Mieke Bal examines the first autobiographical text written by a woman which concerns the life of the Carthaginian martyr Perpetua. The analysis combines narratology, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction, in a voluntarily anachronistic appropriation of this unique document. Scenes of martyrdom are etched on our retina, because there are so many artworks that represent them. The case Bal analyses, however, is literary, although some of its metaphors and descriptions are vividly visual. Bal speculates that a contest shapes the one that informs Perpetua's choice for this particular martyrdom: the contest between male and female, or rather, the contest for masculinity. Perpetua's move away from femininity would lead her, not so much to give up sex as to enjoy it in the only way she could have access to it, turns this story of victimhood into a story of victory: over gender-limitations and over narration.
Keywords: Perpetua, psycho-narration, gender and sexuality, contest and heroism, testimony and memory
The first autobiographical text written by a woman that I know of is the account of the last days of the life of the Carthaginian martyr Perpetua. The text is a favourite of historians and theologians but until recently had not yet been studied with the help of contemporary literary tools. However, inspired by Dorrit Cohn's reflections on the distinction between fiction and (auto)biography on the one hand, and by her analysis of “transparent minds” (1978) on the other, I will contend that it is in its literariness – its narrative structure, its fantasy character, its metaphorical insistence on unavowable themes – that the proto-feminist radicality of the text can be assessed. The most characteristic narrative strategy of literary fiction, not only in the period of realist writing, but also in other periods is the “transparent mind”: the account of visions that no one else can see. This article is meant to make the case for such an assessment. Although it lurks in the background, and doubtlessly informs this volume, I willfully pass over the fact that today, martyrdom has resurfaced as a contested concept. What for some is a brave act of braving common opinion, is for others a dreadful violence act of terrorism.
Scenes of martyrdom are etched on our retina, because there are so many artworks that represent them. The case I analyse here, however, is literary, although some of its metaphors and descriptions are vividly visual.
How does one create a future that will acknowledge the past … without repeating it? How does one look at the past with understanding, yet critically, in the etymological sense of ‘critical’ (from Greek krinein, to separate, choose), which has to do with discrimination and choice in the present?
The contemporary is, as Susan Suleiman wrote with her characteristic lucidity a propos of Bataille, what ‘concerns us.’ And that entails, to cite her next book's title, ‘risking who one is’ by discriminating and choosing in the present. Sharing Suleiman's interest in the contemporary (and in French culture), and having been accused of anachronistic readings of old master paintings, I have thought through what that means and concluded, firstly, that anachronism is indispensible if we are to make cultural utterances of whatever era matter to us. Secondly, this includes a ‘first-person’ position that fleshes out the ‘us’ in her phrase. Indeed, Suleiman is one of a handful of academics—along with literary scholars Marianne Hirsch and Jane Tompkins, and art historians Eunice Lipton and Janet Wolff, among others—who, already in the 1980s, explored how her autobiographical and self-reflexive thoughts could help her academic analyses.
I share this interest in what personal experience, when handled carefully, can add to insights gleaned from published documentation without falling into the trap of self-indulgence. It is a form of ‘fieldwork’ with one's own history and present activities as the ‘field.’ Without it, it is hardly possible to grasp what it is that ‘concerns us,’ who and what we are when we write criticism, in and for our present time. Suleiman's most personal book, Budapest Diary, is an excellent example of how the temporality of contemporariness functions. As authors of cultural criticism, we inhabit this contemporariness by integrating memories of the past.
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