MAID OF STONE - Madam Death! Madam Death!



“Men say that there are two unrepresentable things: death and the feminine sex,” declares Hélène Cixous in ‘The Laugh of Medusa’. Cixous does not want to destroy femininity but to unleash it. The femininity she describes is fragile, diffuse, diaphanous, quivering, excessive, surging, dispersed – “a moving, limitlessly changing ensemble, a cosmos tirelessly traversed by Eros, an immense astral space”. But isn’t this a strangely familiar (un)representation?

“In the beginning are our differences” – Cixous proclaims but she couples heterogeneity to homogeneity, femininity to masculinity, maintaining a binary understanding of difference that is neatly gendered.

Medusa turns men to stone. Freud claims her head is vaginal and the man’s metamorphosis is phallic – the stiffening of the body reassures the victim that he is still in possession of his penis – ‘you can’t kill me, bitch - I have a dick!’ But if we turn her transformative gaze on all human bodies perhaps it might kill these prescriptive gender norms stone dead.

Freud of all people might point the way.

(In Cixous’s rewriting of Dora the heroine dies in a hail of pearls)



In Female Masculinity (1998) Jack Halberstam discusses the stone butch as an abject figure, a failure of desire, castigated for embodying the ‘dysfunction of gender rigidity by taking her masculinity so seriously that she denies her female body.’ As with any transgressive mode of being in a world of brutally prescribed identities, the stone butch is formed ‘against a background of a certain amount of pain and discomfort…hardship and contradiction’. Smashed up against cold hard laws an indestructible self is constructed out of cold hard stone – ‘’granite butches’, the stones who will not melt and are impenetrable’. But even the hardest rocks break, erode, absorb or crack. Halberstam asks ‘If gender has become a battleground at this time, it is worth asking who fights the battles, who receives the wounds and bears the scars, who dies?’ The answer is unlikely to be the straight white cis men whose interests (and bodies) the institutional myrmidons of the family, private property and the state are structured to defend.



(Hannah Black suggested I talk about how women give birth and how birth might be thought in relation to death - she was completely right but these thoughts didn’t end up in the final piece)

Affirming the inorganic and brittle against the soft and reproductive is one response to a hard world that constantly threatens to violently thrust its way in. But pro-death here means taking the side of the living in a deadly world. If we are asking who receives the wounds then our answer must also include those who bear new life. In the cell, Freud claims, ‘death always coincides with reproduction.’ But this also applies to human life: we are born to die. Freud describes the death instincts as both ‘guardians of life’ and ‘myrmidons of death’, working tirelessly to ensure that the fragile organism does not die too soon. This also describes the role traditionally assigned to mothers, who psychoanalysts are often quick to castigate for their insufficiencies. She’s not ‘good enough’. Well, maybe she’s not the problem. 

The bodies that bring forth new life are necessarily porous. Birth is all about abjection- ‘a violent act of expulsion’ dependent on the interchange of fluids – semen, placenta, blood, milk. The maternal body knows no bounds, but no body is bound to another in perpetuity. The process of mummification – bearing sole responsibility for sustaining the life of a particular individual - is not identical with giving birth and it is here that the deathly social order reproduces itself.



Freud acknowledges the ‘instructive and interesting’ though ultimately ‘unclear’ contribution of Russian psychoanalyst (and infamous mistress of Jung) Sabina Spielrein to his understanding of the destructive impulses inherent in sexuality, in a footnote towards the end of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Although both Freud and Jung were rather churlish in their acknowledgment of Spielrein, emphasising the supposedly biographical neurotic content of her writing over its theoretical merits, the influence of her work on Freud’s essay is palpable. In ‘Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being’ (originally written in German and published in 1912) introduces some of the concepts that Freud eventually went on to elaborate in Beyond the Pleasure Principle eight years later. Spielrein asks why the most intensely pleasurable experiences are often accompanied by ‘a feeling of resistance, of anxiety, or disgust’. For Spielrein creation is always accompanied by destruction; sex is always accompanied by death. Not only is birth a violent and painful experience, but the act of conception is also a moment of self-annihilation. Although she accepts Freud’s understanding of pleasure and the necessary avoidance of unpleasure, she ventures beyond in her suggestion that ‘the personal psyche is governed by unconscious impulses that lie deeper and, in their demands, are unconcerned with our feeling reactions… In our depths, there is something that, as paradoxical as it may sound, wills self-injury.’ She conceives of a tension between collective and personal psyches, two antagonistic tendencies, the former of which desires transformation, while the latter ‘strives for self-preservation in its present form (inertia)’. Despite its name, what Spielrein calls the collective psyche has less in common with Jung’s conception of the collective unconscious as a trove of ancient archetypes, than it does with Freud’s reality principle: it is the outward-facing, social form of the psyche which keeps in check personal urges and impulses.




Ninotchka: You are something we do not have in Russia.

Leon: Thank you.

Ninotchka: That’s why I believe in the future of my country.

Leon: Yes. I’m beginning to believe in it myself since I met you. I still don’t quite know what it’s all about. Confuses me, frightens me. It fascinates me. Ninotchka, you like me just a little bit?

Ninotchka: Your general appearance is not distasteful.

Leon: Thank you.

Ninotchka: The whites of your eyes are clear. Your cornea is excellent.

Leon: Your cornea is terrific. Ninotchka, tell me, you’re so expert on things: can it be that I’m falling in love with you?

Ninotchka: Why must you bring in wrong values? Love is a romantic designation for a most ordinary biological - or, shall we say, chemical - process. A lot of nonsense is talked and written about it.

Leon: Oh I see. What do you use instead?

Ninotchka: I acknowledge the existence of a natural impulse common to all.

Leon: What can I possibly do to encourage such an impulse in you?

Ninotchka: You don’t have to do a thing. Chemically, we’re already quite sympathetic.

Leon: You’re the most incredible creature I’ve ever met. Ninotchka. Ninotchka.

Ninotchka: You repeat yourself.

Leon: Yes, I’d like to say it a thousand times. You must forgive me when I seem a little old-fashioned. After all, I’m just a poor bourgeois.

Ninotchka: It’s never too late to change. I used to belong to the petite bourgeoisie myself.





'A certain type of group initiation has its own special imprint: real militant activity in a reified social context creates a radical break with the sense of passivity that comes with participation in the usual institutions. It may be that I shall later on come to see that I was myself contributing a certain activism, an illusion of effectiveness, a headlong rush forward. Yet I believe noone who had the experience of being a militant in one of those youth organizations or mass movements, in the Communist Party or some splinter group, will ever again be just the same as everyone else. Whether there was real effectiveness hardly matters; certain kinds of action and concentration represent a break with the habitual social processes, and in particular with modes of communication and expression of feeling inherited from the family.'

Félix Guattari, 'The Group and the Person' in Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics (New York City: Peregrines, 1984) p. 29.