Allowed to speak

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Sororophobia: Differences Among Women in Literature and Culture by Helena Michie
    Oxford, 216 pp, £25.00, August 1992, ISBN 0 19 507387 8
  • Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic by Elisabeth Bronfen
    Manchester, 460 pp, £45.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 7190 3827 8

‘The category of the Other,’ Simone de Beauvoir declared in the opening pages of The Second Sex, ‘is as primordial as consciousness itself.’ No doubt she was right. But it is hard to believe that the term has ever had such intellectual currency as it has at present. Whether in works of high theory or in the popular press, invocations of ‘the Other’, ‘otherness’ – even ‘othering’ – continue to proliferate. At times, all this talk proves more fashionable than productive, turning ‘other’ into little more than a glib synonym for ‘victim’. Even as ‘otherness’ threatens to become all too familiar, however, thinking about the human impulse to distinguish self from not-self can still help to decode our political and cultural arrangements. The ‘primordial’ category need not be simple.

De Beauvoir’s own appropriation of the Other for feminist purposes had much to do with making the Sartrean category available for contemporary critics of culture. The central insight of her magisterial work – ‘He is the Subject, he is the Absolute ... she is the Other’ – has become part of the common wisdom in a variety of disciplines. Helena Michie’s Sororophobia and Elisabeth Bronfen’s Over Her Dead Body complicate that insight in different ways, but these books are scarcely imaginable without The Second Sex and its far-ranging analysis of the myths of gender. As Michie notes, for feminists since de Beauvoir the two words ‘woman’ and ‘other’ are ‘virtually synonymous, the pairing redundant: all women are in some sense other.’ And from this perception comes the feminist’s sense of identity with her sex: in their otherness, paradoxically, all women are alike, a ‘sisterhood’ united by their common position as Woman.

Without exactly denying the force of this claim, Michie wants radically to unsettle it. For contemporary feminists, she argues, the rhetoric of sisterhood serves as a sentimental evasion, a fiction of kinship which glosses over the inevitability of difference and conflict. Woman as Other, in her view, is always haunted by ‘the other woman’ – the popular idiom conjuring up not the commonality of gender but the threat of jealousy and division. Coining the deliberately awkward term ‘sororophobia’ to name the impulses masked by this idealised model of family relations, Michie sets out to identify sororophobic moments in a variety of 19th and 20th-century texts, from Victorian melodrama and sensation fiction to contemporary lesbian poetry, novels by Afro-American women, and the writing of several recent feminist theorists. Brief ‘interchapters’ take up topics as disparate as the collective portraits of the Brontës and the staging of a competition between female figure-skaters at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Except for a sharply pointed commentary on the movie Fatal Attraction, Michie chooses not to discuss ‘the other woman’ in the conventional sense, preferring to concentrate, she says, on differences among women themselves rather than heterosexual rivalry over men. To her credit, she does not just try to complicate the question of gender by routinely invoking differences of race and class – a formula that has become something of a cliché in recent years. In Michie’s book, sororophobia accompanies all forms of sisterhood, which is to say that any gesture of identification or desire has its attendant impulses of differentiation and hostility. As she defines it, in fact, her neologism means not so much fear of the sister as ‘the negotiation of sameness and difference, identity and separation, between women of the same generation ... both the desire for and the recoil from identification with other women’.

That ‘sororophobia’ signifies so generally is at once the book’s strength and its weakness. At times, as in her brief discussion of the Brontës, it amounts to little more than an occasion for meditating on how any group identity prompts comparisons among its members. ‘Who can resist comparing the sisters to each other?’ Michie asks rhetorically. ‘Who can resist the structure of opposition, the grid of difference and sameness?’ The obvious answer – that none of us can – holds true for all siblings, as any member of a family with more than one child will attest. Michie’s chapter on sensation fiction, on the other hand, largely abandons differences between women for duplicity within: though her lively account of Lady Audley’s Secret and East Lynne does suggest ‘the doubleness at the heart of Victorian constructions of proper womanhood’, only the general impulse to deconstruct fictions of female sameness and identity appears to link this argument with the rest. An extended essay rather than a fully developed study, Sororophobia makes more satisfying use of popular culture than of canonical literature. Michie is sketchy on the last-minute substitution of Liza-Lu for her sister in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and unconvincing in her claim that a ‘sororophobic narrative ... runs counter to the hegemony of the Victorian marriage plot’ in Middlemarch, but she has collected some wonderfully apt examples of the trope of sisterhood from several melodramatic stage versions of Jane Eyre, and her brief essays on the mother-daughter country music duo known as the Judds and on the Olympic figure-skating competition are spirited and shrewd.

The latter event seems almost to have been scripted for Michie’s purposes. Both the American favourite, Debi Thomas, and her East German rival, the flirtatious Katarina Witt, had planned to perform to the music of Carmen, with Witt’s dance-like routine calling for a graceful fall to her death at the close, while the more athletic Thomas remained upright. Heralded by the national media as a contest between the innocent American heroine and her erotic rival, the dramatic opposition collapsed when Witt fell awkwardly and Thomas fell in earnest. So long as the contrast held, Michie suggests, the fact of Thomas’s blackness was effectively obscured: but in the aftermath of her fall, popular attention turned to the American speed-skater, Bonnie Blair – now represented as the genuinely wholesome alternative to the eroticism of figure-skating.

Like the book as a whole, Michie’s final chapter on ‘The Other Woman in Feminist Theory’ makes its case through highly selective examples: a critique of Catharine Stimpson, for example, rests on the closing passage of a single essay, while the discussion of Jane Gallop depends largely on two instances in which the same quotation from Gayatri Spivak appears to quite different effect. Michie has a keen eye for rhetorical slippages, however, and she can juxtapose bits of heterogeneous evidence to telling effect, as in her brief account of complementary strategies of displacement and incorporation in Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman and The New Other Woman, a work of popular sociology on the contemporary mistress. If her dialectic of sameness-and-difference can at times seem predictable, it nonetheless offers a salutary corrective to the wishful inclusiveness of some feminist theorising.

Given the politically charged divisions of which she writes, it is not surprising that Michie’s work manifests its own anxieties about other women. A nervous footnote to the opening phrase ‘we, as feminists’ confesses to hesitating over the use of the first person plural because it is ‘under interrogation’ in this book. ‘I want, however, to align myself with feminists and with feminism from the beginning,’ the note continues, ‘so that I might combat from inside the notion that this might be an anti-feminist project.’ The act of writing about conflicts in lesbian poetry and black women’s fiction while remaining an ‘outsider’ to those communities prompts a deeper anxiety. ‘I hope I am not permitting myself to speak from positions not my own,’ Michie remarks in the introduction.

I hope instead to speak as part of a dialogue, a debate, a quarrel ... Toward that end, I want to invoke the notion of ‘correctability’, a term I first heard [used] in the sense I am using it here by Amy Curtis-Weber in a feminist theory class at Brandeis University. As I understood it then, and as I am using it now, correctability allows one to speak, to speculate, to try to formulate ideas about experiences and communities that are somehow ‘other’ in the full knowledge that one can and will be corrected and challenged. This does not, of course, mean that we are not responsible for our words or that we should not be as accurate, as careful and as scrupulous as possible; it merely suggests that words are there to be answered, and that revision is always both possible and necessary.

I scarcely know which is more disquieting: that Michie should feel the need to express this unimpeachable sentiment before believing herself ‘allowed’ to speak, or that she appears to imagine some intellectual efforts might not be ‘correctable’ in her sense. No position can be sufficiently ‘inside’ to escape challenge.

In Over Her Dead Body, Elisabeth Bronfen shows how Western culture since the 18th century has made the Otherness of woman a prime vehicle for the aesthetic management of death. For the masculine artist to represent a dead woman, in other words, is at once to confront mortality and to deny it: ‘there is death,’ he effectively says, ‘but it is not my own.’ ‘Because the feminine body is culturally constructed as the superlative site of alterity’, as Bronfen says at one point, that body becomes a favoured image for the ultimate ‘alterity’ of death itself. Indeed, to focus on gender difference, she suggests, may serve to occlude a considerably more fundamental difference, as Freud’s privileging of castration anxiety and woman’s ‘lack’ obscures the mortal anxiety shared by male and female alike – the ‘lack’ inherent in being human. Though Over Her Dead Body is unquestionably a feminist project, it recognises that gender is in this sense a secondary issue.

Bronfen is not the first to ponder the deep associations between femininity and death. Because man is born of woman, de Beauvoir argued in The Second Sex, she reminds him of his immanence: ‘he would like to have sprung into the world, like Athena fully grown, fully armed, invulnerable,’ but instead must confront in his mother the fact of ‘his own carnal contingence’. ‘In most popular representations,’ de Beauvoir also observed, ‘Death is a woman.’ The point can be confirmed by numerous examples in art and literature, some of which seem to attain a fresh vulgarity by the 19th century. Dickens’s most famous death scene is that of Little Nell; Freud reads Cordelia as an angel of death; a lovely Hollywood version of the angel alights in the Manhattan of Fosse’s All that Jazz.

For Bronfen, however, the problem of representation is itself central. Drawing liberally on the theories of Lacanian psychoanalysis as well as on semiotic and deconstructive theory, she argues that death is, in effect, the supreme absent referent – the ultimate enigma which the living cannot know or represent. Even as the dead body recalls us to our own materiality (and in this sense to what is most real), it reminds us that it is just a trope, a figure gesturing at an unbridgeable gap. And this ‘aporia’ is intensified, Bronfen contends, when the corpse is that of a woman, since the otherness of Woman has no fixed meaning, and her femininity already functions as a site of ‘uncanny ambivalence’. When Poe notoriously pronounced ‘the death of a beautiful woman ... the most poetical topic in the world’, he meant, according to Bronfen, that it was the most self-reflexive one – its very excess in this regard pointing inexorably to the limits of representation.

Though Bronfen clearly prefers psychoanalytic to historical explanation, she does speculate that this self-reflexivity has been particularly pronounced since the middle of the 18th century: as death itself grew less familiar, images of death increasingly called attention to their own figurative status. But she offers no evidence to support this claim, which presumably justifies her decision to focus on the past two centuries. Nor does she make it easy to distinguish the self-reflexivity of which she writes from her own convoluted self-consciousness: ‘The historical reality of death and of women does not coincide with their representation by and in culture, even though these texts not only absent by doubling death/femininity by virtue of their respective or often enmeshed pictorial or narrative rendition, but also employ the duplicitous articulation as effacement in a chain of double-coded signifiers – beauty covering decay, the bride veiling the dead girl or the dead maternal body, presence standing in for absence.’ Admittedly, this sentence represents a late attempt to summarise the ‘complex aporia’ Bronfen’s readings ‘were meant to enact’; though her prose is often graceless, it is not usually so impenetrable. Even so, the density and repetitiveness of its style will prevent many readers from appreciating what is in others ways a remarkable book – an ambitious and sometimes brilliant attempt to understand a central phenomenon of our culture.

Drawing on literature in three languages (English, French and German), as well as selected examples from painting and film, Bronfen makes a compelling case for the ubiquity and significance of the dead female figure. Her detailed readings address an impressive variety of texts, from Rousseau’s Julie to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the diary of Alice James to Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a Courbet painting to the poetry of Plath and Sexton. In some cases – Clarissa or ‘Snow White’, for example – the dead body itself becomes a material icon or fetish; in others, like Wuthering Heights or Dracula, men struggle with women who hover uncannily between life and death; in still others, the mourner’s desire to replicate the beloved dead succeeds all too well, as when the heroes of Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ and Hitchcock’s Vertigo end by replacing their lost loves with yet another female corpse. Throughout, Bronfen shows how the effort to deny or repress death turns back on itself, implicating the subject in the mortality he would evade. Every image of her death points inexorably to his.

Though Over Her Dead Body focuses on the conventional relation of masculine subject to feminine other, it also hints at the equivocal presence, in some works, of a ghostly female subjectivity, especially at moments when a woman appears deliberately to stage the scenario of her own extinction. Does Lily Bart’s fatal overdose of chloral in The House of Mirth, for example, signify the heroine’s final surrender to the world that would objectify her, or an attempt to free herself by destroying the very body that serves as the vehicle of surrender? Wharton, of course, might be thought to have a more than passing interest in the female subject, though Bronfen is too rigorous a deconstructive critic to assume that the gender of the artist automatically dictates the nature of the product. Her subtle reading of Nabokov’s Lolita, especially, testifies to her view that ‘some of the most radical critiques and disruptions of cultural conventions were, in fact, written by men.’ Nonetheless, she appropriately concludes the book with the attempts of some 20th-century women writers to question the conjunction of femininity and death. From Woolf’s suicidal Judith Shakespeare in A Room of One’s Own to the heroines of Maggie Gee’s Dying, in other words (1981) and Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983), Bronfen suggests that women seek to disrupt received codes by exaggeration and parody, at once ‘duplicitously’ complying with convention and producing ‘aporias of resistance’.

Representations, Bronfen knows, have real effects; and in case-studies of Lizzie Siddall and Alice James, among others, she shows how some women were tempted to live – and die – by the codes she examines. Here as elsewhere, she struggles to acknowledge the reality of death, even as she insists on the impossibility of doing so. The ‘aporia’ is genuine. Yet one cannot help feeling that there is something perverse about a habit of thought that approaches death as ‘castration in the more global sense’, or needs to recall how ‘we fade not only before the symbolic law that dictates our subjection to language and cultural codes but also before the real law that death inscribes all human existence.’ Then again, it is not immediately evident that what death does to existence is ‘inscribe’ it. This kind of language suggests that not all modes of occulting reality need invoke the female body.