:: Article

Breakdown, not breakthrough

By K. Thomas Kahn.

Kate Zambreno, Heroines, Semiotext(e), 2012

Critically irreverent and at the same time theoretically flawed, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines shows an obvious stylistic debt to the work of writers like Kathy Acker and Hélène Cixous. Indeed, following Cixous, Zambreno places her own text within the genre of l’écriture féminine, or women’s writing as it is informed by the body. As Cixous writes in “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975): “Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.” Zambreno’s heroines here are modernist women including Vivienne Eliot, Zelda Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and Jane Bowles, but her main interest lies with the first two women. The reader of Heroines is immersed in their stories, from Vivienne’s suggestions to improve husband T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to Zelda’s own fictional output, dismissed by her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald as mere “sketches,” and his incorporation of her diaristic writing into his own fiction. “Such cruel fate,” Zambreno writes, “[f]or a writer to lose her words.”

While Heroines is both subjective literary criticism—one that is against Eliot’s brand of New Criticism quite emphatically—and memoir, the insertion of the first-person perspective and Zambreno’s own experiences causes the text to revolve around her rather than the modernist women she writes about. Although she looks to them for guidance as a female writer herself, she is also looking to them for a model of how to live with the social and cultural stigma of mental illness. Heroines’ project is to rescue these women from the pathologizing silence in which they were forced to live and which lent them no afterlife in literary scholarship apart from how their lives relate to those of their husbands: “She is important only as connective tissue to the Great Man.” But it is also evident that Zambreno is trying to rescue herself, as a female writer who suffers from mental illness: in the examples of the modernist women and also Zambreno, the female body in Heroines is an ill body. Because of this, despite her insistence that “[m]emoir is a woman writer’s forbidden and often avoided continent” since “[t]he charge against women writers” is often narcissism, it is impossible to discuss Heroines without discussing Kate Zambreno, or, at least, the “I” who inhabits this text as the main character.

Zambreno’s recurring intertextual evocations of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own attempt to suggest that female writers today face many of the same issues Woolf observes in 1929. Living nomadically and moving wherever her husband, John, can find an academic position, Zambreno is constantly reminded of her “lack of a terminal degree” and lack of credentials to teach literature courses: “My life mirroring the mad wives more and more. Always moving, moving, moving.” While John encourages her to write, Zambreno faces scorn in these often temporary neighborhoods which only intensifies her need for an embracing community of other female writers; this is what leads her to begin her blog, Frances Farmer Is My Sister, from which Heroines evolved, a space Zambreno views as “an alternative canon,” a “subsubculture” of “scribbling sisters.” Whereas Woolf contends in Room that a woman needs only “a room of her own and five hundred [pounds] a year” in order to write, Zambreno—having a room of her own with each move her and John make—finds that this room still defines her in relation to her husband: “you become a wife … once you agree to move for him. You are placed into the feminine role—you play the pawn. … A woman trapped inside her home haunted by the mad wives of modernism.” Furthermore, the room functions in a dialectical way to posit Zambreno’s attempt to forge her own identity through her writing, while at the same time increasing her sense of isolation due to the lack of a likeminded community: “Yet a room of one’s own can feel like a prison if there’s no reason to leave it.”

In one anecdote, Zambreno rages against the phallocentric canon and its prevalence even to this day, recalling meeting in Chicago after some time a male writer with whom she had “a brief and stupid hook-up”:

Quite unlike myself I then found myself bragging to him that I had my first novel coming out. So do I he says. He tells me his is a ONE THOUSAND PAGE novel. Mine is a slim nervous novella, a grotesque homage to Mrs. Dalloway, and an exorcism of my toxic-girl past, published by an experimental feminist press.

Although never named, the allusion is clearly to Adam Levin and his 2010 debut novel The Instructions. Although Zambreno hinges her criticism of Levin’s work and the critical praise it garnered on the fact that he is a male writer, it seems clear that her main issue is that her sense of inferiority—an overt self-criticism evident throughout Heroines—rests upon the fact that she is a small-press writer. As such, this Zambreno-versus-Levin juxtaposition is less about gender than it is about audience: clearly, Zambreno desires an audience (her blog was evidence enough of this), and yet she also seems fully cognizant of the fact that her writing is not mainstream enough to reach a wider readership. “It just seems there is too much to defend against,” she writes. “I want to write my little outlaw texts and not have to reason with the Professor X’s… [T]he sense of invisibility coupled with an always desirous need for recognition.”

This contradictory tendency is found throughout Heroines, and it severely negates Zambreno’s arguments about the pathologizing silence imposed on women, especially as this silence is one with which Zambreno herself wrestles rather brutally—perhaps all the more so as it is self-imposed rather than enforced. Zambreno is hardly like the narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) who is ordered to take a rest cure and whose physician-husband prohibits her from writing, in spite of the similarities Zambreno appears to draw from the story as she views her own life: “Just like the heroine… Must not be overwrought… I have two selves too. The me that lectures women on literature where husbands oppress their wives, and the me that secretly lives that life.” Rather, Zambreno’s seething contempt for medicalized models in Heroines reads as a shameful admission of her own precarious mental health, an attempt to come to terms with diagnoses (she is diagnosed, at one point, with bipolar III), the limitations they impose on the creative process, and the overwhelming sense of dependency that mental illness can cause in one’s relationships. As she remarks of her marriage: “I need to become more independent, I realize. It is nothing John does, really, it is me.” Although Zambreno condemns male writers like Fitzgerald and Eliot for silencing the creativity of their wives, the fact that both Zelda and Vivienne grapple with the double-edged sword of artistry and illness is one that she undermines in her critical approach—almost as if preferring to blame the psychiatric models and the men who eclipsed their wives’ talents rather than acknowledging the very real, lived experiences of these women suffering from mental illness: “I am realizing these muses of modernism were often objectified twice over, through literature and psychiatry (both reducing them to their BODY).”

There is a complicity here that is unaddressed; indeed, Zambreno is willing to admit her complicity when it comes to marriage and feeling inferior to her husband in the eyes of society (and also herself, a “self-imposed exile of wifedom” with no “life outside of John’s”), but when it comes to admitting that these modernist heroines were indeed ill, Zambreno’s argument has no room for this. With that said, she does allow for Zelda to be “in some form of distress… But I think we choose to call it pathological.” Mental illness is a wholly discursive diagnosis according to her, with no experiential counterpart, a point she makes with sloppy recourse to Foucault’s work on madness. However, Zambreno’s adoption of Foucauldian tenets in Heroines is flawed, reading almost like a graduate student’s notes toward something more nuanced and theoretically sophisticated. That this denial of modernist wives’ bodily existences and experiences is so counter to a project she has rooted in l’écriture féminine makes Zambreno’s critical maneuvers here all the more flimsy.

Zambreno’s scholarship is impressive and she is obviously well-versed in her primary material; however, the lack of citation and accrediting of quotations (e.g., several times she merely states “Another biographer writes”) means that readers can’t locate these materials on their own in order to read more on the subject. One wonders, too, how seriously one should take critical writing when the author readily admits, in speaking about the online blogging community, that “many of us also read and write like girls. It is perhaps not ‘serious’ criticism, but intensely personal and emotional. A new sort of subjectivity is developing online.” When Zambreno engages with theoretical secondary sources, her contradictory argument becomes all the more apparent. For example, despite her disdain for Freud, Zambreno finds herself longing for an analytic relationship that eschews the more hierarchical doctor-patient relationship in modern psychiatry: “it is this feeling of being placed inside of a box, that makes me long for the patient-narrated model of the talking cure.” To be sure, Zambreno does note the theatricality of Charcot’s hysterical cases, the to-be-looked-at-ness (to bring Laura Mulvey’s work to mind) in the clinical scene where the male gaze renders the ill female body a spectacle. But this is a criticism she then problematically extends to Freud and Breuer’s Anna O. whose speech resulted in the alleviation of her hysterical symptoms, thus giving credence to psychoanalysis as “a talking cure.” Although Zambreno accuses Freud of eliciting this talking in an analytic scene, Zambreno’s own longing for analysis and her overall project of giving voice to silenced women and encouraging women to speak out (“To break the silence, the silencing”) are actually more indebted to psychoanalysis than she would readily admit.

Indeed, many of her secondary sources are thinkers whose names have become synonymous with psychoanalytic feminist criticism: Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Shoshana Felman. While Felman makes an appearance in Zambreno’s bibliography, there is no direct engagement with her work in Heroines. One wonders what Zambreno makes of Felman’s seminal Lacanian reading of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw in her Literature and Psychoanalysis (1982), especially since Zambreno repeatedly takes issue with James’s fictional representations of women—although, to be fair, she does limit herself to only one of his texts, Daisy Miller. Similarly, Zambreno often makes use of the word jouissance, Lacan’s term for ultimate pleasure and one that Cixous invokes in her conceptualization of l’écriture féminine; however, Zambreno only mentions Lacan twice, the most extensive mention being as follows:

I love that anecdote about Lacan telling [Marguerite] Duras in a basement bar that [Le Ravissement de] Lol V. Stein is a “clinically perfect delirium” and Duras dismissing this later, in an interview: “When Lacan says, ‘She knows, the woman knows…’ Those are a man’s words, a master’s words. The reference is himself.”

Since Heroines is concerned with the idea of mental illness and female artistry, one wonders again why Zambreno chooses to discard Lacan’s work on the symptom when embracing one’s symptom and writing one’s experiences are endeavors so central to her own project.

Zambreno is critical of Woolf’s mandate that women should not write out of anger, perhaps because she is quite obviously angry: the last sections of Heroines catalogue her psychiatric history, her feelings of isolation and ostracism, her desire to be read and appreciated, and her call for women to be “our own heroines.” The animosity and rebarbative self-loathing evident throughout the text can hardly end with Zambreno speaking to an audience of women and offering them a way forward as Woolf attempts in A Room of One’s Own: Zambreno is too close to her anger to pave the way for others unless the way forward is only a way in to one’s own despair. This is not to say that a text written out of anger can’t be brilliant: Vanessa Veselka’s 2011 novel Zazen is a good example of anger turned into art with an incisive political engagement that Zambreno attempts here but at which she ultimately fails. One can’t help but come away from reading Heroines with a genuine concern for Zambreno, who has only succeeded in pathologizing herself according to the same literary and psychiatric models against which she argues with such hostility for three hundred pages. R. D. Laing—the antipsychiatry radical whom Zambreno references several times—writes famously in The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise (1967): “Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be breakthrough.” In Heroines, we witness only the breakdown, not the breakthrough.

K. Thomas Kahn is a writer based in New York City; he is the curator of @proustitute.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 22nd, 2012.