restricted access Re-Placing the Madwoman: Irene Vilar's The Ladies' Gallery
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Re-Placing the Madwoman
Irene Vilar's The Ladies' Gallery

In a Utrecht University seminar taught by Rosi Braidotti in the early 1990s, Berteke Waaldijk playfully wrote on a chalkboard, "There are no/mad women in this attic." Their department—Women's Studies—had its offices in an attic that, Waaldijk informs me, was "impossible to reach without two strong legs."1 No/mad women participating in the seminar used their strong legs to climb and descend the staircase, entering and exiting the feminist intellectual space of this attic at will. Their situation is, I believe, emblematic of an increasingly fluid approach to subjectivity in the 1990s and 2000s that nonetheless has resisted becoming fully open to individuals with emotional and cognitive disabilities or mental illnesses. Driven in no small part by the rise of disability studies in the humanities, this moment of potential "opening" of the space of subject also coincided with a global effort to remove the physical barriers inherent in institutional mental health care.2 This shift in perspective allows us to revisit the madwoman's attic, reassessing how to "place" mental illness and subjectivity.

Drawing insight from some limitations of influential discussions of madness in literature by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Michel Foucault, Shoshana Felman, and Sander Gilman, this essay will explore a fluid model of subjectivity better suited to the fluctuating spectrum of mental health that is characteristic of human experience. Mutable subjectivities proposed by Rosi Braidotti and Lennard Davis are, I argue, put into practice by Puerto Rican writer Irene Vilar in The Ladies' Gallery: A Memoir of Family Secrets. As it constantly and insistently calls attention to its own literariness, this narrative places mental illness experiences as an integral part of Vilar's development as a writing subject, thus reconfiguring the conventional position afforded to the "madwoman" in both literature and society.3

Metaphor as Confinement

Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor demonstrates how figurative speech participates in the marginalization of people with a variety of health conditions, [End Page 103] including mental illness.4 When such metaphors become commonplace, a synecdochical substitution occurs, conflating the person with the sociocultural meanings surrounding the illness. The ubiquitous use of madness as a metaphor for experiences of oppression and confinement, famously exemplified by The Madwoman in the Attic, empties mental illness experiences of any meaning in their own right and equates them with silence and powerlessness. As disability theorist David T. Mitchell has put it, "the characterization of disability provides a means through which literature"—and, I would add, literary criticism—"performs its social critique while simultaneously sedimenting stigmatizing beliefs about people with disabilities."5 Such layering is at work when Gilbert and Gubar read the madwoman as doubly "mad"—both "crazy and angry."6 This anger/mental illness conflation simultaneously embodies both the woman writer's rage and its object, the diseased textual body of patriarchal society and its literature. Although Gilbert and Gubar do discuss hysteria, anorexia, and other "female diseases," these conditions are of interest here not as authentic lived experiences, but as symptoms of the "infection in the sentence."7

Because she is only a metaphor for rebellion, the madwoman herself ultimately cannot speak, as Marta Caminero-Santangelo has compellingly argued.8 Moreover, although the madwoman's label entails blatant transgression of cultural norms in her words and actions, attic walls and narrative punishments help to shield the rest of society from the potential subversive impact of this performance. Even in the absence of such barriers, the metaphorical resistance ascribed to madness can provide only the illusion of effective power, because, as we shall see, twentieth-century Western thought has defined madness as a state of absolute otherness that is far removed from the space of subjectivity.

Madness and Civilization, Foucault's "archaeology" of the ideas and practices associated with madness in Europe from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, has been influential in identifying and perpetuating the concept of madness as silence. Foucault considers that "the madman is not the first and the most innocent victim of confinement, but the most obscure and the most visible, the most insistent of the symbols of the confining...