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张在新

John Zaixin Zhang

 
 
 

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Book Review on Uncanny American Fiction  

2008-11-13 22:26:06|  分类: +我的论文 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Zhang, Zaixin. Book review, South Atlantic Review 55,3 (1990): 123-126.

Uncanny American Fiction: Medusa’s Face By Allan Gardner Lloyd-Smith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. xii + 186 pp. $35 cloth.

Lloyd-Smith has done a very good job in building the notions of the uncanny around the idea of the Medusa’s face, the two interrelated aspects promised by the title of this book. The idea of the Medusa’s face clearly refers to Freud’s article “The Medusa’s Head,” but Lloyd-Smith also goes beyond Freud by suggesting a Lacanian reading of the female sexuality as a symbolic process of signification inherent in discourse instead of the Freudian notion of the castration complex (implied in the Medusa’s decapitation) as a biological reality that makes the woman inferior to man. Exploring the Freudian elements of the uncanny or  unheimlich, such as animism, the double, estrangements of the familiar, the castration complex, the repetition compulsion, revelation of the hidden and the repressed, etc. (in works by Charles Brockden Brown, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, James, and others), Lloyd-Smith is able to turn Freud’s notions of the uncanny to working for a feminist reading and to draw our attention to the roles of women in American fiction, mainly as the agent of the uncanny, threatening the male monopoly. In this sense, the feminist “Medusa’s face” alludes to Heléne Cixous’s famous essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” which hails a destructive return of the woman, the repressed of culture.

After re-reading Freud’s misreading of neglecting Clara in Hoffman’s “The Sandman,” Lloyd-Smith maintains what is missing in Freud is “the relation of the woman to the castration complex: she is “already on the other side, not fearing that fate, but implicitly threatening it” (4). Here Lloyd-Smith, with Lacan’s post-structuralist insights, is arguing that the woman, always considered as the Other, excluded from the male-dominated discourse, already exists on the other side of the signifier, for Lacan contends that men and women are on one or the other side of the signifier in the symbolic phallocentric system. That is to say, at the time when the female is objectified outside of discourse by the male, she is productive of the uncanny in fiction, the subject rather than the object, and the uncanny effect is “generated by `slippage’ between the woman as sign and the discontinuous expression of the `something else,’ or woman-as-other, that exists within the sign” (134). Not only does this Other exist in the sign but it also poses the uncanny Medusa face

threatening petrification. In many parts of the book, female sexuality is depicted as a death threatening force in fiction. In Poe, for instance, Ligeia’s “will (or desire), separated from the self, has become the Medusa, an independent life-denying force which enslaves the male” even after she is dead (46). Miriam’s Medusa-like “gaze at Donatello impels him to murder the Model” in The Marble Faun (59). So is Isabel “an uncanny seductress who brings Pierre into her thrall” in Melville’s  Pierre (71).

The most impressive of all are Lloyd-Smith’s interpretations of Ambrose Bierce’s tale “The Death of Halpin Frayser” and  James’s “The Jolly Corner.” The theme of incest plays an important role in “The Death of Halpin Frayser” in that Halpin’s mother, a Medusa figure in the tale, cannot tolerate her son/lover’s desertion and brings about his death. The power of the female, Lloyd-Smith notes, even penetrates the written in the tale, for Halpin writes in a notebook using a twig and blood in substitution of a pen and ink, and in it is a series of substitutions signified: twig (clitoris) for pen (penis) and blood (menstruation) for ink (sperm) (91). This male writing is substituted by female writing with natural, although seemingly unnatural, objects (twig and blood), and the female body or the female text (to use Cixous’s terms), a substitution, the supposedly inferior Other, turns out to be superior, death-threatening, and powerful enough to penetrate and destroy the power structure of the male supposedly to be the Self superior to the Other. Is not this part of the feminine destructive power that Cixous is looking for in “The Laugh of the Medusa”?

Not only is the uncanny female death-threatening but she also gives rebirth to the male, as in James’s “The Jolly Corner.” Jamesian critics like Daniel Fogel have discussed the role of Alice as a representation of the virtues of America with which Brydon identifies in his rebirth to American life (see Fogel’s 1987 essay “A New Reading of Henry James’s `The Jolly Corner’"). Likewise, Lloyd-Smith sees Alice as a mother/Medusa figure whose charms draw Brydon into her lap, Alice being “a Medusa in reverse: she brings the petrified plaster to life” (128). Lloyd-Smith applies a Freudian reading of the castration complex as the source of the uncanny in the tale, and Alice is the provoker of such a crisis. Brydon’s castration fantasy involves the open doors that he is sure he has closed and closed doors that he has left open. The doors are read as “sexual initiations, primal scenes,” the room as “the womb, the Mother,” and the older man, the specter, as “the Father” (126). Thus, Brydon refuses to identify with “the Father” in his denial to recognize the apparition but identifies with “the Mother” by falling into Alice’s lap and is reborn into American life.

Unlike the woman in the sentimental novel as conceptualized in Jane Tompkins’s Sensational Designs who obeys in this world in the hope that she will rule the next, the woman as the agent of the uncanny in Lloyd-Smith fights in this world by either smashing the male dominance or giving the male rebirth, and the uncanniness results partly from the disparity between the woman’s inner self and the outer social and cultural code regarding how women should behave, different from Tompkins’s reading of women in accordance with the cultural context. With power and virtues, the Medusa is “beautiful and she’s laughing,” writes Cixous, and the return of the repressed of the culture is “utterly destructive.” The will to enslave the male in Ligeia, Miriam’s instinct to impel Donatello to murder for revenge, or Clara’s revelation of the repressed incestuous love for Wieland is all part of the woman’s rebellion against the male and the culture that stands for him—a pattern of “flight” in Cixous (“dislocating things and values” and “turning propriety upside down”) or the Deleuzian “line of flight” or “deterritorilization” that transcends the ordinary and disrupts the norm.

In short, Lloyd-Smith has successfully explored the issue of the female sexuality or the “dark continent” that was once said to be too dark to be explored, by setting Freud as the point of departure and with the post-structuralist insights breaking with psychoanalysis in order to show us a vision of the new woman having shattered the fetters of the male monopoly. This is a pretty good example of what Cixous urges the feminist to do: “Break out of the circles; don’t remain within the psychoanalytic closure. Take a look around, then cut through!”

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