Encountering the Other
- Rosemary Sullivan (Author)
Labyrinth of Desire: Women, Passion and Romantic Obsession. Harper Flamingo (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Marie Carrière (Author)
Writing in the Feminine in French and English Canada: A Question of Ethics. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Mary Jean Green
Asserting that literary and ethical studies have been moving closer together in recent years, Marie Carrière explores the ethical perspective developed in the work of five Canadian feminist poets, anglophone and francophone: Nicole Brossard, France Théoret, Di Brandt, Erin Mouré, and Lola Lemire Tostevin. Their work can be seen as fitting within the movement known as “writing in the feminine,” seen by Carrière as a historical phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s, now more interesting for its ethical insights than its radical stance. While emphasizing the ethical dimension may place unusual demands on what are essentially poetic, rather than philosophical texts, Carrière’s probing analysis brings this group of writers together in exciting new ways and illuminates their contribution to feminist thought.
In their feminist ethics, these five writers attempt to rethink intersubjective relationships according to a model that is, in Carrière’s view, best defined by French philosopher Paul Ricoeur: “the esteem of the other as a oneself and the esteem of oneself as another.” This is a dialectic that Carrière also sees as being at the core of the mother-daughter bond. Although Ricoeur is not commonly invoked as an influence on feminist theory, his formulations of reciprocal intersubjective relationships do provide a philosophical statement relevant to certain concepts developed by Canadian feminists, particularly Brossard’s “même différence.” And through their common indebtedness to fellow philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, Carrière links Ricoeur to French feminist Luce Irigaray and her analysis of the mother-daughter dyad. Supplemented by references to Julia Kristeva and Jacques Derrida, the trinity of Lévinas, Ricoeur, and Irigaray serves as the basis of Carrière’s ethical analysis, firmly grounding her work in a type of Continental philosophy she sees as particularly relevant to writers in Quebec.
Nicole Brossard’s work, and particularly L’Amèr, with its specific focus on the maternal, lends itself admirably to Carrière’s ethical model. Although Carrière is admittedly troubled by the vehemence of Brossard’s explicitly matricidal statements (“J’ai tué le ventre”), she revels in Brossard’s evolution toward a relational ethic, where mothers and daughters dance together, taking pleasure in their sameness and difference. Indeed, the matricidal impulse seems unknown to Carrière’s theoretical trinity. Her understanding of Brossard might have been nuanced and enriched by reference to American feminist Adrienne Rich, whose work, like L’Amèr, moves through what she calls “matrophobia” to arrive at a concept of relationship not unlike Ricoeur’s.
Despite its initial violence, however, Brossard’s work provides a good illustration of Carrière’s model, as do the writings of anglophone poet Di Brandt. The analysis of the work of Erin Mouré, however, seems more forced. Carrière must expend a greater effort to discern a female ethics based in what she calls “maternalism,” an ethics which, as Carrière acknowledges, “may not always be sustained in her [Mouré’s] poetry.” Her reading of Lola Lemire Tostevin is much more convincing, enabled by Tostevin’s clear focus on linguistic conflict between the dominant (phallocentric) English and her suppressed French mother tongue, a phenomenon which, as Carrière points out, alludes to the thought of Derrida and Kristeva.
What is most interesting about Carrière’s project is her attempt to bring together the work of these francophone and anglophone feminist writers around a shared ethical stance. And this, almost inevitably, constitutes her work’s greatest problem. Committed to a model of feminine interrelationship based on the mother-daughter bond, Carrière has some difficulty with writers who refuse to conform. A case in point is France Théoret, whose strong emphasis on relationships between women is clearly congruent with Carrière’s expectations. Indeed, in her lucid essays (Entre raison et déraison), Théoret herself refers to the philosophy of Lévinas. But Théoret’s own representation of the maternal as an oppressive construction of the Quebec patriarchy does not readily present itself as the basis of a relational ethic, however much Carrière tries to see the mother in Théoret’s texts as proposing “at least the possibility of female ethical exchange.”
Carrière’s readings of individual writers are generally attentive to the specificity of their poetic texts, but at times she seems to demand of them a coherence and comprehensiveness more likely to be found in formal ethical theory. At times, she uses her ethical model not only as a means to create new understanding of the texts but also as a perspective from which to point out their contradictions. Yet, despite its somewhat contentious view of the texts under study, Carrière’s analysis reminds us of the intensity and intellectual sophistication of the feminist project of the 1970s and 80s and brings new life to the work of these five important writers.
Rosemary Sullivan’s approach to intersubjective relationships in Labyrinth of Desire is quite different. In one chapter, she writes: “Opening to another is risky business. When we fall in love, the psyche wakes up. Love is dangerous. Sometimes it even feels like a calamity.” Sullivan’s subject is women’s experiences of passion and romantic obsession, experiences which have arguably inspired much of the world’s great literature.
Sullivan has made her name as a literary biographer (one of the subjects of her biographical research, Elizabeth Smart, also figures prominently in this text), and one of the most fascinating aspects of her book is her interest in revealing the real-life obsessions that contributed to some of the great romantic obsessions of literature. Beneath Jane Eyre’s attraction to Rochester, she unearths Charlotte Brönte’s unrequited love for a Belgian professor, and behind Jean Rhys’ rewriting of Brönte’s classic novel, a life of failed romance. Her women writers build on their intense but troubled passions to construct their life’s work, as did Goethe, who turned a passing affection into young Werther, the model of the romantic hero. But with Goethe’s life, Sullivan is less sympathetic, finding him quickly seeking consolation with other women, even before his original ardour had time to cool. In Sullivan’s view, passion has different effects on the lives of women.
Perhaps because of Sullivan’s unwavering focus on heterosexual relationships, her emphasis is on sexual difference and lack of understanding between women and their male love-objects, an emphasis that leads to some strange generalizations, often supported by one or two personal or literary examples. An example is her judgment that, “Women can’t fully know who they are unless men tell them.” But such reflections are unobjectionable in the open literary form Sullivan has chosen, an unstable genre falling somewhere between fiction, personal confession, essay and literary biography.
- Altérés de loin by Jeff Moore
Books reviewed: Mystique by Mylène Gilbert-Dumas and On finit toujours par payer by Jean Lemieux
- Diversité culturelle by Jorge Calderón
Books reviewed: Écritures migrantes et identités culturelles by Clement Moisan and Expressions culturelles des francophonies by Ellen Chapco, Nicole Côté, Peter Dorrington, and Sheila Petty
- Versifications du sublime by Katia Grubisic
Books reviewed: La Lenteur au bout de l'aile by France Cayouette, Savanes, suivi de Poèmes de septembre by Joël Des Rosiers, L'Oeil de la lumière by Pierre Raphaël Pelletier, and Entre les murs de la Baltique by Dominique Zalitis
- Fictions critiques by Jacqueline Viswanathan
Books reviewed: Le Moment critique de la fiction: Les Interprétations de la littérature que proposent les fictions québécoises contemporaines. by Robert Dion and La Pensée composée: Formes du recueil et constitution de l'essai québécois by Jamie Dopp
- One Good Step by Alison Calder
Books reviewed: One Step Over the Line: Toward a History of Women in the North American Wests by Elizabeth Jameson and Sheila McManus
MLA: Green, Mary Jean. Encountering the Other. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #182 (Autumn 2004), Black Writing in Canada. (pg. 100 - 102)
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