Sunday, January 29, 2012

A word with such a sulfurous reputation

This morning I read a poignant essay on Anna Banti's Artemisia by Susan Sontag. (It is reprinted in At the Same Time, a posthumous collection edited by Sontag's son.) I suspect at least partly because Banti repeatedly addresses the protagonist of her historical novel, bringing in a few carefully circumscribed details about her own life, Sontag's essay ventures into the area of Banti's life as a scholar and writer and her vehement disavowal of feminism. While speaking specifically about Banti, Sontag takes up the phenomenon of intellectual and creative women expressing hostility to feminism more generally. This has always been an interesting issue for me, one strewn with pitfalls for the feminist faced with an apparent contradiction, and so I read this passage with great interest:

To refuse, vehemently (even scorfully) refuse, a reputation as a feminist was, of course, a common move for the most brilliant and independent women of her generation-- Woolf being the glorious exception. Think of Hannah Arendt. Or of Colette, who once declared that women who were so stupid as to want the vote deserved "the whip and the harem." (La Vagabonde, her novel-manifesto about a woman choosing her career and a single life over the love of a worthy man and emotional dependence, was translated into Italian by Banti.) Feminism has meant many things; many unnecessary things. It can be defined as a position-- about justice and dignity and liberty-- to which almost all independent women would adhere if they did not fear the retaliation that accompanies a word with such a sulfurous reputation. Or it can be defined as a position easier to disavow or quarrel with, as it was by Banti (and Arendt and Colette). That version of feminism suggests that there is a war against men, which was anathema to such women; that feminism suggests an avowal of strength-- and a denial of the difficulty and the cost for women in being strong (above all, the cost in masculine support and affection); more, it proclaims pride in being a woman, it even affirms the superiority of women-- all attitudes that felt alien to the many independent women who were proud of their accomplishments and who knew the sacrifices and the compromises they entailed.

Artemesia is full of affirmations of the pathos of female identity: women's weakness, women's dependence, women's solitariness (should they want to be anything but daughters, wives, and mothers), women's sorrows, women's grief. To be a woman is to be incarcerated, and to struggole against incarceration, and to long for it. "'If only I were not a woman,' that futile lament," Banti's Artemisia reflects. "Far better to ally herself with the sacrificed and imprisoned, participate in their veiled, momentous fate, share their feelings, their plans, their truths; secrets from which the privileged, men, were barred." But of course, Artemisia's achievement-- her genius-- banishes her from this home. (53)
Interestingly, Sontag then observes the simliarities between historical and "fantastic fiction":
Artemisia is a tragic reflection on the condition of being a woman and of defying the norms of one's sex--as opposed to the comic, triumphalist, tender fable that is Orlando. As an account of exemplary tribulations that follow from being independent, an artist, and a woman, Banti's novel is also exemplary in its depair and its defiance: the merit of Artemisia's choice is never in doubt.

Read only as a feminist novel, which Artemisia certainly is, it confirms what we know (or think we know; or want others to know). But its power as literature is also that of an encounter with what we don't know or fully understand. The feeling of strangeness is a particular effect of that branch of literature tamed by the label "historical fiction." To write well about the past is to write something like fantastic fiction. It is the strangeness of the past, rendered with piercing concreteness, that gives the effect of realism.(54-55)
Sontag writes more about the book as a historical novel, all of which I found deeply interesting. She concludes by remarking "Anna Banti did not want to lose her manuscript in the battle for Florence in early August 1944. No writer could welcome such a destiny. But there can be no doubt that what makes Artemisia a great book--and unique in Banti's work-- is this double destiny, a book lost and re-created. A book that by being posthumous, rewritten, resurrected, gained incalculably in emotional reach and moral authority."(55-56)

I have often, in the past, reminded myself of this-- to remember that first versions, however complete they might seem, are not necessarily the only or best versions of the story one wants to tell: and more particularly, of the kind of book that resulted from Banti's having lost the first completed version of her novel and, in re-creating it, had found it necessary to haunt her re-telling of Artemisia's story with the pain of that loss. Her insertion of that loss into the novel, rather than being self-indulgent, is painfully spare, resonating with the others sorts of painful losses that Banti perceived in the brilliant Artemisia Gentilleschi's life.

I've written about Anna Banti's work before on this blog, here.

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