CHAPTER FOUR

ESSENTIALIST AND/OR CONSTRUCTIONISM: THE MARGINAL DISRUPTS THE BINARY

 

The risk of essence might have to be taken.  (Diana Fuss 18)

 

Why is it still necessary to set up two opposing categories, cultural feminism and poststructuralism, or essentialism and anti-essentialism, thesis and antithesis, when one has already achieved the vantage point of a theoretical position that overtakes them or sublates them?  (Teresa De Lauretis 333)

 

Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society.  Nothing happens in the “real” world unless it first happens in the images in our head.  (Gloria Anzaldúa 772)

 

In the previous two chapters I’ve outlined two phases used by feminists to disrupt the system of patriarchy which dominates them.  In chapter two I demonstrated how reversing the system can be used in order to alert us to the fictionality of the hierarchy which posits male and masculine as of higher value than female or feminine.  The feminine, therefore, plays her role as an intuitive, irrational, mad woman in order to demonstrate that the characters which Man defines as Woman’s essence, and which, as a result, he uses to make Woman inferior, can indeed be liberating characters in that they allow woman to assert the value of her femininity.  By relying on what comes to be termed as the essence of women in order to liberate women, this position comes to be termed by many as an essentialist position; one which accepts that there is an essence which makes woman, and that by claiming their essences, women will be freed from the oppression of patriarchy.

I followed that by chapter three in which the mere reversal of patriarchy was seen as still functioning within the same system and in which attention is drawn to the multiplicity of factors that make women’s identities and how it is by celebrating this multiplicity that we can escape the system that dominates us.  In this attention paid to multiplicity and denial of mere reversal, chapter three can be said to herald a constructionist position taken by feminists who argue that the liberation of women is to be achieved not through an essentialist position that celebrates those characters of women assigned by men, but rather through the celebration of the multiplicity of women’s identities, a multiplicity that makes it impossible to claim any given trait as women’s essence since that essence changes from place to place. 

The two positions are thus seen as opposites within the feminist politics of liberation and are often pitted against each other with essentialists and constructionists each trying to prove the validity of their positions.  This is not, however, my position in this dissertation.1  As the beginning quote by De Lauretis argues against the construction of the binary essentialist/anti-essentialist, Naomi Schor explains, “It is precisely around the issues of the differences among as well as within women that the impasse between essentialism and anti-essentialism is at last beginning to yield” (45).  Although I reserved two different chapters to these two, seemingly different positions, I try in this fourth chapter to demonstrate that regardless of the ongoing debate between these two types of feminisms, they are not opposite positions but are themselves imbedded in each other and are both needed and necessary in all feminist struggle.

In this chapter, then, I will demonstrate the workability of both these positions, and the necessity of this workability for a politics that seeks to liberate the “Other,” a liberation that is not possible if the liberation of women means the oppression of others.  Diana Fuss has demonstrated in her book Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, & Difference that essentialism is embedded in the constructionist critiques as constructionism is embedded in essentialist critiques. 

Because criticism has been launched rather strenuously on essentialism by poststructuralism Fuss tries in her book to alert readers to the pitfalls of such criticism.  And because my previous chapter has joined in this poststructuralist critique of essentialism I will present Fuss’s argument against the poststructuralist critique of essentialism hoping in this way to warn against the limitations of seeing an opposition always in the essentialist and anti-essentialist critiques. 

The problems with the constructionist critiques of essentialism, Fuss argues, are that they inhabit an essentialist position themselves when they regard the issue of “essence” as a fixed quality that escapes change:

Perhaps the most dangerous problem for anti-essentialists is to see the category of essence as “always already” knowable, as immediately apparent and naturally transparent. . . . Essentialism may be at once . . . essential to our thinking while at the same time there is nothing “quintessential” about it.  To insist that essentialism is always and everywhere reactionary is, for the constructionist, to buy into essentialism in the very act of making the charge; it is to act as if essentialism has an essence.  (Fuss 21)

The fault of this critique against essentialism then is that “it allows us to ignore or to deny the differences within essentialism” and insists on seeing it as a stable theory that functions always on a reactionary level, and that escapes change (Fuss xii).  Fuss believes—and I agree with her—that for a theory that relies so heavily on the process of change as constructionism does, it is rather a contradiction to refuse to see the change within essentialism.

Moreover, constructionism itself can be seen to operate on an essence of the “always already” that is embedded in its language:

The danger (and the usefulness) of “always already” is that it implies essence, it hints at an irreducible core that requires no further investigation.  In so doing, it frequently puts a stop to analysis, often at an argument’s most critical point.  (Fuss 17)

Arguing that the essences of essentialism—be they racial, sexual, or ethnic—inhibit feminist critique constructionism itself takes on an essence that is found in the language of the “always already” which functions within constructionism as race, gender, or ethnicity functions within essentialism.  It “puts a stop to analysis.”

In its reliance in most of its critiques on the discussion of subject-positions, constructionism exhibits a similar essentialism as it relegates all explanations of identity formation to the postionality of the subject.  “What is essential to social constructionism,” Fuss argues, “is precisely this notion of ‘where I stand,’ or what has come to be called, appropriately enough, ‘subject-positions’” (29).  While it is a well-argued point that subject-positions are a necessary criterion for understanding subjectivity, the reliance on definitions of subject-positions is another area in which constructionism exhibits an essentialism.

For a theory that defies fixed definitions constructionism has branded “essence” with the fixed definition of an ever-stable entity.  Fuss suggests that we might need to question the fixity of the category “essence” as we need to question the changeability of social constructions:

If we are to intervene effectively in the impasse created by the essentialist/constructionist divide, it might be necessary to begin questioning the constructionist assumption that nature and fixity go together (naturally) just as sociality and change go together (naturally).  In other words, it may be time to ask whether essences can change and whether constructions can be normative.  (6)

And it is through understanding the difference between the Aristotelian notion of real essence as a fixed category and Locke’s notion of nominal essence as a linguistic convenience that feminists can “hold onto the notion of women as a group without submitting to the idea that it is ‘nature’ which categorizes them as such” (Fuss 5).

A more effective feminism would then be one that defies the binary essentialism/anti-essentialism, and follows De Lauretis’s advice:

That tension, as the condition of possibility and effective elaboration of feminist theory, is most productive in the kind of critical thinking that refuses to be pulled to either side of an opposition and seeks instead to deconstruct it, or better, to disengage it from the fixity of polarization in an “internal” feminist debate and to reconnect it to the “external” discursive and social context from which it finally cannot be severed except at the cost of repeatedly reducing a historical process, a movement, to an ideological stalemate.  (336)

And to prevent feminism from being an ideological stalemate we need to be wary of the tendency to label feminists as essentialists or constructionists even if “for terminological conveniences” these labels can aid a better articulation of positions.

As an essentialist position relies more on a person’s choice of what essence to take, it becomes a necessary correlative for the role of experience in determining one’s political struggle.  Similarly, as constructionism argues for the impossibility of defining one’s identity as this identity is a construct of multiple factors, it becomes a place where theoretical arguments replace personal experience when this experience is seen to be limited to a certain place and time.  Thus, within the essentialism/constructionism binary there exists an experience/theory binary that also needs to be deconstructed while we attempt the deconstruction of other binaries.

Weedon’s book Feminist Practice & Poststructuralist Theory is one example of feminists’ tendencies to oppose experience or practice with theory.  A necessary correlative of this division is that Weedon, like most poststructuralists, finds theory to be more effective than practice and thus worthy of more feminist attention.  Yet such positions that insist on the opposition between theory and practice fail to see the practicality of theory or the theoretical necessities of practice.  On the relation of theory and practice, Linda Alcoff writes:

The best political theory will not be one ascertained through a veil of ignorance, a veil that is impossible to construct.  Rather, political theory must base itself on the initial premise that all persons, including the theorist, have a fleshy, material identity that will influence and pass judgment on all political claims.  Indeed, the best political theory for the theorist herself will be one that acknowledges this fact.  As I see it, the concept of identity politics does not presuppose a prepackaged set of objective needs or political implications but problematizes the connection of identity and politics and introduces identity as a factor in any political analysis.  (323)

Alcoff rightly asserts that theory and practice are entwined since who does the theory figures immensely in how the theory is articulated.  Dividing feminism into the two types, theory and practice, is not only a false division but also leads to a devaluation of one criterion in the aim of elevating the other. 

Gloria Anzaldúa succeeds in blurring the boundaries between theory and practice in the quote at the beginning of this chapter as she implies that practical social change and theoretical explanations of oppression go hand in hand.  Social change is affected when the articulation of oppression is carried out motivating this social change.  Similarly, theoretical explanations of the roots of oppression and the ways of ending it have also benefited much from actual experiences of overcoming oppression.  As Fuss argues, “experience would itself then become ‘evidence’ of a sort for the productions of ideology, but evidence which is obviously constructed and clearly knowledge-dependent” (118).

In the literature I chose for this chapter I find characters that are able to penetrate the existing binaries that dictate their lives, and to form a life that acknowledges the existence of both sides of the binary.  So I find characters that are able to shift which identity they choose for themselves when necessary, even if the new chosen identity is in opposition to a previous one.  Therefore, while these characters can be seen to embody an essentialist position when they cling to an identity that defines them in terms of as essence, they, nevertheless, also realize that they are not forever bound to this essence, nor do they have to remain carriers of this essence throughout their lives.  Although being black motivates some of these characters for example to act in certain ways, they also realize that at times their being woman also calls for a certain action, and so on.

I will begin then with an analysis of one such character found in Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima.  The main character, and the character on whom the thrust of my analysis will fall, is at the beginning of the novel a seven-year old boy who is seen to be torn between the two, apparently opposing expectations of his mother and father.  Antonio tells us his own story as the youngest child in a family of three older brothers and two older sisters.  As any hopes the family has had for the elder brothers’ lives disseminates upon their going to war and returning with an obvious rejection of family traditions, Antonio becomes the last hope for either mother or father to follow in the family line.  He is pulled to the two directions constantly by his parents and finds himself always wondering which side to choose.  “I love them both, and yet I am of neither.  I wonder which life I would choose?” he asks himself (41).  The story is told to us in retrospect by Antonio himself.  So although the protagonist/narrator is a seven-year old boy, we read the voice of a much older person who is able therefore to study his actions in a much more sophisticated light.

The mother’s family, the Lunas, is a family with a background in farming, and as farmers they are bound to the land.  They are also devout Catholics who remember, if with a slight feeling of guilt, their ancestor the priest who established the first colony in El Puerto (29).  Through Ultima’s explanation, Antonio comes to understand his mother’s family:

“this valley is the door through which the moon of each month passes on its journey from the east to the west—”

So it was fitting that these people, the Lunas, came to settle in this valley.  They planted their crop and cared for their animals according to the cycles of the moon.  They lived their lives, sang their songs, and died under the changing moon.  The moon was their goddess.  (90)

As their name signifies, the Lunas are associated with the moon, a rather feminine character that justifies their being “strange and quiet” as opposed to the father’s family, the Vaqueros who are “loud and wild” and always on the move (41).

            While the mother is a religious person who constantly finds reason for the family to pray—be it for the safe return of her three elder sons, or for Antonio’s successful accomplishments in school—Antonio’s father, he tells us, “was not a strong believer in religion.  When he was drunk he called priests ‘women,’ and made fun of the long skirts they wore” (29).  The father’s family, Márez, is one whose “blood is restless, like the sea,” and as such members of this family are always wandering the earth and their entry into any room is always accompanied by loud sounds and laughing (117).

Ultima explains the different ways of these two families to Antonio in the following lines, explaining the justifications for each family’s actions:

It is the blood of the Lunas to be quiet, for only a quiet man can learn the secrets of the earth that are necessary for planting—they are quiet like the moon—And it is the blood of the Márez to be wild, like the ocean from which they take their name, and the spaces of the llano that have become their home.  (41)

As Antonio begins the novel telling us of the struggle he had to go through to choose between these two positions, the novel ends with his awareness, and ours that he cannot and does not have to choose. 

One critic of the novel, Juan Bruce-Novoa, finds Bless Me, Ultima to be a work in which readers are taught to read beyond the system of binary oppositions as Antonio himself learns to read outside the system of binaries:

All through the novel Antonio worries about his destiny.  Will he be a farmer priest as his mother dreams, or the son his father desires to help him fulfill his dreams of moving to California?  The opposition, however, is one of those misleading plays of signs that Antonio and readers must learn to read at a different level, where differences are revealed as parts of a whole.  The families actually are not diametrical opposites. . . . Antonio is not torn between an Anglo and a Chicano world, but between two ways of being Chicano, ways which the Chicanos involved cannot, or will not, bring into harmony.  (183)

The two characteristics of his mother and father, seemingly opposing, are indeed knitted together in forming Antonio’s identity.  But only in realizing the existence of these two essences within him is Antonio able to come to peace with himself. 

Towards the end of the novel Antonio asks his father “Then maybe I don’t have to be just Márez, or Luna, perhaps I can be both” (247).  In his three brothers we see the results of failing to acknowledge one’s essence as their return from the war led them away from their family and hence away from accepting who they are.  Antonio’s final peace comes from accepting the two types forced on him by his family and by working them together in harmony with the necessities of living in the modern world. 

Ultima tells him to look not to the quarreling families present at his birth, but to the moment in which his parents joined in love’s embrace to conceive him.  In other words, she instructs Antonio, as Anaya instructs readers, to search for the harmony in creative union, not the disintegration of focusing on difference.  (Bruce-Novoa 183)

His brothers, however, fail in achieving this harmony as they insist on opposing the family way with the modern way.  And as a result they are led astray.

As a child Antonio has the two models of his mother and father from which to choose.  He understands that he has to choose between being a farmer/priest like the Lunas or a vaquero like the Márez:

Antonio’s development in the novel can be viewed as the groping discovery of potentially useful strategies that will enable him to confront the challenges of a present and future.  He starts out by searching for a model to be imitated or at least closely followed.  As all accessible models display grave defects after closer inspection, he comes to reject, under Ultima’s guidance, the very idea of aligning one’s destiny with any preconceived pattern.  (Tonn 63)

Ultima’s entry into his life coupled by his joining school open his mind to other possibilities.  Through Ultima’s magic he begins to see a power other than that of God that is able to cure people and he wonders, “Would the magic of Ultima be stronger than all the powers of the saints and the Holy Mother Church?” (97).  Through Ultima’s guidance he learns that he has to strive to choose his own way of life that might be neither his mother’s nor his father’s.

When he fails to see himself as either priest or vaquero, Antonio realizes the need to invent a new character for himself out of the two expectations of his family.  In this he exhibits what Anzaldúa has termed the mestiza consciousness:

In attempting to work out a synthesis, the self has added a third element which is greater than the sum of its severed parts.  That third element is a new consciousness—a mestiza consciousness—and though it is a source of intense pain, its energy comes from continual creative motion that keeps breaking down the unitary aspect of each new paradigm.  (767)

And Antonio goes through intense pain in order to arrive at this new consciousness; but when he arrives at it in the end, it is the result of a process of adjusting each new identity he comes across in the web of identities that construct him.

Antonio’s entry into school becomes the ground on which this new identity is built.  Leaving his mother’s side for the first time, Antonio worries about his ability to learn to read the letters that his friend had told him contained magic.  He understands that as he enters school he has to depend on himself.  Not even Ultima’s guiding hands will join him there: “I looked at Ultima.  Her magic.  The magic of Jasón’s Indian.  They could not save me now” (54).  Although he doesn’t lose faith in Ultima’s magic, he knows that in the modern world he is about to enter, this magic will not be enough.

The diversity of cultures that he sees in school alerts him not only to the existence of different people but also to the strengths found within groups of similarly marginalized persons.  After having been laughed at by his classmates for eating tortillas and beans for his lunch, Antonio leaves the classroom understanding his position as an outsider.  He is comforted when he finds that other children have also chosen to leave the classroom, and with these children his marginality is tolerated in his ability to find a group of similar outsiders with whom to identify.  He tells us:

We banded together and in our union found strength.  We found a few others who were like us, different in language and custom, and a part of our loneliness was gone. . . . We struggled against the feeling of loneliness that gnawed at our souls and we overcame it; that feeling I never shared again with anyone, not even with Horse and Bones, or the Kid and Samuel, or Cico and Jasón.  (59)

It is not in his interaction with people of his same culture that Antonio finds this satisfying feeling but by realizing that there are others who are different from him but also like him in their being on the margins of dominant culture. 

Earlier in the novel Antonio has made friends with a group of boys—Horse, Bones, the Kid, Samuel, Cico, and Jasón—who share his culture, and in this group he found a certain affinity that helped him overcome his fear of the first day of school.  Yet, as Iris Young argues in the following quote, adhering to a group of similar cultures can be oppressive when it denies the differences within this group:

In a racist, sexist, homophobic society that has despised and devalued certain groups, it is necessary and desirable for members of those groups to adhere with one another and celebrate a common culture, heritage, and experience. Even with such separatist movements, however, too strong a desire for unity can lead to repressing the differences within the group or forcing some out: gays and lesbians from black nationalist groups, for examples, or feminists from Native American groups, and so on.  (312)

Although he shares with Samuel and Cico many similar beliefs, Antonio differs from them in other ways and by finding a group of different, but also marginalized people, he can better come to terms with his own differences.

With the diverse cultures Antonio encounters he also becomes introduced to diverse religions and gods.  Because of his already conflicted belief in Catholicism he is trusted with the legend about a golden carp—a god turned golden carp by his choice in order to always be next to his people whose punishment was to be turned into carp themselves.  On hearing the story of the golden carp, he did not suspect its veracity but only wondered how it could fit with the stories of his Catholic upbringing:

It made me shiver, not because it was cold but because the roots of everything I had ever believed in seemed shaken.  If the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross?  The Virgin?  Was my mother praying to the wrong God?  (81)

Antonio’s introduction into the religion of the golden carp helps him come to terms with the disparities he finds in the religion of his mother.  He does not, however, reject his mother’s religion totally, but seeks to understand it better through his understanding of the existence of other beliefs.  At this stage Antonio has learned the value of understanding differences as such without the necessity of pitting them as opposites as he did formerly between his mother’s and his father’s beliefs.  He has learned to accept other variations to the binary system of thought of his earlier childhood.

Ultima’s character is a further aid for Antonio in accepting the varieties that exist within the opposing beliefs as she comes out as a character with opposing traits.  The community describes Ultima sometimes as a witch and other times as a healer.  Although Ultima is the one who explains the difference between a witch and a healer, she herself comes to play the two roles, thus defying the binary system that distinguishes between good and evil as it distinguishes between witch and healer.  When we are first introduced to Antonio’s thoughts about Ultima, however, he still functions within the binary system of either/or and he explains why many consider her a witch when indeed she is a healer:

Ultima was a curandera, a woman who knew the herbs and remedies of the ancients, a miracle-worker who could heal the sick.  And I had heard that Ultima could lift the curses laid by brujas, that she could exorcise the evil the witches planted in people to make them sick.   And because a curandera had this power she was misunderstood and often suspected of practicing witchcraft herself.  (4)

This early in the novel, Antonio still distinguishes between healer and witch and refuses to see any connections between the two because he insists on classifying everything as either good or evil.

Later in the flow of events, however, Antonio begins to observe certain actions that cause him to suspect that indeed Ultima is not all good, or that good and evil can co-exist.  On his first day of school when he knelt down and received Ultima’s blessings, he felt “a great force, like the whirlwind,” and since he associates the whirlwind with evil, he is surprised to see such evil emerge out of Ultima’s blessings: “But how could the blessing of Ultima be like the whirlwind?” he asks, “Was the power of good and evil the same” (55)?

Antonio’s earlier fixed definitions of good and evil begin to crumble even more as he finds in Ultima’s room three dolls that he understands to represent the three witches who put a curse on his uncle.  When he sees one of these dolls sagged and bent over, and later hears that one of the three witches died, he begins to suspect that there is some witchcraft in Ultima’s actions (123).  As the witches’ father seeking revenge comes to Antonio’s house accusing Ultima of witchcraft against his daughter, she is put through a test that would clarify whether she was a witch or not.  Ultima is asked to step through two needles pinned on top of the doorway in the shape of a cross.  Her innocence of witchcraft is to be proven if she was able to do that without harm.  After the commotion raised by Ultima’s owl subsides, the men turn to see that Ultima has stepped through the door and is now standing outside with them.  The men leave as the accusation is thus proven wrong and the family returns to the house.  Antonio, however, sees something that makes him question what happened:

They walked into the house.  I followed, but paused at the door.  A faint glitter caught my eye. I bent down and picked up the two needles that had been stuck to the top of the door frame.  Whether someone had broken the cross they made, or whether they had fallen, I would never know.  (135)

And as he sees more indication that Ultima might be practicing witchcraft, he begins to see that his earlier distinction between good and evil cannot be totally accurate since he has no doubt that Ultima only does good:  “Whether Ultima is called a witch or a curandera is almost irrelevant.  What she achieves is beneficial because it restores harmony” (Bruce-Novoa 186).

Antonio learns to accept that good and evil are not always opposites as he learns that witch and curandera are not always opposites.  Through this learning he is able to understand that the differences between his parents that run through his own identity are not necessarily opposing but are rather all a part of what makes him who he is.  “The waters are one,” Ultima explains to him when he wonders whose water runs through his blood, his mother or father, “You have been seeing only parts, she finished, and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all” (121).  But as he begins to see beyond mere parts he understands that essentially part of him is Márez and another part is Luna, but he also understands that his identity is constructed by other factors as he learns the lessons of life through his interaction with his family and friends. 

Maggie in Edna Escamill’s Daughter of the Mountain is in a similar position of choosing between two different family ways and in finding a way to work them with the necessities of modernity.  Moving constantly between her grandmother’s house to her aunt’s house, Maggie finds herself at the tearing point of two different cultures, an Indian one and a Mexican one.  Instead of seeing this opposition in terms of a binary, however, Maggie works it out by understanding her existence as both Indian and Mexican.  Neither does Maggie accept the constructionist view that denies her essences, nor does she allow these essences to figure as the only marker of her life.  Neither an essentialist nor a constructionist, or maybe it is better to say that Maggie is both at once—to use an Irigarian concept—an essentialist in her acceptance of her Indian and Mexican essences, and a constructionist in her ability to see the variety of other factors that shape her identity.

As Antonio struggled between his two parents’ expectations Maggie struggles between the two worlds of her grandmother and her aunts.  The two sides are shown early in the novel to inhabit totally different worlds that are at times intolerant of each other.  The first chapter of the novel introduces us to both the grandmother Adela Sewa and one of the aunts, Josepha, as the day breaks.  The two characters are contrasted as we see Josepha leaving the house after putting on her good dress to go into town while Adela sleeps on the streets of town and wanders these streets without a care of how she looks. 

Josepha’s intolerance for Adela is epitomized when she comes across her so suddenly in the streets and sees how dirty she looks:

She is almost at the alleyway when she sees La India lying against the wall, her disordered graying hair ablaze in the sun.  Startled, she turns hastily from the humanity of the eyes and from what might have been the answering beat of her own heart.  “Indios cochinos,” she mutters to herself and feels angry at the new law that says Indios can no longer be arrested for intoxication.  She crosses abruptly to the other side of the street, quickening her steps against an indefinable feeling of possibility.  (9)

And as Josepha shows her intolerance for Adela so we see Adela’s intolerance of Josepha’s religion.  When Maggie asks Adela why she does not want to be buried in church Adela replies that she will not let a church decide which land is holy:

“But Grandmother,” Maggie swallowed hard, “aren’t you going to be buried in the cemetery?”
Grandmother spit.  “I do not need the church to say which piece of ground is blessed.  Do you think they are going to put me in a hole?  No!  In the arms of La Madre I go.  I have my place already.  I will cover the mouth with rocks and there I will stay.”  (70)

And although Maggie is reluctant to admit that her grandmother will die one day, she comes to terms with the idea when she understands that her grandmother will find peace that way.

The two cultures, Indian and Mexican, are juxtaposed for Maggie in the characters of her grandmother and her aunts.  With these cultural differences that Maggie lives through come religious differences between the god of the Mexicans and the god of the Indian.  Although Maggie begins, like Antonio, to despise her being in between two cultures and two beliefs, she learns from Adela, like Antonio learns from Ultima, that her multiple heritages add strength to her character and are thus to be valued.  When Maggie complains to her grandmother that her appearance—yellow hair, slanted eyes, and almost no eyebrows—indicates the different bloods inside her, her grandmother tells her, “Some day you will gain from all the different kinds of blood you have.  One day you will understand” (65).

What Maggie strives to understand is her heritage as part Indian and part Mexican.2  We learn through Bale, another Mexican Indian, that the slanted eyes which Maggie and Bale complain about are a sign of their belonging to the mountains:

Bale had wide shoulders and a large chest, but his legs were short and thin.  His eyes ere slanted and his straight hair fell over his eyes.

He didn’t know that his chest was bred for breathing the oxygen-thin air of the altiplano not these desert winds.  That his eyes were narrowed for peering into long distances in search of danger.  If he had lived in the high mountains, he would have had muscle and power in his legs.  (113)

But wanting to fit and belong with everyone else around her, Maggie does not appreciate her belonging to the mountains.  She experiences a loneliness (in her belonging to the mountains) that causes her to reject this belonging, but she eventually understands that there is strength in this belonging and that “her essence [as daughter of the mountain] could not be broken” even if “Maggie wanted to be free of it” (123-24).

With her understanding of her being part of the mountain comes also the understanding that she has to accept all the parts that make her even when they seem to be contradicting parts.  She understands that she can only cope if she becomes tolerant of all those contradictions:

The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. . . . She learns to juggle cultures.  She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode—nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned.  Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else.  (Anzaldúa 767)

As a “mestiza” Maggie finally understands that she cannot choose between her many parts because she belongs to them all:

Maggie understood and felt her mind walk on bare feet within the circle of the sacred place.  She turned and saw that there had always been only one choice for her.  She had to choose to be of mixed blood, to be both things.  She had to be willing to accept this tension as a part of her being.  By knowing this, she had already made her choice.  (170)

And that choice, like that of Antonio in the previous analysis, is to be all that she is and accept all the parts that make her.

Maggie and Antonio share in their being on the margins of dominant cultures.  As Antonio realizes his marginality upon entering school, Maggie also sees herself as an outsider when she glances into the houses of rich Anglos and sees her difference from them (25).  She also realizes her being an outsider compared to the other kids at school and she wonders if maybe she can pretend to be like them: “Just talk like them, eat like them, act like them . . . what’s the big deal?  Anybody can do it.”  But she realizes that this would only be a pretense hiding the real person inside, and as such will only result in hurting that real person: “then one day when we’re tired of hiding, we take of our costume…and what?  Who did we fool but each other?  We hurt each other hiding ourselves” (119).

The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker is a novel that presents a number of characters who learn the value of accepting their true selves through their interaction with each other.  I hesitate to call any of the characters I will discuss main characters as most characters in the novel appear as major as the next.  For my analysis I will be dealing mainly with Lissie, Carlotta, and Suwelo as an example of characters who have come to terms with the many essences that made them. 

Lissie’s exposition to Suwelo of her previous lives is presented in such a way that makes the reader understand the conflict of accepting these other lives while at the same time appreciating the benefits of admitting these former existences.  Through seeing the pictures made of her by a certain photographer who “was able to photograph the women [she] was in many of [her] lifetimes before,” Lissie eventually comes to appreciate her multiple existences:

And I only came to understand myself—at first it frightened me to see myself as so many different people! —after years of memory excavation and exploration, years of understanding I’m not like most other people, years of anger and confusion over this, years of fighting everyone!  But finally it dawned on me that my memory and the photographs corroborated each other exactly.  I had been those people, and they were still somewhere inside of me.  (91)

And through seeing her many selves in those photographs, Lissie comes to acknowledge her many previous existences and “recognizes the patterns of opposition in her life and attempts to synthesize them into some sort of self-healing totality” (Dieke 511).  Instead of rejecting what makes her, Lissie finds a greater happiness in accepting her sometimes opposing selves just as Antonio and Maggie came to accept their opposing parts.

In the paintings that Lissie comes to paint she portrays her many previous existences not only as a black woman but also as a white man—a fact she hid from her best friend Hal because of his hatred for white men—and as a lion, thus exhibiting what Clara Juncker sees as “the fluid ego boundaries of Walker’s feminine or feminized artists.” (41) What is most amazing about the paintings she did was one of the two paintings she and Hal both made of each other.  The painting, however, did not contain a picture of either person but rather an outline of their shapes empty of their own faces.  In this emptiness, Walker signifies the absence of blackness in dominant cultural representation just as she uses Suwelo’s profession as history teacher to alert readers to the absence of blacks in history:

This very invisibility is, on still another level, a Walkerly signifyin(g) on the canonical African American absence, a tradition that describes blackness as a negative essence, a transcendent signified.  However, rather than creating another transcendent signified of blackness as presence, Walker posits an interpretative openendedness, the notion of aesthetic indeterminacy and play.  The “blackness of blackness” must, then, be constantly produced and invented, and the non-essence of black feminine creativity accordingly includes dynamic motion.  (Juncker 41)

The absence of blackness then becomes a tool used by Walker to function according to Fuss’s suggestion that the risk of essence may have to be taken.  If the essence of blackness is seen as negativity and absence, then Walker justly plays on this portrayal in order to demonstrate the openness that such a description allows.

In this, then, Lissie is opposed to the earlier character of Carlotta who refuses to see femininity as her true self but sees it instead as a mask she wears (Preble-Niemi 112).  Through later awareness of this earlier role she plays she tells Fanny how she was “a female impersonator”:

“ . . . I just dressed myself up like a tart and trundled my tits on out there.  I thought every man that ever lived . . . was a fool, but I wanted them to look at me.  ‘To market, to market, to buy a fat pig,’ I used to hum under my breath, but I never bothered to think why.”  (385)

And as such she began to loathe touching her own body which eventually led her to Fanny’s massage parlor since her own body “wasn’t alive to [her] anymore” (386).

            The male characters in the novel also benefit when they learn to accept the feminine inside them.  Although Suwelo begins the novel with the story of the two women he hurt, he begins the process of healing by identifying with the feminine inside him as “Only by so identifying with the feminine can [men] cease their deprecation of women” (Ferguson 99).  So these characters begin the process of healing by accepting their femininity—Suwelo through his crying and sharing of his pain and Arveyda though his singing and later his enjoyment in baking and taking care of his children—and thus bringing alive what has been repressed under patriarchy (Preble-Niemi 112).

The characters I analyzed in the three novels have successfully utilized their essences in order to enable them to have a better understanding of their lives and as such to have better lives.  When claiming one’s essence stops being an oppositional maneuver, it can lead to wonderful results as Anzaldúa explains “the possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react” (766). Antonio was able to rely on both essences as a Luna and a Márez once he understood that there does not have to be an opposition between the two.  Maggie was also able to appreciate her being of mixed blood when she understood that she does not have to react against her belonging to these different bloods by insisting on being of one blood only.  Carlotta was able to finally come to terms with her femininity when she decided not to react against it, but to accept it as one of her essences.

These characters were enabled to function as such because of their existence on the margins of dominant culture: 

Disjunctions in daily experience sharpen women’s critical awareness.  Such disjunctions may throw women into the creative chora that Kristeva writes about, subjective moments of free-wheeling drives and dissolving meanings.  But there is no doubt that social contradiction and marginalisation help women to see right through the hollow instrumentalism of the Father’s law.  The 1/0 regime contradicts a woman’s internal sense of becoming; and the energy released by this contradiction is what impels an ecofeminist politics to move beyond the static Woman=Nature dualism.  (Salleh 49)

And it is that released energy which impels our characters to move beyond the static dualism they find around their lives.  It is Antonio’s marginality that made him appreciate the story of the golden carp, Maggie’s marginality that made her accept her belonging to the mountain, and Lissie’s marginality that helped her accept her often contradicting existences.  Fuss argues that this marginality is a determining factor in the workability of any essentialist position when she writes:

I cannot help but think that the determining factor in deciding essentialism’s political or strategic value is dependent upon who practices it: in the hands of a hegemonic group, essentialism can be employed as a powerful tool of ideological domination; in the hands of the subaltern, the use of humanism to mime (in the Irigarian sense of to undo by overdoing) humanism can represent a powerful displacing repetition.  The question of the permissibility, if you will, of engaging in essentialism is therefore framed and determined by the subject-position from which one speaks.  (Fuss 32)

The marginalized are best equipped to take the position of both essentialism and anti-essentialism since their existence on the margins necessitates their accepting the multiplicity of factors that constitute them while at the same time they need to have stable ties to their essences in order for these essences not to be quenched by dominant culture.


Notes

1.  To posit the two terms in such a demonstration is in itself a binary that I seek to deconstruct as I deconstructed other binaries in this dissertation.

2.  Maggie is also part French, as her mother is French Spaniard, and could be said to be part American as she grows up in an American culture.

 

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