Rosalyn D'Mello: What it means to be irrepressible

For me, it is fighting an urge to repress the self, championing against self or socially enforced censorship, without fearing castigation

Rosalyn D'MelloI was 22 when I was first exposed to “Bird,” Sonia Khurana’s three-minute-six-second-long video performance. I was scandalised by its content. It was Khurana’s decision to unabashedly bare herself to the camera’s possibly unforgiving gaze that came as a jolt. The 1968-born artist’s body didn’t have the figure one was accustomed to seeing on screen. The first shot is of her unclothed backside and as she performs her acrobatic attempts at flight, her flesh seems to spill over, her breasts seem to half surrender to the lure of gravity even as she flits between rolling over the ground and perching herself on a pedestal in an almost mythical enactment of the gesture of flying. The poignant contradiction between the weight of her body and her desperate impulse to levitate despite the absence of any wing-like appendages is unmistakable. But at 22, I was too naïve and had yet to learn what to make of this powerful exposé.

be free: If we don’t write or speak our own narratives, who else will? PIC/thinkstock
be free: If we don’t write or speak our own narratives, who else will? PIC/thinkstock

As I grew older my reading of her video was enhanced by the piquancy of my own lived experiences. Khurana had in fact managed to articulate the struggle of most of womankind to soar despite the many societal conventions and expectations that persistently threatened to tie them down. And yet, the video was not merely a performance of Khurana’s failure to fly. It was an assertion of the body’s triumph in voicing itself. Khurana was exercising an inborn, presumably female desire to be irrepressible.

When the French feminist Helene Cixous suggested in her now classic 1971 essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa” that women write their bodies, she was imploring us to be irrepressible; let arms flail as tongues gesticulated, let eyes dance as words were birthed into being. Too long had womankind lived in the dark, ashamed of her strength, afraid to open her mouth. “I wished that women would write and proclaim this unique empire so that other women, other unacknowledged sovereigns, might exclaim: I too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. Time and again, I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst-burst with forms much more beautiful than those which are put up in frames and sold for a stinking fortune. And I, too, said nothing, showed nothing; I didn’t open my mouth, I didn’t repaint my half of the world. I was ashamed. I was afraid, and I swallowed my shame and my fear.”

As if directly responding to Cixous’s challenge, American academic Chris Kraus published “I Love Dick” in 1997, thus espousing a new literary genre, one that made the private public, where reality and fiction merged seamlessly to engender a third, previously unchartered category. Presumably an account of her breathless, relentless, life-altering pursuit of the eponymous Dick, a cultural theorist she first encounters over dinner with her semiotician husband, I Love Dick seminally explores a woman brazenly spiralling into obsession and her subsequent redemption by scripting, through the epistolary, the naked, daring, unflinching theatre of shame where she occupies centrestage. “Writing to you seems like some holy cause, cause there’s not enough female irrepressibility written down. I’ve fused my silence and repression with the entire female gender’s silence and repression,” she writes. “I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive, but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world. I could be 20 years too late but epiphanies don’t always synchronise with style.”

What does it mean to be irrepressible? For Kraus it implied performing the self by stripping it off its inhibitions and refusing to cower to morality. She enacts her theatre of shame but by denying her audience the pleasure of her guilt. For Khurana it meant re-appropriating her body from possible derision and liberating it from its own physicality without negating its weight.

For me, being irrepressible means fighting the urge to repress the self, championing against the threat of self or socially enforced censorship, without the fear of castigation. I can’t think of anything more powerful than women performing themselves, occupying centre stage in the theatre of their shames and triumphs, allowing no one to make them feel regret or remorse. If we don’t write or speak our own narratives, who else will? Cixous’ call to action continues to hold ground: “Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes and rhetorics, regulations and codes, they must submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate reverse-discourse, including the one that laughs at the very idea of pronouncing the word ‘silence’, the one that, aiming for the impossible, stops short before the word ‘impossible’ and writes it as ‘the end.’”

Rosalyn D’Mello, a reputed art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover, deliberates on the life and times of the Everywoman. She tweets @RosaParx

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