The Rite of Womens Autobiography
by Patricia Lee Yongue
The Visual Diary: Women's Own Stories organized by the Houston Center for Photography
March 4-April 10, 1994
Editor’s Note: The Visual Diary is an exhibition of eighteen women photographers, video, and book artists drawing on the tradition of the written diary to create visual texts. The exhibition is held in conjunction with HCP’s national Women in Photography Conference. The show is curated by Adele Horne, video artist and Program Coordinator at HCP and Nels P. Highberg, writer, and graduate associate at Ohio State University.
In the pivotal scene of Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), a panoply of stories constructed as woman's autobiography, the narrator imagines the lost and found wholeness of womanhood through a communion between herself and her summer landlady in the coastal village of Dunnet Landing, Maine. The writer seeks in the picturesque town and Almira Todd's house refuge from some undisclosed but appreciable emotional crisis that had splintered her sense of identity. She had planned to vacate her personal fragmented self in the "dark woods" of the country and,as a professional writer, complete a "long piece of writing”she was being paid to do.
Instead, she discovers that fragmentation and marginality had always been woman's reality and wholeness but an illusion. Viewing the problem in terms of the canonized dualities of personal and professional, interior and exterior, civilization and nature, male and female, merely scratched the surface, perhaps the problem itself. She came to understand the doubly doubled condition of woman's dissonance and existence on the peripheries. Patriarchy had anciently and biblically and rigidly hitched woman's wholeness and holiness to man, thus detaching her—and society— from her rich, unique, and sacred nature. She bad become a spectator but ran the subject of her own life.
For woman, autobiography is the first stage, the first theater of operation in rediscovery, the act of writing must, therefore, be an unwriting and unmaking of canonized images and processes, the demystifying of patriarchal representations of woman which have fixed her value as an objectification/projection of male desire and experience and into which she vanishes.
The narrator of The Country of the Pointed Firs gets back (to) the self by writing autobiographically. As Jewett represents it, woman’s autobiography is a textual reclamation of womanly autonomy over her life and her discourse. Anticipating Carolyn Heilbrun’s perspective in both Reinventing Womanhood (1979) and Writing a Woman’s life (1988), and even the core of Julia Kristeva's theory in Revolution in Poetic Language (1984), Jewett apprehends that turning discourse around is central to the renovation of thought and social change. Those prosaic “literary employments” binding women to patriarchal prescriptions about art and representation are renegotiated so that woman can have her "say."
Woman’s autobiography is the use of an apparatus, in this case discourses to reverse what that apparatus was originally authored and authorized by patriarchy to do: to rigidity and objectify the female self, to curtail the powerful feminine flow, and to suborn women into the "employments" of writing herself out of significance. Women learned the dominant discourse and eventually to traffic in it, but learned as well that they were left out of it.
Poetic discourse is as dose as articulated language gels to approximating itself and the reality of the repressed maternal, the essentially feminine: its nonlinear process, its interiority, its integrative modes, its unsurprised acceptance of difference and arbitrariness. Translated incorrectly by author and reader, however—that is, only in terms of recognizable, canonical standards—even poetic discourse can be used to mute and mutilate woman.
The woman artist in particular must permit herself reattachment to her mother, for, as Virginia Woolf said, “we think back to our mother if we are women" and so"we" must have a tradition to draw upon, a "sentence”of our own making. Without the artists willingness to reclaim and accept her womanly self which means working through women, neither she nor her culture will see wholeness.
Hence, when the novel’s character Mrs. Todd invites her young lodger to accompany her to the pasture to gather pennyroyal, an herb used primarily for mosquito control in the region but also to remedy reproductive health, she initiates a process of mythic rehabilitation. Having arrived at the familiar pasture and before she leads the writer to that secret place where the precious pennyroyal grows best, Mrs. Todd rakes our of her gingham bag a daguerreotype miniature—"’tis mother's picture—followed by another, a separate one.—"That's me”—and, finally, a third one, showing her brother “William an' father together." Not unlike the religious iconography visualizing what meanings churchgoers are enjoined to believe, the daguerreotypes in Mrs. Todd's bag image the meaning, "order," and dynamics of patriarchy. Patriarchy, represented by "William an' father together, is the result of the detachment of mother from daughter and the making of the womb the "places of great grief and silence." The transgression against women, and society, is not so much attaching women to men as it is the perversity of that attachment in the demand that women give up their attachment to their mothers and thus to other women and a tradition of self-awareness, knowledge,and meaning.
Heilbrun writes that women must begin the process of reconnection and restoration, and the creation of a new aesthetic, autobiographically,by telling one another their stories. These truly "ancient” storiestrivialized or forced underground and into a kind of ending, must then be made public, as the character of the writer in The Country of the Pointed Firs makes them public, as Jewett makes them public, for actual "lives do not serve as models; only stones do that."
The briefcollaboration of photographic image and written text that Jewett negotiates in this important scene of female vision is no diminished affair for its brevity. Like everything about The Country of the Pointed Firs, it is quiet and fertile—and pointed. She conducts a theoretical inquiry into the relationship of technologically produced images and art and how they might he used in the behalf, instead of toward the deletion, of woman's voice and vision. Proposed almost one hundred years ago. Her inquiry anticipates that of the exhibition “The Visual Diary: Women’s Own Stories.”
Photography in America saw its birth, its power to promote radical social change, and its ability to influence people’s sense of time and space during the span of the Industrial Revolution. Like the fiction termed "local color," which describes a dimension of Jewett's stories, the beginnings of photography aimed at recording a way of life before it vanished permanently. Photography also played to thedemand for realism and accuracy (as opposed to representation) thus becoming a medium for history, biography and portraiture. However, ironically, the Civil War added to the early stages of photography a deeper association with finality and death. The fixed photographic image was often the last event of the subject's present existence. In other words, the image used to confirm existence, the filling of a space, simultaneously predicted erasure, an emptying, a change or a death.
The daguerreotypes Mrs. Todd exhibits in the young writer in the pennyroyal field certify life and its continuum and continuity, just as the "primeval" pennyroyal does. The portraits announce autobiographically, "I have always been.” Most importantly, Mrs. Todd verifies over and over that she was a girl and that she has and has always had, a mother. There is connection. If there is a sinister component, it is, of course, that the separate portraits suggest an inauspicious separation of women, in light of the togetherness of the Blackett men. Mothers and children are separated biologically, bur patriarchy has, through language and technology, separated mothers and daughters spiritually as well, which means they cannot apprehend the fullest meaning and power of their original, material connection. Cynthia Greig’s collection in "The Visual Diary" combines the diaries of nineteenth century women with photographs of derelict interiors to metaphor and reverse woman drained of her self and her discourse.
In the twentieth century, photography evolved into a major agency of woman's entrapment in a discourse, now visualized and repeated constantly and accessible moment after moment. Woman—her role and certainly her cosmetic beauty—had always been fixed, rigidified because she has become, even in her own eyes, an objectification of man’s desire and needs. In terms of popular appeal, photography immortalized and confined woman to this script. They had no need of their mental and physical fullness or their voice, only of an ambition and a capacity to stay young and ideally beautiful lot men—and silent—forever. The primeval pennyroal mattered not a whit.
Women became practitioners of photography forty years after its invent ion. They had always been objects of the male gaze. Male photographers acted as gods creating them in their own idea of female beauty. The whole and dynamic woman was destroyed and replaced by a commodified fixed image which woman herself bought. Appropriately, in “The Visual Diary," Karen Johnson depicts her mother through a series of photographs of objects and object fragments. Woman became the ultimate object, a technology like the camera itself, a tool of male power used most effectively against herself.
Now, with the twentieth century ending, women are rewriting the story of photography by using it to write and ritualize their own stories and to make themselves the subjects of their own unique discourse. What is so fascinating, front a theoretical perspective, about “The Visual Diary” project is that the women photo(autobio)graphers are all quite involved in deconstructively turning the woman-predatory camera, as well as the necessary fixed and mute image, against itself. The artist hope to release the woman from the oppression of her objectification and into the place of subjectivity and continuous alteration signified by the maternal space through their work. The grids of images in the exhibition, paralleling the twenty-four separate but related (and relational) stories that make a novel of The Country of the Pointed Firs dynamic and developmental. Even the transformation of the mute photograph image into soundtracked video—Mindv Faber’s stunning Delirium, for example—celebrates and symbolizes the release into language and mobility while retaining a connection with origin. Faber gives her mother and herself place and voice.
Perhaps the most compelling technical and theoretical process occurring before our eyes,in terms of linking autobiography and photography (two forms of making visible text on a page) is the combination of photographic image and written text—climaxing in the photographic book/diary—has traditionally been avoided for the presumed invasiveness of language upon the photographic image. Clarissa Sligh’s book portrays violation as inscription on the bodies of African American children. But in light of the male tendency to privilege, sight and the visible, the photographic image is seen as purer and more able to control the specator. And, in more sophisticated practice, using the visual to produce an invisible image preempts transgressive text.
Integrating test and photographic image, however, is consistent not only with woman's need to redefine aesthetics and establish her own discourses, but also with woman's way of relating to her own existence and to others. She is more inclusive, more able to represent, because her body itself represents, paradox, and the human practice of objectifying is in her less fixed, more amorphous. She is also more inclined toward openly admitting “I” wish to relate to my subject, rather than clearing distance and hierarchical authority. In the process of composing autobiographically, she can, in Emily Dickinson’s words, feel "my life with both my hands."
Patricia Lee Yongue is an associate professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Houston.
Footnotes and Sources Consulted
Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960.
Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Reinventing Womanhood. New York: Norton, 1979.
——. Writing a Woman’s Life. New York: Norton, 1988.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1956.
Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon Roudiez. Ed. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.
——. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
——. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
Miller, Nancy K. Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. 1979. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1990.
Suleiman, Susan Rubin, ed. The Female Body in Western Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985. Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929.