Gail Scott: Feminist at the Carnival

theory-cropped“The verse must be taken to the limit of expressiveness.” (Mayakovsky, How to Make Verses) It is then that the code opens to the rhyming body to formulate, against the present meaning, another meaning, for years to come, impossible. Julia Kristeva [1]

Qu’est ce qui est incontournable (unskirtable!) dans le féminisme quand on écrit? What of one’s feminist consciousness cannot be skirted in writing? I love the idea of one’s feminist consciousness being unskirtable, untameable. But what is it exactly in writing that’s unskirtable? Honesty comes the incongruous and intellectually unsatisfying answer. Does this mean one’s feminist consciousness keeps one honest? Or that writing somehow goes beyond what seems good, right (politic), in the moment? “Honesty,” iterates the post-seventies feminist who wants positive, forward-looking models for women VERSUS the writer who envies Proust, Beckett, Kafka. What does she envy? Their “freedom” to follow, in their fiction, darker, more sinuous trails of being.

Conveniently, outside, a gray November day. Through my window, a slate of three-dimensional planes. The bare trees in the immediate foreground. Across the street, the rounded garrets, the fancy trim atop turn-of-20th triplexes. Behind them a high-rise blocks a portion of the sky. And to the left of that, tucked in a corner of the picture, the hump of mountain with its cross. That cross — a city landmark — its fluorescents absurdly bright at night as if over-stating a greatly diminished power.

The setting is right for the protagonist of this story. She’s a writer, drawn by what is veiled, incommensurable to point of “tragic.” That word, coalescing on her screen glitters with irony. She believes, with her friends, that classic narrative is a conduit for patriarchal values, aspiring toward monumental heroes. True, she wants to be huge, casting shadows like Ozymandias on the sand. Or maybe a female Oedipus? A girl Hamlet? Closer, but there’s still something about the relationship with the Mother. Yet, here she reaches, resisting much of that 80s feminist fiction, marching with the sisters toward a better ending. Resisting, too, the other extreme of books for women: the soapy fictions, obsessed with the risks and perils of (mostly) heterosexual romance. That cry for love that is obsessively “tragic” in its eternal unfulfillment to she who utters it; but tedious to the rest. She is reaching, she hopes, beyond the facts in the lives of so many women, sensationalized (trivialized) in the journalese of media: everyday degradation, domestic violence, tragic rape or disappearance — to some deeper riddle lurking in the human psyche, some remote error of civilization that refuses to confront its endless wish for death, wreaked on the balance of the planet. Defiantly she reaches (notwithstanding pressure to be straightforward, “honestly” communicative) toward what seems to her “uncanny.” Toward something lying under the mantle of extraordinary bravery, courage, so many women have manifested for centuries.

1. In old movies, the tragic moment was often signaled by clouds amassing in the sky. Driving along the highway with huge, black moving clouds banking before the storm, one gets a terrible feeling of human emptiness. The mind casts about desperately for the source of discomfort. It may fasten on fear of an accident as the big raindrops start. As they begin hitting the windshield with blinding, ever greater force. No, the mind knows this fear is really a projection from a deeper source: fear of the unsaid, the unspeakable. In a jigsaw puzzle, you take apart the clouds gathering angrily over the spacious park above the castle. And you find nothing. This is both reassuring and terrifying.

2. Sitting, as a girl, on the veranda in the village where I spent eight years of my childhood, the angry pink-black clouds were almost a temptation. Beside me, mosquitoes bit at my brother’s neck, causing huge, red welts. I was glad. I hated him. He was my Mother’s favorite. I watched the storm whipping up the dust by the side of the road. Mother was standing behind my chair. Her unhappiness was the turmoil in all of us. Beyond our lawn, other dramas with no solution were being played out in our half Anglo, half French village with its red brick buildings and false fronted stores. As the storm blew up, I imagined myself as the heroine of a “tragic” novel. I cried through every minute of the movie Gone With The Wind.[2]

3. On one hand, my heroine understands (grasps with all her being) the need for the affirmation of the female subject. She remembers the moment she grasped this consciously. Summer, 1977. Women on a lawn drinking something sparkly. The soft gravity of voices, hair, skin, seemed to waft through the air. One of them had written about women in space, the space of now, a now spiraling in some crazy, wild, hopefully erotic flight toward the future.

On the other hand, there was the suspect pubescent identification with Scarlett O’Hara. The little girl, the little Fury, was sitting on the veranda thinking of herself crying about something unspeakable to do with Scarlett’s life. Sitting there with her shadowy Mother behind, watching another mosquito dig its long delicious point expertly into the white neck of her brother. The first heavy raindrops made the dust on the road bounce up in lacy little circles. She hardly knew what tragic meant, but something drew her toward some incommensurate place she felt the word would come to represent. Out in the world, her empathies were more palpable, reassuring. Her friends, the colleagues of the shelter where she worked for a while, women of other walks, in struggle… But still, she noted in a green notebook with white tulips embossed on the cover:

We have a narcissistic, almost masturbatory image
of love
The image of the beloved is more precious than
his presence

It was the morning after some love affair, and she was watching herself, that watched self becoming, then watching, other selves: the self that’s critical, for example, of she who identified with Scarlett; or of she who has just written in the new notebook in the café of an art gallery. The watched selves opening out infinitely, like the hieroglyphics she’d just seen of the Russian constructivist Popova, climbing in crooked lines across her canvas, as if a score for urban music. To the left of a scene stands Stalin like a magnanimous cuckold.

In the gallery café, my heroine added to her notes in the green book:

Mon Héroine aurait envie de vivre grande
That is where transgression starts.

Sensing, also, the gap between her grandiose desires and the nagging thing inside — that covered what?

Here’s the “rub”: the feminist heroine’s a model of progress. Not like Oedipus, that loser, struck by Fate for killing Dad, the better to sleep with Mother. As for Hamlet, “losing” (him-self) because he couldn’t choose between his mother and his father: his To be or not to be was a contemplation of suicide issuing from the depths of existential despair (and the ultimate hidden fear that he was homosexual?).

A female heroine uttering the same phrase would more likely be contemplating everyday life. Her question To be or not to be (as speaking subject), represented in women’s novels of the 70s and early 80s as kicking and scraping our way out of the margins (the kitchen, the wife, the mother), sidestepping into historical space. Virginia Woolf already warned in Three Guineas, stepping into male “processions,” (the professions of law, politics, academia, for example) was contingent on accepting male terms. Where to be, in any articulated difference, with gestures that matched her words, and the reverse, could never be quite entire.

translated by the author

This excerpt from Gail Scott’s “Feminist at the Carnival” in Theory, A Sunday is posted with permission from *belladonna. Watch for excerpts from Theory, A Sunday to come over the next six weeks and save the date, October 16th, for a celebration of Quebec Women’s Writing at Concordia University. More to come, and please, we welcome comments, discussions, elaborations and entanglements below.

[1] Kristeva, Julia. Polylogue. Paris: Seuil, 1977. 367.

[2] It is now shocking to me that the racist aspect of the film (white romanticization of the old South) did not get a direct mention.