Sunday, November 09, 2003

A Review of Rapture Encaged
by Rose F. Holt

Rapture Encaged: The Suppression of the Feminine in Western Culture by Ruth Anthony El Saffar, Routledge, 1994.

I read Rapture Encaged, The Suppression of the Feminine in Western Culture when it was first published in the spring of 1994. Impressed with the author's ability to articulate questions that had lived wordlessly in me for some time, I reread the book at that time more carefully. My third reading, done for this review, reinforced my initial opinion that this is an important work, a work that synthesizes psychological theories about women, modern feminist theory, and historical perspective on the place of women in Western culture. Rapture Encaged is one of those rare and wonderful finds--a "living" text that engages the reader in such a way that both text and reader are changed and in-formed in the engagement.

In this slender volume, Ruth Anthony El Saffar explores key questions about women's psychology: (1) Is there "an authentic female vision that patriarchal cultures, from the Greeks to the present day, have systematically sought to deny and expunge?" (2) "Can we say that there is a feminine essence that is not the result of cultural conditions, or conversely, can we say that cultural conditioning is not an expression of essential human nature?" (3) Are there "available models for living out a full feminine identity" in patriarchal culture? In everyday parlance men might echo Freud's oft-asked question, "What do women want?" Or women, "Why can't I have the kind of relationship I have with my women friends with my husband, lover, co-worker, etc.?" And all of us must ask why, in a country overflowing with bounty, we cannot access the nurturing capacities of mother and father for care of children who live in poverty. Clearly we have much to gain from a deeper understanding of the role of cultural conditioning in defining who we are, how we live, and how we relate.

El Saffar asks and explores her questions in a scholarly, intellectual fashion. Her use of the autobiography of an illiterate seventeen-century Spanish nun, Isabel de la Cruz (coupled with the historical context she provides) as a highly-polished mirror to reflect twentieth-century life, is nothing short of brilliant. She gives us an Archimedean Point sufficiently grounded in historical perspective and distant enough that we can use it for an exploration of "the feminine" and "the masculine" today. Most clearly she explains how power imbalances continue to cripple men and women as we seek to live in life frames defined too narrowly by our patriarchal culture.

The author shows us the inadequacies of psychological theories that stress autonomy and independence when she states: "It is not enough for women simply to be in 'right relations' with the masculine. For the masculine, as it has been layered into the psyche over generations of patriarchal power, has a deadening effect on the expression of feminine power that allows neither men nor women to cultivate soul, or connection with the female aspects of the godhead."

She also shows us the ways in which women, if they adopt men's theories about human development, find themselves in a double bind. "The woman who functions in culture is inevitably one separated from the mother, and therefore split off from her source of power. What power she does acquire comes from her role as relational to a man, on whom she depends for her name, her success, her money, her well-being?"

Indeed, a woman's experiential reality may be quite different from that of a a man, but as long as she submits to a man's frame of reference for her experience, she will never trust her own process. Her understanding of self, her very being, then depends upon reflection from a man. His is "solar" consciousness; hers "lunar" consciousness. His life is defined by activity; hers by passivity. Anyone who has reflected sufficiently upon his/her own reality, recognizes how narrow and limiting, how patently untrue, such notions are. Yet they persist. My conjecture is that a lot of women's perceived passivity is simply a defensive maneuver to avoid pejorative and inadequate labels.

If language is the house of being, the language of a man's experience, if essentially different from a woman's, can never touch her where she lives, let alone help her come home to herself. To be labeled "animus-possessed" or "fused with the mother" for disagreeing with a frame that doesn't fit is a further negation of her selfhood. These terms may express something of a man's experience of woman, but what do they tell a woman about herself?

How different, for example, are the experiences of Isabel and Jung. ". . . unlike the Jung of the confrontation with the unconscious, Isabel did not experience God's power as terrifying, because her encounter with the unconscious was not precipitated by the sudden irruption of loss into an otherwise extraordinarily successful life . . . Rather she sought in the unconscious a place of refuge from her unremitting experience of failure in the world."

One way I have found for engaging this book (the way that convinced me it is a living text) is to select one of the author's finely-tuned sentences and reflect on it. For example, "It took me many years to realize that Jung's 'feminine' was yet another captivated and diminished expression of women, one that is nothing more than a reflection of the male psyche."

I don't believe it is helpful to women's cause to blame Jung for what he was unable to do precisely because of his male psyche. Rather it is time that we women expxress for ourselves out of the female psyche the essence of the feminine. Further, we must do so with the intellectual rigor that El Saffar demonstrates. A Jungian analyst herself, she obviously values Jung's work highly but is unabashedly frank in challenging his ideas when she finds him wide of the mark, misogynistic, or simply out-dated.

What better definition of a Jungian analysis can we find than the words this author uses to describe the process of Isabel's telling her life story: ". . . Isabel, who through the dictating of her autobiography had an opportunity to experience herself mirrored, for the first time ever, in the outer world. Through the process of co-creating her autobiography, Isabel was able to see herself take shape as a whole being, with a history, a purpose, and value."

El Saffar's book is brilliantly written, quietly but firmly persuasive, and enormously engaging. However, it ends abruptly. She does not adequately answer the questions she raises. The reader is left with a feeling of incompleteness. The book needs a final concluding chapter. I feel frustration at what is left unsaid, unasked, unanswered. I found myself asking questions like: And so, where to from here? What is the current state of theorizing about women's psychology? Who is doing it? Why, as women, do we shrink from the task? Do we women use the power imbalance, real and crippling as it is, partially as an excuse for not accepting full responsibility for the development of our own uniquely feminine psychology? Why can't we more fully reflect goddess energy and values in our culture?

The book is cut too short. Tragically, so was the life of the author. Ruth Anthony El Saffar died of cancer at age 52 on March 28, 1994, one week before Rapture Encaged was released.

[This review was first published in The Round Table Review, September/October 1998, V. 6, No. 1.]