, red-headed, freckled...ideological hunk of a girl" (258). An Israeli solider named Naomi with "work-molded legs" in "utilitarian shorts" (269), a cultural, as much as corporeal construct of Portnoy's, she reduces him to the object of a withering female gaze. "Unmanning" Portnoy (Roth, Reading 119), this gaze-reversal compels him to see himself "quivering under the disapproving gaze of his mother" (Portnoy 267) instead of sexually mastering a "hardy hunk of girl." A generation later in Sabbath's Theater, Roth explores the penalties for and the pleasures of gazing still more excruciatingly and more tenderly. In this novel, Roth's rhetorical agenda seems to coincide with his hero's, at least to the extent that each treats "art" as a way "to unshackle" an audience from the "habit of innocence" (213) and "teach estrangement from the ordinary" (27). Both narrator and protagonist, moreover, cultivate "the artistry...to open up...the lurid interstices of life" (213). The narrative's perspective belongs to Mickey Sabbath, a bereaved sexagenarian whose "many farcical, illogical, incomprehensible transactions" and insights "are subsumed by the mania of lust" (233).
Sabbath's misadventures take place against the backdrop of the late-century shift from mute acquiescence to male gazing and its association with sexual freedom and candor to the growing influence of feminist critiques of the male gaze as an instrument of sexual oppression (163, 165, 237). A puppeteer who implemented his sexual fantasies and imposed his desires through his performances (122-23), Sabbath found himself forced into retirement from puppet-making by arthritis and banned from teaching thanks to sexual harassment charges. The thwarted Sabbath's male gazing proves even more marked by social and cultural commentary than was Roth's earlier fiction. Sabbath's Theater thus opens by turning the object of the hero's gaze into "a mythical being." In conjuring Mickey Sabbath's "firmly made" paramour, Roth's narrator cites "those clay figurines molded circa 2000 B.C...unearthed all the way from Europe down to Asia Minor and worshipped under a different names"(5). Even making the conventional male gazer's move, conjuring the gaze object's "uberous breasts," Sabbath hearkens back to the etymology of "uberous" and to Tintoretto's portrait of yet another "mythical being," Juno (13).
In Sabbath's most microscopic application of male gazing, in his mind's eye he reflectively rhapsodizes about his estranged wife's clitoris (431-34). Roth sustains this microscopic, clitoris-conjuring male gaze over three pages. Sabbath's gaze here encompasses a lifetime of desire, both thwarted and gratified. These lecherous musings also recuperate Sabbath's crippled artistic calling, the passion that Stone ascribed to Strickland in Outerbridge Reach. Echoing Puccini's Tosca, who "lived for art, lived for love," Strickland voices this "vissi d'arte" imperative importunately, in order to "ensure that" his "definitions prevailed" (326-27). Sabbath's rhapsody represents his last effort to "prevail" according to Strickland's precept. Proposing an array of outlandish "definitions," Sabbath pronounces that clitorises offer "much to be compared with: Bernstein conducting Mahler's eighth"; "ecstatic machinery" that would have "dazzled Aquinas" with "its economy"; "an argument for the existence of god"; "the mother of the microchip, the triumph of evolution, right up with the retina and the tympanic membrane"; a "Cyclops' eye"; "the toy at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box" (431-34). Visualizing a clitoris so grandiloquently casts a transcendent spell on Sabbath. This ecstatic conjuring convinces Sabbath that, "entering" a "fairy tale, freed at last," he's found "home" and a "reason to go on."
This transcendence proves short-lived. Like Portnoy's Complaint, Sabbath's Theater closes punitively, with the hero transformed from a gazer into the humiliated object of a gaze, subjected to the commanding disciplinary gaze of the state. This gaze belongs to a state trooper, the son of Sabbath's final and most beloved sex-mate. He catches Sabbath gazing upon, urinating on, and masturbating over his mother's grave in the beams of his flashlight and cruiser's headlights. "Lighting up Sabbath's face," these beams make him a "star," "the feature attraction" of his last performance (446-50). Amplifying Portnoy's allusive, hyperbolic confession—as "the Raskolnikov of jerking off"—Sabbath, in his finale, pleads, suicidally, to be allowed to "purge myself publicly of my crimes and accept this punishment that's coming to me." "With his eyes just inches from Sabbath's," the trooper kills this performance by unlocking the handcuffs that mark Sabbath as a transgressing gazer. This move seals Sabbath's fate: an incorrigible male-gazer—at once punished and liberated—who has lived doggedly by the gaze, now trying and failing to die cathartically under a far colder traditionally male gaze: the state's.
The gazer's comeuppance proves more irrevocable, his transgression more venial, and his liberation more tender in Roth's millennial novel, The Human Stain. Like Sabbath's Theater, Portnoy's Complaint, and Stone's 1997 story "Bear and His Daughter," The Human Stain limns and probes "transgressive audacity" (Stain 31). Like Stone's Dog Soldiers, The Human Stain also extended its gazing into to that Mecca of male-gazing, Hollywood. As with Tuesday Weld's star turn in the screen version of Dog Soldiers, Hollywood piqued the male gaze in The Human Stain by casting—miscasting, according to many reviewers—the "mesmerizing" and sexually enthralling screen beauty Nicole Kidman, all "porcelain skin and...tousled ringlets," as the female lead, Faunia Farley, in the 2003 screen adaptation of the novel (Abeel, Travers, Taylor).
Roth's narrator and favored alter-ego over the past twenty years, Nathan Zuckerman, recounts first gazing on Faunia, then working as a milkmaid. With this bucolic turn, Roth echoes Wordsworth's "Solitary Reaper," recalling Stone's move in Children of Light: his account of Walker being surprised by Joy. In contrast to Stone, Roth defiantly acknowledges the feminist critique of male gazing as well as calling to mind, forty years into his prolific career, many of the reasons "why feminist critics have consistently made Roth such a target" (Taylor).
In both Sabbath's Theater and The Human Stain, Roth continues to expose himself to such targeting, notwithstanding his accommodations to the Mulvey critique. In Bay of Souls, Stone similarly melds accommodation and provocation. Stone and Roth both "target" the alleged excesses of what sociologist Neil Boyd deems as an ascendant, "quaint and reactionary," "big sister" ethic that belittles "Eros and Thanatos" (Sabbath 213-15; Human 85, 264; Bay 50: "Books"; Snider; Moore; Shechner; cf Warner) and penalizes what Stone calls "solitary acts of personal liberation" (Bay 50). The narrator of Roth's Human Stain at first denatures these targeted guardians, calling them "unsurpassable social obstacles" to the boundary-dissolving but Thanatos-welcoming "Eros" sought by the protagonists of the book.
Despite initially characterizing their relationship as mutual, with the phrase "their pleasure," whatever transcendence this gaze promises increasingly redounds to Faunia's male, gazing lover. This septuagenarian classicist, Coleman Silk, finally and traditionally, plays the learned authority who identifies Faunia, in Latin, as "his Voluptas," pitting his established intellectual credentials against those of the academic guardians who assail his enchantment with Faunia.
All he ever did there was watch her work...looking in and let her get on with the job without having to bother to talk to him. Often they said nothing, because saying nothing intensified their pleasure. She knew he was watching her; knowing she knew, he watched all the harder—and that they weren't able to couple down in the dirt didn't make a scrap of difference....it was enough to have to maintain the matter-of-factness of being separated by unsurpassable social obstacles, to play their roles as farm laborer and retired college professor, to perform consummately at her being a strong, lean working woman of thirty-four, a wordless illiterate, an elemental rustic of muscle and bone who'd just been in the yard with the pitchfork cleaning up from the morning milking, and at his being a thoughtful senior citizen...an accomplished classicist, an amplitudinous brain of a man replete with the vocabularies of two ancient tongues. It was enough to be able to conduct themselves like two people who had nothing whatsoever in common, all the while remembering how they could distill to an orgasmic essence everything about them that was irreconcilable, the human discrepancies .... There was, at first glance, little to raise unduly one's carnal expectations about the gaunt, lanky woman spattered with dirt, wearing shorts and a T-shirt and rubber boots, whom I saw in with the herd that afternoon and whom Coleman identified as his Voluptas. (47-51).
Though as transfixed as his protagonist, Roth's narrator, denies Faunia the status of "enticing siren" and transforms her into "something virile" (50). Zuckerman's characterization of Faunia as virile may rest on what he gleaned earlier when Coleman confided in him his appreciation of Faunia's carnal acumen as a gazer in her own right:
Her flesh has eyes. Her flesh sees everything. In bed she is a powerful, coherent, unified being whose pleasure is in overstepping boundaries (31).
Zuckerman's memory and his discovery that the "controlling" and initiating gaze no longer belongs exclusively to men (Kaplan 29) seem to signal a resistance to male gazing on the part of this narrator, if not his older, smitten protagonist.
This resistance, however, flags. Roth cuts abruptly from this early idyllic gaze passage to Faunia and Coleman's burial four months later, following an extravaganza of gazing (Eros) with the lovers' deaths (Thanatos). As a mourner, the narrator recollects "the milking session as...a theatrical performance" and confesses complicity in Coleman's "greedy fascination," conceding that he "had played the part of an extra...observing the scene flawlessly performed...of an enamored old man watching at work the cleaning woman-farmhand who is secretly his paramour: a scene of pathos and hypnosis and sexual subjugation" (51). This recollection and the epiphany it inspires telescope an entire history of male gazing from classical Greece and Rome, lifelong preoccupations of the classicist, Voluptas-worshipping Coleman, to 1998: "the year of America's presidential impeachment"(51).
The Clinton impeachment and the collective voyeurism it provoked, which Zuckerman reflects on as the novel opens, pits the "stupefying power" of the male gaze and the desire it represents (51) against the national "ecstasy of sanctimony"(2). With the Clinton "scandal" as its point of departure, Roth's narrative marks, recuperatively, the decline of the hegemonizing male gaze, as a credible target of polemics (Paglia). Roth appeals for sustained appreciation of its value as a heuristic lens and esthetic impetus and for restoring to Mulvey's concept its "dialectical" edge, which has come to be "repressed in common usage" (Kipnis 8-9). However "stupefying" and thus unsustainable the male gazing has become, its diminishment has had a cost because what effected this decline were the institutional pressures and the superlatively effective discursive policing that D.A. Miller characterizes as
the sheer pettiness of coercion...the policing power that never passes for such, but is either invisible or visible only under cover of other, nobler or simply blander intentionalities (17)
Miller treats novels as disciplinary instruments. In The Human Stain, such discipline proves absolute, inasmuch as the narrative punitively kills both the gazer and his object and shows them both overcome by "the powerful gaze of disciplinary" interest which, "fixed on the individual," imposes "conformity" and ensures that "everyone at all times is visible, known and controlled" (Lentricchia 76). Miller's theory of the novel echoes in Roth's account of fiction-writing at the end of The Human Stain as, simultaneously, revealing and concealing "secret spots" (349-50, 360). Thus The Human Stain probes imperatives both to curb and to protect male gazers; the justness of the protagonists' particular punishment (violent death); the motives of the authorities (Silk's colleagues) who claim the prerogative of disciplining Silk's gaze. It also illustrates how the novel as a genre resists such policing and protects "the right to" keep "a secret" and thus becomes the antidote to "totalitarian" encroachment (Z. Smith 8)
According to Roth, this "encroachment" threatened what Silk and Faunia represent from two sides, from witch hunters on Republican right, like those who dogged Bill Clinton, and from Silk's professedly progressive colleagues, whose "prestigious academic crap" (191) serves as their disciplinary apparatus. This "crap," more temperately characterized by feminist historian Wendy Brown as "denatured ...theoretically incoherent and tacitly conservative...moralism," (33-5), which often passes nowadays for politics, originated in legitimate demands for inclusion. Roth has credited such imperatives in 2004 in The Plot Against America and in early stories such as "Defender of the Faith" and "Eli, the Fanatic."
Stone's third novel, A Flag for Sunrise, grappled most memorably with these imperatives with a focal character who serves as both the narrator's gaze-object and his moral compass: an arresting, "honey-haired" object of "predatory" lust, "an illusion of fulfillment" (377-78) and martyred champion of liberation theology, a police-defying "radical of some kind" (341, 411, 413-16). Roth's and Stone's gaze-minded, police-challenging fiction gives these imperatives their due without losing sight of the gaze, its power and limitations, its appeal and the harm it can do. Their narrators serve both as curators of the male gaze, which is a valuable literary resource and a legacy, and as critics of the oppressive politics that the male gaze underwrote. The verbal density and literary pyrotechnics both writers often invest in their accounts of gazing testify to the durability of the gaze, as a rooted legacy that can sunder as well as bind women and men; as a rhetorical move that can diffuse as well as claim power; as an esthetic stance; and as a heuristic for probing desire and the incessant construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of gender.
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James D. Bloom teaches literature and writing at Muhlenberg College. He is the author of Hollywood Intellect (2009), Gravity Fails (2003), The Literary Bent (1997), Left Letters (1992) and The Stock of Available Reality (1984). His essays and reviews have appeared in American Literary History, American Studies, Contemporary Literature, Style, the New York Times Book Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.