- Cecelia Tichi (Author)
Embodiment of a Nation: Human Form in American Places. Harvard University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lothar Honnighausen
Some time ago, a colleague of mine had an argument with her students about the usefulness of studying "old-fashioned" literary forms such as allegory, emblems, and etymologizing metaphors. She explained to them that while these devices did indeed flourish in medieval and Renaissance culture, their use in recent times is also quite widespread. Embodiment of a Nation illustrates how, in the wake of Heidegger’s and Derrida’s etymologizing wordplay and Irigaray’s and Kolodny’s metaphorizing gender studies, a mode of scholarly discourse has established itself in which allegorizing, emblematizing and etymologizing serve as major cognitive devices and expository strategies.
Although this form of academic writing has become so fashionable that today few doctoral dissertations are without its vestiges, scholars do not seem to have reflected much on its methodological assumptions and implications. Cecelia Tichi’s book, dealing with major issues of contemporary cultural criticism, gives ample occasion to observe the advantages as well as the shortcomings of these new allegorizing culture studies. In contrast to previous literary criticism that used causal relationships as a central cognitive metaphor—without acknowledging its metaphoric character— Tichi employs a dominant interpretive metaphor, "embodying /embodiment," that since Annette Kolodny’s The Lay of the Land (1975) has been frequently engaged as a critical tool. The popularity of this metaphor is revealing since it reflects the sociocultural Freudianism, emancipatory pretensions, and didactic preoccupation with allegoresis in the cultural criticism of our time. Tichi’s originality lies in her dexterous, often ingenious, and sometimes mannered variations on the metaphoric theme of "embodying / embodiment."
In her study of embodiments of American culture, she has assembled a system of six cardinal landscape images arranged in a binary, or more precisely, in antagonistic fashion. The concept of "Nature’s nation" (Perry Miller) serves her as a kind of epistemic reference point. In part one, "Crania Americana", Tichi opposes the presidential heads at Mt. Rushmore (South Dakota) with Thoreau’s Walden Pond; in part two, "Frontier Incarnations", she arranges, in contrapuntal order, the geyser Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park alongside the moon-motif (the moon of NASA as well as the female moon of myth), and in part three, she contrasts the health-giving waters of Hot Springs and the polluted waters of Love Canal. This arrangement of three symmetrical blocks is enhanced by an evolving linear structure running through the whole book, from the negative male image of Mt. Rushmore to the apogee of environmental pollution, Love Canal. At the same time, there is a contrapuntal movement, identified as positive and female, "flowing" from Walden Pond to Hot Springs and the redemption of Love Canal through the environmentalist Lois Gibbs.
The whole structure is based on a system of ideological oppositions (male=bad= imperialism=economic exploitation of people and resources=pollution vs. female=good=healingpower=ecological responsibility) that are as predictable as those in Edmund Spenser’s allegorical epic The Fairie Queene. Readers whose appreciation of a clear-cut world picture is greater than their sense of humour will occasionally be disconcerted by the juggling Tichi has to do to keep the statics of her doll’s house under control. But few will quarrel with her when she explodes the ideology behind Gutzon Borglum’s monumental sculptures as "de-facing" nature and "the sacred land of the Oglala Sioux" or when she expresses her admiration for "Lois Gibbs as an effective environmental activist in the pollution scandal of Love Canal." However, I for one do not only appreciate the essayistic charm of the allegorical reading and writing of Tichi and others, but also feel a strong temptation to parody their schematisms and ingenious mannerisms.
Following Marge Piercy in The Moon Is Always Female, Tichi insists that "The cultural debate converges only on one point: that the moon is always female." One could add further evidence such as the Endymion motif and the iconography of the madonna cult, but one should perhaps remind Tichi that in some languages and literatures the moon is masculine. Although she presents ample evidence of the moon as new frontier incarnation in the context of space travel, she is not overgenerous with her literary examples. Her study of the moon in Norman Mailer’s American Dream is thorough and perceptive, but this novel today appears strangely thin and dated; Paul Auster’s The Moon Palace (1989) would certainly have been closer to today’s sensibility.
If Tichi’s Embodiment of a Nation seems sometimes a bit mannered, it is nevertheless a rich and relevant book, offering an enlightened overview of major phenomena of American culture.
- Tragique émorationnalité by Stéphane Girard
Books reviewed: Suites sociologiques by Simon Laflamme and Jean Marc Dalpé: Ouvrir d'un dire by Stéphanie Nutting and François Paré
- Constructing American Biography by Victoria Lamont
Books reviewed: Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America by Scott E. Casper
- Handling the Past by Tamas Dobozy
Books reviewed: On the Case: Explorations in Social History by Franca Iacovetta and Wendy Mitchinson and The Suburb of Dissent: Cultural Politics in the United States and Canada During the 1930s by Caren Irr
- The Taste of the Past by Norman Ravvin
Books reviewed: Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America by Hasia R. Diner and Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory by David E. Sutton
- Chevaliers de la mémoire by Maxime Prévost
Books reviewed: Aux chevaliers du noeud coulant by Rémi Tremblay and Rémi Tremblay
MLA: Honnighausen, Lothar. Critical Allegories. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #177 (Summer 2003), (Duncan, Wiebe, Jameson, Thérault, Martel). (pg. 191 - 192)
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