Laura Deane 2005, Antithesis Journal: Excess, vol.15 no.1, pp. 74-90.
Many women, not matter what their particular case structure is: depressive, hysteric, or obsessional – complain that they experience language as something cold, foreign to their lives. To their passion. To their suffering. To their desire. As if language were a foreign body. And when they say this we are given the impression that what they question is language as a logical exercise … There may be a refusal to submit to communication.
And what if, for women, the dichotomous oppositions did not make sense the way they do for men, unless they radically submit to the phallic make world, leaving themselves mute, or reducing themselves to mimeticism, the only language, or silence, permitted them in this discursive order.
Madness has long been a theme of women’s literary production. One need only think of Plath’s The Bell Jar, or Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water. In the case of women writers who have documented their experiences of mental illness either in fiction or in literary modes such as memoir, it has been romanticised as a prerequisite for literary production—and here, of course, Virginia Woolfe, amongst others, springs to mind. Feminist interpretations of women’s madness, whether as a literary theme or whether as a source of inspiration, are split on the question of the madwoman’s intelligibility and on the efficiency of madness as a strategy for feminist protest. Despite this split, the motif of the madwoman continues to fascinate feminist critics interested in the ways that women writers voice protest.
Madness can be read as a trope for women’s positioning in cultures that privilege men, and the madwoman is often read as a motif of structural inequality. The paper considers the madwoman’s relationships to systems of language and meaning through an analysis of excessive speech and silence in literature. Madness can be read as a form of excess that may be either generative or destructive for the subject because the experience of madness exceeds meaning, logic and sense; indeed, it is an experience in the realm of non-sense. In considering accounts of women’s madness, this paper charts the linguistic disturbances that occur in depressive and psychotic episodes in Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story, and in Stephanie Luke’s memoir of a psychotic episode Harm: A Memoir of Dark and Glorious Days. Grenville’s novel is concerned with the ways that a woman born of a respectable family in 1901 can end up a ‘bag lady,’ estranged from her family of origin. Luke’s memoir, set in Adelaide at the end of the twentieth century, investigates the genesis of a psychotic episode, brought on by familial conflict and relationship breakdown.
In reading the linguistic disturbances that ‘code’ this excess, this paper investigates symbols of fluidity and displacement, arguing that overdetermination is one of the markers of this excess. But when a word, a code, or a symbol becomes so overloaded with meaning that is collapses, excess has become lack. Both Luke’s and Grenville’s writing about madness circulates around the twin poles of excess and lack, understood either as the failure of language as a result of this overdetermination, or as a withdrawal into silence and away from language as a system of communication. My interests are in applying feminist poststructuralist accounts of the subject to text of women’s madness and to the speech acts and linguistic disturbances that women writers chart in their accounts of madness. I use the term ‘madness’ to discuss mania (psychosis) and melancholia (depression). These episodes occur in Lilian’s Story and its companion and counter-narrative Dark Places, and in Luke’s Harm: A Memoir of Dark and Glorious Days. Clearly, my analysis of women’s madness is neither diagnostic nor therapeutic; rather I am concerned with the intersections between language and gender. [Pg. 75].
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