“Precious conceits and wild experiments”: _Orlando_’s critique of the patriarchal critical tradition

[An expanded revision of an undergrad essay I wrote, this has aged more gracefully than most of the other undergrad essays I wrote.]

One of the most humorous and telling threads in the narrative of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) is one that is alternately picked up and dropped over the course of Orlando’s unnaturally long lifespan. This thread is the story of literary criticism, and it makes two main appearances in the text, in tandem with Nick Greene, one of Orlando’s select ageless acquaintances. A survey of the genre and institution of literary criticism, as Woolf theorizes it, and a close reading of the scenes in Orlando wherein Green parodies this institution will argue that Woolf’s shrewd critique of literary criticism identifies it as an ideological apparatus to recuperate literature, to defuse its “powers and dangers” (Foucault 52) by securing it for the patriarchal epistemological monopolies on humanism and “common sense.”

In A Room of One’s Own (1928), Woolf describes the “stridently sex-conscious” (97) literary critical discourse that prevails in her day as

[…] that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronizing, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone […] dragging even into the criticism of poetry criticism of sex; admonishing them, if they would be good and win, as I suppose, some shiny prize, to keep within certain limits which the gentleman in question thinks suitable. (75)

Citing from contemporary critical journals, Woolf portrays and indicts the literary critical establishment as a masculinist institution that propagates and reproduces prejudices against women in the process of delivering learned commentary on literary texts and problems. From the New Criterion, she quotes that “women rarely possess men’s healthy love of rhetoric”; from Life and Letters, “that female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex” (75). Having thus identified the guarded patriarchal order in an ostensibly disinterested critical establishment, Woolf goes on to critique criticism as a masculinist genre that is emotionally retarded (according to a familiar, essentialist grammar of gender traits):

It is the power of suggestion that one most misses, I thought, taking Mr B the critic in my hand and reading, very carefully and dutifully, his remarks upon the art of poetry. Very able they were, acute and full of learning; but the trouble was that his feelings no longer communicated […] a woman cannot find in [living writers] that fountain of perpetual life which the critics assure her is there. It is not only that they celebrate male virtues, enforce male values and describe the world of men; it is that the emotion with which these books are permeated is to a woman incomprehensible. (100)

Woolf also muses on the way in which the critical establishment deals oppressively, even violently, with the raising of self-asserting female voices: “Perhaps some great lady would take advantage of her comparative freedom and comfort to publish something with her name to it and risk being thought a monster” (59). That potential monster, the woman writer (more recently articulated in the “cyborg manifesto” of Donna Haraway), becomes the bane of an establishment whose function, as Woolf argues, is as much to police the gender-coded order of literary discourse and production as it is to “know the best that is known and thought in the world,” in the famous words of Victorian arch-critic Matthew Arnold (597).

We find parodic echoes of Arnold in Orlando, and it becomes clear that here too, Woolf is interrogating “disinterested criticism” as a patriarchal discourse. In “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864), Arnold writes, “the epochs of Aeschylus and Shakespeare make us feel their preeminence. In an epoch like those is, no doubt, the true life of literature” (603). Central to Arnold’s vision of criticism as a social mission is his sense of present degeneracy and crisis, a modern malaise (594). It is this particular sensibility that Orlando parodies in the character of the critic Nick Greene:

No, he concluded, the great age of literature is past; the great age of literature was the Greek; the Elizabethan age was inferior in every respect to the Greek. […] Now all young writers were in the pay of the booksellers and poured out any trash that would sell. Shakespeare was the chief offender in this way and Shakespeare was already paying the penalty. Their own age, he said, was marked by precious conceits and wild experiments–neither of which the Greeks would have tolerated for a moment. (69)

Taking place during Orlando’s first encounter with Greene in Elizabethan England, this passage mimics the sense of degeneracy, determined by the temporal ontology of modernity, that Arnold naturalizes as the condition that makes effective criticism possible: the sense of the present as a time in critical condition, as it were. As Walter Benjamin notes of this prevalent practice of temporal naturalization, “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule” (257). This “tradition of the oppressed” — a tradition perennially, perniciously appropriated on behalf of patriarchal oppressors (as seen, for example, in the 1990s furor over “political correctness,” or in the self-positioning of far-right journalism as the speaking of a supposedly marginalized truth to a chimerical progressive power) — is exposed in Orlando as a tradition of venerable standing and lasting purchase, as well as a practice of hegemony, in its compulsion to convince, to be insistently stated and re-stated. Greene’s articulation of this tradition in the age of England’s first celebrated queen is conspicuously repeated when Orlando meets Greene again, during the age of her second, Victoria:

“Ah! My dear lady, the great days of literature are over. Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Johnson–those were the giants. […] all our young writers are in the pay of the booksellers. They turn out any trash that serves to pay their tailor’s bills. It is an age,” he said […] “marked by precious conceits and wild experiments–none of which the Elizabethans would have tolerated for an instant. (212)

Note the verbatim repetitions between Greene’s Elizabethan and Victorian pronouncements; note also the substitution of Elizabethans for Greeks as the apogee of ancient aesthetics; and note the corresponding promotion of Shakespeare from “chief offender” in the former pronouncement to a “giant” in the latter. This conversion from vilifying Shakespeare to valorizing him maps, in miniature, the historical rehabilitation and canonization of “the Bard,” his makeover as Britain’s “national poet” (see Dobson). As Orlando herself critically reflects on Greene’s words: “the names were different, of course, but the spirit was the same” (213).

By “spirit,” Orlando in fact refers to a kind of letter, that is, to a particular and readily recognizable discourse of authenticity, a discourse of “art versus commerce” (see Weinstein), that has long served to mystify cultural production in gender-coded terms. This discourse (which is now virtually endemic to popular forms of cultural criticism) posits an established masculine authority, legitimized by its “disinterested” spirit and devotion to artistic authenticity, as threatened, or even usurped, by an emerging feminine competitor, illegitimate in its venal materialism and abandonment or ignorance of taste. This patriarchal critical tradition–a discursive structure that privileges ancient (or at least pre-modern) aesthetic authenticity–reifies (and for Arnold, to an extent, deifies) its disciplinary regulation of literary value in that body of work we call “the canon.” As the recurring references to Arnold here suggest, this tradition also reifies a mode of speech–the commentary–by reproducing unto canonicity the male voices and positions that have grounded and entrenched the literary critical establishment’s authority. That is to say, the literary critical establishment has legitimized its cultural authority by speaking not truth to power, but power to itself, closing that power into a loop of self-validation (or self-pleasuring, if we figure this loop as an onanistic Ourobouros).

From neoclassical anxieties over professional authorship as prostitution, to rock criticism’s valorization of “blues legends” at the expense of “pop divas,” to Big Media’s increasingly draconian campaigns against the unruly and excessive circulations of digital media, the patriarchal critical tradition enables a heterogeneous array of critical articulations and materializations. Catherine Gallagher has historicized the image, derived from antiquity, of the writer as prostitute, an image “related to anxieties about the ‘unnatural’ proliferation of signs” that stands in stark, gender-coded contrast, as Mark Rose notes, to the equally common paternal image of the “author as begetter and the book as child” (38).

This tradition also enables a similarly broad spectrum of projects in critical revision and recuperation. Michel Foucault’s observations on the function of commentary are relevant here: “Commentary exorcises the chance element of discourse by giving it its due; it allows us to say something other than the text itself, but on condition that it is this text itself which is said […] The new thing here lies not in what is said but in the event or its return” (58)–which would be not only the return of the text, in how criticism reproduces it with a difference (a difference that nevertheless turns the critical reproduction more often into recuperation than into radicalization–more “exorcism” than possession), but also the return of criticism itself to its traditional field of power, to be recharged by each new reproductive iteration it issues.

Certain texts (and the social norms and cultural politics that accompany their authoritative installation) are thus reproduced, canonized, in two ways: in the commentaries that repeat and supplement them, reinforcing their centrality; and in their material reproduction, which escalates as the commentaries on them proliferate, promoting the texts to and ensconcing them in specific (and traditionally privileged) sites of reading and reception.

The complementary function of this “spirit” of modern cultural malaise is to dismiss and marginalize new, popular, or other contemporary texts and productions, in gender-coded terms. In devaluing contemporary texts as “precious conceits and wild experiments,” the patriarchal critical tradition maintains control, including censorial control, over cultural productions by mystifying its own aversions and anxieties to them in the guise of a defence of culture, or even of civilization. What is at stake here is the need to manage or neutralize cultural productions that interrogate the foundations and premises of critical discourse, interrogations that would expose its investments in gender and genre, and its protection of said investments by way of appeals to culture, authenticity, and temporality, as in the idealization of pre-modern productions over degenerate contemporary ones. Although the patriarchal critical tradition depends, even thrives on a certain possibility of dissent and debate, debate over the foundations, forms, and modes of criticism itself poses a threat that, as Woolf demonstrates (and as numerous scholars have since investigated), issues from female voices, historically disenfranchised as they have been from the critical tradition. The hypothetical woman writer in Woolf’s Room threatens the critical establishment not just by gaining access to the means of critical production, but by asking why and how those means have been assembled in this way and not another, hence disrupting their smooth operation.

Orlando’s puzzled response to Greene’s Victorian re-statement of the patriarchal critical tradition shows how alien this tradition can be to women readers and writers. That Orlando almost finishes Greene’s sentence for him, after a separation of some three hundred years, suggests her grasp of the ideological form of his utterance above and beyond its specific content. Orlando thus accentuates the absurd obviousness of an ideological formation apparent to those marginalized or excluded by it. A similar accentuation occurs when Orlando converses with “giants” like Alexander Pope, whose words are pointedly withheld from the text, since “the biographers” assume that “these sayings are too well-known to require repetition” (155). This ironic appeal to the presumed knowledge of canonical literature on behalf of the implied reader also represents a sly erasure of that literature. And it is followed by Orlando’s archly patronizing, subtly feminized descriptions of “the company of men of genius” as “fond of tea,” and fond, too, of “collect[ing] little bits of coloured glass” (159). Such descriptions enact an alienating and alienated woman’s perspective of the patriarchal critical establishment, a view from the outside that plays with and against literary norms and cultural standards. Woolf suggests that the alien alterity that women writers bring to critical practice is an excess, a “monstrosity” from which the patriarchal critical tradition recoils. As Sandra Gilbert writes:

Feminist connections between the personal and the political, the theoretical and the practical, renew those bonds of feeling and thought that T.S. Eliot, the paradigmatic patriarchal critic, regarded as irrevocably severed. In fact, the feminist classroom, as anybody who has entered on will tell you, is the home of undissociated sensibilities. (40)

In this way, Nick Greene’s repeated–and revised–representations of ancient excellence versus modern degeneracy parodies one of the ideological linchpins of the patriarchal critical tradition. And as parody, it both exemplifies Foucault’s idea of commentary and subverts its rarefying, restricting function. Woolf supplies precisely that commentary on commentary–a secondary, “critical” form ironically embedded in a primary, “creative” form–which strips literary criticism of its gender-coded ideological veil. Greene’s commentary, about which the critic character is (somewhat ambiguously) either insistent or oblivious, is not to be taken at face value as a corrective revision, signalling a critical or pedagogical progression or graduation from early modern ignorance of correct taste to its enlightened, high modern apprehension. In its mixture of verbatim repetition and substitution of names, it instantiates Foucault’s theory of commentary as both reproduction and explication; Greene’s second statement comments not only on its purported subject, modern literature, but also as meta-commentary on his first: as a comment, that is, on his own prior comment. Greene’s patronizing, patriarchal pronouncement on the perennially fallen state of literature (and by extension culture) echoes itself, occults itself, and necessarily forgets itself, demonstrating a kind of doubly meta-critical and non-critical manoeuvre: a gesture of deference to historical authenticity that camouflages the revisionism and oppression required to make such a gesture. It’s a manoeuvre still very much with us, all too prevalent in criticism today, as promiscuous in the strident, canon-defending campaigns of Harold Bloom, as in the back-in-the-day one-upmanship of fanboy pop-culture scenes (whose masculinist discourse of “subcultural capital” has been authoritatively analyzed in Sarah Thornton’s book Club Cultures).

The statements with which Woolf fills Greene’s mouth pose a subtle, shrewd critique of how the patriarchal critical tradition continues to patrol its territory and protect its members. (Pun intended.) But if this tradition has enjoyed a long career thanks to its complex forms of repetition, at least Woolf’s ironic and parodic kind of response to it has engendered repetitions of its own. In Tania Glyde’s 1998 short story, “Pavlovs Bitch and Yoga Cow Reach 2000,” the narrator (“Pavlovs Bitch”) argues with a male character in a scene that resonates with Orlando, a passage of meta-commentary, embedded in fiction, which plays fittingly feminist havoc with the patriarchal critical tradition, its revisionist manoeuvring, and the rather more ominous cultural politics that it indexes–a politics broached in the last line of the quotation below, to which I’ll leave the last word:

Luke barely acknowledges us before launching into a tirade.
     Oh my God you wouldn’t believe it! I went to this club last night and the DJs were awful I mean the people there were all so bloody young, they don’t know anything about what’s going on. Fuckin’ dingy tunes, it was all really manky, all kind of housey techno-ey trancey drum ‘n’ bassy–O mean they just weren’t there, were they? Oooh, halls of residence are gonna be swinging to that derivative crap. It’s not like the old days I can tell you. I can’t believe all these people are trying to enjoy themselves to that shit when they weren’t even there at the beginning.
     Beginning of what? I hiss. Tip when chatting about musical trends of the last twenty years to someone like Luike Roadkill: Think of what style you’re on about, take the year you think it “all started”, and then go back a couple more, just to be safe, e.g. “but Afrika Bambaataa was doing that in ’78, surely?” etc.
     Luke responds.
     Well, they weren’t there. When it all started.
     How could someone who’s seventeen years old in 1999 have “been there” in 1986, at the age of four? I mean, even if they were actually in Ibiza that year, they’d have been making sandcastles, wouldn’t they?
     Club fascists are a race all their own. (277)


Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864). Rpt. in Critical Theory since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968.

Dobson, Michael. The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Authorship, 1660-1769. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Foucault, Michel. “The Order of Discourse” (1970). Rpt. in Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. 48-78.

Gallagher, Catherine. “George Eliot and Daniel Deronda: The Prostitute and the Jewish Question.” Sex, Politics, and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Ed. Ruth Berbard Yeazell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.

Gilbert, Sandra. “What do feminist critics want? A postcard from the volcano.” Rpt. in The New Feminist Criticism. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 29-45.

Glyde, Tania. “Pavolvs Bitch and Yoga Cow Reach 2000.” Disco 2000. Ed. Sarah Champion. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1998. 273-89.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-181. Rpt. in Program in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, Stanford U, 2 Dec. 1997 http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/CyborgManifesto.html

Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1996.

Weinstein, Donna. “Art Versus Commerce: Deconstructing a (Useful) Romantic Illusion.” Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. Ed. Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonnell. New York: New York UP, 1999. 57-69.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin, 1928.

—. Orlando. London: Hogarth P, 1928.


Cross-blogged from the AU Landing


2 responses to ““Precious conceits and wild experiments”: _Orlando_’s critique of the patriarchal critical tradition

  1. The irony here is that this is still happening.

    The science fiction world is currently discussing the inequities and lack of reviews, best of lists, etc. that female sf writers are currently enduring.

    To get a start on looking into this subject, I suggest this blog entry:


    SF Signal also has a daily listing of blog articles, some of whom are discussing this subject.

  2. academicalism

    That’s very illuminating; thanks for alerting me to this particular manifestation of the problem. The further historical irony, then, would be one that shadows so much of the contemporary gender politics of science fiction: the genre’s widely acknowledged origins in a woman’s novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (See Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree for the influential argument that modern SF starts with Mary Shelley.)

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