Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Newly Born Woman

Time for a round-up of French feminist texts. First I read Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement's The Newly-Born Woman. It is divided into three sections: The first, by Clement and titled "The Guilty One," examines the two female types--the sorceress and the hysteric--and explores links between them. The link between the sorceress and the hysteric, according to Clement, is that they are "women suffering for women"(4). As in the other texts I read this week, both Clement and Cixous see something in the feminine that is foreign and incomprehensible to those outside of it, and they say that this lack of understanding is what makes women social transgressors. Instead of punishing women for these transgressions (Cf. Freud, Lacan), The French feminists I read this week agree that women should own the things the patriarchal hegemony sees as wrong ir outside their system, should rejoice in them. Clement uses the metaphor of the tarantella (a "spider dance" usually performed by women that is "a monster that brings healing" and a "madness that cures") to describe this process. Cixous echoes this thought in her essay "The Laugh of the Medusa." The last thing that I want to discuss from this section is that Clement says that women's stories, while thematically repetitive (as in the link of the persecution of the sorceress and the hysteric), cannot be seen as ahistorical. We must instead theorize what the sociopolitical changes behind similar feminine diseases (greensickness in Helen King, hysteria in Freud/Lacan, anorexia in Bordo) can tell us about how those societies construct women through diagnoses.

The second part of the book is Cixous' "Sorties," which she begins with a list of binary oppositions like sun/moon, good/evil, white/black, noting that all of them can be replaced with the corresponding male/female, where male is privileged and female marginalized. In this vein, she famously refers to women as "the dark continent," saying, " It is still unexplored only because we have been made to believe it is too dark to be unexplored." The sanity of femininity is all about one's standpoint. My favorite part of the essay discusses what it's like to read as woman (Cixous is well-known for her descriptions of ecriture feminine, or woman's writing). She speaks of the frustration of having to pick and choose traits to emulate from male-created female characters: " I could never be Ariadne, but I longed to be Dido, but she was too passive." This is why, as she says in "The Laugh of the Medusa," "woman must write woman, and man, man."

The third and final part of the book is titled "Exchange," and it is literally a conversation between Clement and Cixous in which the discuss their differing views of what ecriture feminine can and should be. Seeing feminist scholars include readers in such a conversation was so refreshing to me, a real counterpoint to the antagonism patriarchal society (both in literature and in life) seems to often pin to female homosocial relationships. This book has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my prelims prep thus far.

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