…Sometimes I felt utterly convinced I had been singled out for glory.
But not always. Far more often I felt I simply didn’t stand a chance—even if nowadays I wouldn’t allow this thought to get me down. I was the mirror image of the Wandering Jew. I was that other poor lost soul, equally desperate and equally remorseful, lone voyager on board The Flying Dutchman.
A charmed life that carried a curse? Or a cursed life that carried a charm?
In short, I knew neither what sort of person I really was, nor how well I fitted in.
—from Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar
Stephen Benatar’s overlooked masterpiece Wish Her Safe at Home is a classic of contemporary literature. It was first forgotten upon its initial publication in 1982, and then forgotten again, following its reissue by NYRB Classics, in 2007. The novel’s heroine is Rachel Waring—good, happy, haunting Rachel Waring—a character with the weight, force, and endurance of Dickens’ Miss Havisham. Like the latter, Rachel Waring seems to be both object and object lesson, an archetype that one can bunt, and punt, and hold, and marshal as one does a German compound. And yet, Mr. Benatar refuses to let his Rachel be thus appropriated: attempts to pick her up and cast her into the airier realms of abstraction are endlessly frustrated—there are so many strings, translucent and wound to frightening tension, that hold her to this earth. And so, though we seek to escape the mortification of her reality by pushing her into the region of the symbolic, we are continually forced to recognize her non-symbolic, utterly human, idiosyncratic reality. This constant “facing-up” to the really human of the tragic figure is part of what makes Mr. Benatar’s portrayal so accomplished.
In an important passage, Rachel describes herself as “the mirror image of the Wandering Jew”: “I was that other poor lost soul, equally desperate and equally remorseful, lone voyager on board The Flying Dutchman.” Rachel’s insight into her own situation provokes a broader discussion of the tragic female figure in the Western imagination, and the ‘desperation and remorse’—or alternately, ‘attention and embarrassment’—which are the roots of that archetypal, exilic experience.
In the Western imagination, a woman’s attention to a man (e.g., a prospective lover) is something both terrifying and abnormal: like “the gift” of Marcel Mauss, female attention is a structural excess that, by its very extension, incurs a reciprocal obligation (whether the recipient asked for that attention or not). According to Mauss, though the obligation to reciprocate is rarely made explicit, it is nevertheless understood, and the non-explicitness makes the situation all the more ominous—someone “innocently” gives you something without your asking, which, whether you want it or not, you must accept, and, having accepted, must reciprocate. In this sense, the Trojan horse is the gift par excellence: a hollow figure; and the impending ambush that hollowness contains. This leads directly to one of the central questions of Mauss’ inquiry: “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?”
Now, as a student, I took all this in rather flippantly, and to a certain extent still do, though I try to mask it a little better. There seemed something elementally paranoid about Mauss’ line of inquiry, something elementally male—a fear and suspicion of something given just so, and a pathological need to morph all gifts into acts of sublimated violence. What exactly is so ominous in the desire for reciprocation? Why should another’s desire for our reciprocal attention be construed as an exercise of power? Why is reciprocation understood to be a “forced hand” of sorts, something imposed upon us—rather than a willed and empathetic response to the desire we perceive in the other, his or her desire to interact with us, and our reciprocal desire to attend to that as best we can? The social economy established through the gift is the social economy of the Christian gospel: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
It seems, then, that the suspicion and resentment which structures Mauss’ inquiry into gift-giving, is in some ways the secular twin of the suspicion and resentment that runs through both the Jewish and Christian sacred texts. Why have You put me here without my asking? What do You want in return? Why must I give it to You, if this whole situation is anyway one of Your own devising?—These are also, incidentally, the archetypal responses of the “male” neurotic to “female” hysterical desire. You have engulfed me in your scheme, and now will make ceaseless demands of me. Why do you want me? What do you plan to do with me? The promises and desires of the hysteric seem to be excessive, multiplying, intense, ever-unfolding—much like the descriptions of paradise in the Old Testament or the nature of miracles in the New Testament. And to the neurotic male, there is something obscene about this paradise, where everything that is good must also be plural. The vision of paradise, like the extension of the gift, is, in its potential for ceaseless iteration, a judgment upon the neurotic, who feels himself to be utterly, fetishistically, specific. (Hence the critique of “male” neurotic self-imagining in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love: “It is you who can’t let yourself go,” says the woman to the man, “it is you who hang on to yourself as if it were your only treasure.”)
Because the “male” neurotic clings to and covets this specificity, “female” attention becomes for him a burden. I recall my worry as a young girl when, upon hearing that classic description of the Promised Land, I thought to myself: but what if I don’t like milk and honey? And again, with the miracle of the loaves: was everyone really in the mood for fish? There is something dreadful about a miracle that—though fantastic, encompassing, well-meaning—is also simply not to your taste. Another’s desire for you—and the materialization of that desire, whether as a speech-act or as a gift—is always potentially that: a dreadful, burdensome miracle; a bit of fish you must swallow, because your good God multiplied it. However, this species of dread is a form of ignorance: in reality, a miracle is not only what is given, but the desire of another to receive what is given. A miracle is the coincidence of perfect gift and right desire (and it is a rare coincidence, indeed).
How should a woman be punished for broadcasting her desire?—this is one of the great preoccupations of Western literature. Rachel Waring, like Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, or Emma Bovary of Madame Bovary, is made other, made a social exile by dint of the excessive, ever-unfolding, ever-multiplying attentions she pays to a man. If the “ideal” woman-in-love is she who simply receives male attention, she who is disinterested and even disdainful of her suitors, she who serves as the subject of, rather than the writer of, love poetry, then the “tragic” woman-in-love is her opposite: she is ungainfully attracted to the object of her desire, she writes him, awaits him, laments him, praises him, reviles him—and she does so almost unapologetically, in forms ever more heightened and delirious. She is, fundamentally, embarrassing in her love, because her desire and desperation signal the possibility and, indeed, the imminence of her rejection—and to be rejected is, in much of the Western imagination, to be utterly un-womaned.
But to be un-womaned is not to be made male: it is instead the point at which the female figure becomes tragic, where she enters into social and sexual exile. It is, finally, a disinheritance: the world around the woman has at last become “fed up” with her antics, and so falls apart, no longer willing or able to support her manifold tantrums. She is confined to ever-rarefied spaces of her own fantasia (that she wanders as if in diaspora), which produce unwieldy religious, cultural, and even architectural constructions. These constructions are usually unstable, and the eventual disintegration of these edifices keep pace with the woman’s own emotional and intellectual disintegration.
The tragic woman is also a scapegoat. It is she who must pay, painfully and with great humiliation, for the incongruence of the world. While the man, even in tragedy, prevails as a symbol of what he was neurotically possessed by (i.e., precious individualism itself)—the tragic woman emerges only as an object, or an object lesson. Isn’t this, in some sense, the true logic of the veil: that inscribed in the very body, the very face of a woman is a vortex of desire, violently sublimated into exquisite physical features, which will finally engulf the man entirely, driving him into the most hideous spaces of his own sexual and social potential? In other words, that the woman’s very body is a demand for reciprocation (whether she likes it or not)? For the woman to speak her own legitimate, specific desire is then to produce a doubling effect, which makes excessive that which is always already seen as an excess: in the “neurotic” male imagination, even legitimate, non-pathological female desire, will be understood as hysterical—will be characterized as the sublimation of a psychically violent intention.