Biographical Ghosts

    25. September 2010, 16:32
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    The Haunting of the Writer Karoline von Günderrode

    The struggle for women in the past has been this: choose a pseudonym and be accepted as a creative artist or keep your rightful name and be considered as a literary afterthought. Karoline von Günderrode (1780-1806) had such a struggle. Her literary creations were written during the period of German Romanticism, when women used to be conventionalized as muses rather than accepted as independent artists. Correspondingly, until today her texts have been viewed as purely biographical and "specifically female", with few considering their artistic autonomy.

    Günderrode's texts, however, can indeed stand on their own as literary works apart from their importance in feminist and gender studies. Only recently the manifold aspects of her writing have begun to attract increasing interest among present-day researchers. They examine the roles of heroines, the influence of romantic philosophy or the multifarious aspects of myths.

    Numerous scholars explore the status of women in times of Romanticism, assigning their reputations somewhere between muse and artist, trying to place literature written by these women in the context of feminist and gender studies. In this regard-it appears to me-Günderrode has a special significance, since the reception of her texts was indeed determined mainly by a biographical event par excellence-namely, her suicide. However, Günderrode herself appeared quite self-confident in her artistry, breaking out of moulds formed by historical models. Several times she avowed her devotion to writing and dared furthermore not only to pursue lyric but also drama. In doing so she exceeded invisible limits, because around 1800 the genres of lyric and letter were allocated to women-but drama was not.

    Günderrode publicised continuously thus, although not under her own name. She used the pseudonyms Tian and Ion to maintain distance between herself and her texts and to protect herself from critical attacks. This playing with her name points to a crucial question about the reception of literary texts: what significance is given to the author's name? It vacillates somewhere between the actual historic subject and the idea that the author's person is associated with certain characteristics, which can then be seen in the work like an encoded signature. Michel Foucault analyses these complex relations in his much-disputed article Qu'est-ce qu'un auteur? (1969). He assumes that the term "author" is "the pivot for the individualisation in the history of intellect, ideas and literature, also in the history of philosophy and science" (translation mine). The author's name, he says, was incorporated into the process of text comprehension so that texts were to a certain extent explained by their affiliation to a name, which therefore curtailed their autonomy. The characteristics of proper name and author's name are no longer clearly distinguishable: a grey area evolves.

    Correspondingly, the significance of the author's name provokes a conflict-especially in women's literature: it is in fact highly important to mention the significance of names. Women's literature has often not been passed on or canonised because of the absence of a name. The unnamed are forgotten. These unsung literary artists have simply been publicised under pseudonyms or even anonymously in order to avoid criticism. However, when the author's name is known it has also led to a major problem, namely biographism-an issue that is dealt with intensively by feminist and gender studies.

    The opus of Günderrode has suffered from biographism insofar that it has often been read against the background of the most spectacular moments in her biography. This includes her unfulfilled love and her suicide, two events that haunt and overshadow her texts as biographical ghosts. Her literary work has been stylised as a construct of her despair and is denied any other independent, possible meaning. This restriction of perspective provokes the tendency to brand her creations as inferior and lean in their quality. From this it follows again in a circular argument that the texts (necessarily) have to be legitimated through their reconnection to the author, which in turn leads to biographism again: a vicious circle that has to be broken and undermined by means of thematic analyses far from any biographic aberrations.

    Karoline von Günderrode's history of reception constitutes a prime example of the weakness in gender studies; her lingering ghost, still hovering over her work, demonstrates the necessity to cut off biographic constructs from literary texts. This will ensure that literary texts are not narrowed in their possible interpretations, that imagination can range limitless without being hinged to the events of a mortal life. (Marina Rauchenbacher, Universität Wien, www.atomiumculture.eu)

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