|TITLE:||MISREADING THE KISS: TEACHING MANUEL PUIG'S KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN|
|SOURCE:||Studies in the Literary Imagination 31 no1 165-79 Spr '98|
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Storytelling and moviegoing, like sex (and like political commitment that frees the self from isolation by filling it with the interests of the other) leave one vulnerable to ideological contamination at the very moment they promise liberation. (Norris 189)
culture, like American culture writ large, is ever more devoted to
consumption and entertainment, to the using and using up of goods and images. (Edmundson 40)
In a pivotal moment in Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman, the prisoner Molina, in response to his cellmate Valentin's complaint that Molina is not literal enough in his narration of a film, responds that he embellishes the story in order to convey more faithfully what he has seen.
--Then you're inventing half the picture.
--No. I'm not inventing, I swear, but some things, to round them out for you, so you can see the way I'm seeing them ... well, to some extent I have to embroider a little. (Puig 18)
This rendering of the
contingency and instability of both memory and narration provides an
opportunity to explore with students through this text a number of
cultural constructions such as gender and sexuality, and their
contingent places within the personal and political economy of power relations.
In the novel, Puig shifts fictions and consequently narrative authority, weaving his story together from a number of sources and discourses whose fictions are not necessarily realized by the reader, but which function nevertheless to both seduce and distance the reader from the implications of the story he fashions. Puig deliberately resists the usual narrative structure that provides a familiar sense of an ending, choosing instead to leave readers to ponder over the conflicting perspectives that he constructs through his characters, film plots that have linear narratives and conventional endings or closure, and supposed institutional or scientific sources.
Puig's imbricated narrative insists on a reading that locates meaning in ideological debate. It unfolds as a counterpointing of several films, of narrative-by-dialogue and narrative-by-description, of the framing situation and the films narrated within it, of an ostensibly primary frame (Molina/Valentin) and the institutional surveillance that frames that frame, of supposedly filmed film and its studio press book version, and of primary text and footnotes. (Dittmar 83)
In The Nickel Was for the Movies, Gavriel Moses attempts to decipher some of the appeal of what has been classified as the
film novel, which he sees as a new literary genre, its mimetic function
unfolding from a specific form of extraliterary discourse, that of film.
... Film novels carry us from 'what we know' to 'how we know what we know.' The film novel thus offers a genre-specific way to expose the dilemma of narrative itself, in the very act of creating it. (135)
Although he organizes his study around novels such as Pirandello's Quaderni, Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark, Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, West's The Day of the Locust, and Percy's Lancelot, he sees Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman as unique because in it "we find the narrative of film as a primary dialogic vehicle between two characters" (247).
According to Molly Haskell movies are "a rich field for the mining of female stereotypes and the overt and subtle influences they have on women ... [these stereotypes] not only invaded our dream lives but began shaping the way we thought about ourselves before we knew enough to close the door" (8). It is with these female stereotypes that Molina constructs female desire in Kiss of the Spider Woman and through them that the novel offers readers the opportunity to explore these stereotypes critically and afterwards to invent, as Gregory Ulmer would advocate, something that grows out of their emotional responses to their investigations (259).
I have chosen to create something of a pastiche or bricolage for this essay, as a way to mirror Puig's own composition of how popular culture both colludes with and frustrates official power structures that deny social justice and human dignity. Although I emphasize the importance of personal connection and experience as suggested by Ulmer, I also note the importance of making larger connections to issues such as social justice.
Early in my class, as we were reading Eduardo Galeano's history of the Americas, one of my students told me that she felt I "just didn't get it." She then reminded me that she liked her life and didn't want anything to change it. I told her I was happy for her that she liked her life, but that many people in the world lived under conditions that were difficult at best and that they wanted and needed their lives to change. She then told me that what I didn't get was that she didn't care about those people.
What was I to make of such a notion of justice? What event or moment in the novel would resonate on a personal level for this student? The glamour of fashion? The romantic hero? The movies with happy endings? Women objectified through the male gaze? The overdetermined mother as instrument of social control? The suppression and criminalization of homosexual lifestyles? The suppression of political dissent?
More importantly, if an objective of study is to promote a sense of social justice, must it only grow out of personal experience or can it be developed and nurtured more abstractly and vicariously? Is it possible to bring together elements of empathy, intellect, and creativity through the texts we choose?
CONVERSATION WITH A COLLEAGUE
--Something a little strange, that's what you notice, that they all seem wrapped up inside themselves, that you'll never be able to reach them, that they're interested in the kinds of clothes everyone else is wearing, that they only talk about the upcoming weekend, that they can only think about their cars and the things they can buy, that they don't like to read, but only to watch television and films.
Students will not indict the exigencies of capitalism. For the pervading view is the cool consumer perspective, where passion and strong admiration are forbidden.... Is it a surprise, then, that this generation of students--steeped in consumer culture before going off to school, treated as potent customers by the university well before their date of arrival, then pandered to from day one until the morning of the final kiss-off from Kermit or one of his kin--are inclined to see the books they read as a string of entertainments to be placidly enjoyed or languidly cast down? Given the way universities are now administered (which is more and more to say, given the way they are currently marketed), is it a shock that the kids don't come to school hot to learn, unable to bear their own ignorance? (Edmundson 47)
isn't that why you decided to teach this novel, because you thought it
was something they could relate to?
--Yes ... and no. I wanted to teach the novel because of its visual appeal.
Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman could be considered a lucky text: a piece of fictional writing that desires to be a movie, a script longing for its visual body. (Norris 180)
But mostly, I wanted to teach the novel because of all the political dilemmas it introduces, for the ambiguity of its characters and of ideology, and for the way the novel plays on the conventions of writing and calls into question the conventions of romance, gender, and sexuality. (I wanted to pander to them).
--And did it work out, your plan to have your students grapple with these issues?
--Yes, I think it did. (I embroider to convey more faithfully what I have seen.)
--And the conundrum that the text presents, you think it is important? More important, say, than a work that is considered more culturally and aesthetically valuable, something canonical, for example?
--Perhaps ... because this novel comes out of the tradition of the visual, of the most powerful medium in our culture in the twentieth century. And it calls into question the validity of that way of seeing from within the text itself.
The students in the class were eager to engage in Molina's narration of films. In fact, they, like Valentin, wanted to hear more and wanted to read subsequent chapters just to find out what happened in the film plots. They were trying to envision, to recreate the film by following the details of Molina's narration. They found them entertaining. They found in them the escape that the cinema provides. (It is Saturday afternoon in my memory, and the only thing that matters is the thrill of the screen, the romance and adventure of it all, the dreaminess, the escape into darkness and anonymity. Me in the fabulous dress with a fabulous face in the arms of the handsome hero.)
--But the films he retells are sentimental and shallow.
--Yes, but Molina's retellings have the "powerful emblematic device" that will seduce the readers--the romantic rendering of the stories; that is, stories of love, honor, and sacrifice in the name of love (Norris 180). Although Molina is a queen who has been jailed for corruption of minors, he weaves his magic from the fabric of the traditional love story. The stories are sentimental and powerful and rely on narrative devices that can be described as mainstream and that carry with them the authority of dominant ideology.
--Now this sounds like theoretical clichés. How could students follow this or why would they be interested?
--They seemed to identify with the construction of female desire in the novel, with the women who sacrifice themselves for the men they love, or at least with being seduced by it. However, this seamless reading of the construction of sexuality and female desire is disrupted in the novel by the dialogue between Valentin and Molina and by the series of footnotes that appear at seemingly random points in the text.
Linda Dittmar observes that in most mainstream cinema, men narrate the feminine. She uses as an example the film Gilda, and describes the problem women viewers might have identifying with a woman who is "posed, framed, and filmed to fit the contours of men's imaginations." Indeed she describes the desiring women we see on the screen and their "softly glowing profiles reaching for strong and handsome [men]" as "fetishized displacements of female desire" (82).
--But don't you think that has changed? In more recent films, women have become stronger, indeed, many of them have assumed roles that could be described as quite masculine.
--We have seen the roles of women reversed to some degree to incorporate feminist agendas. But I would argue that this is the result of feminist rhetoric being co-opted by mainstream cinema and represents a shallow and in some ways dangerous translation. However, students seemed to feel they could navigate the otherwise uncertain waters of Puig's novel, because they could hold onto the romantic narrative devices. But unlike film or fiction that offers no alternative discourses, Kiss of the Spider Woman deliberately undermines mainstream practices.
Kiss of the Spider Woman is able to disrupt the linear political romance plot--'girl' agrees to betray boy to save herself, falls in love, and sacrifices herself to save boy--that causes the film to be construed as 'mainstream.' The political transgression of this 'mainstream' film plot lies in its facile assumption of transformation, its bourgeois faith in love's power to effect 'a change of heart,' that is both tied to, and colludes with, capitalism's promotion of individualism and the novelistic convention of [character] transformation. (Norris 182)
--Students comforted themselves in the familiarity of the love stories in the film plots, and many framed the homosexual love scenes in the novel as a love story. They discussed how Valentin takes on more of Molina's characteristics and how Molina, in the end, becomes more manly when he risks his own life for the man he loves and for a political cause.
The other comfort they found was in the nurturing role Molina played. They saw him as a mother figure and found that a way to reconcile their aversions toward him.
--Did they recognize how those shifts in gender problematized the archetypal roles they found so seductive in the films? When they brought that kind of discussion or interpretation into the class, how did you respond?
--In different ways. Sometimes I would take them back to the novel and have them examine the crafting of the text more carefully. In particular, I asked them to examine the construction of women in the film, particularly through Molina (as queen) and his self identification as a woman. Because even though they recognized, along with Valentin, the problems of the archetypal feminine in the films, they escaped into the films and were seduced by what Molina saw as "divine."
In addition, I had them read excerpts from critical texts and had them reexamine vignettes from Eduardo Galeano's history that converged to problematize these constructions.
You see, I had started class with Galeano's Century of the Wind, the third volume of a three volume history of the Americas entitled Memory of Fire. The work tells the history of the Americas through a series of vignettes that range from official news releases to personal testimony of peasants in Latin America. Galeano juxtaposes these statements of the peasant uprisings taken from U.S. newspapers and official government statements with the eyewitness testimonies of peasants who survived and witnessed the revolts. The story Galeano weaves together is of a people endlessly exploited by their economic and military superiors in the United States.
Memory of Fire is an example of the post-Boom authors [who] question the effectiveness of excessive linguistic bravura as a means to liberate history and identity ... [by] intensify[ing] the voices of the local, the marginal, and the ideologically 'incorrect'; at the same time, they retain the legacy of the Boom both in the fragmentation and self-consciousness that reveal the fault lines of history and in the exploration of the ways words and narrative configure or disfigure historical events. (Aizenberg 1237)
The students examined old news accounts and editorials in a number of U.S. papers and compared them with the accounts and events in the Galeano text--for example, the history of the
United Fruit Company in Guatemala and El Salvador or Fidel Castro's
revolution. They compared newsreel accounts if any were available. They
also were asked to consider other stories such as the testimonial narrative I, Rigoberta Menchu and Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The main events of [Marquez's] novel, after the violences of the founding years, are the revolutionary wars and the banana-strike massacre, both instances of violence generated by elite authoritarian control and based on major occurrences in Colombia's history. The author makes the issue of memory and obliteration central, for the conservative oligarchies that dominated Colombia during much of the hundred year period of the novel literally rewrote history to suit their views. Alliances with neocolonialism--primarily with North American commercial interests that monopolized sectors of the economy (e.g., the banana plantations)--reinforced the oligarchies' dominance, so that producing versions favorable to these interests became part of the historical rewriting. The task of One Hundred Years of Solitude is thus to counter the history that Garcia Marquez calls "the false one that historians had created and consecrated in the schoolbooks." The liberal rebellions that Aureliano Buendia leads against the conservative forces, as well as the strike on the banana plantations that ends with the gunning down of workers, are recovered from oblivion and retold from the point of view of the defeated. (Aizenberg 1243)
also includes vignettes of Hollywood images of women and of women who
have been victimized by fascist regimes and policies. And he connects
through his juxtapositions, as does Kiss of the Spider Woman,
Latin American fascism, patriarchal constructions of female desire and
femininity, and their resulting oppression of both men and women.
1935: Buenos Aires. Evita. To look at, she's just a run-of-the-mill stick of a girl, pale, washed out, not ugly, not pretty, who wears secondhand clothes and solemnly repeats the daily routines of poverty. Like the others, she lives hanging on to each episode of the radio soaps, dreams every Sunday of being Norma Shearer, and every evening goes to the railway station to see the Buenos Aires train pass by. (Galeano 100)
1950: Hollywood. Rita. Changing her name, weight, age, voice, lips, and eyebrows, she conquered Hollywood. Her hair was transformed from dull black into flaming red. To broaden her brow, they removed hair after hair by painful electrolysis. Over her eyes they put lashes like petals. Rita Hayworth disguised herself as a goddess, and perhaps was one. (Galeano 139)
1973: Recife. Eulogy of Humiliation. In the capital of Northeast Brazil, Golberto Freyre attends the opening of a restaurant named for his famous book, Great House and Slave Quarters. Here, the writer celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the book's first edition. The waiters serving the tables are dressed as slaves. Atmosphere is created by whips, shackles, pillories, chains, and iron collars hanging from the walls. The guests feel they have returned to a superior age when black served white without any joking, as the son served the father, the woman her husband, the civilian the soldier, and the colony the motherland. The dictatorship of Brazil is doing everything possible to further this end. Gilberto Freyre applauds it. (Galeano 217)
1976: Buenos Aires. The Choice. One prisoner, pregnant, is offered the choice between rape and the electric prod. She chooses the prod, but after an hour can no longer endure the pain. They all rape her. As they rape her, they sing the Wedding March. "Well, this is war," says Monsenior Gracelli. The men who burn breasts with blowtorches in the barracks wear scapulars and take communion every Sunday. "Above us all is God," says General Videla.
Monsenior Tortolo, president of the Episcopate, compares General Videla with Jesus Christ, and the military dictatorship with the Easter Resurrection. In the name of the Holy Father, nuncio Pio Laghi visits the extermination camps, exalts the military's love of God, Fatherland, and Family, and justifies state terrorism on the grounds that civilization has the right to defend itself. (Galeano 234)
--Going back to the comments of Dittmar about women being posed, framed and filmed...
--to fit the contours of men's imaginations....
--Yes. In Kiss of the Spider Woman, the constructions of women are mediated by the two men. Did the students talk about this? Did they discuss the irony of two men arguing about ideal women? Did the fact that Molina thought of himself as a "woman trapped in a man's body" make a difference?
--One of the things I wanted to explore was our complicity in the patriarchal construction of women and how female desire is mediated by men. Puig's novel allows you to explore this explicitly through Molina's and Valentin's dialogue. Here two men problematize for the reader the construction of female desire. Valentin is attracted to a different type of woman in the films Molina narrates. For example, in the narration of the opening film, based loosely on Cat People, Valentin and Molina are attracted to different women. Molina to the victim and heroine or panther woman, and Valentin to the architect's assistant, a professional and strong woman.
--It'd be interesting to know [Molina]. And afterwards you ask me if you want. Who do you identify with, Irena or the other one?
--With Irena, what do you think? She's the heroine, dummy. Always the heroine.
--Okay, but go on a little more.
--A little bit, no more, I like to leave you hanging, that way you enjoy the film more. You have to do it that way with the public, otherwise, they're not satisfied. On the radio, they always used to do that to you. And now on the TV soaps.
--Where were we [Valentin]?
--Where my girlfriend, the assistant, didn't hear [Irena's] footsteps anymore. (Puig 25-26)
But in the novel, the way women are framed and the process Molina and Valentin engage in trying to frame women reveal the ambiguities of those constructions, for while Molina and Valentin give divergent readings of the films, based on their social milieux and their political responses to them, the
reader's identification is shifting according to whether he or she
identifies with Molina's or Valentin's response (Norris 183).
Valentin's reading of the film, his apparent ability to recognize Molina's inability to see past the
aesthetics and romance, was a point of identification for students.
Yet, as I mentioned, their identifications shift as they read the novel, for they are caught up in the comfort of the
linear plots and romance. In addition, as Valentin and Molina develop
and explore their own relationship through their dialogues about films,
they reveal the problematics of gender construction in the films. Students often were frustrated because of the complex political and gender signifiers, signifiers they were unable to stabilize as they worked through the novel.
Puig constructs these images of female desire, of women in the novel, only to reveal finally, the frustrating bind such constructions make for both men and women. (Dittmar 82)
The female predators, goddesses, and victims of Molina's films are carriers of the same patriarchal fantasies of power and annihilation that determine Molina's own choices in life....As both a character and a narrator, Molina is forever entangled in the contradictions of his psychological and political construction. The difficulty here is not that Molina's biological construction is male and his psychic construction is female, but rather that his definition of femininity colludes with the patriarchy. Yearning to be loved by "real men"--heterosexuals like the waiter and Valentin--he never questions the prevailing construction of gender. For him, loving and being loved 'as a woman' means erasure of the self. (Dittmar 83)
Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning chronicles the competitive drag balls staged in Harlem clubs between 1987 and 1989 ... focusing on cross-dressing as a means of investigating the politics of culture, knowledge, and power.... She provides the spectator with a feeling of assurance, of competence as a "reader" of this "other" culture. The terms of that reading however, bear further scrutiny--if only because they work to eclipse the fetishism of the image of the woman that motivates the drag performance itself. In other words, the film traces the "mise-en-abyme" of "woman as fetish" ... the film is nostalgic for a future her informants had dreamed of in a more vital past. The loss of that future haunts the speakers' dreams of economic success and idealized femininity.... The architecture of that femininity, however, is thoroughly masculine. And it thoroughly reflects the psychic-political structure of capitalism ... It is in the attitude toward self-invention that the relationship between the ideology of nation/culture and the ideology of gender can most clearly be seen. The stories told in Paris are compatible with the mythos of American identity--myths which center on white men's struggle to invent and reinvent their identities in the moment. (The parallel myth for women involves the endless re-invention of their image because how she looks is still who she is.) (Phelan 105-6)
Molina contrasts himself with Valentin when Valentin tells him he is being oversensitive.
--Say it, like a woman, that's what you were going to say.
--And what's so bad about being soft like a woman? Why is it men or whoever, some poor bastard, some queen, can't be sensitive, too if he's got a mind to ... if men acted like women there wouldn't be any more torturers. (Puig 29)
Molina remarks on how marvelous it is when a couple loves each other
for a lifetime, Valentin calls his romantic dreams into question.
--You'd really go for that?
--It's my dream.
--So why do you like men then?
--What's that got to do with it? ... I'd like to marry a man for the rest of my life.
--So you're a regular bourgeois gentleman at heart, eh, Molina?
--Bourgeois lady, thank you.
Molina later continues about his fantasy of a life with the waiter he adores.
-- ... he might come to live with my mom and me. And I'd help him, and make him study. And not bother about anything but him, the whole blessed day, getting everything all set for him, his clothes, buying his books, registering him for courses ...
--But don't you know that's all nothing but a deception? If you were a woman, you wouldn't want that. (Puig 44)
--That reminds me of the mother thing you mentioned. You said the students read much of Molina's character as a mother figure.
--Yes, and his construction of his ideal mother figure is also contested in his conversations with Valentin when he describes a film character's mother, and imbricates his own celluloid fantasies.
--A lovely lady who gave her husband every happiness and her children, too, always managing everything perfectly.
--Do you picture her doing housework?
--No, I see her as impeccably attired, a dress with a high collar, edged in lace to cover the wrinkles on her neck. She has that marvelous thing of certain respectable ladies, which is that little touch of coquettishness, beneath all the properness, on account of her age, but what you notice about them is the way they go on being women and wanting to please.
--Yes, always impeccable. Perfect. She has her servants, she exploits people who can't do anything else but serve her, for a few pennies. And clearly, she felt very happy with her husband, who in turn exploited her, forced her to do whatever he wanted, keeping her cooped up in a house like a slave, waiting on him. (Puig 16)
--The students talked about their own mothers and how their mothers were for the main part happy. However, they also talked about how their mothers waited on and took care of everyone in the house and how many of them worked outside the home as well. They spent a good deal of time trying to reconcile this. The women talked about whether they would want the role. They all enjoyed having mom wait on them--erase herself for them--yet the
women weren't clear about whether they wanted these same cultural
expectations for themselves. But clearly, Molina's domesticity within the prison walls, his attempt to create a "home," was a positive model for the students.
--How did they handle the betrayal by Molina?
--That deceit brought in a variety of responses. The mother who pampered Valentin and took care of him so tenderly, washing and cleaning, and diapering his body was also the cause of his illness. It was Molina who agreed to cooperate with the prison authorities to poison and weaken Valentin in order to elicit information from him that could be used by the government to infiltrate the revolutionaries and to further torture and ultimately to murder him. Molina's reward was a shorter prison term, which, ironically, would allow him to get out to take care of his own mother.
Molina is less a movie heroine than a Brechtian hero: Mother Courage, doomed to barter and trade whatever there is to barter and trade with whatever side has power at the moment. And like Mother Courage, Molina is doomed to doom the very children she barters and sells herself to save. Molina's maternal role as agent of transaction and exchange is itself politically ambiguous, like that of Brecht's mother. In order to be able to feed Valentin roast chicken and delicacies, he must first partake in feeding him poison. The food is analogue to the temptation and contamination of ideology. (Norris 188)
So we problematize the construction of women through the role of mother as well.
--Didn't this make the students uncomfortable?
--Yes, but that discomfort opens up space for exploring other possible ways of being a woman or a mother. Teresa de Lauretis contends that the purpose of this discomfort is to "break the codes of theatrical illusion or voyeuristic pleasure as a way to disrupt the male gaze, expose the relations of power that sustain the illusion, and offer this transgressive space, a space of possibility" (142).
--And did you explore any of these possibilities?
--Valentin and Molina often argue about the films and their arguments open this transgressive space. Valentin objects to the political agenda he sees in many of the films Molina narrates, yet he cannot resist the fiction that allows him to escape the walls of the cell and the possibility of torture by the guards and prison officials. He is seduced by the romantic and escapist stories that Molina spins out in the cell each night. Responding to the end of Molina's narration of the film about the panther woman, Valentin remarks:
--I'm sorry it's over.
--We had a good time, didn't we?
--Yeah, for sure.
--I must be crazy.
--What's wrong with you?
--I'm sorry it's over.
--So what, I'll tell you another one.
--No, it's not that. You are going to laugh at what I'm going to tell you.
--Let's have it.
--I'm sorry because I've become attached to the characters. And now it's all over, and it's just like they died. (Puig 41)
this with his earlier comments about his dedication to Marxist idealism
and revolution, which he, ironically, does not link to social control
--There's no way I can live my life for the moment, Molina, nobody lives for the moment. That's Garden of Eden stuff ... because my life is dedicated to political struggle, or, you know, political action, let's call it. Follow me? Social revolution, that's what's important, and gratifying the senses is only secondary.... The great pleasure's something else, it's knowing I've put myself in the service of what's truly noble, I mean ... well ... a certain ideology....
--What do you mean, a certain ideology?
--My ideals ... Marxism, if you want me to spell it out in only one word. (Puig 27-28)
--But Valentin still argues about the political ideology of the films and Molina's blindness to it.
--Yes, as with everything in the novel, Valentin's responses are ambiguous. He longs for the soporific effects of the films while he fights against it. In particular, the narration of the World War II film or the Leni film, which is accompanied by footnotes that purport to be from a German press book about the production Her Real Glory, illustrates their ideological differences. It is in fact the film Hector Babenco employs, to the exclusion of the other films narrated in the novel, for his film version of Kiss of the Spider Woman. It was also, by the way, the film that elicited the most responses from students, the film they came back to over and over in their discussions.
In this particular film, Molina focuses on the love story to the exclusion of the politics. It is in fact a Nazi propaganda film, but Molina is swept away by the beauty of it. The hero is a young, blond, handsome Nazi officer and the villains are the French Maquis, the freedom fighters. When Valentin reminds Molina that the film is Nazi propaganda, and that the Maquis were patriots, Molina responds:
--Yes I already know they were patriotic, but in this film they're not.
--I don't understand you at all.
--Well, it's just that the film was divine, and for me that's what counts, because I'm locked up in this cell and I'm better off thinking about nice things.... when it came to the love scenes the film was divine, an absolute dream. The political stuff, well, it was probably foisted onto the director by the government. (Puig 78, 89)
My own emphasis would be to find the structure of desire in Molina's repression of social and political reality and historical reference, the transformation of war into theater, soldiers into handsome leading men, acts of violence into dramatic performances, in order to negate and disavow its horror. Molina's desire thus largely coincides with propaganda's desire. (Norris 192)
And it is the seduction of the reader by Molina's narration that I wanted the students to examine.
--And the issue of Molina's homosexuality. You mentioned that the students tried to frame this issue through a love story or through his motherly duties.
--I wanted to examine with students the irony of a gay man exploring his identification as a woman through films that repeatedly pose women as victims of patriarchal fantasies of power, fantasies that also determine (and close down) Molina's own choices in life. The book is about ideological and social repression and affords the opportunity to explore the ways oppression is played out in its infinite varieties. Students link the Latin American fascism of 1970s Argentina with Nazism through the narration of the Leni film. In addition, to link the patriarchal constructions of men and women to this system and explore how it is played out in the culture at large and through Molina and Valentin allows students to make important connections. In particular, Puig's footnotes that deal with homosexuality are important. This series of footnotes, placed randomly in the novel, are "scientific" and political investigations of the "causes" of homosexuality. They range from biological abnormality theories to Freudian theories of abnormal experiences or traumas. Each theory undermines the authority of the previous one and the notes end with a theoretical reading of the cultural and scientific constructions of gayness that implicates them in marginalizing this kind of lifestyle in order to perpetuate the economic and social order of the patriarchal nuclear household.
--But weren't the students troubled by the corruption of minors charge?
--Yes, but again, it becomes part of their shifting identification with the two main characters or narrators. For example, they also learn that Valentin comes from a bourgeois background and that he in fact desires the kind of woman he belittles to Molina. And as Molina spins more movie plots to Valentin and through interior monologues, he narrates his own longings of love and romance, and lovely stone cottages that house lovers who see nothing but the beautiful in one another. It is a potent fairy tale of happy everafters.
--Did you get good feedback from the students? Did any of them write good papers about the text?
--I think they were challenged by a close reading of this novel. Molina's tales seduce them into the text where they are caught in their own webs of conflicting desires and nostalgic longings: for narrative closure that offers resolution, for a more clearly defined hero, for love, for romantic love, and for the comfort of mother and the domestic. In retrospect however, it offered an opportunity to take up what Greg Ulmer refers to as the rhetoric of invention (255). In his essay "The Heuretics of Odyssey: Ulysses in Florida," Ulmer writes--let me read it to you:
I was trying to find a heuretic approach to the problem; to design an assignment for myself (and then for my students at the University of Florida) that would not be about Joyce but that would use him as a generator for another text. Heuretics (the logic of invention) is distinguished from hermeneutics by its use of theory not to interpret an object of study but, rather, to design a poetics. (256)
Ulmer locates the possibility of this invention in the personal allegory--"in communicating with myself by means of ... juxtapositions" that can begin in nostalgic longings (259).
The choice of texts asked students to weave this knowledge together, or through their own experiences, to invent, as Ulmer would advocate, after analysis of texts, something that grows out of the emotional responses to their investigations. It can be rooted in the longing or homesickness for what the students identified with in Molina's seamless narratives, a response that is rooted in the complex associations of nostalgia (Ulmer 259). They did write about the text and many were still attempting to work through their ambiguous responses, which of course becomes the starting place, again.
SOME STUDENT EVALUATIONS
Name of Professor: V. Newman
Class: English 203 Section 7
Overall Evaluation: 4 (Good)
Additional comments: I thought this course was a good course. Professor Newman gave good lectures and for the most part I thought the books we read were valuable. My only real complaint was having to read Kiss of the Spider Woman. I don't know why she chose to assign that book. It was hard to follow sometimes because of the footnotes about homosexuality. Some of it was like medical or scientific journals. I think she tried to explain all that stuff, but it was hard for me. I think it is a pro-homosexual book, too, at least it seemed that way when we talked about it in class.
Name of Professor: V. Newman
Class: English 203 Section 7
Overall evaluation: 5 (very good)
Additional comments: I liked Professor Newman, especially when she lectured. But why did we have to read Kiss of the Spider Woman? What happened in her life to make her want to shatter romance for us? Personally, I want a hero, especially a soldier.
Name of Professor: V. Newman
Class: English 203 Section 7
Overall evaluation: 4 (good)
Additional comments: What was that last section of Kiss of the Spider Woman in there for? You said it was some kind of dream, but it didn't make any sense. Everything seemed to run together, nothing was clear.
In retrospect, having students analyze gender representation and its ties to patriarchy and exploitation was only part of the importance of reading Puig's novel. Given their identification with the Hollywood rendering of gender and their longings for love and romance, and following the pedagogy of Ulmer, the hermeneutic process should have given way to the heuretic; to their creative interaction with the text.
It's said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does this dislike point to? The hand that framed that question was surely heavy. But at least it compels one to see intellectual work as the confrontation between two people, student and author, where the stakes matter. Those Columbia students were being asked to relate the quality of an encounter, not rate the action as it unfolded on the big screen. (Edmundson 40)
longing for romantic love and beautiful people would be, according to
Ulmer, a place students could begin their creative explorations. Rather
than dismissing this longing or nostalgia as a "false emotion," Ulmer
points to its legitimacy and to "the complex
associations between pleasure and regret, desire and pain, attachment
and loss ... Although I am sure that many readers also know what
lovesickness is, we tend to denigrate it as an adolescent experience of
first passion" (259). Ulmer wants saudade to guide the invention of his work and the work of his students. Despite the complexities of the term, Ulmer uses homesickness as the emotion that can, perhaps, capture its meaning (261). This longing for home, for the return, can be tied to an array of interpretations, including the longing for perfect love.
So, two things: What about the novel did you most dislike and like? What about your character and experiences caused such responses? Go from the text and explore in order to generate another text. What is the cultural archeology of your responses? What story can you tell? Find the local stories of love, love catastrophes, race, gender, sex, and class oppressions, prison brutalities, or legends and stories of the place you live and create from them a new story (Ulmer 264).
Added materialADDED MATERIAL
Aizenberg, Edna. "Historical Subversion and Violence of Representation in Garcia Marquez and Ouologuem." PMLA: 107.5 (1992): 1235-52.
de Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.
Dittmar, Linda. "Beyond Gender and Within It: The Social Construction of Female Desire." Wide Angle 8 (1989): 79-88.
Edmundson, Mark. "On the Uses of Liberal Education: I. As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students." Harper's Magazine Sept. 1997: 39-49.
Galeano, Eduardo. Memory of Fire: Century of the Wind. New York: Pantheon, 1988.
Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
Moses, Gavriel. The Nickel Was for the Movies: Film in the Novel from Pirandello to Puig. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.
Norris, Margot. "Cinematic Self-Critique in Kiss of the Spider Woman." The Scope of Words: In Honor of Albert S. Cook. Ed. Peter Baker, Sarah Webster Goodwin, and Gary Handwerk. New York: Peter Lang, 1991. 179-93.
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London: Routledge, 1993.
Puig, Manuel. Kiss of the Spider Woman. New York: Vintage, 1991.
Ulmer, Gregory. "The Heuretics of Odyssey: Ulysses in Florida." Pedagogy, Praxis, Ulysses: Using Joyce's Text to Transform the Classroom. Ed. Robert Newman. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996. 253-66.