Tension between female creativity and femininity

Gubar and Gilbert , in their work, “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship,” describe a tension between the ability of women to create art and what has been considered the social norm of femininity. They describe the eternal woman’s ill-fated past as one of both mental and physical sickness caused by the patriarchal socialization of women. They describe nineteenth century femininity as socially conditioned female illness, “…nineteenth-century culture seems to have actually admonished women to be ill. In other words the ‘female diseases’ from which Victorian women suffered were not always byproducts of their training in femininity; they were the goals of such training” (54). Given that the state of women was expected to be ill or frail (or alternatively ‘monsterous), it’s a wonder as how women could be expected to do much of anything – let alone participate in creative endeavors. They quote Sexton in saying that female art, “Has a ‘hidden’ but crucial tradition of uncontrollable madness” (56). This passage reminded me of A Room of One’s Own where Judith Shakespeare, if she existed, would have been considered mad and driven to literal madness, while her male counterpart would be, and was, considered a genius.

They also describe a phenomenon of interirorization of women that marks the struggle for women writers in artistic self-definition. Women writers are confined to be thought of in terms of their male counter parts. Gubar and Gilbert generally describe the writer’s burden as one in which, “…writers assimilate and then consciously or unconsciously affirm or deny the achievements of their predecessors, [which] is, of course, a central fact of literary history…” (46). Thus, there is an anxiety of authorship which is caused by the inability of one to escape the work of their predecessors.  Specifically for female writers, the authors describe this burden as producing an ultimatum, “Thus, as Virginia Woolf observed, the women writer seemed locked into a disconcerting double blind: she had to choose between admitting she was ‘only a woman’ or protesting that she was ‘as good as a man'” (64). Not only must women face a near debilitating anxiety of authorship, but they must also face the challenges of writing as a women (ie qualifying one’s writing according to the norms of the patriarchal socialization of women).

Can we really say that the challenges faced by Victorian women and of women today are much different? Many social pressures remain the same as well as the still unchanged fact that women do not have as great a history in art as men. How much can we really say has changed in the ability of women to produce knowledge?

Consent and domination in Monsieur Venus

In Melanie Hawthorne and Liz Constable’s introduction to Monsieur Venus, they note that Rachilde’s female protagonists, such as Raoule, often act through “modes of empowerment over others [which are] aggressive, sadistically seductive, cruel, and violent;” they use their sexual wiles to lead men to a “literal or symbolic death” (xxi). This is presumably because of traditional understandings of men winning women by conquest, and may be interpreted to be a critique of these gender roles. However, second-wave feminists did not reclaim Rachilde as one of their own, in part, because she does not give “voice and form to a feminine difference” in the way that, for instance, Cixous proposes, as Raoule is a quite “masculine” and power-hungry character. Literary critic Janet Beizer has argued that Rachilde “defamiliarizes the conventional power relationship and thus puts it into question,” but it is not immediately obvious that Rachilde has presented her work to achieve those ends (xxvi). While Rachilde may challenge certain ideas ,can it be said that she truly subverts homo-heterosexual and male-female binaries if themes of domination in the main character’s sexual relationship persist? As an unequal power dynamic remains, even if it is inverted, is it truly positively empowering to women if it is premised upon domination of a “feminine” male?

I was particularly concerned with the violence in Raoule and Jacques’ relationship, and Rachilde’s choice to include themes of domination in a relationship between people of different genders. For instance, after Raoule understands that Jacques has been harmed in Chapter 10, she proceeds to abuse him herself, biting his “marbled flesh” and enacting a “complete defloration,” recalling language of virginity, or concepts of sex between two unequals in which a submissive partner loses something in the exchange (129). This particular scene seems like a sexual assault as consent is not given: she “forced him to go to bed,” and Raoule continues her assault even as Jacques states that she is hurting him, that she is being unreasonable, etc. (129). To what ends has Raoule included this scene (and others like it) in her narrative? The introduction notes that while she consistently championed sexual freedom, her views became increasingly conservative as she grew older and adopted explicitly anti-feminist positions. If she means to highlight power imbalances, as Beizer suggests, why does she do so in such a violent manner? Does she mean to suggest that domination and submission are inherent to sexual relations and gendered relationships, regardless of the gender of the aggressor? Can this be interpreted as a representation of “feminine” power? If so, why is it done at the expense of “masculine” power? Does Rachilde insinuate that female empowerment is not an appropriate aim as she portrays it as harmful to a male character? Does she assume that people of all genders cannot live together free of power imbalances?

The first publication of this text included an inscription which stated, “To be almost a woman is a good way to conquer woman” (xxvi-xxvii). As Raittolbe attacks Jacques at the end of Chapter 9, he claims that he does so to make Jacques know “what a real man is like” (120). In the next chapter, Marie listens to Raoule’s assault of Jacques, and then presumably comes to his aid “since she was a real woman” (130). The parallels between these chapter endings suggest that the characters understand “real” men to be predatory and violent and “real” women to be nurturing, even as Raoule and Jacques’ relationship challenges these conceptions. To what extent do these scenes disrupt these power binaries, and to what extent do they perpetuate them?

The Anxiety of Authorship in Contemporary Literature

In Gilbert and Gubar’s “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship,” they examine the affect of patriarchal literature on female writers. The foremost literary theorist on the psychology of literary history is Harold Bloom, who applied Freudian structures to literary genealogies, coining the phrase “anxiety of influence” to mean: “[the artist’s] fear that he is not his own creator and that the works of his predecessors, existing before and beyond him, assume essential priority over his own writings” (46). He continues to explain that a literary Oedipal struggle occurs because since “a man can only become a poet by somehow invalidating his poetic father” (47).

In Bloom’s exclusively male and patriarchal model of literary history, there is no explanation or consideration of female writers. His use of “he” and “father” are not interchangeable with “she” and “mother”, because the literary history of women is a very different and distinct course. The female writer has few, if any, predecessors, so she does not want to annihilate her “foremother” because she does not have one. Likewise, she does not want to annihilate her “forefather” because she does not have the relationship to him that the male artists do. She does not experience the “anxiety of influence” the way her male counterparts do; her precursors not only embody patriarchal authority, they “attempt to enclose her in definitions of her person and potential which, by reducing her to extreme stereotypes (angel, monster), drastically conflict with her own sense of her self” (48).  The female author is battling against her male precursor’s reading of her–she is not competing with him but instead struggling to break free of the limitations he created for her.

 Gilbert and Gubar describe women as experiencing an “anxiety of authorship”, which they define as “a radical fear that she cannot create, that because she can never become a ‘precursor’ the act of writing will isolate or destroy her” (49). Women are attempting to break into a patriarchal structure, within which they are already socialized and deemed inferior. Gilbert and Gubar say that contemporary female authors are free of these limitations and isolation that their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century foremothers faced.

However, I’m not sure if these struggles are completely done away with, particularly in regards to the patriarchal literary structure and extreme stereotypes. On the one hand, we do see a greater population of female writers (within certain genres, although this was discussed more in my previous post on Cixous) and a broader range of female characters, but on the other hand, even these characters still somewhat fit these “angel/monster” polarized identities. In contemporary literature, television and movie storylines, women are the “girl next door” or the “bitch”, the sweet girlfriend or the heartless mistress. Slowly, I think, women’s roles are becoming more complicated, more empowered—i.e., the popular Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen (don’t judge me, I just watched the movie this weekend so she’s the first one I can think of. P.S., it was amazing J ). But I think the fact that this is still pointed out as significant means that it is still considered different; strong female lead characters, ones that don’t fall into either of the two aforementioned categories, are still considered the Other. How far have we come from the initial challenges that female writers faced? Do you guys think that the patriarchal and male literary structure has been broadened and expanded to include enough accomplished female literary figures that women have “foremothers” to look to? And if so, do they experience the “anxiety of influence” that their male counterparts do?

Yet again: Biology vs Society

In a “bringing-it-full-circle” kind of way, the readings for today made me think about biology and the historical and still present primacy of biology in light of social roles. The entire premise of the Gubar and Gilbert article was fascinating but reinforced the importance of the physical body. Exploring how the social strata manifested itself in a physical ailment in a woman is an alarming and supported concept but places the body and bodily reactions as more important than emotional or psychological reactions to the world. (A slightly tangential extension of the pervasive attitude can be seen in a general stigma against mental health.)  As a reader I found myself intrigued and compelled by the arguments but wonder to what degree this delegitimizes distress or discomfort that does not present itself in a physical means or even typically-presenting mental illness.

I felt this concept was particularly interesting in that the reading was paired with a work of fiction.  I suppose the justification for valuing the physical over the mental or emotional is that it is tangible, visible, and able to be accurately measured, whereas the psyche requires the intermediary of language which makes people fearful to trust its validity. I do not aim to debate this argument in this forum, but instead to point out that in a work of fiction we are given the luxury of complete trust in both the physical and psychic realities of characters. With an omniscient narrator, like we get with Monsieur Venus, there is no doubt as to the internal state of the characters as the text is gospel. It is not to be questioned that Raoule identifies with a male self that is in conflict with her physical body.

The gendered-nature of the conflicts of Raoule and Gubar and Gilbert’s female writers are different though, in that Raoule’s conflict lies fundamentally in biology whereas the writers’ lies in gendered social power structures. Raoule and the female writers discussed by Gubar and Gilbert are all capable and effective at performing gender and assuming masculine roles, yet they are unable to attain their desired ends.  Social strides have been made for conflicts like Raoule’s, A modern day Raoule could pursue sexual reassignment surgery and hormones, but progress is slower or less visible for modern female authors who still struggle to reconcile their female selves with the structure and history. Here again, we see that problems with a biological or physical basis are more easily addressed than an intangible, though very real, social ideology.

The Role of Raittolbe

Raittolbe and Marie’s relationship in Monsieur Venús serves as a foil to Jacques and Raoule’s relationship and reveals the extent to which Jacques and Raoule’s relationship subverts traditional gender roles and sexual practices. Marie attempts to transform herself socially through her relationship, while Raoule attempts to transform Jacques physically/mentally through hers. In both relationships, the females seem to be the ones possessing agency to manipulate people and relations, and an analogy can certainly be drawn between female agency in Monsieur Venús and that in Pride and Prejudice. However, while Jacques and Raoule’s relationship seems intended to serve as the main subversion in the novel, it can be argued, too, that their relationship often strengthens traditional gender roles, similarly to the argument Catharine MacKinnon makes in “Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: ‘Pleasure Under Patriarchy’”: Raoule takes the role of the man in her relationship and acts “as a man would” by exercising sexual control over Jacques, who takes the submissive role of the woman. In this way, even if Raoule and Jacques’s sexual practices aren’t “congruent with gender identity as it has traditionally been constructed” (xxx), their practices still seem to conform to a heterosexual norm.

That’s not to say Raittolbe and Marie’s relationship does much by way of subversion, either. However, Raittolbe’s character alone presents an interesting case. His sexual attraction to various characters in the novel appear much more fluid than others’, even if he is conflicted about his own. He is at various times attracted to Marie, who may represent a heterosexual norm; to Raoule, as a woman who he knows often cross-dresses and acts as a “man”; and to Jacques, as a man who appears and acts as a “woman.” Even though Raittolbe’s gender identity appears stabler than Jacques and Raoule’s, his sexual attractions put the notion of a stable sexual identity into question.

Looking at Raoule and Jacques alone, sexual identity seems to be presumed, while gender identity is put into question. With the inclusion of Raittolbe, however, both identities are unclear, and in this novel about subversion, it seems as though there’s a double subversion going on, with Raittolbe subverting the relationship of the main subversive couple. What, then, is Rachilde trying to say about gender and sexual identities, given the fact that there still seems to be an ever-present straight male gaze (on Jacques more than on other women in the novel, though this, too, puts into question the notion of a “straight male gaze”)? Raittolbe certainly plays an important role in the development of Raoule and Jacques’s relationship as he acts upon his disapproval of the relationship and his attraction toward both parties, and his presence makes the subversive element of their relationship even more evident. However, in imagining what Raoule and Jacques’s might have been without the interference of Raittolbe, I wonder if Raoule would have treated Jacques any differently in her house if he were alive or dead. That is, if Jacques had lived, would he still have been kept like a prisoner in the Vénérade mansion as a figure for Raoule to control and manipulate as Raoule does at the end of the novel with her wax mannequin of Jacques? If so, what does this then indicate about Raittolbe’s role?

Power Plays in “Monsieur Venus”

Throughout the entire novel, the language of Monsieur Venus speaks of love and sex not just in terms of affection and emotion, but specifically relates those feelings to the language of power – of dominance over and submission to another person. Other factors play into this power dynamic – money, beauty, occasionally narcotic substances. What follows is an attempt to trace these power dynamics.

In chapter seven, Rachilde abandons the plot momentarily and theorize about the power exchange that happens between a man and a woman during sex. Initially, “man possesses, woman submits” in the generative act, as the physical force of the man gives him control (90). After the sex act, however, man “deplet[es]” his power and thus becomes “feminized” and at mercy to pleasure (92). Pleasure is, of course, woman, that which tempted him in the first place and that which he originally conquered. Rachilde sees women as ultimately powerful over men because of their unceasing capacity to be sexually alluring. Interestingly enough, she states at the end of the passage that this conclusion means that Raoule will come to “possess” Jacques (92). (This foreshadows not only the dynamics of their relationship but also the ending of the book.)

I had a hard time following the power play between Raoule and Jacques, though. Initially, the power seems to be held entirely by Raoule – not only is she Jacques’ patroness and thus in charge financially and artistically, but she is also more aware of the sexual implications of their relationship and sex in general. She plays this up with the simultaneous infantiliation and feminization of Jacques; he feels like a “six-week-old baby” and is “more of a belle” than Raoule (85-86). This is in line with Rachilde’s foreshadowing at the end of chapter seven. Over the course of time, however, their power dynamic is complicated. Raoule states that “fresh and healthy flesh is the only power in the world,” and indeed, it seems as if she is the man, and not the woman, Rachilde speaks of in chapter seven. Her desire for Jacques causes her to do more and more extraordinary things – marrying out of her class in society, attacking Jacques in a fit of rage, and even ultimately being the catalyst for his death. Even if she is, to a certain extent, in control of Jacques, it seems as if she is not in control of herself, not caring whether her love for him takes her to “heaven or hell” (143).

After a certain point, even Raittolbe succumbs to the “power” of Jacques’ attraction when Jacques visits him, dressed as a woman. His honor becomes “vulnerable,” and the true extent of his vulnerability is exposed at Jacques’ death, when Raittolbe proclaims his love for Jacques (198). I’m not sure whether it confirms Jacques’ prowess as a seducer or merely demonstrates the weakness of all “men” when it comes to sexual temptation, though.

I don’t think I have anything too concrete to say about the power roles, but I personally thought that their ambiguity was one of the elements that made Monsieur Venus such an interesting read.