A Note on The Madwoman in the Attic

I went into Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination without too much expectation. I’d heard of it and was intrigued by their focus on the Brontë’s and Emily Dickinson. I’d heard it was pretty seminal. I didn’t expect it to be quite so outdated.

Lots of critiques have been written about the book over the years — many focusing on the familiar second-wave-feminist stumbling block of an overreliance on biological essentialism and other sorts of blinkers — and the authors try to address a few of these critiques in the second edition’s introduction, where they each herald themselves as a “madwoman in the academy”. For a piece of writing written in the year 2000, introducing a book first published in the late 1970s, it is striking how so many of their arguments (and the style of their arguments too) echo those that various TERFs now use to hold much of the mainstream media to ransom.

In considering their critics’ various positions, but taking particular issue with the poststructuralists that would soon surpass them, the pair argue that

the attack on the paradigm of The Madwoman could and did go beyond the content of [their original] metaphorical model (of the rebelliously diseased woman writer struggling to gain independence) to a post-structuralist rejection of any formulation that would lend credence either to the term “woman” or to the category “women writers”, a disavowal that necessarily makes it difficult indeed to do feminist work in a literary historical context.

This is seemingly to say, in a now-familiar TERF nomenclature, that you can’t even say what a woman is anymore. (Judith Butler predictably comes up a few times to receive some vague scorn.)

This point falls shortly after a repudiation of the work of Michel Foucault and his argument about how the self more broadly is formed. For Foucault, they write, “what replaces the self as a source of power are institutional regimes whose social forces shape people laboring under the delusion of individuality.” As a result, the ways that “[n]ineteenth-century literature repeatedly refers to the creation of the self … actually achieves — for poststructuralists — … the naturalization of this historical concept.” The self is a concept, an invention, which art historians in particular, many decades before Foucault, trace back to the Renaissance and to the trickle-down influence of a courtly despotism. (Jacob Bruckhardt argued this way back in 1860, in fact, in The Civilisation of the Renaissance, giving his name to what is now known as the Bruckhardt Thesis.) It is a clear product of liberalist thinking, and one they daren’t see critiqued.

Though they may reject this line of thinking, it is striking to me that so many of the women they later consider (in the book’s three-part sequel, No Man’s Land, that I’m yet to read, which focuses on women in the twentieth century) seemed far more on board with it, arguably inspiring — albeit under the still-obfuscating influence of patriarchy — the theoretical work that was to come. (Deleuze and Guattari may only rely on Woolf, but she is foundational all the same.) Gilbert and Gubar cannot see this. It makes the book very surreal now to read.

The book begins, for instance, with a quote from Anais Nin, who I have been interested in of late for her championing of an androgynous writing. But Gilbert and Gubar seem to reference her whilst wholly ignoring her interest in an androgynous literature, even quoting critics who would perhaps find such a writing abhorrent. John Irwin, for example, in Doubling and Incest, is quoted favourably for having said that

the relationship “of the masculine self with the feminine-masculine work is also an autoerotic act… a kind of creative onanism in which through the use of the phallic pen on the ‘pure space’ of the virgin page… the self is continually spent and wasted…

This may describe the chauvinistic work of Henry Miller quite well, but Nin’s too? They would probably argue she is just reproducing masculine tropes in her work, as Miller thought himself. But to my ears, this starts to sound a lot like the transphobic work of someone like Ray Blanchard, with his pathology of “autogynephilia”.

Intriguingly, despite this, they quote Leo Bersani’s A Future for Astyanax, in which he argues that “language doesn’t merely describe identity but actually produces moral and perhaps even physical identity… We have to allow for a kind of dissolution or at least elasticity of being induced by an immersion in literature.” So the question must be asked more forcefully: what is produced by a far more androgynous literature? Is this not the primary legacy of women’s writing under modernism which — as Virginia Woolf herself wrote, in what they too acknowledge as perhaps the founding text of “women’s studies”, A Room of One’s Own — calls not just fiction but woman herself into question? How is it not painfully obvious to Gilbert and Gubar that so many of the seminal “women writers” of the last two centuries would squirm under their own characterisations of what it means to be a woman who writes?

None of this makes it impossible for us to talk about a “women’s writing”, however, despite the pair’s fears. Surely it only makes the concept more interesting, for the ways that it changes literature as such more broadly, incapable of remaining a distinct subculture, as Gilbert and Gubar believe it to be, but having a clear influence on the literature in general, precisely by producing the elasticity of (gendered) being that Bersani calls for.

It is a sad and familiar story, which now feels even more overbearing in our popular discourse than it once did: yes to elasticity, they say, only to complain that now the rubber band of subjectivity has been stretched too far…

Sod it. Let’s keep stretching.

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