Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Women and unconventional morality

The implications of the heading, above, are not as simple as it may appear. I can imagine most feminists immediately reminding me that adopting a different discursive orientation — different from patriarchal discourse, that is — is already highly unconventional. As a male feminist (no, it’s not an oxymoron) myself, I would agree, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I have in mind what would function as a kind of preliminary stage to abandoning the patriarchal landscape altogether, such as openly turning to bisexuality, for example.

This question was planted in my mind by a very unusual master’s student (by the name of Casper Lötter), who is in the process of completing a dissertation on the relationship between mothers and daughters, and what we, in western culture, can learn from the Chinese in this regard. “Very unusual”, because he is a lawyer by profession, but a feminist by inclination, which is all the more exceptional because the law is a stronghold of patriarchal values, and he is married to a Chinese woman from Shanghai, to boot — which puts him in a privileged position to comment on Chinese culture as a possible source of enlightenment concerning western filial practices.

One of the sources Casper has used in his research is the work of French philosopher, novelist and psychoanalytical theorist, Julia Kristeva, who has written widely about the fact that women, in western culture, are more prone to depression than men. I don’t want to go into the causes of this state of affairs, according to Kristeva, but rather focus on something that occurs in the context of Casper’s discussion of the celebrated French novelist, Colette, who is the subject of one of Kristeva’s many books (2004. Colette. Trans. J.M. Todd. New York: Columbia University Press).

The discussion forms part of a chapter where Mr Lötter discerningly unearths what he calls “rebel discourses” in Chinese cinema, which can play the role of models of resistance against patriarchy, and all of which are embodied in different lead roles enacted by the beautiful actress, Gong Li. One of the relevant filial relations he foregrounds (as thematised in one of these films) is that between a Chinese empress and her beloved son, which he treats as an exemplar of the valorised mother/son relationship in Chinese culture (in contrast to the much less auspicious mother/daughter relationship).

This provides a link with Kristeva’s investigation of the life and work of Collette: just as westerners can learn how to reconfigure mother/daughter relationships (which are in a parlous state in the West, according to several sources Casper refers to) in light of the mutually loving mother/son bond in Chinese society, so, too (he argues), we can take our cue from the exceptional, and highly unconventional, close ties that existed, by all accounts, between Colette and her mother, Sido.

Just how unusual her mother was, is apparent from a description of her by Colette (that Casper quotes from Kristeva’s book, p13), as a woman who, in “a shamefaced, miserly, narrow-minded little region, opened her village home to stray cats, tramps, and pregnant girls”. In other words, Sido was characterised by putting compassion into practice.

But there is more. Lötter cites E Marks (from his 1961 book, titled Colette; Secker & Warburg), as follows: “In my family” [there was] no money, but books. No gifts, but tenderness. No comfort, but liberty.” Small wonder that Colette, with the inspiring example of her mother, put this liberty into practice both in her own life and in her literary creations. As Lötter puts it in his last chapter (with acknowledgement to Marks): “All Colette’s fictional characters (Fanny, Jane, Alice, Julie) are endowed with an unorthodox ethics reinforced with an uncompromising conviction in the justice of their cause — such as that possessed by Colette herself.”

The question here is: was there a connection between her superb creativity and her “unorthodox” morality? I believe that the answer is in the affirmative, as indicated by Kristeva (2004, p11) where Casper quotes her as follows: “Kristeva … argues that Colette’s unorthodox sexual orientation is in fact essential for woman’s liberation: ‘There is no emancipation of woman without a liberation of woman’s sexuality, which is fundamentally a bisexuality and a polyphonic sensuality’.”

The reason for this is not hard to divine: conventional morality always bears the imprint of the reigning dominant discourse, which was patriarchy in Colette’s time (and arguably still is, although intertwined with neoliberal capitalist discourse), and breaking from this entails practising a distinctly different discourse, as well as a sexuality that does not exemplify the submissiveness required of women by patriarchy, even if a woman does not go quite as far as Colette did, who had heterosexual as well as homosexual affairs, and an arguably incestuous affair with her stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenel.

Just how central to patriarchal sex submissiveness is, and how many women buy into it, was brought home to me in disturbing terms, when a woman in a recent course I taught on “Women in Cinema” alerted me to a website on “hog-tied women”, boasting a gallery of photographs of naked women, trussed up like pigs, with a variety of dildos protruding from their vaginas (yes, it actually exists). The website proudly proclaims that women who are tied up in this fashion are brought to orgasm using dildos and other artefacts. You hardly get anything more submissive on the part of women than that.

This occurred during a class discussion of 8mm, a film that thematises the worst kind of pornography, namely what is known as “snuff films”. In the making of a “snuff film” a woman is killed on camera in the course of men having sex with her — a gourmet piece for the pornography “market” of men who would pay big bucks for such films because they get a sexual kick out of witnessing a woman’s demise at the end of a dick.

I would like to go further than the position described above regarding Colette, however, by reminding myself and readers of the cultural motif of the “mother-as-goddess”, probably (given the more than 3000-year dominance of patriarchy) lodged in the collective human unconscious, from where its latency and potency can erupt into creativity under favourable circumstances. It seems to me that Sido created the loving, caring circumstances conducive to such flowering of latent creativity on Colette’s part. Moreover, by all accounts, Colette’s creativity was manifested in the capacity of her writing to transfer something similar to her readers. Consider Kristeva in this regard:

“Through its erotic themes which liberated our parents’ generation, Colette’s writing stimulates a blossoming sensuality in its readers. Even more, we feel that she is immediately close because she knew how to change the words themselves. Under her pen, they were no longer commonplace signs with universal meaning, but could project us towards the sensations, emotions and drives which she claimed were inseparable from them. [Quoting Colette] “ … to me, a word is enough to recreate the fragrance, the color of hours lived, the word is as resonant and full and mysterious as a seashell that sings the sea … ”

Long before phallogocentric monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Christianity emerged, relatively recently, there were decades of worship devoted to the great Earth Mother goddess. And there is a whole literature (including Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet versus the Goddess) testifying to the remarkable fact that the communities where the divinity was worshipped as a woman, were egalitarian (although women enjoyed a more elevated social status than men), and not violently hierarchical, like patriarchal societies. We could learn a lot from this, as well as from what Lötter has written about the mother/daughter relationship in western and Chinese societies. Such as that there is a reason why eco-feminism is growing noticeably in the era of ecological degradation.

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