Tag Archive | English Modernism

Béatrice Didier on L’écriture-femme: Female Writers and their Texts

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‘L’écriture féminine est une écriture du Dedans : l’intérieur du corps, l’intérieur de la maison’; this is a statement which very well exemplifies Didier’s thoughts on female writing in her book L’écriture-femme, a brief but very interesting selection of female writers since the Middle Ages to the 20th century. The book is lovely written and very reccomendable for its analysis of the works of a few authors. Didier approaches her analysis from that which makes singular a female writing in contrast to a male writing; in this context, she outlines writing and text characteristics usually belonging to women writers – she repeatedly warns against dangerous generalizations but insists on a set of particular details usually found in female writings. At the end of the book she calls for a mutual enrichment between male and female authors learning from what they can teach to each other being her critique directed towards the historical Western general exclusion of female approaches to the text and over-valorization of what is masculine. For female writers to be awarded there is no need to write like men but to accept how  – and what – they write.

Historically, being women more confined to their domestic spaces, they wrote about what was inside the house, about topics talked mostly among women, and issues they were concerned about, and they have done it differently than men. Yet in the 20th C. there are big differences between Virginia Woolf and Ford Madox Ford being they both recognized Modernist and cultivated writers. Henry James and Edith Wharton are another example of fellow contemporaries who read each other, and still an attentive reader can draw a line from Jane Austen to Emily Brontë finishing in Wharton, so different from James’s narrative, style and approach to reality. Didier, Cixous did, relates female writing to the female body, but also to women’s relationship with the house and maternity: ‘Le désir d’écrire, aussi fondamental peut-être que le désir d’enfanter et qui probablement répond à la même pulsion, ne pouvait être utilisé de la même façon par la société. Si l’enfantement apparaissait comme la condition même de la survie de tout groupe humain et par conséquent devait être organisé dans une structure sociale, le désir d’écrire, lui, semblait au contraire marginal, subversif, à tout le moins inutile’. Therefore, creation and pro-creation going hand by hand, and indeed, it is not till Modernism that most women wrote and wrote subversive literature. According to Didier, psychoanalysis may have pushed these women to write due to its assertion that differences on identities were important: ‘La véritable conquête de l’écriture féminine moderne aura été peut-être, aidée là encore par tout un courant de pensée issu à la foi de la psychanalyse et de l’existensialisme, d’inscrire différemment l’identité dans le texte’.

Some of the characteristics Didier attributes to female writing are its orality: being women the ones who repeated tales inside the house, they transmitted oral particularities to the written text: ‘une écriture telle que le flux de la parole s’y retrouve, avec ses soubresauts, ses ruptures et ses cris’. Another characteristic is the temporal perception strongly marked by women’s biological cycles: ‘Il est possible aussi que la femme ressente le temps autrement que ne le fait l’homme, puisque son rythme biologique est spécifique. Temps cyclique, toujours recommencé, mais, avec ses ruptures, sa monotonie et ses discontinuités’. And finally the body makes another big difference: ‘‘La présence de la personne et du sujet impose immanquablement la présence du corps dans le texte. Et il est bien évident que c’est peut-être le seul point sur lequel la spécificité soit absolument incontestable, absolue. Si l’écriture féminine apparaît comme neuve et révolutionnaire, c’est dans la mesure où elle est écriture du corps féminin’.

The body is undeniable, and marks a very visible difference and one may say it makes physical the two previous points: voice and biological temporality. But the female also feels different from the male one, and experiences sexuality in another way – being of course, at the same time, different for every single person – so that it may affect the writing. It explains again the boom of female writers, so to say, after Freud, writing not only in a very particular way but of their bodies: the female body, so under control during the 19th C., is put into paper by women- men did it before – at the turn of the century: ‘Monde de sensations jusque-là inexplorées et qui supposeraient, pour etre exprimées, une autre langue’.

Ecriture Feminine: Text and Body in Female Writing

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‘Je parlerai de l’écriture féminine: de ce qu’elle fera. Il faut que la femme s’écrive : que la femme écrive de la femme et fasse venir les femmes à l’écriture, dont elles ont été éloignées aussi violemment qu’elles l’ont été de leurs corps’. These are Hélène Cixous’ words in her essay Le Rire de la Méduse (1975), paradigm of the French feminist movement of the 70s known as l’écriture féminine. What is at stake here is the relationship between writing and the body, or even more than that, an identification between the two. Cixous calls women to write as women, and that is, from their bodies, which means that biological sexual issues play a roll in the way of being in the world, and therefore the in the mode of expression. Cixous is Dr. in English Modernism and indeed her words remind those of Virginia Woolf in the essay “A Room of One’s Own” (1929) where Woolf affirms the book needs to be adapted to the body, which consequently implies a difference between male and female writing.

French feminism stresses the importance of language and discourse in relation to women, and especially, the body; a focus far away from radical American feminism which recurrently claims for a deconstruction of the body, instead, the French authors affirm the female body since the very beginning and note the need for a difference between men and women in order women’s characteristics to be respected and accepted. When Woolf says in her essay previously mentioned, that Jane Austen was so far (in 1929) the best female writer was due to her capacity to write as a woman for women. Austen, says Woolf, wrote about what interested her, what she knew, in her style, she did not try to write manly in order to be valued by men, that is, by the public opinion. Similarly, Cixous encourages women to write as they are, and that means, because of the female nature, to write in accordance with their bodies:

‘en s’écrivant, la femme fera retour à ce corps qu’on lui a plus que confisqué, dont a fait l’inquiétant étranger dans la place, le malade ou le mort, et qui si souvent est le mauvais compagnon, cause et lieu de inhibitions. A censurer le corps on censure du même coup le souffle, la parole […] Ecrire, acte qui non seulement ‘réalisera’ le rapport dé-censuré de la femme à sa sexualité, à son être-femme, lui rendant accès à ses propres forces ; qui lui rendra ses biens, ses plaisirs, ses organes, ses immenses territoires corporels tenus sous scellés’

These words should not surprise to those familiar with the Victorian medical discourse troubled around the female body; indeed, the mystery which traditionally (at least from Rousseau on) has surrounded the female sexuality has produced  a medical and social discourse impregnated with taboos and prohibitions as facing an alienated body, something more diabolic than the male body, which may be noted is far more simple being all its pleasure focused: ‘Que la sexualité masculine gravite autour du pénis, engendrant ce corps (anatomie politique) centralisé, sous la dictature des parties. La femme, elle, n’opère pas sur elle-même cette régionalisation au profit du couple tête-sexe, qui ne s’inscrit qu’à l’intérieur de frontières. Sa libido est cosmique, comme son inconscient est mondial’.

Differences in writing, perceptions, thought and feelings may be related to the body, or the relationship a woman establishes with it. The cyclic nature of the female body, which can be seen physically expressed through its round form, challenges indeed what can be a male vision, so it may be with writing. Cixous goes further establishing a relationship with women with their bodies not only in their writings but in their communication, and ultimately, in their form of being; thus the physical expression is something very present in the female sex whose body speaks:

‘Ecoute parler une femme dans une assemblée […] : elle ne ‘parle’ pas, elle lance dans l’air son corps tremblant, elle se lâche, elle vole, c’est tout entière qu’elle passe dans sa voix, c’est avec son corps qu’elle soutient vitalement la ‘logique’ de son discours ; sa chair dit vrai. Elle s’expose. En vérité, elle matérialise charnellement ce qu’elle pense, elle le signifie avec son corps. D’une certaine manière elle inscrit ce qu’elle dit, parce qu’elle ne refuse pas à la pulsion sa part indisciplinable et passionnée à la parole’.

The body is a text, and the text is a body, something to explore further…

D.H. Lawrence, the Arts and the Body

In his critique to the Victorian and bourgeoise society, Lawrence expressed, as he does in many of his novels, his concerns on how the materiality and authenticity of life and experience was left behind for an intellectual approached to human relationships, and hence, for a repudiation of the body. This last one was central to the author, so he tried to find the proper body’s language, a language which allowed him to express the body, a part of the human being, according to him, so repudiated by the bourgeoisie: ‘That is the real pivot of all bourgeois consciousness in all countries: fear and hate of the instinctive, intuitional, procreative body in a man or woman’ (‘Introduction to these Paintings’).

Interestingly for a reader of the 21st century, and related to Lawrence’s ideas on Bourgeoisie, is his attitude towards sexuality. Lawrence accused his ancestors of having kept secret the whole matter of sex, therefore, causing a sort of masturbating society, a practice he detests as it impedes sexual communion and exchange of energy, and, he says, is focused on the activity of the intellect and not of the body: ‘The greatest of all lies in the modern world is the lie of purity and the dirty little secret. The grey ones left over from the nineteenth century are the embodiment of this lie’ (‘Pornography and Obscenity’).

If, says Lawrence, the novel does not know how to represent the body, neither does painting, especially English 19th century painting, which having no idea how to deal with such an element, its landscapes do not include the human form: ‘the English have delighted in landscape, and have succeeded in it well. It is a form of escape for them, from the actual human body they so hate and fear’ (‘Introduction to these Paintings). However, a homage is left to Cézanne the only painter who really tried to represent living matter but who, due to his bourgeoise class, merely failed:

‘Cézanne felt it in paint, when he felt for the apple. Suddenly he felt the tyranny of mind, the white, worn-out arrogance of the spirit, the mental consciousness, the enclosed ego in its sky-blue heaven self-painted. He felt the sky-blue prison. And a great conflict started inside him. He was dominated by his old mental consciousness, but he wanted terribly to escape the domination. He wanted to express what he suddenly, convulsedly knew: the existence of matter. He terribly wanted to paint the real existence of the body, to make it artistically palpable’ (‘Introduction to these Paintings’).

According to Lawrence, Cézanne represented a living apple, far from the man’s perspective, instead the apple has a proper life of its own, a proper way to relate with reality which escapes from men’s perspective. It is a true apple because it expresses relativeness, it is Cézanne’s apple.

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What I did not know is that Lawrence himself has some paintings which indeed express relationships among bodies:

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His intention to express materiality in his writings is seen in his paintings which focus on the body and one easily see, for example, Gerald’s description in Women in Love, for example.

The Paintings of D. H. Lawrence by Lawrence, D. H.

Between the House and the Hut: An Erotic Approach of Space in Lady Chatterley’s Lover

“Between the House and the Hut: An Erotic Approach of Space in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” The Poetics of Space in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Culture. University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, 29 May 2014.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) is a novel mainly structured around two main spaces: Lady Chatterley’s domestic space, and her lover’s hut in the woods. These spaces articulate Lady Chatterley’s desire and sense of femininity making them highly erotic. In her domestic space Connie Chatterley lives with her impotent husband, almost always secluded in her room. Connie finds an emotional and sexual distance from her husband, which is also expressed through the magnificent architecture of the mansion. However, her relationship with Oliver Mellors, and their sexual encounters in the hut, gives her the human and emotional contact she desires. She finds her realization as a woman in the primitive: the hut in the woods. According to Gaston Bachelard, the hut is a symbol of primitiveness which gives us a high sense of protection and refuge far from the civilized and crowded houses. I argue that the hut embodies Lady Chatterley’s longing for intimacy, her refugee and sense of primitiveness where she meets again with her sexual being: the most primitive sense of femininity. Hence, body and space correlate with each other empowering the image of the hut through sexuality: Lady Chatterley inhabits the hut as well as she is inhabited by Mellors, a fact that leads from the origin of habitation to the origin of human life. In this context I will analyse the dialectics of desire in Lady Chatterley established around the domestic space and the hut.

Polygamous space in The Good Soldier

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‘Their rooms all gave on to the gallery; Leonora’s to the east, the girl’s next, then Edward’s. The sight of these three open doors, side by side, gaping to receive whom the chances of the black night might bring, made Leonora shudder all over her body”

This passage of Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) suggests a polygamous or orgiastic reality trough the description of the interior space. At this point of the novel, Leonora, Edward’s wife, knows the affair between he and the maid, Nancy, moreover she does not only know it but rather accept it completely encouraging the girl to keep on her adulterous relationship as she finally has determined to divorce Edward and, in a sort of cynicism, thinks he needs the relationship with the girl. The absence of sex between Leonora and Edward is balanced with all Edward’s adulterous relationships which carry the sexual weight of the text. In the particular case of Nancy, the fact that she lives within the familiar house adds an uncanny element to  the narrative emphasizing Leonora’s incertitude on what may be happening next door.

The moment quoted focuses on Leonora’s feeling finding herself in the middle of a space surrounded by three open doors, properly speaking, three promiscuous open doors. ‘Black night’ suggest unknown faces: anyone could be anyone else penetrating into a space almost by chance as if some sort of unconscious instinct may lead among them. The fact that all three rooms give on to the gallery avoids a sense of privacy and intimacy in what is performed inside which is to say, it is performed outdoors as the open door represents the remove border. The three open doors around the hall invite any of three inhabitants of these rooms to interchange them, to cross the borders of their privacy. The sense of transgression remains in the obscurity of the rooms which even if open are dark, that is, they hide to a certain point what is happening inside, and Leonora’s shudder is the key sensation which transmits to the reader the transgression of the suggestion.

In this context, the domestic space is transgressive: the boundaries of the 19th century bourgeoise family have been violated. The high value of privacy born with the creation of the modern family as stated in Rousseau disappears according to the use of sexuality, especially, made within the domestic space.

Materiality and Corporeality: The Body in Popular Fiction and Visual Culture

“Contemplating the Male Body: From Aesthetics to Sexual Pleasure in Homosexual Literature”. Materiality and Corporeality: The Body in Popular Fiction and Visual Culture. University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, 6 June 2013.

In this paper I analyse the representations of male bodies in André Gide’s The Immoralist (1902), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920), with a particular focus on the perception with which the perceiving subject beholds the body. The male body is often turned into a voyeuristic spectacle when it is described in elaborate detail and perceived by an attentive subject whose gaze enjoys the contemplation of the object-body. On the one hand, the bodies that are objectified in that manner become objects of aesthetic contemplation. On the other hand, however, they also become potential sources for sexual pleasure. This article investigates the ways in which perceptions of male bodies are aestheticized and/or eroticised in these texts.

From the Aesthetic to the Erotic Gaze (IV)

2007BM5740_michelangelo_david_plaster_castThe Immoralist, Death in Venice and Women in Love all share a strong presence of the visual field, which places them at the birth of a new culture in the first part of the twentieth century: the culture of vision. Detailed descriptions, especially of the human body, anticipate what will be central in the new seventh art. The pleasure of looking gains prominence as it becomes part of a new popular visual art that is much more culturally extended than painting ever was. But it is not so much in the fact of seeing where most of the pleasure is felt as it is in the object presented to the gaze: the human figure. Laura Mulvey, in her analysis of cinema, argues:

 ‘The cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking […] the conventions of mainstream film focus attention on the human form. Scale, space, stories are all anthropomorphic. Here, curiosity and the wish to look intermingle with a fascination with likeness and recognition: the human face, the human body, the relationship between the human form and its surroundings, the visible presence of the person in the world’. (‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ 4)

However, cinema was born from a new technological context that led to a new conception of art and the human being. Visual pleasure is not free of a massive superficial valorisation of aesthetics, which reduces art, and with it the human body, to mere exhibitionism. Walter Benjamin argues, in ‘The Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, that modern art has replaced the cultural value of art with exhibitionism; therefore, the work of art has no meaning in itself, but rather acquires significance insofar as it acquires a function, in this case, the function of being exhibited: “[through] the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental” (619-20). If then, as Mulvey argues, the human body has become a source of artistic pleasure in the current epoch, it is also not free from becoming a mere instrument, and that is the danger Benjamin refers to when he says that the human figure has become the centre of a cult, since “its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order” (634).

The aesthetic value of the human being calls for a rebirth of the artistic sense in contemporary society beyond the significance of technology. The three texts here analysed express a necessary sensibility towards the human figure’s ability to arouse wonder in the reader. The gaze can only be surprised by discovering the unique and by avoiding endless mechanical reproduction. The historical moment when these novels were written is not unimportant, since they give testimony to both aesthetic and human value, reminding, as Plato’s Prophetess does, that “such a life as this, my dear Socrates, ” exclaimed the stranger Prophetess, “spent in the contemplation of the beautiful, is the life for men to live […]” (The Banquet 103).