Academic journal article Text Matters

Michèle Roberts: Female Genius and the Theology of an English Novelist

Academic journal article Text Matters

Michèle Roberts: Female Genius and the Theology of an English Novelist

Article excerpt

Then it seemed to her she was in her cell, watching the cocoon crack open. Out struggled a creature with great wet, dragging wings that were stuck together. It twitched and flared. Shook out flags of billowing colour, reared its head . . . she woke up screaming, convinced she was going to die. Not a nightmare but real. The great wings beating above her, the hot pulse of its desire, so close, the fireball eyes staring into hers.

The butterfly filled the tiny room. It trembled. It was ready. At last she realised it had come out of herself. (Roberts, hnpossible Saints 35-36)

Female Genius

Today, an understanding of "genius", originating in the period and style of European culture and thought known as "Romanticism", remains definitive (Battersby 104). This frames "genius" as a typically masculine quality that, when it is associated with women, takes on all the implications of freakishness or madness (Battersby 128-30). In coining the term "female genius"2 as a way of expressing the idea that, in spite of normative frameworks, women can achieve in their own name, Julia Kristeva concedes that they will be limited by masculinist thinking and patriarchal institutions. Nevertheless, she rejects the idea that woman is excluded from the category of genius by definition and she resists this gendering of genius as exclusively masculine in two ways:

(i) The first way has to do with how she understands the development of the human subject as a speaking subject. She rests her account of this speaking subject on a psycholinguistic description (Sjöholm 16-22) in which the interplay of gendered dimensions of the psyche remain, in an optimal sense, continually and productively in play. The maternal body in this context, rather than being seen as a kind of trap for women as Simone de Beauvoir had understood it, constitutes a point of pivotal significance straddling the divide between nature and culture (Sjöholm 57) forming a part of the signifying process itself; "not a murky undercurrent of language, but an aspect of it" (Sjöholm 22). If differentiated male and female identified elements are essential to the development of the subject and neither, in the optimal sense that produces forms of symbolic representation and language, overwhelms the other, then the development of the subject itself cannot be relied upon to support cultural hierarchies or sexist theory and practice.

(ii) Secondly Kristeva opens up the idea of genius to a much wider range of activities or modes of being including elements of embodiment and female desire that are excluded in traditional and normatively masculine theology or from dominant western notions of genius derived substantially from European Romanticism (Battersby 15). Women are female geniuses because they are artists, writers and human beings alongside men and in their own right but not through the conventional exclusion, for example, of their maternal emotions or their female desires. This definition of female genius opens up the field of possibilities to many women, both living and dead who have been geniuses in every context not excluding the maternal (Kristeva, Arendt xv).

At the end of her trilogy on female genius, Kristeva distinguishes three characteristics which can be related to the work and lives of the three women she has designated as such: Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein and Colette. These characteristics focus on a recognition evidenced in all they do and write of the key sense in which the "ego is inseparable from the variety of its relationships" (Colette 420), the need to "[tend] to the capacity for thought" (Colette 421) and a capacity for birth or rebirth in the sense of bringing about new beginnings (Colette 422-23).

To summarize: Julia Kristeva's notion of female genius is grounded in the feminist theory Simone de Beauvoir initiated in 1949 in The Second Sex, in spite of her own lack of confidence in a woman's ability to achieve this accolade (Second Sex 722-23). …

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