Katheryn Bond Stockton's God between Their Lips constructs a compelling theoretical structure that synthesizes Lacanian psychoanalysis, Marxist economic theory and Victorian theology which she uses to examine the problematic representations of female desire in Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot. She locates the intersection of these ideologies through the lens of the Luce Irigaray's feminist revisions of woman's interface with the castration complex and her problematic relation to the Symbolic. Castration, along with the substitution of the resultant unfulfillable desire, are reimagined as spaces or opportunities for a uniquely feminine experience of pleasure. The removal of the phallus (the physical manifestation of the denial of masculine mastery of symbolization results in a physical split, which is reconfigured positively as opening a space in the woman's body where she can experience pleasure, as splitting her, not into an "uncomfortable apartness" but a felix culpa by which she is always autoerotically touching herself. Women are imagined to experience an otherwise impossible satisfying pleasure through the fact of the space or lack between two desiring female bodies as she conflates hetero, homo, and auto eroticism. The Lacanian conceptualization of desire as the division of the subject from an imagined diadic union is also applied to the Christian theology of the "happy fall:" the separation of man from Eden produces a state of perpetual anticipation (desire) of reunion with God, which can only come outside of history and time, at the Apocalypse.

The Lacanian model of desire as lack is impressed into the service of theorizing woman's heretofore invisible relations to erotic, spiritual and economic experience. Post-structuralist fascination with the elusiveness of the Real, as evidenced in their current fascination with the body reveals the sympathy of these seemingly unrelated teleologies:

the post-structuralist stance on language (with its stress on the failures of language fully to capture materiality) makes post- structuralist gestures toward real bodies correspond to gestures Victorians called spiritual. When they bend back to bodies, post- structuralists almost inevitably repeat a Judeo-Christian problematic, since they must invest in beliefs in something real that escapes and exceeds human sign systems. (8)

God and the body share the status of the referent whose reality must be implicitly believed, but whose full meaning cannot be accessed through the inadequate system of symbolizations; they must be related to human discourse through mysticism. God is the infinity between the numbers one and two, the space between the imagined diad of lovers or lips; according to Irigaray: "'woman derives pleasure from what is so near that she cannot have it, nor have herself" (53).

This exquisitely crafted theory culminates in a brilliant reading of Charlotte Brontë's Villette. Stockton's theoretical framework illuminates many of the problematic aspects of the text's representation of Lucy Snowe to God, desire and capitalism. The reversal of the valence of lack and desire to the experience of pleasure, coupled with the experience of desire for Christ that cannot be consummated within this lifetime, reconfigures the perpetual deferral of satisfaction through the homoerotic mirroring that pervades Lucy's narrative.

Stockton's reading of Eliot's Middlemarch is less satisfying, in that, although she elucidates numerous problematic moments in the novel the text fails to evince as unified an application of her theory as did Villette. Furthermore, she devotes a significant portion of her treatment of Middlemarch to an examination of masculine interactions with her theory. Although such a study would prove to be an excellent complement to this project, it is an awkward interjection, as any treatment of male desire is absent in the carefully delineated project which consumes the first half of the book.

Although Stockton's adaptation of Irigaray is masterfully argued as a metaphor for spiritual materialism, her impulse to locate the psychological dynamic of lack physically on the female body is problematic. The impulse to situate the trauma of the subject's initiation into the symbolic upon her genitalia is one from which psychoanalytic criticism has failed to extricate itself; psychoanalytic criticism fails to reclaim the metaphoric phallus from the physical penis whose opposite can only be a lack thereof. The subject's assumption of a gendered relation to desire to is collapsed into the discovery of the gender valence of one's genitalia without adequately addressing cultural imperatives. Granted, Stockton's project, figured within erotic contact between women, is situated in the physical: to render the opaque body visible at the intersection of sites of opacity, "making us feel [the body] what our fictions [representational can't secure" (60). Her acknowledgment that what is "real" about the must always elude representation as existing outside of it, however, would seem to put the lie to psychoanalysis' claim to assign meaning and resultant identity to the recognition of body parts.

Not only does the focus tend to fall on the body parts rather than the complex system of social signification surrounding the recognition of gender, but the representations of the characteristics of these body parts tends to take on an essentialist tone regardless of the recognition of the social aspect of gender construction itself. It is the phallus or the lack thereof that offers one gender a privileged or a disempowered relationship to symbolization, which then determines the subject's assumption of an erotics of conquest or of lack. As a metaphorical exercise in rendering the opaque visible, her reading of the female body is compelling, but undermines itself in its recourse to what it has already rendered out of the bounds of discourse.

Ultimately, however, Stockton's dense but brilliant prose draws compelling interrelations among seemingly disparate ideologies. Her valuable explanatory footnotes assist the non-specialist in negotiating these complex discourses. She deftly and systematically layers meaning onto the key quotations that support her argument with an almost hypertextual return to statements and paragraphs at strategic points in the development of her argument. Most importantly, her exploration of the resonations between post-structuralist theory and Victorian theology offers an alternate interpretive perspective for typological representations of women's psychological experience. The almost inevitable inconsistencies and instabilities can be recast as participating in a psychological and spiritual dynamic of lack and desire.


Victorian Overview Religion Gender Matters

Last modified Spring 1997