Title: Rewriting the nostalgic story: Woman, desire, narrative
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Title: Rewriting the nostalgic story: Woman, desire, narrative
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Language: English
Creator: Brown, Teresa M
Copyright Date: 1989
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U '! iT`' CF r:.o i'.1 LI.!?ZC~~

Copyright 1989


Teresa M. Brown


I want to thank a number of people for helping me write

this dissertation.

I am thankful to my friends Marleen Barr, Minrose Gwin,

and Ruth Salvaggio for encouraging me from the beginning and

for serving as models of professional and scholarly


I am indebted to Cathy Griggers for relentlessly

pressuring me to write every day and carefully reading every


I am especially grateful to my dissertation committee

for what they have taught me: Professor Norman N. Holland

taught me psychoanalytic criticism and identity theory;

Professor David Leverenz taught me to "cherish the details";

Professor Ellie Ragland-Sullivan taught me Lacanian

psychoanalysis, which radically changed my thinking; and

Professor Henry Sullivan gave me the idea for this

dissertation in a discussion we had about the etymology of

nostalgia. Professor Anne Goodwyn Jones, my director,

taught me feminist literary criticism. She generously gave

me room to think on my own at the same time that she pushed

me to think beyond the boundaries I had drawn around my own



Finally, I dedicate this dissertation to my father and

mother, Jim and Doris Brown. Without their support, this

dissertation would have been impossible.



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS............................ ........... iii

ABSTRACT.............................................. vii

INTRODUCTION.......................................... 1



The Subject in Feminist Theory.............. 11
The Double Split in Feminist Theory.......... 14
"What's a Feminist to Do?".................. 21
A Third Course for Feminist Theory? ......... 23
A History of Hysteria....................... 27
Hysteria in Feminist Theory................. 31
Desire in Narrative............. ............ 39
The Nostalgic Story.......................... 41


Dorothy's Lesson.............................. 45
Nostalgia and Cultural Longing.............. 50
A Psychoanalysis of Nostalgia and
Sexual Difference........................... 55
A Reading of a Nostalgic Narrative.......... 60
Nostalgia and Gender........................ 68

DISCONTENT................................ 76

The Nostalgic Fallacy ....................... 77
Housekeeping and the Critic................. 84
A View from Elsewhere. ....................... 87
Sylvie as Uncanny ........................... 95
Mother Country............................... 106
Petroleuse ............................... 109

POLITICS OF PAIN........................... 112

Longing to Long.............................. 116
"Are Women Pirates or Slaves?".............. 127
Homeless Quest............................... 132
Masochism and Narrative..................... 136
Abortion as Trope........................... 138
"The Discourse of Blunted Pain"............. 140

CONCLUSION............................................ 143

WORKS CONSULTED......................................... 147

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.... ............................... 157

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Teresa M. Brown

August 1989

Chairwoman: Professor Anne Goodwyn Jones
Major Department: English

This dissertation interrogates the nostalgic story,

which has been a favorite in the Western literary tradition

since Homer's paradigmatic tale of nostalgia, the Odyssey.

Interpreting nostalgia etymologically to mean the longing to

return home, this dissertation suggests that the traditional

story of nostalgia may be alienating to woman who has

historically remained, physically as well as psychically, in

the home, and it argues that certain contemporary women

writers are critiquing and rewriting the nostalgic story.

Chapter One, "The Subject of Desire in Feminist

Theory," situates this dissertation within the context of

current issues in feminist theory, namely, the problem of

defining woman. Chapter Two, "There's No Place Like Home:

Toward a Psychoanalytic Theory of Nostalgia," traces the

pattern of Oedipal desire in popular narratives of


nostalgia, The Wizard of Oz and Terry Gilliam's Brazil, in

order to show how alienating such narratives may be to


Chapter Three, "Nostalgia and Marilynne Robinson's

Discontent," discusses Marilynne Robinson's revision of the

nostalgic story in her novel Housekeeping, and Chapter Four,

"Longing to Long: Kathy Acker and the Politics of Pain,"

discusses Kathy Acker's representation of the pain that is

caused by woman's alienation from the traditional nostalgic




All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
--Robert Hass, "Meditation at Lagunitas"

This dissertation is about the stories that we tell, as

individuals and as cultures, to explain loss, and it is

about the difference between the stories that men tell and

the stories that women tell.

I am fond of explaining my own loss in terms of the

following narrative.

Until I was eight years old, I lived happily in an

Edenic Southern California, where the sun would shine every

day, where our lawn of dichondria, which my mother watered

and weeded daily, never needed cutting, where I spent every

day on my skateboard or in a swimming pool. One day in

December 1967 we flew across the world to live in Bangkok,

where I saw wounded soldiers flown in from Saigon hospitals,

rabid dogs in the streets, and limbless lepers on

"skateboards" outside the cathedral. I knew then that my

world would never be the same, and now I dream nostalgically

for a moment before December 1967, a moment that probably

was never as perfect as it seems to me now.


More specifically, then, this dissertation is about the

nostalgic stories that we tell to explain loss.

Etymologically, nostalgia means "the longing to return

home." This metaphoric "home" of nostalgic desire means

something different for each individual (for me, my Southern

California home where lemon trees blossomed in my backyard),

but it is often figured as a return to some maternal figure

(traced in my memory as the image of my mother watering the

lawn). This study began, quite frankly, with my desire to

understand my own nostalgia, which led me to interrogate the

nostalgic narratives of our culture, beginning with Homer's

Odyssey, the paradigmatic tale of nostalgia in our Western

literary tradition. Odysseus, having ventured away from

home, longs for a return to the maternal figure of Penelope.

Some of our favorite twentieth-century stories of nostalgia

are structured by this simple plot. For instance, Dorothy

in The Wizard of Oz, travels somewhere over the rainbow and

longs to return home to Kansas. This simple nostalgic plot

is complicated by the impossibility of return, which is

figured as a metaphoric castration, a fact which raises the

issue of gender and nostalgia. I am asking in this

dissertation, in what ways is gender implicated in nostalgic

narratives of loss?

My discussion of nostalgia is situated within the

context of what contemporary feminist theory has said about

the relationship between gender, desire, and narrative. If

narrative is generated by desire, feminist theory has asked,

then whose desire are we speaking of? The nostalgic stories

that some male writers tell are generated by an Oedipal

desire, marked by images of castration. Considering Teresa

de Lauretis's argument that the Oedipal desire that informs

male narratives alienates the feminine subject, I began to

wonder whether that Oedipal logic common to nostalgic

stories by men might complicate nostalgic stories by women.

I discovered that the nostalgic myth may be just as

alienating for men as it is for women, yet that alienation

is expressed differently.

I then turned to representations of nostalgia in

writing by women, which led me to the work of Marilynne

Robinson, whose entire corpus may be read as a critique of

what she terms "the nostalgic fallacy." I read her novel

Housekeeping as a revision of the nostalgic story, in that

Robinson creates an extraordinary character who lives

"outside" of loss, who refuses to long for a nostalgic

return. Yet Robinson's novel may be a utopian revision of

the nostalgic story, possible only in fiction. Kathy Acker

in her postmodern novel Don Quixote offers a revision of the

nostalgic story that is different from Robinson's revision,

one that represents, perhaps more realistically, the psychic

pain involved in giving up the belief in the possibility of

return. My interest in these chapters on Robinson and Acker

is not only to explicate their texts, but more importantly,

to use them in order to illustrate the tensions between the

nostalgic story and the feminine subject.

I am intellectually indebted to Teresa de Lauretis,

whose ideas about gender, desire, and narrative have

profoundly informed my own, particularly her discussion of

the alienating effects of "male" narratives of desire on

"female" subjects in Alice Doesn't, and most importantly,

her notion of a view from "elsewhere" developed in

Technologies of Gender. However, my work is less semiotic

and more psychoanalytic than that of de Lauretis. I

understand questions of desire, gender, and narrative, which

I pursue in relation to nostalgia, to be, more broadly,

questions about subjectivity--the subject of desire, the

gendered subject, the subject who listens to and tells

stories. Consequently, my methodology in the following

pages is psychoanalytic, since psychoanalysis offers a

thorough and rigorous theory of subjectivity.

De Lauretis, like some other feminist theorists

(Irigaray in particular), rejects Lacanian psychoanalysis

for erasing woman beneath the hegemonic phallic signifier:

In the psychoanalytic view of signification,
subject processes are essentially phallic; that is
to say, they are subject processes insofar as they
are instituted in a fixed order of language--the
symbolic--by the function of castration. Again
female sexuality is negated, assimilated to the
male's, with the phallus representing the autonomy
of desire (of language) in respect to a matter
which is the female body. (Alice Doesn't 23).


De Lauretis argues that Lacanian psychoanalysis valorizes

the phallus which "represents the autonomy of desire." More

accurately, for Lacan the phallus is a mark of lack,

although it is nonetheless imbued with symbolic power within

culture, which is what feminism, along with Lacanian

psychoanalysis, has been arguing. My point is that Lacanian

psychoanalysis cannot be easily dismissed as misogynist;

instead, feminism may exploit Lacanian psychoanalysis to

theorize the female subject, which is what I argue in

Chapter One.

When speaking of gender, one inevitably confronts a

problem of terminology. The terms "masculine" and

"feminine" I take to describe a way of being, arbitrarily

defined within the contexts of culture and family. The

terms "male" and "female" I take to describe sexual

difference as biologically defined. I follow de Lauretis's

useful distinction between Woman and women: "By 'woman' I

mean a fictional construct, a distillate from diverse but

congruent discourses dominant in Western cultures" and "by

women, on the other hand, I will mean the real historical

beings" (Alice Doesn't 5).

Finally, this dissertation might be read as a sequel to

Janice Doane and Devon Hodges' book Nostalgia and Sexual

Difference, which treats only works written by men. Doane

and Hodges argue that several contemporary works of fiction

and non-fiction written by men nostalgically long for a

moment before the women's movement challenged the

"naturalness" of gender distinctions. They conclude their

book with this inviting final sentence: "By embracing the

subversive possibilities of language, feminist theorists can

undermine nostalgic rhetoric, leaving cultural definitions

of masculinity and femininity in play, rather than in place"

(142). Whereas Doane and Hodges are concerned with

"nostalgic rhetoric," I shift the issue of nostalgia to one

of desire. I hope that this dissertation at least shows

precisely how the nostalgic rhetoric, as well as desire, is

subverted in women's writing.

In Chapter One, "The Subject of Desire in Feminist

Theory," I situate my study within the context of current

issues in feminist theory, namely, the problem of defining

woman. In Chapter Two, "There's No Place Like Home: Toward

a Psychoanalytic Theory of Nostalgia," I trace the pattern

of Oedipal desire in popular narratives of nostalgia, The

Wizard of Oz and Terry Gilliam's Brazil, in order to show

how alienating such narratives may be to woman. In Chapter

Three, "Nostalgia and Marilynne Robinson's Discontent," I

discuss Marilynne Robinson's revision of the nostalgic story

in her novel Housekeeping, and in Chapter Four, "Longing to

Long: Kathy Acker and the Politics of Pain," I discuss

Kathy Acker's representation of the pain that is caused by

woman's alienation from the traditional nostalgic story.

The questions that I ask about the representation of

nostalgia in the work of Robinson and Acker might also be

asked about the fiction of lesbian and black women writers.

I suggest at the end of Chapter Two that a woman's nostalgic

desire may be expressed through lesbian desire, but I have

yet to explore adequately the implications of this idea.

Having argued that nostalgic desire, with its Oedipal quest

for origins and its images of castration, is a masculine

desire, I certainly do not mean to suggest that lesbian

desire is simply an enactment of a masculine fantasy. On

the contrary, the lesbian expression of nostalgic desire may

be as subversive as Robinson's or Acker's critique of that

desire. Nevertheless, the issue of sexuality and nostalgia

is complicated in that revisions of the nostalgic story such

as Robinson and Acker give us tend to exclude the

possibility of a normative heterosexual relation. Robinson

leaves the issue of sexuality entirely out of her rewriting

of the nostalgic story, while Acker seems to conclude that

there is no successful sexual relation, either heterosexual

or lesbian. Could it be that with respect to nostalgic

desire, the heterosexual relation amounts to a paradox for

woman who, like man, longs for the lost territory of the

mother's body but must look for that territory in the body

of a man? It may be that woman transcends that paradox

through the lesbian expression of nostalgic desire,

although, of course, as in any nostalgic gesture, she never

recovers that maternal plenitude.

Since the nostalgic desire has been imaged as a return

to maternal presence, we would expect that nostalgia might

be represented differently by black women writers for whom

the mother and child relation may have a culturally

different status and meaning. Toni Morrison's novels, in

particular, represent the painful separation of mother and

child, and the impossibility of return. But in Morrison's

novels, the separation occurs, not only as the inevitable

course of psychic development, but more painfully at the

hands of the mother herself: pressured by a hostile

dominant culture, mothers kill their children in Morrison's

stories. At one point in Morrison's Sula Nel hides away in

her bathroom. The scene exemplifies the nostalgic desire for

an Eden, a place outside the loss that comes with change:

'The real hell of Hell is that it is forever.'
Sula said that. She said doing anything forever
and ever was hell. Nel didn't understand it then,
but now in the bathroom, trying to feel, she
thought, 'If I could be sure that I could stay
here in this small white room with the dirty tile
and water gurgling in the pipes and my head on the
cool rim of this bathtub and never have to go out
the door, I would be happy. If I could be certain
that I never had to get up and flush the toilet,
go in the kitchen, watch my children grow up and
die, see my food chewed on my plate . Sula was
wrong. Hell ain't things lasting forever. Hell
is change.' Not only did men leave and children
grow up and die, but even the misery didn't last.
One day she wouldn't even have that. This very
grief that had twisted her into a curve on the
floor and flayed her would be gone. She would
lose that too. (108)


This dissertation is about the loss that generates stories

about the longing to return to a place outside change, such

as Nel's bathroom or my Southern California existence. It

is about the anguish of realizing the impossibility of

returning to such a place, and about the difference between

the way men and women express that anguish.


Lear: . What shall you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sister? Speak.
Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.

When King Lear asks his daughter Cordelia to prove in

words that she loves him in order to gain a third of his

kingdom, she confounds her father by refusing to speak of

love according to his terms. "What shall Cordelia speak?"

she asks. "Love and be silent." Cordelia refuses to

identify with her father, unlike her sisters Regan and

Goneril, who identify with Lear by imitating his discourse,

which speaks of love as a system of weights and balances.

But Cordelia will pay with her life for her silence, her

refusal to enter into the symbolic order that her father's

discourse exemplifies. Cordelia's defiant response to her

father's demand dramatizes the dilemma that each feminine

subject has in relation to a patriarchal discourse.

Cordelia's dilemma anticipates a philosophical dilemma

that has preoccupied virtually every post-structuralist

feminist in recent years: can a woman "answer" the

patriarchy in its terms without eradicating her own identity

as a woman? If subjectivity is constructed by the effects

of family and culture, and if family and culture are

contaminated--indeed, constructed--by male biases and

assumptions, then how can an authentically female subject

come into being? In other words, how can a woman come into

subjectivity as a woman in a language that defines woman as,

and in fact is itself, a reflection of masculine desire?

In the last fifteen to twenty years psychoanalytic feminism

has emerged to ask such questions about female subjectivity,

focusing especially on hysterical desire as representing the

dilemma that every female subject encounters. Because for

most of this century feminism had rejected or modified the

tenets of Freudian psychoanalysis, the recent alliance

between feminism and psychoanalysis may seem enigmatic to

some feminist critics. In this chapter, I will justify this

recent alliance by showing how feminist theory exploits

psychoanalysis in order to talk about the female subject. I

will specifically consider the significance of the issue of

hysterical desire in feminist theory, and I will introduce

the issue of nostalgic desire, which deserves as much

attention from feminist theorists as the problem of

hysterical desire, but until now has not been theorized.

The Subject in Feminist Theory

Significantly, feminist theorists who have posed

philosophical questions about female subjectivity have been

specifically psychoanalytic, rather than primarily Marxist,

Derridean, or semiotic. None of these theories has yet

posited as thorough and rigorous a theory of subjectivity as

psychoanalysis has. Marxism has historically been more

concerned with the "desire" (caused by economy) of groups of

subjects, than with that of the individual subject,2 and

semiotics, as Kaja Silverman has pointed out, has focused

with few exceptions entirely on a system of signs divorced

from the human unconscious. Derrida rejects a theory of

subjectivity, because such a theory remains "inside the

logocentric, that is phonologistic, field that [he]

undertook to delimit and to shake" (Positions 108n).3 More

SAlthough I realize that the problem of human
subjectivity has been the concern of philosophy since its
inception, I am more interested in discussing the major
theories of the twentieth century because I am concerned
with the relationship between feminism and a theory of
subjectivity. For an informative survey of "the evolution
of subjectivity in the Western tradition from the medieval
period to the present," see Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, Jacques
Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis, 1-67. Paul
Smith's recent book, Discerning the Subject, discusses the
place of subjectivity within the major humanistic theories
of this century, including Marxism, semiotics,
deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and feminism.

2The debate about whether or not the tenets of Marxism
and a theory of subjectivity are compatible has centered on
the question of cause: does the economy cause the human
subject, or does the unconscious? In his article
"Psychoanalysis and Marxism," Ernesto Laclau argues that
psychoanalysis adds a theory of subjectivity to Marxism, and
that the cause of the subject is neither the unconscious nor
the economy, but both.

3 Perhaps the most heated debate is now being waged
between Derridean theorists and Lacanian psychoanalysts
concerning this problem of theorizing subjectivity. One of
Derrida's most lucid attacks on psychoanalysis appears in
this long footnote (perhaps suggesting that the argument
deserves only a footnote). He rejects psychoanalysis

generally, Derrida rejects a theory of subjectivity that

rests on the belief that a human subject can completely

express the truth of his or her past, because such a theory

depends on concepts of "full speech, truth, and presence,"

all of which he claims to have deconstructed (Positions

108n). Furthermore, because Derrida has deconstructed the

western metaphysical notion of presence, he has necessarily

deconstructed the "presence" of an unconscious and, it

follows, any theory of subjectivity.

It is no wonder, then, that feminism has turned to

psychoanalysis for a theory of subjectivity, rather than to

Marxism, semiotics, or deconstruction. I do not mean to

suggest that these theories have nothing to offer feminism.

In her book Sexuality and the Field of Vision, Jacqueline

Rose argues persuasively for the confluence of feminism,

psychoanalysis, and Marxism, considering that human identity

cannot be viewed apart from sexual identity, which cannot be

viewed apart from a political context. Rejecting Derrida's

challenge to any theory of "subjecthood," Rose describes the

intersections of these three theoretical concerns. She

argues that feminism added "sexuality to the historically

established links between psychoanalysis and the

understanding of how ideology works" (7). In doing so,

because of its reliance on a telos of 'full speech,' its
dependence on a Hegelian conceptuality, its references to
the "authority of phonology," and its uncritical attention
to "the letter," specifically, Freud's written word.

feminism provided the common ground, sexual difference, for

Marxism and psychoanalysis to unite. According to Rose, "it

is rather as if the theoretical/clinical debate about female

sexuality and the more explicitly Marxist debate about

ideology and its forms were historically severed from each

other--at least until feminism itself forged, or rather

demonstrated, the links" (8).

While Marxism through its critique of ideology has

given feminism a theory of political resistance,

psychoanalysis has, of course, given feminism a theory of

subjectivity. Thus, as Paul Smith argues in his book

Discerning the Subject, feminism (specifically,

psychoanalytic feminism) has been the only theory that

offers both a theory of the gendered subject and a theory of

the political subject--that is, a theory of a human subject

created in culture yet able to resist that culture's

dominance. Yet these two concerns--sexual difference and

political resistance--seem to have led feminist theory to an

apparent impasse, an impasse that we are now in the midst of


The Double Split in Feminist Theory

As so many critics have pointed out, feminism these

days seems split down the middle between Anglo-Americans on

one side, French feminists on the other; essentialists on

one side, deconstructionists on the other; pragmatists on

one side, theorists on the other; political resistance on


one side, sexual difference on the other. The misperception

that the feminist debate has only two sides has led to at

least two unfortunate misunderstandings. First of all,

since, as Derrida has said, every opposition implies a

hierarchy, this apparent ideological split in feminism has

been interpreted as the theoretically naive on one side

versus the theoretically sophisticated on the other.4

Second, we have tended to simplify the issues and positions

of the debate so that we have ignored the subtle but

important differences among critics on both sides of the

Atlantic. I would like to survey briefly several sides of

what I consider to be the central debate within feminism

today, trying not to simplify the issues and arguments

involved in this very complex question of woman's


The debate in feminist theory has centered on the

question, What is a woman? Specifically, what does it mean

to be a woman in patriarchy? Teresa de Lauretis, as we saw,

distinguishes between "woman" as a "fictional construct, a

distillate from diverse but congruent discourses dominant in

Western cultures" and "women" as "real historical beings who

For an Anglo-American view of the debate, see Elaine
Showalter, "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness," or Ann
Rosalind Jones, "Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding
of l'Ecriture feminine." And for a French feminist view,
see Chapter Two, "Feminist Tracks," in Alice Jardine's
Gynesis, or Toril Moi's introduction to Sexual / Textual

cannot as yet be defined outside of those discursive

formations" (Alice Doesn't 5). It seems that the split in

women's subjectivity that de Lauretis describes has

manifested itself as a split in feminist theory, which poses

the question of defining woman in either/or terms: Is woman

essentially, naturally born into the world, some feminists

ask, or, other feminists ask, is she formed by culture?

In an effort to affirm woman's identity, which

historically has not found self-expression in a male-

dominated culture, some American feminists have argued that

"woman" exists not only as a cultural construct but as a

material, biological, and psychological being whose specific

experience deserves to be recognized, validated, and

authorized. Yet this argument has led certain feminists to

conclude that women are essentially nurturing and peace-

loving: their experiences, in short, read as essence. This

is a conclusion which other feminists have rejected because

of the oppressive, normative model of womanhood such

essentialism suggests, and which has been used historically

against women. In her article "Cultural Feminism Versus

Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist

Theory," Linda Alcoff notes that for Adrienne Rich and Mary

Daly, "it is our specifically female anatomy that is the

primary constituent of our identity and the source of our

female essence" (410). Alcoff then rejects such

essentialism not only because it is "factually and

philosophically indefensible" but because it may "'reflect

and reproduce dominant cultural assumptions about women,'

which not only fail to represent the variety in women's

lives but promote unrealistic expectations about 'normal'

female behavior that most of us cannot satisfy" (413).5

Influenced by both Lacanian psychoanalysis and

Derridean theory, French feminists have argued that a woman

is not born but made within a male culture and language that

is not her own.6 Thus, if a woman can exist only as a

reflection of masculine desire and language, the argument

goes, then there can be no essential woman. By far the most

affirmative of the French feminists, Helene Cixous proposes

5 Here Alcoff quotes Alice Echols, 439-459. In her
discussion of Rich and Daly, Alcoff draws heavily on Echols'
work, using the name "cultural feminism" that Echols gives
to the trend toward essentialism within feminism. In my
opinion, the term is misleading since it suggests that
"cultural feminists" would be more interested in the
cultural influences rather than the natural influences on
the making of a woman, which is not so for the feminists
that she calls "cultural."

6 I am well aware that there is no single, unified
French feminist theory, even though the first anthology of
French feminists, New French Feminisms, may have suggested
such unity to the American audience it wanted to reach.
Although I recognize the plurality of theories among these
theorists, for my purposes here it is necessary to ignore
for the most part the differences, however significant,
between Irigaray, Cixous, and Kristeva, the major
representatives of what has come to be known in the United
States as "French feminist theory." Elissa D. Gelfand and
Virginia Thorndike Hules have compiled an indispensable
annotated bibliography of French feminist criticism; Claire
Duchen has written a history of the French feminist movement
that clarifies the different political positions within the

an answer to the dilemma by celebrating a feminine language

that subverts the dominant discourse. She says, "Woman must

write her self: must write about women and bring woman to

writing, from which they have been driven away as violently

as from their bodies. .("The Laugh of the Medusa" 875).7

Woman comes into being, according to Cixous, by writing

herself into being in an other language, a pure language

that is not polluted by "masculine" desire.

Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, influenced by Derrida

who deconstructs the category of woman throughout his work

but particularly in Spurs, have not been so affirmative or

utopian in their treatment of the question of woman's

subjectivity. For these theorists, woman does not exist at

all, except as a social construct. In an early interview,

Julia Kristeva says that "a woman cannot 'be'; it is

The French feminists, particularly Cixous, have been
criticized for their biological essentialism, a fact which
illustrates the complexity of this apparently two-sided
debate. Ann Rosalind Jones critiques the French feminist
notion of ecriture feminine, writing from the body, on these
grounds in her article "Writing the Body: Toward an
Understanding of l'Ecriture feminine" in Showalter, 361-377.
But there is a difference between the essentialism of some
American feminists and the so-called essentialism of French
feminists. For French feminists, "masculine" and "feminine"
are floating signifiers that do not necessarily describe the
text of a biological male and a biological female
respectively. In other words, a male author such as James
Joyce (about whom Cixous wrote her dissertation) may write a
feminine text, just as a female author may write a masculine
text. As far as I am concerned in this study, the
descriptions "masculine" and "feminine" are not in
themselves very useful since they are loaded with
troublesome, inescapable cultural connotations.

something which does not even belong in the order of being.

It follows that a feminist practice can only be negative, at

odds with what already exists so that we may say 'that's not

it' and 'that's still not it.' In 'woman' I see something

that cannot be represented, something that is not said,

something above and beyond nomenclatures and ideologies"

(Marks and de Courtivron 137). According to Kristeva, any

definition of woman, any assertion of woman's identity,

whether patriarchal or feminist, is not only inappropriate

but imperialistic. When the question--are you a woman?--is

put directly to Luce Irigaray, she answers from a position

in which being and subjectivity have been deconstructed:

There is one question, however, that I should
like to examine at the outset. Moreover, it is
the first question, and all the others lead back
to it.
It is this one: "Are you a woman?"
A typical question.
A man's question? I don't think that a woman--
unless she has been assimilated to masculine, and
more specifically phallic, models--would ask me
that question.
Because "I" am not "I," I am not, I am not one.
(This Sex Which is Not One 120)

Irigaray rejects subjectivity ("'I' am not 'I'"), she

rejects an ontology based on a Western metaphysics of being

("I am not"), and she rejects the illusion of subjective

wholeness or unity ("I am not one").

Many feminists, especially American feminists, have

pointed out the political consequences of negating woman's

identity. The French feminist deconstruction of woman's

identity can easily be seen as a gesture by privileged

academic women who have the luxury to argue that woman does

not exist. As Linda Alcoff asks, "What can we demand in the

name of women if 'women' do not exist and demands in their

name simply reinforce the myth that they do? How can we

speak out against sexism as detrimental to the interests of

women if the category is a fiction? How can we demand legal

abortions, adequate child care, or wages based on comparable

worth without invoking a concept of 'woman'?" (420).

Like Alcoff, Nancy Miller fears that the post-

structuralist impulse (specifically as it is represented in

Foucault and Barthes) to deconstruct subjectivity and

authorship has threatened the Anglo-American feminist

project to "reconstruct" female identity, which has been

historically ignored in the artistic and technical

productions of patriarchal culture. Miller says that

the postmodernist decision that the Author is
dead, and subjective agency along with him, does
not necessarily work for women and prematurely
forecloses the question of identity for them.
Because women have not had the same historical
relation of identity to origin, institution,
production, that men have had, women have not, I
think, (collectively) felt burdened by too much
Self, Ego, Cogito, etc. Because the female
subject has juridically been excluded from the
polis, and hence decentered, "disoriginated,"
deinstitutionalized, etc., her relation to
integrity and textuality, desire and authority, is
structurally different.
("Changing the Subject" 106)

While Miller's point is well-taken, that the goals of post-

structuralism and the goals of political feminism may be

seriously at odds, she does not offer a means to theorize,

to reconstruct, the female subject into being. In other

words, it is difficult to argue that a woman's relation to

desire and authority "is structurally different" without a

theory of subjectivity that explains the difference. Yet

Miller ignores the theoretical support that a psychoanalytic

theory of subjectivity would lend her argument.

"What's a Feminist to Do?"

It would seem that in the last fifteen years or so

feminism has trudged into the quicksand of an impossible

either-or debate: an academic feminist today is either

politically correct and theoretically naive, or

theoretically sophisticated and politically incorrect. Is

there no way out of this dilemma? Can we have a practical,

political feminism that is supported by psychoanalytic

theory, and a psychoanalytic feminist theory of subjectivity

that serves the political interests and needs of feminism?

Only very recently have feminists explored the possible

alternatives to the impasse in which we have found

ourselves. Paul Smith, for instance, believes that the

division between French feminist theory and American

feminist practice "is becoming less and less clear and that,

indeed, feminism's current strength resides in its coming to

terms with the tensions and contradictions produced by

having within itself both these manners of thinking" (135).

Smith's argument against Marxism, deconstruction, and

semiotics is that they either fail to account for the

subject, or they propose an abstracted, purely theoretical

subject that is unified and centered. According to Smith,

the strength of contemporary feminist theory is that it

presents a theory of a subject that is not merely abstracted

and theoretical but embroiled in political realities and

exigencies that make a unified, centered subject impossible:

the split in the female subject is created by the fact that

woman, as we have seen, is both a real, historical being and

a fictional construct. Far from being debilitating or

stultifying, the split in feminism that is generated by the

split in female subjectivity marks it as the one theory

that, because of its contradictions, accounts for a subject

(or "agent," in Smith's terms) that is able to resist the

discourse that makes her because she is self-consciously

aware of her own making.8

Smith shows that the two sides of feminist theory, the

"American" impulse to reconstruct female subjectivity, and

the "French" impulse to call into question such

reconstruction, serve the political interests of feminism,

allowing feminism to assert a female subject at the same

time as it critiques the patriarchal fashioning of that

8Smith distinguishes between the terms individual,
subject, and agent. "Individual" suggests an illusion of a
whole, coherent personality, "subject" describes the many
positions one occupies in relation to the world's discourses
that subject one, and "agent" suggests the possibility of
resistance to ideological pressure and subjection.

subject. Smith concludes that "the effect of feminism's

double-play is demonstrably to have broken down the old

habit of presuming the 'subject' as the fixed guarantor of a

given epistemological formation, as well as to have cast

doubt on the adequacy of the poststructuralist shibboleth of

the decentered 'subject'" (151).

A Third Course for Feminist Theory?

Whereas Smith defends the contradictions within

feminist theory, Linda Alcoff argues that feminism "cannot

simply embrace the paradox," so she proposes that feminism

"transcend the dilemma by developing a third course," one

which navigates between essentialism and deconstruction.

Following Teresa de Lauretis's argument in Alice Doesn't,

Alcoff argues that if a woman's identity is always in

process of coming into being, then she can resist the

pressures of the dominant ideology that influence the

formation of her identity. Rejecting psychoanalysis, Alcoff

champions instead the theory of "identity politics" which

views identity as a construct but also as a point of

departure for political resistance. She then combines the

concept of identity politics with "a conception of the

subject as positionality," in which woman chooses her own

position within the network of power relations. Alcoff's

article, which appeared in the Spring 1988 issue of Signs,

deserves close critical analysis because it represents some

of the traps that are set for us as we try to work our way

out of the theoretical impasse we have found ourselves in.

First of all, Alcoff's reasons for rejecting

psychoanalysis are vague and unconvincing. She admits that

the psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious has led to the

post-structuralist conclusion that the subject is a

fictional construct. While she concludes that

"psychoanalysis alone cannot provide all of the answers we

need for a theory of the gendered subject" (430), she does

not address the possibility of psychoanalysis and feminism

uniting to create such a theory. Alcoff's rejection of

psychoanalysis is implicit rather than explicit because she

wants to retain one psychoanalytic conclusion (that the

human subject is constructed) while rejecting the assumption

from which that conclusion is drawn (the theory of the


Alcoff must reject any theory of unconscious desire,

hence psychoanalysis, because her own theory, her proposed

"third course" for feminism, rests entirely on the

assumption that a subject can consciously choose her own

psychic position in relation to the power structures that

frame her. Alcoff concludes that

the concept of positionality allows for a
determinate though fluid identity of woman that
does not fall into essentialism: woman is a
position from which a feminist politics can emerge
rather than a set of attributes that are
'objectively identifiable.' Seen in this way,
being a 'woman' is to take up a position within a
moving historical context and to be able to choose

what we make of this position and how we alter
this context. From the perspective of that fairly
determinate though fluid and mutable position,
women can themselves articulate a set of interests
and ground a feminist politics. (435)

Alcoff's solution to the feminist dilemma is tempting

because it romantically asserts that a woman can consciously

resist her own subjective construction and that she has the

freedom to choose her position in relation to the cultural

and political forces that would form her. The problem with

Alcoff's argument is that it loads women with the vague and

overwhelming responsibility of creating their own identity:

how exactly does a woman make her self? The argument

seduces us into ignoring some urgent psychological and

political realities about women's position in the world. If

we can consciously make our selves, then why do some women

repeatedly "choose," for instance, to put themselves in a

position of powerlessness? In other words, how can we

account for those choices that women make which subject them

to psychic pain? Is it because we don't choose our

positions as human or gendered subjects, but the position

chooses us? Because Alcoff's theory is so abstracted from

concrete human experience it cannot serve as a viable "third

course" for feminist theory.

Instead of using this theory of woman's fluid and

mutable identity to "ground a feminist politics," we must

realistically look at the specificity of woman's experience

in order to theorize her subjectivity and unconscious


position in relation to the network of power structures that

frame her. In particular, I believe that we need to focus

on the family structure, in which a woman first learns to

position herself in relation to power.9 In recent years,

the hysteric has emerged as a literal and figurative, real

and symbolic, embodiment of the dilemma in contemporary

feminist theory because as a daughter she occupies an

impossible position in the power network of the family


In Oedipal terms, the female subject is apparently

wedged between two poles, father and mother (the Scylla and

Charybdis of psychic development), who in Western culture

often represent speech and nonspeech, entity and nonentity,

empowerment and powerlessness. Obviously, this family

configuration is not universal for all women, but it is one

which often frames the hysteric. In Dora's case, the most

important case history of hysteria for psychoanalytic

feminists, Dora is caught in an imaginary (i.e.,

identificatory) trap between her father, "the dominating

9In her article, "A Desire of One's Own:
Psychoanalytic Feminism and Intersubjective Space," Jessica
Benjamin asks the question, "How does it come about that
femininity appears inextricably linked to passivity, even to
masochism, or that women seek their desire in another, hope
to have it recognized and recognizable through the
subjectivity of an other?" (85). Benjamin, correctly,
aligns the question of desire with the question of power,
arguing that the feminist psychoanalytic focus on personal
life does not fate us "to surrender the great issues of
power" (78).


figure in [the family] circle," and her mother, a "foolish"

housewife (Freud, Standard Edition 7: 18). Instead of

identifying with her mother, whom she does not respect, Dora

identifies with an idealized image of her father, only to

have that image smashed when she realizes that her father is

having an affair with her beloved friend, Frau K. Rejecting

identification with both her father and mother, having no

"language" to imitate, Dora suffers "a complete loss of

voice."'0 Not all female subjects negotiate their way

through the Oedipal dilemma into womanhood in the same

manner as the hysteric. Some happily identify with their

fathers, others with their mothers, while the hysteric

identifies with both and neither, destined to ask over and

over, Am I like my father or my mother? Am I a man or am I

a woman?

A History of Hysteria

I am aware of the many definitions and uses of the

terms "hysteria" and "hysteric," so before considering the

significance of hysteria for contemporary feminist theory I

would like to clarify my terms. In everyday usage we often

10 Since Dora's case has just about been picked clean
by commentators, it not necessary to go into detail about
the case. It is only necessary to summarize the case and
conclusions in order to see it as emblematic, and to use it
as a means of setting up terms and assumptions that I will
use throughout my comments on hysteria. For a thorough
analysis of the case, see Bernheimer and Kahane's edition of
In Dora's Case: Freud--Hysteria--Feminism, and Ragland-
Sullivan's article "Dora and the Name-of-the-Father: The
Structure of Hysteria."


use the noun hysteria to denote excessive emotion, while we

use the adjective hysterical to describe a fit of excessive

emotion. Most of us rarely use the noun hysteric to denote

a particular person, and if we do, it is usually considered

an insult. Whereas American ego psychology uses the terms

"hysteria" and "hysterical," the term "hysteric" is not

considered an appropriate diagnostic category. Although he

does not define or use the term "hysteric," Charles Rycroft

in his Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis defines

hysteria generally as a term for an illness with physical

symptoms that lack a physical pathology, suggesting that the

physical symptoms serve a psychological function (64). The

adjective "hysterical," according to Rycroft, describes "a

histrionic quality in the patient's behavior" (65).

In their Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental

Disorders--III, The American Psychiatric Association has

dissolved the "ancient concept of hysteria" into three

diagnostic categories: conversion disorder, histrionic

personality disorder, and brief reactive psychosis, all of

which are prevalent mostly among women, although this fact

seems inconsequential to the writers of the manual.

Conversion disorder, which "was apparently common several

decades ago" but "is now rarely encountered," describes

physical symptoms with psychological origins (DSM-III-R 257-

59). Histrionic personality disorder describes "a pervasive

pattern of excessive emotionality and attention-seeking," as

in the case of a woman "overly concerned with physical

attractiveness" or "inappropriately sexually seductive in

appearance or behavior" (DSM-III-R 349). Finally, brief

reactive psychosis describes a momentarily impaired sense of

reality, often involving bizarre behavior, "peculiar

postures, outlandish dress, screaming, or muteness. .

Speech may include inarticulate gibberish or repetition of

nonsensical phrases" (DSM-III-R 205) All of these

symptoms, once centered in the hysteric, have now been

dispersed and objectified. The American Psychiatric

Association has confined the hysteric to a historical time

and place (late nineteenth century Vienna), diluted her

symptoms into three ambiguous categories, and wrenched her

from the cultural and familial contexts that frame her

symptoms. (The manual remarkably offers no information on

"familial patterns" of these diagnostic categories as it

does for most other categories in the manual.)11

Although the American Psychiatric Association may not

consider hysteria a useful diagnostic category, it certainly

has an historical significance for all brands of

psychoanalysis. In their dictionary The Language of Psycho-

analysis, J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis stress the fact

that Jean-Martin Charcot's study of hysteria in the latter

half of the nineteenth century eventually led to some of the

most important discoveries of psychoanalysis, "the

unconscious, phantasy, defensive conflict and repression,

identification, transference, etc." (195). Charcot worked

with hysterics at the Salp&triere, a hospital in Paris for

mentally ill women, where he began to explain hysteria in

more specific and convincing terms than did the popular

myths of the time, some of which held that hysteria was a

11 Not all psychiatrists ignore the cultural and
familial contexts of "hysterical" disorders. For instance,
Jules R. Bemporad et al. have written an exceptional article
that considers the cultural and familial influences on the
anorexic, a descendant of the hysteric. Using a social
historical approach, Edward Shorter argues that the
incidence of hysteria may be constant through the ages, but
the form of hysteria changes according to cultural contexts.
In spite of these exceptions, the psychiatric community
seems to treat "hysterical" disorders, not as manifestations
of a cultural or familial problem, but as a psychosomatic
problem that can be treated with drugs. For instance, in a
discussion of globus hystericus (a lump in the throat),
Susan R. Brown et al. inexplicably conclude that "on the
basis of our experience, when no somatic abnormalities are
found, a trial of antidepressants is recommended even in the
absence of clinical depression" (918).

woman's disease caused by a condition of her uterus and

ovaries. He classified hysterical symptoms and delineated

the stages of hysterical fits, believing that hysteria was

caused by an "anatomical lesion" in the brain that triggered

the neurotic symptom. Charcot's methods were especially

theatrical, which perhaps accounts in part for the present

day association of hysteria with histrionics. He would

hypnotize the hysteric in an ampitheatre where the most

influential neurologists of the day, among them Sigmund

Freud, looked on. Perhaps because Charcot searched for a

physiological source of the hysterical symptom, he tended

not to recognize the individuality of each case of hysteria.

He was not as interested in listening to each patient's life

story as were Freud and his colleague Josef Breuer, who

together published Studies on Hysteria in 1895.12

Hysteria in Feminist Theory

Thus, it may be argued that psychoanalysis originated

with the hysterics, with women, a fact that explains, at

least in part, the significance of hysteria for contemporary

feminism. The hysteric has, in fact, become an emblem for

psychoanalytic feminism, which views her as a victim of

patriarchal family and culture, and interprets her symptoms

12 See George Frederick Drinka's The Birth of Neurosis:
Myth, Malady, and the Victorians for a history of the late
Victorian study of hysteria. For a briefer discussion of
Charcot's work on hysteria, see Charles Bernheimer's
introduction to In Dora's Case: Freud--Hysteria--Feminism.

(paralysis, somnambulism, aphasia, among others) as

desperate bodily expressions of a rebellion that could not

be consciously articulated in words. Significantly, many of

the hysterics that Charcot and Freud studied lost their

voices, as Dora did, or inexplicably spoke a language which

was not their native tongue, as Anna 0. did, a fact which

several psychoanalytic feminists have interpreted as a

conversion symptom with political significance: the mute

hysteric, like Cordelia, refuses to speak the oppressor's


In a case that resembles that of Freud's Dora, Anna O.

(Bertha Pappenheim), Breuer's patient whose case history was

introduced in Studies on Hysteria, suffered from an

inability to articulate coherent sentences, sometimes

putting sentences together in several languages at once, and

sometimes completely losing the ability to speak. Dianne

Hunter sees "a liberating motive" in Anna O.'s symptoms

since "speaking coherent German meant integration into a

cultural identity [Anna 0.] wanted to reject" (92).

According to Hunter, hysteria in general "can be considered

as a self-repudiating form of feminine discourse in which

the body signifies what social conditions make it impossible

to state linguistically" (113-14). Psychoanalytic feminism,

Hunter suggests, originated with the hysteric, the woman who

"writes" the body by speaking through her body. Dianne

Hunter's reading of Anna O.'s case exemplifies the way that

psychoanalytic feminism has resurrected the hysteric as

embodying the dilemma of woman's subjectivity. In fact, the

hysteric in contemporary feminist theory has become a kind

of everywoman who comes into subjectivity in a language that

is not her own. "The hysteric is, to my eyes," says Cixous,

"the typical woman in all her force" (The Newly Born Woman


Considering its interest in hysteria, it is no wonder

that feminist theory in the last fifteen years has been so

informed by Lacanian psychoanalysis, which has retained

hysteria as a legitimate diagnostic category. According to

Lacanian psychoanalysis, hysteria is one of three ways in

which a subject unconsciously positions himself or herself

in relation to lack.13 Whereas Freud proposes that woman

views herself as castrated, Lacan proposes that the subject

in general is castrated, lacking "the phallus" which

represents whatever it is that the subject thinks will make

13 One inevitably confronts a tangle of concepts and
terms in Lacanian psychoanalysis when trying to elucidate
just one of those concepts or terms. Thus, it is virtually
impossible to explain one concept without referring to
another concept which demands simultaneous elucidation--a
fact which simply reminds us of the complexity of the human
subject, whose structure, like Lacanian psychoanalysis,
often resembles a set of Chinese boxes. In this sense,
Lacanian psychoanalysis teaches the important lesson that
once a subject, a psychoanalytic feminist, for instance,
believes she has understood once and for all, then she
ceases to learn. I realize that in trying to clarify or
explain Lacanian psychoanalysis, I am pretending to speak
the "master discourse," which is inevitable in a
dissertation, a product of the master discourse.

him or her whole. Although the phallus is nothing but a

mark of lack, culture nonetheless imbues it with symbolic

power. From the moment of castration, the moment the

subject becomes a speaking subject, he or she uses language

as if he or she could speak her desire. The speaking

subject is branded by his or her desire which is, in Lacan's

metaphoric terms, "the furrow inscribed in the course; .

the mark of the iron of the signifier on the shoulder of the

speaking subject" (Ecrits 265). The speaking subject,

inscribed by desire, uses language, in Ellie Ragland-

Sullivan's phrase, "to paper over loss."14 Speaking from a

fundamental lack in being, the subject chases an illusive

wholeness, as if an Other (the other that we unconsciously

address when we speak) might fulfill our demand. Thus, the

crucial question in Lacanian psychoanalysis becomes, How

does the subject position herself in relation to lack? How

does she use language in order to position herself in

relation to lack? In other words, how does she live with

her suffering?

According to Lacan, the hysteric unconsciously

positions herself so that she remains wanting. The

hysteric, in Lacan's words, "can sustain her desire only as

14 Quoted from a seminar on Lacan conducted by Ellie
Ragland-Sullivan at the University of Florida, Spring 1987.
Most of my understanding of Lacan comes from what I learned
in this seminar and in her Fall 1987 seminar on feminism and
psychoanalysis. I am indebted to Ellie Ragland-Sullivan for
her teaching of Lacan.

an unsatisfied desire" (The Four Fundamental Concepts of

Psycho-analysis 12). To this end, she demands more of the

Other than the Other can give her, ensuring that she

sustains an unsatisfied desire. Because of the hysteric's

dependence on the Other not to satisfy her desire, the

hysterical structure, as Ragland-Sullivan explains, "depends

on guaranteeing the Other of its continuing authority. The

hysterical subject is defined, then, as one whose

complicitous slavery frames her (his) life" ("Dora and the

Name-of-the-Father" 214). For example, Alex Forrest in the

popular film Fatal Attraction demands more of Dan Gallagher

than he can possibly give her so that she remains enslaved

by his power to deny her demand.

Yet as the hysteric guarantees the Other its authority,

she simultaneously exposes the impotence of the Other, who

cannot fulfill the hysteric's demand. With regard to issues

of power, the hysteric embodies a paradox: she is

enthralled and enthralls at the same time. In their

"exchange" of ideas about Dora's case, Cixous and Clement

discuss the ambiguous nature of the power exchange between

the hysteric and the Other to whom she addresses her

demands. Cixous says that Dora's desire is her strength:

"It all starts with her anguish as it relates to desire and

to the immensity of her desire--therefore, from her

demanding quality. . In what she projects as a demand

for totality, for strength, for certainty, she makes demands

of others in a manner that is intolerable to them and that

prevents their functioning as they function . .(Newly

Born Woman 155). Cixous believes in the revolutionary

possibilities of hysterical desire to disrupt the

patriarchal structures of family and culture, for example,

by exposing the impotence of those structures.

Clement, on the other hand, doubts that hysterical

desire can disrupt familial or cultural structures. Clement

rejects Cixous's claim that hysteria "disturbs

arrangements," arguing that "it introduces dissension, but

it doesn't explode anything at all" because it is already

assimilated into the system that it attempts to disrupt

(Newly Born Woman 156). Once again, we are back to the

dialectic that is plaguing feminist theory: can a female

subject (in this case, the hysteric) resist the structure

that frames her? Cixous believes that she can resist,

whereas Clement believes that she cannot. Jane Gallop

points out that "rather than assume the ambiguity, the two

writers themselves become polarized as advocates of either

the hysteric as contesting or the hysteric as conserving"

(The Daughter's Seduction 134). For Cixous, Dora is a

revolutionary heroine; for Clement, she is a sad victim.

Thus, the hysteric embodies the dilemma of female

subjectivity that has preoccupied feminist theory in the

last fifteen or so years.


Although many psychoanalytic feminists have used Lacan

to explain hysteria, some Lacanians have argued that in the

hands of psychoanalytic feminists who have been trained as

literary critics, not clinicians, hysteria has been emptied

of its importance as a clinical diagnosis. Certainly,

psychoanalytic feminist critics have moved hysteria from the

clinic into the academy, into English and French

departments, where it has assumed a symbolic meaning and

nearly lost its clinical significance. Jacqueline Rose has

warned that we might be "sanitizing the body" of the

hysteric by transforming her real, bodily pain into a mere

symbol of an ontological moment.15 Similarly, Ellie

Ragland-Sullivan argues powerfully that the story of Dora

(Ida Bauer) has been treated as a fiction by some critics,

such as Cixous in The Newly Born Woman, who want to avoid

confronting and understanding the real psychic pain that she

suffers. Ragland-Sullivan says that Ida Bauer's story "is

not the story of Woman, but the story of Ida/Dora whose

suffering and symptoms are somehow cleaned up,

fictionalized, rationalized, tropized and readied for the

American marketplace where neurosis itself remains a

disturbing word" ("Dora and the Name-of-the-Father" 209). I

agree that we must be careful not to romanticize real

15 I am referring here to a remark that Jacqueline Rose
made during a discussion on hysteria at the Conference on
Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Illinois State University, May

psychic pain such as Dora's or Anna O.'s, and that we must

remember that while the image of hysteria may symbolize

woman's social and political position in patriarchy, the

real unconscious effects of hysteria may be socially and

politically debilitating.

Yet it is just as debilitating politically not to

generalize about women's experience. In order to control

the future, we must understand the past, our collective,

historical experience as female subjects. And in order to

write women's history, we must generalize from the

experience of individual women in making statements about

all women. To return to Clement and Cixous for a moment,

Clement criticizes Cixous for abstracting the hysteric's

desire into a symbol of everywoman's desire, an impossible

notion for Clement since desire properly belongs to a single

human subject. She says that Cixous "describes a sort of

collective subject, fictitious, desiring--a huge entity by

turns free and revolutionary or subjugated, by turns

sleeping or awake. .. In reality these aren't subjects"

(158). But this critique is possible because Cixous's

treatment of hysteria is utopian and political--modes of

thought concerned with the history of all women--whereas

Clement's treatment is individual, concerned with the

history of a single subject. Whether Cixous or Clement is

correct may be ultimately beside the point because their

very argument illustrates the seemingly insoluble dilemma of

the split in feminist theory that the hysteric,

representative of the female subject in general, has come to


Desire in Narrative

In order to understand this hysterical double split in

female subjectivity, we may turn to narrative where the

split manifests itself. That is, we may locate the split in

the female subject in narrative, especially when the

narrative is constituted, or inscribed, by male desire. I

do not speak of narrative as a narratologist would, as a

textual entity apart from a perceiving and desiring

subject.16 Teresa de Lauretis identifies the failures of

such approaches to narrative:

The problem, I believe, is that many of the
current formulations of narrative process fail to
see that subjectivity is engaged in the cogs of
narrative and indeed constituted in the relation
of narrative, meaning, and desire; so that the
very work of narrativity is the engagement of the
subject in certain positionalities of meaning and
desire. Or else they fail to locate the relation
of narrative and desire where it takes place,
where that relation is materially inscribed--in a
field of textual practices. Thus, finally, they
fail to envisage a materially, historically, and
experientially constituted subject, a subject
engendered, we might say, precisely by the process
of its engagement in narrative genres. (Alice
Doesn't 105-106)

Following de Lauretis, my assumption throughout this

dissertation will be that narrative engages the subject just

16 See, for example, Roland Barthes, "Introduction to
the Structural Analysis of Narrative," Imaqe--Music--Text,

as the subject is engaged in narrative.17 But we must not

mistake, as we have long mistaken, cultural narratives of

male desire as reflections of universal, human desire.

Since we can trace the effects of the subject's desire

in narrative, the crucial question for feminist theory

becomes, whose desire structures the narrative in question?

Whose wish does the story seek to gratify? Concerning the

story of Oedipus, de Lauretis asks, "But whose desire is it

that speaks, and whom does that desire address? The

received interpretations of the Oedipus story, Freud's among

others, leave no doubt. The desire is Oedipus's, and though

its object may be woman (or Truth or knowledge or power),

its term of reference and address is man: man as social

being and mythical subject, founder of the social order, and

source of mimetic violence . .(Alice Doesn't 112).

Taking the Oedipal story to be paradigmaticc of all

narratives," de Lauretis concludes that narrative structured

by male desire inevitably maps sexual difference and

restricts its readers' identification to two positions: the

male hero as subject, and the female as object and landscape

for his quest. De Lauretis identifies the split, alienated

17 That is not to say that all subjectivity is
narrativity, an assertion which would preclude any effects
of unconscious desire beyond imaginary and symbolic
structures such as narrative. In fact, I will take up this
issue in depth in Chapter Four of this dissertation, where I
am concerned with the disruption of narrative by the real of
unconscious desire.


position of female subjects vis a vis the narrative which is

structured by male desire. According to this theoretical

formulation, the female subject is split between identifying

with the male hero-subject and identifying with the female

object of his quest. Finally, de Lauretis asks, "Do we have

to conclude that all representation of the female subject's

desire is hopelessly caught in this nexus of image and

narrative, in the web of a male Oedipal logic?" (Alice

Doesn't 152). In the following chapters of this

dissertation, I would like to take up de Lauretis's

question, extending her conclusions about desire, narrative,

and gender to an interrogation of one of our culture's

favorite narratives--the nostalgic story.

The Nostalgic Story

Nostalgia etymologically derives from the Greek word

nostos, meaning the return home, and algos, meaning pain or

longing.18 Thus, nostalgia properly means the longing to

return home, the term most likely originating from the story

of Odysseus's longing to return home to Ithaka. Every

individual has a nostalgic story that represents his or her

longing, yet for each nostalgic individual "home" means

something different. Nostalgia, then, is the way that a

human subject mythologizes (that is, explains through

narrative) lack in temporal and spatial terms--the perfect

18 I am grateful to Henry Sullivan for pointing out the
etymology of the term.

moment is always elusively "back then" (e.g., before the

Trojan War) or "over there" (e.g., back in Ithaka). In

general, for every nostalgic subject, "home," placed

elusively in the past or the future, signifies absence,

often figured in images of the maternal body.

Given that nostalgia is the longing to return home,

then certainly that longing means something different to

women who have historically remained already in the home,

while men have ventured out into the world. We know all

about Odysseus's nostalgia, his longing to return home, but

what about Penelope's nostalgia? Feminist theory has yet to

explain the problematic psychic relationship between women

and the idea of home. How are women writers writing about

nostalgia? How do they represent nostalgic desire in their

narratives? In what way is the nostalgic story, with its

embedded Oedipal logic, alienating to the female reader?

And in what ways are hysteria, the longing to long, and

nostalgia, the longing for restitution, at odds with each


In the next chapter, I will argue that the nostalgic

story, taken to be a reflection of universal human

experience and desire, is actually a reflection of male

desire. Considering that the Oedipal narrative of male

desire is embedded within the nostalgic narrative, we would

expect the female subject's identification to be split as it

is in Oedipal narratives. Thus, in the last two chapters of

this study, I will consider how the crisis in defining

women's subjectivity has affected the narrative strategies,

metaphors and themes of contemporary women's writing,

particularly with respect to the nostalgic narrative. In

Chapter Three I will analyze Marilynne Robinson's critique

of the nostalgic story and her attempt to rewrite the

cultural narrative of nostalgia in her novel Housekeeping.

In Chapter Four I will consider the subversion of the

nostalgic narrative by the antithetical, hysterical longing

to long in the avant garde fiction of Kathy Acker.


The unconscious is always cultural and when it
talks it tells you your old stories, it tells you
the old stories you've heard before because it
consists of the repressed of culture.
--Helene Cixous, "Castration or Decapitation?"

The nostalgic story has been a favorite in Western

literary tradition since Homer's Odyssey, the paradigmatic

tale of nostalgia. In this chapter, I will first analyze

the way that nostalgic desire has been romanticized for the

popular imagination in a twentieth century version of

Homer's Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz, which should lead us to a

broader, psychoanalytic understanding of nostalgic desire as

the way a human subject, or a culture, mythologizes loss.

Then, I will ask whether the narrative of nostalgia that we

take to be a universal story of human experience and desire

is more accurately a reflection of masculine experience and

desire, testing my hypothesis against a recent, popular

nostalgic narrative, the film Brazil. The nostalgic story

about the longing to return home to mother, I will argue, is

one of the "technologies of gender" that Teresa de Lauretis

says feminist theory should identify and critique.

Dorothy's Lesson

Serving as a simple allegory of the nostalgic subject's

quest for home, The Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming's 1939

version of L. Frank Baum's story, like all good fairy tales,

begs for psychoanalytic interpretation.' Ostensibly created

for children, the film portrays the horrors of the

unconscious crystallized in a girl's imagination. Dorothy,

the nostalgic subject, has been separated twice from a

maternal figure, "abandoned" both by her biological mother

and her Aunt Em. Her return home, like that of Homer's

Odysseus, is threatened by obstacles which only make her

desire grow more intense. In a scene which parallels

Odysseus's entrapment by the Lotus-eaters, Dorothy and her

companions fall asleep in a field of poppies and nearly

forget their longing to return home. Finally, she learns

that the Wizard of Oz, the powerful master of plenitude and

fantastic phallic signifier, is unveiled as a "castrated"


1 Anticipating Freudian interpretations of The Wizard of Oz,
the film's producer, Mervyn Leroy, tried to head off "the
neurotic probings" of psychoanalytic critics in an editorial
published at the time of the film's release. Leroy claimed that
the film was simply spun from a child's innocent imagination and
had nothing to do with that favorite Freudian preoccupation, sex.
See "Director Leroy Explores a Myth," New York Times 13 Aug.
1939. Rpt in New York Times Encyclopedia of Films. 1937-40. New
York: Times Books, 1984, n. pag. Harvey R. Greenberg, a
psychoanalyst, has written the most thorough psychoanalysic
reading of the film, arguing that the images of good witch and
bad witch represent images of Good Mother and Bad Mother in
Dorothy's psyche.


Before she can return home to Kansas, Dorothy explains

what she has learned in the course of her trials "somewhere

over the rainbow:"

Tinman: What have you learned, Dorothy?

Dorothy: Well, I think that it . it
wasn't enough just to want to see Uncle Henry
and Auntie Em. And it's that, if I ever go
looking for my heart's desire again, I won't
look any further than my own backyard,
because if it isn't there, I never really
lost it to begin with.

With an odd trick of circular logic that would comfort any

nostalgic, Dorothy says that if she ever desires anything

again, she won't look beyond her "own backyard," because if

it's not there, then she never really lost it in the first

place. In other words, if the object of one's desire is not

in the home, then the object was never desired to begin

with. Dorothy's lesson suggests that the totality of home

not only satisfies but nullifies nostalgic desire.

Furthermore, Dorothy's lesson is ultimately an attempt to

endorse the totality of American domesticity, an attempt

which is undercut by the film's return from the brilliant

technicolor of Oz to the grim sepia tones of Kansas.

Nevertheless, this image of domestic and psychic

totality at the end of The Wizard of Oz significantly

contrasts with the many images of lost body parts throughout

the film, represented most obviously in the Tin Man's quest

for a heart and the Scarecrow's quest for a brain. Yet

there are even more terrifying images of lost body parts in


the film: the Scarecrow's straw body is strewn about when

the Wicked Witch's flying monkeys try to stomp him to death;

the Great Oz is a large disembodied head, ultimately

decapitated, or castrated, when Toto pulls the curtain; the

feet of the Wicked Witch of the East shrivel up beneath

Dorothy's house. ("That's all that's left of her," says

Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.) And in Baum's story,

the Tin Man loses his limbs and head when his "enchanted"

axe cuts them off, after which a tinsmith reconstructs his

body. (This explanation for the Tin Man's tinniness was

probably considered too gruesome for the movie.)

The threat of emotional, if not bodily, "dismemberment"

may have been a public fear in 1939, in the wake of the

Great Depression and at a moment when the inevitability of

another world war was giving even Hollywood the jitters.

But the film's theme, the horror of not being whole and the

nostalgic longing for wholeness, has a psychic, as well as

historical and cultural significance, which explains why the

film has sustained an apparently universal appeal ever since

it was released fifty years ago. However, the nightmare of

castration images in The Wizard of Oz suggests that the

dream is less the product of a little girl's imagination

than the product of the imaginations of L. Frank Baum and

the eleven male scriptwriters who worked on the film.

Yet, if the film is about male fears of castration, why

does it seem to have such a universal appeal? The Wizard of

Oz, in fact, may be one of the most popular American media

productions of this century, becoming a ritualized media

event when CBS began annual television broadcasts in 1956

and making it the first feature film broadcast on network

television.2 The fact that the film has been repeatedly

broadcast for the last thirty years explains why allusions

to the film are instantly recognized, as during a dark

rainstorm when someone cries in a high-pitched quavering

voice, "Auntie Em! Auntie Em!" or during a moment of

unanticipated strangeness someone whispers, "Toto, I have a

feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." As one drives east on

the Capital Beltway in suburban Maryland, the tall white

spires of the Mormon temple, resembling those of the Emerald

City, loom into view. On the side of a bridge which crosses

the beltway, someone has spray painted the words "Surrender

Dorothy! "3

My point is that fragments of The Wizard of Oz have

soaked into our cultural memory and discourse (the ruby

2 MGM made more than twice as much by leasing the film to
television than it made at the box offices. CBS held the
contract from 1956 until 1967, then NBC took over the contract.
The film returned to CBS in 1976. See Aljean Harmetz's The
Making of the Wizard of Oz.
3 I would argue that The Wizard of Oz is a product of an age
of "secondary orality," in Walter Ong's terms, an age of
electronic orality which depends on writing. In this sense, the
film resembles Homer's Odyssey, a product of primary orality.
Both The Wizard of Oz and The Odyssey have been disseminated
according to an oral tradition, and both are about the nostalgic
longing to return home.

slippers are on display in the Smithsonian's Museum of

American History in Washington, D. C.), suggesting the

appeal of the nostalgic story, so popular among Americans,

perhaps because we are a nation of unconsciously homesick

immigrants.4 Finally, the fact that Fleming's The Wizard of

Oz, an allegory of the nostalgic subject's longing to return

home, has become a twentieth century cultural phenomenon

attests to the power of Dorothy's lesson, the reassuring

illusion that the return home is possible. "Time has been

powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion,"

claims the epigraph to the film.5

4 Admittedly, it is difficult to prove whether Americans are
more nostalgic than other nationalities. Yet in an article
entitled "Nostalgia and the American," Arthur P. Dudden
challenges the claim that Americans are preoccupied with the idea
of progress, arguing instead that American history suggests that
we are decidedly nostalgic. Dudden cites colonial nostalgia for
British control after the Declaration of Independence, nostalgia
for the Old Republic during the time of Jacksonian democracy, the
nostalgia of Populists and Progressives for an agrarian economy.
He concludes that "important segments of the American people,
though driven like tumbleweed before the buffeting winds of
change and upheaval, attempted to do nothing more than remain
where they stood, to keep old ways familiar, even to flee the
present and the future into a nostalgically golden yesteryear
secluded somewhere far off among remembrances of things past"
(517). In The Country and the City Raymond Williams calls
attention to the relativeness of identifying nostalgic moments in
history, British history in particular. At any moment in
history, some segment of a culture longs for an old order. He
asks, "Is it anything more than a well-known habit of using the
past, the 'good old days', as a stick to beat the present?" (11).

5 Disneyland and Disney World are monumental symptoms of our
nostalgic culture. Disney World recreates the entire world right
in our "own backyard," so that we need travel no further than
Orlando, Florida, to experience Germany, Morocco, China.
Furthermore, like prelapsarian paradise or Oz, everything in
Disneyland and Disney World seems so unreal, or hyperreall" as

Nostalgia and Cultural Longing

The plot structure of The Wizard of Oz resembles that

of Homer's Odyssey, one of the master narratives of Western

culture: an individual ventures out from home (whether

willingly or not), then longs to return home to some

maternal presence, a longing which involves a concomitant

fear of castration. The nostalgic plot structure is so

embedded in our cultural storytelling that it has a mythic--

hence, ideological--significance. In this case, nostalgia

indicates the melancholy "homesickness" of a culture which

tells a nostalgic story to explain a collective loss, in the

way that, for instance, the Judeo-Christian culture tells a

nostalgic story about a lost Eden, some American Southerners

tell a nostalgic story about the Lost Cause, and some

feminists tell a nostalgic story about our lost matriarchal


The popularity of this belief in a recuperable,

illusionary past has provoked critics who treat nostalgia as

a "social disease," drawing on its earliest usage as a

"medical" disease, "a form of melancholia caused by

prolonged absence from one's home or country; severe

Umberto Eco describes it, borrowing the term from Baudrillard,
that nothing is subject to decay or loss. Eco calls Disney World
one of America's "cathedrals of iconic reassurance" in his essay
"Travels in Hyperreality" in Travels in Hyperreality: Essays
(New York: Harcourt, 1986), 3-58.


homesickness" (OED 1945).6 Even though today nostalgia is

obviously not considered a life-threatening disease for

humans, it has retained connotations as a deleterious

"disease." As Christopher Lasch points out in his article

"The Politics of Nostalgia: Losing History in the Mists of

Ideology," "'Nostalgia' was a medical term until this

century, and it has never completely lost its pathological

overtones" (65).

Cultural critics of nostalgia argue that any culture

that believes in the illusion of an idyllic past fails to

see honestly its own faults, and consequently remains

regressively in one place, pining for a past that never was.

Such critics complain about the hegemonic assumption that a

culture's nostalgic story reflects the desires of all its

members. More specifically, the past that may have seemed

6 In his 1688 "Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia," Johannes
Hofer coins the word "nostalgia" to describe the extreme
homesickness of Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. Fred
Davis cites Hofer's article, which was first published in Latin,
then translated into English by Carolyn K. Anspach, Bulletin of
the History of Medicine 2 (1934): 376-91. In the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, according to the OED, several physicians
treated nostalgia as a disease. In 1786, R. Hamilton in his
medical journal refers to the "History of a remarkable Case of
Nostalgia," and in 1806, T. Arnold in his book Insanity refers to
"a variety of pathetic insanity" usually called "nostalgia."
Curiously, in animals and plants, the "disease" was thought to be
fatal. In 1842, J. Wilson describes a pond that has "about half-
a-dozen trouts, if indeed they have not sickened and died of
Nostalgia," and in 1861, the Times describes the concern,
presumably of tree specialists, that transplanted trees "might
not suffer too much from nostalgia." Thus, nostalgia seems to
have been originally treated as a psychological disease, then
assumed an organic significance during the nineteenth century.

ideal for a few upper-class, white, heterosexual men was

less than ideal for the many under-classes, blacks,

homosexuals, and women. Christopher Lasch criticizes both

the nostalgic and the anti-nostalgic for equally

misunderstanding history: the nostalgic idealizes the past

while the anti-nostalgic ignores it. Lasch argues:

Because it is difficult for those who command the
mass media, and increasingly for the educated
classes in general, to imagine a past that is
continuous with the present, they swing between
nostalgia and a violent condemnation of nostalgia,
both of which betray the same sense of
dislocation. Highly susceptible to nostalgia
themselves, they are quick to condemn it in
others. (70)

Too often, Lasch says, critics of nostalgia are quick to

condemn the nostalgic rhetoric of others, without

understanding or admitting the complexities of the issue.

In their book Nostalgia and Sexual Difference Janice Doane

and Devon Hodges argue that Lasch himself naively believes

in an objectively knowable past: "And since he believes he

knows its truth, he believes he cannot be nostalgic. The

implication is that we too could see this substantial

entity, 'history,' if only we were not lost in foggy

polemics and ideological cant" (48). Critiquing Lasch's The

Culture of Narcissism, Doane and Hodges proceed to argue

that Lasch himself is nostalgic for a time before our

twentieth century culture of narcissism. Lasch, they argue,

fails to realize that he too, is subject to desire,

nostalgic desire.

Instead of simply criticizing the nostalgic rhetoric,

Susan Stewart tries to theorize nostalgia, nonetheless

treating it as "a social disease" (On Longing ix). Stewart

conflates the political and personal meanings of nostalgia,

so that it becomes the product of both cultural and

individual mythmaking, which arises from the collision of

desire, time, and narrative:

Nostalgia, like any form of narrative, is always
ideological: the past it seeks has never existed
except as narrative, and hence, always absent,
that past continually threatens to reproduce
itself as a felt lack. Hostile to history and its
invisible origins, and yet longing for an
impossibly pure context of lived experience at a
place of origin, nostalgia wears a distinctly
utopian face, a face that turns toward a future-
past, a past which has only ideological reality.
This point of desire which the nostalgic seeks is
in fact the absence that is the very generating
mechanism of desire. . [T]he realization of
re-union imagined by the nostalgic is a narrative
utopia that works only by virtue of its
partiality, its lack of fixity and closure:
nostalgia is the desire for desire. (23)

First, Stewart asserts that nostalgia is ideological because

it subjects the past to narrative (which Stewart apparently

equates with ideology). Second, nostalgia is hostile to the

facts of history yet longs for an "impossibly pure" moment

in history; hence, it is ambivalent. Third, nostalgia

conflates the past with the future, hoping that the past

will be realized in the future; hence, it is utopian.

Finally, nostalgia is a desire which desires a past that is

absent and lacking, and like a dog chasing its tail, that

absence generates nostalgic desire. Because nostalgia only

"works" if it lacks what it wants, Stewart concludes that

"nostalgia is the desire for desire."

Stewart's reading of nostalgia situates the ambivalent,

utopian desire in culture, yet in doing so she abstracts

nostalgia from the individual human subject to the social

realm. During a recent discussion of subjectivity and

desire, Susan Stewart said that she wanted "a psychoanalysis

without a theory of subjectivity."7 It occurs to me that

when a theorist rejects subjectivity, he or she resorts to

recuperating it in different terms, usually by personifying

abstractions. In order to recuperate a trace of the human

subject, Stewart turns the abstraction itself into a

desiring entity by personifying it. Thus, for instance,

nostalgia "longs," the narrative "desires," and "the printed

word suffers . lack" (Stewart 22). Certainly, nostalgia

functions at both the individual and cultural level; both

individuals and cultures tell nostalgic stories about their

past. Keeping in mind the relationship between nostalgic

desire, narrative, and time that Stewart theorizes, I would

prefer to make a distinction between the individual and

cultural realms, rather than conflating the two as Stewart


It is not enough simply to discredit the nostalgic

story as ideological narrative without understanding how the

7 The discussion was conducted at the University of Florida
in February 1988.

nostalgic story functions and originates in the psyche of

the nostalgic storyteller. Focusing on the way that

nostalgia functions at the level of the human subject, I

would like to look beneath the nostalgic story to the

structure of unconscious desire that gives that narrative

meaning, keeping in mind what Lacan has said about the

relationship between narrative and desire (the Imaginary,

Symbolic, and Real Orders). Ellie Ragland-Sullivan explains

that "Lacan hypothesized that the Oedipal myth (and myth in

general) is simply 'the attempt to give epic form to that

which operates itself from structure' (Seminaire II, p. 51)"

(Jacques Lacan 267). The nostalgic story, like the Oedipal

myth, is likewise an attempt to give unconscious desire an

epic, or narrative, form. I have defined nostalgia as the

way a human subject mythologizes lack, the story that he or

she tells about his or her feelings of loss. iBut if we are

to understand the structure of unconscious desire that gives

rise to the nostalgic story, we need a psychoanalytic theory

of subjectivity.

A Psychoanalysis of Nostalgia and Sexual Difference

Because of its focus on pre-oedipal relations, we

might especially expect psychoanalytic feminists who have

been influenced by object relations theory to be concerned

with the psychological functions of nostalgia. Object

relations theory posits a moment of perfect fusion, like

Eden, from which the pre-oedipal human subject, like

prelapsarian Adam and Eve, falls. For example, Louise J.

Kaplan in her book Oneness and Separateness: From Infant to

Individual describes the inevitable longing that a child

feels for the earliest bond between infant and mother: "The

child will long to restore the primary bliss of oneness,

when the harmony inside him was like being an angel baby in

the lap of a Madonna" (119). In the terms of object

relations theory, "home" for the nostalgic subject is that

lost moment of fusion with the mother, an idea which is

exemplified by the title of Winnicott's collection of

essays, Home is Where We Start From. In the opening of the

essay "The Mother's Contribution to Society" Winnicott

states: "I suppose that everyone has a paramount interest,

a deep, driving propulsion towards something. . As for

me, I can already see what a big part has been played in my

work by the urge to find and to appreciate the ordinary good

mother" (123). Starting from home, Winnicott's own career

figuratively, nostalgically, takes him back home toward "the

ordinary good mother," the subject of most of his writing.

Nancy Chodorow, however, proves that "the ordinary good

mother" that Winnicott was looking for is constructed by

unconscious social conditioning within the family.

In The Reproduction of Mothering Chodorow revises

Freud's account of the pre-oedipal phase of psychic

development and argues that a girl does not simply and

completely transfer her affection from mother to father as a


boy does, because the girl's attachment to the mother is not

perceived as a threat to the father-mother relation, and

because the mother desires the bond. Citing clinical

studies, Chodorow argues that the mother encourages

symbiosis with her daughter by treating her as "the self of

the mother's fantasy," whereas "boys become the other"

(103). Because she maintains a psychic attachment to her

mother, a girl develops more "permeable ego boundaries" and

"greater relational capacities." Girls, then, carry this

ability to merge with an other into their relations with the


Although Chodorow does not speak of nostalgia per se,

we might successfully extend her feminist theory of object

relations toward a psychoanalytic understanding of nostalgia

and sexual difference. For Chodorow, as for Winnicott and

Kaplan, the human subject is a nostalgic subject: "people

come out of [the earliest period of infantile development]

with the memory of a unique intimacy which they want to

8 Chodorow's theories have significantly influenced the
pattern of thought in various areas of feminist inquiry. In her
book In a Different Voice Carol Gilligan applies Chodorow's
theory to ethics, arguing that girls experience a different moral
development from boys. Applying Chodorow's theory to the history
of science, Evelyn Fox Keller has argued that because women
interact differently from men with the "objective" world, they
practice science differently (Reflections on Gender and Science.
New Haven: Yale UP, 1985). Similarly, Sherry Turkle in The
Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit applies Chodorow's
theory to her observations about the difference between girls'
and boys' interactions with computers (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1984).


recreate" (57). In other words, the separation from mother

is a kind of psychic venturing out, which creates a

nostalgia for intimacy that propels the human subject along

until he or she recreates it.9 If men separate more

abruptly from their mothers than women do, psychically

venturing further away from "home," so to speak, we might

expect men to be more nostalgic than women.

In fact, several psychological studies suggest that men

are more nostalgic than women.10 In Yearning for Yesterday:

A Sociology of Nostalgia, Fred Davis interprets these

studies in sociological terms, claiming that men are more

nostalgic because they experience "a more disruptive and

discontinuous life passage than do the equivalent and

complementary status transitions in the woman's life cycle."

According to Davis, "traditionally women's status passages

occur in the familiar and reassuring context of home,

9 In his Jungian analysis of nostalgia and archetypes of
paradise, Mario Jacoby, a psychotherapist, explains human psychic
development in terms of nostalgic longing. Jacoby burdens the
mother with having "a decisive influence on whether her child's
initial experiences savor more of 'Paradise' or of 'Hell'"
(viii). According to Jacoby, early in our development we
experience a sense of paradise, a "unitary reality," which
creates "a nostalgia the intensity of which is in inverse
proportion to the amount of external fulfillment encountered in
the earliest phase of life" (8). That is, our nostalgic longing
will be greater if we were less emotionally satisfied by our
mothers as infants.

10 Fred Davis cites Charles A. A. Zwingmann, "'Heimweh' or
'Nostalgic Reaction': A Conceptual Analysis and Interpretation
of a Medico-Psychological Phenomenon," diss., Stanford U, 1959,
151 (Davis 55).

family, and kin, whereas those of men are more likely to

involve abrupt shifts of locale, reference group, life style

and interpersonal atmospheres" (55-56). In other words, men

are more nostalgic than women because they have historically

spent most of their time outside the home. Obviously, then,

the difference that Davis describes is not a function of

biology but of our culture's response to the biological

differences between the sexes.

Although Chodorow's theory of object relations accounts

for the difference between the nostalgia of men and the

nostalgia of women, it unfortunately posits a normative

model of human development against which it explains and

measures psychological "aberrations." For instance,

Chodorow claims that whenhn there is some major discrepancy

in the early phases between needs and (material and

psychological) care, including attention and affection, the

person develops a 'basic fault,' an all-pervasive sense,

sustained by enormous anxiety, that something is not right,

is lacking in her or him" (59). According to Lacanian

theory, however, the wish for intimacy, the wish for a

perfect fusion between mother and infant, is never more than

an illusion of a dream of oneness--and that fact constitutes

our alienation and desire.11 The sense of lack that

11 In Lacanian terms, the norm, which Chodorow posits, is
itself perverse. There are many other differences between object
relations theory and Lacanian psychoanalysis, the most obvious
difference being the importance of language in Lacanian theory.
In her book Psychoanalytic Criticism Elizabeth Wright explains


Chodorow describes as the result of "some major discrepancy"

between needs and care is a fundamental constituent of human

subjectivity--not the result of a mistake in upbringing.

This sense of lack is the result of a necessary symbolic

castration, instituted by the father's prohibiting the

mother from being the object of the infant's desire, or

"phallus." As Lacan says of psychoanalysis, ". . it comes

as no surprise to note that, whereas the first outcome of

its origins was a conception of the castration complex based

on paternal repression, it has progressively directed its

interests towards the frustrations coming from the mother.

." (Feminine Sexuality 87). It is also not surprising that

we would find images of castration in nostalgic stories

where a subject longs to return home to the plenitude that

the mother once signified.

A Reading of a Nostalgic Narrative

The idea of home may be romanticized in The Wizard of

Oz, where the return to a maternal presence is possible, but

in other contemporary treatments of nostalgia, tainted by

modern and postmodern cynicism, the return is not so

idealized. There are, of course, several important

representations of homecomings in twentieth century

literature. Leopold Bloom returns to Molly in Joyce's

that unlike Lacanian theory object relations theory does not
consider the importance of language in the development of human
subjectivity (107).

Ulysses; George Webber learns that "you can't go home again"

in Thomas Wolfe's novel by that name, yet the novel ends

with a vision of George leading America "back home" to the

ideals it once possessed. Contemporary treatments of

homecomings seem more bitter not only about the

impossibility of returning home but also about the emotional

hazards of attempting to return. In Harold Pinter's The

Homecoming, a son returns from America with his wife to his

family in England only to have them claim his wife as their

prostitute, and in Sam Shepard's Buried Child a son returns

with his girlfriend to his family who do not recognize


12 I consider "the homecoming" as a trope by which
nostalgia in a narrative is expressed. The pastoral is
another trope which expresses the nostalgia for a rural
past, an allusion to the lost Garden of Eden. In The
Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in
America, Leo Marx analyzes the use of the pastoral
throughout American literature, and identifies "the yearning
for a simpler, more harmonious style of life, an existence
'closer to nature,' that is the psychic root of all
pastoralism--genuine and spurious. That such desires are
not peculiar to Americans goes without saying; but our
experience as a nation unquestionably has invested them with
peculiar intensity. The soft veil of nostalgia that hangs
over our urbanized landscape is largely a vestige of the
once dominant image of an undefiled, green republic, a quiet
land of forests, villages, and farms dedicated to the
pursuit of happiness" (6). In The Lay of the Land:
Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and
Letters, Annette Kolodny, like Leo Marx, points out that the
European tradition became more that just a literary fantasy
with the discovery of America, the New Eden. Kolodny,
however, considers the implications and consequences of the
fact that the landscape of the New Eden was treated
linguistically and psychically as a woman. She says that
"the move to America was expressed as the daily reality of
what has become its single dominating metaphor: regression
from the cares of adult life and a return to the primal

In Terry Gilliam's film Brazil, nostalgia is

represented explicitly as a longing to return to some

fulfilling maternal presence, painfully realized in the end

to be impossible, a realization which is imaged as a

figurative castration. Released in 1984, Brazil is a

postmodern pastiche of our culture's favorite preoccupations

with Oedipal desire, power and authority, masculinity. It

may seem odd to use a dystopian film to talk about

nostalgia, considering that, by definition, dystopian films,

such as 1984 and the Mad Max series, are about the future.

But such nightmarish visions of the future inevitably and

nostalgically endorse the present, by representing the

present as a preferable past to a catastrophic future. For

instance, the television mini-series Amerika, which

envisioned the United States after a Russian invasion,

inevitably endorsed the Reagan-era present, which seemed

delightful by comparison. Here we see most obviously the

ideological implications of the nostalgic myth.

Fredric Jameson, however, argues that catastrophic

visions of the near future have lost their effect because

they seem too familiar and "no longer strike us with the

horror of otherness or radical difference" ("Nostalgia for

the Present" 525). Perhaps this is why Brazil plays with

the conventions of the dystopian film, in typically

warmth of womb or breast in a feminine landscape" (6).

postmodern fashion, mixing futuristic yet decrepit

technology with the horror of present-day terrorism and the

fashion of the forties. Brazil, then, steps out of the trap

that is set for typical dystopian films--the trap of

endorsing the present--by representing a pastiche of past,

present, and future. The central preoccupation in Brazil is

not necessarily with a moment in cultural history but with

the protagonist's desire to recuperate an imagined moment in

his own history. We enter and exit the film though Sam

Lowry's dreams.

Sam Lowry's longing in Brazil is to "return home" to

his mother's body. His quest is, first, to admit that he

desires, and then to figure out what the object of his

desire is. Early in the film when his mother, exasperated

that he won't accept the promotion that she has arranged for

him, asks him what he wants, Sam says, "I don't want

anything," which later in the film becomes, "I don't know

what I want." Most obviously Sam desires the woman that he

pursues in his dreams, the woman who, in his waking life, he

mistakenly believes is Jill Layton. The real Jill is a

rough, gutsy woman who (unlike Sam himself) fearlessly

defies the rules of the monstrous, totalitarian bureaucracy.

She is, in other words, the antithesis of the parodically

feminine image that Sam Lowry conjures in his dreams. In

fact, Sam imaginatively attempts to remake Jill in the image

of his "dream girl": as he stares at a photo of the real

Jill Layton--the one without makeup, the one whose hair is

cropped short--he absentmindedly sketches in long hair to

make her resemble the woman in his dreams.

Sam at least imaginatively succeeds in transmuting

Jill's identity when he stealthily erases her file from the

Information Retrieval computer. He returns to his mother's

apartment where Jill has been hiding and he tells her that

he has eradicated her identity: "You don't exist anymore,"

he says. "I've killed you. Jill Layton is dead." And, in

fact, the real Jill Layton, the one that we knew earlier in

the film, is in a sense dead, for now she has assumed a new

identity along with a new appearance: standing across from

Sam, on the other side of his mother's bed, Jill now wears

his mother's wig and his mother's nightgown. Sam's real

desire, his nostalgia for his mother's body, his "return

home," is consummated in his mother's bed.

The conflation in Sam's mind of these two identities,

lover and mother, is complete when Jill metamorphoses into

his mother. This moment is brilliantly executed when Sam,

in his final dream, approaches a woman who appears (to Sam

and to us) to be his mother--she's wearing the unmistakable

boot for a hat. But when she turns around, we see Jill's

body and face but his mother's voice, hair, dress. At the

end of this vision, Sam and Jill (now his mother/lover)

return to a cozy little home nestled in the ruins of the

wasteland. But while Dorothy's return to Auntie Em in her

Kansas home is real, Sam's return home is just an illusion.

(That is, Dorothy wakes from her dream of Oz into

romanticized "reality," while Sam wakes from his

romanticized dream into nightmarish reality.) In reality,

Jill is killed because of Sam's mistakes as he inadvertently

leads the police to his mother's flat. When the police

storm the bedroom, they execute Jill (we hear a shot) and

arrest Sam, who is eventually tortured into idiocy. Sam's

remaking of Jill Layton suggests that, carried to the

extreme, the nostalgic impulse necessarily involves violence

toward, or even the destruction of, the idealized object of

desire, often some maternal figure or metaphor for the

mother's body.13 According to the film, nostalgic desire

destroys the object of desire as well as castrates the

nostalgic. At one point, Sam's friend Jack, the torturer at

Information Retrieval, gives Sam a more attractive suit to

wear. The torturer's young daughter, who is quietly playing

with her dolls, looks at Sam and says, "Put it on, big boy.

I want to cut your willy." The scene connects the girl's

threat of castration with her father's torture of Sam at the

end of the film, which we read as the final castration.

13 In his psycho-marxist reading of Brazil, Fred Glass
argues that the ending of the film suggests that political
change is possible only if one steers "clear of the
everpresent temptation to fantasize one's way toward a
solution" (25).

Part of the horror of this dystopian vision of the

future is the blurring of gender distinctions which

consequently emasculates the men in film. Jill Layton is

more of a "man" in the conventional sense than the male

authority figures in the film. Sam's immediate boss, Mr.

Kurtzmann, a "short man," is completely dependent on Sam,

perhaps even enamored by him. When Kurtzmann asks Sam to

sign some papers, he wags his right hand whining, "My wrist

is all limp." Even the main patriarch in the film, the

Deputy Minister, is an image of masculine impotence.

Confined to a wheelchair, Mr. Helpmann must ask Sam during a

party to help him urinate by standing him in front of a

urinal. Archibald Tuttle, the renegade repairman,

represents the only "real man" in the film, fixing Sam's air

conditioner, then disappearing into the night. Although

Tuttle appears to be a mythic hero, rescuing Sam in his

final dream from the Information Retrieval's torture

chamber, Tuttle is finally ineffective against the system.

We might expect that the men are emasculated by the

powerful, oppressive totalitarian system, as is the case in

George Orwell's 1984. Remarkably, the patriarchy depicted

in Brazil, like the Wizard of Oz, is ultimately impotent, an

impotence symbolized by the phallic ducts which snake

through every scene in the film as if to suggest that the

patriarchy is choking itself with its own phallic posturing.

The system flexes its muscle with exaggerated and bumbling


shows of force, such as when the police invade the Buttles'

home, interrupting their quiet Christmas evening together,

to arrest the wrong man, or when the doormen at a party

rough up Sam, slamming him against a wall and shoving guns

in his face.

Insofar as ineffectual patriarchs and heroes are

surrogates for Sam's absent father, then the issue of Sam's

manhood is entwined with the issue of paternity. As in The

Wizard of Oz, another tale of absent and impotent fathers,

the film is rife with images of impotence which signify the

castrating realization that the return to origins, to the

mother's body, is impossible. In their book Nostalgia and

Sexual Difference, Janice Doane and Devon Hodges claim that

feminism is the target of male narratives that depict the

horrors of gender confusion brought on by the women's

movement. Drawing on Roland Barthes' definition of

storytelling as the Oedipal search for origins, they

interpret John Irving's The World According to Garp as a

"meditation on the death of the father" and the rise of

women, "particularly the rise of the mother to power." Like

Irving's Garp, Gilliam's Brazil laments the death of the

father and the rise of the mother who is empowered by Sam

Lowry's own nostalgic longing. In fact, Lowry's quest leads

him simultaneously to a paralyzing maternal presence and

emasculating paternal absence.14

Nostalgia and Gender

Although their discussion of the relationship between

nostalgia and the quest for paternal origins illuminates our

understanding of the nostalgic narrative in general, Doane

and Hodges, like Susan Stewart, are more concerned with a

socio-political critique of nostalgia than with a

psychoanalytic understanding of the desire. In fact,

although they briefly mention desire, Doane and Hodges are

more interested in the linguistic than in the psychic origin

and function of nostalgia. Employing a Derridean critique

of nostalgia, they contend that nostalgia is a "rhetorical

strategy" which depends on a hierarchy of opposition,

present to past, present to future. They introduce the

issue of gender, which Susan Stewart ignores for the most

part, by arguing that nostalgic male fiction and nonfiction

writers long for a moment before the women's movement

challenged the patriarchal assumption that sexual difference

14 Brazil, like The Wizard of Oz, is a restaging of
Odysseus's dramatic journey. In his critical introduction
to The Fictional Father: Lacanian Readings of the Text,
Robert Con Davis argues that the Odyssey is a "staging of
the Lacanian scene" in which the absent father [Odysseus for
Telemachus and Zeus for Odysseus] generates desire which
generates the narrative. Davis asserts that "In terms of
the narrative theory we are evolving, the [castration] wish
is precisely the evocation of lack in narration, and the law
is the principle by which lack is articulated" (10). We can
see the same relationship between desire, castration, and
narrative in both The Wizard of Oz and Brazil.

was "natural" and "fixed" (7). Doane and Hodges point out

that "nostalgic writers locate [a woman's] place in a past

in which women 'naturally' function in the home to provide a

haven of stability that is linguistic as well as psychic:

nostos, the return home" (14).

They demonstrate in the rest of their study how

nostalgic male writers are urging women back into the home,

arguing that several sixties and seventies male novelists

use the figure of the Amazon in order to provoke nostalgia

for a time when sexual difference was fixed, and that

nonfiction polemics against feminism, such as Brigitte and

Peter Berger's sociology of the family, The War Over the

Family: Capturing the Middle Ground, attack feminism for

undermining the nuclear family.15

Unlike Doane and Hodges, I am less interested in the

way that nostalgia is used as a political tool by male

writers (or female writers, for that matter). I am more

concerned with the psychic realities and the aesthetic

representations of nostalgia in women's writing,

particularly the way that nostalgia, the longing for

reunion, is subverted by an antithetical longing for loss,

which I will discuss in later chapters. I would prefer to

15 Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1987) could be considered, at
least in part, another nostalgic polemic against feminism.
Had the book been published earlier, Doane and Hodges would
have probably included it in their discussion.

ask whether the aesthetic representations of nostalgic

desire (i.e., Odysseus' longing to return to Ithaka,

Dorothy's longing to return to Kansas, Sam Lowry's longing

to return to his mother's body) are stories of universal

human experience and desire. If men are more nostalgic than

women, which Chodorowian object relations suggests, then the

nostalgic stories that our culture tells may simply be

masculine treatments of the desire, another instance of the

masculine masquerading as the universal.

In "Castration or Decapitation?" Helene Cixous claims

that man "cannot live without resigning himself to loss. He

has to mourn. It's his way of withstanding castration"

(54). According to Cixous, the threat of castration

establishes an economy of desire that differs for men and

women. Because men live under the threat of castration they

mourn "in order to recover the investment made in the lost

object" (54). Woman, on the other hand, "does not mourn,

does not resign herself to loss. She basically takes up the

challenge of loss in order to go on living: she lives it,

gives it life, is capable of unsparing loss. She does not

hold onto loss, she loses without holding on to loss" (54).

Since the nostalgic story is a narrative that explains an

individual's loss, then men, who mourn under the threat of

castration, generate a nostalgic story different from the

story generated by women. Certainly we may find nostalgic

stories written by women, but we might not expect to find in


women's nostalgic narratives the anxiety of castration which

seems to characterize male narratives of nostalgic longing.

Jamaica Kincaid, for one, writes fantastic narratives

which are propelled by nearly overwhelming nostalgic desire,

stories which are steeped in a longing for a return home to

a mother's presence. Her short story "In the Night" records

the dreamy musings of a little girl before she falls asleep

and closes with the girl's lyrical prophecy of her own

future. She says,

Now I am a girl, but one day I will marry a
woman--a red-skin woman with black bramblebush
hair and brown eyes, who wears skirts that are so
big I can easily bury my head in them. I would
like to marry this woman and live with her in a
mud hut near the sea. . Every night I would
sing this woman a song; the words I don't know
yet, but the tune is in my head. This woman I
would like to marry knows many things, but to me
she will only tell about things that would never
dream of making me cry; and every night, over and
over, she will tell me something that begins,
"Before you were born." I will marry a woman like
this, and every night, every night, I will be
completely happy.
(At the Bottom of the River 11-12)

The speaker's desire in this passage is simultaneously

prophetic and nostalgic. Longing for a reunionn with a

maternal woman, the girl desires the restoration, in the

future, of a moment in the past--a moment of happy fusion

with her mother--that could only have been an illusion.

I have argued that nostalgia exists in the realm of

demand, articulated desire; and I have defined nostalgia as

the way a human subject mythologizes lack. Thus, it is not


surprising that the girl's nostalgic desire in this passage

intersects with narrative. The girl says that she will sing

to the woman she marries, although she does not yet know the

words. And more importantly, she imagines that the woman

she marries will tell her stories that begin with the

quintessentially nostalgic opening: "Before you were born."

The nostalgia that Jamaica Kincaid represents at the

end of her short story is the homoerotic desire of a woman

for another woman. A woman's nostalgic desire, I would

suggest, may ultimately be a homoerotic desire. Carol

Christ describes a "longing for the mother" in Adrienne

Rich's explicitly lesbian love poetry as a "homesickness,"

which I would call nostalgia.16 Lacan has said that the

lesbian relation is the only sexual relation that is not

perverse--that is, pere vers, toward the father. Lesbian

desire, like nostalgic desire, is on the side of the mother,

but lacks the anxiety of castration that male nostalgic

desire involves, at least insofar as that anxiety is

manifested on an imaginary level in narrative. Although it

is the most obvious and, ironically, rarest expression of

woman's nostalgic desire, the lesbian relation is only one

16 I am not saying that a woman's nostalgia may
necessarily be consummated sexually with another woman, nor
am I claiming that all lesbian love is nostalgic. I am
arguing, however, that an expression of woman's nostalgic
desire may be lesbian.

of several ways a feminine subject may position herself in

relation to loss.

Doane and Hodges conclude their study of nostalgia and

sexual difference with a utopian gesture toward a radically

feminist disruption of the nostalgic story: "By embracing

the subversive possibilities of language, feminist theorists

can undermine nostalgic rhetoric, leaving cultural

definitions of masculinity and femininity in play, rather

than in place" (142). Since they do not specify how

feminist theory can undermine nostalgic rhetoric, I am

tempted here to take up the issue where they conclude,

celebrating lesbian desire as both imitative and subversive

of masculine nostalgic desire. However, I recognize the

traps, particularly the risk of essentialism, that such an

argument entails. As Teresa de Lauretis warns in

Technologies of Gender, feminists tend to inscribe their

argument of sexual difference within an ancient frame of

oppositions--woman becomes merely difference from man. With

the precision of a mathematical proof, de Lauretis argues

that "the construction of gender is both the product and the

process of its representation" (5). Applying her conclusion

to the issue of nostalgia, I would argue that

representations of nostalgic desire--by men or women--

construct gender as much as they are constructed by it. In

other words, the nostalgic narrative becomes one of the

"technologies" by which gender is constructed.

We return, then, to the issue in feminist theory

described in Chapter One: how can feminist theory "speak"

about gender, sexuality, and subjectivity within the

conceptual and textual frame determined by male desire but

presented as universal desire? De Lauretis describes the

problem perplexing feminist theorists:

The problem, which is a problem for all feminist
scholars and teachers, is one we face almost daily
in our work, namely, that most of the available
theories of reading, writing, sexuality, ideology,
or any other cultural production are built on male
narratives of gender, whether oedipal or anti-
oedipal, bound by the heterosexual contract;
narratives which persistently tend to re-produce
themselves in feminist theories. They tend to,
and will do so unless one constantly resists,
suspicious of their drift. Which is why the
critique of all discourses concerning gender,
including those produced or promoted as feminist,
continues to be as vital a part of feminism as is
the ongoing effort to create new spaces of
discourse, to rewrite cultural narratives, and to
define the terms of another perspective--a view
from "elsewhere." (The Technology of Gender 25)

I would include the nostalgic story, with its embedded

Oedipal logic, its quest for origin and its images of

castration, as one of our culture's "male narratives of

gender." Such a narrative is inevitably alienating for the

female reader or listener who is caught between identifying

with the male nostalgic and identifying with the female

object of his desire. I believe we can locate that

identificatory split with respect to the nostalgic story in

the narratives of some contemporary women writers. More

than any other contemporary writer, Marilynne Robinson has


dedicated her writing, both fiction and nonfiction, to

critiquing that nostalgic story. Robinson's novel

Housekeeping, I will argue, is an attempt to rewrite the

cultural narrative of nostalgia and "to define the terms

from another perspective--a view from 'elsewhere.'"


For dreams are derived from the past in every
sense. Nevertheless the ancient belief that
dreams foretell the future is not wholly devoid of
truth. By picturing our wishes as fulfilled,
dreams are after all leading us into the future.
But this future, which the dreamer pictures as the
present, has been moulded by this indestructible
wish into a perfect likeness of the past.
--Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only
brilliant memory.
--Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

"I am profoundly discontent with the present state of

our civilization," says Marilynne Robinson in a recent essay

("Sigmund Freud" 248). Robinson's complaint is with

intellectuals, contemporary writers and educators who

romanticize the past in such a way that they fail to see the

grim realities of the present. Robinson, herself an

intellectual, writer, and part-time educator, contends that

under the spell of nostalgia, American intellectuals

idealize their European forebears, uncritically consuming

their ideas, therefore refusing to recognize their faults or

to hold them responsible. Marilynne Robinson's discontent

with civilization has a distressingly real referent: the

British government's massive dumping of plutonium into the

Irish and North Seas. Since Americans have nostalgically

romanticized their "mother country," she argues, they have

failed to hold Britain accountable for its atrocious

transgression against the world's environment. Robinson

concludes her essay "Culture and Spirit" with a bitter,

apocalyptic prognosis for civilization: "The sea cannot

bear the burden that has been thrust on it, which spreads

farther with every current and is carried ashore by every

wind. . Time might put it right, but we ended time, or

we let the British do it, while we were busy with our little

righteousness, our little scorn" (102).

In this chapter, I would like first to consider

Marilynne Robinson's discontent with civilization,

specifically her critique of "the nostalgic fallacy," which

she has pursued most directly in recent essays. In light of

the concerns that she sets forth in these essays,

Housekeeping may be considered an aesthetic representation

of the critique of the nostalgic fallacy and an attempt to

rewrite the cultural narrative of nostalgia. Finally, I

will analyze some of the political uses and implications of

Robinson's critique of nostalgia, especially considering her

crusade to stop the plutonium dumping in Britain.

The Nostalgic Fallacy

Marilynne Robinson published Housekeeping, her first

and only novel so far, nearly a decade ago. Housekeeping

has been acclaimed by reviewers and scholars who have tried

to describe its extraordinary quality and explain the

implications of its message.1 Although her novel met with

much praise and study, in her most recent writing Robinson

has turned from fiction to the essay in order to warn the

world that Britain is killing us. The promotional note for

her recently published book Mother Country, an expose of the

plutonium dumping, says that Robinson "has turned from

imagery and story to a subject her sense of reality couldn't

avoid." Despite this turn from fiction to nonfiction,

Robinson's corpus may be read as a piece. The issues that

she treats in her novel Housekeeping are tested against the

political realities that she contends with in Mother

Country. Her work in fiction and nonfiction, I will argue,

is ultimately unified around a single pursuit--a debunking

of the nostalgic myth.

Robinson launches her most direct and sustained

critique of nostalgic rhetoric in her essay "Writers and the

1 Housekeeping has received significant scholarly attention,
particularly from feminist critics who, one way or another,
identify the radical implications of the novel. Joan Kirkby
claims that the novel "challenges the nature-culture dichotomy
characteristic of much American thought" (91). Elizabeth Meese
concludes her Derridean reading of the novel by arguing that
Robinson "maps a shadowy territory between difference and
sameness, preparing us for an existence predicated on hope and
defined only by uncertainty" (68). Thomas Foster applies
Kristeva's theory of women's time to the novel in order to argue
that Housekeeping "shows how an analysis like Kristeva's might
organize a narrative of women's resistance to the historical
limitations imposed on them" (74). Roberta Rubenstein's object
relations reading of the novel focuses on Ruth's initiation into
Sylvie's world. Rubenstein argues that Ruth and Sylvie's
transiency "can be understood as a capacity to transcend all
enclosures that impede the achievement of a relational selfhood
in terms not restrictively dependent on gender" (227).

Nostalgic Fallacy." In this essay, Robinson responds to a

criticism made by writers Robert Dunn and E. L. Doctorow

that American writers lack "a sense of history" and fail to

achieve "political seriousness."2 Robinson argues that the

problem is not that contemporary writers lack a sense of

history or politics but that they fallaciously confuse

history with an old myth, and dress that myth in political

rhetoric. There is a difference between clinging to an

artificial idea of the past and having a sense of history,

Robinson notes:

while we have no sense of history, we are
enchanted by a myth of history, a truly venerable
fable, which goes like this: Once the world was
as it ought to be, then came the Catastrophe,
after which we have toiled in twilight, lost and
downcast. No one knows how old that story is, but
it has never been more passionately believed than
it is now. (1)

As cultural storytellers, Robinson argues, we seem

preoccupied with positing a Golden Age in our past in which

all was good and innocent, a moment before our knowledge of

pain and suffering, before the Catastrophe, which "can be

situated between any present moment and any other whose

imputed qualities mark it as prelapsarian" (1). For

2 Although she ostensibly focuses on contemporary writers in
this essay, Robinson treats them as verbal representatives of our
whole culture, so that she is ultimately concerned with the
nostalgia of a culture, not particular writers. In extrapolating
from contemporary writers to the entire culture, Robinson relies
on first person-plural pronouns, as she does throughout her non-
fiction. Unfortunately, the use of "we," "our," "us" tends to
alienate rather than include the reader and lends her non-fiction
prose an off-putting, even pious, tone.

instance, Robinson says, it is common to consider the

fifties as a Golden Age before the turmoil of the sixties.

But for those who are fond of remembering the fifties as a

time of innocence, Robinson points out that "We 50's

children were sold little identification tags of heat-

resistant metal, presumably to be sifted from the ashes of

our grade school, whose windows, in the event of atomic

attack, would fly into shards and slash us to death if we

forgot to crouch under our desks" (34). Considering the

palpable sense of fear that the age provoked in Americans,

Robinson says, the idea that the 50's were a time of

innocence "is nonsense--another version, now that the decade

be viewed from a safe distance, of the myth of the Fall"

(34). The myth of the Fall, then, is another trope, like

the pastoral or the homecoming, which figures nostalgic

desire in cultural narratives.

This pervasive myth of the Fall structures our

understanding of history in such a way that the stories we

tell about the past tend to follow this ancient plot. The

myth even structures our understanding of literary history.

Robinson identifies the nostalgic fallacy in the common

definition of modernism:

The idea at the heart of modernism is that once
beauty and meaning bloomed in the meadows of
experience, heigh-ho: viz., the fine things they
said and the pretty things they made. Look where
you will, you will find no such dewy meadows in
this world. Therefore, everything has somehow
changed disastrously. Consciousness is a
nuisance, a fright, a disappointment--this is

something new under the sun, the 'modern'
condition. A premodern consciousness was,
presumably, as sound and shapely as a good pear.
This notion is so widely approved it hardly seems
to require proof--yet starting at Gilgamesh and
reading forward, I find no evidence that
consciousness has ever been a comfortable
experience. (34)

According to nostalgic view of literary history which

Robinson critiques here, everything was fine until thinkers

such as Freud, Nietzsche, and Einstein turned our world view

upside down, forcing us to jettison all our comfortable

beliefs about human nature and the universe.3 Robinson

would have us question the way this nostalgic fallacy

structures our most common understanding of literary


Robinson's contention that we recreate history,

literary or otherwise, to suit our needs comes as no news to

those who are versed in contemporary theories of history and

metahistory. Robinson ultimately speaks as a writer to

writers in this essay, "Writers and the Nostalgic Fallacy,"

locating the problem, the perpetuation and perdurability of

old assumptions such as the nostalgic fallacy, in the

tendentiousness of the language of contemporary experience.

"I think it is the tired assumptions we try to build on and

the cumbered and self-referential language we use that keep

us in a narrow space, lamenting," she contends (1).

3 This is, incidentally, a version of literary history that
I was taught in sophomore literature surveys, and have, in turn,
taught sophomore literature students.


Robinson has devoted her writing to debunking cultural myths

that are based on "tired assumptions" and revitalizing our

cumberedd and self-referential language." For example, as a

regular contributor to the "About Books" column in the New

York Times Book Review, Robinson in one of her essays

challenged the assumption that the ordinary reader is not

patient or intelligent enough to read difficult prose or

poetry; and in another essay she called for "the

remystification of virtually everything" by reinstituting

the power of metaphor, which seems to have been stripped

from our everyday language by a scientific urge to explain

away mysteries.4

Robinson rejects the popular minimalist language which,

in its superrealistic urge to represent the minute details

of contemporary life, "makes images of banality out of banal

language," a gesture that she likens to "robbing the poor"

or "beating the mad" (34). (In a review of Raymond Carver's

collection of short stories, Robinson compared Carver,

considered the father of minimalism, to "the poet William

Carlos Williams, who declared there were 'no ideas but in

things,' and who turned banality's pockets out and found all

4 In her essay "Language is Smarter Than We Are," Robinson
writes: "Bad assumptions are never better than no assumptions at
all. And I am persuaded that among all the constellated forms of
describable relationships in the world, there are mists in which
we do not yet see configuration. These should neither be denied
nor subsumed in other ways of perceiving" (8). I am arguing that
Robinson's corpus is dedicated to exposing "bad assumptions."

their contents beautiful" ["Marriage" 40]). In her own

fiction writing, Robinson has tried to find a fresh, poetic

language that resists repeating the same, worn assumptions

which reinforce old myths, such as the nostalgic myth of the


To find a new language for a new kind of novel is
a thing I have long aspired to do. No luck yet.
When I wrote "Housekeeping" some five years ago, I
made a world remote enough to allow me to choose
and control the language out of which the story
was to be made. It was a shift forced on me by
the intractability of the language of contemporary
experience--which must not be confused with
contemporary experience itself. Merely speak the
word 'suburb,' for example, and an entire world
springs to mind, prepared for our understanding by
sociologists and cultural commentators and
novelists, good and bad. The language of present
experience is so charged with judgment and
allusion and intonation that it cannot be put to
any new use or forced along any unaccustomed path.
The story it wants to tell I do not want to tell.

One of the stories that contemporary language tells, says

Robinson, is the myth of the Fall, the nostalgic story.

Housekeeping is an attempt to write outside that myth, to

force language along another path in order to tell a story

that is different from the nostalgic story.

Robinson's search to find a "new language for a new

kind of novel" may be considered part of what de Lauretis

describes as the ongoing feminist effort "to create new

spaces of discourse, to rewrite cultural narratives and to

define the terms of another perspective--a view from

'elsewhere'" (Technologies 25).5 Whether or not Robinson

considers herself a feminist writer, in its attempt to

rewrite an ancient cultural narrative of loss, Housekeeping

has important implications for feminist thinkers, especially

those concerned with critiquing traditional discourses

concerning gender. In Chapter Two I argued that the

nostalgic story, with its quest for origins, its images of

castration, and its embedded Oedipal logic, is one of the

masculine cultural narratives that has been told and retold

since Homer's Odyssey. Robinson's view from elsewhere that

she creates in Housekeeping offers an alternative to the

nostalgic story of loss. De Lauretis says that "if that

view [from elsewhere] is nowhere to be seen, not given in a

single text, not recognizable as a representation, it is not

that we--feminists, women--have not yet succeeded in

producing it. It is, rather, that what we have produced is

not recognizable, precisely, as representation" (25). I

would like to identify precisely why Robinson's remarkable

representation gives us a view from elsewhere, an

alternative to the nostalgic story.

Housekeeping and The Critic

In order to create that view from elsewhere by

rewriting the nostalgic story in Housekeeping, Robinson had

5 That is not to say that Marilynne Robinson is a feminist
writer, a label that she implicitly resists when she says, "I
cannot be a writer of 'political' fiction," a statement that I
will consider in detail later in this chapter (34).


to make "a world remote enough" to allow her "to choose and

control the language of which the story was to be made."

The story is remote in time and place--we are not sure when

exactly it takes place, and it is set in a isolated little

town called Fingerbone. (The fact that Fingerbone is in

Idaho is a detail revealed only incidentally in the

narrator's description of her grandmother's death (165).)

More importantly, the action of the story is removed from

the facts and details of what we commonly take to be

everyday experience. Unlike a minimalist's story,

Housekeeping makes no reference to McDonald's or MTV or

Bruce Springsteen. Yet the remoteness of the world that

Robinson creates in Housekeeping poses a particular

challenge, a hazard even, to literary critics who describe

that world, and inevitably translate the language of the

novel into the very "language of contemporary experience"

that the novel resists.

For instance, Elizabeth Meese describes the world in

Housekeeping as "a world of women," and she argues that

Robinson "defies the nature of fiction" by characterizing

"women's experience in its own right, thereby subverting the

oppositional view of seeing and understanding women only in

relation to men" (58). Meese asserts that "Robinson's

construction of a world without men, or more accurately

always with men only in the margins, permits her to explore

the idea of 'women' and gender roles in essentially female


terms" (59). Having called attention to the absence of men

and the presence of women in the novel, Meese herself has

reinscribed the world in Housekeeping within the male/female

opposition. Meese's reading of Housekeeping enacts what de

Lauretis identifies as the tendency "to recontain or

recuperate the radical epistemological potential of feminist

thought inside the walls of the master's house"

(Technologies 2).

In fact, part of the power and strangeness of

Housekeeping is that it precludes talk of sexual politics, a

favorite topic in the discourse of contemporary experience.

The nearest reference to sex in the novel is an abstract and

anonymous simile that explains how one's senses are

heightened in the dark: "As, for example, one of two, lying

still in a dark room, knows when the other is awake" (100).

Like the word "suburb," which Robinson says is "prepared for

our understanding by sociologists and cultural commentators

and novelists, good and bad," the word "sex," it seems,

conjures associations and meanings (prepared for our

understanding, in this case, by sociologists, psychologists

and feminists) that are beyond the novelist's control.

While it is true that the world of Housekeeping is populated

for the most part by girls and women, that fact makes no

difference one way or the other. Having removed the action

of the novel from the here and now by eschewing references

to popular culture and to sex, Robinson creates a setting

for radically rewriting our culture's favorite story about

loss, the nostalgic story.

A View from Elsewhere

Above all, Housekeeping is about loss, not catastrophic

loss, having something one moment, then losing it the next,

but about the loss at the center of our being. The story,

nearly every word, phrase, and sentence, is drenched in

loss, just as the town, the orchard, and the house in the

story are drenched in the lake, which spills across

thresholds, seeps through foundations, and challenges the

boundaries that the townspeople construct in order to stave

off the inevitable. Furthermore, Housekeeping is about the

nostalgic stories that we tell to explain loss. One of

those stories, as I have discussed in the last chapter, goes

like this: as human subjects, our knowledge of loss comes

from the separation from our mother, and we nostalgically

long for a reconciliation and return to a moment of bliss, a

moment of fusion with our mother, which is only ever an

illusion. Ruth, the narrator of Housekeeping, casts this

story in terms of another story about the origins of loss,

the myth of the Fall:

The force behind the movement of time is a
mourning that will not be comforted. That is why
the first event is known to have been an
expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a
reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us
forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory--
there will be a garden where all of us as one
child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her
ribs and staved by her spine. (192)

Ruth's recitation of this nostalgic myth, which structures

most of our favorite cultural stories, should not be taken

as an endorsement of the myth. The entire action of the

novel, I am arguing, subverts the myth, especially through

the central metaphor of the novel, the metaphor of

housekeeping. This myth of the Fall is most obviously

linked to the metaphor of housekeeping, when Ruth describes

a house as if it were mother Eve's body, referring to its

"roof, spine, and ribs" (my italics, 158). The novel

implies that we keep house as if we believed we could

reconstruct mother Eve's body and regain Eden in some small

way. As keepers of houses, we draw a boundary about us to

keep the good inside and the bad outside, and we ironically

fight the accumulation of dust, forgetting that having come

from dust we will return to dust, as the story goes. Using

the metaphor of housekeeping in order to critique the

nostalgic story, Robinson exposes the fallacy of

housekeeping by representing the futility of drawing

boundaries around us to stave off the inevitable.

Most of the characters in the novel, like most of the

novel's readers, keep house because they believe that

structural boundaries will keep the lake, and everything

else that threatens, outside. The first two chapters

describe the conventional housekeeping of the grandmother

and the elderly aunts, who believe in keeping house. The

narrator's grandmother says, "'Sell the orchards. .. But


keep the house. So long as you look after your health, and

own the roof above your head, you're as safe as anyone can

be,' . 'God willing.'" Lily and Nona, who take care of

Ruth and Lucille when their grandmother dies, rarely leave

the house but fear that at any moment the roof might fall

(33). The narrator's sister Lucille, like her grandmother,

keeps house, eventually leaving her sister and aunt to live

with her Home Economics teacher, appropriately enough. When

Lucille and Ruthie spend an unplanned night in the woods,

Lucille feels uncomfortable and unnatural in the rough

"house" that they construct with driftwood and fir limbs.

Ruthie, the narrator, tells us that Lucille "sang

'Mockingbird Hill,' and then she sat down beside me in our

ruined stronghold, never still, never accepting that all our

human boundaries were overrun" (115).

Most feminist readings of Housekeeping, intent on

equating structure with patriarchy, forget that the house

belongs, not to the grandfather, but to the grandmother.

Joan Kirkby, for instance, says that "The rejection of the

grandfather's house is a rejection of the patriarchal notion

of housebuilding and housekeeping as conceived in American

literature" (106). Yet the grandfather grew up in a house

which was dug out of the ground, a structure coextensive

with nature. Having grown up in a house that was "no more a

human stronghold than a grave," the grandfather was

particularly unsuited to building houses, and so when his

wife asks him to build a house for them, he builds an

awkward house: "If its fenestration was random, if its

corners were out of square, my grandfather had built it

himself, knowing nothing whatever of carpentry" (74). A

railroad worker who is ill-suited to keeping house, the

grandfather, not grandmother, passes on the habit of

transience, his impatience and discomfort with cultural and

familial structures, to his daughters: Molly becomes a

missionary, Sylvie a transient, and Helen takes flight when

she drives her borrowed car into the lake.

Housekeeping suggests that we build houses out of a

nostalgic longing to reconstruct a moment and a place before

our catastrophic fall into a world of loss, but the walls

that we build around us nevertheless remain permeable to

insistent natural change, such as the flood of lake water.

The novel likens the permeability of the boundaries we draw

around us to protect us from loss to the tentativeness of

human bonds, particularly the fragility of the bond between

mother and child. The novel gently reminds us, in a voice

so soothing that it almost distracts us from the

significance of the message, that whether we are child or

mother our human fate is to be abandoned. That is, we

experience the inevitable separation as abandonment. As

children, Ruthie and her sister Lucille are passed from

their mother to their grandmother to their great aunts and

finally into the care of their transient aunt, Sylvie.

"Then there is the matter of my mother's abandonment of me.

Again, this is the common experience. They walk ahead of

us, and walk too fast, and forget us, they are so lost in

thoughts of their own, and soon or late they disappear. The

only mystery is that we expect it to be otherwise" (215).

According to the nostalgic story, we are forever running

after "mother," whatever form she takes, longing for reunion

and return.

The novel asks, what happens to the nostalgia of a

subject who willfully wanders without hope of return? In

critiquing the nostalgic fallacy as it relates to human

subjectivity and desire, Housekeeping suggests that it may

be possible to posit a different relation to lack and to

tell a different story about loss from what we are

accustomed. The narrator's transient aunt Sylvie does not

wait, as most of us do, for the world to be made whole again

or try to make it whole by housekeeping. She has submitted

to the fact of separation and loss, wandering without

destination or hope of reunion. "'I like to travel by

train,' Sylvie said. 'Especially in the passenger cars.

I'll take you with me sometime.' 'Take us where?' Lucille

asked. Sylvie shrugged. 'Somewhere.

Wherever'" (50). And when she reluctantly must keep house,

she opens the windows and doors, allowing leaves and water

to seep in; she calmly moves through the house in the dark

as the nighttime comes on; she wears torn gloves and

buttonless dresses. Sylvie keeps house as if she realizes

that it is impossible to stave off change in nature and the

decay of human things. In fact, she even seems quietly

comforted by the fact of loss. Ruth says, "Sylvie, I knew,

felt the life of perished things" (124).

At one moment in the novel, Ruth and Lucille, truant

from school, happen to see Sylvie walking out over the lake

along the railroad bridge. Then she stops, "her fisted

hands pushed against the bottoms of her pockets," and peers

"over the side of the bridge where the water slapped at the

pilings" (81). Having already claimed Ruth and Lucille's

grandfather, who died when his train jumped the track and

slid into the deep lake, and their mother, who drove her car

off a cliff into the lake, the lake in the novel signifies

loss. Ruth says, "One cannot cup one's hand and drink from

the rim of any lake without remembering that mothers have

drowned in it . (193). Yet Sylvie stares calmly into

the lake, just as calmly as she lives with lack. In this

case, it is not coincidental that "lake" and "lack" sound

alike, and in Middle English were both spelled lac.

Nostalgic desire, which I have defined as a way a

subject mythologizes lack, depends on the temporal notion of

past, present, and future. Whatever moment was imagined to

have been experienced in the past is now hoped to be

reconstituted in the future. Remarkably, Sylvie seems to

exist outside linear time. Sylvie, in a sense, is literally

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