Wendy Steiner

Wendy Steiner Hasenfeld Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Pictures of Romance: Form against Context in Painting and Literature.

Here/Not Here

Wendy Steiner, 4 July 1996

Early one morning in Philadelphia, I was walking over the South Street Bridge on my way to work. My path was a narrow walkway between steel-bolted panels on the traffic side and a lacework of wrought iron on the other. The Schuylkill River shimmered through the iron curlicues in oily ripples, and at regular intervals, the lacework opened into bays overlooking the water. But I was not looking at the river. My eyes were fixed on the steel panels on the opposite side of the road, where someone had spray-painted a poem over half the length of the bridge. It was about lost people looking for each other by the river, but because the poet had been able to fit only a word or two on each panel, the poem unfolded very slowly. I kept craning my neck and squinting to see how each line would end, wishing I could walk as fast as the poem demanded. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a pair of legs in a bay ten seconds in front of me. I exclaimed involuntarily, for what I saw was not only legs, bent at the knees, lying on the ground in weathered trousers – perhaps green – but a dark penis, too, and a hand idly rubbing it up and down. The body and head were hidden in the bay. I was over halfway across the bridge; it would have been very inconvenient to turn back. I could not climb over the steel panels either, since I would have landed in traffic. Besides, that seemed an inappropriately desperate response to the situation. If he did not mind lying there like that, I reasoned, he would not mind my walking by. And so, in the nanosecond in which such decisions are made, I resolved to keep going, and before I exhaled again, I was past him.


Wendy Steiner, 19 October 1995

Gertrude Stein knew how to make herself happy. Sometimes she was heroic, as when she delivered medical supplies to soldiers during the First World War by toddling over enemy lines in an old Ford. And in World War Two, she was honoured by the French Resistance for transmitting information during the Occupation. ‘Gertrude Stein, safe, safe, is safe’, came the press release from liberated Culoz. But Stein’s fearlessness was tested much more in everyday situations where she did not hesitate to please herself. She loved to eat and her body showed it. At 12, her mother noted, Gertrude was five feet tall and weighed 135 pounds, and the ratio did not improve with time; nevertheless, she went on to participate, somewhat to her friends’ dismay, in nude bathing parties. ‘She had none of the funny embarrassment Anglo-Saxons have about flesh’, wrote Mabel Dodge Luhan. ‘She gloried in hers’.

When you die you’ll go to hell

Wendy Steiner, 27 May 1993

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones …’ Like most children, I learned this piece of wisdom with tears streaming down my face, hurt to the quick by the taunts of my playmates. At the time, it seemed a very foolish statement. What was this splitting of hurt into ‘real’ injury and ‘unreal’ feeling? I certainly felt hurt. Recently I learned that there is a second verse: ‘When you die you’ll go to hell, and suffer all you called me.’ I think I would have liked these lines when I was a child. Growing up in a secular culture, I never expected retribution in another world – unreal words turned back into real hurts and visited on their perpetrators. I lived instead with a paradoxical stoicism: that insults were not injury, words were not deeds, representation not reality, and art not life, but at the same time that insults, words, representations and art were important in the realm of the real. This is a piece of casuistry necessary, as I see it, to First Amendment freedoms, liberal democracy and sanity. But that does not mean that it is any the less problematic than that first, childhood splitting of word and reality.’

Stop screaming, Mrs Steiner

Wendy Steiner, 17 December 1992

Suffering pain, writer’s block, and the rage of critics, Philip Roth’s hero Zuckerman resolves to quit writing fiction and go to medical school. ‘Who quarrels with an obstetrician?’ he reasons:


Wendy Steiner, 28 June 1990

There was a time when phrases like ‘sexual politics’, ‘male chauvinism’ and ‘phallogocentrism’ carried a certain paradoxical éclat, yoking, as they do, the private realm of sex with the public realms of politics and language. We have grown so accustomed to the merging of public and private that it is hard to feel the force of such conceits these days, hard to remember that getting married was not always an act of political defiance (or defeat) and having children was not invariably a part of ‘having it all’. Ruth Brandon’s intelligent study, The New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex and the Woman Question, focuses on a crucial stage in the politicisation of privacy, describing the personal involvements of social reformers in Britain between 1880 and 1914 as they enacted the Woman Question in their own lives.

Diary: In London

Wendy Steiner, 24 May 1990

Half an hour to get to the butcher’s and back, an hour to rent my son a clarinet, and 45 minutes to meet my children’s plane at Heathrow. It’s been a month since they went off for the holidays. I have written what I needed to write, the windows and upholstery have been cleaned, and there have been entertainments, epiphanies. By now I find myself looking wistfully at children in the street. It is time for mine to come home.

Old-Fashioned Girls

Wendy Steiner, 25 January 1990

This must be the first popular attempt in decades to prove that the sexes are inherently unequal. According to the authors of Brain Sex, the male and female brains are differently structured because of the pre-natal activity of genes and hormones, and these produce ‘the real difference’ between men and women. The traditional view of the genders is thus a valid reflection of nature, and all the liberationist adjustments in nurture since the Sixties have done nothing to change matters. ‘To maintain that [men and women] are the same in aptitude, skill or behaviour is to build a society based on a biological and scientific lie.’

‘The most wonderful person I’d ever met’

Wendy Steiner, 28 September 1989

Joel Steinberg, who maimed his lover Hedda Nussbaum and killed their illegally-adopted daughter Lisa, complained that Lisa was in the habit of staring at him. By the time his murder trial was over, he had been stared at by millions of people, for under a New York State experiment, television cameras were allowed into court to cover the People v. Steinberg.


Wendy Steiner, 1 June 1989

Imagine a republic that bans commentary, ‘a society, a politics of the primary’ peopled with ‘citizens of the immediate’. In this aesthetic utopia, writer and reader share the same ‘philo-logy’ and the interpretative impulse gives rise not to criticism but to ‘an enactment of answerable understanding’. The citizenry dance dances, recite poems by heart, produce paintings to register their experience of paintings and novels to answer novels. Their response is as complete an individual expression as the artwork they respond to; text and counter-text live equally through each other. The parasitism of academic criticism and journalistic reviewing ceases, the unmanageable flood of unreadable dissertations subsides, and the interposition of professional opinion between work and audience is eliminated. The cultural establishment expands to a cultured populace, and consumption gives way to creativity.

Scholarship and its Affiliations

Wendy Steiner, 30 March 1989

In Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution, Anthony Blunt instructs Her Majesty the Queen about pictures. ‘Because something is not what it is said to be, Ma’am, does not mean it is a fake.’ ‘What is it?’ she asks. Sir Anthony gingerly suggests: ‘An enigma?’ Here as in Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, the figure of the spy illustrates the irreducibility of human and aesthetic mystery, the contradictions that all personalities enshrine, the confusion that no amount of pedantic energy can resolve.


Adam Gopnik, 23 May 1996

The Scandal of Pleasure has all a good teacher’s virtues: enthusiasm, a contagious love of books and learning, and the ability to hold up three or four dissonant ideas for tender inspection...

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