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  • Gender, Transference, and the Reception of Early Modern Women:The Case of Louise Labé
  • Nancy Frelick

Until Recently, when scholars discussed 'the emergence of the subject' or 'the discovery of the individual,' they almost invariably referred to male writers. It was taken for granted that the subject was male, and that man was the 'measure of all things.' Notions regarding 'the formation of Renaissance selves' assumed that women did not have 'selves' in the same way as men. Similarly, while 'genius' could be attributed to man, it did not seem to be available to his female counterpart.

Fortunately, much has been done to make sixteenth-century women's writings available in the last few decades. Yet, one still encounters troubling assumptions and gender biases. Some critics continue to dismiss early modern women's writing by categorizing their texts as autobiographical and/or second-rate, or by attributing them to men. An example of this phenomenon is Mireille Huchon's Louise Labé, une créature de papier (2006), which contends that the works of Louise Labé and of Pernette Du Guillet were really written by men and that these women were mere courtesans or prostitutes, rather than fully functioning subjects capable of authorship. Huchon's work highlights the fact that women's literary capabilities are still hotly contested among some present-day academics who are apparently invested in de-legitimizing the work of certain writers or perhaps female authorship in general. This contribution will examine some problems with various readings of early modern women and propose a theoretical framework that may help us avoid such pitfalls.

As Elizabeth Waites reminds us, "We cannot know the past; we can only reconstruct it. And we, like Freud, can only reconstruct it by taking up a point of view regarding it, a theoretical or at least heuristic lens through which to view it."1 Waites thus underscores the role of transference—a kind of misreading or distortion shaped by unconscious desires, displaced affects, and imaginary projections that can contribute to personal or even collective myths that idealize or devalue self or other—in biographical reconstructions, reminding us of the impossibility of scientific objectivity when it comes to historical subjects: "At the deepest level of mental life, it is transference that determines what facts we choose to observe, record, or speak or write about. [End Page 9] The life history we disclose is always a history of transference, and it is transference that enables us to describe and interpret it" (110). I suggest that reading critical or creative works with an awareness of transference can help us to be mindful of our own (unconscious) biases with respect to gender, among other things. It can also help us to understand the reception of texts and of individual authors, whether conceived as historical figures or as constructions, such as Michel Foucault's "author function." Foucault explains that all so-called realistic dimensions assigned to individuals designated as authors are the result of complex and changeable processes that involve psychological projection:

ce qui dans l'individu est désigné comme auteur (ou ce qui fait d'un individu un auteur) n'est que la projection, dans des termes toujours plus ou moins psychologisants, du traitement qu'on fait subir aux textes, des rapprochements qu'on opère, des traits qu'on établit comme pertinents, des continuités qu'on admet, ou des exclusions qu'on pratique.2

Foucault does not refer explicitly to "transference" (le transfert), although it is a type of unconscious projection.

From a Lacanian perspective, transference is primarily an imaginary projection. The Imaginary has to do with the visual dimension, with the imago or the ego. It is the realm of imaginary capture (or capture by an image, as in the case of Narcissus). It is the realm of misrecognition, misreading or méconnaissance. It also has to do with the three fundamental passions, which Lacan (influenced by Buddhism) describes as love, hate, and ignorance.3 Yet the Symbolic dimension is involved as well, because so much is expressed through language. Transference entails the temporal displacement and projection of affect, so that the past gets played out in the present. Positive transference is...


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