Saturday, March 7, 2009

Anna Banti's "The Women Are Dying"

What do James Tiptree Jr., George Sand, George Eliot, Katherine Burdekin (alias "Murray Constatine"), Jane Austen (alias "A Lady"), Charlotte Bronte (alias "Currer Bell"), Emily Bronte (alias Ellis Bell"), Anne Bronte (alias "Acton Bell"), and Isak Dinesen all have in common? They all concealed their legal names from the reading public. There have been many reasons why writers have felt the necessity for doing this. Certainly I would argue that I, personally, have benefited from the protective resource of pseudonyms, since I would have been impoverished by being deprived of these writers' work.

I've recently been reading a translation of short fiction by the pseudonymous Anna Banti (aka Lucia Lopresti-Longhi [1895-1985]), who is best known for her fascinating novel Artemeisa. The excellent MLAA series "Texts and Translations" has published a volume by Anna Banti titled The Signorina and Other Stories, containing 5 short fictions. Because I loved Artemesia, when I saw the volume listed as one of the titles in the MLAA series, I decided I just had to read it. I'm finding the stories interesting, though sometimes frustrating. It is clear that Banti thought that each sex was locked into innate gender differences that ensured the perpetual (and perhaps even justified) subordination of women. On the other hand, she delves into relationships between women with a rare intensity. I'm particularly taken with the occasional glimpse of a feminist imagination that fantasizes things like "a senate of women" (as in her historical piece, "Joveta of Betania") without being able to realize them in any satisfactory way.

One of the stories in the volume, "The Women Are Dying," originally published in 1951, is actually science fiction. In her introduction, Carol Lazarro-Weis writes:

"The Women Are Dying" received the prestigious Viareggio Prize in 1952. Using the science fiction genre to speculate about the innate differences between men and women, Banti imagines the utopian and dystopian possibilities of a world that is biologically defined. As in her historical works, the science fiction narrative depicts the permanence of male control over history and female destiny.

Published two years after Simone de Beauvoir's novel Tous les hommes sont mortels (1947; "All Men Are Mortal"), "The Women Are Dying" shares many of its themes. Both women writers show how men's desire for immortality can cause men to lose their humanity at the same time that it motivates heroic actions, foolish or otherwise. While Beauvoir's book is situated within a debate about existential philosophy, Banti's story, a parody of Fascism's attempts to revive Italy's glorious past, emphasizes how men's desire for immortality excludes women. "The Women Are Dying" also bears a strong resemblance to Margaret Atwood's more recent dystopian science fiction novel A Handmaid's Tale (1987), since both depict the return of women's oppression after a period of supposed progress and emancipation. Banti's Agnese would agree with Atwood's handmaid narrator that it is men who possess time whereas women only endure it.

Set in the year 2617, "The Women Are Dying" depicts the return of women's oppression when sexual difference again becomes a means of isolating and disparaging women. Science has made progress in areas such as hygiene and rational education, and men and women enjoy gender equality in the public domain. However, this situation changes when men discover that they can remember past lives. This "second memory" allows them to conquer their traditional fear of death and to claim immortality for themselves through constant reincarnation. Unable to participate in this self-preserving continuum, many women retreat to female communities...

I find the notion that such memory of past lives would result in a lack of interest in existing social relations and institutions fascinating. It raises the question, for one, of whether this would be a typical reaction in other cultures and other times, or would only apply to the men living in 1950s Italy... The men in the story completely disdain their current, material lives and so lose themselves in the memories of their past lives that their only social relationships center on those memories. The provinces of literature and scholarship, considered outdated and irrelevant, are de facto ceded to women. Moreover, the story depicts such a deep, almost irrevocable alienation between most men and most women, that the only women in the story who attempt to perpetuate the institution of the family are those who despise all other women and are willing to accept that men are like gods, infinitely superior to women and thus not interested in them or in having children-- something most women in Banti's 27th Century are unwilling to do.

I'd love to hear from someone who's read this story. There's much in it worth discussing. The volume is The Signorina and Other Stories by Anna Banti, translated by Martha King and Carol Lazarro-Weis, with and Introduction by Carol Lazarro-Weis, published by The Modern Language Association of America, New York, 2001. I bought a used copy from Powells for $6.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I am soon publishing a book on Anna Banti, teh second chapter of which is dedicated to 'Le donne muoiono'. I find your insights on this works very sharp.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks. When your book comes out, if you happen to remember, I'd love for you to drop a note with its publication data. It's good to hear that Banti's work is getting critical attention.