Monday, February 21, 2011

Pearls and Power

There was a dust-up on the Woolf listserv over the weekend.

Someone posted, innocently enough, “Did Virginia Woolf own pearls?” To be honest, when I first read the post, I thought that we had reached a new level of triviality in Woolf studies, wondering about every last little detail of her life. What, I thought, can come of this?

The answer is: a lot.

The first few answers came in as references—Vita Sackville-West had pearls, Orlando wears pearls, have you read the articles by Reginald Abbott and Kathryn Simpson?—and, once again, a tiny detail revealed itself as utterly interesting. Immediately, a strong theme of female sexuality emerged, linking pearls to the clitoris. I had forgotten that. The conversation ranged around, with eight or nine people chiming in with thoughts, suggestions and references. That’s high volume for the Woolf listserv. Even with nearly 500 subscribers, it can go days with only a message or two. The original questioner mentioned that her interest arose from Leonard Woolf’s involvement with the Sri Lankan pearl industry.

Then, someone wrote in to assert the link between pearls and power, linking Vita’s pearls with those of Queen Elizabeth I. For neither woman, this poster suggested, did pearls signify anything as tedious as the clitoris.

That got us off to the races.

A passionate advocate for lesbian and queer studies posted simply “Ah, the tedious clitoris.” That made me laugh. Then, a man posted, with equal brevity, his surprise that anyone would ever find that part of the anatomy remotely tedious. That made me laugh even harder.

But suddenly, it seemed, lines were drawn, and those who took an interest in power and trade stood on one side while those who wanted to see the pearl as sexual on the other: I began thinking of them as the “No sex, please, we’re British” camp versus the acolytes of the clitoris. I checked my email from time to time as temperatures rose, and when the attacks got personal, I intervened as “owner” of the listserv (the so-called “mistress” of the list—that would be me--had already been “tsk’ed” by one irritated member).

But why did temperatures rise so heatedly on the signification of pearls on the listserv? I’m not sure. Listservs are funny things. I think of them as strange eddies in the currents of new media. Among the first ways we made community in the digital age, they persist but are strangely private compared to blogs, facebook, twitter, and tumblr. Because a post to a listserv only goes to subscribers, one can feel perhaps a little too comfortable that everyone in the conversation is like-minded. This particular manifestation still strikes me as a little quaint, a battle of first wave feminism with the Vassar alums tossing their pearls in the faces of the dungareed co-eds from the public university down the interstate.

Still, resistance and offense-taking are interesting. One posts that she never confuses her pearls with any part of her anatomy and that the metaphor strikes her as specious. (For the record, I have never thought cigars or carrots were perfect representations either.) But that's beside the point. Such refusal seems to fly in the face of aphrodisiacs 101: Oysters anyone? More to the point, the refusal struck me--and others--as an attempt to deny that the metaphor could work sexually when it plainly does, often, in Woolf and elsewhere. I kept my counsel, but I could feel my own irritation growing and I expected some other poster would turn that grain of insult into a pearl of a post. Soon enough, another poster struck back, accusing the first of denying the work of great lesbian and queer scholars.

Once attacks become personal—and only then—do I step in to moderate. And I did. The personal attacks have subsided for the moment, but the discussion has broadened out to jokes about Earl ‘the Pearl’ Monroe and reference to Ariel’s song in The Tempest. Fascinating to remember how much literature still matters, how it can move us to passion, to rage, to work, to insult, to rethink what we thought we knew.

(Want in on the listserv conversation? Email me--fernham AT gmail DOT com & I can sign you up or subscribe directly by sending the message SUBSCRIBE VWOOLF [email] [name] to listproc AT


Tracy said...

I stepped off the Woolf listserve years ago when the dueling maps appeared: which route had Woolf taken down to the river to drown? Oy.

Anonymous said...

Fun and clever post. And thanks for taking the time to comment on my pearls.