Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

The Prior Family Drama: A Kristevan Reading of Maurice Gee's in My Father's Den

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

The Prior Family Drama: A Kristevan Reading of Maurice Gee's in My Father's Den

Article excerpt

In Tales of Love, Julia Kristeva analyses a family of three sons who are controlled by their unloving phallic mother. Her explanation of the psychical pain produced from this schema illuminates Maurice Gee's novel, In My father's Den, and liberates it from conventional readings that insist on interpreting the character of Paul Prior as yet another Man Alone; this time the lonely intellectual pitting his strength against-not the bush-but the philistinism of small-town New Zealand.1 Ostensibly confirming the unease with religious and secular puritanism felt and articulated by the masculinist writers and critics of the provincial and post-provincial periods2, this traditional interpretation also conceals discomfort with the domestic sphere as the place where male power is disrupted.3 In addition, restricting In My Father's Den to a post-provincial reworking of the Man Alone topos, or a critique of New Zealand's particular brand of puritanism, oversimplifies the complex human relationships contained within the Prior family drama and pays inadequate attention to the role of the female characters, except to blame them in some way. The text provides clues that invite a deeper analysis than previous critics have attempted. The application of Kristevan psychoanalysis reveals that the religious and secular puritanism the narrative explicitly critiques, and which critics usually define as cultural or religious phenomena, has its psychical dimensions as well.4

Such an application is not without its dangers. Kristeva's language is notoriously unclear, a factor complicating her already revolutionary post-Freudian and post-Lacanian theories and practices. While interpreting Kristeva can be a struggle, as Kelly Oliver admits, the challenge to understand her work is as attractive as it is difficult.5 More seriously, Kristeva's positions (and I use the word 'positions' deliberately to account for the contradictions in her work) may be interpreted as not only antifeminist but sexist as well. Jane Gallop claims that to speak, as Kristeva does, Of a "phallic mother" is to subsume female experience into male categories.'6 Such a position risks strengthening critiques of the dominating mother as the source of male dysfunction, a position already popular in New Zealand culture, as elsewhere, and reflected in the male-authored literature of the provincial phase especially, where the dominating mother became a recurring stereotype. But while Gallop argues that the phallic mother is an imposture, she nevertheless concedes that Kristeva's 'insistence on the seemingly paradoxical term "phallic mother"... can most work to undo the supposedly natural logic of the ideological solidarity between phallus, father, power and man.'7 Furthermore, as Oliver argues, Kristeva's repositioning of the maternal function as central to the formation of subjectivity offers the possibility of applying her work to feminist contexts.8 Even Gallop, who is deeply critical of Kristeva's apparently phallocentric discourse, asserts that '[pjerhaps [her] most powerful subversion is to expose the phallus of the phallic mother. Not merely to theorize the phallic mother, but to theatricalize her, give her spectacle, open the curtain.'9 The theatricalisation of the phallic mother is the main objective of this article, so that the curtain might be opened on a literary work where her power is at once manifest and veiled.

Simone de Beauvoir critiques Freudian psychoanalysis for the narrow choices it offers women's psychical development. According to de Beauvoir, one of the few strong personalities offered to women outside Freud's limited and limiting definitions of femininity is that of the virilized (or phallic) woman.10 She explains the phallic woman as the one who, through primary identification with the father instead of the mother, develops a powerful masculine identity that she is able to at once exert and disguise behind a mask of feminine beauty and wiles. To negotiate the masculine world successfully, she deploys the feminine masquerade; that is, she hides her masculine self behind a seemingly subordinate and harmless feminine one. …

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