Academic journal article Italica

The Pregnant Nun: Suor Attanasia and the Metaphor of Arrested Maternity in Dacia Maraini

Academic journal article Italica

The Pregnant Nun: Suor Attanasia and the Metaphor of Arrested Maternity in Dacia Maraini

Article excerpt

There is no protection for the woman who sings.

--Rodica Diaconescu-Blumenfeld

The critic Judith Bryce, in reviewing the negative portrayal of mothers in Voci (1994), aptly summarizes the figure of the mother in Maraini's work as "problematic" (200). Even a quick perusal of Maraini's writing over the decades uncovers a host of indifferent, dominating or dominated mothers, such as those already present, for example, in the early stories of Mio marito (1968). From this collection, we need only think of the indifferent Elda in "L'altra famiglia" or Aldo's dominating mother in "Madre e figlio." Figures of dominated mothers are even more plentiful. Consider, for example, the Client's over-indulgent and abused mother in Dialogo di una prostituta con un suo cliente (1973); the devoured Basilia in Lettere a Marina (1981); the self-sacrificing mother, Marta, of Dolce per se (1997); the selfless Manina in La lunga vita di Marianna Ucria (1990). It can be argued, with Pauline Dagnino, that at the core of Maraini's creation of such negative, devouring, conformist, or victimized mothers is a critique of "institutionalized mothering" as defined by Adrienne Rich, which protects and perpetuates the status quo of patriarchal family rule. However, to this "bad mothering," as Dagnino puts it, we can also add such neglectful mothering as demonstrated by Gramofono's too-young mother in the opening story of Buio (1999) (187).

Scholars to date have identified few positive configurations of mothering in Maraini's work. (1) One of the most frequently-noted positive aspects of motherhood for Maraini is the importance of the body of the mother in writing. As Diaconescu-Blumenfeld observes: "Maraini quotes [... Roland Barthes's] well-known idea of writing as 'playing with the body of the mother'" ("Introduction" 13). (2) Other critics, such as Dagnino, Virginia Picchietti and Sylvia Setzkorn underscore the positive symbolic mothering that occurs in the process of "affidamento" (entrustment). Yet one might consider that the many relationships of "affidamento," which scholars have convincingly identified in Maraini's work, serve as damning evidence of the difficulty or downright failure of biological mothers, since "affidamento" functions as a superior alternative, a positive substitute for the mothering that is rooted in blood-ties and fraught with pitfalls.

Judith Bryce sees this problematic representation of motherhood as incongruent with "Maraini's long-lasting and intense feminist commitment." However, perhaps Maraini gives her readers such a range of configurations of mothering not "in spite " of her feminist commitment, as Bryce states, but because of it (200). Too often, societies have touted a uni-dimensional view of motherhood, consonant with the sociopolitical period. On the other hand, perhaps "problematic" figures of mothers in Maraini's writing (a writing shaped by her acute sensitivity to, and cutting portrayals of, her changing times) reflect the ambivalence of many contemporary Italian women themselves toward motherhood. Perhaps the strongest evidence of such ambivalence is the fact that in Italy, a Catholic country in which the cult of the madonna has long fueled the cult of motherhood, continues to have what some consider a problematically-low birth rate. (3) This is at least in part due to complex and contradictory socio-cultural attitudes and to the political and religious policies that have attempted to regulate motherhood in the twentieth century, as some of the excellent collection of articles in Storia della maternita testify. For example, ideals of maternal behavior, based on the religious, social, and political intersections of the notion of self-sacrifice, have contributed at once to the glorification of the mother in Italian culture and to the sometimes painful refusal and condemnation of motherhood on the part of women who seek some measure of autonomy. If, for example, Fascist demographic policy through incentives and celibacy taxes prescribed and glorified the institution of wedded motherhood, by the 1960's, just a few decades later: "La madre era tutto cio che non si voleva diventare nella vita" (Scattigno 283). …

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