Thursday, June 21, 2012

Barbara Ladd--Resisting History: Gender, Modernity, and Authorship in William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, and Eudora Welty (2007)

In this book, Ladd undertakes, “under the rubric of gender,…an exploration of choice and agency in the modernist engagement with authorship and in the act of writing itself” (4).  Looking primarily at Faulkner, Hurston, and Welty allows Ladd to focus on a time period during which “the era of order and clear trajectories was over,” during which “the aesthetics of authorship would be formed on the breakdown of the unified subject theorized in the work of Freud and on the concurrent breakdown of empire, which challenged History” (4).  Capital-H-History is important to Ladd, as she is most interested in ways in which these authors challenged, undermined, or resisted History through their work (in particular, the ways in which their own undermined authorship functioned in this way).  History supports and is a product of empire; History excludes, and excludes primarily women.  Ladd, then, uses gender as her focus in this study because the system of empire excludes women—“only the women prove resistant, but that is because they are already ‘chained’ to what Julia Kristeva has called ‘biological fate’—interpellation doesn’t ‘take’” (3). 
Desire—especially female desire—is central to Ladd’s study.  Rejecting a Freudian/Platonic/Lacanian understanding of desire, which equates desire with “lack,” Ladd instead relies upon an understanding of desire as articulated by Deleuze and Guattari, one sees desire as productive and connected to passion: “Desire always remains in close touch with the conditions of objective existence; it embraces them and follows them, shifts when they shift” (Deleuze and Guattari, quoted in Ladd 9).  Additionally, Ladd sees desire in terms of the sublime, which she defines as “the representation of something vast, overmastering, and oblivious to desire that, paradoxically, authorizes cultural agency in the West” (9). 
As Ladd discusses throughout the work, an encounter with the sublime authorizes a person to tell his story, as he has “lived to tell the tale.”  As many have pointed out, the sublime has traditionally been seen as the realm of the male; there are few stories of the feminine experience with the sublime (which is odd, Ladd notes, as one would expect, for example, pregnancy and childbirth to be perfect topics to be mined for just stories).[1]  For example, Ladd points to Edmund Burke as one influential example of this gendered view of the sublime: “While he associates the realm of the beautify with sociability and reproduction (and women), he associates the sublime with the assertion of human power, an instinct for self-preservation and self-mastery in the face of an encounter with terror” (46).  Ladd intends to “examine the sublime as a concept for feminism and an experience for women and other submerged populations to demonstrate some of the ways in which the sublime underwrites narratives of resistance to the circumstances of desire.  A confrontation with fatality can be productive” (10).  Importantly, she says that “There is something that remains after the interpellation of gender, a shared imaginary that has to do with desire, production, and exchange and is available to both male and female” (11).  She looks at these points of crossover in the authors she examines: she sees that “a female corporeal imaginary, even a maternal one, as we shall see in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, is available to a male writer, as a conduit to freedom.  A male corporeal imaginary, as we will see in Welty’s “Music from Spain” and Hurston’s Tell My Horse, is available to a female writer and is likewise a means to freedom” (11). 
Ladd looks at authors from the American South because the patriarchal and paternalistic foundations of southern ideology are not unique to the South, but they "were made explicit and instrumentalized in a slave economy that subjected southern women (black and white, rich and poor) and African American men to a disciplinary regime in which some were spiritualized and others imagined as animals, in which the only recognized options for some were to sublimate both self and body to the race or to God or to face the violation of both self and body in cruder exploitations" (13).  Further, she explains her focus on this particular time period by the emergence of the modern woman at this time: “The difference between the traditional woman and the modern one had to do with fatality….Autonomy and sovereignty had been constructed on the backs of subordinates, slaves, and women” (15).
Ladd first looks at Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying (1930).  In Addie, Ladd claims that Faulkner creates a “voice of a very different kind of woman indeed, a restless, angry, idealistic, speaking subject in possession of something that Western culture thought women could not possess, which would have been referred to at that time as ‘mind’ and which we are more likely to think of today as the desire to remake the world and the self in the mastery of language” (17).  Ladd makes important connections between Faulkner and the work of Evelyn Scott, particularly her 1923 semi-autobiographical work Escapade.  In As I Lay Dying, Ladd identifies Faulkner’s achievement as “his reimagining of the figure of the women in the scene of the sublime in a way that speaks to (and speaks back to) male anxieties as they concerned the impact of modernity on women and the impact of women on modernity” (48).
Important to my work, Ladd identifies the sublime experience as “a crisis of gender typically represented by the male writer as a feminizing as well as authorizing moment in the portrait of the artist as a young man….the sublime disfigures and disables masculinity in order to refigure and enable it.  Whether that disfiguration takes the form of a physical hurt (blindness or maiming) or a mental one exhibited in the form of cognitive, emotional, or psychic ‘impairment’ or ‘distortion,’ it will be visible” (48).  I think this speaks to my understanding of the Medusa interaction in Welty in some way.
Ladd’s consideration of Welty is primarily concerned with the ways in which “Welty instrumentalizes gender, embracing in a spirit of comic undoing the masculinist economy of History in its hostility to women” (52-3).  By comparing Welty’s “A Worn Path” with the characters of Clytie and Jim Bond in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Ladd shows that Welty’s story “shifts the perspective to foreground the experiential reality of a black and female figure, the kind of figure who, in Faulkner’s story as in official History, is hardly more than the decentered guardian of the remains of the white male body” (55).  She further compares the female listeners in Welty’s stories to the male ones in Faulkner’s work: “It is the indifference of Welty’s women and girls, the possibility that at any moment a certain character might fly off in another direction, not ‘hear’ the rest of the story, escape History if only for a moment, that constitutes one of the ‘obstructions’ upon which Welty her constructs her very historical stories” (58).  Such “indifference,” as Ladd characterizes it, is very different from, say Ike McCaslin in Go Down, Moses (or even Quentin Compson), for whom listening is necessary to discovering his identity.  Ladd’s distinction of Welty’s characters to those of Faulkner continues, as she describes the ways in which Welty characters differ in their approach to History, which she characterizes as “a satirical displacement of Faulknerian History from the constitutive to the ornamental.  The representation of History as something worn upon the body rather than as something that constitutes the body is shaped by race and gender” (59).  In other words, it seems that perhaps Welty’s characters are aware of their own interpellation because of their marginalization in ways that Faulkner’s characters are not.
I am intrigued by Ladd’s analysis of the idea of “indifference,” which she says “pertains to a specific conceptualization of freedom: the freedom of indifference is defined as the power to choose to act altogether differently from the way one chose to act” (59).  I wonder if it’s possible to apply this definition of indifference vis-á-vis freedom to appearance, to women who are regarded as ugly because of indifference (I’m thinking of the woman in “Curtain of Green,” for example).  Further, Ladd talks about women who are invisible in their world, but visible in Welty’s stories because they are “clearly in the sights of the reader” (62): “for a woman, who is so often more aware of being looked at than of herself looking, ‘looking about’ is a rare privilege.  That kind of invisibility is freedom, a freedom of indifference wherein other choices are possible, and is associated with authorship in Welt’s work” (62).  Again, I think this may have some bearing on my understanding of the interactive nature of ugliness, especially (but not only) in Welty’s work.  Further, Ladd directly addresses those characters who are associated with Medusa, noting that the “real problem is not so much that the heroines see themselves as monstrous as that the patriarchal narrative constructs them in such terms, leaving them with only two choices—to concur in their immersion into the repetitive regime of the everyday or to resist, to embrace their ‘contrariety’” (64).  Again, I think this has real bearing on the seeming ubiquity of the ugly woman in this work.
Ladd goes on to consider Faulkner’s A Fable and Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse in terms of gender reversal in authorship.  She sees Faulkner relying upon a “feminized semiotics of discourse” (81) in A Fable which is similar to that of As I Lay Dying, and she sees Hurston using a particularly performative identity (one which might almost be considered as pseudonymous as that of Mark Twain) in order to gain access to the privileged position of a white male voice (129).  These are interesting discussions, but not nearly as central to my work as her first two chapters.

[1] What about the Gothic novel?  Isn’t that a textbook example of the feminine encounter with the sublime?  Or perhaps Ladd would argue that the “feminine Gothic,” with its mysteries explained, falls into the Hegelian paradigm that women encounter beauty, and only men the sublime (in terms of the “masculine Gothic” which features real mystery).

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