Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Armed with Questions: Mary Butts's Sacred Interrogative

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Armed with Questions: Mary Butts's Sacred Interrogative

Article excerpt

Mary Butts's frequent use of the interrogative mode and her persistent thematization of the trope of questioning are prominent features of her writing, yet they have attracted relatively little attention from the increasing number of scholars who have recently helped to revive her literary reputation. This seems surprising at first, given the fact that the Butts renaissance has taken place in an age of vibrant feminist theory, much of which sees asking questions as a political and gendered activity. For instance, Jane Gallop speculates that "to end with questions, not to conclude, but to be open" is as close as we may get to "a truly feminist gesture" (32). Yet if we look more closely both at feminist theories of questioning and at Butts's work, we may decide that there are good reasons why they have not been brought together more often. Although the worldviews of theorists such as Gallop, Julia Kristeva, and Luce Irigaray are not explicitly "humanistic" in the traditional sense, (1) their ideas about the act of interrogation are grounded in a historical, moral, and rational view of a human other. (2) Conversely, Butts's thematization of questions is inextricably bound up in her preoccupation with the sacred and supernatural other (God, in other words) who lies beyond the realm of everyday human affairs.

French feminists have rightly pointed out that even male writers who seem to grant power or autonomy to the question (Derrida and Heidegger are prime examples) finally choose to stress the question's reliance on language rather than seeing language itself as something fundamentally interrogative. (3) Thus if we were to approach Butts's work solely through recent feminist theory, we might expect to find that her female characters have already opened themselves up to the virtues of interrogativity, while her male characters still seem to cleave to a fossilized declarative authoritarian discourse. But this is not exactly the case, as we see in her 1932 essay "Traps for Unbelievers":

      An old ghost accompanies the advances and speculations of man,
      inexorcisable, inexorable, materialising at will. Neither
      fashionable nor unfashionable, with us like the seasons or the
      weather, asking in a whisper, as Tennyson put it, if the stars run
      blind.... Every little boy in a bar, with friends and his gay
      clothes, has that whisper jazzing in his head. And most of the
      girls. All that they have by way of critical understanding is that
      Science has shown up the universe, put an end to the moral
      compulsion not to get drunk or go to church on Sundays. (304)

Far from identifying femininity with questioning (and vice versa), Butts sees the modern questioning impulse in "every little boy" as well as in "most of the girls." By "asking ... if the stars run blind," it poses a question about the existence of a superhuman, supernatural intelligence that might animate the universe. Butts's thematization of questioning frequently leads her to such speculations, to which she imputes moral as well as cosmic significance. In the same essay, Butts points to the lack of moral authority in the lives of the Bright Young Things she has described: "'Why be good any more?' they ask; and the answer is, 'Why?' What answer is there that cuts any ice which does not depend ultimately on unproved premises, and surmises whose very sound is 'unscientific'?" (305). Butts implies that if we view the world only scientifically, the lack of an easy "answer" to moral questions is turned, almost mechanically, into its own endlessly echoing and unanswerable question. This indeterminacy is hardly desirable for Butts (though we may note that it has held a strong appeal for many later feminists), since she is eager to assert the importance of the sacred and to make some positive claims about the irrational forces for which religious myths (like that of the Grail) stand.

Before considering the more complex implications of the act of questioning for Butts, we should acknowledge that on one level asking questions was for her a useful, expressive, speculative, and creative device. …

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