In "The Laugh of the Medusa," Hélène Cixous constructs a programme that differentiates feminine writing from masculine writing. According to Cixous, Western civilization privileges masculine reasoning and meanings and depreciates the experience of women. The masculine languages of society perpetuate the male domination of women. To subvert these conventional languages fostered by patriarchal societies, Cixous develops écriture féminine — feminine writing — emphasizing the feelings and experiences of women. Cixous' weapon is the female body. She demands that women write about "women and bring women to writing" by asserting the female body (2039). By using the female body as a medium of discourse, Cixous differentiates feminine writing from masculine writing that has been produced under patriarchal authority. Cixous' feminist agenda for writing rejects strategies that oppose masculine modes of discourse. Instead, Cixous undertakes strategies of diffemeránce — strategies that defer and differ from male methods. With Cixous' approach, feminists can construct a programme for sexual difference, create their own history, and develop a different understanding of society's relation to nature.
Feminists use the term "logocentrism" to express how male sexuality and masculine language impose meanings onto words, and influence perceptions of reality. Cixous maintains logocentric thinking focuses on the phallus. Masculine thinking centres on the conviction that appeals to reason using Platonic philosophy will produce truth. Women who function within masculine thinking restrict themselves to the range of its logocentric vocalizations. A woman who uses a language centred on the phallus writes as a man. Cixous' stratagem thwarts masculine strategies of control inherent in masculine, oral discourses. Language centred on the phallus snares women into silence. By writing through their bodies, women acquire speech independent of the phallus (2044). Cixous' strategy of writing soars beyond the barriers of the "old patterns" of thinking that repressed women's sexuality. Her writing creates a feminine vocal domain, centred on female "erotogeneity," constructed of fantasies during masturbation (2040). This sphere of écriture féminine exists independently, being deferred differently from the phallogocentric meanings of words provided by the phallus centred logos. In this context, the term logos represents more than the Greek word for reason, implying society as presently constituted.
Inspired by Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology, Cixous questions the adequacy of the "either/or logics" of Western philosophy predicated on binary oppositions, such as male and female, culture and nature, presence and absence, and good and evil. Derrida questions Western philosophy's privileging of the spoken over the written, a bias preempting feminine writing and the reality of women in culture. By emphasizing the written, Derrida exposes the discrepancy between a word's signifier and its signified, and renders unstable the meaning of any text. Cixous inserts her signifieds of the female body into this gap, rupturing the structure of the logos (Cixous 2051). Conditioned on sexual difference instead of sexual opposition, feminine signifiers operate independently of negated masculine signifiers. The signifiers of feminine writing are absorbed throughout the open sphere of meanings spanned by the female body's signification, and map into the realm of écriture féminine. Reterritorializing their bodies by writing, women create a language with an interior "to get inside of," a place of feminine jouissance (2050).
Cixous blocks dialectic's logic of contradiction which presents a woman's status as a man lacking a penis. Privileging "the phallus as the symbol and source of power" colonizes women in society, relegating them to a passive, supportive role for men's active role (2040-41). Historically, language empowers men and subjugates women, and impedes society's adjustment to sexual and gender equality. Cixous disrupts semiotics' structure of communication which posits persisting links between signifiers and signifieds determined by the logos. Using strategies that defer and differ to work the in-between, she exploits Derrida's differánce, "the obliterated origin of absence and presence," to write a programme for sexual difference with its own history (Derrida 143). Cixous refuses to engage in the confrontation games pitting feminine representations against masculine representations of truth. Questioning Freud's psychoanalytic theories, she states that Freud incorrectly turns Medusa into a monster by associating the snakes of her head with women's denial of castration. Within écriture féminine, Cixous sees Medusa as a beautiful woman laughing (2048).
Cixous' perception of Medusa relates intimately to feminists' theories of the gaze. Men look at women differently than women look at one another, and the way women look at men. Sexual desire conditions the gaze, while fantasies constructed socially through language determine desire. Consequently, Derrida's theory of the instability of the meaning of words relates to desire, the gaze, and the impossibility of satisfying desire. Cixous links her desires to a "passionate and precise interrogation of her erotogeneity" involving masturbation and writing (2040). Her body's rapture into "luminous torrents" creates beautiful compositions that "parental-conjugal phallocentrism" considers sick and monstrous (2040). Cixous urges women to "write and proclaim this unique empire" that legitimizes feminine beauty, and to break from the discourses that kept women in the dark from each other (2040). The masculine terror of the trouble that will ensue if women write the "fantastic tumult" of their drives impels the legend of Medusa as a monster (2040). Based on their different erogenous zones, feminine fantasies and interpretations of legends defer and differ from the masculine, vanquishing the monsters of masculine legends.
Parents construct their children's self-concepts that persist through adulthood. According to Freud, the superego is "that part of the psyche that develops through the incorporation of the moral standards of the child's parents and community" (Cixous 2044). Cixous calls this mechanism of social control the "superegoized structure," and claims it nurtures the debasing belief in women's guilt (2044). Because women's bodies stir up uncontrollable desires, society assigns women the role of the guilty party. To meet its masculine objectives, society censors women's bodies, restricting women's expression of their bodies. However, a woman's body connects with the reality of her unconscious. By using her body like a litmus test, a woman can detect and erase the inhibitions imposed by censorship. Freeing women's libidos by writing the diffemeránce of their bodies, Cixous' programme emancipates women from the strictures of parental and social censorship, producing a "mutation in human relations" and thinking (2046).
According to Cixous, history suppresses women, and strangles a woman's rights to herself. Tradition cons women into "accepting a domain which is the margin or the harem" (2044). Custom reduces women to being "the servant of the militant male, his shadow" (2044). Masculine language constructs the culture of death that conventional history describes. By celebrating the emancipation of their bodies' desires with written and oral language, Cixous asserts women bifurcate the dynamics of history's paradigm. Detaching from the history of death, the history of life opens elsewhere (2056). This new history excludes the masculine "enticement machine" luring women into the phallocentric discourses of death that contaminate women's relationships with their mothers and other women (2045-6).
The differánt history of women blends personal, collective, national, and world histories (2046). Men's history colonizes, enslaves, wages war, exploits, maims and kills, and degrades nature and women. While presently the dual realms of the histories of life and death maintain the binary distinction of feminine and masculine, their common boundaries accept transitions. Through exchanges, women and men take their forms, knowing and beginning one another anew, "through millions of encounters and transformations" (2047). These interactions will further bifurcate the dynamics of the dual histories of life and death, erasing the binary of gender. In future realities, all subjects, who are free from the historical realm of "phallocentric representationalism," will celebrate their differences and receive the pleasure of their own "erotic universe" (2047).
In Daphne Marlatt's Ana Historic, Ana Richards flees the repressive upbringing of her dour, controlling father in England. Lured by the frontier freedom in 1873 Vancouver, Ana assumes the name of Mrs. Richards, possibly because of familial incest (56). Based on Ana's diary, Marlatt's narrator, Annie Anderson, writes an imagined life for Ana. But Annie's body opposes the representational stability of the phallogocentric meanings of words, and resists her writing. Annie wants to write (45). However, if she writes her own body, who will see the body her writing subsumes (50)? Furthermore, if phallogocentric discourses constructed Annie's concept of her body, can she reconstruct her feminine body while writing through her masculinized, socially constructed body (133)? Can she "forge for herself the antilogos weapon" by writing (Cixous 2044)? Can she fight "through the thicket of others' definitions she resists" (Marlatt 132)? Can her words create a place, Cixous' sphere of écriture féminine, where her soul feels at home in her skin (40)?
Annie Anderson reflects over Ana's diary entries (Marlatt 46). Why does Ana render the wilderness and Vancouver's "Rough Lot" into words (55)? For whom does Ana write? Finding Vancouver to be a new world, Ana writes to her father, "that has made all the difference" (85). Somehow, her "freedom of the intellect" causes her to feel her "difference from the other women" (32). Ana's mother abandoned Ana and her father because Mr. Richards disapproved of his wife's dancing (72). Thereafter, Ana was her father's handmaiden. In Vancouver she is the widow, Mrs. Richards, "'free' without being sexually free" (32). However, Ana shocks Mrs. Alexander when she says the schoolroom makes "a splendid room for dancing" (71). Even in Vancouver she is prevented from dancing. Ana wants that which "womanhood must content itself without" (72). Objectifying herself within the pronoun "itself," Ana thinks she has failed as a woman (72). Ana wonders if she has become the monster her father feared (72). Her feminine fantasies frighten her, and Annie imagines Birdie Stewart rebuking Ana by saying, "You're afraid of your own twat" (135).
Annie and Ana obsess about men looking at their bodies. As a teenager, Annie solicits the approval of "male eyes" (50). Tanning at Princess Pool, her girlfriend, Donna, suggests Annie use the passive strategy of letting the "hunks" look instead of looking at them (82). The "tyranny of eyes" determines their demeanour, converting all their actions "into the passive: to be seen" (52). To buy provisions, Ana must walk past the ogling eyes of the men gathered around Harvey's stove (54). When a strange man notices her walking in Gastown, Ana feels like a game bird, "a grouse flushed from the bush" (102). Eventually, Ana becomes Ben Springer's grouse, accepting his look by marrying him (107). Teenaged Annie and Ana trade in an "economy" that is "based on the value" of their bodies (82). Cixous urges using the female body as a medium of discourse. Instead, teenaged Annie and Ana use their bodies as commodities of exchange. By accepting how society objectifies their bodies, they submit themselves to a powerless role.
Marlatt commingles Annie and Ana's effort to write, and their fixation about their bodies as objects. Ana describes nature around Vancouver, and writes about what she hears about animals and Indians. Memories of her mother, Ina, interrupt Annie's desire to write (49). Annie stumbles over the "deadfalls" of words and their "hidden claims to a reality others have made" (32). Annie wants to write about Ana, but writing with masculine linguistic structures leaves Annie with writer's block, preventing her from expressing fantasies that satisfy her. She wants something omitted from the gaze of the phallic signifiers embedded in language (Cixous 2055). Alienated by phallogocentric meanings of words, Annie searches for her path to the sphere of écriture féminine.
Annie formed her self-concept in the nuclear family in which she was raised. Annie's father, Harald, who works as an accountant for a logging company, exerts his power in the family by controlling the finances. Although Harald is "obsessed with figures," he also is "patient to a fault, longsuffering, a saint" (95). Using a phallic metaphor, Annie describes him "as the centre pole of our world, backbone and head of the house" (95). Harald's power renders Ina powerless as she frets about him preceding her in death (95). Similarly, the masculine power inherent in language renders Annie vulnerable, as she frets about what Richard will say about her "scribbling" (81). Even in marrying Richard, Annie enacts the plot line of Ina's story (17). Unable to escape her own marriage, Ina's hatred for her husband destroys her. Does Ina want to put Annie through what she had to go through, hating her body as if it had betrayed her (62)? Why does Annie feel so dissatisfied with a reasonable, thoughtful father, and a husband who according to Richard's graduate student is "such a wonderful prof" (59)?
According to Cixous, society alienates women from their bodies, teaching them to ignore their bodies through false sexual modesty (2049). While Ina claims she taught Annie to take pride in her appearance, Annie declares Ina taught her pride on the outside, and shame on the inside (61). Developing into a woman, the teenaged Annie hates her body's betrayal. While juvenile girls' bodies are theirs to do with as they like, teenagers' slang words for the female body such as "'cunt,' 'slit,' 'boob'" betray girls and boys' thoughts (62). Ina becomes more concerned about her daughters as their sexuality becomes evident. She teaches Annie and her sisters her fear, "a world where even uncles were not to be trusted" (34). Perpetuating women's invisible, absent role, Ina teaches her daughters that "ladies do not draw attention to themselves" (34). While men articulate their preferences as Spirit, women remain silent as Soul with unexpressed preferences and unrealized desires (35). Men actively embrace presence. Women passively endure absence.
Marlatt's title, Ana Historic, suggests a differánt history, a silent, feminine chronicle unfolding concurrently with the clamour of masculine history. These histories register diverse worlds. One world is historic, and the other world is a-historic (129). One history is written, while the other history is unwritten, because it runs through women's bodies (131). Men write to get "a grip on the world," and to influence the course of events recorded as written history (133). Struggling to tame the world's nature, men write, repressing women's nature. Pre-empted from writing masculine language authentically, women live inside a qualitatively different history. Marlatt aligns the silence of trees with the silence of women, and wonders what they would say if "they could speak an unconditioned language" (75). Would they release "a torrent of speech" like nature wantonly releasing torrents of flora, fauna, water, wind, and lava (49)?
Periodically, Marlatt interjects Annie's writing with quotations from M. Allerdale Grainger's Woodsmen of the West. Marlatt contrasts the culture of the men in Woodsmen, Ana's diary, and newspaper articles with the culture of women such as Ina, Annie, and Ana. In Grainger's story of history, Carter dominates nature, mastering his men and machinery to haul huge logs into the ocean from the timbered mountain slopes (Marlatt 25). The loggers' frenetic activity contrasts with the peaceful "hours of nothing" of Ina and Annie waiting for their children and husbands to come home (24). In Ana's Vancouver, the noise from the bullwhackers bellowing at oxen hauling logs, and the screech from the saws as the men cut lumber in the sawmill inundates Ana in the intimacy of her school room (53). Ana writes that Captain Soule, while escorting her, inconsiderately refers to the twin peaks north of Vancouver as Sheba's Paps, leaving her feeling vulnerable and unsure about an appropriate response. Men use their power to exploit other men, nature, animals, and women.
The cultures of the men and women constructed by Grainger and Marlatt relate differently to nature. Grainger's men struggle against "nature and natural objects" through the ingenious use of simple means, in an environment where "it rains steadily through the hours, night and day, day in day out, week after week" (41, 106). Their athletic and aesthetic skill with an axe and saw, and their physical endurance over long days of work delight them. With so much work to be done, a logger's work "makes a difference" (43). Grainger writes, "romance lurks there" (72). Working together in small groups "against nature in its Wilderness," men accomplish "noteworthy things by strain and stress of sweaty labour, hard endurance, and laborious ingenuity" (72). A logger experiences each day like a separate life, and "tomorrow is like the life beyond death" (43). The loggers' simplicity contrasts with the power of an entrepreneur like Carter, who schemes, manipulates, and bullies as he ransacks British Columbia's rainforests. Although the loggers of Woodsmen work in nature at the edge of civilization, the loggers' culture subsists detached from nature.
Marlatt's women live contiguously to the rainforest with its "veritable curtain" of rain (30). As a juvenile, Annie wants to run free in the "spirited" woods near her home, deftly avoiding "deadfalls, bush blinds, and ghost stumps glowing in the twilight," and being surprised by the "sudden awful drumming of a grouse" (13). When Annie and Donna escape the "hotbed of home" walking in the woods, they discover two women in the back seat of a car parked along a deserted trail (106). Romance dwells in the forest. Ana writes, "My keenest pleasure is to walk in the woods" (31). She likes to write in her diary at her favourite spot, letting "the words gather on the page" (41). Sheltered by nature, she evades the influence of masculine civilization. Despite warnings about the dangers lurking in the woods, Annie and Ana empathize with birds and trees (30). According to Cixous, women live in flight, taking after "birds and robbers just as robbers take after women and birds," stealing away along hidden paths (2051). Annie imagines Ana surreptitiously following a faint path deep into the woods, and joining two women she discovers bathing in the warm waters of a secret pool fed by hot springs (Marlatt 86). The women of Ana Historic connect intimately with nature and to each other.
Marlatt begins her story with Annie waking from a dream. Annie remembers herself, as a fearful teenager, creeping downstairs with a knife, searching for a strange man hiding in a wardrobe. Marlatt ends the book with Annie, trembling, ascending the stairs to Zoe's bedroom. She has left her husband, Richard, with his masculine history, and joined Zoe, Eunice, and Nora in a house they all share. As they work at the kitchen table, the music under their voices reminds Annie of "the quiet interplay of wind, trees, rain, creeping things under leaves," and their words spin on inside her head and her body (151). Able to escape her marriage to Richard, Annie constructs a new life as Annie Torrent. Cixous says that feminists' differánt history, and the distinction between feminine writing and masculine writing are real, not a dream (2046). In The Hélène Cixous Reader, Cixous explains that she uses the terms masculine and feminine to distinguish between different modes of behaviour that "derive from our response to life" (199). She advises using strategies of diffemeránce that preserve difference, rather than masculine strategies that annihilate difference with binaries. Since écriture féminine escapes the "infernal repetition" of the status quo, its new language and history will "initiate changes" in the existing social and political orders (xxix).
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© Elmer Wiens