Cora Kaplan. Feminist Studies. Volume 20, Issue 1. Spring 1994.
Kinship, both as structure and as metaphor, has provided one of feminism’s most distinctive and durable themes. Thinking through the family, however hostile or friendly our thoughts on it are, is a leitmotiv of the modern women’s movement. Impulses that are at once conservative and radical fuel desire for the feminist familial—rewritten narratives of origins and affiliation. Within Western anglophone feminism’s second wave, those wished-for genealogies and rehtions have frequently been cast as maternal narratives, offering key stories through which we may imagine a world where gender can be democratically lived. Suitably postmodern, these stories are not temporally fixed but inhabit past, present, and future simultaneously. Like all postwar discourses of the family, feminist familial discourse is unstable as well as insistent, fracturing and reforming across a quarter century of theorizing and argument. Yet keeping the family in feminism by providing feminism itself with a countercultural maternal narrative has proved to be one of the most contested elements in feminist constructions of the past and future perfect of sexual difference.
The “naturalness” of maternal nurture, like any other aspect of femininity, has long been a loaded question for feminist theorists, dividing essentialists from antiessentialists in the seventies and eighties; but there are more recent indications that these divisions, so crucial at one point for theorists, no longer quite apply. In A World of Difference (1987) deconstructionist critic Barbara Johnson, for example, cites Carol Gilligan, Adrienne Rich, Susan Suleiman, and Marianne Hirsch as diverse, even contradictory, theoretical sources through which we “might move to displace existing paradigms of maturation and gender, so that pre- oedipal structures” (the maternal) “could be recognized as permanent and pervasive rather than samply regressive.” Johnson’s theoretically nuanced move to elevate thinking through our mothers, to give it an appropriate adult dignity and moral seriousness, is typical of a shift toward gravitas in the tone and purpose of feminist explorations of the social and psychic scenarios of mothers and children. In the more insurrectionary and carnivalesque mood of the seventies, the scene of the mother/child dyad before the symbolic entry of the father, specifically the world of mothers and daughters or of preadolescent women together, appeared as the transgressive, anarchic, antisocial “other” of culture. I am remembering here many different levels of feminist praxis, not only Julia Kristeva’s early formulations of the semiotic but also the irreverent feminist theater of that period. This script, drastically revised—the violence and knockabout humor taken out—has been recently recast as a mature, reforming morality play. The perverse pre-Oedipal duo have been dragged by eighties’ feminism kicking and screaming into the center of civil society, and there instructed not only to be good but also to act as the model of ethics and morality. This (re)production of the maternal and the daughterly-filial has not been performed without significant challenge. Jane Gallop, in her final chapter of Around 1981: Academic Feminist Literary Theory, “History Is like Mother,” brilliantly traces some of the ways in which the feminist inclination to read “everything through the family romance” obscures our understanding of the politics of institutions, especially around questions of race and power.
Yet in a world where the old public forms of Left politics are in a state of spectacular disintegration, it is hardly surprising that feminism, like every other radical imperative, is reaching for different, if not new, paradigms to express both its utopian and its practical political ambitions. The revised project of “thinking forwards through our mothers” in the eighties is posed increasingly as a site from which to think strategically into the polluted here and now; even its predeliction for family romance has become more polymorphous, sustaining, among other things, homosexual and heterosexual possibilities.
I want to speculate further about feminism’s preoccupation with origins and relations, through a discussion of two recent works of feminist criticism, Elizabeth Abel’s Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis and Judith Kegan Gardiner’s Rhys, Stead, Lessing, and the Politics of Empathy, both books dealing with twentieth-century women’s writing. For although familial and maternal thinking can be found in every genre of feminist writing, these themes get their most evocative expression in the feminist criticism that takes feminist fiction as its text, the critical commentary perversely elaborating new versions of such stories at the same theoretical site, where, lately, they have been most fully deconstructed. These are good books then through which to explore that feminist paradox in which the site of origins—of difference and of feminism—is at once the place “you most want and most hate to be.”
The jacket of Elizabeth Abel’s eloquent, fascinating, and troubling monograph, Virginia Woolf and the Fiaions of Psychoanalysis, has at its center a photograph of Woolf in her beautiful prime, her face resting on her ringed hand marked out in a sharply developed black and white square. The photograph as a whole, showing Woolf’s hair, arm, and shoulder, spills over, bleached and faded, into and beyond a second rectangular frame. Cutting through Woolf’s image as it spreads from the defined central square to its milky margins, are small, intersecting photographs of Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein in late-ish middle age—Freud intense, frowning; Klein serious, calm, perhaps a little sad. These parental portraits in their Edwardian ovals and visibly dated conservative clothes reconfigure these three contemporaries as a family in which the daughter, Woolf, inherits and transcends. Woolf’s face, at once an icon of high modernism and high feminism, seems timeless. As if to reinforce Woolf’s authority, Klein’s photo exactly fits Woolf’s diary description of her: “`a bluff grey haired lady, with large, bright imaginative eyes'” (p. 19). Klein’s pose—ringed hand to face—and open-eyed gaze echoes Woolf’s, down to the line of shadow on their cheeks.
The familial semiotics of the cover adumbrates both the argument and the narrative framework that shapes Abel’s book. Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis puts Woolf’s novels and essays in dialogue with the psychoanalytic debates of the interwar years. As Abel says in her preface, “Freud, Klein, and the theorists who extend them are major figures in this book, but Woolf defines its center and shapes its plot.” Abel constructs her story through a mix of traditional cultural history, which patiently traces influence through a range of contemporary sources, and an intertextual approach, which maps the “matricentric” and “patricentric” narratives through the kind of close reading which locates “at the level of the individual sentence Woolf’s dense and complex play with genealogy” (p. xvii). It is Abel’s own complex and ambiguous play with genealogy that makes her book both a compelling and a maddening read. For at one level Abel’s genealogical explorations seem to be conducted in the spirit of Michel Foucault’s radical appropriation of the term, as counterstrategies to transcendent histories of cultures or selves; at another they seem to reinstate with a vengeance the teleologies he resists.
Insofar as Abel refers to the “matricentric” and “patricentric” stories of psychoanalysis, anthropology, and fiction equally as “fictions,” refusing to any of them the epistemological status of truth but acknowledging at the same time their effectivity and power, her genealogies are sympathetically aligned with Foucault’s project. Her cleverly orchestrated opening chapter on the complex affiliations of these different discourses amongst the London intelligentsia and the European émigrés who joined it in the interwar years, is at one register a remarkable example of just such an interwoven, conjuncmral analysis. Here Abel skillfully cross-references her fragmentary and heterogeneous sources, augmenting their patterns by constructing a kind of critical montage in which several scenes of writing, Freud’s, Woolf’s and Klein’s, are juxtaposed with each other, their parallel and competitive developments creating the sense of each work’s intertextual relation to the other. Thus, Abel describes Freud in Vienna launching his “project of writing this female prehistory” (p. 9), a history of the pre-Oedipal, which, in his words, is imagined by 1931 in spatial rather than temporal terms as the “`Minoan-Mycenean civilization behind the civilization of Greece,'” an archaic world presided over by the phallic mother. Countries away, in England, she tells us, Woolf is engaged in an equally grand archaeointellectual project: “In the years that Woolf was digging beautiful caves behind her characters to reconstruct the past as a backdrop to the present, Freud was writing a female developmental narrative that spatializes history” (p. 8). Unknowing but contiguous competitors in the public, quasi-scientific sphere, Woolf and Freud are brought together, in Abel’s story, by a related intellectual project. Yet a few pages later Klein and Woolf’s contiguity is imagined very differently, in terms of kin and neighborhood—no intellectual rivalry here. Klein gave her famous 1925 lectures, Abel notes, at the home of Woolf’s brother and sister-in-law, Adrian and Karin Stephen, while “`Next door’ (by her own account) in Tavistock Square, Virginia was `making up’ To the Lighthouse” (p. 13). Through this narrative sleight of hand, with its almost invisible but crucial difference of emphasis, Abel herself takes an unaccented part in the creative process of “spatializing” her invented history, a Ragtime version of psychoanalysis and Bloomsbury between the wars. But rather than revealing the fictionality of its own dramatic arrangements these are all projected on to Abel’s historical actors, and her own dramatic placing and performance within the story is obscured.
Abel’s wishes and desires as feminist critic and theorist are nevertheless revealed in the versions and revisions of the matricentric offered by Klein and Woolf. This self-conscious cathexis of and toward the matrifocal structures her overt narrative of Woolf’s own engagement with psychoanalysis and introduces a half-acknowledged subplot in which the feminist daughter-critic traces her own identifications and disappointments with the maternal history of the woman writer. Abel’s manifest preference for one side of the reproductive melodramas of theory and fiction drives her study forward, constructing a gripping, subtle, and persuasive story of Woolf’s romance with, and gradual withdrawal from, her revisionist notion of nonbiological female nurture. Abel argues that Woolf’s paradigms were developed in a parallel and responsive relationship not only to debates in psychoanalysis but also to a wider social and political history which highlights the agendas of postwar feminism in the twenties and the rise of fascism in the thirties. Yet this critical plot is constructed through a too positivized and sequential understanding of how psychic scenarios are deployed in adult fictions of identity and sociality. History—of psychoanalysis, of feminism, of fascism is presented in too monologic and tidy a form, making its relation to the complex oscillations of Woolf’s engagement with the paternal and maternal seem peculiarly simplified. Abel’s unacknowledged location as a feminist within the matricentric paradigm skews her theorization of its varied and often disturbing manifestations in a book which often admirably meets her ambition to open up “the ways that history mediates literature’s negotiations with psychoanalysis” (p. xviii).
Abel’s interpretation of the development of maternal and paternal narratives of psychoanalysis, anthropology, and fiction between the wars is worked up into a compelling tale. Having credited Freud with launching his “project of writing this female prehistory,” presided over by the phallic mother, she then criticizes him for allowing the “Oedipal narrative” to shape this prehistory so that the “phallus colonizes the mother’s body.” Freud, in Abel’s view, simultaneously opens and forecloses the “prospect of a distinctively mother-based plot.” In Abel’s story, Melanie Klein rescues this infant plot and makes it her life work to nurture its development. It is she above all who teaches the “indistinct prehistory” to speak as “a passionate preverbal drama” that could be witnessed in the play therapy that gave the analyst access to the unconscious of very young children (p. 9). The maternal prehistory of the child as theorized by Klein, as Abel tells us, is dystopic rather than Edenic and is marked by paranoia and depression. Yet the thing that for Abel makes Klein’s rewriting superior to Freud’s is that it centers the mother-child, rather than the paternal-phallic, as the point of origin of psychic development. In Klein’s story the prehistory of the mother-child dyad determines the Oedipal narrative instead of the other way around, and it is the Oedipal moment, not the maternal one, that becomes mysterious, occluded, and in Klein’s words “`heavily shrouded'” (p. 12).
In order to make the case that Woolf’s hostility to Freudian theory was a critique of his patriarchal and heterosexual perspective, but that Kleinian psychoanalysis was more to her liking, Abel must do some highly imaginative, although in some cases highly manipulative, reconstruction. She uses Woolf’s diaries and the letters of Alix and James Strachey (Freud’s translators) to good effect to record their memory of Woolf’s “`ferocious onslaught'” on psychoanalysis and psychoanalysts (p. 14). Abel then contrasts Woolf’s attacks as others heard her with Woolf’s own remembrance of the same conversation as an affable one about literary symbols, reading Woolf’s version, with the angry affect expurgated, as a defensive fortification “against a rival discourse” (p. 12).
The critic-daughter sets up an imaginative, imaginary alliance of a Kleinian psychoanalytic discourse “which deemphasizes sexuality, values the aesthetic and, perhaps most importantly, calls into question the prevailing hierarchy of gender” with Woolf’s own “mother-based” discourse (p. 19). The Kleinian moment that provides Abel with a point of origin is significantly the one where the identity of subjects is effaced, centered on “the daughter’s desire to dissolve into the mother” as indicated by Lily Briscoe’s “infantile” longing to become “`like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored'” (pp. 19, 74). Too tightly woven out of too little evidence, Abel’s associations of Klein and Woolf (via Lily) as longing for the imaginary mother-child dyad—the loss of the daughter’s self in the mother, of the mother in the daughter—focuses too nostalgically on the most self-forgetting fantasy in a “mother- based” discourse. Moreover, this imbrication of Woolf and Klein in a kind of historical amnio-semiosis, and the cutting out of the rival, prurient, libidinous Freud, both insistently repeats and narratively refuses the Oedipal drama. In the story Abel’s first chapter tells, Woolf’s rivalry with the father for spatial excavation of the pre-Oedipal story is temporarily resolved through Abel’s representation of the daughter’s alliance with the mother.
How well Abel’s revision works as a feminist family romance refracted from several angles depends to some extent on the feminist reader’s own investment in this particular story of the origins of creativity, and in stories of origins in general as necessary to feminism, subjectivity, or sexual orientation. If, however, you find Klein’s stories as scary as fascinating, and as intermittently persuasive as Freud’s, and as equally freighted with a worrying familial discourse, then a preference for a maternal rather than a paternal plot may not seem a very promising path out of ideology. Where Abel shows how psychoanalytic debates about gendered origins find their way into popular anthropology in the period, she helps us to historicize and therefore to demystify the proliferation of all familial narratives of origin. Where she excavates only to admire her find, she threatens to strand us at the dig without our pick and shovel.
The tragic shape of Abel’s account of Woolf’s progress through the various stations of the psychoanalytic cross begins with, but rapidly moves away from, the Edenic sororal and maternal apotheosis in Woolf’s oeuvre-when Sally Seton kisses the adolescent Clarissa Dalloway. From this moment of blissful priority we proceed slowly but inevitably toward the dystopian denouement of Woolf’s last years in which she finally reads Freud and becomes aligned with his “repudiation of the mother’s body,” and with the normative “heterosexuality” for which he stands (p. 108). Woolf’s arguments with the Oedipal are elegantly staged by Abel. Two essays on To the Lighthouse dramatize competing scenarios in which Lily Briscoe holds and advances the Kleinian paradigm laid out in chapter 1, while Cam and James, Mrs. Ramsey’s children, can only move in and. through a maternal “enclosed” by the paternal story. Turning toward the discursive texts, as she calls them, Abel enters A Room of One’s Own as “Woolf’s most complete and complex interpretation of matrilineage,” “also her last.” In its late thirties’ “sequel,” Three Guineas, Abel argues Woolf has definitively moved from “matrilinear to patrilinear definitions of the daughter”; “the discursive texts resituate her career, and its diverse intersections with psychoanalysis, within the social history of gender.” This move, Abel argues, is overdetermined by the intersecting histories of both feminism and fascism. The woman-centered agendas of twenties’ feminism affirmed the gynocentric and matricentric preoccupations in Woolf; the appropriation of motherhood by fascism is coincident with Woolf’s uncovering of “an ambivalent discourse of nurture that qualifies” (and finally disavows) “the celebration of maternal origins” (p. 85). Most interesting and provocative of all her intertextual readings is Abel’s discussion of the dissonant but related visions of Moses and Monotheism and Between the Acts. What was, for Freud, the collapse of patriarchy in the rise of fascism, the tragic victory of body over intellect is, she argues, in Woolf’s trajectory the tragic triumph of patriarchy.
Abel’s story ends, implicitly, with war and Woolf’s suicide, marking another kind of triumph of a patriarchal narrative which may overcome fascism but at the cost, in Woolf’s case at least, of reinstating the “heterosexual plot that originates, for women, with the father” (p. 130). Is Abel saying that Woolf’s capitulation to patriarchal structures invites her death? Perhaps not, but history, personal and political, provides her conveniently with an overdetermined closure for her narrative of the fall. For all my respect and admiration for this complex study, my discomfort with some of its procedures and assumptions remains and deepens. Reading against its grain, especially against Abel’s dear libidinal investment in Klein, I want to ask why feminism or lesbianism or women’s writing, for that matter, needs to defend a materealist story of origins rather than understand why such stories continue to be constructed?
What suffers in this too partisan investment is, inevitably, a complex account of cultural history. Often the social referent gets drawn in only to be suppressed or reread to support rather than complicate Abel’s historical argument. When, for example, Woolf’s androgynous couple in A Room of One’s Own enter a taxicab together, they are, Abel says, entering a “womb”: the imaginative chamber where Woolf says the “‘curtains must be close drawn'” so that the mind can “‘celebrate its nuptials in darkness'” and the “`marriage of opposites…be consummated.'” Granted that all primary fantasies tend to overlap and invoke each other, it is curious how the heterogeneous metropolitan image of the London cab, site of illicit inter- and intra-class seduction, invoking the inequality between gendered actors and the transgressive, promiscuous nature of their intercourse as much as the egalitarian “nuptials” of their minds, is rewritten by Woolf-and Abel-in favor of the taxicab’s singular symbolization of legitimate generation. Finally, at a subtler level, the anger that fuels feminism becomes sacrificed to the maternal metaphor as it underwrites the female aesthetic. On just this issue, Woolf’s interaction with the feminism of the twenties was much more contradictory than Abel suggests. That is why, in Woolf, the female aesthetic is such a contested and unstable site, such a profoundly impossible referent.
Although Abel’s project obscures even as it reveals the critic’s investment in her subjects and in the narratives she constructs for them, some critics make these tensions much more manifest in the way in which they pose their projects. Judith Kegan Gatdiner’s ambitious and thought-provoking study of three of our century’s most remarkable and idiosyncratic women writers in English-Jean Rhys, Christina Stead, and Doris Lessing-aims to combine American feminist psychoanalytic theory, English historical materialism, and, with many more reservations, French poststructuralist theories of the subject. Characterizing herself as both an “American feminist critic and a mother of daughters,” Gardiner says that she began by being attracted to theories of “female bonding as a source for female creativity,” and she makes an analogy between women writers’ relationships with their characters and lived relationships between women. In the triad between author, her “hero” (i.e., protagonist of either sex), and her reader, an identificatory system is set up “analogous to psychological identifications between mothers and daughters.” In the first pages of her introduction, Gardiner suggests that this “maternal metaphor” is sometimes enabling, sometimes “limiting and inadequate,” that in fact the “entire ensemble of gendered relationships among a writer, her texts, and her readers” (pp. 1, 2) seen in a political and historical framework is necessary for understanding what she calls the “politics of empathy” (p. 2). Gardiner bases her understanding of the particularity of women’s affective relations on the work of writers like Chodorow, Dinnerstein, and Grillgan, but she modifies what she sees as their idealization of women’s traits and their sentimentalization of empathy as “loving and nurturant understanding” with the more neutral theorization of empathy in the self-psychology of Heinz Kohut as a kind of “`vicarious introspection.'” The idea of “self” that Gardiner deploys is not an essentialized subject nor (God forbid) a deconstructionist effect of discourse but rather a creative and created fiction that subjects use-a “`pretextual account'” founded in language expressing a desire for continuity, “a longing for coherence.” Gardiner argues for a feminist appropriation of a Marxist humanism in which the mother-daughter bond is lived within a world that resists our desires, “a history of gender, class and race oppressions…which must be changed in order that female authenticity-the sense of an identity that respects itself”-be made possible (p. 18).
It is with this eclectic, customized, and very selective bag of feminist tools that Gardiner sets out to dismantle the workings of empathy in her chosen trio of colonial anglophone writers. Active as authors between the two major modern periods of feminism, but overlapping with the second wave, Rhys, Stead, and Lessing have all directly disavowed their adoption as feminist foremothers or sister travelers. Their writing precisely targets some of the more egregious aspects of male behavior and patriarchy but it is more marked by a scathing and nonsentimental approach to the possibilities of female bonding, what Stead memorably images as “‘the awful power of hunger and suck,'” which Gardiner accurately interprets as “blending child and mother in one frightening unit.” The fluid, affective, nurturant, and ethical elements of positive maternal thinking, when they are present at all in these authors, are harmful to the women who possess them and sometimes lethal to others as well. As Gardiner demonstrates in chapter 5, her incisive discussion of three “matricidal” masterpieces-Wide Sargasso Sea, The Man Who Loved Children, and The Golden Notebook-the last thing these novels achieve is authenticity and empowerment through an idealized relation to the maternal. In the first novel, Antoinette repudiates and repeats her own mad mother’s downfall even as Rhys embraces, rejects, and transfigures Brontë’s imperial original narrative. In a neat allegory of feminist missteps, the protagonist of The Man Who Loved Children murders her feminine stepmother instead of the intended victim, her controlling father. And in The Golden Notebook, as Gardiner points out, both Anna Wulf and her friend Molly distance themselves at once from their failure to mother well (if that means reproducing in their children their radical politics), from Mother Sugar, the female analyst, and from the bad paternal as represented by the Communist Party. In all three of these writers, as Gardiner’s discussion amply demonstrates, maternal nurturance and sororal relations are a problem, a puzzle, an unresolved question. All three writers reacted with hostility to a movement that sought not only to foreground women’s subordination (which they themselves helped to articulate) but that also insisted on an ideal and political community of women. They emphatically refused to become feminism’s empowering progenitors, or, in that role reversal so common in midlife, its disempowered daughters. Yet Gardiner insists that the most important function of these novels is that they “mother” the generation of “white middle-class anglophone feminists coming of age in the 1960’s and thereafter as they teach us how to read them” (p. 155). In spite of her cautions against idealizing the maternal, this use of the mother insistently promotes an idea of nurture as well as education. Moreover, Gardiner traces in these writers a complex but definite progressive development which at once emancipates writers from their biographical, biological daughterdom and reconciles and affiliates them with other women in terms of the topos, form, and address of their writing. The “empathetic” she seeks in their works presumes a meeting point of personal, creative, and political identifications, and it is the ethical and aesthetic demand for this conjuncture that structures, and I think hampers, her other and much more promising project, partly fulfilled in her book, which is to see these innovative and perverse writers in relation to the cultures, politics, and history in which they lived and wrote.
For if these writers and their “masterpieces” have mothered us, their pedagogy of nurture precisely refuses those ethically developmental schemas which mark both “maternal thinking” and Kohut’s self-psychology, for the emphasis in their lessons is consistently on the negativity and ambivalence that mark both women’s relations to the familial as mother and daughters and their relational skills altogether, as well as the broader political projects which engage them. Although Gardiner is certainly correct in seeing these writers as often desiring such affiliative relations, their narratives simultaneously withhold the promise of any easy consanguinity and alliance between women in modernity, at the same time as they succeed in interpellating the woman reader as a woman. I would argue that women may read Rhys, Stead, and Lessing precisely for this bracing, bitter, and irreverent ambivalence, for the corrosive anger which etches the deformations of gender, class, and race in the inverted diaspora of white colonials to the European metropolis.
I particularly admire Gardiner’s acute interpretation of a Rhys story, “On Not Shooting Sitting Birds,” which suggests just how class and colonialism inflect the terms of a brief and embarrassing encounter between a young man and a young woman, and her equally fine-tuned discussion of “The Insect World” where she explicates a tale in which racism, history, and class are shown as bound up in the projective misogyny and sadism between women. At the same time, Gardiner’s choice of psychological theory and its use as bookends for this study does work to displace a fuller historical and theoretical exploration of how the questions of race, class, and colonial identity structure the interrelations between subjectivity and politics. A summarizing comment on Stead illustrates what I take to be the foundational primacy of the psychological for Gardiner: “Missing her mother, mothered by her father and husband, surrounded, manipulated, and empowered by language, Stead found political views congruent with her psychological perspective” (p. 82). Psychological perspectives are also, however, shaped and changed by “political views,” as Gardiner shows through her intricate web of interpretation of short fictions; and the specific gravity of these interrelated elements alters, unevenly, as the kaleidoscopic configuration of dominant culture turns and shifts. An insistence on both the real and the fantasied object relations of authorship (and by extension, subjectivity and character) as the determinant in the first and last instance makes politics not a shaping force but simply another, later object choice. This seems to me theoretically dubious, for it refuses at more than a superficial level the effects of history and culture-and politics-in the making of the modern self.
Rhys’s complicated, contradictory view of the politics of race in the seventies (as well as earlier) needs to be linked to a new saliency of racial questions in Britain in this period as well as with the transformed terms of postcolonialism. A discussion of Lessing’s increasing conservatism in the seventies and eighties needs to take on these same issues, for as the Marxism whose patriarchy she critiques mutates and mates with a more libertarian social and personal politics (including feminism), Lessing becomes more, not less, estranged from it. Her hostility, silence, and apostasy during the Thatcher years needs to be thought through in terms of the shifts in the socialist and dominant imaginaries in relation to her own formation. Gardiner reads Lessing’s Diaries of Jane Somers, in terms of Lessing’s own characterization of the novel as a sympathetic portrait of Lessing’s mother as a modern Briton: a ‘”practical, efficient, energetic woman by temperament conservative, a little sentimental.'” This selfconscious reworking of earlier, more hostile mother-daughter themes Gardiner then interprets as Lessing’s “liberating” identification with the “failures and constraints of the real mother” (p. 118). It is equally, I would argue, an identificatory defense against the radical images of women and mothers offered by contemporary feminism and a revisionist construct of the mother in sentimentally conservative terms.
It is in her interesting but necessarily brief attempts to evaluate her subjects and their work from the sixties onwards that the lack of fit between Gardiner’s themes and emphases becomes most acute. As she pushes the reader toward a kind of critical and narrative closure, the problems of a historical perspective that has neither enough local specificity, nor a strong argument about the meaning of broad political shifts and changes, becomes apparent. The affiliative narratives developed by all three writers in these years illuminated their hostility to aspects of the new politics that challenged their own understanding of the personal as political. These clashes of historical and generational perspectives resonate across subjective and social terrains, and they suggest how inadequate and misleading it is to read them in either literal or metaphorical terms as successful moments in the authors’ or readers’ negotiations of mother-daughter relations. Just at the point when the stories Gardiner has been telling start to become dangerously instructive about the mutations of psychic symbolism that govern the shifting political investments of persons and groups across time, Gardiner reasserts those progressive developmental notions of self and relational fashioning, protectively returning us to a domesticated psychic scenario, with a maternalist ethics in dominance. Her story ends like a feminist version of Shakespearean comedy with a series of staged reconciliations between writers and mothers, between feminist readers and writers, as a sign that we have all, by the final page, acquired maturity, empathy, and authenticity.
What I have tried to argue in my consideration of Abel and Gardiner’s ambitious, original, and distinctive projects is that feminism needs to give the same scrupulous historical scrutiny to its own mythmaking, as it has to that of the dominant patriarchies. We should consider whether we may be making a dangerous overinvestment in idealized fictions of maternal and sororal relations, both as a basis for a feminized public ethics and as a narrative shape for describing the perverse and conflictful narratives which women themselves have made of their social and psychic relations to their own sex. Oppositional thinking, unresolved conflicts of a public and private kind, are good, not bad, for feminisms. It is important to keep in mind, as Abel and others have noted, that mother-child relations in Klein are marked by the paranoia and depression of the child, and, in the related work of D.W. Winnicott, by the necessary anger of child and mother. Although the dramas of kinship will ineluctably continue to provide a fantastic structure for our public and private imaginaries, they offer no simple or benign solutions to the inequalities and oppressions that women (and men) face today at every turn. Mother-daughter relations are but two of many constituents of every moment of feminism, and they cannot be abstracted from the multiple historical meanings which determine the precise staging of such a tableau.