Driving a stake through the heart of psycho-biography…

Posted by cwagner on November 18, 2012 in Corinna Wagner, Guest Blog, Uncategorized tagged with , , ,

Marcuse (American, b. 1964). Wax Bodies no. 149. Josephinum, Vienna. Pigment print. 2008.

In a recent blog, Marie Mulvey-Roberts rightly observed that Frankenstein has had a resurgence (again!) and she writes: ‘Much has been written about the monster in psycho-biographical terms as a manifestation of maternal guilt or grief or as an attempt to resurrect her dead mother …. The building of the monster has been seen as a recreation of Mary Shelley herself.’

HATE. Sorry, had to get that out.

I know this is an oft-visited debate, but along with the resurrection of interest in Frankenstein, there has been a resurrection in psycho-biographical readings – in the press, in popular culture, in undergraduate essays and *gasp, horror* in academic papers. This doesn’t just apply to Shelley and Frankenstein, but to a multitude of other texts, particularly if they are written by women, have female characters and/or are categorized as gothic — everything from Angela Carter’s gothic fairy tales to Ridley Scott’s Alien succumbs to psycho-biographical approaches.

Why do we continue to reduce Frankenstein and other texts — film, novels, poems, art — to some sort of psychologically cathartic exercises for mourning/maternal/lovesick/broody/domestic women? Why are such psycho-biographical readings so bad anyway?

Jenny Saville, Closed Contact Series, 1995-1996

Let’s return to Frankenstein. It provides a particularly illustrative case study of this trend. If we go way back, Frankenstein figures prominently in Ellen Moers’s psychoanalytically informed 1970 study of the “female gothic,” which she defines as women’s writing, which presents the sexually specific struggles of female protagonists. Moers reads Shelley’s novel as “distinctly a woman’s mythmaking on the subject of birth precisely because its emphasis is not upon what precedes birth, not upon birth itself, but upon what follows birth: the trauma of the afterbirth” (81).

The psychological and physical trauma that Moers identifies is further expounded by Julia Kristeva, in her work on abjection in Powers of Horror. According to Kristeva, we experience repulsion and nausea at the sight of abject objects such as open wounds, faeces and dead bodies. We are also repulsed by the murky, leaky, slack and devouring maternal body.

The film scholar Barbara Creed further expands on this argument and uses Kristeva’s notion of the abject as a framework in her analysis of female monstrosity in the film Alien (1979). She posits that notwithstanding its phallic head and tongue, the eponymous alien is largely a monstrous female form that rapes and impregnates a male crew member. The resulting alien baby tears itself violently and bloodily from what is in effect a male womb. This scene of birth — which disrupts the boundaries between the natural and unnatural, male and female, birth and death — abjectifies the female.

Jenny Saville, Suspension, 2002

Okay, I admit that these types of psychoanalytic readings may provide insight into gendered behaviour, fears and desires, as represented in gothic film and literature. Yet biographical and psychoanalytic readings of female-authored gothic texts are narrow and misguided, and they paradoxically re-inscribe the gendered binaries they often aim to expose. There may be support for Ellen Moers’s contention that Shelley’s novel encapsulates the trauma of giving birth and what we would now term post-partum depression; however, such a reading shifts the focus from the significant intellectual milieu of the novel to focus instead on Shelley herself.

"Alien Birth" Alien, dir. Ridley Scott, 1979

There is another, more problematic offshoot to these types of approaches. They suggest that women are determined by their biology. This is an essentialist view, which erases the diversity of women’s experience – culturally and biologically. In fact, we might challenge Barbara Creed’s evaluation of director Ken Russell’s interpretation of Frankenstein in his film Altered States. Creed insists that disaster ensues in the film because a man “appropriate[s] the power of woman” by attempting to “give birth to new life without the agency of woman” (Phallic Panic, 41). I’m sorry, but the idea that women’s “power” lies in childbearing is a biologically deterministic statement. Such sexual branding reduces women to a sum of their reproductive parts and suggests that they are childbearers foremost.

"Alien Baby" from Alien, dir. Ridley Scott

To return to our case study Frankenstein, the fact that women are excluded from science, politics and philosophy must surely be a leading cause of the ensuing disasters. In fact, Shelley reveals how biology is used to determine social roles and to push women from the public sphere. In her novel, women are almost wholly absent from a male-dominated world: the explorer Walton’s sister “MWS” never appears; Frankenstein’s mother dies in childbirth; Madame Moritz dies and her rejected daughter Justine is put to death; Elizabeth is killed; finally, Frankenstein destroys the half-finished female monster. In fact, in offering a dystopic view of a society in which half the population is excluded from scientific pursuits and moral debates, this novel challenges the widely-held notion that women are intellectually and biologically less suited than men for politics, science and law.

The monster is not a warning about stealing women’s ‘power’ to procreate, but is a symptom of restricting women to a procreative role. The truly monstrous thing here is the ideology of separate spheres, which reduces women to their reproductive “destiny” and confines them to domestic drudgery.

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