Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Girl and Her Book

Portrait of Elizabeth Blaney, 1916
William McGregor Paxton, 1869 - 1941

The experience of academia from the perspective of the female student, according to modernist Virginia Woolf and contemporary critic Jane Gallop, is often modified by the body she inhabits. Despite the sixty years separating the work of these two writers, they both capture the dilemma of writing as a woman and working as a student in the male - dominated academy. Woolf, in A Room of One's Own and "Professions for Women," and Gallop, in Thinking Through the Body, discuss the inappropriate ways in which the female student's body has set her apart socially and academically from her male peers. The fictional students who come to life in Woolf's essays and the autobiographical figure who comes of age in Gallop's text exemplify the efforts of a generation of writers to present the body wholly and fairly.

The body - centered criticism of Gallop, Woolf, and a number of other writers treats the concept of how our educational experience is determined by the physical bodies we inhabit, addressing a constellation of concerns, all of which aim to acknowledge rather than censure the physical body as it affects both an author and the texts she creates. A comprehensive definition of the varied efforts to incorporate body and text would include raising the issue of sexual difference, suggesting that such difference is produced in language, refusing to accept the traditional Western separation of mind and body, attempting to refute the sense of writing as a strictly mental activity, and seeing female sexuality as something which is likely to be apparent in a woman's written text (see Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism by Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl). A body - centered theoretical approach looks for a way to tell "the story of the fate of the body in feminism," to examine "the body [as] a site of political struggle" and to bring "public discourse, knowledge, and meaning into the intimate space of love and the body" (Mulvey, Gallop).

Both Woolf and Gallop write within the belief that experience -- and the language used to describe experience -- is influenced by one's gender and by one's body. An experience they both describe is how women have been excluded as students, how they have processed this exclusion in their thinking and writing, and how such inequity might be rectified. One possibility, which they both suggest and implement, is the production of written narratives of female experience, accounts which tell the truth and refuse to suppress the perspectives of their sex. As their own works demonstrate, empowerment and embodiment are the dual rewards of a narrative tradition which neither denies nor insists upon difference. Such a discourse might enable the female student to claim her rightful place in the academy and to inhabit her own body with ease and confidence.

"The book," says Woolf, "has somehow to be adapted to the body," and the female novelist must be allowed "the free use of her limbs" (A Room of One's Own); she must be allowed to speak "the truth about her passions," and to tell the truth about her "own experiences as a body." Both the fictional and non - fictional stance of the female student in the male dominated academy are presented in Woolf's 1931 essay "Professions for Women." Here she vividly describes a writer's imaginative trance: "[F]igure to yourselves," she says, "a girl sitting with a pen in her hand . . . letting her imagination sweep unchecked." But abruptly this writer is roused from "her artist's state of unconsciousness" and thrown into "a state of the most acute and difficult distress. To speak without figure she had thought of something, something about the body, about the the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, wold be shocked" ("Professions," 238). The dilemma of this fledgling writer is that she dare not voice her subjective experience. Woolf encourages women writers, thinkers, readers and students to utilize the power of discourse that was denied or unclaimed by their more hesitant predecessors.

In works such as Germaine Greer's Kissing the Rod, the legacy of these forerunners, known and unknown, is being restored. Greer introduces this anthology with the observation that "we are at the beginning of a long process of literary archaeology," seeking to recover the buried legacy of those early practitioners of the craft who left behind a written record of their experience.


from "The Preface to Divine Songs and Meditacions" ~ 1653
by An Collins
When Clouds of Melancholy over-cast
My heart, sustaining heavinesse therby,
But long that sad condicion would not last
For soon the Spring of Light would blessedly
Send forth a beam, for helps discovery,
Then dark discomforts would give place to joy,
Which not the World could give or quite destroy.

So sorrow serv’d but as springing raine
To ripen fruits, indowments of the minde,
VVho thereby did abillitie attaine
To send forth flowers, of so rare a kinde,
VVhich wither not by force of Sun or VVinde:
Retaining vertue in their operacions,
Which are the matter of those Meditacions.
The editors of Kissing the Rod (including my dear friend Jes Medoff) convey a hope that it will be possible to read the collection "on the train or in any other of the short intervals of time that are all most women get to themselves." Thus has Virginia Woolf's advice been taken to heart: "The book has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women's books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work. For interruptions there will always be" (Woolf, 81).

The Housemaid, 1910
William McGregor Paxton, 1869 - 1941

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