Cristina Mazzoni. Maternal Impressions: Pregnancy and Childbirth in Literature and Theory.
In Maternal Impressions, Cristina Mazzoni, an academic and mother of three, brilliantly analyzes myths of maternity related to pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and breastfeeding. The expression "maternal impressions" refers not only to the common belief that the fetus is affected by its mother's feelings and experiences, but for Mazzoni it stands for the impressions we have of mothers and mothers have of others and themselves. The four sections of each chapter explore maternity in advice manuals and cultural writings, scientific texts, women's narratives and feminist theory. Mazzoni's work can thus be used as a reference manual that introduces us to some Italian female writers' and feminists' views of motherhood.
In chapter 1, "Rapunzel's Mother, or the Craving Body," Mazzoni carefully studies impressions of pregnant desire, using as examples different versions of the famous fairy tale Rapunzel, which she claims is really about food cravings. In Italian Petrosinella (prezzemolo, petrosino, petrosello) signifies not only the girl, but also the plant her mother craved and the birthmark found on the daughter's breast. In Italy the belief that a pregnant woman's cravings, "voglie," if unsatisfied, will appear as a birthmark on her newborn is still common. Another popular belief is that a pregnant woman should only look at beautiful things in order to produce beautiful children. Advice manuals, especially in the U.S., strictly advise against drug and alcohol use in order not to cause fetal harm. As Mazzoni correctly denotes, "[...] the constraints imposed on the pregnant body by a society seen to increasingly valorize the fetus as subject at the expense and objectification of the expectant woman are now a topos in feminist considerations of pregnancy" (15).
Mazzoni proceeds to discuss maternal impressions in turn-of-the-century science, mainly in two male texts that are analyzed throughout the book: La donna delinquente, la prostituta e la donna normale by Cesare Lombroso and Fisiologia della donna by Paolo Mantegazza. These pseudo-scientific treatises, in which the folkloric belief that a mother's unsatisfied craving manifesting itself as a birthmark on her child's skin is turned into a scientific fact, are less significant because of their obviously stereotypical ideas about women. Both emphasize that motherhood is woman's only destiny, without which she cannot truly be a woman. Maternity is, however, incompatible with intellectual and artistic activity. Mazzoni concludes sadly that "for the vast majority of scientists at that time, reproduction is incompatible with thinking, fertility with intelligence, and perhaps womanhood with health itself" (29). The pregnant woman with her often insatiable and uncontrollable cravings epitomizes this idea.
The exploration of maternal impressions in Italian women writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Neera, Carolina Invernizio, Annie Vivanti, Ada Negri, Grazia Deledda, and Sibilla Aleramo, constitutes the most interesting part of Mazzoni's research. Their lack of a feminist consciousness results in the stereotypical view of womanhood as motherhood. The link between maternal craving and filial body is also present in their works. Mazzoni concentrates on Deledda's autobiographical novel Cosima, whose protagonist gives birth to a deaf and dumb boy resembling a mouflon, or wild sheep, that had repeatedly visited her while she was pregnant, and thus "reproduces the shape of woman's desire onto the product of her reproduction" (39). As Mazzoni points out, the underlying idea is that a pregnant woman's lifestyle can influence the fetus either in a positive or a negative way. She also reminds us that the mother-child relationship, especially that of a mother and a daughter whose identities intertwine, is of major interest to feminist critics.
In chapter 2, "Quickening, or the Knowing Body," Mazzoni deals with impressions of fetal movement, an exclusively female experience. Thanks to quickening, a woman knows that she is pregnant and experiences contact with the fetus. Before ultrasound technology made the invisible visible, quickening was often the most reliable way to detect pregnancy. Besides denoting a "gender-specific experiential knowing," as Mazzoni puts it, quickening is unique in the sense that it "deconstructs the dualisms of subject and object, male and female, mother and child, body and mind" (74). In fact, the concept of otherness is the main subject of the theoretical section.
Surprisingly, the best known text in the Western world depicting fetal movement is the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth from the Gospel according to St. Luke. Mantegazza also discusses quickening in his romanticized, stereotypical view of motherhood that produces unrealistic images of women. Neera's L'indomani, which tells the sad story of a disillusioned woman in a loveless marriage, echoes his antifeminism, common at the time. For the main protagonist, quickening coincides with significant realizations, producing thus a different kind of knowledge. As she becomes aware of the "other," the fetus that pleads to be loved, she understands that the emptiness in her life can only be filled by the life inside her.
In chapter 3, "Maternal Metamorphosis, or the Changing Body," maternal transformations turn into impressions of deformity, which Mazzoni discusses in advice manuals and Freud's case study of Schreber, who suffers from "womb envy." She emphasizes that in our society fertility is equated with beauty, which is ironically lost during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Consequently, motherhood and sexual attractiveness are incompatible. Mantegazza and Lombroso pitied the man left with an ugly woman "impressed by maternity." On the other hand, Mantegazza maintains that for a woman, "maternal love is the emotional replacement for sexual attraction, and the sacrifice of her beauty is the proof of her competence in mothering" (129). Mazzoni gives the example of Deledda's Elias Portolu, which depicts the stereotypical image of a pregnant woman as deformed, hence undesirable. Paradoxically, as Mazzoni rightly denotes, "the disfigurement and deformity of pregnancy, its destruction of desire and desirability, are due to the view of women as men's erotic objects" (137). She ends the chapter with a discussion of maternal deformity in Julia Kristeva's work.
Chapter 4, "Childbirth, or the Paradoxical Body," is about impressions of parturition, which equals pain and was often deadly in the past. According to Mantegazza, pain also characterizes a woman's sexual experience, which enables her to better endure pain, while Lombroso minimizes the pains of childbirth. Aleramo's autobiographical Una donna is a rare novel that depicts labor and delivery, unspeakable in literature perhaps for so long because there is no adequate language to describe such experiences. Mazzoni concludes her exceptional book with a philosophical examination of the connection between birth and death.
Maternal Impressions definitely impressed me, partly because I was pregnant and about to become a mother myself while reading it. I enthusiastically recommend this original work, which de-mythologizes motherhood without glorifying or denigrating mothers, to every woman, mother or not.
Katja Liimatta, University of Iowa
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|Title Annotation:||ITALIAN BOOKSHELF|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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