The novelist Mary Gordon (who has a new book out) commented a number of years ago on a disturbing theme in novels by the “great American writers” of the last century—Updike, Roth, Bellow, Mailer, etc—noting that with some exceptions, the theme of the American novel was a young man who needed to escape civilization in order to preserve his innocence; women in these stories, Gordon noted, have an alarming propensity to, well, die. “I think what you have to begin with,” Gordon said in an interview, “is the idea and the ideal that, for Americans, the most desirable character, the most desirable type is a boy. Not a man, but a boy. And a boy who is always on the move. A boy who is not constricted, a boy who is not limited by anything outside the self. Women, in that they are vulnerable, susceptible and attached, are the enemy. And they have to be got out of the way in one way or another because if a boy is always going to be moving, he cannot attach himself to the cumbrous, encumbered female. So often he has to kill her.”
Gordon’s argument is provocative but not without evidence, particularly in the more well-known works of the major male authors of the 20th century. But does that literary motif, that women must be done away with, exist because the male protagonist must be always on the move? Or is there another reason? Might it be grounded in a less immediately obvious psychological structure underlying American life?
I have been reading Christ and Apollo by William Lynch, S.J. (for more on Lynch, you can read John Kane's essay here) over the past week, and among the many insights Lynch brings to literary criticism (and life in general) is the notion that the great enemy of many writers (and their literary creations) is not necessarily “civilization,” not necessarily “this rotten system” (think of everyone from Holden Caulfield to Jack Keruoac), but in fact, time. Put more precisely, the project of many a famous writer has been to attempt to leap out of one’s own skin and attempt to see all of life’s moments at once,to exempt oneself from the limitations of time, to live in spite of time rather than through time. Lynch uses the example of Picasso’s Cubist paintings of violins (no one is too big to fail in Lynch’s writings—everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Laurence Olivier gets speared!) as an analogy for the artistic attempt to step outside of time itself; the violin, which reveals itself differently from different perspectives, is instead depicted from every angle at once, meaning that the artist (and the audience) need not bother with the concept that time is needed to view the object from every angle. It’s not that we’re too busy to see the violin from every angle (maybe we are), but that we’ve managed to escape from the inescapable.
In the literary realm, Lynch identifies Proust, in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, as the worst sinner in this regard, attempting always to stop the flux of time. From Christ and Apollo: “Instead of accepting the structure of time, which is essentially the structure of a thing perpetually in motion; instead of trying to see, with all the resources of genius, that such a movement might be leading somewhere; instead of exploring what will happen psychologically and spiritually once the movement is entered into fully—instead, this kind of artist rejects the possibility of beauty emerging from such insight.”
It is, Lynch says, an attempt to divorce intelligence from human reality. But where have we heard that before? Similar arguments take place in theology (and, for all I know, across the academic spectrum) about the desire and habit of phallocentric cultures to valorize the intellectual, the rational, the fleshless ideal, while fearing and/or dismissing the embodied, the emotional, the relational. The former characteristics are typed as “masculine”, while the latter are gendered “feminine,” at least in broad strokes (I am not at all convinced this typology works in any systematic way, but eh, you dance with the one that brung ya).
Is time masculine or feminine? Lynch would call it feminine, I suspect, because everything about embodied reality, about relational existence, about so many of the concepts we culturally type as “feminine,” is a matter of time, or closely interrelated with time. The desire to escape from time, on the other hand, is a conceit of the rational, the project of minds seeking to deny or dismiss embodied existence. And perhaps in that notion, that time itself is a “feminine” notion, and that much of our artistic imagination relies on a regrettable desire to escape from time, lies some of our literature’s love for the young man who can experience all things at once, and the habit (in literature, at least) of ridding the story of the young woman who reminds him that, despite what Jim Croce might sing, you can’t save time in a bottle.