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Frau im Spiegel: Die Selben und die Andere zwischen Welt und Text: Von Herren, Fremden und Frauen, in 16.Jahrhundert.

Elisabeth Tiller. Frankfurt-am-Main: Peter Lang, 1996. 2 vols., 973 pp. $127.95. ISBN: n.a.

The "Self and Other" in the title announces this ambitious work, the product of a Tubingen dissertation, as a departure from the conservative pattern of Renaissance scholarship in Germany that Susan Karant-Nunn has discussed in these pages (Winter 1995). Elisabeth Tiller shows a lively interest in contemporary theoretical "discourse" (a favorite word of hers), for instance that of Foucault and Thomas Laqueur. But the trendiness evidenced in vocabulary and punctuation is anchored in the traditional "exhaustive scrutiny" of primary and secondary literature that Karant-Nunn mentioned, reflecting the author's training in French and Italian philology. Tiller weaves a broad and dense historical background for her study of the "woman in the mirror," which details how women were cast as "a special case of the Other" and a mirror for male order, then examines those who defied the imposed paradigms to emerge as authorial Selves. The three-part title hints at the book's wide scope - and also its somewhat uncertain focus.

The first of three parts is essentially a long introduction. Nearly half concerns the marginalizing of various "Others," foreign and domestic, by the dominant forces of western European culture. New World inhabitants were judged less than menschlich, analogous to women and children, and the continent was female: a virgin land "discovered," or wild nature, dangerous but useful if tamed by (male) reason. As nature was feminized, its threatening and utilitarian qualities were projected back onto women. At home, religious and secular authorities, concerned about health, morality and order, accentuated social differences to promote the construction (Inszenieriung) of internal enemies. Jews, lepers, the poor, itinerants and Gypsies were categorically dismissed by a marginalizing process rooted in fear of the body, argues Tiller, who sees the same process governing men's relations with women.

In addition, Tiller posits a more pervasive entrenchment of "hierarchical" notions that contributed toward making women instrumental to male self-definition. In a sweeping survey of developments ranging from philosophy and medicine to manners and popular culture, the most interesting material concerns image, perspective and illusion, including mention of the newly ubiquitous reflective surface. Since the mirror motif leads the title and recurs through the text, this reader would have suggested some opening remarks on how the mirror, mediating between self-image and the beholder's eye, altered consciousness of self (as Morris Berman has observed), and how its images are at once truthful and fallacious: identical yet inverted with respect to the external eye, accurate yet partial and thus deceptive with respect to the inner eye. Tiller does discuss, among other things, the popular literary Spiegel, linear perspective in art, the portrait as a Wunschbild, and the paradoxes of courtly self-presentation and masking to manipulate the controlling gaze. Although much in this section seems intended more to display erudition than to illuminate the Frau im Spiegel, some pertinent ideas emerge: the heightened authority of the visual image and the observer's eye; a sharper divide between subject and object; a fixation on boundaries and hierarchies; the subjugation of nature by reason; the bounding of the body with restraints and taboos; and more official control over popular and private realms. All these, it is proposed, influenced men's definition of the feminine, or the Diskursivierung des Dispositivs Frau.

The second and longest part views normative and actual women as seen by men, from numerous angles. Two widely influential feminine ideals were those of Luther and Ficino, both rejecting the Aristotelian notion of defectiveness but limiting women to functional roles: the first, to a biblically and biologically determined place in marriage, which channeled her unruly corporeality to a positive end; the second, to a passive role as visual medium for men's spiritual ascent. In medical literature, examined here in clinical detail, the "one-sex" model defining the female as an incomplete male yielded to a more anatomically informed "two-sex" model stressing complementarity. But subordination slipped in the back door, insofar as woman's value was reduced to her central organ, making her a volitionless vehicle to reproduce males; so the new medical terms, like the old, supported theological and social norms of hierarchy.

Moving between theory and practice, Tiller traces political and legal trends that consigned women to a private role in an ordered patriarchal household. She assesses the flood of male writing on the Frauenfrage, which included some "concessions" to female virtues, and she argues that the female perspective could only emerge from within these projected images. She seeks information about actual women's lives in men's writing, employing Montaigne's essays for pictures of the well-to-do. Other clues could be found in correspondence, which gives occasional news about wives and daughters along with customary honorific greetings; but reading letters for this purpose would not be very efficient. She finds a rare image of a poor woman in the autobiography of the great social climber Thomas Platter; that we see only glimpses is a fact from which she infers that Frau Platter got little esteem or solicitude from her husband. While possibly accurate, this conclusion may neglect the weight of cultural reticence about private matters - although, granted, women's confinement to private ground is one of Tiller's points. Reviewing the scholarship on women's public and economic activity, Tiller finds more variety in fact than the paradigms allowed, but also a constriction of options and a devaluing of women's professions like healing and midwifery. It is somewhat puzzling - despite the male authorship of documents - to see the most objective data about women in the economy mingled with men's opinions and ideals, which appears to put the stamp of realism on the latter. On the other hand, paradigms fed into reality, as shown by theories of witches, the monstrous extreme of the female. At the opposite, iconic end of the scale sat the court lady, a prominent but mostly decorative presence in Castiglione's Il Cortigiano, serving as medium and mirror of male perfection. This influential and not too fanciful fiction taught that women were spoken of, not with; their speech interrupted male discourse; they could not speak for themselves.

The third part, and disappointingly the shortest, is devoted to women who spoke for themselves. The useful and appropriate geographical arrangement - Italy, France, Germany - raises the question whether such divisions would have been helpful in the earlier parts, where other ordering themes prevailed. Tiller observes that women's writing did not generally reflect female sensibilities but rather assimilated male patterns, especially the Petrarchan lyric, and she likens this reproduction of male speech to women's approved biological role. Insofar as much of men's writing was also imitative, the point apparently is that imitation should at least be gender-appropriate, unlike the awkward women's versions of the Petrarchan autobiographical fiction so popular in Italy. Some women made plausible adjustments to the form. Some, like Vittoria Colonna, found a subjective voice of qualified authenticity in religious themes. Taking a more independent turn were Veronica Franco, an unusual free agent in the male world, protesting women's lot and lamenting the exploitation that bought her illusory freedom; and Moderata Fonte, whose unusual treatment of the Frauenfrage, a roundtable of women enumerating men's faults, wound up accepting the status quo. French female authors were fewer in number than Italians, but freer from Petrarchan or other literary constraints and thus open to a wider range of themes, including criticism of social custom. Early encouragement from men evaporated after Louise Labe published her daring propaganda for female political solidarity; learned women in France as in Italy were then ridiculed, their work marginalized. Ending with Germany, Tiller refers to the "Autorin" (her punctuation) to reflect the narrow range and unliterary character of women's writing, due only partly to a strict exclusion of women from public life. Male humanists did fashion an ideal of female erudition, centered on the modest reproduction of men's learning. Surpassing this role on the strength of religious zeal were Katharina Zell and Argula von Grumbach, whose call for equality in God and criticism of men in power originated in Reformation conflicts. But in Germany, challenges to social norms were rare.

In a brief conclusion Tiller notes that while the modern autobiography was developing, there was scarcely any free representation of the female self, although the very act of writing gave some substance to the feminine subject, and the religious concern deemed proper for women offered a kind of liberation in mystical themes (which traditionally gave both men and women an avenue of escape under cover of obedience). Some readers might wish for a conclusion gathering the many strands of the book into a more cohesive whole: the exegesis of women's writing is tenuously linked to some preceding material; its segregation into a second volume along with notes and bibliography has a "marginalizing" effect; and the opening reference back to newly discovered realms possessed by speech and subdued by norms of the self promises connections that do not fully materialize. Tiller has brought admirable energy and competence to the project of showing the Frau im Spiegel in her full context and revealing the multitudinous components of her image. The mass of detail, however, leaves an impression that the author sees everything on the map adding up to the degradation of women. Intelligent insights fade beneath the sound of axes being ground. Do we need such persistent and impassioned reminders that women were considered inferior to men? American readers would have welcomed a rigorous pruning - and thus a reduction of price - as well as some restraint of the author's enthusiasm for very long (up to 32 lines), often syntactically loose sentences. But for those with means to obtain it and time to read it, Elisabeth Tiller's book is informative and often enlightening.

CAROL STASWICK Berkeley, California
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Author:Staswick, Carol
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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