Gendered Monsters, The Chimera Herself

Steve Cook

In the "Interrupting D" section of Patchwork Girl, Shelley Jackson refers to (herself?/the monster?/Mary Shelley?) as, "An outlaw, a pervert, a bad seed / -a monster- / a vagrant, an adventurer, a bum." The words are mostly Derrida's. The lexia begins with Derrida's words: "As a living thing, logos issues from a father." Having written on just this passage in one of my own hypertext projects , I recognize the Shelley's quote as a curiously absent one. The point of Disseminations, if one wishes to force the book to have a single, overarching point, is that logos is both eidos and zoon, both living and dead, "a reprieved corpse, a deferred life, a semblance of breath." Like all ghosts, language inhabits an in-between state; like all zombies, it is hard to kill.

This fine distinction utterly fails to detract from Jackson's chief point, as I understand it, in the lexia, which is that Derrida attributed fathers to the living (but not mothers) used language--pervert, vagrant, adventurer, bum--that seems to exclude the traditional female, who is none of the above. (I ignore here the effects of a lifetime of late-night movie watching; my chief association with the phrase "bad seed" is a charming little movie from the Fifties about a sociopathic and distinctly unladylike little girl.) "The monster," Jackson's addition, is of course gendered as a woman throughout her story, and she bears no resemblance to the 19th-century feminine ideal.

Quilting, however, does. Despite Jackson's lexia linking it to feminism and radical politics, I (and, I think, she) can't quite uproot it from its connotations: quilting bees and, as Jackson notes, a toil to keep women's hands busy. My girlfriend works at a publishing company devoted to quilting books, and a quick glance at their website shows how many of the authors are women. Quilts were a way for women who would not be permitted to participate in masculine arts to express themselves, though, and one of the real wonders of Patchwork Girlis how it takes hold of and wrings every last meaning from the stitch. The stitch is both feminine sewer's tool and the suture of the primite surgery performed (by male doctors) in Shelley's time. The dotted line, which indicates difference "without cleaving apart for good" what it delineates, constantly appears. Stitches. Dash. Quilting and surgery. The suture of a hypertext. The scars of a graft.

Jackson reads this grafting--the chimera is not only a classical monster and a word for foolish fantasy, but also a scientific term for the splicing together of two organisms--onto the very cells of the human body, but only in women. The Barr bodies, which on a cellular level make all women "mosaics." A bit much, but a lovely metaphor. A case can be made -- Shelley Jackson is one of the ones making it -- for the experience of hypertext as one radically different from the experience of the book. If one accepts the hidden logic of Jackson's version of Derrida's quote, that logos is male, then by circumventing the logos, the hierarchy, the inherent order, the word-spells of the book, one might avoid its maleness.

Jackson's angels are not greeting-card cherubim or even thrones or dominions. They are, instead, a teeming horde. One might hesitate to dive

into the lucid architectonic heaven of the angels, glittering, clawing, pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, balancing on top of each other, on chairs, teacups and broomsticks.

The monster is not tame. Tea is (in sitcoms of the 1950s, at least) a woman's drink. Broomsticks summon images of housewives, maids, and witches. The falling monster is "[i]rrepressible, fecund," the monster of Patchwork Girl is a biological creature, a "sport" like the inhabitants of My Body's "wunderkammer." If books and logos are in a twilight zone between life and death, for Jackson, hypertext is gloriously fertile and alive. Frankenstein's dream has been turned on its head. The stitch brings life from death.

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