Criticism 36.2 (1994): 325-328.
Telling Glances. Voyeurism in the French Novel, by Dorothy Kelly. New York & London: Rutgers University Press, 1992. Pp.ix + 264. $50 (cloth); $18 (paper).
[Reprinted with the editorial permission of Criticism]
After reading Dorothy Kelly's Telling Glances. Voyeurism
in the French Novel, one is struck by the ability of psychoanalytically
based critics both to unveil difficult problems in literary texts
and to raise new ones, as much from what their critical angle
fail to address as from what and how it does. The organizational
rigor of Kelly's book is certainly not to be faulted: wasting
no time in long introductory positioning, Kelly provides a succinct
overview of the critical problematics and her approach (1-4),
and then offers a concise opening statement of her understanding
of psychocritical readings of literary texts, in "Voyeurism
and the Primal Scene in Psychoanalysis" (7-11), as a way
of introducing part I on "Voyeurism as Containment."
Each of this part's chapters focuses on a specific psychoanalytical
problem (seduction, castration, the primal scene of parental intercourse)
in light of three texts (respectively, Diderot's La Religieuse,
Balzac's La Fille aux yeux d'or, and Robbe-Grillet's Le
Voyeur), chosen because Kelly finds
them "relatively free from irony and questioning . . . present[ing] a somewhat simplistic scenario of voyeurism, in which the strategies at work in that scenario are easy to detect" (3). The goal here is "to show how both psychoanalysis and literature construct similar scenarios, and just what the ideological implications of these scenarios are" (3).
Then, in part II, entitled "Textuality and the Problematization of Voyeurist Truth," Kelly passes from the "simplistic" scenarios to the complex, repeating and yet re-writing them: French romanticism's "unveiling" of and inscription upon woman (ch. 5), realism's representation of the "artist's gaze at the woman" now embodied as difference (ch. 6), -fin-de-sicle- examples of the "elimination of difference" in male first-person narrative (ch. 7), and difference's recognition in the "space of identity" of women's writing (ch. 8). Kelly's concluding reflection on "the comic gaze" juxtaposes the diverse concepts previously deployed to two Anglophone stories of the Godiva legend, the medieval tale and Anaïs Nin's "The Unveiled Woman." Through this rapprochement, Kelly explains how recent feminist theoreticians have re-articulated problems of "mirroring," of distinctions between female and male identities, and of the construction and repression of meanings through representation. She suggests finally the importance of "differential doubling" in women's writing as a textual strategy through which women authors can mark their distance from a "preexistent 'place'," both textual and socio-cultural (234).
This exposition should make evident the breadth, complexity and richness of Kelly's study, and not only for readers of French literature. My qualms arise less from her fine analyses than from the limitations inherent to the adopted metacritical framework and from Kelly's positioning in regard to it. In the introduction, Kelly maintains that "psychoanalysis and literature are seen [by her] to be two parallel discourses that attempt to explain why things are the way they are, . . . [discourses] interested in the same questions about truth, knowledge and desire" (2). Then, after outlining the book's chapters, Kelly asserts that while perpetuating "the repressive structures of voyeurism," literature "contains moments of the questioning, doubting, and undermining of its voyeurist structures," thus acting "as if it were profoundly suspicious of the ideological foundations upon which its search for truth is based" (4). The question that these statements raise for me is one of agency, both of the authors examine and the reader. That is, on one hand, to what extent are these "parallel discourses" situated within particular socio-historical moments, responding to forces that influence the individuals who enunciate these discourses? On the other hand, to what extent do the "questioning, doubting, undermining" and suspicion that Kelly presumes to be inherent to a disembodied "literature" arise, in fact, from the reader's own voyeuristic and "writerly" gaze?
On the first question, Kelly suggests that "in the cases of the texts of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the literature of these earlier epoches is part of the soil from which psychoanalysis grows," whereas for late nineteenth and twentieth century texts, "literature and psychoanalysis both grow out of a communal soil of European ideology" (2). This genealogy suggests that during the earlier periods literature functioned alongside other European ideological forces to produce psychoanalysis, but once budding and then growing, psychoanalysis fed together alongside (and perhaps symbiotically from) literature within the fertile bed of European socio-political "soil." Given these premises, the readings that follow should draw as much upon the socio-cultural history of the development of psychoanalysis as upon traits that bear upon interpretations of texts belonging to specific literary movements. Unfortunately, rather than pursuing this socio-historical avenue, Kelly defines voyeurism (in chapter 1) strictly in terms of a complex juxtaposition of Freudian, neo-Freudian and post-Freudian perspectives, continues to refine and adapt current perspectives by studying subsequently (in part I) the focal themes in linear fashion, and finds these same themes weaving throughout the more literary (i.e. less theoretically psychoanalytical) readings that constitute part II.
My point is that this approach not only fails to exploit and develop the socio-historical dimension suggested from the introductory organic metaphor. Instead, while undoubtedly providing important reflections on problems of gender, identity and difference, these readings still beg the question of whether the critical problems raised through the focus of psychoanalytical criticism are problems -within- the literary texts examined or problems emerging -as effects- of the critical apparatus itself. For the array of authors that Kelly recruits to shed light on the psychocritical problematics are, in fact, situated within precise socio-historical situations, from late nineteenth to late twentieth century, from budding Freudianism to post-structuralist feminism and film criticism, all overdetermining the questions that may be asked of literary texts from within these problematics. Although Kelly is, of course, quite right to employ all contemporary perspectives at her disposal, the approach would have gained greatly, I feel, if it were tempered with measured doses of literary historical précisions along the way. Such a combination not only would have helped Kelly develop her own original characterization of the psychoanalytical/ literary relationship, it would have alleviate the often overbearing impression of psychoanalytic criticism's seemingly "timeless" interpretive power.
This observation leads to my second question, regarding the role of the reader/critic's "writerly" gaze. Kelly raises this topic herself at the conclusion of chapter 2, arguing in reference to La Religieuse that "the act of voyeurism itself is, in this text and in others, a means to dominate and control by secretly gaining the power of superior knowledge" (33). However, while she then explicitly defers discussion of the relation between "voyeurism and the act of reading" to the second part of the book, I was unable to locate any such direct discussion in the subsequent chapters. Yet, this intersection underlies her analysis from start to finish, and this relationship is no where more evident than at the junction between the first and second parts at the end of chapter 4, where Kelly states: "In these three texts [La Religieuse, La Fille aux yeux d'or, and Le Voyeur], which span three centuries, we see the relatively unproblematized persistence of the theme of the secret unveiling of the woman and the search for truth in fiction, a persistence that may work to continue the 'punishment' of women in reality" (70). Having drawn the reader in, through the use of "we," to her nearly unproblematized "writerly" intervention into the critical unveiling process, Kelly describes this intervention as studying, in the second part, "those places in literary texts where the ambiguity of textuality challenges the power of representational illusion and the fact of gender identity." Wishing "to avoid the one-to-one mapping of text onto meaning . . . that attempts to master the uncontrollable generation of meaning by mutilating, 'cutting off,' otherness," Kelly proposes to turn toward voyeurism's "more purely literary problems and away from "the technical, psychoanalytic aspect of the primal scene" (71). Yet, over the next 150 pages, the reader discovers a constant search for "meanings" (note the plural), some of which indeed undermine prescribed voyeuristic scenarios, but all of which fit neatly within the psychocritical thematics laid out in part I. These readings, then, are not the manifestation of some disembodied "literature" expressing the suspicions of ideological foundations, but rather the valuable contributions of a socio-historically situated subject reading from within a quite clearly defined and structured framework of interpretive practices.
I must dispel the too-critical impression that my comments may leave, for I recommend these readings to readers interested in understanding how contemporary feminist and poststructuralist reflections on identity and gender may be fruitfully employed from a psychocritical perspective to enliven our understanding of highly canonical literary texts. The threefold deployment of her interrogative approach unfolds in a smooth, interlocking fashion: departing from the fundamental problematics of voyeurism, Kelly draws on re-readings of psychoanalytic theory as a device for understanding specific literary texts, and then extends this theory and her own readings in order better to understand the nature of narrative. Moreover, Kelly's insights in the concluding chapter, regarding the role of distancing, irony and humor as constitutive of a "feminine writing," are especially important for the critical enterprise. For Kelly enlivens her able deployment of an impressive array of critical concepts and sources through her skilled reading practices that neither shirk asking hard questions, nor solely produce simple answers.
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University