Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A landscape of touch and double-touch

From the film Possession (2002): poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash

These two fictional nineteenth century poets in A. S. Byatt's novel Possession (1990) both draw inspiration from nature.  In one brief, intense summer they explore together the coast and moors of Yorkshire.  They write under the influence of Lyell and Ruskin but, like their Romantic predecessors, they are fascinated too with myths of metamorphosis, animism and elemental forces.  The poems of Christabel LaMotte (her name recalls Coleridge's poem 'Christabel' and the author of 'Undine', Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué) become, by the time the contemporary sections of the novel are set, the subject of close readings by feminist scholars.  One such critical study is read by Possession's unassuming hero, a lowly 1980s academic called Roland, just before he sets off to retrace the poets' journey north.  It leaves him with a vision of a land 'covered with sucking human orifices and knotted human body hair.'  I'd like to quote a paragraph here because, even as an amusing parody of academic writing, it is interesting on writing and landscape.  Byatt's novel is full of such extracts from fictitious poems, letters and journals.  Here, places reimagined by nineteenth century novelists are reinterpreted a century later by an American scholar who is herself merely a fictional character in Possession - nature transformed and distorted through three cultural filters.
'And what surfaces of the earth do we women choose to celebrate, who have appeared typically in phallocentric texts as a penetrable hole, inviting or abhorrent, surrounded by, fringed with-something? Women writers and painters are seen to have created their own significantly evasive landscapes, with features which deceive or elude the penetrating gaze, tactile landscapes which do not privilege the dominant stare. The heroine takes pleasure in a world which is both bare and not pushy, which has small hillocks and rises, with tufts of scrub and gently prominent rocky parts which disguise sloping declivities, hidden clefts, not one but a multitude of hidden holes and openings through which life-giving waters bubble and enter reciprocally. Such external percepts, embodying inner visions, are George Eliot's Red Deeps, George Sand's winding occluded paths in Berry, Willa Cather's cañons, female-visioned female-enjoyed contours of Mother Earth. Cixous has remarked that many women experience visions of caves and fountains during the orgasmic pleasures of autoeroticism and shared caresses. It is a landscape of touch and double-touch, for as Irigaray has showed us, all our deepest "vision" begins with our self-stimulation, the touch and kiss of our two lower lips, our double sex. Women have noted that literary heroines commonly find their most intense pleasures alone in these secretive landscapes, hidden from view. I myself believe that the pleasure of the fall of waves on the shores is to be added to this delight, their regular breaking bearing a profound relation to the successive shivering delights of the female orgasm. There is a marine and salty female wave-water to be figured which is not, as Venus Anadyomene was, put together out of the crud of male semen scattered on the deep at the moment of the emasculation of Father Time by his Oedipal son. Such pleasure in the shapeless yet patterned succession of waters, in the formless yet formed sequence of waves on the shore, is essentially present in the art of Virginia Woolf and the form of her sentences, her utterance, themselves. I can only marvel at the instinctive delicacy and sensitivity of those female companions of Charlotte Bronte who turned aside when she first came face to face with the power of the sea at Filey, and waited peacefully until, her body trembling, her face flushed, her eyes wet, she was able to rejoin her companions and walk on with them.'

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