Sperimentalismo narrativo e soggettività femminile

Sperimentalismo narrativo e soggettività femminile aa 99/00

Docente: Villa

Introduzione

1900 – 1940 Stagione modernista

1970 – 1999 Stagione post moderna

Il filo conduttore di questo modulo sono le questioni dell’identità femminile. Le scrittrici hanno sperimentato sulla loro pelle ciò che significa essere donna nel mondo contemporaneo e questo si è riversato sulle loro opere, mettendo in discussione ciò che significa essere uomo o donna nella cultura moderna: è una questione biologica o culturale?

Questi stereotipi sono veicolati dalla letteratura che li mette in discussione rispetto alla cultura delle generazioni precedenti.

Considerazioni storiche

Insieme al socialismo nel ’800 nasce il problema donna, legato alla risposta che uomini e donne danno al cambiamento della società con la rivoluzione industriale. Una conseguenza della rivoluzione industriale è la separazione netta tra abitazione e luogo di lavoro (separazione assente nella società rurale). Questa separazione ha avuto un’implicazione: la spartizione di compiti tra chi si occupa di lavorare al di fuori della casa e chi, occupandosene, lavora in casa. Le classi medie nel ‘800 si distinguono per l’idea che sia giusto che la donna sia legata alla casa. In questa situazione le donne erano scoraggiate a lavorare, i lavori che potevano fare le donne istruite erano pochi e mal pagati. Ciò non voleva dire svalutare le donne: era molto importante, nella società di allora, molto competitiva e concentrata sul lavoro, avere un luogo dove contassero gli affetti e i valori come la famiglia e l’educazione dei figli. Questa però significava essere economicamente dipendenti dagli uomini, il che restringeva le possibilità di libertà.

Le donne che lavoravano erano pagate meno degli uomini in quanto considerate un’appendice di una famiglia che, eventualmente, non doveva mantenere altro che se stesso. Ma questa, una radicata teoria economica, non teneva conto del fatto che vi fossero donne non sposate e che quindi non erano mantenute da nessun uomo. La concezione ideale d’uomo era quella dl pater famiglia, che lavorava per mantenere la famiglia. La concezione ideale di donna era quella della persona che accudiva i figli e la casa.

I sindacati tendevano a considerare la donna lavoratrice negativamente in quanto influenzava l’abbassamento dei salari. Per questo il socialismo era favorevole al fatto che le donne stessero a casa per permettere agli uomini di lavorare e percepire salari più alti.

A fine ‘800 il passo dell’economia cambia: si espande il settore terziario e si affacciano possibilità di lavoro maggiori per le donne. Questo fatto da forza alle pretese delle donne che erano un minimo istruite le quali vedono una possibilità d’impiego.

Un altro fatto importante a fine ‘800 è il calo del tasso di natalità dovuto al fatto che, non potendo più lavorare, i figli erano quasi un peso da mantenere; inoltre, volendo vivere meglio, era più facile dividere le risorse tra poche persone. In questa situazione era più facile, per una donna, avere la possibilità di studiare e condurre una vita migliore.

Questi sono gli anni della lotta per il suffragio.

Modernismo

Il modernismo è un movimento che, in effetti, ha riguardato pochi autori.

Nel periodo di commercializzazione della cultura gli autori ebbero la sensazione che il mondo stesse cambiando. Il romanzo vittoriano, con le sue storie di giovani che facevano fortuna e cose simili, non funzionavano più. Non funzionava più neanche l’idea del narratore che, prendendo per mano il lettore, gli spiegava tutto su come dovevano andare le cose.

Il narratore, quindi, nel romanzo novecentesco agisce in modo ironico, distaccato, senza prendere posizioni.

Virginia Woolf fa parte di questo movimento. Woolf dice che questo che possiamo chiamare vita, spirito o cos’altro, si è spostato e si rifiuta di farsi incasellare in quegl’abiti convenzionali delle generazioni precedenti. Non c’è più consenso su ciò che è la vita, ci sono punti di vista diversi su cosa sia la realtà.

Tra gli autori dell’epoca ci sono molte più differenze che somiglianze, a partire comunque dal presupposto che ciò che era prima non funziona più.

Woolf dice che la vita è come un alone luminoso che ci circonda. Il compito del narratore è catturare queste percezioni sparse che ci giungono. Significa andare oltre i luoghi comuni con cui incasellare la realtà. Per effettuare questo cambiamento è necessaria una lingua diversa con cui raccontare, un modo diverso di usare le parole.

In “Orlando”, che non è il più tipico romanzo del genere, la Woolf usa, nell’ultima parte, le modalità di linguaggio nuove.

Una caratteristica comune nel modernismo era la percezione dei cambiamenti che l’essere uomo o donna comportava.

“Orlando” si presenta come una biografia. Scritto tra il ’27 e il ’28, “Orlando” è una specie di scherzo, di gioco: la Woolf lo chiamo “una vacanza”, in seguito ad opere più impegnative.

“Orlando” è la biografia fantastica di un’amica della scrittrice, Sackville West, il cui casato era già illustre nell’età in cui comincia il romanzo.

Questa era anch’essa una scrittrice, sposata con figli, più giovane della Woolf e che non si faceva problemi ad esprimere le sue attenzioni sessuali verso le donne (compresa la Woolf). La scrittrice, attratta da questa personalità, dedica a lei il romanzo che racconta di un personaggio androgeno capace di sopravvivere nei secoli, di recitare molte parti e cambiare sesso.

Importante nel libro è l’interrogazione sull’identità. Che cosa significa essere uomo o donna, quali potenzialità ci sono dentro di noi, quando queste possono realizzarsi?

E. J. Hobsbawm – The Age of Empire – 1875 – 1914 – The New Woman

L’emancipazione delle donne toccò solo un piccolo gruppo all’interno della classe media e, in minor parte, di quella alta.

Ci furono quindi solamente piccoli cambiamenti nella condizione della maggior parte delle donne, se non che, dal 1875 in poi, si ebbero meno figli. Assistiamo quindi ad un fenomeno di transizione demografica.

Inoltre il lavoro industriale separò il focolare domestico dal posto dove si lavorava.

Le donne erano pagate meno degli uomini, i quali tendevano a tenerle al di fuori del lavoro nelle fabbriche per evitare la concorrenza sugli stipendi. Per una donna la carriera più promettente era il matrimonio.

Ma con l’avvento del settore terziario ci furono più possibilità d’impiego per le donne (insegnamento). Sebbene questo fosse confinato alle donne della classe media.

Questo portò all’aumento dell’educazione scolastica per le ragazze.

Questo implicò non solo una libertà sociale, ma anche in senso letterale.

Le limitazioni del femminismo della classe media occidentale non era solo sociale o economico ma anche culturale. La forma d’emancipazione cui il loro movimento aspirava era d’essere trattate legalmente e politicamente come gli uomini (suffragette).

In realtà la maggior parte delle donne rimase al di fuori di questo movimento politico femminista.

Imagining Deregulated Desire

Written on the Body’s Revolutionary Reconstruction of Gender and Sexuality

Christy R. Stevens – San Diego State University

The ungendered narrator in Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body is one of the text’s most talked about features, garnering ambivalent responses from the majority of its reviewers. One critic describes it as the “book’s principal conceit, its greatest weakness, and perhaps its greatest strength” (Van Kirk 604), while another claims that the “plot hovers dangerously on the precipice of device” (Farwell 20). Other reviewers have dismissed the ungendered narrator as a “gimmick,” viewing it as a trivial narrative strategy employed to assert the point that gender is unimportant to lovers. These critics claim that the popular romantic notion that falling in love is a connection between souls or the inner selves of two individuals is a trite sentiment that would have been more effectively conveyed through means other than a somewhat disconcerting device. However, critics who dismiss the importance of the ungendered narrator, reducing its textual function to the expression of a cliché, are ignoring its subversive implications. The ungendered narrator does convey the idea that gender is unimportant to the lovers in the text, but at the same time it implicitly highlights the fact that within contemporary dominant discourses, gender is not only important to lovers, it is what constitutes desire and sexual object choice. In other words, contrary to popular romantic notions, the process of falling in love does not occur independently of socially constructed gender positions. Instead it occurs within systems of gender and sexuality which regulate both desire and sexual object choice. As a result, the ungendered narrator is not a trivial device, but rather it is a subversive narrative strategy that challenges traditional gender binarisms and compulsory heterosexuality, inciting readers to imagine a world in which desire has been dislodged from these regulatory regimes.

Judith Butler’s theories of gender provide insight into the subversive status of the ungendered narrator. According to Butler, gendering, or assuming sex, is part of a complex process that constitutes subjects, ushering them into the symbolic and allowing the appropriation of the “speaking `I'” (Bodies 3). Butler goes on to explain that the formation of the subject simultaneously produces a “domain of abject beings, those who are not yet `subjects,’ but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject” (3). Butler uses the term “abject” to describe the “unlivable and uninhabitable zones of social life” populated by those “who do not enjoy the status of the subject, but whose living under the sign of the `unlivable’ is required to circumscribe the domain of the subject.” She claims that this zone functions as a “site of dreaded identification against which, and by virtue of which, the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claims to autonomy and life.” (Bodies 3)

If assuming sex is part of a complex process that constitutes subjects, then Winterson’s ungendered narrator would belong to the category of abject, unlivable bodies. Even the language available to describe the narrator excludes the possibility of an ungendered person’s existence. I am forced to use “s/he” or “him/her” since calling the narrator “it,” reinforces the idea that such a person could not exist as a subject, but only as an abject, unlivable body. However, using “s/he” and “him/her” also seems to be inappropriate since they too reinforce, through language, the binary understanding of gender. The narrator is not part “she,” part “he,” but rather is something other, which perhaps could be described as the slash between “she” and “he” rather than as the words on either side.

In contrast to Butler’s formulation, the ungendered narrator in Winterson’s text is a subject, a “speaking I.” The narrator is not positioned in the text as a “site of dreaded identification,” but instead is shown to be a person who attracts and is attracted to many types of people. S/he describes him/herself as a Lothario, a traditionally privileged subject position akin to the Don Juan character type. However, because it is theoretically impossible within current hegemonic discourses for an ungendered person, who necessarily stands outside the domain of the subject, to occupy this narrative position, the ungendered “Lothario” can only exist within the realm of fantasy. To state that Written on the Body is a fantastic or utopian text in no way robs it of its importance and subversive potential. Rather, the fantastic and utopian tendencies of Winterson’s text are subversive because they imagine alternative possibilities that have been denied by oppressive discourses. Winterson imagines a character who is ungendered and a world in which the ungendered body matters.

This subversive strategy also challenges the heterosexual imperative because gender is not what constitutes sexual object choice. Butler claims that the process of gendering works in the service of compulsory heterosexuality, which attempts to construct a “natural” link between gender and sexuality. She explains that heterosexual logic conflates identification and desire: “If one identifies as a given gender, one must desire a different gender” (239). Homosexuality functions similarly: if one identifies as a given gender, one desires the same gender. In other words, both heterosexuality and homosexuality are constructed around gender difference; both identifying as a gendered person and desiring another gendered person is what constitutes both heterosexuality and homosexuality. In this framework, lesbian and gay identities, although far from compulsory, are considered problematic in that they too reify gender difference, which compulsory heterosexuality constructs as part of a causal line “between sex, gender, gender presentation, sexual practice, fantasy, and sexuality” (Butler “Imitation” 315). In other words, homosexuality is not only not a threat to heterosexuality’s hegemony, it also works to reinforce it. Butler argues that the regime of heterosexuality “mandates the compulsory performance of sex” and that “the very categories of sex, of sexual identity, of gender are produced or maintained in the effects of this compulsory performance_disingenuously lined up within a causal or expressive sequence that the heterosexual norm produces to legitimate itself as the origin of all sex.” (318). According to Butler, the solution, or the way to expose heterosexuality’s false claim to originality and normality, may be “a matter of working sexuality against identity, even against gender,” a strategy that Written on the Body employs. In addition to the text’s construction of an ungendered narrator, sexual identity labels, such as homosexual/heterosexual, are conspicuously absent from the text. Terms like gay, lesbian, and heterosexual would have very little meaning in the text because sexuality has been dislodged from both gender and identity in Winterson’s fictional world. In short, Written on the Body deregulates desire, constructing sexuality as fluid, multiple, and nomadic.

Lisa Moore, in her analysis of Written on the Body, discusses the ways that gender and sexuality are constructed in the text, claiming that Winterson’s ungendered narrator is a figure (or perhaps a narrative space or category) that appropriates the experiences and investments of variously gendered and sexualized beings in a structural enactment of Winterson’s particular Virtual Reality. This is a figure constructed of disparate body parts, desires, identities and histories, put together in a post-modern pastiche (110) Virtual Reality seems an appropriate metaphor for Winterson’s textual world because it highlights the fact that the world of the text is in many ways familiar, while at the same time strange, in that dominant discourses are less regulatory than in contemporary Western society. However, Moore’s description of the narrator as “a post-modern pastiche” is inaccurate. The narrator is not Winterson’s cut and paste project consisting of multiple contemporary notions of masculine, feminine, lesbian, gay, and heterosexual desires and identifications. Instead, s/he is constructed within a discursive domain in which these regulatory oppositions are no longer operable. In other words, the narrator is a product of a radically different textual world; s/he is produced and made possible through the absence of the contemporary hegemonic norms that Moore uses to describe the narrator. Although the narrator may appear to be a “post-modern pastiche” because s/he exhibits both traditionally masculine and feminine attributes and behaviors, s/he is not merely a combination of existing identities, but rather a construction that might come to exist in a world where the formation of the subject is not based on avowing and disavowing identifications. In other words, the narrator is possibility; s/he is the potential subject of a discursive domain in which heterosexuality is not compulsory, and gender is fluid and multiple. As a result, by refusing terms like homosexuality/heterosexuality, Written on the Body avoids reproducing the logic of compulsory heterosexuality.

The very existence of an ungendered narrator, who functions as a subject within a larger domain of power, rather than within some utopian space where the character’s have sought refuge from oppression, illustrates that gender and sexuality are constructed as fluid and multiple in the world of the text. The narrator does not assume a sexed position because there is no legislative norm requiring her/him to do so. By failing to repeat, or cite what the reader considers the norm of sexed positions, the narrator exposes them as “citational practices instituted within a juridical domain_a domain of constitutive constraints” (Butler, Bodies 108). Also, because the narrator does not have to claim labels like man/woman and gay/straight, s/he does not have disavow parts of his/herself, nor foreclose certain kinds of connections and experiences. Butler points out the cost of identity, claiming that it “is purchased through the loss and degradation of connection” (114). In this light, the narrator’s incoherent identity can be seen as the affirmation of connection. This notion is also supported by Winterson’s text, in which the narrator describes having had relationships with both men and women, displaying openness to various forms of relationships and desires.

In contrast to the narrator, Louise, the narrator’s lover, is not only gendered, but is also portrayed as excessively feminine. Winterson’s construction of Louise’s excessive femininity can be viewed as an attempt to create a space between androgyny and extreme femininity in which multiple degrees of femininity can exist. Instead of creating two ungendered lovers, which might be viewed as the promotion or elevation of androgyny, Winterson depicts a range of gender possibilities through a variety of characters who display different degrees of femininity and masculinity. There is more slippage between masculinity and femininity in Winterson’s textual world than in our contemporary society. Many characters in the text who are gendered by the pronouns “he” or “she,” exhibit both traditionally feminine and masculine character traits.

Winterson’s formulation of a range of gender possibilities is reminiscent of Cixous’ statement in her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa:” “There is, at this time, no general woman, no one typical woman_But what strikes me is the infinite richness of their individual constitutions: you can’t talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogenous, classifiable into codes_” (1090). Winterson’s text plays with and even exaggerates this conception of woman as multiple and heterogeneous through descriptions of the narrator’s previous female lovers, all of whom perform various gender roles. The fluidity of gender reveals that in the textual world Winterson has constructed, masculinity and femininity are not configured in an either/or relationship (either one is masculine or one is feminine), nor is power and dominance associated with masculinity. Instead, gender categories are constructed as more open and less confining and regulatory than in current hegemonic discourses, allowing for considerable slippage between the two. Through the construction of a range of gender possibilities, the power dynamics of gendered binarisms are diffused.

For example, Jacqueline, the woman with whom the narrator had settled into a comfortable though passionless relationship before meeting Louise, is described as a nurturing, motherly type, one who “was good with parents, good with children good with animals, good with disturbed things of every kind. She was good with me” (25). The narrator later gives the reader more insight into Jacqueline’s character, “She never bothered me when I said “Don’t bother me,’ and she didn’t cry when I shouted at her. In fact she shouted back. She treated me like a big cat in the Zoo. She was very proud of me” (28). In contrast to the descriptions of the narrator’s other lovers, Jacqueline is clearly positioned as a motherly, somewhat submissive type. Despite the fact that the narrator leaves Jacqueline, Jacqueline’s “femininity” is not positioned as inferior to the narrator’s androgyny, nor is it the cause of the narrator’s rejection of her. It is the relationship’s lack of passion in conjunction with Jacqueline’s intellectual and emotional simplicity, rather than her nurturing and motherly attributes, that leads to the relationship’s demise.

The text’s construction of Jacqueline’s “feminine” attributes_particularly her motherly and nurturing traits_provide a contrast to the text’s other constructions of femininity. In other words, the motherly, submissive woman is just one among many “feminine” positions. Most of the narrator’s other lovers who are gendered by the pronoun “she” seem to frequently slip among a variety of gendered positions, exhibiting behaviors and beliefs that are in conflict with traditional constructions of femininity. The female characters who perform various gender roles, slipping back and forth between traditionally feminine and masculine positions, work to denaturalize dominant conceptions of gender difference, deconstructing the link between gendered positions and expected social behaviors. For example, Bathsheba, a dentist, was married but promiscuous, a behavior which resulted in the narrator contracting syphilis, Estelle had a scrap metal business, Catherine was a writer who ended their relationship because she said “It’s only a matter of time before I become an alcoholic and forget how to cook” (60), while Inge was “a committed romantic and an anarcha-feminist” (21) who fought patriarchy by blowing up men’s urinals. The extreme differences among these women function to expand traditional constructions of femininity, posing a challenge to the notion that there is, to use Cixous’s words, “a general woman” (1090).

The men in the book, including the narrator’s male lovers, also exhibit various gendered positions. Elgin, Louise’s husband, is closely aligned with contemporary phallocentric discourses. He is a doctor who is comfortable with the language of science, as well as with numbers, formulas, computers, and other technical equipment, but who is without both passion and compassion. He is not capable of satisfying Louise emotionally or sexually. For him, a woman is either a showpiece, or a sexual object–someone to make him look good (Louise), or someone to make him feel good sexually (a prostitute). However, he is also depicted as a small, weak man, who does not stand a chance of holding on to Louise. The text’s construction of Elgin as unattractive and as lacking both physical strength and strength of character, is one of many indications that the Law of the Father is not as strong and pervasive in the world of the text as it is in our contemporary society.

In contrast to Elgin, Crazy Frank, one of the narrator’s ex-lovers, is not aligned with phallocentric values. As a child, he was adopted by midgets, a situation made more odd by the fact that he eventually grew to be over six feet tall. As an adult, he took his adopted parents with him everywhere, carrying them on his shoulders because, as he explains to the narrator, they helped him to make friends. Crazy Frank’s untraditional upbringing and his refusal to separate from his adopted parents positions him outside of the traditional nuclear family. Winterson’s use of hyperbolic imagery, midget parents and a huge son with the body of a bull, can also be viewed as a textual strategy that attempts to expand restrictive constructions of the nuclear family.

In addition to his unusual family life, Crazy Frank is also positioned outside of traditional constructions of masculinity; although he is described as having the body of a bull, “an image he intensified by wearing great gold hoops through his nipples,” he is also described in feminine terms: “Unfortunately he had joined the hoops with a chain of heavy gold links. The effect should have been deeply butch but in fact it looked rather like the handle of a chanel shopping bag” (93).

The final character that deserves mention in this analysis of Winterson’s construction of a range of masculinity is Carlo, another of the narrator’s ex-lovers, who made the narrator shave off all body hair, and who eventually left the narrator for another man: “We lasted six months and then Carlo met Robert who was taller, broader and thinner than me. They exchanged razor blades and cut me out” (143). Carlo is the only character in the text who is explicitly described as having a relationship with someone of the same sex. This passage draws the reader’s attention back to the issue of the narrator’s gender and sexuality. Is the narrator a man in a homosexual relationship with Carlo, or is the narrator a woman involved with a bisexual or gay man? Or, are these even the right questions to be asking?

Because the text frustrates any attempt to answer these questions, it is perhaps more productive to consider how confusion, both textual ambiguity and the readers subsequent puzzlement, itself functions in the text. The confusion over the narrator’s gender and sexuality works to highlight the constructedness of both categories, inviting readers to imagine a world in which gender and sexual object choice are not linked. As a result, the passage that describes the narrator’s relationship and break-up with Carlo can be viewed as explicitly challenging both the heterosexual imperative and the notion that a coherent identity is desirable and necessary. Because it is not mandatory in the textual world to adopt identity categories, characters are not forced to avow one identification at the expense of another. Sexuality, as well as gender, is fluid and multiple, irreducible to binary oppositions, which are exposed, through their absence, as unduly regulatory and exclusionary.

The text’s construction of sexual object choice as functioning independently of gender could be viewed as an affirmation of bisexuality. Although the text clearly refuses monosexuality (a label that ironically lumps heterosexuals and homosexuals together), it seems to me that it also goes beyond contemporary constructions of bisexuality as well. Even if bisexuality/monosexuality is configured in a binarism, as opposed to locating bisexuality in some narrow range between homosexuality and heterosexuality, the term itself linguistically reinforces the binary opposition (homo/hetero) that it supposedly transcends. Perhaps Winterson is attempting to construct a way of thinking about gender and sexuality that transcends contemporary constructions of homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality. Although it is true that the narrator, as well as other characters, have relationships with both men and women, more attention is paid to each character’s individual sexual idiosyncrasies, practices, and pleasures, than to differences based on gender. Each sexual experience is distinct. The text does not highlight any similarities in the described sexual experiences that could be attributed to the gender of a sexual partner.

Instead, the disparate characters in the text, exhibiting a range of gender possibilities, work to construct a new way of thinking about gender and sexuality which approaches Derrida’s formulation of a “sexual otherwise:” “At that point there would be no more sexes_there would be one sex for each time. One sex for each gift. A sexual difference for each gift” (199). Wittig possesses a similar vision: “For us there are, it seems, not one or two sexes but many, as many sexes as there are individuals” (“Paradigm” 119). The narrator, ungendered, androgynous, is not necessarily bisexual, but rather is at the center of a heterogeneous array of sexual differences. S/he is a foil in a sense, who highlights the multiplicity of gendered positions and sexual possibilities.

Although all the other characters, except the narrator, are gendered, their sexual object choices, the ways in which they like to have sex, and the feelings they bring to relationships and sexual encounters, are all distinct. Each individual’s different desires and needs, which are constructed as functioning independently of gender, make each sexual experience unique, recalling Derrida’s notion of “One sex for each time. One sex for each gift.” The uniqueness of each sexual experience is highlighted in the text through descriptions of the narrator’s ex-lovers’ individual sexual quirks. For example, the narrator explains that one ex-girlfriend only liked to have sex outdoors, while another female lover could only achieve orgasm between the hours of two and five o’clock. Carlo made the narrator shave off all body hair, while Crazy Frank, who had a passion for miniatures, told the narrator after having sex, “You’d be perfect if you were smaller” (93). Through descriptions of the narrator’s ex-lovers’ sexual differences, the text disrupts traditional ways of thinking about sexuality. No longer configured in terms of man/woman and gay/straight, sexuality is constructed as pure difference, the coming together of unique bodies possessing different desires.

In sum, the ungendered narrator in Winterson’s Written on the Body is not a mere gimmick, but rather is a device that challenges dominant constructions of gender and sexuality. Winterson’s text constructs a world in which obtaining the status of subject is not contingent upon gendering, or assuming sex. In other words, Winterson imagines a world in which the ungendered body has come to matter. In addition to the fact that gender roles are less confining and regulatory in Winterson’s text than in contemporary dominant discourses, heterosexuality is no longer compulsory. The hetero/homo binary is replaced in the text by a conception of sexuality as difference, the coming together of unique bodies possessing different desires. Written on the Body can thus be viewed as an imaginative attempt to deregulate desire, freeing it from the regulatory and disciplinary binary regimes of gender and sexuality. In their place, the text imagines a freer, more fluid view of sexuality based on difference. In this way, Winterson’s text not only encourages readers to reflect on oppressive discursive constructions that are so pervasive that they are often accepted as “natural” or inevitable, but also to imagine a world in which the absence of these structures allows for exciting new possibilities.

Memory and Oblivion: The Historical Fiction of Rikki Ducornet, Jeanette Winterson and Susan Daitch

It is impossible to recover our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect (Proust 34).

Marcel Proust’s intense focus on the vagaries of memory has surfaced again in a number of contemporary novels as a way to reshape traditional forms of history which had become increasingly inadequate to explain the past. Recent historical fiction includes Madison Smartt Bell’s All Souls’ Rising, a retelling of the 18th century slave rebellion in Haiti; Julia Blackburn’s Daisy Bates in the Desert, a description of a middle-aged Irish matron who spent thirty years in the Australian outback; Blackburn’s The Emperor’s Last Island, a chronicle of Napoleon’s years of exile on St. Helena; Pat Barker’s trilogy on World War I, of which The Ghost Road just won the Booker fiction prize; Elizabeth Arthur’s Antarctic Navigation, a reenactment of Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic exploration; and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, a rewrite of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son. As positively as I regard this historical revision, because for female novelists in particular, it allows them to recast history in terms of the social repression of women and to reject the rational methods of traditional historical narrative in favor of the supernatural, I am yet hesitant to endorse it fully, for it is yet an act of appropriation which bears the taint of too much compliance – with the oppressions intact in contemporary culture and with how historical events have brought them into existence.

Contemporary novelists rely increasingly on history for the infrastructure of their work, with the intention to rely no longer on the traditional historical form of linear, sequential lists of events and facts, but instead to recuperate those aspects of history which have been neglected by this approach. Just as Proust weaves through the tangle of his memory to reconstitute the past, Rikki Ducornet, Jeanette Winterson, and Susan Daitch, among others, use the memories of their characters to bring the historical past to life. These novelists emphasize, therefore, the inconsistencies of the memory to show that rational, sequential, event-driven history is at root just as illogical in its granting primacy to certain features of the past as are these contemporary rereadings of history. Ducornet’s narrator, Memory, explains the uncontrollable nature of the memory and its refusal to conform to logical sequence by saying, “I beg my reader’s indulgence. I am no writer, yet intend to tell my story as best I can, to be as ‘linear’ as possible. . . . Yet this morning it seems to me that the story webs and nets about. It is a fabric, not a simple thread. My father used to say: ‘The memory is an anthill. How it swarms!'” (63). The narrator, Memory, denies here the possibility of forcing true and complete history into a timeline; it is a complex of interwoven events, times, places and figures.

This is why I have chosen to name this essay after the art historical symposium occurring this year in Amsterdam. The historian must decide what should be remembered, and so codified, and what should be sent into the oblivion of the forgotten. Historical novelists are trying to recover from oblivion gleanings from the past which historians have determined to be irrelevant to an understanding of it, but as these essentials have long since dissipated through the course of the forgetfulness of time, novelists are forced to rely on techniques of the fictional imagination to bring the lost past back to life. The change of attitude toward history by many contemporary historians may be feeding into this preponderance of historical readings. In a recent issue of Lingua Franca Daniel Samuels notes the “elevation of stories, historical and personal, over the often-grim elucidation of facts” in professional historical narration (36).

I am going to make a gross generalization here about the distinction between much historical fiction written by women and much of it which is written by men (I am thinking here, especially, of novels such as Don DeLillo’s Libra and Norman Mailer’s recent contributions about the CIA, the Kennedy assassination and the life of Picasso), and that is that male historical novelists tend to be more literal in their approach to history than female ones. Mailer and DeLillo embellish historical facts in order to speculate on the reasons behind particular events; they remain rooted in and tied to real events. Female novelists, such as those who I will be discussing in most detail here – Ducornet, Winterson, and Daitch – focus on the subordinate and powerless position of women in the past and draw in aspects of history which have been hitherto denied – the emotional, the illogical, the feelings behind the events rather than the events themselves. These women also often deviate from a mere recording of events to the extent that they use the supernatural as an avenue of escape from the repressions of the culture which history describes.

The reconfiguration of history is, then, the central focus of Ducornet’s novel, as well as of Winterson’s The Passion and Daitch’s L.C. Ducornet’s historical touchstone is Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) while Winterson’s is Napoleon Bonaparte and Daitch’s is Eugene Delacroix. These historical figures resurface repeatedly in each novel, and while they occasionally come into direct contact with the novels’ characters, they remain for the most part in the background. Dodgson, Napoleon, and Delacroix are not in these novels to provide biographical or traditional historical interest, but rather to place the novels’ actions in a re-imagined historical context which is in the process of revision. None of these writers is trying to encapsulate the past by writing in the style of the time, either; each is attempting to restore to the present memory those important pieces of the past which, rather than being stored in the public and generic repository of history, have been dissolved into the oblivion of time.

This new approach to history overtly acknowledges and even embraces inaccuracy and beyond it, the supernatural, in order to view less rational aspects of the past as equally important as the ever-present historical descriptions of battles. Winterson’s character Henri, for instance, accounts for the reason that he has been willing to follow Napoleon for so long and through so many hardships by expressing his strong emotions for his leader: “He stretched his hand towards the Channel and made England sound as though she already belonged to us. To each of us. That was his gift. He became the focus of our lives. . . . He made sense out of dullness” (20); and later, “I should admit that I wept when I heard him speak. Even when I hated him, he could still make me cry. And not through fear. He was great. Greatness like his is hard to be sensible about” (30).

Henri does briefly describe Napoleon’s fiascos in Boulogne and his campaign against the Third Coalition, but only to explain how Napoleon’s hold over his men continued through unbelievable hardship: “We fought at Ulm and Austerlitz. Eylau and Friedland. We fought on no rations, our boots fell apart, we slept two or three hours a night and died in thousands every day. . . . We believed him. We always did” (79). Only such an overwhelming love for a leader could have driven these soldiers to tolerate such extremes of adversity. This is the type of emotion which is neglected in traditional history.

Even though Winterson’s character Henri serves in Napoleon’s army for eight years, he provides us with precious little in the way of typical historical detail. Instead, he discusses at great length Napoleon’s passion for chicken, and what it was like to kill the birds for him and to put on his boots in a hurry to serve the Emperor his chicken. Henri describes twice in the novel how the cook keeps the parsley for garnishing the poultry in a dead man’s helmet. These artifacts from the past are important to Henri and establish the importance, therefore, of seemingly irrelevant detail in recreating the past in its entirety: its feel, its textures, its tastes, its smells.

Henri emphasizes, in fact, that he does not care to be an accurate historian, but that he wants to represent emotions. When defending his intention to keep a diary to his fellow soldier, Henri explains, “I don’t care about the facts, Domino, I care about how I feel. How I feel will change, I want to remember that” (29). In contrast to the words of the diary are the words of the historian, words which deflect the true punishment experienced by the participants; as Henri says, “Words like devastation, rape, slaughter, carnage, starvation are lock and key words to keep the pain at bay. Words about war that are easy on the eye” (5). Through the voice of Henri, Winterson wants us to relive the misery of Napoleon’s wars, rather than merely to know about them from the distance of emotionless history.

This diary, as a tool for reconstituting history, contains more than just the minor details of Henri’s life or a standard record of battles. He also writes down what Napoleon says. When Henri is in Napoleon’s presence, everything he says sounds “like a great thought.” But when Henri rereads his diary he “only later realized how bizarre most of [Napoleon’s aphorisms] were” (30). What this indicates is that Henri was a reporter of his time, someone who met Napoleon and listened to him. What it also indicates, however, is that Napoleon sounded wonderful when he was speaking but was not really saying anything of importance. It required personal contact to fall under the spell of his charisma. What is important about this diary, therefore, is that it explains not just what happens in Henri’s life in terms of factual events, but what happens to him and his fellow soldiers in terms of their fervent regard for Napoleon.

Henri admits the power of any historian, fictionally motivated or otherwise, over his subject: “I invented Bonaparte as much as he invented himself” (158). This type of history encourages the interference and incorporation of fiction into a form that had been attempting to be accurate and objective.

Winterson emphasizes the intentionally illogical state of this type of history by repeating four times in the course of the novel, including in its last line, “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” Though history is a story of the past, it claims not to be fiction. By saying that this narrator is “telling stories,” however, Winterson makes us suspect him or her as a historian, so that even though the “trust me” tries to establish reliability, we are sent into an endless oscillation between faith in and distrust of the narrator. We can no longer merely take what history says as the truth, but must treat it as if it is our own memory and sift through its convolutions for traces of the real past, and we must acknowledge the relativity of that past. Daitch reinforces this mistrust of history, of the eyewitness, of the diary, by having Lucienne Crozier say in L.C., “Collective memory is an unstable element, and to rely on it is to rely on something whose longevity is questionable. I could be accused of writing fiction. It will be said she wrote what she claimed was true but the history books fail to provide corroboration” (138). Also, the apparent inaccuracy of the translation of Crozier’s diary sets up mistrust for anything that she writes, for any events that she recounts.

Ducornet uses a surprisingly similar interweaving of history in The Jade Cabinet, but she embellishes it with a lot of attention to the function of the memory in recreating the past. Like Proust, who thinks that it is possible to recapture the past through the actions of the memory, to re-member the past, Ducornet believes that, indeed, the memory can reconstitute the past. She begins the novel with a quotation from James Beattie (Elements of Moral Science, 1790) which indicates the tangibility of the past which memory produces: “Memory presents us with thoughts of what is past accompanied with a persuasion that they were once real” (9).

Ducornet emphasizes this reliance on and belief in the reconstructive powers of the memory by giving her narrator the name Memory. Memory is a Proustian figure: much of her remembrance is based on the sensual. She remembers her father’s study through its smell of “keeping medium” (formaldehyde); she remembers times with Charles Dodgson through the smell of his photography chemical, collodion; and she remembers the evil Radulph Tubbs through the aroma of his favorite Stilton cheese.

Memory’s memory also provides details of private lives which typical historical accounts do not indicate, even those relying on first-hand accounts. Memory mentions the existence of chamber pots three times and finally stops her narration to explain why she keeps talking about them: “The pot was there (a bold-faced reminder of mortality) and my readers sophisticated enough, I should hope, to have accepted their and mine own corporeality” (78). The implication here goes beyond the mere recognition of the Victorian treatment of excretion by acknowledging the human body, a body which is finally as ephemeral in nature as is the memory itself.

Ducornet presents memory as inconsistent. Memory describes the action of the memory by saying, “There are those who say that the memory is like a collector’s cabinet where souvenirs are tucked away as moths or tiny shells intact. But I think not. As I write this it occurs to me that for each performance of the mind our souvenirs reconstruct themselves. The memory is like an act of magic” (15). The memory, then, is not a repository of fixed images, impressions, events, from the individual’s past. Instead, each time we reach into our memories for an item out of our pasts, we need to recreate it, causing it to change according to the shifting context of the present. To emphasize this, Memory later refers to the artifacts of the memory as a “cabinet of chameleons,” as a series of “chimera,” items which transmute each time we have recourse to them (92).

The primary historical touchstone in this novel is Charles Dodgson, the author of Alice in Wonderland. Dodgson spends a great deal of time with the Sphery girls, Memory and Etheria. He takes them to country fairs; he photographs them nude and in costumes; he goes boating with them on the Cherwal river. Memory asserts her jealousy of Alice Liddell for becoming the star of Dodgson’s book. And it was Radulph Tubbs, Memory’s brother-in-law and later husband, who finally made public Dodgson’s habit of spending so much time with naked little girls. Dodgson’s name, like Napoleon’s in The Passion, surfaces frequently in this novel, serving to unify the novel, but also to reiterate the relationship between history and memory. Each historical figure interacts directly with the novels’ characters, but never actually enters or impinges upon the narration – they are outside characters.

The focus in these novels on the role of memory in historical recapitulation causes each of these authors to use first-person spokesmen, narrators who compose their own diaries or use those of others in order to compile their histories. This creates a more personal feel in these histories than that of traditional history which uses a detached third person observer, yet it also develops the impression that this type of history is too emotionally invested to be trustworthy. Memory says late in the novel, “My special intention is to tell things as they were, as best I can. And yet, and I admit it freely, hindrances abound. There is so much I do not know or do not recall and so must imagine” (125). These novelists are trying to establish, however, the validity of this elusive quality of the memory, that its very intangibility and emotiveness are essential to true historical accounts.

The plot of these novels is more or less tangential, as well, to represent the erratic operation of the memory, but also perhaps to indicate that we are as little able to “predict” the past as the future. While Winterson’s novel remains consistently focused on the two main characters, Henri and Villanelle, however, and Daitch’s is primarily the diary of Lucienne Crozier, Ducornet’s novel not only strays from its primary figures of Etheria and Memory, but follows Etheria’s abusive and unimaginative husband Radulph Tubbs to Egypt and finally focuses on Tubbs’s lover, the Hungerkunstler, and on his architect, Prosper Baconfield. In doing so, Ducornet effectively denudes the memory of its reconstitutive capabilities. We receive scarcely a flicker of an impression of Memory herself, and in order to attain her freedom Etheria has to lose her corporeality, and so must disappear literally into thin air. The only escape from the subordinate role of wife appears to be through magic and the supernatural. Perhaps what this troubling loss of the main characters indicates is our own loss, since Proust, of faith in the act of historical reconstruction through the repository of the memory, yet we feel compelled to continue to try to do so.

We are left with the body of Tubbs which does begin to shrink towards the end of the novel when he develops an obsession for Dodgson and stalks him, but yet, because Tubbs becomes central to the novel, we lose sight of the ostensibly primary figures of the Sphery sisters. Memory admits that “nowhere is the inherent contradiction of corporeality more evident than during the act of remembering” (126), but the novel’s increasing attention to those who are supposed to be peripheral distorts the revision of history and takes it back to its corrupted roots, the traditional history based on the actions of males. This does not mean that postpostmodern historical fiction must always redress the failure of history to account for women, but by dissolving the women and turning the story away from them, Ducornet dismisses their power.

In some respects, for this very reason, Susan Daitch’s novel L.C. provides the fewest solutions of these three examples to the 19th century subordination of women. Also set in France, but in the mid-century, this novel presents the “diary” of Lucienne Crozier, a woman who married wealth for the financial well-being of her family. Daitch never stops reminding us of the sorry position of the 19th century bourgeois woman. “Marriages were often arranged by families for economic reasons,” she says. “Women were considered part of their husbands’ accumulated property” (3). “The family needs money, they send you to Paris to marry into a rich family,” Lucienne Crozier writes in her diary (13). “Bourgeois women don’t work and… their slot in society is a position of determined parroting” (105), and “Without the right to vote, own property or be educated, wives, mothers, mistresses, daughters play the role of sweeps to history, as much a part of an anonymous support system to men of the left as to men of the right” (150).

While Winterson’s Villanelle has complete autonomy – working in a casino as either a man or a woman (or sometimes, apparently, as both), or escaping from her oppressive roles as wife or prostitute, or raising her and Henri’s child while maintaining her social status as a respectable widow – and Etheria at least flees the fleshly entrapment of her abusive husband, Lucienne Crozier only transgresses her stifling marriage by having affairs with other equally dominant men. Not only that, but these men are famous figures of history – Eugene Delacroix and Jean de la Tour.

In Daitch’s novel, then, there is no escape for women from patriarchal restriction. Things become, in fact, increasingly repressive for Lucienne – from the suppression of the Paris uprising of 1848, to her exile in the Muslim country of Algeria (as de la Tour’s mistress). Periodically, she and her best friend in Paris, Fabienne, dress as men so that they can go out in public with comparative ease, but it is never with the ease of Winterson’s Villanelle, who uses cross-dressing as a sexual device rather than as an entré to social freedom.

What perhaps imbues the Winterson and Ducornet novels with more respite from the inadequacy of the social roles of women is the ease with which they integrate the supernatural into their novels. By making the magical real (à la magical realism) these novelists make the possibility real for women to attain fulfillment on a social level. While I have expressed here my quibbles with Etheria’s escape from the body, she at least does so, through her devotion to the skills of the magician. Winterson’s Villanelle, too, consistently maintains autonomy through her manipulation of gender, whether through mere costume change or real transformation. The other supernatural instances in The Passion – the theft of Villanelle’s heart by her lover, Patrick’s ability to see details in the extremely far distance – serve to reinforce the freedom of magic.

Even so, these efforts to recuperate what has been lost in the oblivion of the unrecorded past are essential to a redefinition of history. While these novels recover details of the past which traditional history would obviate, they also reveal the decadence of late twentieth-century fiction in their very adherence to that history, for their use of history is a form of appropriation. Appropriation has its merits in its humor, although none of these novels contains much of that, but it is also important in its ability to take on something from the past and reshape it. However, appropriation is also a dangerous symptom of decay, for it recalls Walter Benjamin’s theory of allegory; these historical novels use history to represent the present in a way that legitimizes the oppressive aspects of contemporary culture.

It is no surprise that Benjamin turned his attention to the decadence of German drama, as his treatment of it in essence explained the decadence of his own time and place. Benjamin saw death and decay in allegory’s treatment of history. “Everything about history,” he wrote in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, “which from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful expresses itself in a. . . death’s head. . . . This is the core of the allegorical way of seeing, of the baroque, secular account of history as the Passion of the world, a world that is meaningful only in the stations of its decay” (343). Briefly, while Benjamin found the allegory of the baroque to be a more realistic view of history than the idealistic symbolic system of classicism, he yet found it to be melancholic and depressed. The recent upsurge of critical interest in Benjamin’s work reinforces the sense that contemporary fiction is once again allegorical in its return to history, and that we, too, are experiencing a decay like that of the German baroque period and postwar Germany with their accompanying depression (note the current extensive use of Prozac).

Even though historical novelists are trying to revise history, to bring it into accordance with the full experience of previous lives, they keep falling into the trap of what the art historian Benjamin Buchloh refers to as “historical secondariness” (60). The act of appropriation makes the historical experience less fresh, less direct a response to the past. This “specter of derivativeness,” as Buchloh calls it, taints the novelists’ efforts to recover history because by addressing history so closely, they uncritically accept their own culture and how history has brought it to this state. Daitch, for instance, essentially reinforces an acceptance of the subordinate position of women by tying women’s historical roles to their relationships to famous men. Appropriation tends to venerate the past rather than to criticize the present institutions of repression.

This emphasis on depression and lack of resistance is apparent in these novels through the fates of the central characters. Henri loses his mind because Villanelle cannot or will not reciprocate his passion for her; Villanelle becomes a wealthy woman who leads a relatively (for her) conventional and not introspective life; Etheria loses her body into the vapours of magic in order to escape the physical and emotional abuses of her husband; Memory never really exists physically or emotionally at all, a virgin until Etheria’s husband takes her on late in life as his second wife; and Lucienne dies (possibly) in Algeria of consumption. These characters are, then, either crushed by the status quo or conform to repressive convention.

Winterson’s and Ducornet’s fiction reflect this acquiescence, for while they enlarge the definition of history to include more than mere dates and events, they yet perceive history as codified and therefore appropriate in the confirmation of the current power structure. Winterson reinforces this when she has Villanelle describe the present in terms of the past: “The future is foretold from the past and the future is only possible because of the past. Without past and future, the present is partial. All time is eternally present and so all time is ours. There is no sense in forgetting and every sense in dreaming. Thus the present is made rich. Thus the present is made whole” (62). It is, of course, essential to remember the past and to see how it has shaped the present, but the idea that the present can be made whole through the memory represents a too ready acceptance of the imperfections in what the present continues to hold for us. Don’t forget: in re-membering the past, we are also re-membering our present and our future. “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.”

Orlando

Orlando si muove tra il genere narrativo e la biografia (scherzosamente). In fondo al romanzo originale compare addirittura un elenco dei nomi, come in una vera biografia, in parte fantastici.

I critici sottolineano il fatto che quest’opera contiene praticamente un saggio su come scrivere una biografia. In effetti, Woolf era figlia di un critico vittoriano e amica di vari biografi. Il romanzo propone spesso “frecciate” ai biografi che s’illudono di rappresentare la vita.

Durante il romanzo capitano dei momenti in cui Orlando dorme per quattro, cinque giorni. È il segno che qualcosa sta cambiando. Questo per indicare che ci sono cose misteriose nella vita.

Un altro aspetto criticato dalla Woolf è la concezione del tempo che è inteso dai biografi classici come tempo lineare, del calendario o dell’orologio, come direbbe la Woolf.

Inoltre i biografi di solito parlano della vita pubblica dei personaggi storici. Questi personaggi però sono sempre uomini. Sottolineare gli aspetti privati di una storia significava ribaltare questa posizione.

Trama:

La storia d’Orlando inizia in periodo Elisabettiano. Orlando gioca con la spada con un teschio di un moro. Successivamente lo si vede alle prese con la Regina e innamorato di una principessa russa alla corte di Giacomo I; rifiutato dalla principessa Orlando si ritira in campagna dedicandosi alla letteratura. Durante tutto il romanzo scriverà e riscriverà un’opera intitolata “La Quercia”.

Nell’Inghilterra della restaurazione Orlando è nominato ambasciatore in Turchia. Caduto in trance si risveglia donna e torna in Inghilterra dopo essere stato con gli zingari. In Inghilterra scopre gli aspetti positivi e negativi dell’esser donna.

Con l’avvento del XIX secolo, l’età dei lumi del ‘700 lascia spazio ai dubbi sull’incalzare della modernità. Orlando sente il bisogno di sposarsi, lo fa e genera un figlio.

Nei primi del ‘900 vince un premio letterario con il suo romanzo.

La storia si conclude il 11 ottobre 1928.

La prefazione presenta dei ringraziamenti, non tipici d’opere di fantasia, in cui ironicamente sono citate varie persone.

Virginia Woolf – Feminist Destinations

Rachel Bowlby

Orlando’s Vacillation

La metamorfosi che trasforma Orlando da uomo a donna può essere vista come indice di una generale “femminizzazione” dell’umanità.

Ma l’interscambiabilità biologica tra “male” e “female” non altera il fatto che i significati di “maschile” e “femminile” sono presupposti di “attivo” e “passivo”.

Orlando = or / and – and / or.

Gli abiti determinano la potenzialità d’agire di entrambi i sessi: l’uomo ha bisogno di avere le braccia libere per maneggiare la spada, la donna deve coprire il suo corpo, per non ottenere gli effetti che Orlando ebbe sulla nave, quando si scoprì le gambe.

La “vacillation” d’Orlando tra i sessi suggerisce che, essendo lei libera di cambiare cambiandosi semplicemente d’abito, si tratti di una libera scelta. La strategia d’Orlando è di ottenere il meglio dai due mondi, passando da uno all’altro semplicemente cambiandosi d’abito.

Ma la libera scelta d’Orlando implica che, per lei, essere uomo e desiderabile, giacché le apre più porte (entra in casa di Nell).

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