KR Reviews

The Aesthetics of Cosmic Feminism: A Review of Magda Cârneci’s FEM

Translated by Sean Cotter. Dallas, TX: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2021. 232 pages. $15.95.

The English publication of FEM—Romanian poet and translator Magda Cârneci’s only novel—continues a procession of important feminist novels making their English debuts a decade or more after original publication. (Another recent notable is Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs, a thoroughly conventional novel compared to Cârneci’s.) Arriving so late in translation, though, it’s fair to question whether the book offers something new to feminist discourse. While FEM is not bereft of ubiquitous examples of masculine contradictions and hypocrisies, listing a roll call of female subjugations is not the book’s main goal.

Cârneci takes a cue from French philosopher Luce Irigaray who, in “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine,” prompts women to create new aesthetic space in a deliberately feminine style. In Irigaray’s words, “the issue is not one of elaborating a new theory of which woman would be the subject or object, but of jamming the theoretical machinery itself . . . [by] a disruptive excess [that] is possible on the feminine side” [1]. It is just such male-dominated machinery that Cârneci’s narrator jams with the disruptive excess of her poetic language and quest to collect “states, images, and visions.” This diametrical opposition to masculine modes of thought razes the borders of aesthetic possibility and offers a universalism rooted in the feminine mystique.

The book’s structure derives from the frame tale of Scheherazade in the One Thousand and One Nights. The narrator (a “simpler,” “tamer,” “little, everyday Scheherazade”) addresses her husband—“darling”—in a series of monologues that purports to regale him with salient moments throughout her life but in fact metastasizes into ever-increasing visionary splendor and an ultimate cris de coeur. It is important to note that the intended audience is a man, a very specific type of man: “you ingest vast amounts of news programs and cop shows and soap operas and porn and documentaries . . . sprawled across the couch for hours . . .”; “[f]or you, the body is . . . an appendix you use to excite your mind”; “you want to give me another long, scientific speech . . . to drive these bizarre imaginations out of my head.” Early on, one gets the sense that the narrator’s reveries must certainly elude her darling. That is, the form of her narrative does not accord with the stereotypical capacities of her audience.

Sensing this bafflement, she preempts the husband’s frustration with direct instruction:

If you make me explain or analyze this story, it will roll up, will darken and die. . . . But if you are silent and listen and you begin to vibrate, if you let yourself be caught up in the net and something inside you melts, then your recalcitrant mind will quiet and silence and you will begin to see.

At this point, we realize FEM is more than just a phantasmagoria of a woman’s life; it is “a unifying vibration, a mental geyser, a bridge to the other world.” In short, Cârneci offers a teleological construction that the darling fails to grasp due to his (masculine) insistence on shrewd logic and drowning out the “noise” of his existence with alcohol and screens. Cârneci plants the seed for this motive in the first pages: “all of these states, images, visions exist and await within you, darling.” Thus, the narrator does not primarily attempt to condescend, shame, rebuke, or vilify her darling; she offers insight into a fuller life for both of them, insight that the feminine appears to access more easily than the masculine. In fact, using loaded rhetoric, she “need[s] to discharge these odd visions. To put them into your brain . . . even if you still won’t accept it.” In other words, where the man has the power to impregnate the woman’s body, even against her will, the woman retains the power to impregnate the unwilling man’s mind.

The monologues (or perhaps vignettes, tableaux, pericopes) that construct FEM begin as familiar scenes dripped onto a canvas: the moment of filial jealousy when the mother’s affection is directed elsewhere; the horrors of menstruation; the first feelings of attraction; the awakening to the vulnerability of the world (symbolized here in an earthquake); the first sexual experience and, inevitably, rejection. But each event also escalates into thick impasto strokes of ecstatic vision. The narrator yearns for an image of the world that can fill her mind, though it seems her mind may fill the cosmos.

The notion of vibration (a fundamental phenomenon familiar to string theorists) takes precedence as a pillar of the form of reality. A wealth of symbols—bees, flowers, fruit, sea, waves, sun, moon, sky—begins to resolve into a cosmic feminism that is part Kantian dualism and part Spinozan pantheism, gaining its ultimate expression as a chess game where each of us is both player and chess piece, interacting asynchronously between reality and Platonic Reality (“the other side”).

Tapping into these mystical reveries, as the narrator explains, is similar to Proust’s involuntary memory:

And these moments . . . have only . . . an interior illumination, a strange emotional power. One that pulses within them inexhaustibly, like an energy of another nature, whenever—by mistake, most often—a detail, a smell, a taste, a strange sound, an intense color pulls them from their neuronal lethargy and activates the mysterious synapses that let them play over our mental screen.

Indeed, for the narrator, as for Proust, she “must strive to fish [these moments] out of the flavorless and inchoate ocean of existence.” (Other literary precedents include Virginia Woolf’s moments of being and Robert Musil’s daytime reveries. C. S. Lewis also describes this peculiar sensation in Surprised by Joy.) Contra Proust’s sprawling project, however, the narrator wants only to “line these moments up end to end, only these experiences,” which are “perhaps not more than a few days all in all, and which constitute, in sum, my true life.” This notion—that the moments that matter most in one’s life may add up to only a few days—leaves one reeling at the apparent wastefulness of much experience, but these unexpected moments of jarred consciousness can be catalysts to a much greater realm. Actual apprehension of such a space requires a degree of vulnerability and suspension of logic that opposes her darling’s temperament.

An attentive, sensitive reader will finish FEM with the conviction that to be a woman is to have a special, primordial connection to a world that shadows our own; to be a woman and a poet, furthermore, is to be a “boundless consciousness.” Thankfully, Cârneci’s expression of this boundless consciousness is strikingly rendered by Sean Cotter, an award-winning translator whose previous treatments of Mircea Cărtărescu and Nichita Stănescu prove him a worthy match for Cârneci’s sumptuous talent. In the end, the experience of FEM, as with the message to the narrator’s oafish darling, will be: commensurate to the seriousness with which the reader takes its provocations.


Work Cited
[1] Irigaray, Luce. “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Judith Ryan and Michael Rivkin. Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 795-798.