Madwomen and Witches: Terror-Inspired Sublimity in Women’s Embodied Literature
« Pourquoi sorcières ? Parce qu’elles dansent. Elles dansent à la pleine lune. Femmes lunaires, lunatiques, atteintes – disent-ils – de folie périodique. […] Pourquoi sorcières ? Parce qu’elles vivent. Parce qu’elles sont en contact direct avec la vie de leur corps, avec la vie de la nature, avec la vie du corps des autres. Les sorcières respiraient, palpaient, appelaient chaque fleur, chaque herbe, chaque plante. Ainsi elles guérissaient. Ou empoisonnaient. Rien, là, de surnaturel. […] Pourquoi sorcières ? Parce qu’elles jouissent. »
⎯ Gauthier 1981, 2
“Whywitches?” asks Xavière Gauthier in the opening line of the inaugural issue of Sorcières, a 20th century literary and artistic magazine dedicated to exploring women’s expression and lived experience. “Because witches dance”; “because witches are alive”; “because witches are rapturous” responds Gauthier, alluding to the social, political, and phenomenological confinement in which women find themselves time and time again. The persecution of women as witches and madwomen throughout history, Gauthier suggests, is reflective of society’s fear of women’s affective power and the enormity of their emotional drive. “If the figure of the witch appears wicked” she writes, “it is because she poses a real danger to phallocentric society” (Gauthier 1981, 203). Contrasting the description of “the good fairy” in fairy tales with that of the “wicked witch”, Gauthier urges women to embrace the magnitude of their sexuality and the force of their bodies through writing as a form of liberation and self-discovery.
The expression of women’s embodiment via literary mediums dates back to the poetry of Sappho in Archaic Greece. But the project of consciously and intentionally designing a distinctly feminine space by reclaiming and reimagining textuality was methodized by women thinkers in the 20th century, largely in response to the rise of Freudian psychoanalysis and Lacanian symbolic order, both of which subjugated and excluded women from meaningful discourse. Freudian psychotherapy, as well as the multitude of its subsequent variations, centers the diagnosis on volatile emotional states, particularly as they are exhibited in women. However, the same intense affective drive interpreted as a symptom of illness in women appears in prominent accounts of aesthetic theory as the impetus of the highest aesthetic experience: the sublime. Despite aesthetic accounts developed by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant attempting to masculinize the sublime, its manifestation can be seen most vividly in women’s textuality as an embodiment of women’s lived experience.
The formulation of Western aesthetics as a systematic tradition in the 18th century prompted the development of fundamental frameworks carrying significant gendered connotations. The gendered dichotomy of aesthetic judgment is most evident in the language surrounding theories of form. The central theoretical concepts arising from the early movement—the beautiful and the sublime—elicited gendered distinctions which informed accounts of universal taste and judgment. Objects of beauty were often described with a traditionally feminine lexicon while the conceptualization of the sublime was constructed with an emphasis on conventionally masculine traits. The implicit sexual difference in the language surrounding theories of the beautiful and the sublime is a reflection of the gendered socio-political structures which this discourse is born into. For instance, Kant believed that women possess “a beautiful understanding” but that laborious reflection or contemplation destroys “the merits that are proper to [their] sex” and that a woman utilizes knowledge “in the same way as her watch which she carries so that people will see that she has one, though it is usually not running or not set by the sun” (Kant 1724, 78). Kant identified women’s moral deficiency in their propensity towards passions and inclinations rather than moral duty. This sentiment also translates to Kant’s account of aesthetics. In the Critique of Judgement he identifies three categories of judgments: judgements of the agreeable, judgments of beauty, and judgments of the sublime, with the latter being superior to the rest. For Kant, although women have affinity towards the beautiful, they are excluded from the category of the sublime.
The distinct contrast between the masculinized sublime and the feminized beautiful appears vividly in the language ascribed to these categories in the work of Burke. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke juxtaposes the concept of beauty – which invokes love and calms the mind – with the sublime, which is marked by the extreme, simultaneously inducing excitement and horror. The form of the beautiful, for Burke, is associated with the “soft and delicate”, “sweet” (Burke §25); it is “smooth and polished”, “light”, “small” (Burke §27), appearing almost pale in comparison with the objects of the sublime which are “vast in their dimensions”, “great, rugged, and negligent”, “strong”, and “solid” (Burke §27). While the beautiful is founded on pleasure, Burke suggests, the experience of the sublime is rooted in terror and pain. Identifying the sublime as “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Burke §7), Burke inevitably implies that the beautiful, irrespective of the merits it may hold, remains subordinate to this category. In turn, Burke’s evaluative distinction tacitly reinforces the inferiority of the beautiful and thereby, of the feminine. Burke’s categories closely mirror the gender-based distinctions of traditional social structures and the language surrounding them, venerating meekness and subservience in women, and praising power and intimidation in men.
At the same time, Burke’s account of the sublime as driven by the sensation of astonishment reveals the rupture between abstract descriptions of the form and its lived instantiation. For Burke, the sublime is that which “excite[s] the ideas of pain, and danger; that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is analogous to terror” (Burke §7). The aesthetic experience of the sublime is the exhilarating encounter with danger which overwhelms the rational faculties, momentarily suspending the subject’s reason and plunging them into transcendental chaos. This sentiment is also echoed in Kant who holds that the feeling of the sublime appears to “to violate the purpose in respect of the judgment, to be unsuited to our presentation faculty, and as it were to do violence to our imagination” (Kant 1914, §23). The sublime then is engendered as a masculine embodiment of domination and power in the face of death – the ultimate terror, according to Burke – while the beautiful remains delicate and reserved, only admirable in its subservience.
Yet when we dwell upon the notion of terror-incited sublimity, we may find that the gendered language surrounding this description feels forced. For the 18th century thinkers, the vocabulary of greatness and danger connotated with the masculine embodiment of power, subsequently conjuring up the form of the masculinized sublime. However, an examination of women’s narrative and textuality may reveal a different story; instead, the pinnacle of aesthetic experience, entertained by Burke, Kant and many more, is not the masculine (or more so, masculinized) sublime but an embodiment of the feminine drive. Although it can be argued that the sublime is a neutral form or one that does not compromise gendered categories, this claim would not only be negligent of sexual difference in linguistic modalities, but it would also explode in the context of embodied textuality because the notion of the terror-inspired sublime self-destructs in phallocentric frameworks.
In her book The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction, Barbara Freeman argues that the structure of the sublime is produced from a pre-established construction of the feminine which rests on unexamined assumptions about sexual difference. Freeman redefines the frameworks previously used in theories of form which tacitly (and, at times, not so tacitly) infantilized, domesticated and excluded women from meaningful discourse. Freeman situates her articulation of the sublime with discussions of agency and subjectivity while grounding her redesigned form of the sublime in women’s fiction. In a direct response to the aesthetic theories of Kant and Burke, Freeman selects Chopin’s The Awakening, Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight, and Morrison’s Beloved as the representations of women’s textuality. Freeman examines the countering of the masculinized representation of the sublime by the narrative tools and textual instruments featured in these women’s writing.
At the same time, Freeman emphasizes that her conception of the feminine sublime is not a rhetorical or even an aesthetic category, but that it is “a domain of experience that resists categorization” which embodies the “crisis in relation to language and representation” (Freeman 1995, 2). To address the question of women’s aesthetic embodiment in literature and writing, Freeman builds on the work of Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva (alongside a number of other thinkers examining women’s embodiment, textuality, and language). Despite notable differences in their accounts, the works of Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva are all connected by a common thread: the approach to women’s textuality as an encounter with the authentic self.
In 1975, Helene Cixous publishes “The Laugh of the Medusa” in which she coins the term l’écriture féminine positing a distinctively female mode of expression, countering the prevalent phallogocentric narrative structures. Cixous suggests that the textuality produced by women is imprinted by their lived experience through a unique form of language which yields itself to the full magnitude of the uninhibited expression of female embodiment. Urging women to write, to write for themselves and for one another, Cixous emphasizes the power of women’s writing to “invent the impregnable language that will wreck partition, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes” and to “submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate reserve-discourse” (Cixous 2010, 38) which has been degrading femininity as a secondary nature. Cixous suggests that the woman “materializes what she’s thinking; she signifies it with her body. In a way, she inscribes what she is saying, because she doesn’t deny her drives, the intractable and impassioned part they have in speaking” (Cixous 2010, 33) – a description apparent in the brutally unhindered affect in which women’s writing is drenched. For Cixous, the act of writing breaks down the walls between the woman and her sexuality, granting her access “to her native strength” (Cixous 2010, 32). Cixous goes on that all women’s writing, with its infinite diversity, fluidity, and colorfulness, possesses a common characteristic: the voice, or as Cixous puts it, the element of song. Cixous suggests that women’s writing entails a “privileged relationship with the voice” (Cixous 2010, 33) epitomized in their ability and willingness to be daring in their passion, unbridled in their affectivity, and sincere in their words because “no woman stockpiles as many defenses for countering the drives as does a man” (Cixous 2010, 33).
Cixous asserts that traditionally, symbolic discourse has been the tool of masculine domination and seizing of power, but that women can break down phallogocentric practices by constructing and operating under a new, uniquely feminine language. In her essay “Existe-t-il une écriture de femme?” [Is there such a thing as women’s writing]. Gauthier posits that women’s writing must be and is a new realm separate and distinct from the language employed by men in their discourse. She suggests that when (French) women were first granted the opportunity to study at universities, brought under the illusion of emancipation, they were force fed “a language in which everything, verbs and subjects, was masculine” (Gauthier 1981, 162). To illustrate the lack of space for a language that is free of phallogocentric notions, Gauthier draws a parallel between naming practices and writing; a woman begins her life with her father’s last name only to exchange it for her husband’s later in life. Therefore, even the writing she produces, regardless of how personal, how deviant, how feminine, it will exist in the world with a masculine name attached to it. Gauthier concludes the essay with a celebration of a women’s space as “blank pages, gaps, borders, spaces and silence, holes in the discourse” (Gauthier 1981, 164) waiting to be filled with language distinctively feminine and powerful in its import.
In a speech at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Christiane Rochefort addressed the student body with a question, inquiring whether literature has a sex. In this speech, Rochefort recalled how when she was a child, she had constructed a reality of her own, “a secret life in dreams” (Rochefort 1981, 184) to escape the restrictions the world had placed upon her simply in virtue of the fact that she was a girl (well-intended but disheartening comments any woman can attest to hearing from her mother, neighbor, aunt, school teacher: “don’t say that, don’t do this, don’t, a girl mustn’t” and so forth). Rochefort told how in this other life she had constructed in her dreams she would “do such great things as riding horses, sailing boats, rescuing animals… inventing stories, drawing, dancing, making music, sculpting stones” (Rochefort 1981, 184). This childhood experience, which she would later find out is quite common to young girls, had even led her to doubt her own sanity: “I didn’t feel real. Schizophrenia?” She went on that often “female children are driven mad, schizophrenic” because of the “total antagonism between what they are and what society wants them to be” (Rochefort 1981, 185). There is an interesting parallel between Rochefort’s recollection of her childhood dream dimension in which she was free from societal constraints and her description of the act of writing for women. She asks herself whether now, sitting at the writing desk, alone, not permitting anyone to interfere, she is free and where her true identity is. Although her speech ends shortly after she poses these questions, we can see the general direction in which the other women authors are encouraging us – to write.
The sense of looming madness elicited by Rochefort in her speech appears frequently as a motif in women’s literature by no coincidence. Returning to Burke’s theory of aesthetic forms, we recall that the sublime – overwhelming, chaos-inducing, terrible – is incited by “a sort of delightful horror; a sort of tranquility tinged with terror; which, as it belongs to self-preservation, is one of the strongest of all the passions” (Burke §7). But while Burke associates this experience with masculinized versions of power, size, and awe, it seems then that women’s propensity towards affective volatility, remarkably feared and meticulously banished by patriarchal structures, maps quite vividly onto Burke’s conception of the ultimate aesthetic experience: the sublime.
A distinct incarnation of the feminine embodiment of the tumultuous sublime can be found in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Through a first-person narrative, the reader follows the orphaned protagonist, Jane, from her childhood in a hostile and abusive home, through her adolescence at a girls’ school, and to her adulthood of self-discovery. Despite weaving vivid experiences of the sublime throughout the narrative, Brontë’s novel is marked by two particular scenes of immense emotional magnitude and conflict representative of the feminine nature of the sublime. The first, transpiring in chapter two of Jane Eyre, takes place in Jane’s childhood home where she is raised by the unwelcoming family of her aunt. From the very beginning of the narrative, we find that Jane has a determined, passionate character which is actively suppressed and persecuted by the patriarchal structures of society. In this chapter, Jane attempts to defend herself against the constant mistreatment and attacks of her aunt’s eldest son. As punishment, Jane’s aunt forcefully locks her in what Jane calls “the red room” which, having belonged to her late uncle, she believes to be haunted. After spending an undetermined amount of time trapped in the blood-colored room, usually interpreted to symbolize the passage into womanhood, feminine sacrifice, and repression, Jane has a visceral conniption. Brontë, through Jane’s voice, writes:
“But then, prepared as my mind was for horror, shaken as my nerves were by agitation, I thought the swift darting beam was a herald of some coming vision from another world. My heart beat thick, my head grew hot; a sound filled my ears, which I deemed the rushing of wings; something seemed near me; I was oppressed, suffocated: endurance broke down; I rushed to the door and shook the lock in desperate effort.” (Brontë 1992, 22)
As Jane attempts to break out of her imprisonment in the red room, her nursemaid opens the door to check on the girl before promptly shutting the door on Jane’s relentless cries and pleas. Jane, now from the perspective of her adult-self, reflects that she must have had a “species of fit”. Behind the locked doors, the young girl loses consciousness.
The affective conniption experienced by Jane in this scene is a direct manifestation of Charlotte Brontë’s lived experience as a woman. “The hatred that forced the book out of [Bronte]”, posits Margaret Lawrence, “made its writing astoundingly vivid… the style was as tortured as the heroine” because “it was when [Brontë] was raging angry that the book blazed with power” (Lawrence 1980, 77). At the same time, this passage from Brontë is a textual embodiment of the confrontation between the aptness of women towards spiritedness, sensitivity, intensity, and the attempts of patriarchal social structures in restricting them. For Jane, the desperation in the face of imprisonment, which is both physical and reflective of her socio-political and cultural situation, culminates in a hysterical fit: an emotional catharsis paradoxical in its proximity to both suffering and relief. The chapter is drenched in Burke’s lexicon of the allure of horror, catapulting the subject into a state of chaotic transcendence. In this scene, Jane’s affectivity and resolve are feared and taken as signs of madness – a phenomenon frequently occurring beyond the pages of a book. In her book Women and Madness, Phyllis Chesler reveals that “women more than men, and in greater numbers than their existence in the general population would predict, are involved in ‘careers’ as psychiatric patients” (Chesler 2018, xxii). Following an examination of first-person accounts from the literary works and autobiographies of women authors, and interviews with female psychiatric patients, Chesler finds that both the clinical diagnosis and the theoretical notion of madness are extensions of patriarchal conditioning.
We can also find the vertigo of sublimity manifested into words in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”. The narrative, based on her lived experiences, recounts the story of a Victorian woman, isolated and subdued, whose confrontation with mental instability in the hands of a despotic male doctor gradually propels her into an emotional spiral. Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Gilman’s short story share many details (in addition to both being written by spectacular women named Charlotte); like Jane, Gilman’s unnamed narrator tells us her story herself in an unmediated, instantaneous manner, giving us a glimpse into her psyche. Like Jane, she also finds herself locked in a horridly colored room which has a devastating effect on her psychological state. And also like Jane, the young woman in Gilman’s story is a writer whose work is an extension of herself. While attempting to return to an emotional equilibrium, the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” reflects that “if [she] were only well enough to write a little” (Gilman 1997, 649), she might be able to rest but as she writes, she becomes tired, her peace slowly slipping away. As we read, the sentences gradually become more sporadic, the words – violent, the structure – anarchic. Towards the end of the story, the narrator reveals that she is supposed to be let go from the yellow room that day but instead of being relieved to be released from her solitary imprisonment she writes:
“I don’t want to go outside. I won’t, even if Jennie asks me to.
For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green, instead of yellow.
For here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way.
Why there’s John at the door !
It is no use, young man, you can’t open it !
How he does call and pound !
Now he’s crying for an axe.” (Gilman 1997, 656)
The narrative begins to acquire a contagious sense of urgency into which we descend with the narrator. And yet, despite the narrator being trapped in a room and tortured with visions of countless women before her confined in the same prison for generations, she is not the one to lose consciousness in the face of terror; it is her husband who, having broken into the room with the yellow wallpaper, could not bear the overwhelming intensity of his wife’s emotion. Much like Brontë, Gilman channeled in her writing her personal experiences as a woman who refused to comply with traditional ideals of patriarchal femininity and to be docile. Perhaps, as insinuated by Cixous, the masculinized sublime is only in theory because it seems that phallocentric structures cannot withstand the impetus of the terror the sublime rises out of and in turn, these structures loathe the feminine for possessing the power to do so.
When describing the experiences which capture the sublime, Kant and Burke both appeal to the capacity of an object or a phenomenon to arouse fear but simultaneously emphasize the element of distance or security. In Critique of Judgement, Kant suggests that being in the presence of fear-inducing objects such as “the boundless ocean heaved up” or “the high waterfall of a mighty river” is attractive in its intrigue but adds that the thrill is only alluring “provided we are in a safe place” (Kant 1914, §28). He goes on that these objects are sublime in that they allow us to discover in ourselves a hidden resilience and the realization that “we could be a match for nature’s seeming omnipotence” (Kant 1914, §28). Here, Kant clarifies his account, explaining that it is not that objects are sublime simply because they generate fear but because they solicit courage and strength. However, the conjuring of courage vis-à-vis danger seems to necessitate a genuine belief in the possibility that the threat could be consummated. In other words, what is there to fear in a safe place? Therefore, Kant’s insistence on the disinterestedness of the judgment of sublimity appears to conflict with the fundamental essence of the sublime. Despite dissenting on the role of self-preservation in the encounter with the sublime, Burke, like Kant, also notes that pain and terror can produce delight “if [they] are so modified as not to be actually noxious” (Burke §7). In this way, both Kant and Burke cushion the experience of the sublime which is supposed to be overwhelming, grandiose, and terrifying, reinforcing the notion that the masculinized sublime is too weak in affect to maintain its own imposing nature.
After reading and examining Jane Eyre and “The Yellow Wallpaper” through the lens of women’s embodied textuality, we might see that the terror-driven affective force identified as the sublime by prominent aesthetic theories is the same force carefully hidden away by women in their writing before it is ripped out of them by patriarchal and phallocentric structures on the grounds of madness; because while the affinity towards thrill and danger is venerated in men, the same qualities and experiences are frowned upon when indulged by women. Although the appeal of traditional accounts of femininity as gentle and subservient is understandable in the context of masculine insecurity, it also hinders the realization of the very ideals of sublimity chased by the proponents of patriarchal structures. The liminal intersection of terror and tranquility is the cornerstone of women’s lived experience and is embodied in their texts, after all, as de Beauvoir writes in Les femmes s’entêtent, “our only desire is to disturb” (de Beauvoir 1981, 191).
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