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Reviewed by:
  • Reconstructing Desire: The Role of the Unconscious in Women's Reading and Writing, and: Telling Tales: The Hysteric's Seduction in Fiction and Theory
  • Claire Kahane
Jean Wyatt. Reconstructing Desire: The Role of the Unconscious in Women's Reading and Writing. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1990. 271 pp. $32.50 cloth; pb. $12.95.
Katherine Cummings. Telling Tales: The Hysteric's Seduction in Fiction and Theory. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991. 298 pp. $32.50.

Jean Wyatt presents in her introduction an exciting project: to question the relation between social change and reading, by showing how writers have used what Julia Kristeva calls the semiotic register of language—the linguistic representation of preoedipal drive energies that disrupt grammar, syntax, and the fixed meanings of the Western epistemological tradition. Unfortunately, Wyatt's project is less impressive in its development, in great part because of her self-avowed double allegiance to theories of the self and of the subject. Try as she may, the Anglo-American concept of a self that moves toward a potential integration and the Lacanian presumption that the self is a defensive illusion implicitly riven with contradiction are not reconcilable. Nor do they equally underlie her readings, for although her introduction evokes Kristeva and Jacques Lacan, her book is actually grounded in Anglo-American object relations theory and its revision by Nancy Chodorow's inclusion of gender in the mother infant relation, as well as Norman Holland's earlier work on the dynamics of literary response to unconscious fantasies.

Indeed, Wyatt's real project is a familiar one in feminist criticism: to celebrate as particularly female a preoedipal fantasy of union as leading to a more nurturant society. Thus her study ignores the male reader/writer, presumedly always "oedipal," concentrating on texts by women that uncover a desire for the preoedipal symbiosis of mother and infant. It is precisely Wyatt's ubiquitous use of the phrase "preoedipal" that is an index to the book's problem; she acknowledges that "preoedipal" in psychoanalysis refers to a stage before difference, yet equates it with a quintessentially female desire for merger that already presumes a separate self. The idea that the promotion of the dissolution of oedipal structure is a necessary precedent to the development of new structures—Kristeva's thesis in Revolution of Poetic Discourse —is provocative. But although Kristeva privileges avant-garde discourse for its disruption of coherence and syntax, Wyatt's proposition "that reading a text with preoedipal appeal can cause an upheaval in the reader's socially constructed identity" remains vague and unconvincing. Most of her readings are about the character's relation to preoedipality rather than about the reader's relation to discursive representations that dissolve boundaries. Indeed, Wyatt's invocation of Kristeva's semiotic seems often misconceived, conflating signifiers about body language (the symbolic) with body language itself as semiosis. Thus for example, in her otherwise perceptive reading of The Awakening, Edna's desire for merger is offered as an example of the semiotic, although Kristeva's semiotic does not function at the level of character but of text. And while Wyatt does refer to the text of The Awakening as neglecting syntax for rhythm and alliteration, her reading depends more on a conventional poetics of the affinity between sound and sense that confirms rather than breaks down the unity of the speaking subject. [End Page 816]

More congenial to her method is her delineation of merger fantasies in contemporary fictions by women, and especially welcome is her critique of Joanna Field's On Not Being Able to Paint, about the author's anxious struggle to discover empowering boundaries between self and object, a work that deserves more critical currency in discussions of the woman artist. In short, Wyatt's readings are often sensitively attuned to the nuances of character and narrative conflict, but her theory is not rigorous, in spite of a modish use of such terms as "split reader."

If Reconstructing Desire looks to a preoedipal mother-daughter paradigm for a new model of reading, Telling Tales by Katherine Cummings focuses on the father-daughter relation, which displaces the mother to the margins, as she herself does in this...


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