sábado, 12 de junho de 2010
From Sappho to ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’
By KATHRYN HARRISON
Desire Between Women in Literature
By Emma Donoghue
Illustrated. 271 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95
Were an intelligent, determined scholar to set herself the task of sifting through the last thousand years of Western culture’s literary output, would she be able to discern a “historical moment when something changed in the way women’s love was experienced and interpreted”? The short answer is no, not really. The longer answer is “Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature,” by the novelist, playwright and literary critic Emma Donoghue.
Those literary historians whose “scores of studies” Donoghue consulted identified two trends: After 1500, British literature betrays an “increasing interest” in love between women; and late-19th-century medicine introduced popular culture to lesbians as a “clearly defined type.” Apart from these gross and easily observable shifts, the rest of Western literature has remained a relatively uncharted territory with respect to tracking the subject of desire between women. And, as the work of a lesbian academic, “Inseparable” must establish its relationship to Adrienne Rich’s seminal — sorry, it is a phallocentric popular culture — 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” which proposed a “lesbian continuum” that includes all relationships between women, regardless of their sexual orientation.
By this logic, “Thelma and Louise” is a lesbian film even though its heroines don’t have a sexual bond, and “Jane Eyre” a lesbian novel because Jane, though heterosexual, develops (chaste) crushes on an older girl and her headmistress. In fact, Donoghue regards “Jane Eyre” as the “founding text of the tradition” of narratives in which young women are collected in institutions like boarding schools, convents and colleges, where, isolated from men, they discover same-sex love. (Curiously, she leaves out women’s prisons, the mention of which has become almost code for Sapphic predation.)
Although “desire between women” implies sexual longing, “Inseparable” considers all relationships between women, not only the erotic. Donoghue avoids the word “lesbian” whenever possible because, she says, it doesn’t “do justice to the variety of women’s bonds in literature.” But the choice adgjhkoçp´gedery6u89itg6y7i-ot to draw distinctions among friendship, non-incestuous familial attachment and sexual attraction places “Inseparable” in the company of critical works that adopt Rich’s paradigm, which regards female heterosexuality not as a fact but as an “enormous assumption.”
The result of Donoghue’s canvassing centuries of literature is a narrative the author presents as a “family tree” of centuries-old themes “hybridizing and mutating in every generation.” Donoghue scrutinizes what she judges to be the six “most perennially popular plot motifs.” The first of these is “Travesties”: story lines that unfold around cross-dressing’s alternate forms, the “female bridegroom” and the “male Amazon,” which Donoghue suggests her readers keep straight with the “helpful mnemonic” of two 1980s movies — “Yentl” and “Tootsie.”
The author of such playful works as “Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins,” a lesbian retelling of classic fairy tales, and “The Sealed Letter,” a bawdy Victorian melodrama, Donoghue does her best to steer “Inseparable” away from the tedium of an academic treatise by summoning reader-friendly references when she can, but some motifs are more engaging than others, and canonical works have been dismantled many times over by scholars of different stripes, feminism included. She can’t give short shrift to Shakespeare’s “female bridegrooms” Rosalind or Viola, for example, conceived when Elizabethan custom granted the double frisson of a male actor playing the part of a woman disguising herself as a man, a plot device that encourages accidental romantic pairings of the same sex. Nor, in her discussion of “Rivals,” can she skirt around Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa” or “The Bostonians,” by Henry James. But even when there are fresh observations to make, any analysis of works trampled by legions of English majors feels dutiful, more like work than fun.
“Inseparable” gathers momentum when Donoghue arrives at the “Monsters” motif, which she defines as that in which “a wicked woman tries to seduce and destroy an innocent one,” in stories whose heroines summon intense emotions, their evilness a seduction in itself. As everyone knows, bad girls are sexier, by far, than good ones. The Marquis de Sade’s “Juliette” introduces the “Sadeian tribade,” an “unnervingly protean” woman untroubled by a single scruple. A black hole of unslakable lust, she is (as she would have to be) aroused by inflicting pain, encyclopedic in her choice of tortures. But the extremes that make her a sociopath also render her sterile, a “dead end” who has no literary progeny.
Yet not every predator lacks feeling. “The Nun,” by Diderot, features a mother superior “consumed by manic emotions, . . . a walking bag of nerves.” While the implausibly happy ending of “Juliette” contributes to its sterility, “The Nun” reassures the reader by punishing seducer and seduced with, respectively, death and degradation, guaranteeing the pattern a lasting popularity, the first in “the French school of lesbian fiend fiction.”
Some monsters are literal monsters. Hendrika, the half-woman half-ape in “Allan’s Wife,” by H. Rider Haggard, fixates on her foster sister, Stella, and stabs Allan in an attempt to prevent his marrying the woman she worships. Although platonic, Hendrika’s love drives her to madness and, ultimately, suicide. “A racist, homophobic parable,” “Allan’s Wife” qualifies as the most misogynistic among Donoghue’s assembled narratives, killing off innocent Stella in childbirth and throwing Hendrika’s corpse to vultures. But it’s also atypical, as the more usual nonhuman protagonists are ectoplasmic, like the female ghosts that torment Eleanor and Theo in Shirley Jackson’s “Haunting of Hill House.”
“Excess, infraction, deviance. From the very beginnings of literature, women who desire other women tend to rampage across the boundaries of the acceptable,” Donoghue writes. Indeed, “rampage” is a fitting one-word summary of 20th-century lesbian literature. Vampires, detectives, murderers: if lesbians are perceived as existing on the periphery of tolerable behavior, at least it’s a position that generates conflict and suspense. Happily, Donoghue is a critic who doesn’t fear slumming in the land of potboilers, and she nominates Madame Sara, at the center of “The Sorceress of the Strand,” by L. T. Meade, as “the most glamorous lesbian killer in literature.” A cosmetic surgeon whose patients suffer her fatal adjustments, Madame Sara eludes the detectives but falls prey to a “mannish, widowed animal tamer” whose pet wolf rips her throat out.
Donoghue’s adroit commentary, along with her chronologically organized bibliography, makes “Inseparable” necessary for scholars and enlightening and often amusing for anyone else. As an introduction to literature most of us would never find for ourselves, it corrects the cultural myopia that has limited the average reader’s knowledge of lesbian fiction to Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle” and Radclyffe Hall’s “Well of Loneliness,” “by far the most famous coming-out novel.” Though the heroine’s “gender troubles” have, Donoghue notes, reclassified Hall’s novel as “a transgender narrative rather than a lesbian one,” its single, abbreviated and frustratingly inexplicit sex scene — “ . . . and that night they were not divided” — might have been written expressly as an epigraph for “Inseparable.”
Kathryn Harrison is the author of six novels. Her most recent book is “While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family.”
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 15:01