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Mary Jacobus, First Things: The Maternal Imaginary in Literature, Art, and Psychoanalysis. New York and London: Routledge, 1995. ISBN: 0-415-90384-X. Price: £14.99 (Paperback)

  • Tilar Mazzeo

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  • Tilar Mazzeo
    University of Washington

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In FirstThings, Mary Jacobus provides a wide-ranging discussion of a question that has troubled many feminist readers of psychoanalytic theory: how does the maternal imaginary involve itself with theconstruction of the female subject? In addressing this topic, Jacobus draws together divergent materials. Her sources are alternately visual, scientific, historical, or literary, and the scope of her analysis extends from pre-romanticism to contemporary reproductive law. This diversity is one of the strongest features of the book, and Jacobus succeeds in focusing each chapter to reinforce her central thesis, which locates the role of the maternal in both the development of and the disturbances in (Freudian) subjectivity. In particular, Jacobus argues that, in the construction of the self, gender difference is inscribed by the repression of the maternal; as a result, later experiences (or representations) of sexual desire distinct from reproduction threaten to undermine female identity and produce a ruptured subject.

FirstThings is organized in four sections, which alternate between primarily theoretical and ideological concerns; part one focuses largely on Freudian theories of subjectivity and contrasts oedipal and preoedipal accounts of its construction. Jacobus argues that the Freud's oedipus myth "screens" both the "story of the preoedipal" and "the main narrative of a nostalgic feminism" (15); mother/daughter relations are ruptured by the patriarchal narrative of male subjecthood, leaving the female psyche to negotiate a fundamental self-division. Although the field of inquiry is wide-ranging, romantic era texts are particularly prominent in this study. Part one offers a very interesting, although brief, account of Kleist's "The Marquise of O—," which Jacobus reads as a "narrative of reproduction" (23).

Part two, entitled "Melancholy Figures," employs these theoretical concerns (with a Kristevan emphasis) to illuminate romantic period texts by Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Sade, and Malthus. In her analysis of Wollstonecraft's travel book, Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden , Jacobus reads the text as an account of amatory melancholia, in which the maternal imaginary becomes a sign for the movement from childhood to female adulthood. It is a fascinating interpretation: the child Fanny functions as a substitute for Wollstonecraft's own impossible sexual desire for Imlay, creating an "internally divided relation of mother and daughter [that] becomes the basis for a gender-specific mode of identification and a precarious, expensive subjectivity" (74).

In this section of the study, there are occasional weak links between textual analysis and historical or ideological events, and this comprises my only significant criticism of Jacobus' work. For example, her effort to link Wollstonecraft's personal narrative of melancholy with the psychic aftermath of the French Revolution is not entirely persuasive, requiring greater detail and a more extended theoretical discussion of group psychology than she offers here. The third essay of this section, which offers a discussion of Mary Shelley's TheLastMan , raises the same concern. To my mind, her claim that TheLastMan "calls out of be read as a prophetic commentary on [AIDS]" (123) never becomes particularly illuminating, despite the otherwise provocative account she provides in this essay of the novel's biographical resonances with Shelley's life.

Jacobus' reading of Malthus and Sade, however, is the best section of the entire book, and it provides an insightful account of the anxious politics of reproduction and maternity in the decades after the French Revolution. PhilosophyintheBedroom , she argues, can be read as "a no-holds-barred disquisition on population growth" (84-5) which, unlike Malthus' PrinciplesofPopulation , offers "the possibility of separating sexual pleasure from reproduction" (85). Despite the contrast between these two sexual economies that emerges, Jacobus demonstrates that, in the end, both function of isolate the maternal body as a site of phobic desire.

Part three, "The Origins of Signs," focuses on Klein's psychoanalytic work, especially her work with preoedipal contributions to subjectivity; in her "attempts to recover [Klein's] missing theory of signs" (iv), Jacobus is ultimately lead to consider both the role Klein plays for Lacan and Kristeva and the source of Lacan's "brutality" (138) toward Klein. For Lacan, she argues, Klein herself is seen as brutal because she seeks literally to graft the oedipus complex and the symbolic order onto her young patients. The blurred distinctions Klein creates between the categories of symbolic and imaginary unsettle Lacanian theory, in part because she seems to associate the "origins of signification" (174) with the maternal body itself.

The final part of FirstThings , entitled "Theory at the Breast," considers the intersection between representations of the breast and female subjectivity; the first essay focuses on breast-feeding and its relationship to Enlightenment and Revolutionary political discourses. Taking Rousseau as the central Enlightenment author, Jacobus argues that the advocacy of breast-feeding in this period functioned to consolidate the "naturally" subordinate role of women and to heal social division by reestablishing gender hierarchy. Later, as the violence of the Revolution was projected as feminine, the "breast-feeding mother figures the purification of Liberty's signs" (223) and the incorruptibility of state ideology. The essay is a compelling analysis of conservative reactions to early "feminist" projects such as those attempted by the Society of Republican Revolutionary Women.

For romanticists, FirstThings is especially provocative, because it provides an account of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century origins of feminism (and feminist nostalgia). Jacobus charts the intersections between particular ideological narratives and female subjecthood in ways that are suggestive and pose for scholars of romanticism a series of implicit theoretical questions about the relationship between female authorship and sexuality in the period. In light of this, I found the exclusion of Wollstonecraft's Vindicationof theRightsofWoman from the study—and particularly from the discussion of how breast-feeding and revolutionary politics are imbricated—disappointing.

The final two essays of the book turn toward an analysis of visual texts by Eakins and Morisot. In the former, Jacobus argues that the "history of mastectomy is as gender- and period-specific as the invention of the talking cure" (233), and she demonstrates that Eakins' painting of TheAgnewClinic is predicated upon an "exclusively masculine and oedipal identification" (241) that excludes the experience of female subjectivity in the face of cancer. This is contrasted with mastectomy poems written by breast cancer survivors, which document the intensely conflicted experiences of self-perception and maternal identification these women encountered in the process of treatment. Meanwhile, the final essay focuses on Morisot's paintings of her adolescent daughter, Julie; Jacobus argues that "these painting pose the question of narcissism...in the context of mother-daughter relations" (274), representing Morisot's maternal projections of her daughter's subjectivity. At the same time, these paintings figure the birth of a certain, peculiarly modern, experience of "adolescent" femininity, in which Julie functions as the bearer of (haute-bourgeoisie) cultural values. The analysis throughout is insightful, making the final part of FirstThings , like the earlier ones, a thought-provoking and often illuminating read.