Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

Over Her Dead Body: Expelling the Monstrous-Feminine in Touching Earth Lightly

Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

Over Her Dead Body: Expelling the Monstrous-Feminine in Touching Earth Lightly

Article excerpt

Death and sex/uality are inextricably linked in the Western cultural imagination. The French slang term for 'orgasm' (la petite mort) is said to literally translate as 'little death', for instance, while the 'sex-leading-to-death' motif is pervasive in narrative and aesthetic representations. Although not always consciously articulated, throughout history the most fundamental taboos on human behaviour have also been those concerned with death and sexual functions (McNay 1994, p.41). Much of the work of cultural theorists Sigmund Freud, Georges Bataille and Julia Kristeva intersects around this idea as well. Freudian psychoanalytic theory is based upon the notion that the psychic life of the subject is governed by two antagonistic biological or instinctual urges--one toward reproduction, and the other toward destruction. In Bataille's view, the framework of the law that shapes the subject (the processes of socialisation) is associated with the expulsion of the 'accursed share'--that portion of the self that is bodily and material: forbidden eroticism (incest), excrement, and death (the return to material nature of human life) (Rivkin & Ryan 1998, p.337). An 'aura of death is what denotes passion', Bataille contends (1986, p.20) because at the same time that humanity pushes death away by trying to exclude what is horrifying, it is drawn (or desires) to approach what threatens (Hegarty 2000, pp.61-62). (2) Kristeva makes a similar claim when she argues that erotic pleasure emerges as a symbolic response to the uncontainable threat of mortality. For Kristeva, the erotic is both a reaction to the threat of castration and an attempt to sustain life itself in the face of death (Tanner 1996).

In The Body's Perilous Pleasures, Michele Aaron points out that the combination between pleasure (sexual expression) and danger (potential death) is one that 'seems always to leak out of society's unconscious into its perilous, if ostensibly innocent representations' (1999, p.10). It is over representations of the dead feminine body, however, that this relationship between mortality and sexuality is especially pronounced. Indeed, for centuries, death and Woman have been wedded together so firmly in art and literature that, to appropriate Kerry Mallan's words, we have come to see the deaths of women as 'fatal attractions calling a crowd of onlookers and inviting close inspection' (2002a, p.175). Woman is 'a symptom of death's presence', Elisabeth Bronfen argues, 'precisely because she is the site where the repressed anxiety about death re-emerges in a displaced, disfigured form' (1992, p.215). According to Efrat Tseelon, Woman simultaneously 'serves the dual function of signifying a fear and the defence against' death (1995, p. 101). Woman and death share many characteristics, Tseelon argues: in the same way that the sight of the female body triggers male anxiety of castration, the sight of the dead body triggers anxiety of mortality. Thus, in patriarchal societies, both are mysterious, ambiguous, silent, unrepresentable and a threat to stability, both are the eternal Other, and both are a metaphor of disruption and transgression (1995, p.113).

The figure of the female prostitute has always been a pervasive signifier of potential danger, source of infection and fatal punishment in the Judaeo-Christian narrative tradition, for example. Here, cultural anxiety is located in the 'excessive' sexuality of the female, making the death of the prostitute a cure, a punishment, or a way to contain the threat she poses to the heterosex and the patriarchy. As Sander L. Gilman's examination of a variety of nineteenth-century images and texts featuring dead prostitutes suggests, the prostitute's death expiates her 'sins against the male' (1993, p.263). The prostitute's perversion (which is associated too with her relation to capital and the power of money) also constructs her as an 'enemy within the body politic', as corrupt and dangerous, Elisabeth Bronfen and Sarah Webster Goodwin argue--hence the need to have her destroyed (1993, p. …

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