Saturday, June 11, 2011

Julia Kristeva--Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection

I've poked through this book before, but now I've finally read it all the way through.  As I ultimately want to write my dissertation on the figure of the ugly woman in southern literature, this idea of abjection is one I really need to wrap my head around as a way of figuring out just what I mean by the word "ugly."  

I didn't expect this would take quite so long to read.  As it's a translation from the French, Kristeva's work is like a lot of French feminism for me--dense and rewarding, but *slow going. *  I think it's partly because of the nature of French writing itself, with so many double meanings (différance, anyone?) and the attempt by the translator to use English to try to convey such things (as here, Leon Roudiez uses "scription" to convey a stronger form of ecriture).  Mon dieu!  Or rather, ma déesse!

I'm still not comfortable with theories which take the Oedipal triangle as their beginning, which much of French feminism seems to do.  However, what I did get from this reading was that Kristeva made the mother a more central figure in this drama and looked at the ramifications of this refocusing.  From what I understand, considering the centrality of the incest taboo in this way allows us to consider the meanings of what is considered abject.

Abjection is what is thrown away, what is on the outside.  In Kristeva's understanding, though, it is more complicated than that.  The abject blurs the lines between inside and outside (blood, excrement, the decay of dead bodies) which is what evokes this sense of horror we feel at the abject.  And yet, in its connection to the grotesque (in the carnivalesque, Bakhtinian sense of the word), there is a way in which the abject is connected to the sublime.  I'm intrigued by Kristeva's characterization of the abject as an apocalyptic thing, in contrast to the carnivalesque nature of the grotesque.  Apocalyptic laughter versus grotesque laughter. 

Quite a bit of the book focuses on the work of Céline, whom I've never read, so a lot of this was lost on me.  I'm hoping, though, that the combo of my copious outline along with this more informal writing will reinforce the important parts of the book.

I wanted to get this read first so that I could incorporate Kristeva's ideas into a rewrite of a paper on ugly women in Eudora Welty's "Curtain of Green" stories which I'd like to get done this summer.  First up, however, I need to finish the chapter I'm writing on a feminist reading of Neil Gaiman's stories in Who Killed Amanda Palmer, as well as a conference paper I had accepted for the fall on reading Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood along with the Ministry song "Jesus Built My Hotrod."  

However, next from my reading lists I've chosen Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping--after the dense theory, reading a (rather) recent American novel is delightful.

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