Thinking through the Mothers

Thinking through the Mothers: Reimagining Women's Biographies

Janet Beizer
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 296
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    Thinking through the Mothers
    Book Description:

    If questions of subjectivity and identification are at stake in all biographical writing, they are particularly trenchant for contemporary women biographers of women. Often, their efforts to exhume buried lives in hope of finding spiritual foremothers awaken maternal phantoms that must be embraced or confronted. Do women writing in fact have any greater access to their own mothers' lives than to the lives of other women whose stories have been swept away like dust in the debris of the past?

    In Thinking through the Mothers, Janet Beizer surveys modern women's biographies and contemplates alternatives to an approach based in lineage and the form of thought that emphasizes the line, the path, hierarchy, unity, resemblance, reflection, and the aesthetic-mimesis-that depends on these ideas. Through close readings of memoirs and fictions about mothers, Beizer explores how biographers of the women who came before rehearse and rewrite relationships to their own mothers biographically as they seek to appropriate the past in a hybrid genre she calls "bio-autography."

    Thinking through the Mothers features the work of George Sand and Colette and spans such varied figures as Gustave Flaubert, Julian Barnes, Louise Colet, Eunice Lipton, Vladimir Nabokov, Huguette Bouchardeau, and Christa Wolf. Beizer seeks an alternative to women's "salvation biography" or "resurrection biography" that might resist nostalgia, be attentive to silence, and reinvent the means to represent the lives of precursors without appropriating traditional models of genealogy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5836-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 1-12)

    Few authors relish the prospect of introducing their book. The task of moving from a work in process to a work as product means discarding a mode of writing experienced as thinking through and reworking in order to write with detachment and finality. After years of living with a baggy monster, the author as prefacer or introducer must begin to nip and tuck, reshaping the monster into fixed, describable form, and must finally, with one fatal stroke, change Proteus into stone. And so (to switch monsters and metaphors) she fixes the work to the ground, puts a stake through its...

  2. (pp. 13-40)

    1968: The author is pronounced dead in a short essay published by Roland Barthes in an obscure French journal.¹ Barthesʹs grammar oscillates between the indicative and the subjunctive, his tone between description and prescription. His rhetoric is alternately appropriate to cultural commentary and to quasi-religious fatwa. The author is ʺburied,ʺ reports Barthes, yet he also relates that ʺhis empire remains powerful.ʺ² How dead is the author?

    1973: Barthes announces the unmaking of the author in the text, using the analogy of a spider dissolving in the constructed secretions of its own web. He proposes a neologism—hyphology, literally the discourse...

  3. (pp. 41-56)

    As Michel Foucault has observed, the nineteenth century was ʺhaunted by the theme of the hermaphrodite.ʺ¹ Such a haunting must be understood above all as the expression of a certain ambivalence, for if the century was medically and scientifically dedicated to the binary attribution of sex, it was also, simultaneously, oneirically and artistically compelled to perform a more whimsical dance on the divide.

    My focus here, unlike Foucaultʹs, is not on the figure of the hermaphrodite per se but rather on the ulterior dynamic of ambivalence and indecision about sexuality and gender that was responsible for making the hermaphrodite such...

  4. (pp. 57-101)

    The absence of a feminine literary tradition resounds in postmodern writing about womenʹs lives. We have seen how Virginia Woolfʹs musing that ʺwe think back through our mothers if we are womenʺ has been appropriated by biographers and other seekers of a ʺlost traditionʺ of feminine creativity as motif if not refrain and often dirge.¹ In what follows I consider more closely, in a very specific context of the feminist biographical enterprise, the slide from literal to figurative mother, from childhood nurturer to intellectual precursor.² If, as I suggest, the lives of mothers and the lives of foremothers play out...

  5. (pp. 102-120)

    In late July 1999, two months after finishing the essay on George Sand and Huguette Bouchardeau that became chapter 3, I interviewed Bouchardeau in Paris. We met late one summer afternoon and chatted for an hour or so in the breakfast room of her hotel.¹ Bouchardeauʹs responses to the questions I posed sketched a story that was not quite what I had been expecting, and that in fact departed from the one I had already framed in my writing. (In a nutshell, I argue in chapter 3 that Bouchardeauʹs biography, George Sand: La Lune et les sabots, and the memoir...

  6. (pp. 121-142)

    First, a confession about how I came (almost not) to write this essay. When Holly Laird broached the idea of contributing to a forum on adoption, I initially recoiled in horror.¹ ʺForumʺ and ʺadoptionʺ struck me as antithetical and entirely incompatible notions, the one connoting the public and the political, and the other the private and the domestic. I wanted neither to transgress against my daughter by uncovering her (yet unwritten) story, nor to cross the lines so clearly drawn between my professional and personal life by theorizing my family and familiarizing theory.

    The vehemence of my initial reaction was...

  7. (pp. 143-222)

    To open a literary reading of La Naissance du jour with a biographical anecdote is to flout my best critical sensibilities and intents, but to do so with a sense of necessary perversity. The illegitimacy of the enterprise is compounded by the triple embedding of the epigraph, four times removed from Colette and unrelated to her writing: operating as a literary critic, I borrow from a biographer a journalistʹs recounting of a childhood memory of maternal handling related by Coletteʹs adult daughter.¹ I mean in this way to emblematize the challenges and risks of reading (for) the mother in any...

  8. (pp. 223-252)

    In the mid-1950s Roland Barthes took Elle magazine to task for an article that played the double game of promulgating a conservative ethic of female procreativity in the guise of promoting womenʹs creativity.¹ In the text of one of his better-known mythologies, ʺNovels and Childrenʺ (ʺRomans et enfantsʺ), Barthes first recalls the feature photo of seventy women novelists—graphically assembled, he suggests, like a remarkable zoological species²—and he reviews a journalistic maneuver that consists of juxtaposing the miraculously double birthlines of these women of letters: ʺJacqueline Lenoir (two daughters, one novel); Marina Grey (one son, one novel); Nicole Dutreil...