Champion of the X chromosome

Representing Women - Woman
September 10, 1999

Andrea Dworkin is dazzled by a celebration of the female body electric

Natalie Angier does the impossible: she sings the female body electric. Her language is ebullient and extravagant, a little like Walt Whitman at his most genial, a little like Will Self at his most florid. She is an enthusiast for the biology of the woman, usually maligned as dank, dirty, too ample, too carnal; she likes eggs and XX chromosomes; she delights in XX's more complicated DNA, the sororial possibilities that our monkey ancestors offer, the lust of bonobos and chimpanzees alike. This almost is not a book about woman's biology, because Angier's "geography" never amounts to biologism. She communicates biological detail and processes through a kind of relentlessly optimistic prosody, an abundance of words, including uncountable puns. She embraces both the visceral and the ineffable; and her pedagogy expresses an appetite for life lived in the female body. She is both scientific and political and in neither domain does she pull her punches. Her point of view is not accurately reduced to the ideological, though she is deeply feminist and deeply committed to the strength and liberty of women. Her science is biology speaking in a new tongue: take the woman's body away from Baudelaire, Sade, pornographers, sociobiologists, and the newly faddish evolutionary psychologists; give us a language of vibrant description and intellectually rigorous conceptualisation; it is as if one has been rescued from the contextual misogyny in which girls and women live. This is not simple-minded optimism or propaganda, instead it is the reclaiming of a body laden with cultural curses, a new moment in striking out and taking back. Angier reclaims not the night but the much-maligned body women live in, however light or dark.

"This is a basic principle of living organisms," she says. "Life is profligate; life is a spendthrift; life can persist only by living beyond its means. You make things in extravagant abundance, and then you shave back, throw away, kill off the excess." She is talking about the brain, built, as she says, "through extensive cell death ... molded, transformed from a teeming pudding of primitive, overpopulous neurons into an organized structure of convolutions and connections, recognizable lobes and nuclei...". She is talking about eggs: "The millions of eggs that we women begin with are cleanly destroyed through an innate cell program called apoptosis. The eggs do not simply die - they commit suicide." By the time a girl is born, "her eggs will be the rarest cells in her body".

Angier champions the often disparaged X chromosome: "What is incontestable ... is the vastly higher gene richness of the X than of the Y. The male chromosome is a depauperated little stump, home to perhaps two dozen, three dozen genes, and that's the range scientists come up with when they're feeling generous. On the X, we will find thousands of genes, anywhere from 3,500 to 6,000."

She characterises her project as "my ongoing campaign to sweeten brackish waters ...". But she does much more than that. She claims that "in a basic biological sense, the female is the physical prototype for an effective living being". Her narration of the complexity of that physical prototype is what compels. The uterus itself is "prodigal" - "a revolution in physiology ... An internally conceived and gestated fetus is a protected fetus, and a protected fetus has the luxury of developing an elaborated nervous system ... The more mothered the animal is, the more apt it is to dominate its environment." Angier's discussion of oestrogens, breast milk, menses, the clitoris and menopause shows that anatomy supports pride, not destiny. Her dismemberment of evolutionary psychologists, or, as she calls them, "evo-psychos", is worth the price of the book. Only her chapter on the female breast is ill-conceived: her advice to women is to lighten up - "If breasts could talk, they would probably tell jokes - every light-bulb joke in the book". Mine would not. Mine would dictate a hit-list of comedians and oglers, touchers and rapers.

I have not read a feminist book that I have liked so much in a decade. This is not to malign the women who have been doing the heavy lifting on prostitution, trafficking, battery and rape; but rather to say that Angier has done something new: using real science, she has reconceptualised the female body, the real body, without reifying the romance of sadomasochism, dominance or aggression.

Do not use the word "real" to Linda Nochlin; she has a post-modernist vocabulary: "In my role of interpreter ... I also have a certain doubleness, vis-a-vis the meaning of allegory. If, as I believe, all interpretation is in some sense an allegory, then in rereading Courbet's The Painter's Studio , I am in turn really allegorizing the 'real allegory'".

Nochlin is a woman of learning and accomplishment; she is a founder of the feminist discipline of art history; she has a world of phenomena at hand, a big knowledge of paintings and painters, a corollary interest in history outside the realm of art. The problem is: why does a woman with a vast cultural vocabulary not accept the authority that goes with that vocabulary (or discourse, or narrative: whatever). She tries to explain: "I don't feel at ease with closure, with establishing connections, with setting down the truth with methodological consistency: it's too phallic, too redolent of the old man with the beard giving us the word from the mountain top, engraved in stone. I prefer, or feel compelled, to teeter around on the high heels of ad hoc-istry, bricolaging my arguments, appropriating my paradigmsI". The high heels she teeters on, however, are Jacques Lacan's, who seems to have created an intellectual ghetto in which women academics want to live - a linguistic ghetto perceived as a bunker of the high avant garde; it is the privilege of anti-privilege, as Valerie Solanis might have said. This stuff - postmodernism's tortured lexicon and inability to commit - may be great in French; but in English it is cognitive dissonance, intellectual static. In fact, Lacan may have done more harm to the English language than anyone writing in it. And this is partly the fault of Nochlin: "Give me surfaces and lots of them: facets, not deep pools of profound meaning ... Indeed when I am tempted to make some broad generalisation ... I take a deep breath and wait until the temptation passes." She can be cute in Lacan's high heels.

Despite the jargon and many other tips of the hat to Lacan -and despite my dislike of approaching "representation" as if women living and breathing were not the issue - there are some fascinating essays in Nochlin's collection. In "The myth of the woman warrior" she discusses Mme de Saint-Balmont by Claude Deruet, which I have never seen, Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People , which I adore, and Jacques-François Le Barbier's Jeanne Hachette at the Siege of Beauzais , which I have never seen but I love Joan of Arc. As is immediately apparent, I have none of Nochlin's knowledge and engage in simple emotions. Nochlin tells me that "`woman ... cannot be seen as a fixed, pre-existing entity or 'image', transformed by this or that historical circumstance, but as a complex, mercurial and problematic signifier, mixed in its messages, resisting fixed interpretation or positioning". But is the painting real? Say I remain agnostic about the woman, what about the painting?

In "Gericault: the absence of women", Nochlin suggests that this painter's leaving women out of his paintings is a "strategy of displacement of feminine ... constituted by the artist's frequent positioning of the male victim". She hazards that in this artist's paintings of war veterans, wounded soldiers, executions, and decapitations "femininity and castration are mirror images of each other". I buy it. Observing "the central place occupied by the horse in Gericault's production of the sensual body" she asks: "Can a horse be the object of the gaze, in Lacanian terms?" I think so. Why not?

In "Mary Cassatt's modernity" Nochlin imposes a modern leer: "It has rarely been noticed how many of Cassatt's children - babies mostly, but some more than that - are stark naked and sexually identifiable ... Nor has it been pointed out how frankly provocative the glances and gestures of mother and infant son are in the aptly named Baby's First Caress (1891) ... We also avoid the issue of the child-nude in Cassatt's paintings because ... the subject has too many disturbing undertones and overtones. The sexuality of Mary Cassatt is not something we want to think about, just as we prefer to think of the childish body as innocent, prelapsarian in fact, despite evidence to the contrary." Nochlin is not just spinning her intellectual wheels here because she goes on to ask: "Why should a nude photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe of the young [X] of 1976 be considered obscene, or even placed in the category of 'child pornography' ... And why are Sally Mann's photographs of her own children considered more than equivocal - offensive, even, by some people ... and Cassatt's not?" At last, a question I can answer. I think the way Mann uses her children in her photographs (hello: photographs ) is straight-out child abuse; and Mapplethorpe's photograph sexualises a young, beautiful boy, a real child, for the paeodophile's gaze, which is as identifiable as the more famous male gaze. My point is that ideas have consequences and here we see a consequence of Nochlin's ideas: she "privileges" (God help me) the photograph over the living child.

I liked Nochlin's essay on paintings of working women very much - it stands out, as does her inclusion of Kathe Kollowitz; the reproductions of Kollowitz's Revolt, Rape, Outbreak , and While Sharpening the Scythe are incredibly strong and moving. This essay alone is relatively straightforward, in its analysis and detail quite brilliant, and language is used to say something, not to create an intellectual pose.

All in all, Angier sings, Nochlin does not.

Andrea Dworkin's books include Pornography: Men Possessing Women and Intercourse .

Representing Women

Author - Linda Nochlin
ISBN - 0 500 28098 3
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £14.95
Pages - 2

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