Theory Teacher's Blog

Turkish Ladies, English Liberty: Toward a Psychoanalysis of Difference in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Letters

In last week’s blog post, I used Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of signs to analyze the recent internet buzz about women in Iran studying to become ninjas. If you haven’t already seen the video about it, click [here] or check out my earlier post. In that post, I argued that clothing functions like a linguistic signifier of cultural difference. Essentially the Islamic hijab (headscarf or headscarf and veil) are usually understood by Europeans and Americans today not only as a symbol for  how Muslims are different, but also as a symbol for how Muslim women are oppressed by Islam. The connotations are so powerful that a simple piece of clothing is overloaded (or “overdetermined” to use Freud’s concept that my class just read about) with all sorts of meaning, some of which, I argue, is prejudicial and symptomatic of American anxieties. We might compare this overdetermination in our culture to the sort of overdetermination that Freud sees in dreams, in which the various metaphors (condensation) and metonymies (displacement) are symptomatic of our daily anxieties, psychological repressions, etc.

Coincidentally, just a few days after writing that post, I happened to read some of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters that she wrote three centuries ago in 1717 when her husband was an ambassador to Turkey. This is my first time ever reading her work, and I regret not having read it before. She is very witty and clever, and her published letters about her experiences in Turkey were quite popular at the time and are now usually included in anthologies of English literature. Montagu’s lengthy descriptions of the Turkish baths reveal a fascination with the idea of Muslim women in one of the most powerful empires in the eighteenth century lounging around naked in each other’s company. The image is one of freedom and comfort, and she contrasts this image to the complex stays and corsets of English clothing, which she compares to a “machine” that has her “locked up.” In another letter on “Turkish Dress,” she again contrasts her own uncomfortable clothing to the more comfortable dress. Now, here is what I find fascinating, and I’m going to quote it in full.

‘Tis very easy to see they have more liberty than we have, no woman of what rank soever being permitted to go in the streets without two muslins, one that covers her face all but her eyes and another that hides the whole dress of her head and hangs half way down her back…. You may guess how effectually this disguises them, that there is no distinguishing the great lady from her slave, and ’tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when he meets her, and no man dare either touch of follow a woman in the street. This perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery…. The great ladies seldom let their gallants know who they are, and ‘its so difficult to find it out that they can very seldom guess at her name they have corresponded with above half a year together…. Neither have they much to apprehend from the resentment of their husbands, those ladies that are rich having all their money in their own hands, which they take with ’em upon a divorce with an addition which he is obliged to give ’em. Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the Empire. The very Divan pays a respect to ’em, and the Grand Signore himself, whenever a Bassa is executed, never violates the privileges of the harem, which remains unsearched entire to the widow.

You can also find the whole passage on [this website]. What is interesting to me is how her eighteenth-century imagination of the hijab is exactly the opposite of the American and European imagination in the twenty-first century. She sees it as liberating, whereas the American media today sees it as oppressive. What do we make of this total reversal of meaning?

Montagu is, I suspect, using the idea of Turkish difference to launch a feminist critique of English society. One may doubt her assessment of how free Turkish women actually were, and she seems to enjoy the scandalousness of the point that she is making. Few Muslims would agree with her sense of freedom in terms of the ability to commit acts of infidelity undetected. But the reality of the daily lives of English or Turkish people is not the purpose of my analysis, nor even, perhaps, of Montagu’s own intention in writing those letters, an intention we can only guess at anyway. (In my view, and in my experience in Japan, the Czech Republic, Kenya, and Ethiopia, people are usually just people, and the hype about cultural difference is generally overblown and potentially dangerous. Freedom and unfreedom, wealth and poverty — these are things that exist in every society I’ve ever encountered, especially my own.) Rather, I am interested in the fantasy and in the use of a rather utopian representation of freedom to critique the oppression of one’s homeland. My own interpretation of Montagu’s letters is that her idea exposes the ways in which English women are not free, considering that they are subject to so much abuse and disrespect. The style of clothing, for Montagu, is a signifier of the abuse and disrespect in English society versus the freedom and respect in Turkish society.

The thing about her eighteenth-century letters that made me think of the twenty-first century video about ninjas in Iran is the notion that the headscarf and veil are instruments of stealth and invisibility, and that this is powerful. After all, ninjitsu is the art of invisibility. What does it mean for both the 18th-century letters and the 21st-century video to understand a woman’s liberty in terms of her ability to be invisible? This is a curious notion indeed. If we think of Freud’s work on dreams and Jacques Lacan’s work on the very language we use to describe our social relations, then we begin to detect the ways in which gender is a product of signifiers — in this case, clothing, but as Saussure and Lacan also argue, signifiers organized by a logic of difference. Hence, the meaning of the signifiers “men” and “women” is the logic of their difference, and this committment to such a difference means that we never actually “see” just the person. We always see the person in terms of these culturally loaded signifiers. A woman is already “invisible” in the sense that her real objective self exists behind a cloud of language and culture. Montagu’s desire is for her own invisibility, but this desire paradoxically is symptomatic of the fact that she actually already feels invisible. It is a curious thing to desire that which you already are, or have, and this is the curious nature of the human psyche. She already feels invisible because English men neither understand nor want to understand her as a person with a brain. This is what Lacan means when he suggests “there is no such thing as woman.” He doesn’t mean that individual women don’t exist. He means that the notion of “woman” is a culturally loaded idea. Ralph Ellison made a similar point about African-Americans in his famous novel Invisible Man, published in 1952, where white people do not really “see” black people. Instead, they only see projected images of their own fears and desires. Likewise, the symbolism of the Turksish baths, harem, and hijab all metaphorically mean a condition of invisibility. Montagu’s celebration of that invisibility displaces her anxiety about feeling invisible and disempowered all the time already onto a more empowering form of invisibility. For her in the eighteenth century, this was the hijab. For us today, it is the ninja, whose clothing style is curiously similar to the hijab in many ways, as I argued in my previous blog post.


February 27, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. check out Fatima Mernissi’s book Sheherazad Goes West , for a similar argument but in a more contemporary setting. One of her worst books, if you ask me, but some interesting stuff if you ignore the filler parts and poor writing.

    Comment by Z | February 27, 2012 | Reply

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