Johnson, A World of Difference

“Mallarmé as Mother”

—not as “overcomer of womb envy”

—not as “woman” or effiminate

—not “female social position”/persona

but the mother/ mother function

“I would like to situate what is maternal in Mallarmé as a function or structure, defined not in terms of a female figure but in terms of a specific set of interactions and transactions that structure the relation between the earliest parent and child” (137-8).

“What, in other words, was the question on which Mallarmé-as-mother seemed to shed light? The question might be formulated as follows: what is it about Mallarmé’s writing that is capable of exerting intense fascination in some cases and intense discomfort or rejection in others? What is the nature of the appeal, and of the threat? What sorts of unconscious wishes or fears does Mallarmé’s poetry evoke in the reader?” (138).

These characteristics are:

“1. Obscurity, difficulty;

2. Lack of determinable meaning: undecidability, ambiguity, plays of the signifier;

3. Impersonality, distance, negativity;

4. Inseparability of a poem’s significance from the reading or writing process: poems seem to be about their own production or interpretation” (138).

“The separation-individuation process described by [psychoanalyst Margaret] Mahler moves from mother-child symbiosis toward greater and greater autonomy, through four subphases. The child is followed from the age of four or five months to about three years, from ‘lap-babyhood’ to ‘toddlerhood.’ Since the mother in these structures is defined not in terms of womb or breast but in terms of emotional and physical proximity, it is not structurally necessary that she be a woman, although Mahler never considers this” (138).

“Mallarmé as mother of his poems would be playing out the maternal ambivalence toward separation: on the one hand, he directs his poems toward an idealized image of autonomy; on the other hand, he cannot let them go” (140).

“It is this forever undecipherable yet somehow maternal sibylline whiteness—or indecidability as maternity—that flows and is articulated through the poetry of Mallarmé. Les blancs sketch out presence and absence, pure semantic flux and pure syntactic division, separation and reunion. But the blanks in the text do not simply make the mother present; they recreate the drama of the simultaneity of attachment and detachment that defines the maternal function” (141).

“The desire to merge is satisfied by the poem’s absorption of the reader into its structures of obscurity and undecidability. And the fear of separation is evoked by the abyss of nonreferentiality or impersonality, while the fear of merger is evoked by the loss of the ability to control or master meaning” (141).

“…a man whose work consists of questioning certain assumptions and structures of phallogocentrism—the determinability of meaning, the separability of binary opposites, the search for self-identity—would somehow appear to fill the maternal role better, more effectively, than a woman. […] But the fact that the maternal function is wielded by men—indeed, that literature is one of the ways in which men have elaborated the maternal position—means that the silence of actual women is all the more effectively enforced. With men playing all the parts, the drama appears less incomplete than it really is. Were women to take over the critique of the paternal position, they might not remain content with the maternal role” (141-2).

“For although the mother is seen as powerful, her power, viewed exclusively through the eyes of the child, is a power that must be overcome, outgrown, escaped. Whether that power is nurturing or smothering, it is seen as a threat to autonomy” (142).

“The function of the mother—or of nurturing parent of either sex—should be analyzed otherwise than through the eyes of a child—indeed, implicitly, a male child—a child-theorist whose wishful anticipation of a free, self-identical needlessness has always dreamed human maturity as the completion of a separation that in fact can only be achieved in death. The figure of the mother should be analyzed as the subject of discourse rather than as the source of life or the object of desire and anger” (143).


“Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion”

“In an essay in The Pursuit of Signs, Jonathan Culler indeed sees apostrophe as an embarrassingly explicit emblem of procedures in The Pursuit of Signs, Jonathan Culler indeed sees apostrophe as an embarrassingly explicit emblem of procedures inherent, but usually better hidden, in lyric poetry as such. Apostrophe in the sense in which I will be using it involves the direct address of an absent, dead, or inanimate being by a first-person speaker: ‘O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being.’ Apostrophe is thus both direct and indirect: based etymologically on the notion of turning aside, of digressing from straight speech, it manipulates the I/thou structure of direct address in an indirect, fictionalized way. The absent, dead, or inanimate entity addressed is thereby made present, animate, and anthropomorphic. Apostrophe is a form of ventriloquism through which the speaker throws voice, life, and human form into the addressee, turning its silence into mute responsiveness” (185). Also think about Freud’s apostrophe as he addresses women as the problem 

In the final section of Shelley’s poem, he commands the wind: “be thou me.” Johnson argues that here Shelley is attempting “to restore metaphorical exchange and equality. If apostrophe is the giving of voice, the throwing of voice, the giving of animation, then a poet using it is always in a sense saying to the addressee, ‘Be thou me.’ But this implies that a poet has animation to give. Ad that is what this poem is saying is not, or no longer, the case. Shelley’s speaker’s own sense of animation is precisely what is in doubt, so that he is in effect saying to the wind, ‘I will animate you so that you will animate, or reanimate me'” (188). Perhaps woman’s apostrophe of mother claims self-animation with the “be thou me” that she addresses to the child; perhaps, indeed, man’s apostrophe of mother; Freud’s apostrophe of woman, commands “be thou me” to both woman and child in order to see his own subjectivity mirrored in his erotic double and its subsequent child.

“In Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem ‘The Mother,’ the structures of address are shifting and complex. In the first line (“Abortions will not let you forget”), there is a ‘you’ but there is no ‘I’. Instead, the subject of the sentence is the word ‘abortions,’ which thus assumes a position of grammatical control over the poem. […] The grammatical I/thou starting point of traditional apostrophe has been replaced by a structure in which the speaker is simultaneously eclipsed, alienated, and confused with the addressee. It is already clear that something has happened to the possibility of establishing a clear-cut distinction in this poem between subject and object, agent and victim” (189).

“Gwendolyn Brooks, in other words, is here rewriting the male lyric tradition, textually placing aborted children in the spot formerly occupied by all the dead, inanimate, or absent entities previously addressed by the lyric. And the question of animation and anthropomorphism is thereby given a new and disturbing twist. For if apostrophe is said to involve language’s capacity to give life and human form to something dead or inanimate, what happens when those questions are literalized? What happens when the lyric speaker assumes responsibility for producing the death in the first place, but without being sure of the precise degree of human animation that existed in the entity killed? What is the debate over abortion about, indeed, if not the question of when, precisely, a being assumes a human form?” (189).

“By not closing the quotation in its final line, the poem, which began by confusing the reader with the aborter, ends by implicitly including the reader among those aborted—and loved. The poem can no more distinguish between ‘I’ and ‘you’ than it can come up with a proper definition of life” (190).

“It is deliberateness, for instance, that underlies that epic of separation and self-reliant autonomy, Thoreau’s Walden. ‘I went to the woods,’ writes Thoreau, ‘because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.’ Clearly, for Thoreau, pregnancy was not an essential fact of life. Yet for him as well as for every human being that has yet existed, someone else’s pregnancy was the very first fact of life. How might the plot of human subjectivity be reconceived (so to speak) if pregnancy rather than autonomy is what raises the question of deliberateness?” (190).

[In In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan argues that there is a difference between the male and female point of view] “because it is not always possible to make symmetrical oppositions. As long as there is symmetry, one is not dealing with difference but rather with versions of the same. [Carol] Gilligan’s difference arises out of the impossibility of maintaining a rigorously logical binary model for ethical choices. Female logic, as she defines, it is a way of rethinking the logic of choice in a situation in which none of the choices are good. ‘Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate’: believe that the agent is not entirely autonomous, believe that I can be subject and object of violence at the same time, believe that I have not chosen the conditions under which I must choose. […] The choice is not between violence and nonviolence, but between simple violence to a fetus and complex, less determinate violence to an involuntary mother and/or an unwanted child” (191).

This poem “attempts the impossible task of humanizing both the mother and the aborted children while presenting the inadequacy of language to resolve the dilemma without violence” (191).

“If the fact that the speaker addresses the children at all makes them human, then she must pronounce herself guilty of murder—but only if she discontinues her apostrophe. As long as she addresses the children, she can keep them alive, can keep from finishing with the act of killing them. […] The children are a rhetorical extension of the mother, but she, as the poem’s title indicates, has no existence apart from her relation to them” (192).

Discussing Lucille Clifton’s “The Lost Baby Poem”: “By choosing the word ‘dropped’… Clifton renders it unclear whether the child has been lost through abortion or through miscarriage. […] For a black woman, the loss of a baby can always be perceived as a complicity with genocide. The black mother sees her own choice as one of being either a stranger or a rock. The humanization of the lost baby addressed by the poem is thus carried out at the cost of dehumanizing, even rendering inanimate, the calling mother” (195).

“Yet each of these poems exists, finally, because a child does not” (195).

While death in the male tradition of lyric poetry “is as much a source as it is a threat to writing,” is even as Johnson argues, “the mother of poetry,” for female poets, motherhood “is precisely the death of poetry” (196). Johnson notes that “The Western myth of the conjunction of word and flesh implied by the word ‘incarnate’ is undone by images of language floating and vanishing into the bowl of the toilet of real fleshly needs. The word is not made flesh; rather, flesh unmakes the mother-poet’s words” (196). Incarnate–> word (logos) made flesh (in phallic mother and phallic child?)

In each of these poems, “a kind of competition is implicitly instated between the bearing of children and the writing of poems. Something unsettling has happened to the analogy often drawn by male poets between artistic creation and procreation” (196).

Johnson notes that the first stanza in Sir Philip Sidney’s “Astrophil and Stella” describes the poet as “great with child to speak,” but that the “poem is ultimately produced at the expense of no literalized child. Sidney’s labor pains are smoothed away with a midwifely apostrophe (‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write!’), and by a sort of poetic Caesarian section, out springs the poem we have, in fact, already finished reading” (197). Jonson, in “On my First Son,” “calls his dead child ‘his best piece of poetry'” (197).

“…it is not surprising that the substitution of art for children should not be inherently transgressive for the male poet. Men have in a sense always had no choice but to substitute something for the literal process of birth. […] It is as though male writing were by nature procreative, while female writing is somehow by nature infanticial” (198).

“When a woman speaks out about the death of children in any sense other than that of pure loss, a powerful taboo is being violated. The indistinguishability of miscarriage and abortion in the Clifton poem indeed points to the notion that any death of a child is perceived as a crime committed by the mother, something a mother ought by definition to be able to prevent” (198).

Johnson argues that “lyric poetry itself—summed up in the figure of apostrophe—comes to look like the fantastically intricate history of endless elaborations and displacements of the single cry, ‘Mama!'” (199).

“The difficulty in all three would seem to reside in the attempt to achieve a full elaboration of any discursive position other than that of child” (199). Difficult because we refuse to ask mothers



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