Annals of Toxic Masculinity in the Academy: “The Nymphs Have Departed”

by Joseph Shieber

There’s a well-established notion in film theory referred to as the “male gaze”. Here’s its description according to the theorist Laura Mulvey, who first introduced the concept in her 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Mulvey suggests that, in Hollywood films, “the determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly” (my emphasis).

According to Mulvey, the (heterosexual) male gaze reduces female figures in films to mere objects, devoid of agency and incapable of advancing the cinematic narrative. As she analyzes it, mainstream cinema makes the viewer complicit in this gaze. It places the viewer in the position of identifying with the male actors, who advance the plot, and to treat the female characters in films as scenery. Women in films, on Mulvey’s analysis, can serves as objects and frames for the action, but men are the sole actors.

I was reminded of the notion of the “male gaze” when reading an essay by L.D. Burnett on the occasion of Harold Bloom’s death, in a piece at the Society for US Intellectual History blog. Burnett’s essay reminded me that, without detracting from the incisiveness of Mulvey’s analysis, it is important to recognize there are other roles to which men can seek to consign women.

There’s a particular one of these roles that I have in mind, one that I haven’t seen discussed before in quite the way that Burnett’s discussion sparked for me. I’ll call it the “imagined female gaze”.

Burnett’s essay has to do with the role that Bloom played in the “canon wars” of the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, Burnett discusses the way that Bloom’s particular notion of the canon can be seen as a reaction to the opening of the Academy to women and other previously underrepresented groups, beginning in the 1960s and moving with increasing rapidity in the 1970s and 1980s.

Here’s an extended quote from Burnett’s essay, giving a sense of her analysis:

… Bloom argued that something   had changed, that something was new, that the basic continuity of the canon and the process of contesting it might be upended at last by a new phenomenon breaking on the horizon. No longer “are there Muses, nymphs who   know, still available to tell us the secrets of continuity,” Bloom lamented, “for the nymphs certainly are now departing.” That departure of “nymphs who know” was not just poetical, not just figurative. The “nymphs” once ubiquitous on the university campuses had metamorphosed into something less accommodating: liberated women. “I prophesy though that the first break with literary continuity will be brought about in generations to come,” Bloom wrote, “if the burgeoning religion of Liberated Woman spreads from its clusters of enthusiasts to dominate the West. Homer will cease to be the inevitable precursor, and the rhetoric and forms of our literature then may break at last from tradition.” In Bloom’s “prophecy,” feminism threatened the very foundations of “the West” – or, at least, of the Western literary tradition. In claiming that the critiques of “Liberated Woman” threatened a decisive break with the past, Bloom was in effect claiming that feminists could not be considered as participants in that long tradition of pedagogical contestation within the university.   

Burnett notes that she “didn’t quite know what to do with [Bloom’s] definition of the Muses as ‘nymphs who know,’ beyond noting that Bloom linked the entrance of ‘liberated woman’ with the exit of the nymphs.” I think I have an idea. It’s that “nymphs who know” are women whose admiration reinforces the genius’s self image as a genius.

The male genius values confirmation of his genius. This requires not merely that others judge his works to be superior, but that those who are judging those works are themselves discerning evaluators of excellence. It’s not enough, in other words, that the genius have nymphs who dote on him. Rather, they have to be nymphs who know – nymphs whose intellectual abilities are capable of appreciating the accomplishments of the genius.

If this is the value of the nymphs “who know”, the problem posed by “liberated women” is that they disrupt the fantasy of what I’m calling the “imagined female gaze”.

Adoration from the nymphs is a mark of the (always male) genius. The “liberated woman”, however, is too busy cultivating her own talents, pursuing her own accomplishments, to dote on Bloom. In contrast to the “liberated woman”, “nymphs who know” are women – smart, insightful, discerning women – who are comfortable in their role as admirers of – or muses for? – male genius.

My point here isn’t that women ever actually were the “nymphs who know” that Bloom imagines them to have been. Rather, it’s that social structures that confined the possible roles for women made it possible for Bloom to imagine that such nymphs existed. This is what I mean by “imagined female gaze”. It’s the fantasy of the male genius that women are gazing upon him, in admiration of his excellence.

Once “liberated women” occupy the spaces formerly reserved for geniuses and the nymphs who attend to them, it becomes difficult – and eventually (hopefully!) impossible – for men to maintain the fantasy of the “imagined female gaze”. That’s not solely – or even perhaps primarily – because such women are too busy pursuing their own excellence to have time to acknowledge men’s accomplishments. The greatest challenge to male exceptionalism is that, to the extent that the “liberated woman” does recognize someone else’s achievements, she does so as an equal, rather than as an adoring acolyte.

Though Burnett doesn’t note it, Bloom’s phrase “the nymphs are departing” is an echo of the first lines of “The Fire Sermon” in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf/ Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind/ Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed./ Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song./ The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,/ Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends/ Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed./ And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;/ Departed, have left no addresses.

Bloom’s use of the phrase suggests that the departing of the nymphs signals the end of the magical “summer nights” in academia. No longer will the nymphs and their friends hang on the genius’s every word, sharing cigarettes and bottles of wine.

Burnett’s essay made me think about a passage from Hume’s popular essays – one that I had previously admired – in a new and decidedly less positive light. I had always clung to the idea that this passage was evidence of Hume’s having been a proto-feminist, someone capable of recognizing women as potential intellectual equals.

This is the passage I mean. In “Of Essay-Writing”, Hume argues that women “of sense and education” shouldn’t be ashamed of their interest in “books and study”. He suggests that, at most, the common (at the time) prejudice against women of learning should “have no other Effect, than to make them conceal their Knowledge before Fools, who are not worthy of it, nor of them”. So far, so good!

But here’s the whole passage:

I am of Opinion, that Women, that is, Women of Sense and Education (for to such alone I address myself) are much better Judges of all polite Writing than Men of the same Degree of Understanding; and that ‘tis a vain Pannic, if they be so far terrify’d with the common Ridicule that is levell’d against learned Ladies, as utterly to abandon every Kind of Books and Study to our Sex. Let the Dread of that Ridicule have no other Effect, than to make them conceal their Knowledge before Fools, who are not worthy of it, nor of them. Such will still presume upon the vain Title of the Male Sex to affect a Superiority above them: But my fair Readers may be assur’d, that all Men of Sense, who know the World, have a great Deference for their Judgment of such Books as ly within the Compass of their Knowledge, and repose more Confidence in the Delicacy of their Taste, tho’ unguided by Rules, than in all the dull Labours of Pedants and Commentators. In a neighbouring Nation, equally famous for good Taste, and for Gallantry, the Ladies are, in a Manner, the Sovereigns of the learned World, as well as of the conversible; and no polite Writer pretends to venture upon the Public, without the Approbation of some celebrated Judges of that Sex.   

Reading the whole passage – particularly in light of Burnett’s essay – it strikes me that Hume’s “Women of Sense and Education” are just an earlier incarnation of Bloom’s “nymphs who know”. Even if you leave aside the paternalistic impulse that drives Hume to consign such women to the areas that are “within the compass of their knowledge”, such as “polite writing”, the more significant point is that the underlying assumption of Hume’s essay is that women – even those who he calls “the sovereigns of the learned world, as well as of the conversible” – should be esteemed not for their writing, but for their reading. Indeed, it never even seems to occur to Hume that women might be fully equal intellectual actors in their own right. He never imagines that they might be producers of books, rather than merely consumers of them!

In other words, although it might seem that Hume respects women for their intellects, he in fact still treats them as passive receptacles of male genius. Men are the writers, whereas women are the admirers. The male writers still seek to win women’s judgments, but such judgments are merely the rewards that accrue to male excellence.

It’s one of the same impulses that manifests – although in a far more virulent form – in the recently released rants of the Alt-Right figure Richard Spencer. According to those recordings, among other statements Spencer said of African Americans and Jews is that “they look up and see a face like mine looking down at them.” 

They look up and see a face like mine. It’s not enough that the sexist or white supremacist see himself as superior. Rather, he needs the object of his oppression to recognize him as superior. Spencer – and those like him – needs to maintain the fantasy that he is seen as higher, stronger, better. This is just a more extreme exemplar of the fantasy of the “imagined female gaze”.

A Hegelian couldn’t have come up with a better example of the notion of “Lordship and Bondage” if they had made it up themselves! The fragile self-image of those dependent on the fantasy of the imagined female gaze is exactly what Hegel seems to have in mind when he describes the “lordship’s” consciousness:

… just where the master has effectively achieved lordship, he really finds that something has come about quite different from an independent consciousness. It is not an independent, but rather a dependent consciousness that he has achieved.

The feeling of loss that Bloom and (the far more noxious) Spencer experience, in other words, is the result of a necessary instability of their position. They rely, for their self-conception, on the recognition of their excellence by people that they take to be subordinate. More importantly, their self-conception requires that they take those people, the ones on whose recognition they depend, to be subordinate.

However, recognition from others is only valuable to the extent that the judgments of those others are worth taking seriously. You value praise from those you esteem far more than praise from those you don’t. For precisely this reason, Bloom’s reliance on “nymphs who know” is unstable. “Nymphs who know” are a fiction; reality involves “liberated women”, who do not see themselves under any obligation to participate in Bloom’s fantasy or serve as handmaidens to his genius.