Gendered Jouissance

It may be useful to think of Sissie and Marija’s sometimes-strained relationship in terms of jouissance, and the extent to which their attachments to one another are mediated by transgressive pleasure they achieve through their congress. One scene in particular stands out:

Suddenly, something exploded in Sissie like fire. She did not know exactly what it was. It was not painful. It did not hurt. On the contrary, it was a pleasurable heat. Because as she watched the other woman standing there, not biting her lips, now gripping at the handle of her baby’s pram and looking so generally disorganized, she, Sissie wanted to laugh and laugh and laugh. Clearly, she was enjoying herself to see that woman hurt. It was nothing she had desired. Nor did it seem as if she could control it, this inhuman sweet sensation to see another human squirming. It hit her like a stone, the knowledge that there is a pleasure in hurting. A strong three-dimensional pleasure, an exclusive masculine delight that is exhilarating beyond all measure. And this too is God’s gift to man? She wondered. (75-6)

There’s a lot to unpack here. Aidoo renders this scene through Sissie’s unfamiliar and not altogether unpleasant bodily reaction to the ambivalent feelings Marija’s pain arouses in her. This passage achieves a sort of parallel effect, demonstrating the dual-directionality of bodily intrusion—just as Sissie’s body is assailed by traces of unknowable ardor, the reader is confronted with the (quasi-)sensuality and stark vulnerability of Marija’s lip biting and pram gripping, depicting her as open to attack. Aidoo develops another parallel between the two women via lack of control. Marija has no control over the abortive rabbit dinner she has planned; Sissie likewise cannot regulate her own troubled autonomic response to her encounter with a compromised woman.

Lack of control is particularly important in discussions of jouissance, which stands apart from pleasure in that jouissance is never mediated by a conscious desire to pursue the positive feelings that we might use to characterize Sissie’s response in the above passage. Instead, jouissance unravels Sissie’s own agency and subjectivity because it undermines a true sense of her mental or intellectual autonomy. In effect, her sadist bent diametrically opposes Sissie’s more assured relation to Marija because it manifests in something fundamentally unknowable. It’s likely no coincidence that Aidoo frames this submerged (repressed?) facet of Sissie’s personality as masculine. Much of the novel sees Sissie cautiously navigate the beginning phases of a queer relationship, and her inexperience in same-sex relationships seems predicated on the fundamental need of both masculine and feminine identities existing within one stable partnership. Her jouissance, then, feels particularly sinister. Sissie cannot process her brutalizing and momentary hatred for Marija because doing so would reveal to her her own indebtedness to the primacy of heterosexuality.

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