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Woman – Critic’s corner

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Barbara Spackman, Decadent Genealogies. The Rhetoric of Sickness from Baudelaire to D’Annunzio, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989

by Stefano Bragato 

This is not a book about women, women’s writing or female characters; rather, this is to some extent a book about non-men. While extensively charting the ideological inflections of the rhetoric of sickness in Decadent literature (with particular focus on d’Annunzio), this book investigates the ways in which the boundaries between man and woman begin to blur, opening up new forms of literary sensibility and new paths to artistic creation.

An essential component of this process is the woman. For the Decadent male writer (as well as for the upper class male protagonist of his novels), in fact, sickness is an artistically positive factor because it leads up to convalescence, which is considered as a catalyst for creativity. Convalescence is the very moment in which he is allowed to weaken himself, provisionally leaving aside the pose of full virility in order to take on that of a distinct feminine nature. Spackman talks about “eviration”, “feminization”, becoming an “androgynous”, a male body speaking with a female voice; a condition, she argues throughout her book, enhancing the writer’s creativity by opening up new speculative faculties and linguistic possibilities.

For both the male writer and the male protagonist, then, the very quest for creativity must pass through the woman. He needs a female character in order to attain this androgynous status: without her, he is creatively sterile. However, on a second sight we may also notice that such a central role of the female character does not necessarily correspond to an equivalent one for the woman. We should draw a distinction here between the former, actively involved in this metamorphic process of convalescence, and the latter, which seems to have absolutely no space in it. The woman, in fact, comes in useful to the male artist not as a person, with her own identity, but simply as a mere producer and conveyer of feminine attributes, i.e. those very ones he needs in order to take on that androgynous, feminine guise we have just talked about. She is no more than an instrument: the male artist does not need her, but her womanliness. After this, she is of no more use and can be discarded.

Moreover, it is meaningful that the same sickness which is positively regarded in men is condemned in women, as it has an utterly opposite effect on them: it reveals their closeness to nature (or, even worse, to bestiality), relegating them to a hysteria in which all psychic activity is reduced to bodily symptoms.

When it came out, this book offered a fresh and fascinating approach to the study of not only d’Annunzio’s oeuvre, but also of much Decadent literature: with its originality, it opened up new perspectives and insights into the Italian culture of that time. It particularly offered to D’Annunzian scholarship the possibility of new interpretations and brand new critical tools, especially in a critical context mainly focused on textual and stylistic aspects. This can be considered a pivotal book for situating not only d’Annunzio’s modernity, but also the development of the figure and role of the woman in the Italian Decadent and avant-garde literature.

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This entry was posted on July 17, 2012 by in Critic's corner.
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