Fiery Constellations: Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry and Benjamin’s Materialist Historiography
Smith, Angela Marie
Near the end of Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry (1989), the image of a redeeming fire links two historical moments. In 1666, one of the novel’s narrators, the mammoth dog-breeder DogWoman, disgusted by England’s political corruption and act of regicide, the consequences of which seem manifest in London’s pollution and the Great Plague, determines that the city should ‘”burn and burn until there is nothing left but the cooling wind'”(164), and takes her opportunity:”! did not start the fire . . . but I did not stop it. Indeed, the act of pouring a vat of oil onto the flames may well have been said to encourage it. But it was a sign, a sign that our great sin would finally be burned away. I could not have hindered the work of God”(165). In 1990, an unnamed female protester whose emotional and political alliance to Dog-Woman has been established through her visions of a “huge and powerfuT’alter ego (142), camps by a mercury-contaminated river. Disgusted by corporate and governmental abuses of power and nature, she is inspired to act to change history: ‘”Let’s burn it,’ she said. “Let’s burn down the factory'”(165).
The convergence of these two moments of anger at political and environmental corruption, with their acts in the name of the oppressed, characterizes Sexing the Cherry’s effort to interlace past and present, to conceive and enact an historical practice that challenges a linear history upholding the interests of the powerful. The novel’s use of narrative connections across time also invokes Walter Benjamin’s concept of constellations of past and present as revolutionary, potentially redemptory moments. Indeed, the juxtaposition of Winterson’s novel with Benjamin’s essays, “The Storyteller”and “Theses on the Philosophy of History,”produces its own powerful constellation: Benjamin’s thoughts tease out from Winterson’s playful text the larger philosophical matters at stake in telling (hi)stories, while Winterson’s luminous characters flesh out Benjamin’s ideas, imbuing historical and political issues with personality and humor, and insisting on matters of sex and gender obscured in Benjamin’s theories. Tracing the commonalities and divergences of these texts renders philosophies of history more immediate, reveals the ways in which fiction and theory can speak to one another, and foregrounds the politics of narrative and interpretation.
Winterson’s novel and Benjamin’s essays combine potentially contradictory materialist, postmodern, and redemptive elements in their historiographie imaginings. Certainly, both authors are fascinated with a particular practice of telling history, a “materialist historiography”that challenges linear “historicism,”constellates past and present moments, attends to economic and political structures, makes heard the voices of the disempowered, and conceives of their capacity to act historically and revolutionarily. But, in deploying narrative strategies now characterized as postmodern, Benjamin and Winterson also emphasize the inevitably textual status of history. Rather than mandating any totalizing historical view, Benjamin implicitly calls for, and Sexing the Cherry enacts, a hybridic historical narrative pieced together from the fragments buried by historicism. Finally, “Theses”and Sexing the Cherry conjoin struggles of the oppressed with visions of moments which break open or transcend history: the former -with its theological vision of Messianic time, and the latter with a fantastical fusion of love, light, and the human spirit. Such elements complicate readings of these texts, connoting idealist, transcendental, or Romantic philosophies apparently in conflict with the political outlook of materialism and the ironies of postmodernism. But for both authors, the textual and philosophical yoking of secular and theological impulses is central to the conception of a radical politics. Interpreting these texts’ interrelationships, then, is a matter of attending to their contradictions and warnings against totalizing narratives, while heeding their calls to tell stories in hybridic and ethical ways.
Benjamin and “Materialist Historiography”
The critical and philosophical heritage of Walter Benjamin is much debated. Scholars have noted in his works influences of neo-Kantian idealism, German Romanticism, Jewish mysticism, and Marxist historical materialism, all developed in relation to his religious background, thwarted academic aspirations, and struggle against encroaching Fascism.1 Considering “The Storyteller”and “Theses”alongside Sexing the Cherry helps illuminate a dialectic between idealistic and materialist imperatives, and enables a fuller appreciation of the novel’s desires for political and metaphysical transformation.
“Theses on the Philosophy of History”(1968d; written 1940, published 1950), one of Benjamin’s last pieces of writing, encapsulates this apparently conflicting impulse.2 The essay condemns the prevailing form of historiography, “historicism,”and envisages a mode of telling history-“[materialistic historiography”(262)-that is associated with “the struggling oppressed class[,] itself. . . the depository of historical knowledge,”and that challenges the hegemony of historicism and its conception of linear, progressive time, or “homogenous, empty time” (261 ). For Benjamin, linear, teleological modes of history construct the political status quo, including Germany’s move toward Fascism, as the only possible history: “the adherents of historicism . . .
empathize … with the victor”(256). Materialist historiography must work in the interests of oppressed classes and “brush history against the grain”(257) to uncover their voices.
Such historiography connects apparently disparate events to make clear the structures and patterns of power, the “state of emergency”in which we exist:
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency”in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. (Benjamin 1968d, 257)
The continual privileging of the present by “historicist”narrative makes impossible any comprehension of the inter-relationship of past and present, and naturalizes Fascism’s rise to power. Thus, a form of history must be practiced that connects disparate events, makes visible the state of emergency that shapes the modern world, and enables the revolutionary “constellation’Of the past with the present, in a moment filled with the “time of the now”(263), which halts and interrupts “progress.” Such revolution is here conceived both politically and theologically: according to Benjamin, materialist historiography makes possible the entry of the Messiah, and the commencement of a Messianic time in which the constellations of past and present are understood and silenced histories are redeemed.
“The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov”(1968b; written 1936) also concerns itself with ways of narrating history. Benjamin posits “historiography”as “the common ground of all forms of the epic”(95), and the epic, in turn, as progenitor of both story and novel. The story is presented as a vanishing mode of historiographical narrative related to the “chronicle,”which tells history, rather than explaining it in the manner of the historian. Benjamin invokes and commends in the chronicle mode of historiography a communal sense of participation in a divine, unexplained pattern; this belief in pattern is re-embodied in the storyteller, who is the chronicler “preserved in changed form, secularized, as it were”(96). Thus, there exists in chronicle/storytelling a sense of wholeness, of meaning and purpose, whether divinely or secularly oriented.
However, in the modern world, storytelling-exemplified here by the works of Russian writer Nikolai Leskov-is dying, and the information and explanation of the historian triumph in the novel form. In contrast to the many voices and “many diffuse occurrences’Of the story, the novel embodies homelessness, and “is dedicated to one hero, one odyssey, one battle”(Benjamin 1968b, 98). The novel shifts away from storytelling’s multiple and communal expressions, its participation in the rhythms and meanings of life, toward solitary consumption. People in scattered isolation are forced to seek in the novel, in the life and death of its character(s), a sense of the meaning of lived experience, in which they no longer participate. “The Storyteller,”then, apparently mourns the loss of “communicable experience”(84) and disdains the contemporary world of “information”and events in newspapers “shot through with explanation”(89), a world not open to reinterpretation and retelling.
However, many Benjamin scholars assert a more nuanced reading of “The Storyteller.” Irving Wohlfarth comments that, indeed, “a melancholy sense of’the world we have lost’ . . . pervades [Benjamin’s] story,” but that “it is because he is vanishing that the storyteller’s beauty is now so significantly enhanced”(1981,1003).3 Benjamin views this “moment of transition”(1004) as an opportunity as well as a death-knell, and conceives of the world as a place in which “Storytelling has become a dead end. To that extent history cannot be told in a traditional way”(1005). For Benjamin, “the storyteller still remains the teleological end of the narrative,” and “The Storyteller”promises his resurrection (1005); nevertheless, until that moment of redemption another way must be found to tell history.
A more complex and materialist understanding of “The Storyteller”emerges in considering it alongside Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”(1968e; written 1936). This piece contrasts the “aura’Of past works of art, their “[u]niqueness and permanence,”with the “transitoriness and reproducibility’Of modern forms such as films, “picture magazines and newsreels”(223). It might thus seem to anticipate the apparent mourning of “The Storyteller”for a more holistic narrative practice grounded in ritual and tradition. But “The Work of Art”notes that the glowing aura of works of art derives specifically from their distance from the present, their enshrouding in tradition and ritual, just as the beauty of the storyteller is enhanced as he diminishes. Contemporary art, Benjamin contends, is freed from tradition and politicized by mechanical reproduction: “mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual …. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on politics”(224). Read against “The Work of Art,”then, the storyteller’s narrative may constitute a form that cannot sustain humanity in the modern era, when we require a “heightened state of mind” (238) to deal with the repeated shocks of our technological existence.4 As Julian Roberts concludes, “the dreaming poetic delights of the older form have to fall victim to this changeover”to a more modern, technological world (1982,184). Modern forms such as film thus valuably shock us out of a traditional, auratic, and somnolent relationship to the past, rendering art immediate and political.
The divergent tendencies of “The Storyteller,”its nostalgia for tradition versus its favoring of radical change through technology, thus parallel the apparent conflict within “Theses”: its materialist insistence on class struggle as the engine driving history and social change, on the one hand, and a mystical notion of the entrance of Messianic time as the ultimate source of liberation, on the other. What is certain, though, is a mandate to employ the forms at hand-those of tradition and modernity-to counter linear and dominant historical narratives. Even if idealistic storytelling is becoming impossible, there may yet be a manner of narration open to us which refuses hegemonic understandings of history, which makes space for the voices of the oppressed, and which renders possible the Messianic moment of redemption. Into these spaces of possibility enters Sexing the Cherry, a story-telling novel that insists on the possibility of narrating history in radical ways.5
Sexing the Cherry and Materialist Historiography
Sexing the Cherry resists the categorization of “novel”as delineated in “The Storyteller” by telling its (hi)story in a “materialist historiographie” vein, undermining dominant modes of historical narrative, asserting the interpenetration of past and present, soliciting and counseling communities of readers, and invoking a transcendent moment of redemption. The historical moment that the text primarily occupies is London from the 164Os through until the Fire of London in 1666. The novel is alternately narrated by Dog-Woman, a monstrous woman who breeds dogs, and by her adopted son, Jordan, who, inspired to travel by his childhood sighting of the first banana brought to England, sails the seas with his mentor, John Tradescant, in search of exotic lands and fruits.6 Jordan’s character thus corresponds to one of Benjamin’s archetypal story-tellers, the seaman (1968b, 85), while Dog-Woman suggests the other archetypal storytelling figure, “the [wojman who has stayed at home, making an honest living, and who knows the local tales and traditions”(84).Together, like the artisan class of the Middle Ages as Benjamin conceives it, these figures “combin[e] the lore of faraway places, such as a much-traveled man brings home, with the lore of the past, as it best reveals itself to the natives of a place”(85). The novel thus proffers a form of counsel: Jordan’s and Dog-Woman s stories presuppose an audience, and construct themselves as an appeal to assumed readers/listeners already familiar with the tales Jordan retells and with the events that Dog-Woman describes, who are implicitly asked to re-visit these stories and re-connect them to their own experience.
Dog-Woman’s stories describe the rise of the Puritans, the Civil War, the execution of Charles, the rule of Cromwell, and the Restoration of the monarchy. Like the chronology that Benjamin praises in “The Storyteller,”which is “embedded … in natural history”(1968b, 95) because of the regular appearances in it of death, Dog-Woman s story encompasses death as a natural component of life and meaning. She witnesses the deaths of her beloved King, Charles I, and of Tradescant; and she is there when the bodies of the Puritans are hung out:
Tradescant is dead. Cromwell is dead. Ireton and Bradshaw, the King’s prosecutors, frequently found together beneath soiled sheets, are dead. Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw .. . were dug out on 30 January and hung up for all to see on the gallows at Tyburn. . . . Thousands of us flocked to watch them swinging in the wind, what was left of them, decay having made no exception for their eminence.. . .
It did render me philosophical, though, to sit at Tyburn and watch the merriment and great wonder of passers-by, especially small children, who had never thought what it might mean to rot.
And yet rotting is a common experience. We all shall, even myself, although I imagine it will take a worm of some endeavour to make any impression. (Winterson 1989,118) Like Benjamin’s storyteller, Dog-Woman narrates a history that works in conjunction with a natural and divine plan: when plague erupts in London, Dog-Woman sees it as “God’s judgement on the murder of the King”(Winterson 1989, 159). But Dog-Woman’s relation to history is not one of passive dependence upon divine intervention. As noted above, when the Great Fire begins, her own role in it is emphasized, but as an agency in concert with divine imperatives: “I could not have hindered the work of God”(165).
Dog-Woman narrates her stories from a position of marginalization: she is poor, female, large, and ugly. Her storytelling defiantly reconstructs histories shattered by dominant forces, as when she sees working-class women piece together a stained-glass window shattered by the Puritans: “They gathered every piece, and they told me, with hands that bled, that they would rebuild the window in a secret place. … I left them there and walked home, my head full of things that cannot be destroyed”(Winterson 1989, 66). Soon after, she burns piles of Puritan newspapers, in an act which contrasts the transience of printed information with the endurance of memory, and asserts the existence of the stories of the marginalized, underlying dominant history and awaiting their moment of revelation.
The novel’s second narrative perspective, that of Dog-Woman’s son Jordan, also calls upon storytelling strategies to question conventional views of history. Benjamin suggests that to brush history against the grain we draw on elements inherent to class struggle: “courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers”(1968d, 255).These qualities gain vivid expression in storytelling, and specifically in the fairy-tale, of which Benjamin writes, “The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tale had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest. This need was the need created by the myth”(1968b, 102). The fairy-tale employs numerous strategies to diminish the power of the “myth’Of historical progress, as in “the figure of the fooP’which “shows us how mankind ‘acts dumb’ toward the myth”(102). The fairy-tale “meet[s] the forces of the mythical world with cunning and with high spirits”in order to subvert (102); similarly, the humor of the re-told fairy-tales in Sexing the Cherry demythologizes power structures and dominant categorizations, specifically those of gender and class.
The novel rewrites, amongst others, the fairy-tale of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” Jordan, having spent the night at a house with no floors, but only ceilings, seeks the dancing woman he met there. In a town whose inhabitants “knock down their houses in a single night and rebuild them elsewhere”(Winterson 1989, 43), Jordan is directed to the house of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, whose story he has heard, and who may know the dancer he seeks. The eldest sister re-tells their story, how the sisters flew every night from their beds to a “silver city”where the “occupation of the people was to dance”(48). Their father suspected their exploits but was unable to fathom how they escaped or where they went. Finally, a “clever prince”caught them flying through the window. The women were betrothed to the prince and his eleven brothers. But in this retelling, this end is not the end: ‘”as it says [we] lived happily ever after. We did, but not with our husbands'”(48).
One by one the women tell their stories, in which they abandon or kill abusive, repressive, or unfaithful husbands. In one story, the husband is in fact a woman, whom the Princess must kill to save her from a vengeful mob; and in another, a rewriting of Rapunzel’s story, the “witch”is an older woman who lives in a tower with Rapunzel, and who is attacked by the prince:
Then he carried Rapunzel down the rope he had brought with him and forced her to watch while he blinded her broken lover in a field of thorns.
After that, they lived happily ever after, of course.
As for me, my body healed, though my eyes never did, and eventually I was found by my sisters, who had come in their various ways to live on this estate.
My own husband?
Oh well, the first time I kissed him he turned into a frog.
There he is, just by your foot. His name’s Anton. (Winterson 1989, 52)
These tales’ strategies of reversal and humor reconfigure power structures: the women violently reclaim their right to freedom and to self-narrative, and their narratives question mythical norms. The violence of these stories demands acknowledgement of what is at stake in narrative and historiography.7
But the novel’s storyteller of the past is also, in keeping with the vision of “Theses,”constellated with the political needs of the present. The importance of historic/fairy-tale narratives for the present becomes overt toward the novel’s end, when the stories and identities of Jordan and the DogWoman make contact with two Londoners in 1990. Nicolas Jordan, like Jordan, is a young man fascinated by the sea and sea-travel, while the unnamed woman of the present draws on her visions of Dog-Woman to negotiate her experiences as a fat, taunted child, and as an adult outraged at dominant commercial and political powers. The sudden and significant moments of past and present interconnection experienced by these characters echo Benjamin’s evocation of the “constellation”between one era and another (1968d, 263): “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at an instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again…. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably”(255).
Nicolas Jordan experiences this constellation as a naval cadet on the Thames Estuary, regarding the “constellations’One night with a friend, who comments:
You know, if we were turned loose in our galaxyjust let out there one day by ourselves, it wouldn’t look like it does from here. We’d see nothing but blackness. All those stars that hang so close together are light years apart. Our chances of finding any star or planet at all, forget about a blue planet like this one, would be a billion billion. (Winterson 1989, 137)
Nicolas’s friend thus imagines a pattern which, when one is in the midst of it, seems empty and disparate, and exudes a sense of homelessness, like that of the contemporary world in which storytelling no longer sustains belief in a meaningful pattern. Nicolas is left alone on deck:
I rested my arms on the railing and my head on my arms. I felt I was falling falling into a black hole with no stars and no life and no helmet. I heard a foot scrape on the deck beside me. Then a man’s voice said, “They are burying the King at Windsor today.” I snapped upright and looked full in the face of the man, who was staring out over the water. I knew him, but from where? And his clothes . . . nobody wears clothes like that any more.
I looked beyond him, upwards. The sails creaked in the breeze, the main spar was heavy with rope. Further beyond I saw the Plough and the Orion and the bright sickle of the moon.
I heard a bird cry, sharp and fierce. Tradescant sighed.
My name is Jordan. (Winterson 1989, 137)
In this moment of recognition, the character of Nicolas experiences an instant of simultaneity with the past, with Jordan, and intuits a meaningful, fleetingly glimpsed relationship between the two. It is an experience of history that contrasts with the linear narrative of Nicolas s The Boys’ Book of Heroes, a litany of war and imperialism (Winterson 1989, 131-33).
Similarly, the Dog-Woman of the twentieth century recalls a moment “when I was a schoolgirl and getting fatter by the day “(Winterson 1989, 146). Leaving school, she walks on Waterloo Bridge to look at St Paul’s and Westminster:
I watched the sun sliding behind the buildings, and as I concentrated the screeching cars and the thudding people and the smells of rubber and exhaust receded. I felt I was alone on a different afternoon.
I looked at my forearms resting on the wall. They were massive, like thighs, but there was no wall, just a wooden spit, and when I turned in the opposite direction I couldn’t see the dome of St Paul’s.
I could see rickety vegetable boats and women arguing with one another and a regiment on horseback crossing the Thames.
I had to get on to Blackfriars, there was someone waiting there for me.
Now I wake up in the night shouting “Who? Who?” like an owl.
Why does that day return and return as I sit by a rotting river with only the fire for company? (Winterson 1989, 146-47)
The moments of”constellation”make visible for both characters the “state of emergency”that they inhabit, providing them with an awareness of history and historical narrative that spurs them on to political protest.
Sexing the Cherry makes overt its attack on “historicism,”questioning the truth and the authority of dominant historiography in a list that enumerates “lieS’Of normative historiography, including,”There is only the present and nothing to remember”and “Time is a straight line” (Winterson 1989, 90). Any ascription to the totalitarian mode of historical narrative, to linear and finite understandings of time, and to a single “true”reality makes it possible to merely exist in the present without any awareness of responsibility to the past; Benjamin and Sexing the Cherry both emphasize the need for present ” [historical materialists”to redeem the past (1968d, 254).
Winterson’s characters thus reconceptualize their historical existence, and, acknowledging their responsibility, act revolutionarily: the woman, now a chemist, conducts a “one-woman campaign”against pollution in rivers (Winterson 1989, 140), and Nicolas Jordan is inspired to join her. That their decisions participate in a historiographical resistance to the “historicist”conception of progressivist time can be seen in Jordan’s musing in front of a painting of men on horseback:
When I saw this painting I began by concentrating on the foreground figures, and only by degrees did I notice the others, some so faint as to be hardly noticeable. My own life is like this, or, I should say, my own lives. For the most part I can only see the most obvious detail, the present, my present. But sometimes, by a trick of the light, I can see more than that. I can see countless lives existing together and receding slowly into the trees. (Winterson 1989, 102)
Similarly, the protesting woman envisages escape from the present, “this foreground that blinds me to whatever may be happening in the distance. If I have a spirit, a soul, any name will do, then it won’t be single, it will be multiple. Its dimension will not be one of confinement but one of space. It may inhabit numerous changing decaying bodies in the future and in the past”(144). Awareness of an intimate relation to the past prompts a reconsideration of relation to the present and the future; both Jordan and Nicolas, initially dreaming of heroic journeys like those that underwrite historicism, are drawn instead to the “countless lives”and histories obscured by the foreground of historicism.
Sexing the Cherry’s emphasis upon pollution and the destruction of nature also evokes a Benjaminian critique of progressivist history and the interests it serves.The relationship to nature embodies for Benjamin the proximity to or distance from the world of storytelling: when storytelling flourished, man perceived himself to be in harmony with nature; now, the exploitation of the working classes is intertwined with “the exploitation of nature,”and the prevailing world view “recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society”(1968d, 259).Thus, the woman fantasizes a world in which she might coincide with nature and its meting out of justice, inspired by Dog-Woman as her “alter ego … a woman whose only morality was her own and whose loyalties were fierce and few”(Winterson 1989,142). When Nicolas reads in the paper about her vigil by a river polluted with mercury he joins her, and is with her as she suggests they burn down the offending factory. Like “the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action”described by Benjamin, the pair are aware “that they are about to make the continuum of history explode”(1968d, 261).
If Sexing the Cherry’s characters grapple with the contrast between received historicist narratives and their own experiences of historical and politically charged moments, the novel itself also revises conventional historical views of the Puritan Revolution. On the one hand, the novel’s apparent sympathy for Charles I and the Restoration seems to contradict a revolutionary perspective, underwriting a reactionary move back toward monarchy. But, on the other, it is exactly through this revision that Winterson “brushes history against the grain.”As Greg Clingham notes, Winterson contests the way in which, in the work of canonical historians, “the past is ‘written’ so as to justify the ideological view that the revolution fulfilled a progressive political and cultural pattern”(1998, 66). Sexing the Cherry thus speaks back to a linear writing of history. As Jeffrey Roessner comments, while “the [civil] war can be read as part of a movement toward a more democratic form of government based on civil law rather than divine authority,”Winterson finds an alternative interpretation, linking “the war with the development of oppressive ideals of scientific objectivity and the sovereign individual” (2002, 107).
Sexing the Cherry thus enacts a materialist historiography, tracing under dominant historical narrative the development of bourgeois and colonial systems of oppression. But the novel’s stories foreground not only the class struggle emphasized by Benjamin, but also the struggle of women within patriarchal society, and of lesbian desire within a heterosexist paradigm. Winterson’s rewriting of history is feminist as well as materialist: as Roessner points out, the novel “depicts the Revolution as a move toward ideals of rationality and objectivity-ideals that helped establish the value of sexual repression and the naturalness of heterosexuality”(2002, 108). Dog-Woman’s gender politics and the lesbianism and sex traversing the Princesses’ stories indicate that Sexing the Cherry’s challenge to historicism also requires the gendering and sexing of narrative. The consideration of Winterson’s text alongside Benjamin’s essays thus draws attention to Benjamin’s elision of gender politics, and testifies to what Joan Scott terms the “deeply gendered nature of history itself “(1988, 18).
Dog-Woman s agency within history suggests her as an exemplar of the specific female “historical actor”whose story feminist history seeks to represent (Scott 1988,25). More overtly, the many descriptions of her unusual and huge body throughout the text emphasize the role of gender in structuring both history and historiography. In Gender and the Politics of History (1988), Scott has outlined two “propositions”for a feminist historiography. First, she states, we must be attentive to gender as “a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes”(43) and as embedded in historical symbols, normative concepts, “social institutions and organizations”(43), and “subjective identity”(44). In her personal narrative of her first, thwarted love, in her failure to conform to dominant images of womanhood which grants her a certain freedom, in her fierce, independent mothering of Jordan, and in her friendships with marginalized women such as her neighbor the witch and her prostitute friend, Dog-Woman simultaneously embodies and defies the gendered conventions which structure her experience and her history.8
Scott’s second proposition for a feminist historiography involves understanding the ways in which “gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power”(1988,44). Such a proposition reveals the often blind dependence on sexual difference that has structured historicism, and that remains unacknowledged in Benjamin’s historical materialism, as at the end of “Theses,”where he declares: “The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called Once upon a time’ in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history”(1968d, 262).9 Terry Eagleton notes the “virile swagger’Of this passage, which uses “sexist mythology”to present “[hjomogenous history”as “whorelike both in its instant availability and in its barren emptiness”(1981, 45). In contrast, Eagleton insists, “It is women, not men, who are the most exact image of the oppressed; it is in child-birth and child-rearing that the desolate condition of the workers is most graphically figured …. Woman, notwithstanding Benjamin’s fantasy, is not the whore of history but the ultimate image of violation. She embodies the final loss, that of the fruits ofthebodyitself”(47).10
Benjamin elsewhere acclaimed the prostitute: he criticized society for seeking to separate “Eros’Trom “culture and morality “(Roberts 1982, 31), and held that the prostitute valuably “sexualised the spirit”(qtd. in Roberts 1982, 31). Sexing the Cherry, in making sex central to its historical revision, strives for a similar sexualization of the spirit and condemnation of hypocrites who both exploit and denounce prostitutes. The crime of Puritans Preacher Scroggs and Neighbour Firebrace, who meet such a grisly end in a brothel at the hands of Dog-Woman, lies in their division of their public abhorrence and repression of sexuality from their private sexual acts. But Sexing the Cherry also challenges the location and validation of the prostitute in a purely figurative realm, and disputes Benjamin’s denigration of the whore/prostitute figure, by presenting prostitutes as historical agents from a potentially revolutionary class, enacting a violent retribution against the Puritans who both oppress and take advantage of working women.The novel also challenges Benjamin’s sexist depiction of the historical materialist, by depicting the potent female figure of Dog-Woman as the history-teller “man enough to blast open the continuum of history.”Through the very presence of her monstrous and female body in Windsor, in the brothel, and in church, Dog-Woman connects for us the political, the religious, the gendered, and the sexual, warning that any truly alternative history must follow in her footsteps or risk repeating the errors of historicism.
However, while Dog-Woman’s narratives suggest the interweaving of gender, sex, and power, her idealization of monarchy, her violent murderousness, and her dismissal of Jordan’s historical philosophies also suggest her inability to encompass fully the implications of gendered power structures.11 Where Dog-Woman does not attain the theoretical and critical perspective required for feminist historiography, it is, as noted above, her constellation with her twentieth-century alter-ego that points toward a feminist historiographical obligation.The woman protestor draws strength from Dog-Woman as her “patron saint”(Winterson 1989,142):”! am a woman going mad. I am a woman hallucinating. I imagine I am huge, raw, a giant”(138). She envisages a scenario in which she invades the World Bank boardroom and the Pentagon, stuffing “[m]en in suits”(138) into a huge bag, taking them to “the butter mountains and wine lakes and grain silos and deserts and cracked earth and starving children and armed dealers in guarded places,”and training them in “feminism and ecology”: “Then they start on the food surpluses, packing it with their own hands, distributing it in a great human chain of what used to be power and is now cooperation” (139). In the convergence of the DogWoman of the past and the feminist of the present, Sexing the Cherry indicates how storytelling might be mobilized in the historical materialist struggle, but does so by attending to a feminist historiography that reveals, as Scott envisages, relationships between gender and power.
Hybrid Cherries: Postmodern Historiography
As we have seen then, Dog-Woman constitutes a teller of (hi)stories that disrupt historicism: she is a voice for a community of the marginalized, providing what Roessner calls “a counter-memory of Charles’s execution that challenges traditional histories of the war”(2002, 107). However, DogWoman is also anachronistic in seeking the restoration of a prior, idealized and monarchical condition. Her storytelling, by itself, cannot provide a truly modern and revolutionary narrative form, for she does not connect the institutions she encounters to philosophies of history: suspicious of her son’s notion of “journeys folded in on themselves like a concertina,” she holds that “the earth is a manageable place made of blood and stone and entirely flat”(Winterson 1989, 19).
It is Jordan’s perspective that complicates the certainty of Dog-Woman’s narratives, emphasizing that the kind of storytelling delineated in “The Storyteller,”a form which we necessarily idealize from our presentist outlook, is neither accessible in the contemporary period, nor adequate to bring about revolution. Jordan’s thoughts about history exhibit a postmodern suspicion of master narratives, linearity, and absolute truth, and in so doing open Sexing the Cherry to the criticism that it inconsistently mandates social and political change while undermining any given narrative, including those of the marginalized, as inevitably constructed and contingent. But, in employing the postmodern historical form, Sexing asserts the validity and political significance of a certain, ethical, but inevitably textual, engagement with history. Thus, the novel echoes the postmodern elements of Benjamin’s own critical and intellectual practices, which-while often summoning theological visions of unity, which we shall examine below-assert the necessity and value of constantly refashioning the past in the different and imperfect languages of the present.
The contingency of storytelling, its persistent refusal of single truth, pervades the retellings in Sexing the Cherry. When Jordan finds the dancing princess, the missing twelfth sister, she retells the fairy-tale. She commences with the wedding day and her escape from the church, and later describes the beginning of the story: the enchanted flying city, and its nightly antigravitational pull on the light-weight sisters, as well as their downfall on the night they were to make their home in the city and “drift through space for ever”(Winterson 1989, 111). But Fortunata’s version of her flight from the church on the wedding day conflicts with the story the sisters told Jordan:
“But the story they told me about you was not the same.That you escaped, yes, but that you flew away and walked on a wire stretched from the steeple of the church to the mast of a ship at anchor in the bay.”
She laughed. How could such a thing be possible?
“But,” I said, “how could it be possible to fly every night from the window to an enchanted city when there are no such places?”
“Are there not such places?” she said, and I fell silent, not knowing how to answer. (Winterson 1989, 106)
The shifting of stories is paralleled by an uncertainty about time and truth. The novel opens with Jordan’s “This is the first thing I saw,”followed by a description of fog drifting toward and encompassing him (1), and Fortunata also begins her narrative with “This is the first thing I saw,”and describes a winter scene shortly before her wedding day (104). But Jordan’s narrative deems these beginnings impossible, and associates them with the “lieS’Of “historicism”: “It was not the first thing she saw, how could it have been? Nor was the night in the fog-covered field the first thing I saw. But before then we were like those who dream and pass through life as a series of shadows. And so what we have told you is true although it is not”(106). This uncertainty of memory extends to a concept of time that cannot be understood in linear terms: “MEMORY l:The scene I have just described to you may lie in the future or the past. Either I have found Fortunata or I will find her. I cannot be sure. Either I am remembering her or I am still imagining her. But she is somewhere in the grid of time, a co-ordinate, as I am”(104).
For Winterson, memory and storytelling are no more guarantors of some kind of truth or authenticity than is “historicism,”and Jordan delineates this ambiguity of memory:
Did my childhood happen? I must believe it did, but I don’t have any proof. My mother says it did, but she is a fantasist, a liar and a murderer, though none of that would stop me loving her. I remember things, but I too am a fantasist and a liar, though I have not killed anyone yet. … I will have to assume that I had a childhood, but I cannot assume to have had the one I remember.
Everyone remembers things which never happened. And it is common knowledge that people often forget things which did. Either we are all fantasists and liars or the past has nothing definite in it. I have heard people say we are shaped by our childhood. But which one? (Winterson 1989, 102)
To proceed in the narrative mode of storytelling, to use fairy-tale and its cunning and high spirits to challenge the history of historians is a necessary enterprise on the terms of this text. But it cannot appeal to the certainty that “historicism”deems possible and desirable. The novel’s oscillation between the narratives of Dog-Woman and Jordan, then, challenges linear historicism, but refuses to simply replace it with a singular and privileged narrative form of its own. Rather than an idealized articulator of stories in a divine plan, Dog-Woman is, despite her embodiment of female historical agency and empowerment of the oppressed, “a fantasist, a liar and a murderer”as much as any of the victors who have written history. Jordan’s questioning explorations of narrative and interpretive uncertainty emphasize the impossibility of any true and totalizing rendering of history.
Sexing the Cherry thus exemplifies the postmodern historical novel, or what Linda Hutcheon terms “historiographie metafiction,”which “problematizefs] both the nature of the referent and its relation to the real, historical world by its paradoxical combination of metafictional self-reflexivity with historical subject matter”(1988, 19). For Hutcheon, postmodern play with language and imagery is a valid and valuable approach to history, for “[t]he past really did exist”(92) but “we only know of those past events through their discursive inscription, through their traces in the present”(97). But at its extreme, this logic threatens to undermine any conception of a revolutionary historical knowledge, because “[historiographie metafiction . . . keeps distinct its formal auto-representation and its historical context, and in so doing problematizes the very possibility of historical knowledge, because there is no reconciliation, no dialectic here-just unresolved contradiction”(106).
For some critics, then, the postmodern tendencies of Sexing the Cherry undo any authentic engagement with history. Clingham notes critiques of the novel such as Michael Gorra’s contention that the novel fails to integrate the worlds of Dog-Woman and Jordan (1998, 62), and Rose !remains assertion that “there seems to be no attempt to inhabit the age, either in image or in language, so that in the end the choice of century seems arbitrary”(qtd. in Clingham 1998,63).12 But for Clingham, such criticisms are based on expectations of realistic conventions, rather than an acknowledgement of the fantastical act required to ethically represent an utterly different historical period. Rather than dismissing history, Clingham asserts, “textuality implies and actually requires for its full operation an independent historical experience and order”(68).The postmodern historical novel must thus both respect that history’s alterity and seek to connect with it: “when we understand that the novel operates on the principle of alterity, and proposes historical and linguistic difference as the basis of its functionality-then we can argue that Sexing the Cherry’s remarkable poetic textuality has as its object and purpose a representation of the seventeenth century rather than a pastiche of it or an escape from it” (68).
Such an interpretation of Sexing the Cherry’s relationship to history holds that an “authentic”relationship to the original, the historical period in question, is not possible. Clingham considers Winterson’s act of authorship as more like a translation, and, referencing Restoration concepts of translation as “stepping out of one present into another through art” (1998, 71), presents artistic representation as one mode of making the past pertinent and immediate in the present. The act of translation is one to which Benjamin attended in his “The Task of the Translator” (1968c; written 1923), where he imagined it as a process not of imitation but of renewal: “no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife-which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something living-the original undergoes a change” (73). In its fantastical and textual elements, then, Sexing the Cherry draws attention to its inevitable distance from its historical setting, but also avows the possibility of, in Benjamin’s words, “incorporating] the original’s mode of signification” (78). As Clingham argues, the novel achieves this-and denotes its historical setting as deliberate, not arbitrary-by engaging specific philosophical concepts of the Restoration period, including the notion of translation and, as discussed below, the sacred/secular symbol of the King’s body.
In presenting translation as an act of artistic reproduction, Benjamin has frequent recourse to metaphors of natural reproduction; a translation is created with “birth pangs”and exhibits “kinship”but not necessarily ” alike ness”to the original (1968c, 73). He also invokes botanical reproduction, referring to the “hidden seed’Of pure language (75) that is ripened by each act of translation (77). While this inspirational vision of pure language is discussed more fully below, the botanical imagery here is relevant also to the “impure”and imperfect acts of translation employed in the material world, and to Winterson’s own botanical figure for her postmodern historiographical narrative.
The titular hybrid cherry of the novel embodies and metaphorizes its historical practice, a process of translating a remote history into the present in a way that illuminates that history’s relevance and immediacy. In the novel, Jordan, with Tradescant, brings exotic fruits back to England, and enables them to grow there. He learns the art of grafting:
Grafting is the means whereby a plant, perhaps tender or uncertain, is fused into a hardier member of its strain, and so the two take advantage of each other and produce a third kind, without seed or parent. In this way fruits have been made resistant to disease and certain plants have learned to grow where previously they could not.
There are many in the Church who condemn this practice as unnatural, holding that the Lord who made the world made its flora as he wished and in no other way. (Winterson 1989, 85)
Jordan defends his activity in the face of his mother’s criticisms: “I tried to explain to her that the tree would still be female although it had not been born from seed, but she said such things had no gender and were a confusion to themselves …. But the cherry grew, and we have sexed it, and it is female”(Winterson 1989, 85).
Just as exotic fruit falters in a harsher climate, storytelling cannot flourish in, and is not adequate to, the shocks of modern existence. Just as botanical grafting produces the stronger, hybridic cherry, so the artistic grafting of fairytales and historical narrative produce postmodern historical fiction, an artistically and blasphemously created form. Rather than naturally propagating, as through seed, Sexing the Cherry’s, historiographie form is “unnatural”kin to storytelling and history: it “transplants . . . the original”(Benjamin 1968c, 75).Yet, like the cherry that is still female, the novel’s postmodern narrative is also still a form of storytelling, as argued above, soliciting readers to heed and act on its counsel.13
The concept of grafting makes possible a less pessimistic reading of the modern world, Nicolas Jordan’s world, where information proliferates, dividing communities and entrenching hegemonic understandings of history. A confusion of narrative forms shapes Nicolas’s perceptions: novels, history books, paintings, and movies about war, the ocean, and space. At the same time, in ways that recall Benjamin’s “The Work of Art,” the very multiplicity of these forms makes them potential sources of alternative modes of historiography. It is, after all, a newspaper article that introduces Nicolas to the modern-day Dog-Woman, and rallies him to her cause. Sexing the Cherry is thus, as Eagleton interprets the story described by “The Storyteller,””a kind of hybrid of the auratic and mechanically reproduced artefacts, redolent of mythological meaning yet amenable to the labour of interpretation”(1981, 60).The most auratic stories are also those whose remoteness and compactness render them most available for “recycling”in the present (60).They are, in Benjamin’s own words, “seeds of grain which have lain for centuries in the chambers of pyramids shut up air-tight and have retained their germinative power to this day”(1968b, 90). But powerful stories also show the mark of the artisan, the storyteller: “The traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the hands of a potter cling to the clay vessel” (92). The production of the hybrid cherry thus takes an exotic fruit and reproduces it through the unnatural but artisan-like intervention of technology, just as auratic stories and dominant histories are grafted together by the postmodern novelist to translate the materialist and possibly redemptive elements of the old forms into the modern world.
As well as a model for a new form of historiography, the hybrid is also a model for different and productive concepts of gender.14 Because postmodernism is seen as deconstructive and anathema to political commitment, some critics have felt that Sextng’s feminist and lesbian politics run counter to its postmodern tendencies, reversing but also reinscribing sexual binarisms.15 However, as Laura Doan points out, with the figure of the hybrid, Sexing the Cherry does more than parody or disrupt patriarchal and heterosexist discourses, depicting a creative and political act that opens up multiple conceptions of self and sexuality: “What [Judith] Butler pioneers theoretically, Winterson enacts in her metafictional writing practices: a sexual politics of heterogeneity and a vision of hybridized gender constructions outside an either/or proposition, at once political and postmodern”(1994, 153-54).
Clearly, then, consideration of this novel alongside Benjamin’s essays illuminates a convergence around matters of postmodern and materialist historiography: these are narratives that at once deconstruct dominant narratives and articulate politically suppressed stories with an aim to revolution. But the texts share a third, significant tendency. Even as they link practices of historical narrative to material conditions of oppression-on grounds of class and, for Winterson, gender-both Benjamin and Winterson continually invoke a moment of transcendence or redemption, toward which the act of materialist historiography strains. For even as Benjamin presents translation in what we might perceive as postmodern terms-“a translation touches the original lightly and only at the infinitely small point of the sense, thereupon pursuing its own course according to the laws of fidelity in the freedom of linguistic flux”(1968c, 80)-the act of translation nevertheless gestures toward and strives to realize a linguistic unity in “pure language”(73): “it is translation which catches fire on the eternal life of the works and the perpetual renewal of language”(74). The fires which constellate past and present in Sexing the Cherry, then, also approximate and seek to bring about the “pure”light of a kind of revelation, one which seems at odds with the political and postmodern elements of the novel, but which, as with other apparent contradictions, underpins the novel’s hybridic power.
The Redemption of History
For Benjamin, the historical materialist practice of narrative mandates both storytelling with an eye to subverting the totalitarian regimes that exploit and silence the oppressed classes, and the creation of a world in which the Messianic conjunction of past, present, and future may occur. This conjunction may ensure that the model of our relationship to the future resists Benjamin’s interpretation of Paul Klee’s painting: “the angel of history/’facing toward the past where “historicism””keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage,”and being propelled into the future by the storm of progress (1968d, 257). Only the practice of materialist historiography can make possible the moment of transcendence in which, according to Benjamin, “redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past. . . . [Ojnly for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments”(254). For Benjamin, theology is the hunchbacked dwarf that necessarily controls the chess game from beneath the board, even as it seems that the dwarf’s “puppet,”the automaton of “historical materialism,”makes the moves (253).
As already indicated, the relationship in “Theses” between materialist politics and Messianic redemption is much debated, with some critics asserting that theology is reconceived politically, others that Messianic transcendence becomes the ultimate means of transformation, and still others that the essay fails to successfully reconcile such opposing perspectives.16 Certainly, redemption implies the material world as a fallen and profane space, awaiting the Messianic arrival which will bring about paradise or Utopia. This appeal to an other-wordly intervention seems to contradict political struggles toward a more just worldly existence.Yet, as Susan Buck-Morss notes, “It is no secret that the Jewish Messianic conception, which already has the attributes of being historical, materialist, and collective, translates readily into political radicalism in general and Marxism in particular”(1989, 231). For Jewish intellectual and Benjamin’s longtime friend Gershom Scholem, whereas “Christianity conceives of redemption as an event in the spiritual and unseen realm,” Judaism “has always maintained a concept of redemption as an event which takes place publicly, on the stage of history and within the community” (1971, 1).
The religious belief system on which Benjamin draws, therefore, makes space for a suggestive and intimate relationship between theology and materialism, in which the practice of materialist historiography is required to make possible the redemption of history, and in which the concept of redemption facilitates materialist historiography. Thus, in Benjamin’s story, while the theological dwarf makes the chess moves, it is the historical materialist puppet that “enlists the services of theology”(1968d, 253).17 Like each act of translation which strives toward and glimpses pure language, each materialist narrative of history seeks to realize the destruction of historicism’s “homogenous, empty time”and the redemption of history in all its fullness. Utopianism and political action thus co-exist, for the fact that Messianic history is a violent break with historicism-rather than the inevitable conclusion of historicist progression-mandates urgent political and historiographie intervention. In Buck-Morss’ words,
this Utopian desire can and must be trusted as the motivation of political action (even as this action unavoidably mediates the desire)-can, because every experience of happiness or despair that was ours teaches us that the present course of events does not exhaust reality’s potential; and must, because revolution is understood as a Messianic break from history’s course and not its culmination. (Morss 1989, 243)
The capability and responsibility to create revolution resides with us: “Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim”(Benjamin 1968d, 254).
We can find a point of contact between Benjamins theologically informed visions and Winterson’s Utopian glimpses in the imagery of light. Discussing the Kabbalah, a mystical belief system informing Judaism, Scholem describes how, in creating the world, God “emitfted] beams of light”into vessels, “but the vessels could not contain the light and thus were broken.”Consequently, the light was scattered, some “sparks of holiness”falling into the material world, where they “yearningly aspire to rise to their source but cannot avail to do so until they have support”(1971,45).18 Peter Brier contends that, rather than accepting this teaching as “literal truth,”both Benjamin and Scholem “saw in it a metaphysical, ethical, aesthetic, and even political model for the “repair of the world”(2003, 82). This spiritual narrative thus uses pure light to evoke the realm of redemption and unity, and figures “sparks’Of light and fire as the presence of that realm in the material world; such figures may gesture towards a beyond, but advocate a materialist politics attuned to the sparks of alternative histories, times, spaces.
It is also through images of light that Sexing the Cherry provides glimpses of a realm in which time and history are redeemed and simultaneously undone. Jordan confronts this vision when he comes across his ideal and figmentary dancing Princess:
At a dancing school in a remote place, Fortunata teaches her pupils to become points of light. . . . She believes that we are fallen creatures who once knew how to fly. She says that light burns in our bodies and threatens to dissolve us at any moment. . . . It is her job to channel the light lying in the solar plexus, along the arms, along the legs, forcing it into fingertips and feet, forcing it out so that her dancers sweat tongues of flame…. [A]t a single moment, when all are spinning in harmony down the long hall, she hears music escapingfrom their heads and backs and livers and spleens. Each has a tone like cut glass. The noise is deafening. And it is then that the spinning seems to stop, that the wild gyration of the dancers passes from movement into infinity. (Winterson 1989,77)
In our seemingly solid and fallen world, space and light provide impressions of an infinity within matter and time. The novel’s two epigraphs articulate worldly facts which testify to another reality: the first references the “Hopi, an Indian tribe, [who] have a language as sophisticated as ours, but no tenses for past, present and future”19; and the second asserts that “Matter, that thing the most solid and the well-known, which you are holding in your hands and which makes up your body, is now known to be mostly empty space. Empty space and points of light. What does this say about the reality of the world?”Winterson’s “points of light,”like the Kabbalic “sparks of holiness,”index a realm of pure light, a utopie realm glimpsed in the “time of the now. ” Winterson, like Benjamin, strives to imagine a historical practice constantly guided by visions of a radically different relationship to matter, space, and time.
As with Benjamin, the extent to which this Utopian vision is religious remains unclear in Sexing the Cherry. Winterson grew up in a Pentecostal household, but moved away from religion. Just as Benjamin held a theological view of language, touched upon in “The Task of the Translator,”that in our fallen world, acts of language may aspire upwards toward the Word of God-the pure language of creation and naming, “the magical language of things”(Roberts 1982,112)20-so Winterson thought of language as a point of contact between the material and the divine, writing in Art Objects, “I grew up with the Word and the Word was God. Now, many years after a secular Reformation, I still think of language as something holy”(1996, 153). As well, Clingham points out,Winterson’s novel is fascinated with “the medieval idea of the king’s two bodies-the sacred and the secular”and the ways “the symbolic and religious power of this fiction is shattered in Charles’s sacrilegious execution”(1998, 71). Rather than adhering to a conservative defense of monarchy’s divine right, however, Clingham suggests that Winterson attends ethically to the historical significance of this concept: “her critique draws on a seventeenth-century appreciation for the symbolic significance of cultural forms (including monarchy), as well as the contingency of knowledge, scientific as well as humanistic, that recognized the metaphorical constraints of language”(72). Winterson adapts the sacred status of the King, “appropriating his symbolic significance into a critique of the historical and cultural movements that begin with the Civil War” (72).
Winterson thus respects and draws upon the symbolic powers of language and religious belief, but, like the historical materialist puppet, enlists that power to break open received histories, all the while straining to illuminate the spiritual transcendence of which the sacred-secular body of the King is but a profane spark. Significantly, Jordan’s vision of the dancers and their points of light follows immediately upon the King’s execution, suggesting the Utopian power Winterson hopes to unleash with her blasphemous translation of the Puritan Revolution. The artistic act of yoking together past and present is thus also a political act, in keeping with Buck-Morss’ vision of Benjamins “negative theology,”which “replaces the lost natural aura of the object with a metaphysical one that makes nature as mortified glow with political meaning.”Buck-Morss continues, “Unlike natural aura, the illumination that dialectical images provide is a mediated experience, ignited within the force field of antithetical time registers, empirical history and Messianic history”(1989, 244-5). Winterson’s use of the fairytale of the Dancing Princesses and other stories thus acts politically and metaphysically, both uncovering the marginalized voices of women and lesbians and using images of light to assert the transformative powers of feminist and lesbian narratives.
Despite having consonance with theological discourse, the transcendence figured in the novel is, like the hybrid cherry, irreligious: Jordan declares, “I’m not looking for God, only for myself and that is far more complicated. . . . [I]f the other life, the secret life, could be found and brought home, then a person might live in peace and have no need for God. After all, He has no need for us, being complete”(Winterson 1989, 115-16). The potentially redemptive forces embraced by the novel revolve rather around love, passion, and an honest evaluation of one’s fantasies and desires: Jordan asks “Was I searching for a dancer whose name I did not know or was I searching for the dancing part of myself?”(39). Sexing the Cherry’s tales of desire and love-idealized, passionate, romantic, imperfect, unrequited-construct human passion and interconnection as forces that shape, and can perhaps redeem, history. The visions of sexual difference and desire that permeate Sexing the Cherry are powerful dynamics in upsetting hegemonic, patriarchal history, and creating alternative histories and visions of a redemptive moment. For Winterson, therefore, historical narrative practice does not simply make possible the entrance of the Messiah. It may also itself bring about the redemption of history. If Benjamin ultimately insists on the seed of pure language and “the precious but tasteless seed’Of time in the “nourishing fruit of the historically understood”(1968d, 263), Winterson foregoes these originary and pure seeds for worldly acts of artistic grafting inspired by fantastical visions.
As already noted, the uncertain relationship of the mystical to the political has been criticized in both Winterson and Benjamin’s texts. Just as, for some, Benjamin undercuts his historical materialism with appeals to an outside, Messianic element, so, for example, Roessner faults Sexing the Cherry for seeking to escape the material identity of the gendered body with “an essentially Romantic drive to locate a ground of being outside time, space, and material existence”(2002, 112). For Roessner, Winterson’s effort “to kick over the traces of patriarchal order by denying the categories of time and space on which it is based”(119) dissolves into a counter-sexism that privileges irrationality and desire and”elide[s] the material existence of her characters, particularly women”(110).
But if Winterson’s novel fails to reconcile its feminist politics with its philosophical fantasies, it does so in the same way that entire schools of philosophy have failed to settle, finally, upon a single ontological or epistemological narrative. Roessner’s critique does not acknowledge the dialectical motion between the embodied, earthy, Dog-Woman, at once revolutionary and reactionary, and her son Jordan, with his metaphysical wanderings through oceans, fairytale worlds, and beams of light. On the one hand, DogWoman repeatedly reminds us of the dangers of idealism: “The Puritans, who wanted a rule of saints on earth and no king but Jesus, forgot that we are born into flesh and in flesh must remain”(Winterson 1989, 70). On the other, Jordan tells Greek myths which invoke mystical and alchemical transformation: “the transformation from one element to another, from waste matter into best gold, is a process that cannot be documented. It is fully mysterious. No one really knows what effects the change”(150). Committed engagement with the material and political world and visions of alternative and Utopian realms thus reach out to one another. As the female protestor of 1990 concludes:”! don’t know if other worlds exist in space or time. Perhaps this is the only one and the rest is just rich imaginings. Either way it doesn’t matter. We have to protect both possibilities. They seem to be interdependent”(146). Somewhere between those possibilities lies a hybridic, imperfect, ethical, materialist historiography, a way of narrating that breaks open linear history in favor of the fragmented voices of the many and in hopes of revolution, and, simultaneously, dreams idealistically of a more holistic, liberating place in space and time.
In examining Sexing the Cherry and Benjamin’s essays together, then, we find strong commonalities in their concern for the politically marginalized and their forgotten stories alongside their evocations of transcendent and otherworldly redemption. The texts’ interrelationships, however, do not provide a clear and indisputable conclusion as to what will bring about the spiritual and political liberations they envisage. Certainly, we can trace in their inner contradictions a dialectical process, a movement spiraling upwards towards a synthesis-the nature of which is uncertain but relates to some kind of redemption for history’s forgotten and oppressed. But, given the irresolution of those contradictions within the texts, the ongoing dynamic between potentially conflicting philosophies, and the necessary contingency that thus attends our interpretations, it is also important to understand the texts in relation to the kind of political postmodernism described by Hutcheon, in which the textual and political effects of materialist and religious discourse signify as much as the “reaP’existence of a mystical sphere.
In their crossings between spiritualism and secularism, religion and politics, transcendence and materialism, both Benjamin andWinterson generate glimpses of principles which could shape an ethical and even revolutionary narrative and historiographie form. Further, their narratives provide a model for their own renewal and transplantation in the act of interpretation. In juxtaposing these theoretical/fictional texts we respond to their invitation to constellate past and present, producing a blasphemous hybridic re-reading which seeks to honor the alterity of the original texts and pass along their counsel, while inevitably reconceiving them in line with our own political concerns and metaphysical desires.
The author thanks those whose commented on earlier versions of this essay, particularly John Mowitt and the readers of College Literature.
1 An extensive body of work in English analyzes the range of Benjamin’s writings and philosophical ideas: important texts include Terry Eagleton (1981); Richard Wolin (1982); Julian Roberts (1982); Susan Buck-Morss (1989); Graeme Gilloch (2001); and Margarete Kohlenbach (2002).
2 The essay’s title is sometimes translated as “On the Concept of History.” Benjamin did not intend “Theses” for publication, fearing “enthusiastic misunderstandings” (qtd. in Buck-Morss, 1989, 252). But the essay’s powerful suggestiveness has rendered it one of his most widely discussed works, mandating its continued, careful consideration.
3 In the same vein, Roberts states, “Lesskov’s art, and his world view, were beautiful; but in accordance with Benjamin’s theory of beauty, they were beautiful precisely because their historical redundancy was making them fade away”(1982, 180).
4 Benjamin also writes about shock and modern existence in “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”(1968a; written 1939). For more detailed considerations of the different kinds of “experience”invoked in Benjamin’s work, and of his notion of “shock”and its relation to Freudian theory, see, for example, Eagleton (1981), Roberts (1982), Wolin (1982), and Howard Caygill (1998).
5 This essay focuses only on Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, but similar themes can be and has been fruitfully considered in relation to Winterson’s many other novels, which also explore sexual and gender matters in postmodern narrative forms, as well as Winterson’s essays about -writing in Art Objects (1996). Along with those employed in this essay, useful articles on Sexing the Cherry include Alison Lee (1994); Christy L. Burns (1996); Marilyn R. Farwell (1996); Susan Onega (1996); Elizabeth Langland (1997); and Bente Gade (1999).
6 Tradescant is an historical figure: see Greg Clingham on JohnTradescant, father and son, both royal horticulturalists and travelers (1998, fn. 9, 80-1).
7 Winterson’s strategy of rewriting fairytales to undermine dominant patriarchal narratives echoes Benjamin’s own use of the Sleeping Beauty tale to assert class struggle as the galvanizing force in history. In a letter to Gershom Scholem, Benjamin wrote: “I would like to tell in a different way the story of the Sleeping Beauty. She is asleep in her thorn bush. And then, after so many years, she awakes. But not to the kiss of a prince charming. It was the cook who awakened her, when he smacked the kitchen boy; the smack resounded with all the pent-up force of those long years and re-echoed throughout the castle” (qtd. in Eagleton 1981, 44). Comments Eagleton, “The sound that will stir [truth] to life is the rough noise of class violence, issuing from the lowliest quarter of the castle”(44).
8 As a historian of the lower-class, Dog-Woman also fulfils Scott’s mandate of attending to the overlapping of issues of class with the symbolic register of gender.
9 This image, read against “The Storyteller/’confirms Benjamin does not view storytelling solely through nostalgic and idealizing lens: the metaphor aligns the fairy-tale, with its generic opening line “Once upon a time,”with mythic or historicist narrative that simultaneously severs and conflates past and present, rather than constellating them in politically productive ways. In Eagleton’s words, “In a single gesture, the past is at once relegated to a safe distance and, robbed of its turbulence, surrendered to the hegemony of the present”(1981, 45). The image suggests that, whatever the past values of fairy-tale, it alone is not adequate for contemporary needs.
10 Similarly Roberts notes that while Benjamin questioned conventional views about prostitutes, he approached their exploitation in “quasi-religious”rather than “socio-econornic”terms (1982, 30), asserting that the prostitute valuably ‘”sexualised the spirit'”(31), but “entirely passfing] over the material context of prostitution”(32). Still, Benjamin elsewhere considers more consciously the entwinement of gendered and sexual fantasies with conceptions of the past, most clearly in “A Berlin Chronicle”(1978a; written 1932) where Berlins prostitutes shape his reminiscences about the city of his childhood. And, as Eagleton points out, Benjamin more astutely acknowledges women’s double oppression under capitalism in a review of Brecht’s play The Mother (1981, fn. 87, 47). For more extended analyses of gender, the feminine, and the figure of the prostitute in Benjamin’s texts, see Christine BuciGlucksmann; Buck-Morss; and Helga Geyer-Ryan.
11 Here, too, Dog-Woman recalls a characteristic of Benjamin’s work, embodying a violent tendency in his writing discussed by Peter Demetz:
there was in his character and in his thought a half-hidden thirst for violence (more poetic than political). His studies of Sorel and his defense of anarchist spontaneity (as suggested in his essay on violence) against any Marxist ‘programming’ of action reveal something in him that precedes all political theory and perhaps has its origins in a mystic vision of a Messiah who comes with the sword to change the world into white-and-golden perfection. His recurrent images of barricades, exploding dynamite, and the furies of civil war (as, for instance, in the essay on Surrealism) have an almost sexual if not ontological quality, and should not be obfuscated by pious admirers who would like to disregard the deep fissures in his thought and personality. (Demetz 1978, xli)
Thus, Dog-Woman carries out a fantasy of divinely mandated and justified violence that exceeds any programmatic uprising of the proletariat or oppressed women, in keeping with the contradictory elements of the historiographie practice envisaged by Benjamin and Winterson.
12 For the original sources noted here, see Gorra (1990) andTremain (1989).
13 Thus, as Eagleton reads Benjamin,
It is not that we constantly revaluate a tradition; tradition is the practice of ceaselessly excavating, safeguarding, violating, discarding and reinscribing the past. There is no tradition other than this, no set of ideal landmarks that then suffer modification. Artefacts are inherently available for such reinscription, just as Benjamin’s mystical theory of language sees ‘translatability’ as an essential quality of certain texts. (Eagleton, 1981, 59).
14 The continued relevance of gender and sexuality to Jordan’s postmodern historiography is also made clear in his temporary assumption of female guise in order to understand relations between women and men, and women’s role in the world and its history.
15 see, for example, Roessner (2002); Sara Martin (1999).
16 For example, Scholem found in the piece a despair with secular politics precipitated by the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, and a corresponding “leap into transcendence” (qtd. in Roberts 1982, 198). But Bertolt Brecht, who lamented the “ghastly”mystification of historical materialism in other Benjamin works, concluded of the “Theses”that “the small work is clear and avoids confusion (despite all metaphors and Judaisms) “(qtd. in Buck-Morss 1989, 246; fn. 179, 451). RolfTiedemann’s 1975 essay contends that Benjamin’s Messianism is here conceived in secular terms, but that the text fails in its attempt to “unite the irreconcileable”(1983-84, 96), and falls back upon “the enthusiasm of anarchists”rather than “the sobriety of Marxism” (95). Roberts is frustrated with the essay’s apparent return to an earlier transcendentism, its reduction of political revolution from “the locomotive of world history”to'”grabbing the emergency cord’, which would have as its consequence the ‘messianic cessation of events happening'”(1982, 219). Such a position, Roberts believes, is refuted by “the work ofBenjamin’s maturity “(219), which validates careful analysis of historical processes over “uncontrolled visions” (221) and eschews “sudden mass illumination”in favor of “the rational encouragement of an underlying historical process,””the organic climax of processes in humanity’s ‘second nature'”(222). Susan Sontag provides an overview ofBenjamin’s practice perhaps most useful for our consideration of Sexing the Cherry: “Passionately, but also ironically, Benjamin placed himself at the crossroads. It was important for him to keep his many ‘positions’ open: the theological, the Surrealist/aesthetic, the communist. One position corrects another: he needed them all”(1979, 27).
17 see Kohlenbach (2002, 187).
18 This particular conception of creation comes from the Kabbalist school of Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (1534-72) (Scholem 1971,43).
19 For the interrelationship between Sexing and the works of Benjamin Lee Whorf on the Hopi language, see Peter Buru (1997).
20 For Benjamin’s comments upon language, as well as “The Task of the Translator,”see “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”(1978b; written 1916); and “On the Mimetic Faculty”(1978c; written 1933).
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_____. 1968b. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” In Illuminations. Walter Benjamin: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books.
_____. 1968c. “The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens” In Illuminations. Walter Benjamin: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books.
_____. 1968d. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations. Walter Benjamin: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books.
_____. 1968e. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations. Walter Benjamin: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books.
_____. 1978a.”A Berlin Chronicle.” In Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Peter Demetz. New York: Schocken Books.
_____. 1978b. “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.” In Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Peter Demetz. New York: Schocken Books.
_____. 1978c. “On the Mimetic Faculty.” In Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Peter Demetz. New York: Schocken Books.
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Angela Marie Smith is assistant professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Utah. She has published on the body politics of American Depression-era fiction, and most recently, in Post Script, on disability in New Zealand cinema.
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