Learning to speak

Gay Clifford

  • Gya/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism by Mary Daly
    Women’s Press, 485 pp, £8.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 7043 2829 1
  • The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th Century by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar
    Yale, 719 pp, £15.75, October 1980, ISBN 0 300 02286 7
  • Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Margaret Dickie Uroff
    Illinois, 235 pp, £6.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 252 00734 4
  • Women Writing and Writing about Women edited by Mary Jacobus
    Croom Helm, 201 pp, £9.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 85664 745 4

Lawrence felt that Hardy’s Sue Bridehead was ‘no woman’ because ‘that which was female in her she wanted to consume within the male force … in the fire of understanding, of giving utterance. Whereas an ordinary woman knows that she contains all understanding, that she is the unutterable which man must forever continue to try to utter.’ No woman would assent to that last sentence unless she wanted to end up a white goddess, or an ordinary white elephant. (The Kings of Siam used to give a white elephant to hated courtiers, who would then promptly ruin themselves on its costly maintenance.) Yet John Goode notes in Women Writing that Lawrence is here unwittingly acute about something central to sexist ideology: that ‘woman is an image to be uttered’ – uttered, that is, by other people.

One feature of these four books allows them to be discussed together: they are all concerned with the ways women confront the images of themselves offered in literature and by society, both largely directed by men. The most intractable element in the confrontation is the unwilled passivity of being uttered, being spoken, so that trying to change those images must be done in a language saturated with male assumptions. This applies equally to feminist critics and to women novelists or poets, and there are signs of strain in all these books, though it is the kind of strain that implies energy, not exhausted repression or defeat.

Mary Daly is a theologian trained at Fribourg. Her two earlier books, The Church and the Second Sex and Beyond God the father, analysed the misogynist basis of Christianity and its influence on western thinking. In the latter, she suggested that to be human is ‘To name the self, the world, and God’, and that this power of naming has been stolen from women, now as much as in the Adamic myth. Gyn/Ecology extends that argument and is, as she says of its title, ‘a way of wrenching back some word-power’. This involves linguistic excess that is both necessary and necessarily rebarbative.

Poetry often relies on analogy and on the highly-charged ambiguities of words. Gyn/Ecology suggests that Mary Daly is a thwarted poet, in that it relies almost obsessively on incantational punning and appositional analogies between different cultures and periods to present the distortion, mutilation and misrepresentation of women. The book is structured as a journey for the female imagination, a series of ‘Passages’, like an allegorical vision, and its language is an assault on the lexicon, breaking words down, re-assembling and re-coupling them: hagography instead of hagiography, crone-ology, re-search, dis-cover, re-call; seeing/naming/acting, re-member/invent, not bewilder but ‘to be wilder’. It would be a mistake to see these strategies as one feminist writer’s mere perversity. They have much in common with the academic style of suture (coupling words to show the intersection of different discourses, as in ‘transgress/transform’), and erasure (printing words crossed out to show their fallibility – as in the ‘being’ of Heidegger, Lacan, Derrida and their followers). Historically, revolutionists have always needed to transform language, and been mocked for trying. The 14th-century Lollards were named from a word meaning ‘mumble’; in the 17th, the Ranters weren’t called that for nothing; a contemporary working-class poet has to be a verbal Luddite, and use, in Tony Harrison’s words, ‘the stutter of the scold out of the branks/of condescension’ against the ‘looms of owned language’. The question is whether Mary Daly can manage to speak to her female audience, to inspire them and transform the language, as well as analyse historical examples of the deformation of women.

The book’s second ‘passage’ demands considerable courage of the reader, as Adrienne Rich found when she reviewed it for the New York Times. It is an appalling catalogue of infibulation, foot-binding, witch-burning, suttee, and ‘modern’ gynaecological procedures with their often gratuitous ovarectomies, episiotomies and radical mastectomies. What makes it worse is that women have generally so lacked any sense of their bodies independent of male image-making that they have allowed themselves to be complicit and instrumental in all this lopping and snipping and hacking. But it’s not enough to be appalled when we Find that male scholars, seizing gratefully on that complicity, record such practices as self-mutilation or self-modification (as did Waley in his foreword to Howard Levy’s Chinese Footbinding: The History of a Curious Erotic Custom, a title in which ‘curious’ and ‘erotic’ are automatically italicised by a female eye). Even criticism of such bodily invasion often relies on patriarchal assumptions, as when a male doctor laments ovarectomies on the grounds that ‘a woman’s ovaries belong to the commonwealth; she is simply their custodian.’ Until recently, little boys as old as four could be circumcised in the interests of ‘Hygiene’. This could also be seen as mutilation prescribed by normative notions of what is desirable. Yet we don’t talk of men circumcising themselves, or speak of male gonads as belonging to the commonwealth. The comparison suggests both where Mary Daly is wrong and where she is right. We can all be constrained, even deformed, by norms applied within a power system: but the oppression of women is consistently described differently from that of men.

Where Gyn/Ecology aspires to a language appropriate to women’s own experience, one has to applaud. But in presenting each and every vile thing done to women as exactly equivalent products of a conscious male conspiracy, it damages its case. When an analogy is made between Nazi atrocities and contemporary gynaecology, both terms are vulgarised, and this weakens what should be the central issue – power, and how it can be abused. The doctor commandants of concentration camps could do what they did within publicly-expressed policies of genocide. The ‘gynocide’ of western medicine has not, until very recently, even had to defend itself. It is performed unconsciously by male and female practitioners confused by partial notions of the body and by the ethical cloudiness of relations between individuals and the medical machine. To say that ‘the paradigm and context for genocide is trite, everyday, banalised gynocide’ is unhelpfully reductive. History does show that the other, the alien, whether gook, kike, woman or infidel, has always been bullied, maimed and killed: but a woman having a harmfully-induced labour in Topeka or being raped in Huddersfield is not helped by seeing herself as a Jew in Dachau or a Chinese concubine. It is necessary to know why we may be despised and exactly how contempt may be empowered to destroy us. To acquire such knowledge we have to find our own language and make it as exact as possible.

When Emily Dickinson wrote of ‘infection in the sentence’, she had in mind both the constraining judicial sentence of masculine language, from which ‘we may inhale Despair’, and the germinating infection by which women may subvert the borrowed syntax of men. Gilbertson and Gubar study recurrent forms of female rebellion in the works of Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, and Dickinson herself, centring on the symbol of Bertha Mason rampaging in the attic. Socially she is there because of the power of fathers and husbands. Imaginatively, her shouts and incendiarism are the result of female writers wanting to destroy such power, and more urgently, to appropriate her energy within the decorum that allowed them to get published and be read. The Madwoman in the Attic is comprehensive and scholarly: it traces back to Spenser and Milton the iconography subverted so vividly by these writers. Much of the material will be familiar to readers of Ellen Moers and Elaine Showalter (and the writing is sometimes repetitious), yet it will be useful in showing inexperienced or blinkered readers the existence and nature of a female literary tradition.

Sylvia Plath’s best late poetry often has the voice of the rebellious madwoman confidently escaped from her attic. Professor Uroff avoids simple equations between the life and the work, and is not interested in the partisanship of polemical biography: it is good to have the relationship between the two poets, Plath and Hughes, treated mainly in literary terms. Yet the account of Plath’s poetry, especially that written in 1962 and 1963 when she had separated from Hughes, is thin, and relies heavily on descriptive paraphrase. Plath made the interesting comment that what she wrote then was ‘light verse’, and ‘Daddy’ certainly gets a horrid energy from an anapaestic metre which is quite unlike Hughes’s spondees. But the poems in Ariel aren’t only metrically lighter and more inventive: they are also defter, more ironic, and, paradoxically, more confident about the female speaker. Professor Uroff could perhaps have been more feminist here: it’s as if Plath took one female convention (as in her mortifyingly saccharine Letters Home – Ted with ‘his pockets full of poems, fresh trout and horoscopes’); sent it up; and made another – anarchic and self-mocking.

Mary Jacobus has edited lectures organised by the Oxford Women’s Studies Committee. It is a thoroughly distinguished collection, valuable to anyone interested in 19th and 20th-century literature. Gillian Beer on George Eliot and Woolf, Cora Kaplan on Emily Dickinson, Showalter on feminist poetics, Elaine Feinstein on Tsvetayeva, Goode on Jude the Obscure, Jacobus on Villette, all offer criticism that is original in its detail and tough-minded in its methodology. The collection’s other strength is its tone: feminists criticising female and feminist writing, confident that what they say is important enough to be heard by the most unreconstructed male critic.

The Madwoman in the Attic uses Gertrude Stein as an epigraph: ‘Their origin and their history patriarchal poetry their origin and their history… Patriarchal poetry is the same as Patriotic poetry is the same as patriarchal poetry.’ So does Mary Daly, substituting ‘scholarship’ for ‘poetry’. The difficulty here is that the matriarchal language risks being just as hermetic.

I am not here listening to the colleague who said in injured tones that he ‘was all in favour of feminism as long as it made sense to him’, for he spoke from willed conservative deafness. What is desirable, if not immediately possible, is the point toward which all these books move – the point at which men and women can both rewrite Stein: patriarchal poetry is the same as matriarchal poetry is the same as parochial poetry.