Latin American Women Writers

silvina_ocampos

In conjunction with a course I’m teaching on the topic, herewith a collection of posts on Latin American women writers:

Wikipedia’s Women Problem

We Can Edit

There’s much to say about women and Wikipedia… for instance, about the so-called “gender gap” that (it is said) can be seen both among the encyclopedia’s editors, who are overwhelmingly male, as well as in the articles themselves, which tend to treat topics historically coded as male at greater length and with more seriousness than they cover topics associated with women.

Indeed, a lot has been written about the topic, but one of the smartest commentators on these issues was Adrianne Wadewitz: see her HASTACS blog, and entries such as “Wikipedia’s gender gap and the complicated reality of systemic gender bias”.

Wadewitz mentions what she calls “categorygate,” the furor sparked by Amanda Filipacchi’s New York Times Op-Ed: “Wikipedia’s Sexism Towards Women Novelists”. See also James Gleick’s article for the New York Review of Books blog: “Wikipedia’s Women Problem”.

In this context, it’s worth noting that though there are now (roughly parallel) categories for (say) women novelists and male novelists on the English Wikipedia, this is not the case on the Spanish Wikipedia. Here (for instance) the category escritoras is simply a subset of the broader category escritores, and there is no corresponding division of “escritores masculinos.”

This disparity between the treatment of (women) writers on the two Wikipedias is, of course, partly for linguistic reasons, stemming from differences between English and Spanish. But only partly. And in any case, why should such different ways of encoding gendered identities within language remain sacrosanct?

Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria

Freud, Dora

In one of his final essays, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” (1937), Sigmund Freud writes that “it almost looks as if analysis were the third of those ‘impossible’ professions in which one can be sure beforehand of achieving unsatisfying results. The other two, which have been known much longer, are education and government.” In some ways this is a rather dispiriting conclusion to a life’s work, though it fits with the melancholy tone of much of Freud’s later pronouncements, written in exile from Nazism and in the shadow of impending world war. See for instance the last sentence tacked on to the end of Civilization and its Discontents in 1931, tempering its hitherto relatively upbeat conclusion about the return of Eros: “But who can foresee with what success and with what result?”

At the same time, there is also a resigned determination here reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Just because an enterprise is doomed to failure doesn’t mean it’s not worth undertaking. The fact that something is impossible doesn’t necessarily mean we should cease striving towards it. Few would suggest we give up on education or government however much they, too, are destined to “unsatisfying results.” Like Sisyphus, we roll the stone up the hill once more.

What is interesting is that, for all the confident tone of Freud’s earlier writings, in which he presents himself as the heroic scientist or explorer uncovering an entire new world, failure was always inscribed into the heart of psychoanalysis. Famously, he seldom held up much hope for a cure to the human condition or the various psychological maladies that afflict us. As early as Studies in Hysteria (1895), the most that he felt able to promise was to transform “hysterical misery into everyday unhappiness.” Moreover, his first published case study, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905), ostensibly presented as the confirmation of certain of Freud’s insights on dream analysis and symptomology, is also manifestly a narrative of a failed analysis. After a mere couple of months, the patient gives up on the treatment as though quitting a bad habit at year’s end: “she said good-bye to me very warmly, with the heartiest wishes for the New Year, and–came no more” (100).

Not that Freud is all that apologetic for his failure with Dora. If anything, quite the contrary: he takes her decision to break off the analysis as confirmation of his interpretation of her symptoms, and of his theories in general. For the problem with Dora is her “craving for revenge” (101), exacted against all those who show her affection. She treats those around her (particularly the men) with what Freud calls “an almost malignant vindictiveness” (96). No surprise, then, that he should characterize her behavior with him as “an unmistakable act of vengeance on her part” (100). That is just how she is. And the fact that Freud should be receiving the same treatment as she doled out to her mother, her father, and family friend “Herr K.” merely demonstrates that the analysis is working, and that transference is setting in. After all, Freud concludes, “No one who, like me, conjures up the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human breast, and seeks to wrestle with them, can expect to come through the struggle unscathed” (100).

There are some harsh words here reserved for Dora. It is as though it were a case more of exorcism than of therapy. No doubt the young woman in question would have her own choice words to say in return. But she is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t: continuing the analysis legitimates her treatment as much as breaking it off also ended up doing; when she is on the couch, all her protestations are taken simply as instances of denial. And at the end of the day, when this “talking cure” is written up, it is Freud who does all the talking (and none of the cure).

The sad irony is that the reason Dora comes (or is brought) to Freud in the first place concerns a story she tells that nobody will believe. She has been out for a stroll with an older man (Herr K.), who apparently propositioned her, getting a slap across the face for his efforts. K., who is married (though in a somewhat sordid ménage a quatre his wife turns out to be Dora’s father’s mistress), vehemently denies that anything of the sort took place. And though Freud believes Dora’s story, he does so only to turn the tables on Dora’s own denial that she was interested in K. Isn’t she secretly in love with him after all, the analyst asks? Doesn’t she turn him down only because she was jealous that he had (it seems) earlier also tried to force himself on his family’s governess? Or was she simply playing hard to get? After all, she didn’t even mention the scene until a fortnight afterwards, as she was waiting “so as to see whether he would repeat his proposals; if he had, [she] would have concluded that he was in earnest, and did not mean to play with [her] as he had done with the governess” (98). K. himself, meanwhile, can hardly be blamed for being disappointed at Dora’s apparent rejection of him: surely “he must long before have gathered from innumerable small signs that he was secure of the girl’s affections” (39).

All this has understandably raised the hackles of feminists. Not least because it goes against the grain of the prevailing mantra by which men are (rightly) reminded that women’s agency should be respected: “No means no.” What to do then with a psychoanalytic theory that claims so definitively that “there is no such thing at all as an unconscious ‘No'” (50) and that therefore advises the “inquirer” not to “rest content with the first ‘No’ that crosses his path” (18)?

One response might be to suggest that there is a distinction between an encounter by a lake (or in a bar or wherever) and the analytic couch. Out and about, in normal circumstances, we should take a “no” at face value; perhaps therapy presents a space where such denials can and should be questioned and challenged. But how distinct are those two settings really? Isn’t the danger that the analyst repeats the traumatic situation that inspired the call for help (and this is manifestly his aim: “a whole series of psychological experiences are revived” through transference [106]) only also to replicate the cultural prejudices that were the true source of the trauma… “You did want it, didn’t you?” There are few points at which Freud, for all his scandalous iconoclasm, more clearly reveals himself to be a man of his time, and psychoanalysis to be an agent of normalization and (ultimately) repression. So no wonder its work is never done: as analytic theory itself tells us, repression is never either total or complete.

fray

The notion of rewriting or creatively adapting a classic text is hardly new. From Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea to Apocalypse Now or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the idea is to take a cultural ur-text from which in some way we cannot escape, and to reform it for contemporary concerns or sensibilities.

Sometimes the aim is simply to recontextualize or update a story that is now thought to be stale or over-familiar (as with the numerous reimaginings of Shakespeare such as 10 Things I Hate About You). But often these always parasitical texts also present strong misreadings that are implicit, or even explicit, critiques of the original; Rhys’s novel could be the (by now itself classic) instance of such a critical rewriting.

J M Coetzee, FoeJ. M. Coetzee’s Foe belongs to this tradition, but in some ways his text is as much an unwriting of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as it is a revision or extension of the original. Coetzee purports to reveal and so undermine the writing strategy that gives us Defoe’s book; Foe is a parasite that aims to kill its host by imaginatively troubling the very process of its production. It poses as less supplement than antidote.

Hence, then, the novel’s title. In the first instance, “Foe” is a deformation of the name by which we have come to know Robinson Crusoe‘s author. It strips him of the claim to privilege that Daniel Foe attempted to assume when he changed his name to Defoe in order to imply some kind of aristocratic lineage. But second, Coetzee’s book also treats Defoe as the enemy of the story that Coetzee, or his proxy Mary Barton, wishes to tell about desert islands, so-called savagery, but above all story-telling and writing itself.

Barton is Foe‘s protagonist and, in one way or another, its narrative voice. To remind us of this notion of voice, the first two-thirds of the novel is written, literally, in quotation marks: this contains Barton’s own account of her arrival on a desert island in which Cruso (for so she spells his name) and “his” man Friday are already established, of the trio’s rescue by an English merchantman, and of Cruso’s subsequent death on the voyage home; it also includes her increasingly anguished letters, from various lodgings in London, to the author Daniel Foe to whom she has entrusted her story with the hope that he will produce a polished account of her travails. The final third of the book (apart from a very brief section that is more of an epilogue) then consists of Barton’s conversations with Foe when she finally tracks him down to find out what kind of narrative the author is making of her experience.

The problem for Barton is that, at least initially, she doesn’t trust herself to put things into suitable words. She is told by the captain of the ship taking her to England that hers “is a story you should set down in writing and offer to the booksellers” but replies that “a liveliness is lost in the writing down which must be supplied by art, and I have no art.” To which the captain responds that “the booksellers will hire a man to set your story to rights” (40). Enter Daniel (De)Foe, then, as the man who will set Barton’s story “to rights.”

Setting Barton’s story to rights, however, introduces a series of apparent wrongs. For one thing, art seems to require embellishment. Life on the island was, after all, on the whole rather boring, not least because Cruso had been far from an entertaining conversationalist: so engaged was he in interminable agricultural labors that he had “nothing left to talk of save the weather.” Barton therefore muses at the time that “Cruso rescued will be a deep disappointment to the world; the idea of a Cruso on his island is a better thing than the true Cruso tight-lipped and sullen in an alien England” (34-5). It is Foe’s task, then, to preserve the idea of Cruso from the disappointing reality.

This embellishment, though, further requires a whole series of other changes. Passion has to be added to the mix: if there was “too little desire in Cruso and Friday: too little desire to escape, too little desire for a new life,” then something needs to be done because “without desire how is it possible to make a story?” (88). And as a counterpoint (or perhaps, prompt) to desire, Foe injects also fear of exotic difference and strangeness: the island needs to be under the threat of encroaching cannibals, even though Barton herself notes that “As for cannibals, I am not persuaded” for “I saw no cannibals; and if they came after nightfall and fled before the down, they left no footprint behind” (54). No footprint: Foe’s task, his art, is to supply signs such as the famous footprint in the sand that will conjure up the range of affects that may transform Barton’s tale into one that satisfies English readers’ desires for… well, desire itself.

His enterprise is made easier, though its result all the more troubling, by the fact that not only is the sullen Cruso no longer around to disappoint would-be interlocutors, but Friday is mute, his tongue mysteriously removed by person or persons alone (other “savages”? Cruso himself?). The subaltern subject can only have his tale told for him: “The true story will not be heard till by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday” (118). And yet Friday’s silence pervades the book, garnering almost physical presence as it is compared to “smoke [. . .] a welling of black smoke” (118).

Soon Barton, if not Foe, realizes that Friday’s story, which will remain forever untold, “is properly not a story but a puzzle or hole in the narrative” (121). Foe is apparently set on making up for this unfillable hole at the center of his story “by inventing cannibals and pirates,” but Barton continually and resolutely rejects such narrative solutions to the problem of mute subalternity.

So if Cruso is sullenly and uninterestingly silent, and Friday is mute because of some unnameable and unlocatable violence, Barton’s own lively but resistant voice, which gives Foe its substance, will in turn have to be silenced so as to give proper literary form to the text that will become Robinson Crusoe. The third and final silence, then, is the silencing of Barton for the sake of the story. As she herself imagines it, Foe will come to think “Better had there been only Cruso and Friday. [. . .] Better without the woman” (72).

The paradox, as Barton observes it, is that she is both essential to the story (“Yet where would you be without the woman?” [72]) and at the same time resistant to the process of story-telling and the sureties that it seems to require: “I am not a story, Mr Foe,” she asserts (131); “But now all my life grows to be story and there is nothing of my own left to me. [. . .] Nothing is left to me but doubt. I am doubt itself. Who is speaking me?” (133).

If then, Robinson Crusoe is a tale of destitution overturned or compensated for by (male) hard work and ingenuity (though as I have suggested, some markers of the doubt that undoes its claims remain), Foe is an account of a different kind of destitution: of the way in which in which literature itself is a means by which to deny the subaltern (woman) her questioning, doubt-filled voice, and to project other desires onto the mute subaltern (savage) that remains.

Foe is a reminder, moreover, of what Barton terms “the life of a substantial body” even though that life is “abject. It is the life of a thing” (125-7). Barton consistently affirms substance and “substantial being” (90) while recognizing the power of writing and the way that even substance can be written out, written over, or lost. “Return to me the substance I have lost, Mr Foe,” she entreats (51).

Foe suggests that that only way to do justice to such loss of substance is to take up arms against the writers of the classics, to undo their claims of authorial mastery–though of course one of the many ironies of this contest is that the masterful Coetzee emerges from the fray with substantial authority himself.

blasé

Lieutenant Nun coverCatalina de Erauso’s Lieutenant Nun is a quite extraordinary little book. It is, as the subtitle indicates, the “Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World.” Or as Catalina herself summarizes her own story, when she ultimately reveals her identity to the Bishop of Huamanga sometime around 1619:

The truth is this: that I am a woman, that I was born in such and such a place, the daughter of this man and this woman, that at a certain age I as placed in a certain convent with a certain aunt, that I was raised there and took the veil and became a novice, and that when I was about to profess my final vows, I left the convent for such and such a reason, went to such and such a place, undressed myself and dressed myself up again, cut my hair traveled here and there, embarked, disembarked, hustled, killed, maimed, wreaked havoc, and roamed about, until coming to a stop in this very instant, at the feet of Your Eminence. (64)

This sentence also gives a sense of the tone of the book: breezy, even when recounting killings, maimings, and the wreaking of havoc. Details are distributed around the text in what appears to be a fairly arbitrary manner: we are often told how many monasteries a given city contains, and how many leagues it is from the next city; we may or may not, however, learn the precise reasons for a killing or a maiming or what exactly provokes our heroine to pack up her bags once again and move on in her adventures.

Catalina skips over some episodes and lingers over others for no obvious reason; she hardly seems to care about a reader’s desire to know more about the “this, that, and the other thing” (47) that she so casually invokes. She certainly has no desire to court the crowds that gather around her once her story becomes public. However extraordinary her tale is, she wants to treat it as absolutely matter-of-fact.

Yet it is extraordinary, not least because Erauso is indeed both lieutenant and nun in roughly equal measure. It is not that she transforms from one to the other, rather that she is constantly switching between the two.

On one level, for instance, the narrative is remarkably unified as it tells the tale of Catalina’s spiritual progress. She begins as a novice, sent to a Basque convent at the age of four, and she ends up in Rome where she meets the Pope (Urban VIII) and chats to cardinals. En route, moreover, she is in and out of convents and churches. Indeed, at just about every opportunity we find her running back to the church.

But on another level, that of Catalina the picaresque rogue and ne’er-do-well, the narrative is equally unified. For she turns to the church for protection so frequently simply because she is endlessly getting into trouble of one sort or another. More than once she is condemned to death, for instance, for some murder or another. Sometimes she is guilty, sometimes not; it matters little. Either way, through some trick (or the help of a passing fellow Basque) she makes her way to the local cathedral and holes up there for a while until she can sneak away once more and resume her wayward rough-and-tumble life.

Hence there is a little coda to the story. In the book’s final and shortest chapter, after Catalina’s meeting with the church hierarchy in Rome and after a nice little joke which feels like the punchline to the book as one long shaggy-dog story, she leaves Rome for Naples. And here, down by the docks, still dressed as a man but known to be a woman, she is dressed by a couple of prostitutes who are chatting up their potential tricks. “Señora Catalina,” they shout out, apparently flirtatiously, “where are you going, all by your lonesome?” (80)

Catalina de ErausoResponding to this combination of provocation and invitation from the prostitutes, this woman who has long lived as a man replies as… well, either as lieutenant or as nun, or perhaps as both. “My dear harlots,” she says, “I have come to deliver one hundred to your pretty little necks, and a hundred gashes with this blade to the fool who would defend your honor.” Michele Stepto argues that this is a “parody of masculinist culture,” which is surely right. It is also a threat to re-impose normative morality upon a pair of wayward women. And it is a curiously ambivalent response (“my dear harlots”) to an entreaty which itself is ambivalently coded as either heterosexual or homosexual (indeed, no doubt both). To the painted ladies of Naples, this Basque cross-dresser throws back a performance that they are unsure how to read or answer.

No wonder that, in what is the book’s rather abrupt final sentence, we are told that “the women fell dead silent, and then they hurried off” (80). A similar silence is perhaps also our best response to this narrative that demands to be read but whose author is strangely blasé about her (or his?) readers.

britney

Images of Britney Spears all around. Different forms of kitsch, different juxtapositions of mass culture and politics, different layerings of irony…

From Tomas Van Houtryve, a t-shirt on a Nepalese Maoist:


via antipopper, who gave us this poster child for a Britneyist-Marxist International:


Meanwhile, compare this, a “pro-life” sculpture:

Britney sculpture
See also infinite th0ught’s “modernism’s spears of destiny” and Wrong Side of Capitalism’s “The work of Britney in the age of mechanical reproduction”.

And see further Jane Renaud’s “Old Bev: POP! Culture” and Timothy Don’s “Negotiations 7: Channeling Britney”, both at 3QuarksDaily.

Bachelet

Michelle BacheletAnd now Chile.

Also here, from Las Últimas noticias, and here from La Tercera; El Mercurio has yet to register the news… update, that’s not quite fair as El Mercurio Online, a separate site, has, under the subhead “Histórico triunfo de la candidata de la Concertación”.

Only the second woman to be elected head of state in South America, a socialist and former detainee under Pinochet, a single mother in a country that only legalized divorce last year.

(Other elected women heads of state in the region: Violetta Chamorro, Nicaragua, in 1990; Janet Jagan, Guyana, in 1997; and Mireya Moscoso, Panama, in 1999. The first woman head of state in the Americas was Isabel Perón, from 1974 to 1976, who assumed power on the death of her husband. Indeed, all these four were widows of prominent public figures.)

Here’s Michelet’s campaign blog. Its post-victory entry stresses the affective, reading in part:

Still it’s not words that matter today, but the emotion, the embraces, the happiness of the friends with whom we have shared this long campaign, all those who put up posters, went door to door, convinced a friend to share a dream, the possible dream of a fairer country in which a woman who was once the victim of hate is today the President-elect of Chile . . . We have made history. But that history has only just begun.

And el teléfono rojo, a group blog dedicated to covering the election. Who note that one Chilean TV channel showed Bullworth immediately after concluding its election coverage.

See also Matthew Søberg Shugart, who at Fruits and Votes stresses the continuities rather than the changes registered by this election, in that “It has now been 48 years since Chileans elected a president who was neither a Socialist nor a Christian Democrat”. Which is true enough, but the move within the Concertación from Frei to Lagos to Bachelet is also definitely a leftward drift. (While the Concertación and the Unidad Popular are hardly cut from the same cloth.)

But for a well-merited word of caution, here’s Marc Cooper: “Her potential to enact more than symbolic change, however, is something that must be viewed with a certain dose of skepticism”. Echoed by Beautiful Horizons, who underlines particularly the issue of military finances.