“Flying is woman’s gesture-flying in language and making it fly.“
In the previous two blogs, I wrote about how Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s texts have a remarkable feminine quality to them that are due, in part, to the way he inhabits the female experience through his penname and body-centered language. Female writing, or écriture féminine as termed by prominent literary critic and gender theorist Hélène Cixous, also signifies a particular feminine structure that opposes the traditional phallic structure that relies on organization and logic. Cixous’ description of women includes images of excess and infinity. She writes.
We’re stormy, and that which is ours breaks loose from us without our fearing any debilitation. Our glances, our smiles, are spent; laughs exude from all our mouths; our blood flows and we extend ourselves without ever reaching an end; we never hold back our thoughts, our signs, our writing; and we’re not afraid of lacking. . . We expire without running out of breath, we are everywhere.
“The Laugh of the Medusa” 878
The essential structure of écriture féminine defies pinning down; it is movement and expansiveness; it is flying:
Flying is woman’s gesture-flying in language and making it fly. We have all learned the art of flying and its numerous techniques; for centuries we’ve been able to possess anything only by flying; we’ve lived in flight, stealing away, finding, when desired, narrow passageways, hidden crossovers.
Feminine writing emerges from its resistance to the order in masculine writing: an order that is not only produced and legitimized by patriarchy, but reproduces the dominanting control of patriarchy. However, feminine writing also emerges from traditional social constructions of the biological difference between male and female. In essentialist terms, the female contains endless potential to grow and produce life. The female body is elastic; it swells and multiplies and returns to its original form. These associations with the female can also describe what is traditionally considered feminine in writing: an endlessness, a discursivity, a flourishing without limit.
In January of 1921, a nineteen year-old James Leslie Mitchell was serving with the Royal Army Service Corps in Jerusalem. In one letter to his fiance Rebecca Middleton, we see the same lyrical excess, material sensuality, and wandering subjectivity that would later convince readers that Sunset Song could have only been written by a woman.
The letter is full of earnest expressions of love: it is addressed to “my dearest Re”, a descriptor used repeatedly, and he calls Rebecca his “dearest dream-girl” and “heart of mine”. He describes her as “not mere poetic fancy, but a real, warm, tender, and exquisitely desirable woman – my predestined mate.” In between his talk of leaving the “obey” out of their marriage vows and his assurances that he loves her for her own self, and not as a “breeder of progeny,” Leslie interrupts his romantic declarations to comment on the differences between their styles of letter writing.
I love your straight-forward clean cut style. You do not beat about the bush, and I, whom am myself so prone to do, read your letters with something of an admiring awe! We seem to have reversed the usual order of things, you and I. With us, it is the man who is sloppily discursive; the woman keen and decisive–at least in letter writing!
Letter 16 Jan 1921, Mitchell Literary Estate, NLS
The usual order of things that they have reversed is, of course, the gender of their writing. She writes with a masculine orderliness, without flourish and with a structure that is straight to the point. The movement of her writing is purpose-driven, a forward progression from point A to B that neatly mirrors the symbolic shape of the phallus. He writes with flourish, both in content and in penmanship. He interupts himself in his letters, and skips from one point to another and back again with little care for logical progression.
Though Mitchell presents the differing genders of their writing styles as a self-deprecating critique of his non-linear, feminine style, such criticism seems hardly genuine for a man who believes himself destined to become an author. Afterall, two of the traits that distinguish Sunset Song from its weak contemporaries, are its discursive narration and the non-linear or cyclical structure of chapters that so perfectly imitate natural life. What’s more, Leslie’s work both as Gibbon and Mitchell cover an enormous range of settings, times, themes, and topics. From a far-off future in Gay Hunter to the period of Neanderthals in Three Go Back, from Central America in The Thirteenth Disciple and Niger in his book on Mungo Park, Leslie’s writing wanders every Where and every When.
One of his works, Nine Against the Unknown, is in fact a book about explorers. In this work, Mitchell looks at nine famous explorers and what drove them. Often we associate historical exploration with imperialism and conquest; highly masculine national enterprises. Yet, Mitchell’s text highlights a different, almost feminine, discourse about exploration. For him, the drive that moves explorers is not the drive to conquer, but rather to puruse a horizon of stars, an infinite boundary, a movement into and with the unknown. For Mitchell/Gibbon, the essential structure of exploration is, like the structure of his discursive writing and of Hélène Cixous’ Woman, a flying into what Cixous calls the “chaosmos” (888).