Looking Backwards: Integrating the Bitch.
I have really struggled with this blog entry. My Margaret Atwood obsession continued with re-readings of Cat’s Eye and (especially) The Robber Bride. I have been thinking a lot about the Triple Goddess (maiden, mother, crone) as I assemble my sculpture and Atwood’s work is full of this imagery. But the roots of my interest go so deep and spread so wide it has been hard to gather it all up – I find myself dipping back into half remembered texts about shadow, animus, and individuation, and forward into new ideas from Jungian feminist literary criticism. Unfortunately what notes I have made are on transient scraps of paper and in different notebooks and diaries. Not writing this has become a block against writing anything else so on the last day of 2016 I am going to post it anyway!
The Robber Bride has three heroines, Tony, Charis and Roz. The women are middle aged at the beginning of the book and each is bruised by an encounter with a fourth woman, Zenia – first friend, then betrayer. Mysterious, gorgeous, toxic Zenia comes from nowhere and everywhere, she dies and returns from death. The three women heroines are each doubled/split. Childlike Tony (Antonia) has an alta ego in Ainotna (her name in mirror writing) – a bold warrior herself instead of mere chronicler of military history. Athena? At one point Zenia is described as representing the “rage of her [Tony’s] unborn twin”. Charis was once Karen, a neglected and sexually abused child. Charis is a severed spiritual self immune to bodily pain. Roz is mother and businesswoman; Christian and Jew. Roz’s twin daughters (another doubling) insist that all fairy tale characters are feminized – thus the robber bridegroom of Grimm’s becomes bride.
The book doesn’t fit a simple maiden, mother, crone pattern – that is clearer in Cat’s Eye. But The Robber Bride is the one which has possessed me. I turned to Jungian literary criticism based on Toni Wolff’s structure of the female archetype as two pairs of polar opposites: mother/heteira and amazon/medial. Expanding three to four allows space for Zenia. Each of the four archetypes has a positive and negative aspect. In her book The Bitch is Back, Aguiar points out that Zenia’s return occurs when the women are unable to accept that her interventions have had a positive outcome on their lives and that her bitch strength was a necessary complement to their passivity. They have to integrate her in order to finally kill her.
I read several books by Barbarah Hannah last year – on individuation and the animus archetype – and again the number four emerged as important. Hannah compares an individual’s conscious life journey as being like a fall from paradise. By separating from the mother (tasting the fruit of knowledge), the primordial whole is ruptured by consciousness and suddenly there is direction, the beginning of a life course. Hannah uses the metaphor of four rivers running out of paradise in the four cardinal directions – each of us follows one of those four courses, perhaps totally absorbed in one direction, perhaps with some awareness of the two adjacent potentialities, but blind to the fourth river, the one always behind us. Her model of individuation, in Striving Towards Wholeness is to integrate that fourth forgotten or unwanted or feared aspect of our self. Zenia lies behind – the aspect of woman which is forbidden, sexual, selfish, unfettered by the need to be likeable - a bitch.
That really resonates for me although it is clearly at odds with the ideal of the heroic artist – single minded and self destructive.
I read The Robber Bride first in about 1995. The image of the predatory female other resonated even then before I had encountered her in the flesh. “She” was already there for me. I met her again in a dream and amplified her in the scene in Mourning Pod. Recognising that she existed in my mind before she had a fleshly incarnation. My nemesis was a watered down version of Zenia, though still deadly to me; an irresistible temptress leaving me looking on, an excluded third. And yet I was complicit in creating her in order to release myself from a relationship that no longer worked.
Revisiting the book, and re-encountering Zenia as a positive force seems to bring together quite a lot of the imagery that I have working with over the last decade.
Zenia is represented by snake imagery and is explicitly likened at the end of the novel to a Minoan snake goddess statue - see below.
The snake has been an ongoing preoccupation for me too – my snake woman image emerged during training on grief counselling. A map of personal losses but also an Ishtar descending to the underworld, shedding layers on each landing until she is ultimately just decomposing flesh. Is that it? Except my version came out so clean.
And Medusa always recurs - Medusa as shadow.
“She was once more in the presence of the muse, the crucial one, the Medusa who had made her understand that if you turn Medusa’s face around, it is your own face, it is yourself who must be conquered” May Sarton
I have started looking again at this piece - my Medusa/Mrs Rochester in her padded cell box. She even has the barren womb of a Goneril and the vivid shadow of me looming on the outside. The cat on top is not part of the work!
My charred doll fragment started as a snake woman too but the fire severed her human torso from her animal body.
After Atwood I followed a thread of bitch stories - highlighted by Aguiar in The Bitch is Back. I re-read Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres – retelling of the Lear story from Goneril’s point of view. I read it in my 20s and admired it but it touches me more deeply now. I love the vivid evoking of the history of the land – from its boggy prehistory, through cultivation to a state where modern farming has left it poisoned and depleted. It is a novel where women's bodies parallel the toxic land - they have barren wombs and diseased breasts. Compliant Ginny has forgotten the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. She has spent her life wanting to be liked, creating a façade of perfect femininity in her absolute mastery of the domestic realm and care of her monstrous father. She has her eyes shut. In contrast her savage, sick, sister Rose bears witness relentlessly. I loved the way Ginny taps into her own instinctual needs by becoming animal – feeling herself to be a desiring sow body. And then her mad, jealous and murderous rage. Although Ginny loses everything she can see more clearly, remember, and choose to say,
Finally I read Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years – where the heroine is a middle aged Cordelia stuck in a routine life. When her father dies and her children turn away from her into adulthood Delia walks away and begins a new life. But the clean slate becomes a repetition – the same issues surface. The gap between ideal and real has to be borne.
Interestingly both Ginny and Delia flee their homes and take refuge in cheap rented rooms and minimum wage jobs. Drab independence – unencumbered by any need to display domestic goddessery or (at least to begin with) to nurture anyone else. Which takes me back to the Joan Barfoot novel which began this blog. The woman walking away.
I am still struggling to integrate this. But also wondering about the relation between this fiction and my sculptures. My great monolithic goddess pod seems shallow compared to the complex narrative and plumbable layers of these wonderful novels. Perhaps that is learning to tolerate the difference between ideal and accomplishable. The images emerge in response to an emotion, conception is swift but but then follows the commitment of execution, so slowly and with difficulty – at the limits of my technical ability. The layers are there but somehow compressed. So much time for the doubt to creep in.
Books referred to above or inspiring this theme:
Aguiar, Sarah Appleton - The Bitch is Back: Wicked Women in Literature
Brinton Perera, Sylvia - Descent to the Goddess
Hall, Nor - The Moon and the Virgin
Hannah, Barbara -Striving Towards Wholeness
Hannah, Barbara - The Animus: The Spirit of Inner Truth in Women
May Sarton - Mrs Steven's Hears the Mermaids Singing.
Smiley, Jane - The Thousand Acres
Tyler, Anne - The Ladder of Years