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  • Tales of Beauty: Aestheticizing Female Melancholia
  • Frances Restuccia

In “[l]ooking over the list of those one could consider ‘great melancholics’ (Petrarch, Ficino, Tasso, Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Holderlin, De Quincey, Nerval, Dostoevsky, Walter Benjamin),” Juliana Schiesari (1992), in The Gendering of Melancholia, is “struck by the notable absence of women, an absence that surely points less to some lack of unhappy women than to the lack of significance traditionally given women’s grief in patriarchal culture” (3). Worried about such nonrecognition of women’s grief, Schiesari lambastes Kristeva for sustaining the gender split between melancholic male artists and depressed ordinary women, in part by including in Black Sun just one female melancholic artist, Marguerite Duras, and then attenuating Duras’s artistic claim to gendered loss by placing Duras (alone) in an historicizing context, defined by the traumas of Hiroshima and Auschwitz.

One function of this essay, in light of Schiesari’s critique, is to save Kristeva’s seductive theory of melancholia for feminism by supplementing her analysis in Black Sun with an examination of three contemporary women writers who produce what can be read as Kristevan melancholic writing and thus achieve the symbolic status of male melancholic artists. In Anita Brookner, Margaret Atwood, and Margaret Drabble, melancholia is played out on both the levels of “content” and “form”: these women writers tell stories of women’s mundane suffering at the same time as they spin out female melancholia in literary gossamer. In her latest book, New Maladies of the Soul, Kristeva (1995) notes that the unnameable and deadly object relation unseparated from depressed subjects is “embedded in the ‘form’ as well as ‘content’ of depressive discourse”—which is what in effect I am taking the contemporary novels of this essay to be (41). The analyses that follow challenge Schiesari’s contention that melancholia up to the present day has been [End Page 353] “considered to be in excess of a purely normative state of depression; its discourse encodes male eros and male subjectivity” (75). Schiesari fails to give not only Kristeva but also female artists (including Jane Austen, whose Emma I read as a politically savvy embodiment of the masochistic melancholia that both threatens and propels the text) 1 the credit they deserve for attributing profound significance to women’s grief, for thereby altering the course of the represented history of melancholy, and for bestowing the prestige of an aestheticized melancholia on women. The women writers treated herein capture the glamour, the richness, the exquisite aristocratic quality of various forms of Kristevan melancholia through its amenability to elegant labyrinthine style. Referring in her essay “The Melancholy Persuasion” to the melancholia of both Austen’s central character (Anne Elliot) in Persuasion and the text itself, Anita Sokolsky (1994) (reading the novel through the lens of Black Sun) seems compelled to indulge herself in beautiful language that testifies to the beauty of melancholia—“exquisite torments,” “exquisite sensation,” “an aristocracy of sensibility”—as if the aesthetic component of female melancholia were so essential that to write about it is necessarily to cultivate it (or at least to try) (132, 137, 141).

Yet even as they mark progress by aestheticizing a recognizably Kristevan pathological (rather than natural) female melancholia, expressing female loss through literary technique, the women writers I take up draw out a specific liability of Kristeva’s theory that Schiesari (who stresses Kristeva’s self-hatred, misogyny, and matriphobia) happens to miss. That is: one means by which Kristeva (1989) recommends that melancholic women enter the symbolic order—through “an other jouissance” effected by a partner, an Other, who invigorates the narcissistic object and displaces it, and who thereby enables “the beloved woman’s symbolic life” (79)—invites an attachment to brutal men, to which the very pathology of melancholia renders them vulnerable in the first place. The women writers of this essay diagnose a propensity on the part of the female melancholic to favor a domineering man, whom she psychically identifies with her lost and at least in this way neglectful, if not abusive, mother. If the cure for melancholia [End Page 354] requires a kind of transferential duplication of the neglectful or abusive mother (as both my research and counseling intimate...

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