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Body building, (dé)construire le corps en littérature

Diegetic Pregnancy in Jesse Greengrass’s Sight (2018), or the Ethics of Building Bodies in(to) Literature

Grossesse diégétique dans Sight (2018) de Jessie Greengrass, ou de l’éthique de construire les corps dans la littérature
Maxence Gouleau


La grossesse et l’accouchement ont souvent servi de métaphore pour suggérer l’acte d’écriture, mais ont longtemps été exclus du champ littéraire en lui-même, particulièrement du roman où ils n’apparaissent que très rarement dans la diégèse. Le roman de Jessie Greengrass intitulé Sight (2018) nous présente, chose rare, une narratrice enceinte, et inclut ainsi la grossesse en tant qu’évènement diégétique et thème. Partant du constat que la présence de la grossesse dans la littérature se résume à l’image d’un « homme faisant les cent pas sur le tapis » pendant qu’une femme accouche hors-champ, le roman de Greengrass aborde la tension que résume cette image : entre montrer et cacher, regarder et détourner le regard. Le roman montre que les corps enceints sont ignorés par la littérature non pas par manque de curiosité, mais plutôt à cause d’une curiosité obsessionnelle pour ce qui se trouve à l’intérieur de ces corps et ce qui en sort. En s’intéressant en parallèle aux relations chercheurs/objet de recherche et aux relations mère/fille, Sight articule les premiers mots d’une éthique du regard et de l’écriture sur les corps, que le roman situe dans une pratique de la parentalité qui reconnait à la fois la curiosité et la gêne ressenties face aux corps. Ainsi le roman déconstruit la métaphore de l’écriture comme grossesse et accouchement, et propose une réflexion sur l’incorporation éthique des corps, surtout féminins, dans la littérature.

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1Pregnancy and childbirth have often been used as metaphors for the act of writing. Yet both have a long history of having been left out of literature itself, especially as diegetic events in the novel. Plato, Philip Sidney, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Mary Shelley, Friedrich Nietzsche, Erica Jong, and Denise Levertov have all used pregnancy and/or childbirth to describe the creative act of producing literature (Friedman 1989, 49; Mullin 2002, 27). Susan Friedman writes that “[m]en as well as women have used the metaphor extensively, taking female anatomy as a model for human creativity in sharp contrast,” she adds, “with the equally common phallic analogy, which uses male anatomy for its paradigm” (Friedman 1987, 49). The “phallic analogy,” indeed also very commonly used by male writers, as Gilbert and Gubar have shown in The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), very obviously forgets the role played by female bodies in procreation, even as it transposes its powers onto the creative process. Still, the pregnancy and childbirth metaphor for writing does not do much better than the phallic analogy since the literature they both have produced forgets to pay homage to the physical event they rely on for their existence.

2The absence of pregnancy and childbirth as diegetic events in literature can be read as the common erasure of female experience in literature, or as a consequence of the philosophical tradition of the separation of body and mind – and so of the body and literature. In fact, as Elizabeth Spelman argues in “Woman as Body,” these two explanations are concurrent. Spelman’s article asks: “[w]hat connection might there be between attitudes toward the body and attitudes toward women?” She analyses Plato’s definition of the mind/body separation to conclude that “somatophobia”, or fear of the body, “historically has been symptomatic […] of sexism” (she also says, of racism). Generally, in Plato’s writings, the body “is seen as an enormous and annoying obstacle” (Spelman 1982, 113), and it seems to have remained so in literature throughout the centuries, so much so that it can only be used as a metaphor and that its physical, diegetic presence must be excluded. Clare Hanson writes more specifically of the maternal body, which is:

a troubling, disruptive body. Its most striking characteristic is its mutability, as it expands, dilates, contracts and expels. It is also leaky and permeable, losing mucous, blood and milk. […] Additionally, it has the property of divisibility, beginning as one and becoming two, and for this reason, it calls into the question the idea of the indivisible subject which underpins the Western philosophical tradition. (Hanson 2015, 87)

3As such, it is “seen as constitutively unstable”, and so “the maternal body provokes mingled fear and fascination”. This mingling of “fear” and “fascination” also explains why pregnancy and childbirth have been celebrated as metaphors but have been tackled very little as diegetic biological processes by literature.

4In 2018, English writer Jessie Greengrass publishes Sight, a novel whose narrator is a pregnant woman, and so a novel in which pregnancy is allowed to be diegetic. Yet, in an article for The Guardian, Jessie Greengrass writes about the genesis of novel and admits that although “[a]t the time, [she] wanted both to write a novel and to have a baby”, “it didn’t occur to [her] that any connection might be found between the two” (Greengrass, The Guardian, 2018). It seems Greengrass could imagine pregnancy neither as a diegetic event nor as a metaphor for writing. It was only after having had a child that she started thinking about the way pregnancy is depicted – or rather, not depicted – in literature: “at odd hours of the night, I mulled over pregnancy in literature, only to find that my overwhelming impression was of something out of shot, a business of hot water and towels despatched elsewhere while in the centre of things a man paces a carpet” (Greengrass 2018). Therefore, in her article, Greengrass rejoices in the recent publication of “a few books about pregnancy” by Rachel Cusk, Maggie Nelson and Rivka Galchen. But she also regrets that they tend to be memoirs, which she calls “the preserve of the extraordinary, of experiences outside our own” (Greengrass 2018). Eventually, after all her reading, the writer managed to pinpoint the reason why she could not see the connection between wanting to write a novel and wanting to have a child, and then later the reason why “the notion of writing a novel about pregnancy” felt “transgressive”: “in doing so a female body might be required to stand both for itself and for something other, the experience of which is not uniquely female at all” (Greengrass 2018). Pregnancy has already been made to stand “for something other” by writers who used the physical event as a metaphor for writing, and it has been made to stand “for itself”, although less extensively, in recent memoirs. What Greengrass believes the novel is capable of is to do both at the same time.

5In this article I show that in Sight, pregnancy is first made to stand “for itself” as a diegetic element. The novel tackles the tension at the heart of the general representation of pregnancy in the novel as “a man pac[ing] a carpet”, that is, the tension between the compulsion to look and to look away – the compulsion to show this “man” as he is not looking at the event of birth and pregnancy. As such, Sight addresses this literary lack of curiosity, this refusal to look at the events of pregnancy and childbirth, as being a valid, phobic perspective – as Spelman does for Plato. The novel asks and answers the following questions: who is curious and who isn’t? How is curiosity performed, to what extent and with what consequences?

6Through biographical accounts of the lives of scientists and thinkers, Sight offers a partial history of science’s curiosity for the body, exemplifying and denouncing the annihilating curiosity of men of science: paradoxically, their act of looking at, through and inside bodies, often female ones, makes these bodies disappear. Instead of scientist-object relationships, the novel turns to mother-daughter relationships, of which the novel gives multiple examples and which, in their own ways, turn out to be just as threatening for bodies, whether they give into or resist curiosity. Sight is eventually made to stand for “something other” in its elaboration of a new ethics of curiosity located in a practice of parenthood which acknowledges both fear of and curiosity for the body.

Science and the Erasure of Women’s Bodies

7In what constitutes about half of the novel, evenly distributed throughout and echoing the narrator’s retelling of her own life, the narrator explores the ways in which humans – mainly men – have attempted to satisfy their curiosity for bodies. Greengrass retraces the timelines of the discovery of the X-ray, the invention of cinema, the invention of psychoanalysis, and the first autopsies on pregnant women. Conjointly, the author explores the personal lives of the pioneers responsible for those, providing biographical accounts of their early lives, of their outlook on life, of their success as well as their failures, and of their most important relationships, often with the women in their lives. What transpires from these accounts and the way they are told in Sight is that, paradoxically, any effort to see is also at risk of erasing bodies, especially female ones. The geneses of these discoveries rest on the erasure of women and/or their bodies, which are meant to be unseen, to be made to disappear, to eventually reveal their hidden mechanisms and treasures.

8The first inventions mentioned by the narrator are the “cinematographic films” of the Lumière brothers (Greengrass 2018, 2). She speaks more precisely of one film: “the flickering black-and white image of Auguste holding his baby daughter up to a fishbowl, balancing the child on her feet so that she might look down at the water inside” (2). The narrator becomes obsessed with this film as she is trying to decide whether to have her first child or not:

During the day, instead of working, I […] watched the 42-second-long La Pêche aux poissons rouges, the Lumière brothers’ film. This is what we cling to at such times: the illusion that in the world there is a solution, if only we can find it, and it seemed to me that into that infant’s face, turned towards the curiosity the camera made on a hundred-years-ago Lyon afternoon, a whole childhood had been distilled, and that if I looked hard enough, absorbing into my own body each detail of the way Auguste held his daughter, […] then I might understand what it would be like to be either of them. I had no idea how it might function, Johannes and me and a child inside the same house. (Greengrass 2018, 4)

9When faced with the film and the spectacle it offers of father-daughter love, the narrator expresses a deep longing, a compulsive curiosity to understand what it might feel like, how it might work, whether and how it might apply to her if she were to have a child of her own. “[T]he image of the child and her father,” she writes, is like “a key that failed to fit a lock” (Greengrass 2018, 6). The narrator explains the failure of the film to satisfy her curiosity by the fact that, growing up, her own family had been unconventional, her experience of it painful. This results in her struggling to see herself as a potential mother: “My own father had slipped out halfway through my childhood, leaving little of himself behind, and my mother had died when I was in my early twenties, her death so desolating that for months afterwards I had been unable to recognise my unhappiness” (Greengrass 2018, 4-5). Still, the narrator’s impression can also be explained by the absence of a woman, of a mother, in the picture that is presented in the film. The traditional father/child/mother triad is incomplete here, the missing “key” is the Lumière child’s mother. As such, the narrator’s already hesitant potential as a mother has nothing to identify with in this film.

10The absence of the mother in the film can be explained: Mrs Lumière was perhaps there too, standing outside the frame of the camera. Perhaps she was even the one filming the scene. Still, Sight presents this absence as problematic not only through the narrator’s feelings but through the invention itself. In the text, the narrator is equated with the camera filming the scene because they are both embodiments of “curiosity”: the narrator because she is curious, seeking answers, and the camera because it was a “curiosity,” a strange object to anyone in the room in 1895, when the film was shot. The two overlay also because they are both mediums allowing us to see the scene; they are seen through, by the reader and the camera-holder. A final parallel can be made, therefore, between the narrator, the camera and the absent mother in the film. All three of them are seen through – the mother a little differently. Her presence, like the narrator’s or the camera, is unacknowledged or taken for granted, inferred, as her physicality is seen through. Readers and viewers are given to see the image produced by the camera, but not the camera, the child produced by and perhaps the film made by the mother, but not the mother, and the reflection produced by the narrator, but not the narrator. As early as the first pages of Sight, therefore, sight produced by human invention is associated with the erasure of women’s bodies, especially the mother’s.

11Another invention the narrator accounts for in the novel is Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s discovery of the X-ray: the ability to literally see through bodies. The narrator tells us that “for seven weeks and three days”, as he was making his discovery and writing about it, “Röntgen existed in a private world transformed for him and him alone” (Greengrass 2018, 44). In the meantime, his wife, Bertha, “had been his placeholder, moving through the routine business of their lives to keep the edges taut on his behalf” (Greengrass 2018, 45). Here, the text transforms Bertha the wife into a pregnant mother, keeping everything “taut” like a pregnant belly around her husband, who becomes a metaphorical unborn child.

12The seemingly grateful Röntgen is eager to show his work to his wife for the first time, since for him the images he is able to produce are “confirmation of the life which had formed such extraordinary structures” (Greengrass 2018, 46). In other words, his discovery is meant as a homage to bodies, to life and nature, and so to his wife’s pregnant-like devotion. However, “these things are a matter of interpretation”, as the narrator points out. Bertha sees her own body as “solid”, she “had not doubted those things that constituted her […] nor sought to understand them”. And so when Röntgen produces an X-ray image of Bertha’s hand to show her his discovery, to her it is “like seeing [her] own death” and therefore the images have “the chilly, soily smell of tombs” (Greengrass 2018, 46). While Röntgen, the husband/child, understands his new ability as a homage to bodies and their hidden structures, Bertha, his wife/mother, feels annihilated by his desire and ability to see through her body.

13Three more pioneering scientists mentioned in Sight are William Hunter and his younger brother John Hunter, both anatomists and surgeons, as well as the painter and engraver Jan van Rymsdyk. All three were contributors to The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures, “an atlas of the female body at each stage of pregnancy” which was published in 1774 (Greengrass 2018, 146). Their work involves the bodies of dead pregnant women, which this time are not so much seen through as they are opened up to reveal their “innards” (Greengrass 2018, 44). In the process, their bodies become “possession and exemplar”, and “the delicate operation of [these] unnamed wom[e]n’s unpeeling” becomes a spectacle to be witnessed or a landscape to be mapped:

the careful parting of skin and muscle like the drawing back of heavy curtains to give sight to the horizon beyond; the injection of blood vessels with a mixture of wax and dye so that their pathways might be visible, a new-drawn map of territory claimed; and then at last the long incision in her uterus and the uncovering of that which none of them had seen before and few others had thought to look for: an unborn baby, full term, curled tightly on the pillow of its placenta. (Greengrass 2018, 146)

14The woman’s body is not the final destination of this “map” but only the way to something more interesting, the “unborn baby”. Once again, the female body is seen through, is a medium, a path to an exciting viewing point, a vessel of sight, like one’s pupils which enable sight but can never be seen. The engravings to be found in The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus illustrate this. The women’s bodies pictured in it are never whole, but are, in a scientific approach, cut off mid-thigh and mid-torso, while the foetus in the centre is allowed to remain “whole” (see fig. 1): “while the woman is reduced to a meaty torso, her upper body visible where her legs have been sawn off, the baby is both whole and beautiful” (Greengrass 2018, 147).

Fig. 1 : Anatomia Uteri Humani Gravidi Tabulis Illustrata / The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus exhibited in Figures, by Dr William Hunter, printed in Birmingham by John Baskerville, illustrated by various printmakers, after drawings by Jan van Rymsdyk, E Edwards and A Cozens. 1770-1774.

Fig. 1 : Anatomia Uteri Humani Gravidi Tabulis Illustrata / The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus exhibited in Figures, by Dr William Hunter, printed in Birmingham by John Baskerville, illustrated by various printmakers, after drawings by Jan van Rymsdyk, E Edwards and A Cozens. 1770-1774.

©The British Museum.

15These (non-)depictions of women’s bodies have a direct influence on the narrator. The absence of the mother in the Lumière film already seemed to prevent the narrator from imagining herself as a potential mother. In the Interlude between part II and III of the novel, the narrator visits La Specola in Florence, “where in a stone-floored room wax anatomical models lie” (Greengrass 2018, 134). The narrator refers to the collection of Anatomical Venuses kept in the museum: out-of-use, eighteenth-century, anatomically correct, female wax models conceived to teach anatomy, most of them representing pregnant women, and that can be pulled apart to reveal the foetus inside the womb. These wax models, like the inventions previously mentioned, disembody the narrator, although this time it is by commodifying her body, by exaggerating its importance:

Beside her it is hard not to feel like it is I who am the imitation, mere flesh in the face of an object made […]. My own body, with its creaking joints and stretched skin, its aches and imperfections, feels by comparison to such still flesh a painful falling-short of what it ought to be. I imagine how I would look laid out like this, formed into layers, each one a shell, demountable, and at the centre of it all the indivisible nut my child makes; and how then all of it might be removed, stacked carefully up beside my open, undecaying carcass. So static I might be perfect liable at last to complete accounting, each piece examined, weighed and understood, disallowing surprise, mistake, decay; but amongst so much balance what would be left of me? (Greengrass 2018, 135)

16The models make the narrator feel like a bad “imitation” of the object she “ought to be” and trivialise the possibility of seeing inside her own body, of picking her every organ apart, as if the female body were a toy to learn anatomy with. Faced with such clarity and simplicity, as well as the possibility to “live” forever, the narrator almost wishes herself to be turned into an object as well. And as she identifies with the wax body in front of her, she is slowly deprived of her own humanity, her “aches and imperfections”, the connectedness and mystery of her own body and, eventually, her own ability and privilege to die. Just enough of her is left to wonder whether such a situation truly is desirable.

17In a Guardian article entitled “Cadavers in Pearls: Meet the Anatomical Venus”, Zoe Williams insists on the disturbing beauty of these models:

Necrophilia is a taboo for a reason. It is not what it says about, or does to, the corpse that makes it aberrant to desire it. It is what it says about your desire for women en masse, that you could see the appeal of a dead one: it is the logical end point of objectification, perceiving the physical traits to be so important that they continue to entice even after the life to which they were attached has been extinguished. (Williams 2016)

18The beauty of the models further accentuates the commodification of women’s bodies already performed by the Anatomical Venuses: women’s bodies are not only reproduced to be picked apart and explored thoroughly, but they are also made to look beautiful, they are sexualised even in a death-like state (see fig. 2).

Fig. 2 : Clemente Susini and workshop, La Venerina, c. 1780-82, created for the Museo di Palazzo Poggi, Bologna.

Fig. 2 : Clemente Susini and workshop, La Venerina, c. 1780-82, created for the Museo di Palazzo Poggi, Bologna.

© Photograph by Corinna Wagner.

19Sight crystallises the double-bind problem of the figuration of women’s bodies: they are either overlooked as medium for sight (the camera/mother, Bertha’s devotion and the Anatomical Venuses), or their insides are explored too thoroughly (Bertha’s skeletal hand, Hunter’s dissections and the Anatomical Venuses). Women’s bodies are never looked at in a way that accounts for them as anything other than the accompanying beautiful sight they ought to be and/or a mass impeding true sight. The ultimate sight being the unborn child. “In so many of these figures,” Williams writes, “almost all of them pregnant, the woman’s face is so idealised and the foetus so carefully rendered that she looks like the doll, and the baby like the human”. It is because the object of curiosity is not the woman’s body in itself, but something inside it, beyond it, the child, that the woman’s body as a human body ends up disappearing.

20The ways women’s bodies are looked at in Sight signal a form of obsessive curiosity, even voyeurism. Sartre’s parable of the voyeur in Being and Nothingness (L’Être et le Néant) is useful to look at to understand what Sight does to curiosity, and mostly to curious men:

Let us imagine that moved by jealousy, curiosity, or vice I have just glued my ear to the door and looked through a keyhole. I am alone and on the level of a non-thetic self-consciousness. This means first of all that there is no self to inhabit my consciousness, nothing therefore to which I can refer my acts in order to qualify them. […] This means that behind that door a spectacle is presented as “to be seen,” a conversation as “to be heard.” The door, the keyhole are at once both instruments and obstacles […]. Hence from this moment “I do what I have to do.” No transcending view comes to confer upon my acts the character of a given on which a judgment can be brought to bear. […] My attitude, for example, has no “outside”; it is a pure process of relating the instrument (the keyhole) to the end to be attained (the spectacle to be seen) […].
But all of a sudden I hear footsteps in the hall. Someone is looking at me! What does this mean? It means that I am suddenly affected in my being and that essential modifications appear in my structure-modifications […]. (Sartre 1993, 259-260)

21“The keyhole” can be compared to the camera/mother in Sight’s account of Auguste Lumière’s invention – the woman’s body is “the door”, or “the keyhole”, and all three are both “instruments” and “obstacles” to sight. “The end justifies the means” Sartre also writes to describe the situation (259), and this is very much the overall justification that has been used for the erasure and commodification of women’s bodies that Sight highlights. The narrator denounces this: although she can be identified with the camera/mother/lock being seen through, she also acts as “footsteps in the hall”, as the presence that witnesses the voyeur’s act of voyeurism, that provides an account of it, and that forces the voyeur to “inhabit” his own “consciousness” and to “qualify” his “acts”.

Flawed Responses: Repetition, Opacity, Anger

22When writing about the Venuses, Williams argues that curiosity has gone too far: “[t]he Anatomical Venus is literally uncanny, by Freud’s definition (borrowed from Schelling), ‘everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden has come into the open’” (Williams 2016). Sight acknowledges the lack of boundaries of the masculine curiosity for women’s bodies, as Williams does. The novel goes further to suggest that this curiosity has overlooked certain things, that it is a curiosity not careful enough of its blind sides. As an alternative to the annihilating, scientist-object relationship between masculine curiosity and women’s bodies, Greengrass offers mother-daughter relationships: the relationships between the narrator and her mother, between the narrator and her grandmother, between the narrator’s mother and grandmother, and between the narrator and her own daughter. The narrator is at the crux of all these exchanges and is thus able to reflect on all these perspectives. However, these relationships between women remain problematic as their options are limited: they repeat the annihilating mistakes of masculine curiosity, they offer an opacity that makes their bodies uninteresting in response to this curiosity, or they refuse to look at their own bodies and prefer to look away, to distance themselves from their own – and their own daughter’s and mother’s – bodies.

23Sight addresses one more means of obtaining not exactly sight, but insight (although they are described along the same parameters, as we’ll see): psychoanalysis. Freud’s era-defining theory of the unconscious is given pride of place in the second part of the novel, through the character of the narrator’s grandmother, Doctor K. Part II also offers the biographical accounts of the lives of Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna, who made sure her father’s legacy lived on after his death, and who became herself a renowned psychoanalyst. It is in one of the narrator’s depictions of Anna Freud that the blindsides of masculine curiosity become more evident:

On Wednesday evenings the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society met in the drawing room of the flat at Bergasse 19, and as soon as she was of an age to remain quiet Anna was allowed to sit on a small library ladder set in the corner and to listen, following as best as she was able the intense and voluble discussion of this earnest group of men who saw themselves […] as architects of a future in which clarity was assured and all the convoluted crenellations of the mind would be unfolded; and there, perched in shadows, fighting sleep, Anna found an empty space in such a crowded house. (Greengrass 2018, 114)

24In this passage, Anna’s half-hidden, quiet, but overseeing figure can be read as an allegory of female psychology, which has long been misunderstood by Freudian psychoanalysis, and that Freud famously called the “dark continent” (Freud 1950, 31). Anna stands for this piece of unexplored territory, unseen by all these men even as she is in the same room with them. Moreover, the apparently recurring joke Freud made that “Anna shared a birthday with psychoanalysis” further questions the very possibility for psychoanalysis to explain female psychology at all (Greengrass 2018, 109): the “dark continent” that Anna stands for appears as an intrinsic aspect of psychoanalysis that inevitably remains out of its reach, thus conferring Anna and female psychology some sort of power over psychoanalysis’s masculine adepts.

25The historical figure of Anna Freud and the potential alternative she offers to intrusive masculine curiosity find an echo in the novel in the character of Doctor K, the narrator’s grandmother who is a psychoanalyst. Doctor K is aware of psychoanalysis’s power to empower, its power to free oneself from one’s “shadows” as her character calls them, and to shed light on the ways one’s mind works. She explains to her granddaughter, the narrator, then very young, that

[t]he analyst […] is not a tour guide, leading their client through those vast and vaulted galleries, the cloisters of the mind, and nor is it their task to point out shadows, but rather they must provide an instruction in the mechanics of such shadows’ investigation. It is only […] when a person has gained the skills necessary to explore the territory for themselves, […], that they might start the work necessary to make their experience, their behaviour meaningful; and then at last they might start to become transparent to themselves. (Greengrass 2018, 80-81)

26According to Doctor K, the analyst’s role is to give the analysand the tools to explore and unpack one’s unconscious and as such she describes analysis as a tool for empowerment – in the novel she certainly is a figure of female empowerment, like Anna is.

27But what also transpires from Doctor K’s definition of psychoanalysis is the price bodies pay: their transparency, their erasure, just as with the inventions and discoveries previously discussed. The terms used by Doctor K make the mind seem like a physical place, and the endeavour of psychoanalysis in her words becomes an endeavour into the space that hosts the mind inside one’s body. Similarly, in Being a Skull, Georges Didi-Huberman writes:

  • 1 All italics in quotes by Didi-Huberman are his.
  • 2 Didi-Huberman quotes Paul Sollier (whose name is misspelled in the translation), Paul Schilder and (...)

But oh how it still remains difficult to think about (to imagine, to represent, to define, to even question) this site of thought!1 The inside of the head is, of course, invisible to us. As far as endogenous impressions and kinesthetic sensations are concerned, they remain rather impoverished and merely suggest to us, as the psychologists say, “a dome or cave” that we fill in with our visual images and autoscopic inventions.2 For his part, Freud did quite a bit to propagate topical hypotheses of the psyche as well as archeological metaphors. […] he certainly knew how to rethink thought – but, in the end, what did he discover if not the same, eternally cavernous [béante] question, the same enigma of the site of thought? (Didi-Huberman 2016, 33-34)

28Doctor K’s “galleries”, “cloisters” and “territory” indeed echo the “dome or cave” of “psychologists” as well as Freud’s “archeological metaphors”. Didi-Huberman’s reflection in Being a Skull relies on the works of Italian artist Giuseppe Penone, among which the series entitled Foglie (Leaves). These four works were made placing “graphite powder” onto the inside of a skull and by performing “a delicate frottage of microscopic reliefs, networks, and veins, of the surface” which is then “harvested via a transparent adhesive tape”. “The result is a mural […] that […] develop[s], by way of precise transfer, the blind contact of a brain with its skull” (Didi-Huberman 2016, 62). The result also reminds us of Doctor K’s “galleries” and “cloisters” (see fig. 3). What the works of “psychologists”, Freud, Didi-Huberman and Penone reminds us of is the connection between body and mind, that the site of the mind is within the body, that one way – perhaps the only way – of accounting for minds is to account for the bodies that host them. And according to Didi-Huberman, Freud himself was unable to overcome the obstacle of the body.

Fig. 3 : Giuseppe Penone, Foglie, Oil, 300 x 200 cm, 1990, Musée de Grenoble, Panel IV, Inv. MG 2014-2-1-4.

Fig. 3 : Giuseppe Penone, Foglie, Oil, 300 x 200 cm, 1990, Musée de Grenoble, Panel IV, Inv. MG 2014-2-1-4.

Crédit photographique Ville de Grenoble / Musée de Grenoble - J.-L. Lacroix. © Adagio, Paris.

29And in Sight, Doctor K is faced with this same obstacle of the body that won’t let itself be seen or seen through. For example, Doctor K’s attempts at accounting for what goes on inside her daughter’s mind results in the opacity of her daughter’s body, which, it turns out, consists in a form of erasure:

my mother told me how, each morning during childhood […] my grandmother asked her about her dream, questioning her in detail about their content; and that because of this, by the time my mother was five or six years old, she had stopped dreaming entirely. Afterwards I wished she hadn’t told me. The thought of my mother as a child, her dreams jettisoned as though they were no more than empty wrappers, chilled me. (Greengrass 2018, 72)

30In response to the intrusion of psychoanalysis as performed by her own mother, the narrator’s mother’s body seems to shut down, to become completely opaque. Instead of making her daughter transparent to her and to herself, Doctor K’s attempts make her daughter’s mind opaque, as well as her body: the “cloisters” and “galleries” of her mind are left in the dark. As such, her mind and body become also uninteresting: without dreams, they have no stories to tell. Once again in Sight a woman’s body is discarded, this time not as a medium or a commodity to be admired, or seen through or inside, but as a mute mass not worthy of any attention.

31This revelation made to the narrator by her mother feels like “a casually effected violence which throws the world just west of true” (72). In The Mother-Daughter Plot. Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Marianne Hirsch reflects upon the problematic “knowledge” that is created by psychoanalysis, even when it is performed by women:

  • 3 The italics are the Hirsch’s.

In taking as their point of departure not only the works and the terms of male theorists such as Freud and Lacan, but also a developed system relying on androcentric assumptions, the revisionary models of Chodorow, Gilligan, Irigaray, Kristeva, and others are necessarily hampered in their process of revision. Psychoanalytic theory and a feminism based in psychoanalytic terminology, cannot […] present one crucial aspect of women’s experience – the voice or the subjectivity of the mother. For such a feminism, looking back is looking to the story of a mother who is defined as subordinate in patriarchy, the backdrop of the child’s developing consciousness, the object of the child’s subjectivity. Looking back, for the feminist daughter, may permit a form of knowledge […] but it will not permit a different form of knowledge.3 (Hirsch 1989, 160)

32In Sight, Doctor K makes the mistake that Hirsch identifies in the writings of women psychoanalysts. She relies on theories constructed by men, built upon the subordination of the mother – a general subordination that, as we’ve showed, Sight explores also outside of psychoanalysis, through medical and technological advances, and that impacts pregnant and maternal bodies. Here, this problem of knowledge concerns a granddaughter, so a female body still. It is Doctor K’s granddaughter who notices how her grandmother’s psychoanalytic practice “throw[s] the world just west of true” – in other words, fails to create “a different form of knowledge” that speaks truthfully, accurately, about maternal, pregnant and female bodies.

33Still, it is the first time in the novel that a response is given to obsessive curiosity, even though it is a response that invites no dialogue. While the masculine seeks, Sight tells us, the feminine occults, remains opaque. Although what Doctor K and Marianne Hirsch show is that curiosity is not necessarily masculine, and so perhaps opacity is not essentially feminine.

34To further dismantle the masculine/feminine correspondence with curiosity/opacity, it seems that the pregnant narrator’s body welcomes both sides of this curiosity/opacity dialectic. The pregnant narrator’s perspective on her own body as well as her children’s maps out the difficult relationship between this desire to see, which is necessarily to see through, to erase, and the response that occults, with both compulsions to be found in the same body – hers. Her position as a daughter, a mother and a pregnant woman heightens the tension between the two compulsions and, more importantly, highlights their universality: it shows that these compulsions are the result not of having a respectively female or male body, but simply of having a body of any kind.

35As the novel opens, the narrator is sitting at her desk, pregnant, writing and looking through the window at her partner and her daughter in the garden. She regrets the distance between herself and her daughter, who has begun to lose the “tumbling immediacy of toddlerhood” (Greengrass 2018, 1). She speaks of a lack of transparency, of “concealment”, “unfamiliarity”, “distance”. The narrator wishes she could “reach across to where [her daughter] stands, outlined against the violent yellow mass of a forsythia bush, and pull her back to [her], to keep her always in [her] sight so that she might be nothing more than the sum of what [she] know of her” (2). The growing distance between her daughter and herself, being unable to tell exactly what goes on inside her child’s mind, is painful for the narrator, who before could read her daughter’s thoughts “like weather across her face” (1). The narrator’s remedy to this pain would be “to keep her always in [her] sight” (2), and so to always know everything that happens to her and to keep track of everything that changes about her. However, the narrator admits this is impossible: “I know her less and less the more she becomes herself. This is how things ought to be, her going away while I remain” (2). Her daughter could not become herself – a self, a subject – if her mother followed her desire.

36And yet, a close reading of the passage hints at an even more radical, although subdued, desire in the narrator. The forsythia bush in front of which her daughter and partner are can perhaps a bit crudely be read as the narrator’s pubic hair, or “bush”. If so, her daughter suddenly seems to have just been born, to have just come out of her, outlined against the narrator’s pubic bone and hair. Here, the narrator’s desire to keep her daughter “in her sight” shifts to a desire to keep her in her self, back into the womb, where her daughter would still be, partly, herself – her mother’s self. There would be nothing separating mother and daughter, and so nothing would be hidden from the narrator. This fantasy echoes both the erasure as perpetuated by the desire to see through and inside bodies, and the opposite compulsion to conceal, to keep inside. The narrator harbours both compulsions. In fact, they become one and the same and it becomes clear that they would produce the same result: the erasure of a self, here the daughter’s.

37This previous passage also continues to illustrate how mothers and daughters too can be dangerous to one another in the way they look at each other. Hirsch regrets the way feminist daughters have treated their mothers. One source of this bad treatment is psychoanalysis, which “ha[s] been helpful to feminism […] only from the point of view of the developing child” (Hirsch 1989, 167). Daughters have long refused to look at their mothers, so much so that, Hirsch writes, “the image that pervades feminist writing is the image of self-creation – women giving birth to themselves, determining their own course” (ibid.,166).

38In Sight, this urge to look away is another form of response from women to attempts at erasure or commodification of their bodies. It can be found several times in the novel, although, interestingly, it is always the privilege of the mother, not of the daughter. In the following passage, the narrator is tempted to look away from her unborn child, the one she carries. The consequences of this desire if it were to come true would be just as bad as the previously imagined erasure of the narrator’s daughter:

I would like to pause pregnancy like a film, to walk away, do something else, returning later […]. I would like to be unpregnant for a stretch. I had always, before my first pregnancy, regarded my body as a kind of tool, a necessary mechanism, largely self-sustaining, which, unless malfunctioning, did what I instructed of it, and so to have my agency so abruptly curtailed, revealed as little more than conceit, felt like a betrayal. I no longer listened to my own command. Inside me, while I wished that I might be able to be somewhere else, that I might leave my body in the frowsty sheets and go downstairs to sit in the dark kitchen, unswollen and cool, cells split into cells, thoughtless and ascending, forming heart and lungs, eyes, ears – a hand grew nails – this child already going about its business, its still uncomprehending mind unreachable, apart. (Greengrass 2018, 161)

39The narrator’s pregnant body, inhabited by another creature, is reminiscent of her mother’s dreamless, defensive body. It is a body that remains impervious to external demands. It is with the narrator’s initial consent, since she decided to have a child, but without her having control over the situation, that her body starts building another body inside her own, following a certain biological destiny, regardless of her agency and comfort. The narrator has no power in refusing to show: her belly is growing in spite of her, her pregnancy shows, is seen and felt. In opposition to her earlier desire to pull her daughter back into her womb, here the narrator wishes she could halt the pregnancy, or that the pregnancy could continue without her, that she could separate herself from her body for a while – that she could turn away and not have to look at her changing, building body. Once again, the compulsion if given in to would result in the erasure of the child: it is a fantasy of temporary abortion.

40Hirsch reminds us that “for Freud,” what “fundamentally underlies the sequence of individual maturation” is “anger between child and mother” (Hirsch 1989, 168). For Winnicott, the “good-enough mother” must “accept” her child’s anger and the separation that results from it, “without visible hostility” on her part, despite the fact that the mother, too, harbours anger towards her child (168). Leaving psychoanalytic theories aside, Hirsch eventually finds traces of “the mother prominently and in complex and multiple ways” in “the tradition of black American women writers of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s” (Hirsch 1989, 176), especially in ways that account for the mother’s anger from her own point of view. Similarly, what is starting to transpire thanks to the above fantasy in Sight is the mother’s anger towards her children, especially in the way this child to come is portrayed: the future child is not her child, but “this child”. In fact, it is not even exactly a child but rather a collection of organs and body parts, strangely animated, “a hand growing nails”, a creature given a life it perhaps should not have, like Frankenstein’s creature. As the foetus seems to take over her body, it is alienated, depersonalised by the narrator. Similarly to what Hirsch identifies in black American women writers, only many decades later, in a different country, and in a narrator whose skin colour remains unknown, Sight gives a voice to the mother’s anger. The potential consequences of the mother’s anger in Sight end up being the same as that of the daughter’s: the anger of daughters has often led them to “giv[e] birth to themselves”, to quote Hirsch again, and the mother’s anger would have the same effect. The narrator’s fantasy of pausing pregnancy either performs an imaginary abortion, or alludes to a for now impossible fantasy of her child being grown outside of the womb, and eventually of the child giving birth to itself.

41However, this all remains fantasy. It is interesting to note how the narrator reflects upon this a few pages later, as she explains how much she misses her own deceased mother throughout the experience of her first pregnancy:

I […] thought of my own mother, how what I had been feeling the lack of since the evening that I found out that I was pregnant was […] the role she might have occupied and the fulfilment of those tasks for whose performance she would have been the obvious candidate […]. I would have that undemanded, undemanding love, not dependent on individuals but rather on the places they hold – mother, daughter; except that as I no longer hold that place I cannot now imagine how it might feel to do so, since to cease to have a mother is to forget, as well, how to be a daughter. (Greengrass 2018, 175)

42As the narrator reflects on her own grief at her mother’s absence, the narration also highlights how unproductive and saddening the execution of these fantasies would be. To be without a mother is to “forget, as well, how to be a daughter” and makes motherhood more difficult. As Sight grants these angry fantasies a voice, but keeps them inoffensive, the novel insists on both the need and the possibility for the expression of the mother’s anger in literature, without it resulting in the erasure of the mother or the daughter.

From Curiosity to Recognition

43Other characters or historical figures succumb to these compulsions – to hide, to seek, and to look away – but the narrator herself does not. It is so for two reasons: her fantasies of pulling her daughter back into her womb and its opposite, to “pause pregnancy like a film”, are physically impossible to realise (Greengrass 2018, 161), and the narrator admits that her desire to keep her daughter always in her sight is not “how things ought to be” (2). As such, were the physical impossibilities the narrator is faced with overcome, they would still have to be resisted: pushing her daughter back into the womb, and physically separating herself from the foetus she carries would result in the annihilation of these two selves, and therefore it would not be “how things ought to be”. It would not be, the novel seems to say, ethical.

44Both Hirsch in The Mother-Daughter Plot and Adalgisa Giorgio in Writing Mothers and Daughters point to Jessica Benjamin’s work as “a way of rescuing mother-daughter attachment from pathological territory” (Giorgio 2002, 25), and more generally as a “redefinition of how power can function in a relationship” (Hirsch 1989, 167) – in other words, as an ethics of relationships. Reading Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination, Giorgio writes:

Challenging Chodorow’s and Flax’s unproblematic pre-Oedipal space and maternal engulfment, Benjamin focuses on the early mother-child relationship as an interaction between two subjectivities. Each member of the dyad perceives itself, from the very moment of the child’s birth, as distinct from the other but is dependent on the other for recognition: ‘Recognition is that response from the other which makes meaningful the feelings, intentions, and actions of the self. It allows the self to realise its agency and authorship in a tangible way. But such a recognition can only come from an other whom we, in turn, recognise as a person in his or her own right’ (Benjamin, 1990, 12). […] Differentiation becomes the result of a delicate balancing between self-assertion and mutual recognition which enables self and other to meet as equals. […] Thus Benjamin moves away from a child-centred psychology and psychoanalysis, which reduce the mother to an object of the child’s needs and desires, and at the same time opens the space for a maternal subjectivity which is not totally invested in the child. (Giorgio 2002, 25-26)

45When Sight’s narrator denounces destructive curiosity but resists annihilating compulsions to hide or look away, she insists on the recognition of the other as a self and of how one’s life depends on this recognition by “an other”, like Benjamin. It is at the crossroads between seeking, hiding, and looking away that recognition can be found. And in Sight this recognition has to do with the way we perceive and think about bodies.

46What the narrator means by “how things ought to be” is clarified in the very last lines of the novel, which retrace the birth of her first child:

then this, the moment all else falls away from. The pain stops and someone hands my daughter to me, her tiny body beating in the air, and for an instant we are nothing but a single surface, joined, laid out beneath the light, and everything is perfect, clear: I know her absolutely and all her history is mine for I have seen it all –
then time, then growth obscures. The cord is cut; our separation starts. She is taken from me, weighed, dressed. I close my eyes in relief that it is over and a first part of her life is lost to me. Johannes holds her. She starts to cry, a newborn’s wail of bleak surprise, and we do not know the reason but must try, somehow, to find it out. (Greengrass 2018, 193)

47While Giorgio insists on the distinction between mother and child from the very moment of birth, Sight at first perpetuates the fantasy of a symbiosis of identity between mother and child. Still, this only lasts “for an instant” before “growth obscures”. Then, as the newborn “starts to cry”, the narrator formulates the beginning of an ethics that conjugates curiosity and recognition: “we must try, somehow, to find it out”. “Must” and “try” almost cancel each other out and inscribe both the compulsion of curiosity (“must”) and what must also be its inevitable failure (“try”) – a failure that is due to a physical impossibility and/or performed out of consideration for the self of the other. What the “must try” antithesis does indeed underline is the impermeability of the newborn’s body: the child cries and it is not possible to know why, since the child cannot speak, since the child’s body cannot manifest its needs clearly. It is up to the parents to try and find out why the child cries. Here the novel situates its new ethics of recognition within the realm of parenthood, where curious compulsions are counterbalanced by parental love. The narration defines parental love as the co-existence of three conflicting parameters: the recognition of the child’s inability to communicate their needs or to dissimulate them, the impossibility to ignore one’s crying child, and the terrible and useless violence it would be to force a form of knowledge out of one’s child.

48What Sight forces in its last lines is an ethical confrontation with somatophobia – our fear of bodies. Hirsch writes that somatophobia is “a pervasive discomfort among women and within feminism”, and that

[n]othing entangles women more firmly in their bodies than pregnancy, birth, lactation, miscarriage, or the inability to conceive. Most areas of feminist analysis have been terribly careful to rule out an identification with biology. The thoroughness with which feminist theorizing, responding to the patriarchal identification of women with body and the need to keep the definition of feminine within the cultural, has done this […] must be motivated by a discomfort with the body. (Hirsch 1989, 166)

49To overcome this avoidance of the biological body, Hirsch insists that future feminist “fictions” and “theories” “will have to include the body even as they avoid essentialism” (198-199). This is what Sight seems to do in its final lines: by placing the “discomfort with the body” within a “we” (“we must try”) and by placing its origins not in a woman’s body but in a newborn, who cries mysteriously, Sight makes somatophobia a common responsibility. According to the novel, it is a fear shared by all, although especially men, so uncomfortable were they with the opacity of women’s bodies that they have not been able to help looking at, through and inside them. In the spirit of Benjamin’s “recognition” and of Hirsch’s compromise between “the body” and “essentialism”, Sight insists that a partial representation of bodies is better than none at all, because it keeps bodies, the discomfort they create, and curiosity, alive. Curiosity in Sight refuses to annihilate its object, the (m)other, and therefore, curiosity itself. This ensures that its writing is both true to human nature and ethical.

Conclusion: Deconstructive Bodies

50Picturing pregnancy and childbirth in literature means picturing events often unseen in texts. Yet, paradoxically, it still means picturing an absence, that of sight, which is itself forced by an overwhelming presence, that of the body. Sight retraces the history of the obsessive curiosity for bodies and what lies inside them, pointing out that women have been the main victims of curiosity performed by men. Still, the novel locates the compulsion to look within women as well as men, and as such universalises the compulsion, along with the discomfort with the body that fuels it. Sight also finds that, unexpectedly, it is through the bodies of mothers that this investigation can, perhaps best, be conducted. In its final movement, the novel underlines the importance of both curiosity and discomfort, and of thinking them together, so one never annihilates the (m)other.

51The metaphor of pregnancy and childbirth as writing is criticised in Sight through the novel’s criticism of curiosity. Still the metaphor is allowed to survive, but under a new condition: its suggested vehicle, the pregnant body, must be given back its physicality. Like the parents in Sight, all writing and its practitioners ought to consider how opaque they remain to themselves and how others should be allowed to remain opaque to them, as well as how much their own writing is in fact a mystery to them, just as one’s child is.

52As such, in response to the way pregnancy and childbirth have (not) been depicted in literature, Sight offers an ethics not of destruction, but one closer to that of Derrida’s deconstruction. Hillman and Maude write that “there are no bodies in literature. Not only there is no obvious way for the concrete materiality of the body to be fully present in or on the written page; even more profoundly, there would seem on the face of it to be an apparent mutual exclusivity of the body and language – the one all brute facticity, the other presupposing precisely the absence of matter” (3). Perhaps it is also this mutual exclusivity of language and the body that sets the empty stage of the pregnant body in literature. But Sight manages to maintain the tension between the language and body and makes sure that bodies do not disappear fully despite the curiosity and fear they inspire. The game of presence and absence, of appearance and disappearance, of transparency and opacity that pregnant, maternal, and female bodies play in Sight, reminds us of the role of the letter a is Derrida’s concept of différance, which is at the heart of his larger concept of deconstruction:

What am I to do in order to speak of the a of différance? It goes without saying that it cannot be exposed. One can expose only that which at a certain moment can become present, manifest, that which can be shown, presented as something present […] Reserving itself, not exposing itself, in regular fashion it exceeds the order of truth at a certain precise point, but without dissimulating itself as something, as a mysterious being, in the occult of a nonknowledge or in a hole with indeterminable borders […]. In every exposition it would be exposed to disappearing as disappearance. It would risk appearing: disappearing. (Derrida 1982, 6)

53There is not a page in Sight in which bodies are made to appear fully – that is the condition of the body in literature. But there is also not a page in which the body is allowed to disappear without its disappearance being acknowledged. As such, Sight deconstructs the representation of pregnant, maternal and female bodies, and presents these bodies as inherently deconstructive: they are revelatory of the way literature often shamelessly builds upon bodies, but are equally representative of the need for literature to build upon them, as long as they are also built into our stories.

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1 All italics in quotes by Didi-Huberman are his.

2 Didi-Huberman quotes Paul Sollier (whose name is misspelled in the translation), Paul Schilder and Bertram D. Lewis.

3 The italics are the Hirsch’s.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 : Anatomia Uteri Humani Gravidi Tabulis Illustrata / The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus exhibited in Figures, by Dr William Hunter, printed in Birmingham by John Baskerville, illustrated by various printmakers, after drawings by Jan van Rymsdyk, E Edwards and A Cozens. 1770-1774.
Crédits ©The British Museum.
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Titre Fig. 2 : Clemente Susini and workshop, La Venerina, c. 1780-82, created for the Museo di Palazzo Poggi, Bologna.
Crédits © Photograph by Corinna Wagner.
Fichier image/png, 113k
Titre Fig. 3 : Giuseppe Penone, Foglie, Oil, 300 x 200 cm, 1990, Musée de Grenoble, Panel IV, Inv. MG 2014-2-1-4.
Crédits Crédit photographique Ville de Grenoble / Musée de Grenoble - J.-L. Lacroix. © Adagio, Paris.
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Maxence Gouleau, « Diegetic Pregnancy in Jesse Greengrass’s Sight (2018), or the Ethics of Building Bodies in(to) Literature »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 34 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2023, consulté le 10 décembre 2023. URL :

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Maxence Gouleau

Sorbonne Université, VALE

Maxence Gouleau is a PhD student in contemporary British literature at Sorbonne Université. Her thesis focuses on pregnancy in the contemporary British novel. She is supervised by Prof. Frédéric Regard. She has recently published an article in Polysèmes on Ian McEwan’s Nutshell.

Maxence Gouleau est doctorante en littérature britannique contemporaine à Sorbonne Université. Son travail de recherche se concentre sur la grossesse dans le roman britannique contemporain. Elle est dirigée par le professeur Frédéric Regard. Elle a récemment vu un de ses articles publiés dans Polysèmes, sur le roman Nutshell de Ian McEwan.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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