|AUTHOR:||Victoria Frenkel Harris|
|TITLE:||Emancipating the Proclamation: Gender and Genre in AVA|
|SOURCE:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction v17 p175-85 Fall '97|
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In An Atlas of the Difficult World, Adrienne Rich writes:
I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural then yes let it be these are small distinctions where do we see it from is the question.
If we concur with Richard Rorty that as social beings we construct our realities, then "where ... we see it from" relates inextricably to the question of who we are. When the foundations of legitimizing accounts began to crumble, when, as Susan Bordo suggests, "accounts could no longer claim to descend from the heavens of pure rationality or to reflect the inevitable and progressive logic of intellectual or scientific discovery," then "the imperial categories that had provided justification for those accounts--Reason, Truth, Human Nature, History, Tradition--become displaced by the (historical/social) questions: Whose truth? Whose nature? Whose version of reason? Whose history? Whose tradition?" (137). Denial of either the anteriority of truth or of the Cartesian postulating subject requires a dialogic stance from which one enters the dialogue committed to acts of agency, points of affiliation, and the stakes of the commitment. Those places of entrance and involvement continually construct an ongoing and shifting subject position in service neither to closed information systems--those political and aesthetic as well as topographical maps--nor to a self-enclosed identity.
Throughout AVA, Carole Maso's third novel, Ava's ruminations on literature suggest that dialogism applies even to how we receive a literary text: "The poem demands the demise of the poet who writes it and the birth of the poet who reads it" (65). Textual parameters, in turn, extend to broader ideological concerns: "Each page is completely entitled to be the first page" (58) in "literary texts that tolerate all kinds of freedom ... which are not ... texts of territory with neat borders" (113). AVA is thus both text and metatext, a narrator's story and the story of a narration committed to interactive multiplicity. The protagonist, like the text of AVA, opts for resisting closure; indeed, AVA is a moving symphonic rendering of how one life accumulates memory and desire and that life's narrative equivalent, a narrative that, among other literary transgressions, undercuts chronological sequence ("My students and I celebrating the death of plot" , Ava says at one point). Maso's textual view of reality--as inevitably shaped by the stories we choose to tell and the stories that we are told--is structured by her determination "to reshape the world according to the dictates of desire" (6) in an emplotment of the sexuated female body that is erotically attentive to the material world; matter matters to Maso. On a broader level, her call for an open-endedness to the nature of inquiry and for an ongoing inquiry into and denaturalization of the subject interrogates strategies of closure and their usual concomitant gestures of isolationism and desires for power.
Self-enclosed identity is incommensurate to the text of AVA/Ava; thereby Maso imagistically and metaphorically inscribes an alternative to political and aesthetic closed information systems--her ongoing inquiring and denaturalized subject crucially redressing the inevitable and necessary omissions of such systems. On a literal and symbolic level AVA is very much a novel about the body of its eponymous central character. During the breakdown of her physical body, Ava's celebrated "interior multiplicity" (176)--Maso's metonym for a perspectival aesthetic--is traversed by a medical profession that perceives the human body as self-contained and whose articulations of and practices upon the body are synecdoches of the discourses and power operations in the larger cultural context. Maso, on the other hand, is interested in theories of identity based upon sexual object choice, upon the gendered body and its lability. Such investment resists reactionary sexual prohibitions fostered by anxiety over contamination by a sexual "other," as seen, for instance, in the AIDS hysteria.
Such anxieties extend to the body politic, as well, which forms a backdrop to the novel and which is treated throughout with images of containment, power, and invasion: "Iraq invades Kuwait," Maso writes at one point in the narrative, "The president draws a line in the sand" (88). Similarly, Ava's family are victims and survivors of the holocaust, a genocide enabled by the literal and paradigmatic enclosure of an entire human population. Even the name of Ava's doctor, Dr. Oppenheim, who is treating, irradiating, the cancerous Ava, in evoking the name of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who helped develop the A-bomb, then later spoke out against America's Cold War McCarthyite intolerance, suggests totalizing boundaries, the way that activities of science implode upon political activities, and the "liars who are holding power over others" (17).
For Maso, this all ties into "the seduction that is, that has always been language" (226)--language that is both adored and responsible. Throughout AVA, Maso insists that since inscriptions forge our realities, language use must be ethical, to this end citing Paz: "The writer's morality ... [lies] in his behavior toward language" (63); Neruda: "Form and content constantly shape each other like elements of the ecosystem and this allows truth, infinite possibilities for expression" (90); and Wittig: action "is the overflow not only of words, but of the reality and the traditions these words have fashioned and perpetuated" (29). While enthralled by the hold language has, Maso equates overtelling with totalizing: "Words are less integers than points in a continuum. Indeed one might well describe the structure of the lyric as the expression of the interval" (40). And interval and narrative fragment play interventive roles, replacing the appearance of totalization with a mood of narrative flow--Ava's stream-of-consciousness collage of memory and desire. Thus the work, though always about language, is also about reading. Ava's life of passionate and promiscuous reading portrays the way a life accumulates resonance and how a writer might evoke a resonant narrative equivalent, flooding the protagonist's and reader's minds with multiple voices. Yet, on her deathbed, Ava is also not afraid to "listen to the music that is silence" (123). Indeed, silence, bound to the love and inner necessities of language, its shaping forms, performs a semiotic function in Maso's novel: "let silence have its share and allow for a fuller meditative field than is possible in linear narrative or analysis" (184).
AVA situates a composing mind under the pressures of context--historical, cultural, and biological. But the widening notions of just what constitutes a text include what constitutes a subject; and the interruptions of linearity by silences, syncopation, indeterminacy, disarticulation, and recursion are the undulations of a different kind of semantic field. A text such as AVA, which replicates a mind's recursions, repetitions, drifts, and motives, renders notions such as non sequitur of self-sustaining unity inapplicable. Silences, furthermore, constitute omissions only in texts that promise the aesthetic mastery of experience, that present themselves as a totalized work in the Barthesian sense of the term. Yet, Ava concludes, "As seemingly random as it all appears--there are accumulated meanings. I believe that" (129). The synecdochal aspect of the novel-to-world relationship in AVA insinuates process, the dilatory, and the incomplete as hedges against totalization when notions of completion spawn cidal exclusionary economies.
Thus AVA, like each of Maso's five novels, performs valuable cultural work. Nonetheless, in an era in which, as Michael Riffaterre observes, academic critics and theorists (in particular) tend to dismiss "aesthetic features" as "historical variables or as suspect vestiges of the styles and reading practices of the embattled canon" (15), AVA remains determinedly literary, with both artifice and textuality foregrounded. Yet, even from its self-consciousness as aesthetic artifact, Maso interrogates the traditional valorization of objectivity, ideological neutrality, and disinterested art, which is under scrutiny by much contemporary theory. Language operates, in Riffaterre's formulation, less as "sociolect," which is largely mimetic, than as "ideolect," the "self-sufficient" imagistic codes which disclaim referentiality. Moving "from a denotative to a connotative status" (14), such codes gain salience formally, not mimetically; contextually, not referentially. "We are ... dealing," Riffaterre concludes, "with a mode of expression whose basic unit is likely to be a text, rather than a word, a sentence, or a trope" (15). Such texts impel a "move from passive to participatory reading" (4), an attendance to significance rather than uncontextualized meanings, relying on the cumulative power of images that subvert "the principle of substitutability" (15). Formally and aesthetically, in other words, AVA is not a text at all analogous to realism, unless its referentiality is to the mind that negates linear or rationalistic orchestration.
Despite its literariness, however, Maso abjures high modernist hermeticism, that Eliotic valorization of the autonomous text, which claims to escape from the personality of both the writer and reader. The personal pervades, and Maso discusses AVA in the most personal of terms: "No other book eludes me like AVA. It reaches for things just outside the grasp of my mind, my body, the grasp of my imagination. It brings me up close to the limits of my own comprehension, pointing out, as Kafka says, the incompleteness of any life--not because it is too short, but because it is a human life" ("One Moment" 3). Moreover, Maso evokes the reader's personal as well as rhetorical engagement, not merely because formal difficulty demands "a more conscious, more thorough reader-response" (Riffaterre 14) but because the reader's participation is built into the aesthetic strategies of the text. Maso, for example, complaining of the usurpation of "the reader's freedoms" by traditional narratives, which "left no place in the text for the reader," attempts in AVA "to write lines the reader (and the writer) might meditate to, recombine, rewrite as he or she pleases" ("One Moment" 4). Furthermore, Maso undermines privatized "originality" by presenting herself as participant in the current cultural/epistemological sea change that resists notions of ideational enclosure (whether the entity enclosed be a construction of self, body, or literary genre), that views knowledges as situated and implicated, that displaces dichotomy, autonomy, and determinateness with relationship, mutuality, and openness--in short, to return to the quotation from Rich with which I began, that prefers murals to maps.
There is no pattern in AVA for that which is complete and self-contained or without apparent authorship. There are no authoritative and neutral representations--for a world that is always already given, objectively "out there," rather than constantly undergoing construction. The literary conscription here is into AVA's mode and content of affiliation, not into the service of impartial perspectives implementing a rhetoric of objectivity. AVA's world is constitutionally perspectival, thereby destabilizing objectivism. Multivocality, uncertainty, complications, and paradox resist monologism and a worldview that normalizes its own biases through historical, rationalistic, and scientific fictions of unity. What distinguishes Maso's use of polyvocality, uncertainty, paradox, etc., from similar techniques in modernist texts is the foregrounded implicatedness of the author in her text and the reader in its reading as well as the avoidance of stability-intending resolution. If anything is consistent, it is the modulations of change and shift and the necessity of acknowledging implicatedness in Maso's politics of location. "Where do we see it from is [indeed] the question" to be asked. Situatedness is all.
Maso writes herself into her historical situation by actively infusing her work with other texts whose status as cultural products is acknowledged by footnotes, which in turn self-consciously mark the texts' relationships to, complicities with, and dismantlings of contemporaneous and historicla texts. This move serves to elasticize textual boundaries--enlarging work into Barthesian text, extending beyond the enclosures of the book's covers. Generous allusion acknowledges acculturation and avoids in the process the sense of either cutting off through enclosure or progressing through linearity. While Maso's footnotes refer largely to the Western canon, the multivocality within her text challenges sedimented notions of master narratives emanating from sequestered originating poets. Her situatedness admits to different knowledges, and this notational gesture allows her to display intelligence, precision, and erudition, instantiating multiplicity, while disclaiming a unitary source of originality. The inspirational and generative heteroglossia differs from the more conservative influence model of the modernists, which alludes not only to the author's erudition but also to a parochial envisionment of canonic homogeneity, Eliot's "monuments." Unlike "influences," which would still embody the notion of containment, this textual weaving asserts our own social construction. Voice, therefore, eddies into multiple voices in AVA, countering centrist humanist notions of being as well as any appearance of omniscience or neutrality.
Not surprisingly, Maso writes her readers into the text, making available "in the text a 'reading function' that allows for a shift in enunciative and denotative positionality--in other words for movement beyond what the text says" (Rajan 67). In her conscious deployment of intertextuality, Maso insists upon her own intentionalities and positionalities while honoring competing discourses, even providing gaps and silences in her work's formal dimension that invite dialogic interchange with the reader, whose intentionalities and positionalities are also acknowledged. AVA presents itself, then, as a consciously crafted aesthetic construct while simultaneously opening itself to palimpsestic interaction with past and current cultural texts and dialogic interchanges between author and reader.
I would like to consider what I think is a major symbolic dimension of Maso's use of textual multiplicity in AVA to undercut detachment, neutrality, and universality as value judgments disguised as both positionless and aesthetically august. The prestige of allopathy in this country seems to have secured the notion of the body as an enclosed space, "normal" if healthy in its pristine, atomistic terms, but susceptible to invasion by voracious, self-multiplying cells. Such multiplication within an enclosed system leads to sure collapse of that enclosed space. Without trivializing in any way the ravages of cancer and other diseases, I mean to suggest that this invasion metaphor, issuing from our culture's preeminently esteemed scientistic discourse of the body, extends to our terms of securing normal status by protecting the empowered from rampant invasions by the unempowered. The altern/subaltern terms of colonization exist in the invasion metaphors informing homophobia, racism, sexism--in general, any discourse of the other that projects evil invasions wreaking havoc upon the harmonious and the "normal" (the normal body-state, for example, or the nuclear family). Not only through its transgressive form but through its central image of a woman dying of an incurable disease, AVA symbolically critiques the universalist and humanistic perspective that imposes value-laden sound bites on a population extremely distressed by the failure of all that such truisms were meant to secure. To allow Ava's body to be cured through such logic would be tantamount to assuring the success of blindered telescopic scrutiny--even of the body. Under such a predilection, the splendid physical and metaphorical sexuality celebrated in the novel collapses. In resisting "cure" by the rigid domain of allopathic procedures, Ava's body also resists the body of science that seeks to enclose its specimen while ridding it of contaminants. If Ava were cured, if Maso narrated success from such centrist practices, she would, in some ways, collude with those practices, in the process succumbing to a metaphysics of closure her narrative resists at every turn.
Although AVA/Ava concludes/dies, Maso never relinquishes her investment in opposing the logic of exclusion--such as that definitional appropriation of the other/the self. Ava's story as an embodiment of openness precludes any preconfirmed sense of an otherness that ought to be avoided, like a citizenship that bans foreigners. The novel's lack of closure, at all levels, parallels its investment in multiple textuality, in the palimpsest, the trace. Ava's wish for daughters, maybe hundreds of them, is potentiated, not through the essential body, but through the text. Her issue results from the same formal greening up of the status of the book--an inability to seal off the text as novel, as narrative, bound to genre assumptions about closure, character, plot, and, implicitly, subjectivity. Perhaps if Maso's gesture of opening that which formerly was conceived of as enclosed were extended to the vocabulary of science, prevalent diagnostic vocabularies of normalcy and disease would throw off metaphors of insulation, isolation, and invasion, leading to more effective treatment of cancer and AIDS.
As we become more liberated from discourses of separation and autonomy, from any ecological effacement in service to personal gain, we concomitantly must find rapprochement for the denounced other, seeking, for example, not only refuge for the homeless but a reassessment of just what we mean by home. Maso characterizes homelessness partially in terms of locating a language to make space for the feminine, which is described explicitly as linguistically nonexistent, having thus no "at home." As Maso states her notion: "So primary is homesickness as a motive for writing fiction, so powerful the yearning to memorialize what we've lived, inhabited, been hurt by and loved--"(176). Homelessness may be seen as an imagistic portrayal suggesting life outside a transgression/rule dilemma. Suggesting, however, that Ava's actions be identified as transgressions would solidify the concept of the rule. Homelessness may imply not a situation of being away from home, but an adriftness, an alterity--indecipherable within the purview of transgression/norm. Maso moves into the postmodern by deconstructing that binary, refusing to signify against a norm and furthermore not instantiating a humanistic mode of toleration for the anomalous.
Maso swerves away from both fixed identity and repudiation of a fixed subject position with the figure of the nomad, for one example. Marked by unlocatability, the nomad's lack of fixity carries both the potential burden and freedom implicit in dialogue, interaction, incompletion, and accountability without the bourgeois or cold war (I-you, us-them) bifurcations. AVA presents the shifting nature of involvements that continually construct a fluctuating subject position, one not inherited and complete but continually responsible and responsive in its ongoing constitution. Being a nomad in the collapsing eco- and immune system, Ava repeatedly recalls Schubert's Wanderer Symphony. "It is difficult," Maso writes, "to convey in English the exact meaning of the word Wandern. Perhaps 'to roam' comes nearest to a definition of that half-joyous, half-melancholy notion. Wandern serves both as a symbol of freedom, of not being weighted down by responsibilities, and as a symbol of not belonging, of homelessness" (98). By calling attention to the untranslatability of wandern, Maso suggests the need to elasticize boundaries--of language norms and of dichotomous assertions of home/homeless. No rule exists from which to grant exceptions--perhaps, then, this portrayal indicates Maso's ability to metonymize ec-centrism.
Citing Hé:lène Cixous, Maso associates this liberating ec-centricity with women's bodies. "Language for women is closely linked with sexuality for Cixous. She believes that because women are endowed with a more passive and consequently more receptive sexualilty, not centered on the penis, they are more open than men to create liberated forms of discourse" (51). Arguments about passivity aside, Maso concurs with Cixous's contention that "We've been turned away from our bodies, shamefully taught to ignore them, to strike them with that stupid sexual modesty" (56). Rejecting all objectifying representations of the feminine, Maso asserts that "Feminine can be read as the living, as something that continues to escape all boundaries, that cannot be pinned down, controlled or even conceptualized" (160). Affiliation and networking in AVA suggest not lassitude but involvement. A totalized tale is withheld because the desire for totalization is itself being mocked. The reader must enter at a place, insert particularity and identifiability, locate her space and haul along a packet of affiliations which must provide perspective and require scrutiny. Both moves--by author and reader--share the activity of silence and voice, suggest not fullness but invite enunciations that are uncorseted by mandates for universal, abstract discourse that marginalizes a sexual subject.
Maso expresses the body--book, protagonist, world--in a narrative form that parallels Ava's life: that which expands and contracts as respiration pulsates within the body. Maso cites Sarraute's notion that "the genuine response to art is on an immediate and personal level. It is essentially a wordless conversation between the author and the reader and his or her willingness to assume the same responsibilities and prerogatives as the author" (61). Ava's repeated recourse to music--she in fact aspires to the state of music--metaphorically suggests alertness to resonance and nuance, in a throbbing network of recollection in repetition like musical variations. Unlike musicality, however, AVA possesses semiotic materiality, and Maso, as suggested, is invested in a world without revulsion toward matter. "In between waves and heat, a conversation, bits of conversation carried to me on the air.... If I did not care about making this a better world" (66). A world inhabited by agents bound to render matter precisely, to attend to it and care for it, would be a world--in other words--not headed toward heedless destruction. As readers, we, too, are compelled to make contact actively with the materiality of this novel while asking, in fact inventing, the means to adapt to its shifting ground of shapes, allegiances, and form, constructing ourselves along the way--implicatively and metaphorically--with a dying body in microcosm, a dying population or form in the macrocosm. Unlike a bourgeois tourist who aloofly observes the devastation of an other, we become accomplices in alternative social constructions.
Throughout AVA, cultural vocabularies fall short of "The ideal, or the dream, ... to arrive at a language that heals as much as it separates" (250). In a quintessential scene Ava reacts to an advertising executive's smirking remark, "So I see you are into kinky sex." Ava is not personally offended; rather, she is put off by the executive's censorial and exclusionary construction of her sexuality. "[S]omething about 'into kinky sex' bothered me," she reflects. "He had committed a sin of language and I never saw him again" (58). The erotic body in Maso's work is not susceptible to normative summary; the oppressive constructions of altern/subaltern are unacceptable as well. Maso implicitly finesses even the current theoretical either-or critical bifurcation in feminism pertaining to essentialism and social constructionism, retaining instead an investment in the bodily while avoiding charges of being a precritical essentialist.
Readers are left being told to "pray for peace" and to imagine a healing language in a world ravaged by discursive patterns of separation and ghettoization. Yet, to conclude where I began, to the extent that we are socially and linguistically constructed, inscription of failures of articulated structures inaugurates possibilities for alternative inscriptions. The semiotics of space and recursion in AVA amend the slices of the sharp scalpel of linear language, leaving room also for that which we are repeatedly told to love: questions (171). We are seduced by Maso's portrayal of Ava's urgent promiscuity as suiting "some interior multiplicity" (176). We love Ava's will to love. Furthermore, AVA metaphorically engenders a global economy that will not tolerate economies of isolationism which foster exclusionism and elitism, homicides and genocides, at the expense of some constructed subaltern other.
The tragic element here comes from witnessing the extinction of "a rare bird," as Ava--rara avis--is repeatedly called. All this sensuous bodily care and delight remain housed in a suffocating ecosphere--a metonym for the annihilation of several kinds of life, spoken by one author or one character, who loves the imbricating textures of life's events. Yet this shape-shifting psyche weaves into extinction--like a note into air--sensuously and particularly. The protagonist, like the novel, loses shape and closure while making the reader dance to Ava's music, follow her suit and love it, respond to her demands for an attentive and sensuous mind in harmony with that of both author and character. A novel that revels against plot, AVA transgresses some of its own inherited premises, inaugurating replenishment, metaphorically what the body of this protagonist cannot achieve. The thrumming energy of the text contains and continues beyond the endurance of this figure in its rushes and halts, spillovers of Ava's psyche--the only imposition of linearity of narrative progression signified by the "Morning," "Afternoon," and "Night" markers.
The conclusion of AVA/Ava avoids conventional closure. The tragedy is not that the drift cannot take shape but that this source cannot remain alive. This body cannot be sustained by the trust in what's so sensual. That which has been trusted may not be retained. The tragedy, then, is not a deathbed scene, not a grieving for this one body's submission to cancer--our bogus category for any number of various illnesses plaguing a population with damaged immune systems. The pathos, rather, results from our inability to have this music, its sensuous indeterminacies, exist as recognizable form. Unfamiliarity with such attentiveness makes us accomplices to the destruction of that which is indeterminable in our regnant grammar. And yet do not the principles guiding a reading of AVA generate filiation?
"No more second opinions. It's OK," Ava says, dismissing the deficient treatment.
No more binary logic applied to the body.
Or to the life, the book, the loves, the culture.
"I'm feeling the form--finally."
"A more spacious form. After all this time" (212).
Barthes, Roland. "From Work to Text ." Image, Music, Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1988. 155-164.
Bordo, Susan. "Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism." Feminism / Postmodernism. Ed. Linda J. Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990. 133-56.
Maso, Carole. AVA. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1993.
Maso, Carole. "One Moment of True Freedom." Belles Lettres 8.4 (1993): 3-5.
Rich, Adrienne. An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991. New York: Norton, 1991.
Rajan, Tilotama. "Intertextuality and the Subject of Reading/Writing." Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History. Ed. Jay Clayton and Eric Rothstein. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 61-74.
Riffaterre, Michael. "How Do Images Signify?" Diacritics 24.1 (1994): 3-15.
Always she seemed to be listening to the echo of some foray in the blood that had no known setting.
--Djuna Barnes, Nightwood