The 'Natural' Feminine in Romanticism: A Commentary
After Bethany and Sarah's presentation, "Nature as Woman," I was interested and confused - as were they, I think - by the multiplicity of contradicting views of nature as it relates to gender. According to dominant views on Romanticism, access to nature required a distinctly feminine perspective. Paradoxically, this feminine perspective, entitled ycleped 'sensibility' was to be taken utilized most effectively by men, yet it rested on 'feminine' "emotion [as] … a more pure response to nature" (Fay 5). According to G.J. Barker-Benfield's The Culture of Sensibility "the sentimentalizing process" involved the temperance of a certain 'manliness' that is "uncouth and savage" (288) unless moderated by a feminine influence, thus woman was to use the so-called 'natural' gifts of her sex to lend culture to her more robust and virile counterpart. On first glance, this moderation of 'manly' characteristics appears to lend legitimacy to 'feminine' ideals; however, this apparent liberation of the feminine illuminates two very serious problems. First, as Barker-Benfield points out, 'feminine' ideals are privileged, but only as they serve to improve upon man; woman is not idealised in her own right. In this service of a masculine purpose "woman was to be 'fashioned' by men rather than by herself" (288). Second, the seemingly legitimisation of 'feminine' ideals can appear progressive but, as a result, ultimately serves to authenticate an idea of 'natural femininity that is, in the opinion of many a feminist, a repressive patriarchal social construct that lacks any real biological referent.
Thus it is very fitting, - but not the least bit subtle - that this artificial idea of femininity should be directly applied to Nature herself. If, as Bethany and Sarah point out, the 'feminine' ideal is "moral, pure, gentle, kind, graceful, simple and beautiful" and Nature is a symbolic stand in for woman - who in her own picturesque ideal embodies all of these characteristics - then these characteristics must, naturally, be those of natural woman. This rationality seems to prove exactly what it intends to: that woman, because of these traits, organically belongs to the realm of the domestic object and that any woman who exhibits any tendencies other than these is dangerous (especially to the patriarchal construct), deviant and unnatural. Moreover, 'natural' woman's traits cleverly but predictably prevent woman from enacting any agency at all if she is to remain in the realm of normality - the symbolic four walls of her domestic space.
This 'naturalization' of the artificial 'feminine' gender through association with a female nature is relatively uncomplicated at the level of the picturesque. Sarah and Bethany note that both Nature and women are subject to the scopophilic male gaze; in her article "Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema" Laura Mulvey notes Frued's concept of masculine scopophilia as necessarily "taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze" (587). In class, we discussed Gilpin's 'minor mental adjustments' to nature and, I think, the 'adjustments' serve as evidence in favour of this controlling male gaze turned toward nature. Gilpin actively observes nature as a passive object and, through these little 'mental improvements', further exerts his own intellectual agency (though in thought only). Further, as Khagan, Anne and Luke mentioned in their presentation, Gilpin's successors would take his intellectual alterations one step further: they actively altered the landscape, artificially forcing nature to conform to 'natural' aesthetics. Here, the central paradox of this 'natural' femininity emerges. Even the symbolic woman, nature herself, ultimately fails to conform to the feminine ideal; thus the need for alteration proves that - even and especially in nature - these ideals are constructed.
Gilpin's little disclaimer - essentially that nature is only imperfect to human eyes because human beings themselves are imperfect - appears (to me, anyway) a desperate explanation for his intellectual interference with Nature's natural beauty. He, effectually, offers no explanation for nature's imperfect 'natural' femininity, recoursing instead to an ironically predictable religious rhetoric. Moreover, Gilpin's successors tread a fine line along what Freud saw as scopophilia's crucial paradox. In their interference, they tread a line between active looking and active engagement. I think this active engagement aligns interestingly but problematically with Freud's narcissistic scopophilia (Mulvey 588). This facet of scopophilia involves identification with the object of the look who, as a result, becomes a subject; when identified with the agent-scopophiliac, the subject inherits a tentative sort of agency from the active viewer. Moreover, I would argue that man's identification with a female breaks down the masculine/feminine binary, undermining conceptions of masculinity and femininity simultaneously. In this way, the male gaze becomes increasingly problematic. The irreconcilability - even for Freud - of this contradiction points toward the problematic nature of the patriarchal constructions of 'natural' femininity that are so firmly embedded in Freud's work. Man's scopophilic relationship with this conception of femininity is, therefore, inherently unstable.
Thus, this interaction between the male viewer/ possessor of/ identifier with Nature and feminine Nature/ woman as subject creates a contradicion surrounding 'natural' feminine ideals. This breakdown has occurred in three ways: first, the conception of nature's femininity is proven imperfect and even unnatural. Second, nature is given a masculine agency through narcissistic scopophilia that contradicts 'natural' feminine passivity. Third, the modification of Barker-Benfield's "uncouth and savage" male with 'feminine' ideals and the male identification with female nature as a subject disrupt the binary definitions of masculinity and femininity.
The third contradiction is exhibited most clearly in the arena of the sublime. This aspect of nature blatantly contradicts the image of woman/nature as "moral, pure, gentle, kind, graceful, simple and beautiful"; instead, the anthropomorphized sublime encompasses distinctly masculine traits: it is powerful, destructive, "terrific and awe inspiring" (Fay 13). It is extremely unclear whether the sublime of romantic writing anthropomorphize as a man or, like the rest of nature, as a woman. On the one hand: "the sublime [is]… associated with the presence of Nature, conceived as feminine and maternal, beneficent as well as destructive" (Fay 13). In Fay's view, it appears that the romantic sublime, despite its contradictory destructive 'masculine' traits, remains feminine. However, Fay also articulates what appears to be the view of the High Romantics (although the source of this contradictory statement is unclear); in this view "the male poet … use[s] Nature as an access to the masculine sublime" (13). In this view Nature can take on masculine traits and, apparently, loses 'her' associations with femininity, anthropomorphizing, instead, as a man. In a very strange way, Nature becomes hermaphroditic. This association, I think, is even more problematic for the idea of 'natural' genders - 'natural' feminine traits - than is Fay's initial concept of a seemingly deviant sublime that remains female in spite of 'her' masculine traits. The blurry line around this definition of the sublime creates an even blurrier line between masculinity and femininity. If Nature can somehow transform at some indistinct point from male to female, gender boundaries are proven radically unstable on inspection. The sublime, ironically, becomes destructive toward the 'feminine' gender construct at he point where it claims its own 'naturalness'.
Moreover, the indecision as to whether sublime nature should be characterized as male or as female further proves the arbitrary and constructed nature of 'natural' femininity and, further, natural masculinity. The essential angst formed around the gender-bender of the sublime might also reveal an angst surrounding sexuality. The blurring of gender boundaries correlates with a blurring of boundaries surrounding sexuality because heterosexuality is, it seems, during the romantic period primarily identified as a relationship between the male and female 'natural' genders - as opposed to relations between the sexes. In class, we mentioned that, with reference to Geothe, the male poet's relationship with nature as a woman can become heterosexually erotic; so, when the sublime is viewed as masculine, the male poet's desire can be, in a sense, viewed as homoerotic - even if this eroticism takes place via the female muse. Moreover, the need to assign a gender to Nature at all points toward the overtly or covertly sexual nature of the male poet's scopophilic act. Further, the definitely homosocial, if not homoerotic tendency of such a "specifically male achievement" (14) as the sublime cannot be ignored and heterosexuality as an assumption that - at least during the romantic period - ideologically precedes every engagement between the genders, is undermined. However, I would like to qualify this assertion with another potential view that may override the idea of the male poet's homoerotic relationship with nature. It is often asserted that interaction with the sublime is strictly - though not altogether plausibly- a means of transcendence that is asexual. In some cases, this desexualized view of a Nature that is conventionally gendered might not necessarily be sexualized; the gendering, in this case, is a convention rather than a symbolic referent toward sexuality.
So, by way of conclusion, I would like to restate that the connection between nature and 'natural' femininity is extremely problematic. The relationship between woman and nature is always ambivalent, illuminating many interesting paradoxes that, I think, reveal a patriarchal mindset that is constantly striving and failing to solidify and naturalize its gender assumptions. In the end, gender and patriarchy itself are proven unstable and fundamentally paranoid.
Bethany and Sarah. "Nature Being Represented as Woman." Romantic Travellers. 10 Feb. 2005. David S. Miall. 18 Feb. 2005. http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/Travel/index.htm
Fay, Elizabeth A. A Feminist Introduction to Romanticism. Malden: Blackwell, 1998.
Privett, Anne. "Appropriating Nature: Gilpin, the picturesque and Landscape Gardenting." Appropriating Nature: A Presentation for English 409. 10 Feb. 2005. Khaghan Parker, Anne Privett and Luke Ingberg. 18 Feb, 2005 2006. http://members.shaw.ca/weaters/index.htm
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden and Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.