- Matricide in Language: Writing Theory in Kristeva and Woolf
This book is backed with fulsome praise from Joan Scott and Judith Butler. It begins very promisingly. Freud long ago described Oedipal parricide inaugurating totemic memorializing of the patriarchs of our primal past. [End Page 226] Why, though, has matricide left us with virtually no foremothers? This is the question with which Miglena Nikolchina starts.
One answer comes from Julia Kristeva who, in her recent work, has emphasized not so much matricide as the role of mothers in initiating us into language. She describes, for instance, the mother's seductive psychosomatic intrusion into her infant being incorporated by the daughter to form the inner world underpinning of her subsequent writing, as in the case of Colette. She also describes the mother's love, in-feeling empathy, and interweaving of her fantasies with the proto-narratives of her infant transforming the latter's object-related bodily drives into semiotic and symbolic meaning and psychic life.
In her earlier work, Kristeva wrote more about women being lured into remaining or returning to infantile fusion with the mother contributing to their proneness to wordless melancholy. It is in this context that she writes, as it were, of matricide, at least of women, like men, vomiting out, ejecting, and abjecting whatever evokes closeness to the mother, in Kristeva's case the sight of, or touch of her lips against the skin on the surface of milk impelling her to gag.
Nikolchina skims over the details assuming we know them together with other aspects of Kristeva's writing: her account of herself living in Paris as exile from her motherland, Bulgaria; her essay about Byzantine influences on Bellini's Madonna and Child paintings indicating that they are a method for both Bellini and Kristeva of "surrogating the mother" (60–1); her theory of our separation from "the archaic mother of primordial union [by] the symbolic function" of the father initiating the "polylogue" evident in the playfulness of the artist refusing any fixed subject position (75).
"In women's writing, language seems to be seen from a foreign land," notes Nikolchina quoting Kristeva on Woolf. "Estranged from language," Kristeva adds, "women are visionaries, dancers who suffer as they speak" (80). Hence, Nikolchina suggests, Woolf's account of "strange spaces of silence" separating the utterances of women who might otherwise have been our foremothers (84). One such potential foremother might have been Diotima. Omitted from the cast-list of Plato's The Symposium, overlooked by many commentators, and depicted by others as not really a woman, Diotima is quoted at length by Socrates as counter to male eroticism constituted by what Nikolchina calls "master-slave strife" (105). By contrast, Diotima emphasizes what Nikolchina describes as female eroticism, namely desire impelled by the union needed to create and bring forth something new.
Perhaps it was this that impelled the artist, Lily Briscoe, in Woolf's 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse, to seek union with Mrs. Ramsay, imagining she might thereby find "tablets bearing sacred inscriptions . . . subtly mingling in the intricate passages of the brain . . . unity . . . intimacy [End Page 227] itself" (112). But she finds nothing. Not until after Mrs. Ramsay, her ersatz mother, is dead does Briscoe acquire a vision of something new. It is just such an event—a death, a sudden shock, the brutal "token of some real thing behind appearances," writes Nikolchina, again quoting Woolf—that impels words to construe and cover up the rift it opens up (125).
What then is to be done about the absence of foremothers to memorialize and fill such rents in our past? In her posthumously published novel, Between the Acts, Woolf depicted this absence in the form of a picture of an unknown woman next to a portrait of one of the protagonists' ancestors—"the man with a big name, the talk-producer, the proprietor with the rein in his hand," as Nikolchina puts it (120). This is clearly put. Mostly, however, Nikolchina's book is far from clear. Instead, it is...