Feminine Writing

Like all those who read constantly, there is a thread running between each book. Sometimes these threads are part of a conscious intention, other times they are undetectable. Sometimes they are discovered retrospectively. Such a thread has lead me to my current idée fixe: Hélène Cixous, variously described as a professor, feminist writer, poet, playwright, philosopher, literary critic and rhetorician.

Often we are lead to authors grudgingly as I was in the case of Angela Carter. Her reworked fairy tales, exposing their patriarchal roots, stayed in my thoughts. Questions flew across my field of vision like the murmuration of a flock of starlings. Reading is my way of deciphering life; wanting to understand more about deconstructing patriarchal language lead me initially to bell hooks and circuitously to Cixous.

Twice I’ve read Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, one of the exceptional books of the year. Another book that sends my thoughts spinning and wakes me up at night with unresolved questions. In the book and on her blog Kate Zambreno unhitches the notion of feminine writing from gender – as does Cixous – and asks whether writers like Bernhard, Artaud and Rilke are feminine writers.

An exploration into the idea of “feminine”- as contrasted with “masculine” – writing is likely to be the thread that links my reading over the next few months. Cixous emphasises that these terms are not to be equated with “man” and “woman”; part of her intention is to find terms less bound up in emotion and prejudgment. I’ll be reading more Cixous, and constructing a reading list of writers that Kate Zambreno and Cixous discuss. I’ve identified other textually political writers that attempt to dislocate the idea of masculinity and femininity in literary and cultural discourse: Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan.

Reading along these lines, daunting as some of these writers may be, serves a secondary purpose, that of attempting to breathe life into theory, a core intention of Cixous’ writing. For Cixous, theory is not just intellectual masturbation, but a way of seeing and interpreting the world (and word).

In her perceptive Cixous essay, Verena Andermatt Conley writes,

What if, Cixous likes to ask, there were an asymmetry, not a hierarchy, between the sexes, “manifested” at the level of drives and in the relation to the living. The question is vague and perhaps should remain so. But the key question for women is to ask themselves what they want and not just what men want or want them to be. Stories in popular film and literature are told from the man’s point of view. Women tend to write as oppressed men. Relations between the sexes are vitiated by power and self-interest. Rarely do we see or read about a desire for pleasure and joy with and through the other.

The whole topic is ripe with ethical and moral dilemmas, but one I intend to think about a whole lot more. Please make any suggestions of other writers, fiction or non-fiction that might enable me to ask or address any of these questions.

Under the Sign of Saturn by Susan Sontag

Rare are those artists whose incandescence stretches to both writing fiction and literary essays: Coetzee, Woolf, Kundera. Though she preferred to be thought a novelist Susan Sontag’s fiction is grandiloquent, best avoided or as she says of Antonin Artaud “rewarding to … read bits of, but who overpower and exhaust if read in large quantities.” Sontag’s form was the essay where her mastery of language, erudition and pedagogic skill achieved its apotheosis. Whatever topic, Sontag’s essays are a joy to read, an adroitness she shares with Geoff Dyer and Gabriel Josipovici.

Under the Sign of Saturn includes a diverse selection of topics. My favourite is the essay on cultural extremist Antonin Artaud, of whom I knew little before. His attempt to create “total art,” an environment that was “magical, paroxysmic, purgative, and, finally opaque” was fascinating and sadly foredoomed, but what a noble ambition. I cannot decide whether I wish to go down the Artaud rathole, tempted though I am.

Artaud offers the greatest quantity of suffering in the history of literature. So drastic and pitiable are the numerous descriptions he gives of his pain that readers, overwhelmed, may be tempted to distance themselves by remembering that Artaud was crazy.

In other essays, Sontag unforgivingly, but necessarily, refutes the attempt to whitewash Leni Riefenstahl’s history as chief Nazi propagandist film-maker, and unpicks how fascist regalia was adopted for sexual theatre. She writes brilliantly of Walter Benjamin’s attraction to astrology and subjects him to a Saturnine  analysis. There are shorter, but illuminating, pieces on Barthes and Canetti.

The latter essay spurred me to follow these essays with Canetti’s only novel Auto-da-Fé (1946).