Saturday, February 6, 2010

My Gender and Authorship essay

Today I threw myself into Jeff VanderMeer's amazing Booklife. As I read, it very quickly struck me that I really ought to at least begin updating my website, which I'd pretty much allowed to go to seed. (It must be brilliant the cover of Booklife thrusting such a metaphor into my head-- obviously working considerable insidious magic on me.) I was feeling so, er, inadequate vis-a-vis managing my "public presence" that I thought, well, that's the least I can do.

And so this afternoon I did make a start on doing that. Besides adding links to more of my reviews and beginning to update my books page (which is still a bit out of date), I posted "Creating the 'Second Self': Performance, Gender, and Authorship," a paper I gave at WisCon 31 (and which was published in The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 2). The essay is all about writing and the performance of gender, with particular focus on Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree, Jr., Eileen Gunn, and Willa Cather. You can find that essay here.


ursula le guin said...

This is a very fine essay, Timmi. I hope you can expand the ideas in it some day.
-- And what goes on in a man's mind when he writes as a woman?
Flaubert said "je suis Emma Bovary," and why does that much admired statement make me grit my teeth and growl? Because I see it as the usual male co-optation of the female, the usual imperialism? Or something else, something a bit sick? Natasha is an infinitely more deeply imagined woman than Emma, but I cannot imagine Tolstoy saying "I am Natasha. . . "

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks, Ursula-- but I must in turn thank you for having been so gracious as to speak frankly to me on these matters. I too hope someday to be able to spend more time thinking & writing about the ideas in my essay.

As it happens, I've been working my way through (a translated version) of George Sand's correspondence with Flaubert. Sand was 20 years his elder, & Flaubert often addressed her as "master." (Needless to say, she addressed him, often very affectionately, as an equal.) I am repeatedly struck by the differences in their attitudes toward the world. Sand may have adopted a male pseudonym, but up to this point in my reading I couldn't say with any certainty whether her performance of authorship was gendered & if so, how (though reading between the lines I suspect that it was & that it was gendered female).

In an early letter she remarks "There is only one sex. A man and a woman are so entirely the same thing, that one hardly understands the mass of distinctions and of subtle reasons with which society is nourished concerning this subject. I have observed the infancy and the development of my son and my daughter. My son was myself, therefore much more woman, than my daughter, who was an imperfect man."

Flaubert does not comment on the remark. But I find it striking that in her letters Sand is always talking about the wonders of the people and the world around her (she is clearly in love with life and nature and the world all around her) while Flaubert talks about how the whole "planet" is evil. (Please see my next comment for a continuation, because the blog software doesn't allow me to post my entire comment in a single unit.)

Timmi Duchamp said...

Part 2 of my comment:

And then there's this difference, which surfaces repeatedly:

Flaubert: "I don't experience, as you do, this feeling of a life which is beginning, the stupefaction of a newly commenced existence. It seems to me, on the contrary, that I have always lived! And I possess memories which go back to the Pharaohs. I see myself very clearly at different ages of history, practising different professions and in many sorts of fortune. My present personality is the result of my lost personalities." This is a writer who really cannot imagine difference: for him, it simply doesn't exist.

Which is to say, Flaubert saw himself as encompassing all that there is. And not only that: he feels he is in danger of having his knowledge of life, the world, and the ages of history, compromised by contact with the world: this is the reason he needs to live in isolation to serve his art. & so in another letter, he characterizes himself as "a man of wax; everything gets imprinted on him [he is speaking of himself i the third person], is encrusted on him, penetrates him. If I should visit you, I should think of nothing but you and yours, your house, your country, the appearance of the people I had met, etc." In a related vein, a few weeks later he casually writes, "I must not give myself a week of holiday; that is why I do not go to Nohant [to visit Sand]. It is always the story of the Amazons. In order to draw the bow better they crushed their breast. It is a fine method after all."

Sand writes back: "I don't agree with you at all that it is necessary to destroy the breast to draw a bow. I have quite a contrary belief which I follow....I think that art always needs a palette overflowing with soft or striking colors according to the subject of the picture; the artist is an instrument on which everything ought to play before he plays on others; but all that is perhaps not applicable to a mind like yours which has acquired much and now has only to digest."

In other words, Flaubert conceives of writing as entirely cerebral, that his vision of the world must come entirely from within. If I understand what he's saying in these letters correctly, since somewhere in his "essence" he has already lived in all ages, he has no need to actually look at the world in order to represent it. Whereas Sand writes to him about going her or there in order to soak in the atmosphere and the details of each place she is writing about-- surely at least partly because she takes such exuberant pleasure in being in the world as it is.

Anyway, I suspect the answer to the difference you perceive between Flaubert's attitude toward Emma & Tolstoy's toward Natasha hinges on their very different ideas about what they are doing when they are writing fiction.