The critic and mythographer on fairytales, feminism, modern art, translation and the LRBby Zeljka Marosevic / May 8, 2014 / Leave a comment
“I wanted my writing to aim at the vitality, and above all the linguistic richness, of fiction, or poetry”
Marina Warner’s criticism focuses on myth, fairytale and religion in art and literature, and she writes regularly for the London Review of Books where she is a Contributing Editor. Her books include Alone of All Her Sex, Monuments and Maidens and Stranger Magic, for which she won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. She is currently Professor in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at University of Essex as well as the chair of this year’s International Man Booker Prize. Mary Kay Wilmers, editor of the LRB, has playfully described her as a “mythographer extraordinaire.”
You contributed to the Hayward Gallery’s 2013 exhibition “Curiosity: Art & the Pleasures of Knowing,” and also wrote an essay for the accompanying book. In the essay you note that curiosity has been seen as a vice to which young women were especially prone. How did you start as a critic, and did you encounter such prejudices?
I don’t think I actually encountered as many prejudices in the realm of criticism as I did in other realms. There’d been a number of pioneers, especially amongst literary editors. The first literary editor for whom I worked was Claire Tomalin. She was then at the New Statesman, and she took me with her to the Sunday Times, where I became a regular book reviewer. The Sunday Times was definitely dominated by men—those were the days of El Vino and hard-drinking, hard-boiled and tough-talking journalism—but it wasn’t exclusive.
Where I first felt prejudice in my life was at Oxford. When I was an undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall, then a women’s college, we were so outnumbered, and treated with a mixture of genial condescension and genuine bafflement. They were astonished that a young woman—especially one who was wearing a mini-skirt—could be serious. This attitude no longer exists.
Was it a relief when you went from Oxford to criticism?
Yes. I went via two magazines. First, the Telegraph colour supplement, the first of its kind, which was run by a despot, a rather famous Bluebeard figure actually—now dead, so I can say that—called John Anstey, who recruited a lot of women journalists, but liked to bully us.
And then I went to Vogue, as the Features Editor, which was strange because I was still only 22. I stayed there for about two years. Those were my last jobs, as I then became a full-time writer. And Vogue in the late 1960s and early 70s was an enormous amount of fun—it was “a happening place.”
The editor, Beatrix Miller, who died in February, didn’t order people about. She was a very instinctive kind of editor, and basically she let me and Jill Weldon, who was the literary editor, do what we wanted. I had been disappointed—and rather taken aback— that I wasn’t given the book pages to edit as well, but Jill was very acute. She brought in Angela Carter. You wouldn’t believe it now, but at least one of the stories from The Bloody Chamber was first published in Vogue. I did interviews with Bernardo Bertolucci and Jean-Luc Godard and Andy Warhol. It was fabulous. It was a sort of education. I wrote my very first book while I was at Vogue—about the Empress Dowager of China. And then I left to go to America, where I got married and began work on my book about the Virgin Mary.
I’m interested in what you say about being a woman who thinks but is also interested in fashion, and how those two can be compatible. Can you say more about that?
It’s a very paradoxical gain for feminism to have made—to be allowed to be stylish—rather than the division that existed before, when an intellectual woman, and a feminist, would necessarily disdain such frivolity. The first feminism that I was involved in was against the idea of being seductive at all. Then another second wave came along. Angela Carter is very important there, and she was rebelling against the earlier severity. She used to write a weekly column on aspects of style (collected in her book Nothing Sacred) for the magazine New Society. The pieces were very perverse, witty, brilliantly observant, trenchant, political. She would begin with something like coloured tights or red lipstick and move on to their implications. She’s not actually for red lipstick, she was more interested in its explicit sexual invitation.
In your essay “Our Lady of the Counterculture”, which also acts as a new introduction to the second edition of your book, Alone of All Her Sex, you mention that you were against the idea of writing a book about the Virgin Mary because you’d already “struggled hard against the grip of Mary.” And yet as a critic you have now written about her and Catholic writing and image many times. How did you overcome that initial difficulty?
It’s often encountering the faith of others that I’ve found most disturbing. I don’t wish to scorn faith as it’s a universal part of human consciousness. But as such, it’s a deep puzzle, and I’m interested in its effects and manifestations. I worry about the effects of it, especially in our increasingly conflicted religious world.
The Virgin Mary book was published in 1976, around the same time as Edward Said’s Orientalism. Both of them are polemical books with very strong, angry arguments that belong to that decade. They’re both of them dated, both full of mistakes, but they both identified themes that were important to look at and to unpick and challenge.
I’m giving the Edward Said memorial lecture in Cairo in November. He was of course a very engaged critic. He saw himself as a literary critic, and that entails political and ethical thinking. He believed that criticism was an act of engagement with the world—you don’t read a book in some kind of hermetic closed chamber. Even if it is the most exquisite art for art’s sake. It will always be part of a web of meanings that were created at the time it was first released upon the world. Its meanings will also evolve over time in relation to readers’ experiences. Said’s insights into the ways literature travels through time, changing as it goes, are very central to what I have always done.
In “Our Lady of the Counterculture,” you write very personally about your relationship with the Virgin Mary. How comfortable do you feel bringing personal experience and anecdotes into your criticism? Does it come naturally?
I always wanted to write and I decided early on not to make a distinction between writing fiction and writing non-fiction, in terms of literary ambition and artistry. I didn’t want to write literary criticism or cultural history in jargon. Some academic language has fallen into appalling bureaucratic future-speak. That was exactly what I wanted to avoid. I wanted my writing to aim at the vitality, and above all, the linguistic richness of fiction or poetry.
The writers that I like, such as Henry James or Virginia Woolf or William Gass or Anne Carson, write criticism with as much imaginative energy as they’d expect from another literary form. They write rich, almost fruity, spirited, witty criticism. That’s my ambition. And it often means that you need to put something of yourself in it.
It seems that the London Review of Books is a good place for you in that the editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, appears to encourage personal writing.
She absolutely does. She likes memoir a lot. I don’t, strictly speaking, write memoir, but she has always published memoirs, long before “life-writing” was named and began to command such wide audiences. Her instincts as an editor are very strong. I wouldn’t have run Andrew O’Hagan’s essay on Julian Assange at that length [26,000 words]. I would have thought it was far too long. But it’s riveted everybody. And that was memoir. Recent, but still memoir.
Your website describes you as a writer and “mythographer.” What do you see as the role of the mythographer in the modern age?
The term’s a bit self-aggrandising, but it does work as a handle for search engines! Grappling with myths has been my principal interest for years, even to a certain extent, my cause: to put the study of imaginative structures back into the frame when confronting important issues. Not to think of imagination and fantasy as merely childish, or to dismiss them as having no purchase on reality.
As you get older this play of memory and imagination becomes a condition of existence. Often you can’t remember whether you’ve read something, or heard it, or watched it, or actually experienced it. Sometimes I can’t even remember if I’ve been to a place, because it comes up so vividly in my mind. For instance, Paris to me, though multiply-layered, from my recent visits and so forth, is still the Paris that I read about when I loved the idea of Paris and was steeped in Baudelaire and Apollinaire. I think Paris really is that for people, a sort of dream in the mind.
In the case of important questions, such as what one thinks about sex or power, nationality, identity—all the thorniest issues—imaginative structures are really important. I don’t believe they are unshakeable, but I think in order to shake them, and in many cases that would be socially and politically helpful, they need to be analysed and brought out into awareness.
Do you think we’re getting worse at understanding these things?
Look what’s happening with Kate Middleton and the Prince. Look at that wedding. It seemed to me a most extraordinary pagan ritual. And the media did not explain any aspect of it. I was watching it and I didn’t know who anybody was, or what their roles signified, because the whole ceremony was presented as the way things are, and have always been, without any examination. Who were these people in this robe or that robe, why was it happening in that way? I suspect much of it was new, a contemporary form of mass media spectacle, but it was presented as pure, age-old, national, sacred tradition.
New media gives us more and more exposure to these myths, so more and more of us are steeped in them which increases their power, and spurs on the need for more inquiry. I think myths are always going to be there, but we need to know what they are and choose ones we want. That is of course difficult. I’m interested in the subtlety and complexity of past stories, and the way that fairy tales investigates different aspects of human behaviour, for example. I think that now there is more acceptance of this but when I started working on them myth was despised as hopelessly escapist, as Disney, not Shakespeare.
Your criticism refers to so many biblical stories, legends, ancient myths and fairy tales, but it’s no longer the case that readers necessarily know about these stories. Have you found that as time goes on, you’ve had to do more summarising simply of what those stories are?
I find it easier now. Myth and fairy tale have definitely returned. First of all there’s a generation who have grown up on Dungeons and Dragons, Tolkien and Narnia, and now, Philip Pullman and Harry Potter. I haven’t read the Twilight stories so I probably shouldn’t talk about them, but I have watched one of the films, and it seems to me that it’s an example of the problem of attenuation: instead of getting richer, these stories are being told in a less rich way, and the vampires are being tamed!
As for Biblical stories, it’s true that the Bible is probably even less read now than the Arabian Nights. When I was young I learned a lot of the stories from the Bible and classical mythology through paintings. I like wandering around looking at paintings, and I always have.
How does an essay come together for you?
I don’t plan very tightly. I rather like meandering essays. Virginia Woolf’s late essays, such as “On Being Ill,” are often extraordinary fugues. I know that it’s also a weakness of mine, to drift in sensuous detail, so I watch it, and try to build the argument. But at the same time I think of criticism as an attempt to track the responses of consciousness in different ways. I try to do that when I’m teaching too, by saying to my students, “Don’t go and find out what so-and-so said about it, and repeat it. Try to think about how you’ve experienced this, how the words are acting upon you and why, what the writing is doing to you when you read it, what associations it’s bringing up.” Because emotional responses are often very mixed, especially if the material is rather strong. One can have a shiver of delight, a giggle of anxiety, horror, all those interesting layers that happen in one’s mind and body.
Then I try and find a way of analysing why that response happens, and what it means. Obviously we do have a tremendously instinctive language—gut-wrenching, hair-raising—that somatic language of criticism, but it’s better, in my view, to then move towards finding material to illustrate it. In my most recent LRB essay, about Abdelfattah Kilito, I brought in the Herodotus story of the two children left with a shepherd to see what language they’ll speak if they are brought up in utter silence. I’ve been wanting for years to write about that story because it seems to me to capture so vividly the mystery of language and its origins. It has haunted me ever since I first came across it, but I’ve never written about it before. Kilito himself alludes to it, because his writing explores different languages—life after Babel.
Are there other stories you have in your head that you’re waiting to use at some point?
I’ve often got stories that I want to write as short fiction pieces. Various plots of fairy tales and sometimes other kinds of stories—news clippings—that I stack up to retrieve in the future. I don’t know why I’m so inhibited about writing fiction. It’s partly that I always have hundreds of deadlines that I’m trying to meet, and am not meeting. I must get back to writing fiction. But I’m frightened of it—and I can’t assess my own.
Why do you think that is?
Well, there’s nowhere to hide really. With criticism there’s somewhere to hide. You have a text or an artefact, and you’re an intermediary, even if you’re trying to be creative. And I do like writing criticism—especially when I want to pass on news of something powerful and wonderful. I don’t very often write negative critical essays. I used to when I was a regular reviewer for the Sunday Times, but now I’ve moved to a position where I choose what I want to explore.
You wrote an essay on Damien Hirst a couple of years ago. Is it refreshing to write about work that has been made recently, rather than many centuries ago?
I wrote a piece on Damien Hirst and one on Tracey Emin, quite close together. I enjoyed doing them very much. Damien Hirst is interesting to me because he’s symptomatic. He crystallises negative and positive aspects of the art scene. The negative aspects are obvious, but nevertheless his performance of them is very interesting. I think the diamond skull is a brilliant, talismanic epitome of what is going on in the art world. And as an object it was stunning—the diamonds shooting lights at you were quite extraordinary.
The positive side is that he also conveys in a very concentrated form the relationship between the public and art. Because he’s commanded such a huge public and such publicity, he’s a good study for what people are trying to get out of art. I suggested in that essay that contemporary art holds out the chance for secular socialising, which borrows a lot from religious forms of gathering—flocking, assembly, initiation, and the fact that it’s mysterious—why does it mean anything? Does it mean anything? That’s very like religion.
It seems to me that a lot of your work happens away from the page, through travelling, visiting places, making discoveries. How important is it for you to be doing this?
A lot. I’ve always done that. When my son, Conrad, was little, we wandered around together. Children need to do things. So we’d go out for expeditions. Monuments and Maidens grew out of walking around London with him.
Was that a way for you to take a break from looking after a child, and giving yourself a chance to see new things?
Yes. We would go out and he’d climb over statues in Paris for me. I would ask “and what has she got on her head?” He was my assistant! My eyes. He enjoyed it. Now he’s a sculptor, but he doesn’t make bronze statues!
In a review that you wrote of a new edition of Arabian Nights, you note that there can never really be a definitive edition of this book. You often work with primary texts, which share the quality of not being finished. What are the difficulties or pleasures of working with these texts?
I think that particular choice links to my interest in the unknown author, the anonymous contribution, and it goes way back, to feminist feeling about the muffled voices, the silenced voices—of the people who made the world, made culture, in the past, but who aren’t known as Dickens and George Eliot. The definitive text by a single author is a product of modern economies. Even Shakespeare doesn’t have a settled text.
I’ve also become interested in the way we live in our multi-vocal world. It’s not just that works or expressions, such as ballads, folk-tales, and myths, offer a record of people who have vanished into oblivion—of the illiterate. I’m also interested in how speech gets into the written record—but now it’s chiefly the result of translation—between languages and also between media. I’ve got increasingly obsessed with the importance of books, poems and fiction which are never read in the original, which only exist in a sort of floating memory of different versions, different translations and transcriptions.
Can you give an example?
Homer. Nobody now reads Homer in ancient Greek. There are people who learn it and can do it with a crib—I can, just—but only slogging through it in a total maimed way. But I know Homer from many translations and new versions. I love Alice Oswald’s poem Memorial, which is a version of the Iliad. It’s beautiful. And someone like Anne Carson has done strange, echo-chamber responses. Carson is probably one of the few people alive who do actually read ancient Greek fluently. She’s exceptional.
When I get messages about conferences and workshops that are going on, I see many of us are also obsessed with the question of translation, and increasingly curious about the idea that there’s no authentic text. Because, to go back to Shakespeare, although we’re nearly agreed on a definitive Hamlet, the fact is that you can’t really experience Hamlet except on the stage. And when you see it, it will be different every time. Even the same production is different every time. I think that we are increasingly accepting this instability, and the rich metamorphic quality of an artefact.
Many of the texts you have written about are foundation texts for entire cultures or religious beliefs. For some they once held great power, and for some they still do. Have you been criticised for your approach?
Of course the Virgin Mary book was heavily criticised by Catholics in particular. But now they rather welcome it, which is a bit worrying. They don’t seem to require faith anymore. I don’t like controversy; I’m an awful coward. I don’t do Twitter or anything like that, partly because I don’t have time but also because I don’t want get involved in lots of arguments. I’m very unsure of my first responses, which can be very angry, and I don’t like having to live with them afterwards. So on the whole I try to keep my head below the parapet.
I don’t read a lot of the reviews of my own work; I try to avoid them too. Obviously you see them in the end, but when you first publish something you’re very raw. I used to learn from them when I first started. But I remember certain things, early reviews of my work, which drove me insane with grief. But it’s quite common to say to a friend, “I saw a wonderful review of your work”, to which they respond, “That review was absolutely appalling!” The creator of the work is much, much more sensitive.
These texts represent how cultures have perceived themselves and given meaning to the world around them and continue to do so. How do you accommodate for their emotional charge? Is there place for the critic to feel moved or should she remain at a safe distance?
I think it’s best to experience it and then take stock rather than try to monitor. It’s a bit like a relationship: it’s not a brilliant idea to keep monitoring a friendship, to ask yourself, “How much do you feel about your friend at this particular moment?” It would have a stifling effect. But somehow when you leave your friend, you think “Oh god that was fun, that was wonderful, what a marvellous person she is or he is,” and then you wonder why and you tell someone else, “Oh, he’s so courageous, she’s so unexpected …” You have an understanding afterwards.
Do you find yourself writing about artworks and texts to which you’ve have strong emotional responses because you want to try to work out why it made you feel that way?
I’m reading for the Man Booker International Prize at the moment. I realised from my reading that when a novel tracks the surface world in a naturalistic or realistic fashion I like it less than when the writing takes the world one stage further into a kind of… well, the word sounds very teacherish … a kind of parable. I’m thinking of writers who push what’s happened onto a more intense plane. I’m very moved by reading love stories, stories in which people fall in love, break up, terrible things happen. But I don’t like it to be told like that, I prefer it to be told through more worked images. Jonathan Franzen’s is the school of writing that I resist. Partly because I feel it was very well done in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and do we still need to do it?
You have written about the revival of religion in contemporary society. Has it had any effect on the way you approach religious texts and the writings about them?
Yes. It used to be so compartmentalised, people hardly brought religion into a discussion about other things. There are questions which Catholicism tried to look at in the past and which seem to me still crucial. One is: where is the meeting point between the state and society, between Caesar and the church? Islam puts it in a very different place. And actually that’s quite good socially—though we know the sexes are segregated and there can be darker consequences, too, of the education given there. However, the fact that the mosque is a place for lots of different kinds of socialising besides worship, where the community help one another with services, with money (not by direct lending, but by guaranteeing each other’s loans). A tremendous amount of informal social glue goes on in the mosque. And I think there are problems of a metaphysical, even mystical character. The cult of martyrdom is definitely one. When hijacking first started it was assumed that if we searched carefully for bombs on planes we would be safe, because nobody would blow themselves up. And now apparently there’s an endless supply of suicides—currently every day in Baghdad. I used to think that kamikazes were really peculiar, that they had been coerced by the Japanese. But now we just take it so much for granted the press don’t even report suicide bombings anymore. It’s quite extraordinary.
I consider you a feminist critic, but to me your feminism is enacted through your understanding of how myths about women emerge and stick around, whether that’s as witches, saints, and even child killers. What contribution are you hoping to make?
I would be very upset not to be thought of as a feminist. My indignation about inequality from early childhood was my motive and mainspring and I looked everywhere for examples that I could emulate. I collected heroines and saints, and still do.
I don’t think I can guess at my legacy but I am a bit spiky about some directions that the arguments have taken. The great gains that my generation made in education are now commonplace. That’s a major gain, though the current fees are affecting young women more because they still can’t rely on equal earnings. And women’s right to work is also a great gain. Though women are still doing all the housework and child-rearing I think there’s been some emancipation. If you go to Hackney all the fathers are pushing prams or proudly wearing their babies!
And what about women as critics and writers?
Well that of course is a huge problem—the inability to push up the number of female writers. I was asked by the Observer to comment on it and I looked into the issues and found that overall the British Academy has exactly the same ratio as the LRB: 18 per cent women. If you take the last ten years, the British Academy has however risen to 26 per cent. The British Academy is funded by the state, it’s a public body and its mission is to represent, which is not the case for a newspaper or journal. I thought that was very revealing. The LRB doesn’t have the same obligation or the same resources. I think that the structural problems which Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor, has talked about run very deep. They’re to do partly with the pressure on women who have achieved a certain level of articulacy, influence or public eminence, from multiple demands placed on them. Also, in the case of the LRB, the essays are long-ish. They’re not a review you can write in a day.
So do you think it’s an internal fight women have to have with themselves?
Yes, it’s an internal fight. For instance, the LRB letters page is open, but they get far fewer letters from women. Anybody can write a letter, and women are choosing to use their time carefully.
Then there’s the pressure of representativeness. Women tend to be such good citizens. Social scientists have done studies about why highflying young women who come into universities with top A-Levels then don’t get a first. They’ve found that it is to do with confidence—they call it “the impostor syndrome.” I have acute attacks of it. Of course there are many confident women, but many gifted women are still often very self-effacing and unsure of themselves.
A female modesty?
They are modest because they’re intimidated, and don’t want to make a mistake. Academic surveys find that clever boys in seminars don’t mind jumping in and hazarding a guess, whereas the young women prefer to think carefully about the question.
My concern is that the more of these conversations we have, the more women start internalising even the conversations about how women don’t do this, or that, and that becomes part of the problem.
About the LRB I’ve had quite a lot of distressing conversations with friends who are very cross with the journal, and I feel in the frame. But if I didn’t write for them anymore they would have one less woman writer!
Final question: If you were to recommend a particular book or writer to someone getting interested in criticism, what would you choose?
For wit and bravura and sheer grace of expression, Virginia Woolf’s Essays, now complete in five volumes at last, but I find I dip into Borges’s criticism more often, because he’s written about so much literature that I want to explore—fables, myths, and fantasy, popular genre forms (the Arabian Nights) and he’s also passionately involved in issues of reading in translation.
More interviews with critics:
Critical Thinking #1: Adam Kirsch
Critical Thinking #2: Ruth Franklin
Critical Thinking #3: Dwight Garner
Critical Thinking #4: Daniel Mendelsohn