Bricolage: A Woman's Use of Canonical Ideology

Bricolage: A Woman's Use of Canonical Ideology

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Bricolage: A Woman's Use of Canonical Ideology

le bricolage: travail dont la technique est improvisée, adaptée aux materiaux, aux circonstances.[1]

In chapter one of The Savage Mind, Claude Leví-Strauss explains bricolage as a way of understanding the structure of mythical thought in "savage" societies. The term bricoleur can be used practically, to represent a kind of craftsman though Leví-Strauss brings the word to an analytical level, and it is with this level that we are concerned. The bricoleur's "universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to do with `whatever is at hand'"[2] so, as a craftsman, he is conservative and ecological. He works from within a structure in order to build out of it: "the materials of the bricoleur are elements which can be defined by two criteria: they have had a use.... and they can be used again either for the same purpose or for a different one if they are at all diverted from their previous function."[3] For more information on this chapter, "The Science of the Concrete", click here. In this paper, I will examine this concept as it applies to certain patterns and ideas that exist in canonical American ideology and literature in the nineteenth century and how its double nature presents an opportunity for those "marginal" or "other" Americans. In examining this, the American writer will be considered a sort of craftsman.

The concept of bricolage resonates strongly in the American literary tradition that is constructed alongside the nation itself. T.S. Eliot and Octavio Paz both support its prevalence in the tradition. They conceive of the literary canon as an ivory tower, "a closed edifice... that cracks open to allow entrance only to the work of genius - by implication, to a gifted man."[4] As Eliot perceives this monument as necessarily alterable, one which allows a new work to enter upon it if "the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted,"[5] Paz presents a similar, though significantly radicalized view of the "constant revolt" of tradition" rather than its "continuity."[6] Paz's "tradition against itself" extends Eliot's with the notion that "what constitutes the modern tradition is the constant renewal of literary forms, as contemporary textual practices."[7] However divergent, both of these theories rely on a similar concept which shapes an American literary tradition according to Leví-Strauss' bricolage: "in order to belong to tradition...

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[one must] break the Textual Law."[8] The deconstruction of the governing monument and its subsequent reconstruction from the remains are the means through which an American tradition and ideology can progress.

Bricolage repeats throughout the canonical texts. In Walden, Thoreau builds his home in the woods, a home that represents his denial of and isolation from society. However, he constructs his home out of the tools that such a society has given him: "for I had borrowed other tools"[9] and "[bought] the shanty of James Collins,"[10] constructing the home "with the help of some acquaintances."[11] As male American writers tend to fall into a trend similar to that of Thoreau, a trend which postulates an individualist removal of the self from society, thereby deconstructing the society and reconstructing the self in place of it, they inevitably use the tools their society and tradition as the canon has dictated, have given them. That this paradigm repeats throughout the canon is paradoxical since bricolage seeks to deconstruct, using the tools inherent to that which it deconstructs. Theoretically, each canonical writer, when reconstructing his own tradition, also makes use of the tools he has found when deconstructing the past monument. For the literary craftsman, these tools are those of the bricoleur and tools which present a space for a dominant paradigm and an "other" who seeks to deconstruct it. However, when the canonical writers do this, it is still traditional; as Eliot asserts, the "existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves" and it is merely "modified by the introduction of the new work"[12] since even the new work carries the same core set of values. The American writer, as the bricoleur, "[takes] to pieces and [reconstructs] sets of events (on a psychical, socio-historical or technical plane) and [uses] them as so many indestructible pieces for structural patterns."[13] This process is an easy one for the white, American man who constructed it as a canonical notion because he is himself encompassed and supported by the tradition that imposes it. The male écriture supplies him with a "poetic inheritance" so that he is "surrounded by a continuum of living and dead poets with whom he can establish literary rapport" by way of their mutual "inheritance."[14] Though Thoreau may use the ideology implied in the actions of the bricoleur, the tools he uses are, as Leví-Strauss posits, indestructible. He is still an active participant in the male canon of writers such as Emerson, Melville or Hawthorne who write of the same escape from society and into Nature or the Sublime experience with the tool of bricolage in their hands. Bricolage is a canonical ideology and when the men who exist within the canon make use of it, they are acting from a common space, one which will exclude any one who does not hold all the same values or standards of the monument.

However, in returning to the paradox behind it, the concept of bricolage as it exists in the American canon also has a second agenda. In order to establish a basis of deconstruction, bricolage needs a marginal character, an "other", who is evidently excluded from or outside of the structure which will be deconstructed. This "other" is easily found in a patriarchal tradition which "presents difficulties not easily overcome by poets of lesser confidence or by those who lack the support of a tradition."[15] The tradition acts according to and centering around white, male values and styles, leaving no space for a marginal character, such as a woman writer to partake in it. The canon is in fact presented "in terms of the adventure tale and the antisocial, which is to say antifeminine, escape narrative."[16] Where Eliot constructs an "intertextuality" among canonical male writers, women writers are denied their own tradition by the existence of that of men. A woman's literary tradition is discontinuous, broken and isolated: "a forbidden book... an abandoned and forsaken body."[17] A woman's values and writing style are inherently opposed to those of the man. It is a circular and repetitious tradition, one which, opposed to "the rigid [male] language of binary oppositions... [delights] in Difference."[18] A woman's literature invites a fusion of dualities and an extinction of antitheses and is thus, "writing that is folded in upon itself like the female sex."[19] With no monument to hold the tradition, the female tradition exists formlessly, without structure dualities and it is this that isolates it from the culturally dominating male tradition.

However, this marginilization may "provoke within the subculture certain strengths, as well as weaknesses, enduring values as well as accommodations."[20] Women are the perfect marginal character: they possess "this essential Other-ness" and, as the "Other", they must "appropriate the language of the One or dominant symbolic order so as to gain access to textuality."[21] The "dominant symbolic order" in question here is that which depends on the ideology behind bricolage, which is the perfect paradigm through which the marginalized woman may manipulate her constraints in order to break out of them. The female writer is given the chance, as the "other", to speak "not only with things... but also through the medium of things,"[22] thereby fulfilling her role as la bricoleuse. In writing Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe fulfills her role as la bricoleuse when she takes the role that society and the coinciding literary tradition have sketched for her as a woman and uses it to her own advantage.

This tradition, as established by men such as Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville and Emerson, is one which is quite comfortable with the act of objectification. Placing themselves in the role of the subject, everything that comes into contact with them is a potential object, and it is within their power to objectify anything in the name of the founding of an American tradition. The lack of anything purely American acts as a pressure to these men who search for something different than the objects of their forefathers. Nature falls as the first victim to the American male as it is the only source through which he can gain a Sublime experience. Nature is a passive and thereby feminine force since the interaction between man and Nature consists solely of his extraction of the Sublime: "Mother Nature who weds as she nurtures her son."[23] This relationship, portrayed throughout the canonical texts, creates a paradigm for a literary relationship based on these cultural assumptions - that nature, or a subordinate force, exists only as a servant to the needs of man.

This relationship recurs in the relationship between men and women during this same time period when "middle-class literary women... [lack] power of any crudely tangible kind, and they... [are] careful not to lay claim to it. Instead they... [wish] to exert `influence', which they... [eulogize] as religious force."[24] In accordance with the male ideology of dualities, the male and females spheres are neatly defined and the woman, due to her very nature, can never pass over into the male or the dominant sphere. However, this is not to say that the woman does not hold an important role in society or that she is cast out of society. Instead, similar to the way in which man relies upon and objectifies nature as the ticket to the Sublime, the male American culture portrays the woman as the ticket to a moral and religious character. Women are important to society, simply due to their "moral elevation."[25] This "feminine faith" is not one which is in itself independent or autonomous, but it is, "like clerical piety... to be of a peculiarly unassertive and retiring kind."[26] Women are to be educated of course, and are encouraged to be literary, not so that they can conceive of their own ideas but so they can spread their knowledge and moral superiority to the male population: they are "educated to be themes for thought, not thinkers; they [are] to be the muses not the practitioners of the arts, aesthetic or practical."[27] This popular notion of being seen and not heard, is one to which most women are accustomed. However, when one notices the resemblance between women and Nature in that regard, a definite trend can be identified. And this trend continues. Black slaves are perceived in a similar way. They are valuable for their working capabilities but are merely an object used by American white men in order to attain something, be it money, morals or a Sublime personal experience. However, I will show how those who are objectified and isolated from the dominant paradigm, such as the woman, or la bricoleuse, can use this role as the model of morality to her own advantage. For more information on the role of women during this time, click here.

In pre-industrial America, this portrayal of women is favorable both to men and to many women because it puts an emphasis on the home, on the domestic or female sphere. The mother or the wife becomes an icon, or "an important part of a communal productive process under her direction."[28] However, in the 1830's, when the American community moves from the home to the city, from the building of the family to the building of factories and industry, the home "[becomes] a place where [a woman's] children... [stay] before they... [begin] to work and where her husband... [rests] after the strain of labor" and from women, American society now "[expects] a complex blend of nurture and escape from her `voluntary' care."[29] This kind of "feminine disestablishment" is obviously a harsh blow to women who see themselves as religious and moral centers, as statues of ideal character. Traits such as religiosity, domesticity, sentimentality are incompatible with the industrial shift and are subsequently thrust even further out of the dominant paradigm. However, this disestablishment provides an ample opportunity for the woman, according to Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Pink and White Tyranny seeks to drive her "to gain power through the exploitation of [her] feminine identity as [her] society... [defines] it."[30] While being thrown to the sidelines, the woman also becomes the "prime [consumer] of American culture" and she therefore "[exerts] an enormous influence on the chief male purveyors of the culture."[31] The woman is given the means to ascend from her confines by using the tools with which her confinement has cursed her, such as her passive and debilitating role. It is in this light that Stowe writes Uncle Tom's Cabin. For a hypertext, click here.

Stowe employs sentimentalism and religiosity in her novel in order to place an emphasis "on individual sympathy and on the doctrine of Higher Laws [which function] not only as a critique of chattel slavery but also as a critique of racist patriarchal capitalist culture in America"; it is this very sympathy that "suggests an alternative society grounded in egalitarian Christianity and proposes a loving maternal ethic in opposition to patriarchal values."[32] Stowe's "domestic feminism" is quite similar to the practices of her sister, Catherine Beecher. Both support, theoretically and practically, the development of "the notion of the moral superiority of females and the argument that by dominating domestic life, womanhood could redeem American culture."[33] Both, in turn, embrace the role of the woman in order to deconstruct the monument which constructed such a role. This return to the home, to the domestic, to the maternal is therefore a key concept in Uncle Tom's Cabin. This maternal ideology or "Victorian idealization of motherhood" is "channeled... into an argument for widespread social change."[34] In contrast to the dominating ideologies behind industrialization, Stowe in no way rejects the values that American society had previously constructed for the woman. In fact "she... [concurs] in the culture's [past] insistence on the importance, even sacredness, of maternal values" and strongly believes that "motherhood - the morality of all women - should be made the ethical and structural model for all American life."[35]

In writing Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe takes advantage of the fact that the woman has become the primary recipient of American culture, that in the move towards industrialization and cities, the woman is left at home to read and write and to act as the subject and object of popular culture, apart from the high culture that exists in the canonical tradition. Stowe employs sentimentality, "an intensely private art form, to cross from the public to the private."[36] She presents an intimate relationship with her reader, mothering the reader throughout the text, addressing the reader as if he or she is a mother herself: "if it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, to-morrow morning... how fast could you walk?"[37] This highly sentimental gesture is one which allows the woman reader to find her place within a structure that is centered around the female experience. Basing this relationship on her own experience of losing a child, Stowe extends her sorrow to other women through the body of the text, thereby closing the space between them. This gesture opens a room of femininity away from the values of the male tradition, a room of emotion and sentiment, a room of women with a common language, a room which was previously "enclosed within four walls."[38] As a mother, the reader is asked to identify with "Stowe's feeling of helplessness at being unable to protect [her] children" and thereby become "encouraged to mourn the black woman's helplessness to avert an even more painful and bitter loss."[39] Stowe thus presents maternal values as a basis for a shift of thought or of the dominant paradigm.

In Uncle Tom's Cabin, religiosity and maternity are synonymous and produce a link "between the two unusual... maternal Saviors: the girl-child Eva and the black man Tom."[40] Stowe is able to pull this off because Christianity moves into the female sphere as the male sphere moves away from the home, the sentimental and the religious and into the city. It appears as a fortunate acquisition for Stowe, "formerly a major political tool and therefore carefully husbanded by powerful men" and now "moved out of the masculine realm and into the control of women."[41] Maternity and religiosity are able to relate on a common ground as they are both thrust out of the dominant male tradition and the American industrial society. They are both tools that are available to the woman, tools which the society has constructed and consequently abandoned, tools which will help her, as la bricoleuse to deconstruct the tradition from which they originated.

Stowe's Eva embodies this synthesis perfectly. Her life and eventual death almost identically relate with that of Christ while her influence on those around her is maternal and nurturing. Eva utilizes a religious and feminine ideology in hopes of reconstructing the horrifying American society. As almost all of the characters in the novel are effected by Eva, only she can accomplish this. The grotesque acts of the men in the novel, men such as Simon Legree, Haley, or Mr. Shelby are countered by the religiosity and morality of Eva. These men serve to "defend a system that Stowe defines as an abomination against motherhood and Christ."[42] Eva is barely human: "she would glide in among [the slaves], and look at them with an air of perplexed and sorrowful earnestness; and sometimes she would lift their chains with her slender hands, and then sigh wofully, as she glided away."[43] Her purpose in life is to fill her role as the Christological mother figure and then die, and she desires this whole-heartedly: "[she] can understand why Jesus wanted to die for us... She's got the Lord's mark in her forehead."[44] Eva is Stowe's weapon, "named for the mother of a race, this golden-haloed Eve-angel/Evangel, who always appears in white and remains too pure to survive in this world, embodies the essence both of motherhood and of Christianity."[45] Stowe maintains the virtues of Christ in order to emphasize the maternal, to place the maternal into the scene where the woman holds all of the moral influence, firstly to abhor slavery and secondly to venerate womanhood.

This veneration continues through the structures of relationships that exist in the novel, particularly those between men and their mothers or wives. The novel opens with an introduction into the relationship of Mr. and Mrs. Shelby, where Mr. Shelby is considering selling his best slave, Tom and a slave's infant son. In chapter five, Mrs. Shelby confronts him on this decision, exercising all of her influence as a domestic moral force: "I have tried - tried most faithfully, as a Christian woman should - to do my duty to these poor, simple, dependent creatures."[46] Though Mrs. Shelby's effort to "save" such "creatures" essentially fails, this relationship is established early in the novel and elaborated upon throughout the text. We encounter it next in Eliza's relationship with her husband, George, who she tries to bring into the protective arms of her love and Christianity (chapter 3). Eliza spends an evening petitioning the very proud and masculine George with religious and feminine moral values: "O George, we must have faith. Mistress says that when things go wrong to us, we must believe that God is doing the very best."[47] We encounter this relationship in St. Clare and his mother. This elder Eva acts solely as St. Clare's moral and religious supervisor and only outlet of sentimentality: "I would lay my head down on her lap, and cry and dream, and feel, - oh immeasurably! - things that I had no language to say!"[48] St. Clare, an otherwise apathetic man, appeals to this maternal influence as the source of his own dormant morality, as she "was a direct embodiment and personification of the New Testament."[49] St. Clare is quick to submit to the domination of maternal values "for pity's sake, for shame's sake, because we are men born of women, and not savage beasts."[50] Lastly, we encounter this relationship in that of the horrible Simon Legree and his mother, a woman whose influence and dominance allows him little autonomy (chapter 35). Legree's ruthlessness is checked by the gothic and overpowering memory of his mother and how Legree, in his malevolence, "threw her senseless on the floor"[51] and did not hear of her again until a "letter told him his mother was dead."[52] From them on, in all of Legree's depravity, he is haunted by the feminine values and morality of "that pale loving mother, - her dying prayers, her forgiving love."[53]

Uncle Tom's Cabin thus "develops according to a typological pattern" as "Stowe presents a series of free, white, Christian mothers... who... attempt to influence their sons' actions in regard to slavery."[54] The virtues which these women attempt to convey, whether effective or not "are the virtues of Christ, which are in Stowe's theology maternal."[55] These virtues are also those which society has determined as female. Like Nature in transcendental literature, the woman is an object, a moral and religious ideal from which the culturally dominant man can extract his own morality and religiosity. By making use of these values, Stowe empowers the woman, rather than objectifies her as the tradition has, since "the one aspect in which most women have felt their own power... has been motherhood."[56] In using motherhood as a basis for a utopic society, she presents it to her reader as a dominant structure, one necessarily "other" than the dominant structure which already exists. Through the intimate and sentimental connection she implicates, Stowe's reader must adopt these marginal values. However, one must remember that it is not only the mother who reads this novel since it is a novel which was apparently read by more people in this time than the Bible. America reads this novel and therefore America is supposed to adapt these maternal values and subsequent female tradition, all of America, including the America deeply entrenched in the masculine, binary, intellectual and emotionless industrialization.

The construction of a body of a female tradition is one which necessarily deconstructs the male American canon, allowing the female tradition to be "adapted and remodeled in illuminating ways in the work of American women writers before the 1920's and... taken together, this body of fiction from Stowe forward constitutes a rich, female tradition in American literature and challenges... the canon."[57] The reform of America's social structure through the influence of the man, heavily influenced by the canonical notion of bricolage, only goes so far. The man, no matter how far from society and into the Sublime he journeys, is still acting in accordance with a tradition established by his peers. Though bricolage is present in the ideology behind most traditional American literature, it is not an ideology intended for Stowe, or for anyone outside of the canonical monument. It is an ideology that is inherited by the male writer from his literary tradition, a tradition which most definitely excludes the "other", especially the seen and not heard woman. Therefore, it is no longer a canonical ideology when a marginal character such as Stowe utilizes it in order to construct her own tradition. The double identity and paradoxical nature of bricolage is thus identified. While it plays an important role in the male canon, it allows Stowe to bring the focus back to the "other" (the home, the mother, sentimentality) in order to reestablish the woman's place in the literary world and to reorganize society under her matriarchy. She does this with the tools she has in front of her thanks to the tradition which has abandoned them: religion and domesticity, the role of women as the passive moral specimen and the role of literature as the primary means through which to access women. In contrast to Thoreau's radicalization of his beliefs in order to reject the society as a whole, Stowe embraces society's evils and constraints, then uses the role they assume for the "other" in order to comply with her needs and intentions. Stowe celebrates Paz's "tradition against itself" and uses her the "monument" to her own advantage. She celebrates her role as "other" and the tools which that role has given her and uses them again. Leví-Strauss prescribes exactly this to the bricoleur, in order for him or her to construct a body separate from the body from which they came while using the tools it has left behind. In doing this, Stowe attempts to devise to a tradition which still has trouble getting on its feet today. For more discussion of women writers, click here.

Though Stowe is often historically considered a feminist in that she defends the moral superiority and influence of women, she definitely runs the risk of being of being a "bad" feminist in the eyes of some contemporary feminists. Stowe, according to Showalter would most likely fall into the category of "some women's literature... [in which] feminine values penetrate and undermine masculine systems which contain them."[58] In the eyes of some, this method is perfectly valid and in Stowe's case, is one which allows her to open a door to an entirely new system. However, in comparison to today's "gynocritics," which "begins at a point when we free ourselves from the linear absolutes of male literary history... and focus instead on a newly visible world of female culture,"[59] Stowe might appear as somewhat of a cop-out. However it is difficult to reconcile this possibility when it is evident that Stowe's novel was revolutionary, that it did in more ways than most novels, particularly those of women, create a significant paradigm shift, i.e. the Civil War. Perhaps such "gynocritics" seek to escape from tradition itself, and do so without first deconstructing it, hence making the construction of their own difficult. Perhaps this is where Stowe has a one-up on contemporary feminists in that she works ecologically, with the material in front of her, from within a structure, instead of away from any structure at all.

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