Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Humanities, Then and Now

Volume XXIX Number 1
Fall 2006

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Susan Gubar
Susan Gubar
Photo by Jeremy Hogan

book cover

A Life Inside the Book

by Lauren J. Bryant

Forget The DaVinci Code. Susan Gubar is on to a new religious mystery: Judas.

The story of Jesus's betrayer made headlines in 2006 as The Gospel of Judas, an edited version of a 4th-century Coptic text found in Egypt during the 1970s.

Before Judas's "new" gospel was published, though, Susan Gubar was deep into what she calls "an eccentric biography" of the apostle. In her forthcoming book Judas: A Biography (W.W. Norton), she tracks the figure of Judas through texts and images, from the Gospels to medieval legends and Renaissance paintings into 20th- and 21st-century literature and films. And yes, there is a fascinating, contradictory twist: Alongside the long-accepted view of Judas as traitor and pariah, the centuries also have preserved the story of a sensitive and sympathetic Judas who, like Jesus, makes the ultimate sacrifice.

"In the earliest Gospels, Judas has everything in common with the other apostles. In Matthew, his self-destruction occurs because of his realization of his faith in Jesus and his repentance for his act," Gubar says. "In Renaissance painting and in Enlightenment writings, he's a very humane figure, very often presented as the one true apostle because he knew what Jesus needed and therefore sacrificed his life, reputation, and even his soul to insure the resurrection. You find this all over the 18th and 19th centuries, and those writers couldn't possibly have read the Coptic text. It's a very powerful story."

Gubar says the extraordinary literary and visual "morphing" of Judas as a cultural icon reflects centuries-long transformations of Christian and Jewish beliefs about blood, betrayal, repentance, love, money, good, evil, and God. "Everyone agrees that Judas betrayed Jesus, but few agree on his motives, character, or fate," she says. "Various interpretations view him as an anomaly, a demon, a double of Jesus, and even as Jesus's--and thus humanity's--savior. What the shape of this trajectory reveals about Western civilization is the story of my book."

Gubar made a mark in the field of Jewish studies in 2003 with Poetry After Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew. Today, as she discusses her new project on Judas, her command of theology and religious history, both ancient and modern, is impressive. "The power of religion is speaking out so clearly and so violently all over the world today in fundamentalisms of every kind and variety," she muses.

But wait.

Isn't this the Susan Gubar who, along with Sandra Gilbert, published The Madwoman in the Attic in 1979 and helped create the discipline of feminist literary criticism in the process? Isn't this the Ms.-Woman-of-the-Year Susan Gubar, a Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, who is so closely allied with feminist criticism and gender studies that she's something of a cultural icon herself?

It is. And while she acknowledges that some may see her work on Judas as a departure, she sees it differently. The "madwoman" and Judas are a pair.

"Judas is someone people know very little about," Gubar says. "They fear him, he's been stigmatized, he's very anomalous and acts out insanely. Judas is a kind of madman in the attic of Western culture. So in a curious way, he is related to my long deep interest in the monster, the madwoman."

'Monsters of some sort'

Gubar was just a few years out of graduate school when she and Gilbert, now professor emerita of English at University of California, Davis, completed The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th-Century Literary Imagination. Named after the rejected, shut-away wife in Jane Eyre who's considered crazy, Madwoman emerged from a course Gilbert and Gubar team-taught at IU Bloomington in 1974, one year after Gubar arrived on campus. In the book, the co-authors defined a distinctive female literary tradition and recovered, as they say in the preface, "not only a major (and neglected) female literature but a whole (neglected) female history." Madwoman, with its now-classic first sentence comparing pen and penis, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. By the time the 20th anniversary edition appeared in 2000, it was called "the book that created a canon."

Gilbert and Gubar--who became so well-known that their names were pronounced as the single hyphenated entity--followed Madwoman with The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women and the sweeping three-volume No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. "All of that work, from Madwoman through No Man's Land," Gubar says, "springs out of the fact that women writers were considered singular anomalies, monsters of some sort."

The monstrous--grotesque stereotypes, deviations from the norm, breached boundaries, otherness--is a persistent theme in Gubar's work. In 1989, she took on legal and philosophical debates about the effects of pornography in For Adult Users Only: The Dilemma of Violent Pornography (co-edited with then-IU Professor of History Joan Hoff). In her RaceChanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (1997), she examines the "silly, sexy, sleazy, and sometimes sinister" ways that white Americans imitate African Americans (think blackface and minstrels), why they do it, and what impact that tradition of imitation has had on American culture.

"I wanted to think about what happens when white people impersonate black people so as to mock them, or black people pass as white people to gain privileges we associate with whiteness in America," she explains.

Such racial transformations and impersonations--"racechanges"--typically act out flagrant stereotypes, but Gubar admits a blindness to racial categories in her early work. "When Sandra and I wrote Sexchanges, the second volume of No Man's Land, we dealt with a text [Hemingway's Garden of Eden] in which gender transformation occurs, but I didn't see certain racial transformations that occurred," she says. "So I started to read critical race studies, especially the work of Toni Morrison, about the stereotyping of black people in white-authored literature."

Reaching the common reader

Ironically, Gubar learned a lot about stereotyping at the hands of her feminist sisters. The name-calling started not long after Madwoman appeared. "We were accused of being racist, heterosexist, essentialist," she recalls. "The allegations were mainly that Sandra and I had dealt only with white tradition." As Gilbert put it in the introduction to Madwoman's second edition, "we were cast as establishment puppets just too dumb to notice that we wrote from the position of middle-class, white, heterosexual privilege."

Gubar says "RaceChanges was an effort on my part to respond" to accusations of racial blindness. Today, she sees the critical salvos launched in the 1980s and '90s in a larger context. For feminist critics, "it was a very contentious stage," she says. "There was defensiveness and offensiveness--that is, calling each other racist or homophobic or defending oneself as not essentialist, not heterosexist. It was a stage where people were either attacking or defending."

During this stage, Gubar made critical waves of her own with a talk called "Who Killed Feminist Criticism?" (later appearing in print as "What Ails Feminist Criticism?"). The essay--which "named names," Gubar says with a slight grin--called feminist scholars to task for generational infighting, divisive identity politics, and abstract academic theorizing.

In 2006, the first two of these feminist "ailments" have subsided--"we are finding ways to deal with gender and race, gender and sexuality, gender and nationality, etc., in ways that are much more nuanced and historicized," Gubar says. But in her view, obscure theory still has a stranglehold on feminist scholarship. She cites the "deconstructive" zeal stoked by the work of French theorists such as Derrida and Foucault. "I'm struggling to move us out of the poststructuralist stage. It's the total transformation of feminist prose into very highly theorized academic discourse."

She grants that high theory has its uses, but it's just too elitist for Gubar, who believes feminist scholarship should reach out to the common reader. "One thing that feminism in the academy has always had as its strength is its links to women outside the academy," she says. "I'm interested in the ways criticism can be creative and writerly. I want to make criticism a little more reader-friendly."

One way she is doing that is by reinventing Virginia Woolf.

Channeling Virginia

Perhaps it takes an icon to know one. Gubar's newest book, called Rooms of Our Own (University of Illinois Press, 2006), is a chapter-by-chapter riff on Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, a classic work that many consider the mother of all feminist literary texts.

Set on a Midwestern college campus, Gubar's Rooms echoes Woolf's metaphors and phrasing throughout. The book tells a "fictitious story of one year of events which shaped my belief that especially those women with sufficient money and rooms of their own face bewildering but unprecedented prospects today," says the narrator, Mary, in the opening chapter. (Gubar insists that the narrator is not her and that the work is fictional, but the issues are quite real, and the influence of Bloomington and the IU campus is evident.) Offering a kind of crash course on feminist intellectual history, Rooms meditates deeply on the development of feminist literary scholarship, the field Gubar jump-started some 30 years ago.

"The first chapter is about the early stage concerned with images of women by women writers," she explains, describing the outline of Rooms. "The second is about poststructuralism and what happened when theory came in. The third is about the influx of critical race studies. The fourth is about the ways in which English has become global, allowing us to understand what is going on with a Jamaican writer, a South African writer, a New Zealand writer, a Canadian writer, all of whom are using English. The fifth is on sexualities, and the sixth is on bioengineering."

Regarding the last chapter, which seems a bit odd in a literary work, Gubar says, "What interests me in contemporary culture is what happens when two women parent a child, when one woman is, let's say, the egg mother, and one woman is, let's say, the gestational mother. That happens in our culture. What will that mean?"

In sum, she says, Rooms of Our Own is asking the question, "What would Virginia Woolf have made of the current situation of women today?"

Gubar's answer is equivocal at best. "In some ways, things have progressed extraordinarily," she notes. So, unlike Woolf's narrator, who is barred from the Oxbridge Library because of her gender, Gubar's narrator enters a college classroom where she observes a young female adjunct teaching a course on women and literature. The liberated Rooms narrator teaches, writes books, works out with male colleagues at the gym, travels, surfs the Web. "We have prospects now," Gubar says. "Our 'rooms' have windows, they open out to different vantage points."

Despite such dramatic advances, though, "in some ways, things are exactly the same, and in some ways, things are worse for women," Gubar concludes, mentioning one of her own daughters, now a professor of English at University of Pittsburgh. "She has to deal with the same things women have always had to deal with. For example, how do you raise children and devote yourself to your career at the same time? Not everything has been achieved that needs to be achieved."

Women professors may no longer be tokens in humanities disciplines as they were decades ago, but Gubar is nonetheless disturbed about the larger state of the humanities in public universities such as IU. "As a member of the faculty here, I'm very concerned that the humanities are imperiled right now by lack of funding. How many science buildings will we get before we get a really adequate humanities building?" she says, gesturing to her small fourth-floor office overrun with books. "Part of what I want to do with Rooms is ask questions about the material conditions of the humanities in public institutions of higher education."

'A kind of summing up'

Gubar admits anxiety about reinventing Woolf ("It feels presumptuous, the word is 'chutzpah' in my culture"), but she is quick to describe her delight at studying the stream-of-consciousness "Virginia Woolf sentence" with its flowing structure and fantastic metaphors. She calls Woolf her muse and her teacher.

"The wonderful thing about Woolf is that she is interested in freedom for the reader," Gubar says. "No preaching, no coercing. She dislikes what she called 'the loudspeaker voice.' That allowed me to see teachers as people who are always learning and students as always figuring out a way to prove that their teacher's original configuration may be limited and need reconfiguring."

Now in her fourth decade of teaching at IU, Gubar still has nothing but enthusiasm for the classroom. "I just encountered the best undergraduates I've ever had," she says emphatically about the spring 2006 semester. "I love teaching, I really enjoy it."

And with four books in production, she clearly relishes the life of research and writing as well. Along with her solo projects--the biography of Judas and Rooms of Our Own--Gubar has teamed up with Gilbert again to produce a third edition of The Norton Anthology of Women's Literature and to edit a reader in feminist literary criticism and theory.

Gubar is particularly excited about the anthology's new edition, which will appear in two volumes for the first time. Since Madwoman and the first Norton edition, she says, the recovery of women's writing has been incredible. "Now we can talk about hundreds and hundreds of women writers, from England, America, and many global English writers--Irish, South African, Australian, Canadian--from every part of the world. That didn't exist when we wrote Madwoman. The 'mountains,' if you want--Barrett, Browning, Dickinson, Austen, Shelley, the Brontes, Elliot--are still there," she says, "but there are so many other people filling in the landscape now."

Gubar refers to her forthcoming projects as "a kind of summing up." Although the white streaks in her cropped hair are the only sign that Gubar is a grandmother, she has reached a certain stage and stature where summing up comes naturally. Reflecting on her Judas project, Gubar says, "Very often toward the end of their careers, critics of English and American literature return to the primal texts, the source material that infiltrates later literature. And the New Testament is certainly a primal text."

A big--some would say visionary--thinker, Gubar has turned to all manner of texts and revealed things others simply didn't see: a distinctive women's literary tradition that revolutionized an established canon; unacknowledged patterns of racial mimicry; a body of post-Holocaust poetry in English that preserves the Shoah story; the permutations of an apostle that reveal a history of Western civilization. Serious to the point of obsession about her work ("I go to sleep thinking about what I'm working on, I wake up thinking about it, and in between, I'm thinking about it"), she finds enormous comfort living life "inside the book" she is writing. "It's like a veil that protects me," she says. "You're inside the book--maybe you're at the grocery store or in a meeting--but you're inside the book in your mind."

Which is why, despite her four projects in the works, she is a bit anxious that she doesn't know what she's going to work on next. "It's funny, but I don't know," she says, "and it's disturbing to me that I don't quite know.

"Someone asked me recently, 'how many books do you have left?'" she continues. "That changed my life. Because if you only have one or two books left, you really have to think hard. What is it that you want to do?"

Whatever Gubar--scholar and feminist academic icon--does next, it will surely be a masterpiece of the kind her muse Woolf describes in A Room of One's Own: "Masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice."

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.