The poem ?The Critick and The Writer of Fables? published in 1713 by Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, is an ambitious attempt at a satirical play on gendered and formal limitations of Augustan poetry. The critick is representative of a male poetic society, and yet by acquiring a voice from Finch within the poem, it appears to represent one side of Finch?s own internal debate in deciding where her writing belongs. She makes a case for a new style of writing by satirizing the forms already in existence. The poem, at once, exemplifies an Augustan commentary about poetic definition while it inserts the thinly veiled female object of Finch, the fable writer, as the subject in the style of the Romantic poets. Finch carves a place for her own poetry between the satirical, warring poet and the pastoral, peaceful muse, making room for her various resulting combinations. Finch?s poetry resides somewhere between two chronological, poetic traditions, as well as a gender division, without fully occupying any one more than another. It is in her displacement that she finds her own space.
The sequel to a previous post…
In?response to a classmate who believes that French author Madam George Sand (Judy Davis) in James Lapine’s 1991 film Impromptu, is?”attracted to Chopin [(Hugh Grant)] because she unconsciously learned to be more feminine like he was,” I’d like to respectfully disagree.
Prior to Sand’s pursuit of Chopin, she is already quite feminine as demonstrated through her clothing throughout the film. As a child, she wears a dress and has long hair. Sand’s bed clothes in the very first scene are traditionally frilly with ruffles, bows and layers. At the first party where she is to meet her publisher, Chopin’s presence yet unbeknownst to her, Sand wears a rather eccentric dress/pants combination, but somewhat of a silken embroidered dress with a bow in front all the same. When she visits her mother prior to engaging in her relationship with Chopin she wears a conservatively elegant cloak and, when her mother dies, Sand’s mourning dress is a traditional black gown and her hair is traditionally upswept. Perhaps Sand entertains the idea of being fit for a more traditional dress when in pursuit of Chopin, but she also tries moving in the opposite direction by buying men’s clothing. Overall, I’d say Sand is never portrayed as strictly masculine nor feminine, but rather the perfect embodiment of both at once.
My first introduction to Aurore “George” Sand, the French author, has come solely from my viewing of director James Lapine?s Impromptu. Having never read?Sand’s work, nor any form of a biography, I have come to the topic with no preconceived notions. This film’s limited window into Sand?s life provides the opportunity for an interesting experiment. I?d like to compare my first impression of Sand as directed by Lapine with that produced by acquiring additional information. Will my initial understanding be supported, contradicted or enhanced by some quick research? Let?s find out.
When Young Aurore (Lucy Speed) first appears, she is a child running through the wilderness away from an authoritative voice calling her name. She arrives at a self-made altar of stones among the ferns growing at the base of a tree. There she kneels and prays:
Hear me, O Corambe. Corambe, thou who art man, woman and god in one, hear me. I free this bird in thy name. Come to me, sublime being. I want to know the meaning of life. And I want to find perfect, perfect love. I free this lizard in thy name. [To lizard] Don?t be dead. Oh, balls.
This shot dissolves to reveal Madame ?George? Sand (Judy Davis) seated at a desk writing her memoirs.
Between the pages of 155 and 268, our narrator, Powers, and Dr. Lentz struggle with their traditional masculine roles, feeling that they must care for and protect their women. Lentz feels responsible for his wife Audrey’s stroke occurring directly after their argument while?he was intentionally unreachable. Guilt ridden for not taking enough care, he visits her waning consciousness with daily devotion at the Center. Powers also cares for his lost and confused C. but learns that:
The more care I took, the more I turned her into the needy one. And the more I did that, the needier she became. We construed her neediness between the two of us. And that was not care on my part. That was cowardice. (240)
Together, Powers and Lentz search for some sort of answer to the masculine condition through the production and training of Helen, the beloved and experimental neural net in Galatea 2.2. Lentz, although he can’t change the past, has the desire to change the future, developing a way to back up the brain in the case of memory failure. Powers interprets and mulls this goal:
We could eliminate death. That was the long-term idea. We might freeze the temperament of our choice. Suspend it painlessly above experience. Hold it forever at twenty-two. (170)
We have yet to learn what Powers gains from the experiment, but perhaps Donna Haraway might offer a clue.
Pulling out the ol’ Norton, I brushed up on Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” several quotes of which were rather pertinent to Helen. First off, “a cyborg is a cybernetic organism — a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (2269). Already, in this one definition, the cyborg blurs the boundaries of human, animal?and machine as well as reality and fiction.
Since Helen is essentially a new “other,” her existence could be construed as a cultural encounter similar to, for example, that of Europeans and Native Americans. It is assumed from the ideology at hand that one must dominate the other. That said, how is it possible to avoid the dominant/male and submissive/female trap that haunts the majority of historical human existence? According to Haraway, the power lies within the technology.
The cyborg has no origin story? they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential. (2270-2271)
According to Haraway, Powers and Lentz are “inessential” as fathers. Once they load the data, Helen thinks on her own. Although Powers has coded Helen with gender, it is within the power of the cyborg to blur the boundaries of such a dichotomy as the masculine and feminine. Once blurred, perhaps some revelation will be made to both about the roles of men and women in society.
While this unique lesson of love between man and machine has yet to be revealed , one thing is certain. Helen has already invoked much discussion about what constitutes human intelligence, blurring the distinction between true knowledge and switch flipping. Are we nothing more than weighted switches constantly back-feeding input through our neural nets, or is there something inherently human that sets us apart from a machine?
I’ll be turning pages rapidly to find out.
So far this semester, our class has covered:
- John Barth’s short story, “Lost in the Fun House”
- Jeannette Winterson’s novel, Written on the Body
- and Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club.
To help define what postmodern means we have explored excerpts from:
- Simon Malpas’ book, The Postmodern (2005)
- H l ne Cixous critique “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays” (1975)
- Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979)
- Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)
- and Linda Hutcheon’s Poetics of Postmodernism (1988)
How do I cohesively make sense of all this? Having drank fully from the fire hose for weeks on end, I wonder… Will I digest or blow? This post is where I just vomit in my mouth a little.
As Malpas explains, “at the heart of identity there is a ‘thinking I’ that experiences, conceptualizes and interacts with the world” (Malpas, 57). Consequently, running rampant throughout postmodern fiction is the question of this subject’s reliability as an authority representing truth.
- Barth’s narrator, Ambrose, is at once a child and an adult, interweaving the blind?experience of “living in the moment” with 20/20 hindsight and calling attention, through various narrative devices, to the limitations of the narrating subject both as child and adult, in other words, as narrator looking in at the main character and main character being himself.
- Winterson complicates her narrator by creating a nongender-specific bisexual who objectifies the beloved, Louise, pitting the power of subject vs. object, one against the other, both creating and destroying the linguistic barrier to fully realizing true love.
- Palahniuk splits his narrator’s identity into two dueling subjects within the same body who both objectify not only Marla, but each other, creating a power triangle rather than a single identifiable power source.
By complicating the subject, these authors use fiction to turn the subject in on itself and reveal its limitations. The point for the reader is that perspective and representation are not natural ways of reaching some sort of truth, but are cultural devices?that, until postmodernism hit the stage, were accepted as natural. The most we can hope for, as Stephen Colbert often points out, is mere “truthiness” (or “falsiness” as the following parody explains), which is called into question each time subjectivity becomes decentered by an alternate version of the traditional subject. (Hello, Derrida!)
Sexuality is also addressed in each piece, not just in terms of masculinity or femininity, but where the two overlap. According to theorist Hélène Cixouss:
Traditionally, the question of sexual difference is treated by coupling it with the opposition — a culture’s values are premised on an organisation of thought in which descriptions of the feminine are determined by masculine categories of order, opposition and hierarchy. (Malpas, 72)
Lyotard says that metanarratives order the world for a particular culture and not all cultures order the world in the same way. Because of this he believes reality is not real, that it is rather “simplicity, communicability” (75) in the name of the “unity of experience” (72) and that the postmodern “puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself” (81).
- Barth calls masculinity into question by addressing the subservience of women in the ’50s and how that defines the angered narrator’s role as he matures socially in contrast with what he feels differently internally.
- Winterson’s non-specifically gendered and bisexual narrator draws attention to the dysfunction of defining through opposition, creating a world of confusion for the reader while, at the same time, pointing out the problem.
- Palahniuk’s split identity, one masculinized and one feminized, are embodied within one male person which shows that neither masculinity nor femininity encompass fully what comprises the essence of a human being.
These narrators struggle with the idea that identity is formed through the constriction of language and social mapping according to opposing genders. Each illustrates that society provides no useful language or ordering of our world to address these grey areas. Postmodern work obviously strives to draw attention to the gap between the grand narrative and what actually exists.
And, although there are many more threads to follow, the HUGE question of history (revered by Jameson as fact of lived experience) versus historicity (truthiness and the closest we can get to truth) is the last item I have time to discuss. Jameson argues that the democratization of art subjects it to the corruption of marketing and capitalism. They are inseparable to the detriment of world cultures and history through depthless representation and pastiche unless we map how the depthless came to be, “in which we may again begin to grasp our new positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spacial as well as our social confusion” (54). SOOO, the question of historical validity appears repeatedly in our fiction selections.
- Barth criticizes history by describing the role of generations of copulation in constructing social understanding of sexuality.
- Winterson explores the narrator’s serial monogamy and only in breaking the tradition does he/she find love.
- Palahniuk creates Tyler Durden who desperately wants to break free from history to redefine it from his point of view.
According to Malpas, Hutcheon argues that parody is not dead, it is now focused to use form to reveal a failure of form. She also finds great value studying the unrepresentable in fiction, as much as that which has been represented as “history,” because both employ the same narrative devices (Malpas, 25-26). In the fiction we have read, we can see this parody in action, where our authors provide recognition of the power forms hold, and turn around to employ these forms to point out the flaws within them. We’ll talk more about this next week when we read more of Hutcheon.
Other pan drippings, grey in color, that deserve to make it into the gravy bowl are
- body/soul connections
- bodily parts in gender definition,
- disease: death in life and life in death
- and many, many more.
Sadly, the repair man is here and I have to supervise the fixing of shit.
In The Postmodern, Malpas says:
at the heart of identity there is a ‘thinking I’ that experiences, conceptualizes and interacts with the world … This ‘I’ has been questioned, challenged and problematized by more recent modern and postmodern theorists. (57)
This ‘thinking I’ is certainly problematized by Jeannette Winterson in Written on the Body. By withholding the gender of the narrator and writing that narrator into numerous sexual experiences, the reader is left to his or her own devices in decoding the mystery. Faced with two choices, the reader can insert the association of his or her choice and move on or allow shifting assumptions to wash over the conscious mind.
As Malpas explains, according to theorist Hélène Cixous in her critique of modern subjectivity “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays”:
Traditionally, the question of sexual difference is treated by coupling it with the opposition … a culture’s values are premised on an organization of thought in which descriptions of the feminine are determined by masculine categories of order, opposition and hierarchy. (72)
To consider Winterson’s audience, reader reactions within our class seem fraught with desire to code the narrator’s gender. Some folks are downright frustrated and combing sentences for any give-away. Obviously to reveal the strength of this desire is important, but why? Without a gender definition, is it impossible to contextualize the significance of the novel’s events?
Having read the book’s back cover, I knew that the narrator’s gender would never be revealed. This could be why I never grew frustrated. Certainly it was an odd experience seeing my perceptions slip from one gender to another. I became increasingly aware that situations and characteristics attributed to the same character conjured different results. By no means did I “get” what was happening to me, but the following passage by Malpas outlines that experience rather well:
One is not simply a woman or man, with all of the cultural coding that goes along with this. Instead, Cixous argues that a feminist criticism must explore the ways in which differences within a subject can be continually opened up to new forms of exploration and challenge. To this end she presents the idea of a feminist writing, an criture f’minine, that is able to affirm these differences, resist the closure of a male-oriented logic, and present subjectivity as a structure of continual renegotiations that transform the categories of patriarchy. (73)
Allowing myself to ride the gender wave with fluidity, I found what Winterson hasn’t written is most important. Where power exists and determines what is “acceptable, or at least “attributable,” lies in our perception of how the masculine and feminine are defined by language. (Hello Saussure, my old friend.) Winterson’s brilliance demonstrates the subversive by using that very device. The notion of the free-‘thinking I’ is exposed for all its cultural baggage. The reader is offered an opportunity to see how their own assumptions are based on linguistic code, the power of Western culture’s structure of ordering. Within the story, while the narrator is able to convert Russian to English as a professional translator, he or she is also betrayed by the failings of language as it applies to the properties of love. The resulting awareness of linguistic confines illuminates the more naturally occurring bisexuality or grey areas within the gender dichotomy, i.e. recognizing in masculinity the presence of sensitivity, or within femininity an ambitious determination. (73)
The questions now is, what do we do with our new awareness? Do we get all radical and create an entirely new language, or do we collectively assign new meaning to old words? Before answering, maybe we should read “Is There Anything Good About Men?” by Roy F. Baumeister, Professor of Psychology & Head of Social Psychology Area, Florida State University. As he argues, if men are perceived to occupy positions of power, it must also be recognized that they occupy the majority of prison cells, make up the greater portion of the homeless population, and are often portrayed by the media as buffoons. Culture is a tool employed by all for daily understanding. It is not necessarily bad in its limitation, if only we take the time to study what it reveals about our thoughts and motivations.