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Motherhood and interrogation in Valeria Parrella's Novel Lo spazio bianco.

In her 1985 essay, "Writing and Motherhood", Susan Suleiman observes that a feminist revision of the patriarchal assumptions behind the psychoanalytic theories of the mother-child relationship must begin by acknowledging that classic psychoanalysis neglected the mother altogether, placing exclusive emphasis on the figure of the child (356). Yet, until recently even feminism showed consistent hostility towards the idea of maternity. Coming out of the political and social upheaval of 1968 according to the genealogy delineated in Julia Kristeva's Women's Time (1981), Second Wave feminists in particular rejected both their real mothers, viewed as negative models, as well as the institution of motherhood, which they saw as the source and cause of women's oppression and subjugation. (1) Developing in the late 1970s, only Third Wave feminism promoted a re-appreciation of motherhood, heeded as a crucial experience containing and revealing the intricate nature of the female being. Writing in 1981, Julia Kristeva explicitly references this shift from Second to Third Wave conceptions of maternity:
   We have seen in the past few years an increasing number of women
   who not only consider their maternity compatible with their
   professional life or their feminism involvement [...] but also find
   it indispensable to their discovery, not of the plenitude, but of
   the complexity of the female experience, with all that this
   complexity comprises in joy and pain (30).

Third Wave feminism's rediscovery of motherhood influenced women's contemporary literary production in Europe and overseas. In Italian literature, the second half of the 1970s saw the rise of first person narratives that centered on the experience of motherhood, Oriana Fallaci's Lettera a un bambino mai nato (1975) and Lidia Ravera's Bambino mio (1979) being a case in point. Laura Benedetti's The Tigress in the Snow: Motherhood and Literature in Twentieth-Century Italy (2007) and Saveria Chemotti's L'inchiostro bianco: madri e figlie nella narrativa contemporanea (2009) offer a comprehensive survey of the literature

dealing with mothers. The two scholars show how, despite a few exceptions such as Sibilla Aleramo's Una donna (1906), maternity as a literary subject recounted from the point of view of the mother became popular only in the final decades of the twentieth century. It is thanks to these literary texts, along with such theoretical contributions as Luisa Muraro's L'ordine simbolico della madre (1991), that the practice of motherhood comes to the forefront as an occurrence that women not only live and experience, but also elaborate, inscribe on the page, and transmit. (2)

Women's re-appropriation of motherhood as a fundamental part of the female experience has engendered positive change in terms of their freedom in contemporary society, as Parrella's Lo spazio bianco reveals. The novel's protagonist, Maria, chooses to become the single mother of the prematurely born Irene, an illegitimate child in the eyes of the State, thus affirming her autonomy from traditional patriarchal paradigms concerning women's role in society and within the family. Maria's courage and independence resonated deeply with Francesca Comencini, the filmmaker who adapted Lo spazio bianco for the screen and a single mother herself. In her interview with Glauco Almonte on her film adaptation, Comencini connects motherhood to freedom, articulating her view of the maternal as liberating: "Essere madre non e e non puo essere in contraddizione con la liberta di scelta, anzi, la maternita e un'amplificazione di liberta." In Comencini's reading of the text, Lo spazio bianco originates from this freedom, a freedom that implies a revision of the institutions of the family and of motherhood as places of female liberation rather than oppression.

Yet, while Comencini draws an explicit connection between women's freedom and their emancipation from patriarchal modes and stereotypes, Parrella's novel does not offer a conclusive answer as to whether Maria is truly able to liberate herself from male-inflected paradigms and constraints. Instead, Lo spazio bianco thematizes Maria's questioning of these very paradigms, as becoming a mother leads Parrella's protagonist to a profound cross-examination of herself and of others, of her own life and of society, of the present as well as of the past. Thus, rather than overtly advocating for a cause and effect link between motherhood and freedom, Lo spazio bianco explores the relationship between maternity and critical inquiry, a pairing that precedes that of motherhood and freedom and sets the conditions for the very possibility for its existence.

Taking part in the debate about modes and characteristics of the so-called ecriturefeminine,3 in his article "La voce femminile" (1984) Italian philosopher Aldo Gargani observes that the most striking feature of female writing is its interrogative tone. In his view, the goal of women's language is not to advance theses, create systems, or delineate objective definitions. On the contrary, its aim is to pose questions, raise interrogatives, and define areas of inquiry (16). When applied to Maria's story, Gargani's theories transcend the linguistic domain to take on existential relevance. During the excruciatingly long waits in the intensive care ward where she learns to become woman and mother while her daughter learns to survive and live, Maria experiences an interrogative mode of existence. The "white space" of the hospital ward is, in fact, inhabited only by enigmas, beginning with Irene herself who, with the other premature children, is called "un punto interrogativo della medicina" (101). Grappling with unanswerable queries, Maria spends her time evoking and rewriting the ER doctor's rhetorical question regarding Irene's uncertain future ("Lei lo sa?"), modifying the answer each time. The refrain, in one of its several forms in particular, confirms the interrogative nature of her meditations:

--Lei lo sa?

--Io non lo so, ma non lo sai nemmeno tu. C'e qualcuno che lo sa? (55)

The interrogative stance at the heart of Lo spazio bianco follows two main trajectories, as Maria first questions herself and her identity, and subsequently she interrogates society and the patriarchal categories around her. The latter appears in the text as the Law with a capital L:
   Ma la Legge recitava 'solo i legittimi genitori' e l'unico altro
   essere sulla faccia della terra che avrebbe potuto fare a meta con
   me questa fatica non aveva tra i suoi libri o i suoi cromosomi II
   principio di responsabilita (47).

With respect to the relationship between motherhood and self-interrogation, Benedetti remarks that pregnancy prompts the woman to question her own subjective unity, a process that gives her a privileged perspective on the most dramatic aspects of human existence (91). Whether internal or external, such as in the case of Irene who is raised in an artificial womb, gestation challenges a woman's notion of selfhood. As she welcomes a foreign being within herself, the fluid feminine corporality becomes a space of otherness, the territory where the other grows and acquires a life of its own. Benedetti draws inspiration from Kristeva, who lingers on the internal division of both body and mind that occurs when a woman is pregnant. According to the French psychoanalyst, pregnancy is in fact "the radical ordeal of the splitting of the subject: redoubling up of the body, separation and coexistence of the self and of another, of nature and consciousness, of physiology and speech" (Women's Time 31).

For Maria, the necessity to redefine herself comes not during pregnancy but at the moment of Irene's birth. When the hospital's psychologist tells her, "Non siamo fatti a compartimenti stagni, le cose vanno insieme, esistono insieme a te," the woman answers, "Te. E questo concetto che va ridefinito, e per ora non ce la faccio, non voglio, non ho la forza. Diciamo che mi sto facendo un pimto d'onore del sopravvivere" (56). In Maria's case, her inner questions are concurrently externalized as she projects her inquiries on the miniscule frame of her premature daughter. While failing to provide any answers, Irene's enigmatic existence, her being medicine's "question mark," allows Maria to relate to the other person that she knows has experienced motherhood's joys and pains: her own mother.

In Motherhood According to Giovanni Bellini (1975), Kristeva brings her analysis of the psychological dynamics of pregnancy and childbirth a step further. In addition to putting into question a woman's present selfhood, gestation and maternity represent a moment of interrogation with respect to her past. In particular, the experience of motherhood allows women to establish a primordial connection with their own mother. United by their generative power, the mother and the daughter-who-will-be-mother become one single entity: "By giving birth, the woman enters into contact with her own mother; she becomes, she is her own mother; they are the same continuity differentiating itself" (Portable 303). In Lo spazio bianco, Maria's interrogation of the past and of her mother forces the woman to face and possibly overcome the traumas of her childhood and adolescence.

Maria's mother is described as a submissive woman who, perhaps willingly, fell victim to the men around her. Her husband disrespected her religious devotion and his behavior was patronizing and at times authoritative, while the only episodes mentioned of her existence outside the domestic sphere are a rape and the administration of a vaccine that caused her to lose the child she was expecting. According to Maria, her mother's distinctive feature was unconditional devotion to sadomasochistic renunciation; she displayed in fact "un vago compiacimento per qualunque rinuncia, una sottile perversione nel non andare al cinema, nel rarefare le cene tra i parenti, nel perdere di vista le amiche" (88). Since she was a teenager, Maria has wanted to steer away precisely from her mother's self-sacrificing attitudes:

Avevo sedici anni quando mi ero impiegata nello sforzo piU capillare della mia esistenza: rimuovere la corona di spine. Era stata un'eredita di mia madre: lei era ima suora in borghese. Si nascondeva da mio padre, che le rideva addosso e si era fatto il segno della croce solo il giorno del matrimonio, e si nascondeva da se stessa, per stare al passo con i tempi. Aveva sepolto nel comodino e in se L'imitazione di Cristo (ibid.).

Recalling the opposition to the maternal figure promoted by Second Wave feminists, Maria's adversarial relationship to her mother does not however keep her from realizing that she must engage her parent's emotional heritage. She recognizes that she will be able to distance herself fully from her mother only by coming to terms with her parent's personality and by acknowledging what has been passed on to her. Maria admits that she has inherited, at least partially, her mother's sacrificial disposition. She too has given up a lot, but her renunciations have had almost opposite manifestations. Motivated by her obsession to not become like her mother, who had to give up her own life to dedicate herself to her family, before Irene's birth Maria found herself unable to choose one mode of living over the other as she wanted to try them all. Because of this, she has been unable to experience anything at its fullest:
   Avrei potuto diventare femminista, con quel fare sottile che non si
   dichiara mai, avevo marciato a mio modo attraverso gli uomini per
   non perdermi niente. Ma sentivo che l'errore c'era comunque: a
   sposarsi e a restare soli, a fidanzarsi e ad amare, a innamorarsi e
   a sostenersi, a sfidarsi, a vincere e a perdere, a proteggere e a
   farsi proteggere. E io non sarei mai stata pronta a difendere
   nessuna di queste cose (89).

At the end of the meditation, Maria, aware of the paradoxes of her own existence, implicitly compares her life to that of her mother and wonders which of the two had to give up the most (ibid.).

Irene's birth prompts Maria to come to terms with her mother's and her own sacrificial attitudes, forcing her to reconsider her past choices while offering an opportunity for change. Maria considers her daughter's premature birth as caused by her indecisiveness and inability to commit: "Forse tutto partiva da li, perche sentivo che se Irene non respirava c'era una rinuncia che si era annidata in me, contro la mia volonta, e si manifestava solo ora" (41-42). The decision to become a mother is the first choice that Maria embraces unconditionally, while Irene is the first human being that she is absolutely committed to. Her daughter is still a "fatica," as the text defines her (37), but not a useless one like her other struggles. For Maria, Irene is a starting point from which to imagine a new life that would allow her to overwrite the traumas of the working class Neapolitan province where she grew up and where "ci si faceva male rinunciando" (42).

As the space where Maria's critical recuperation of her mother and re-interrogation of her childhood and adolescence occur, the hospital's intensive care ward becomes a place of possible salvation and, perhaps, redemption. Similar to the "scatola bianca" in which Irene is kept alive (26), the white, blank, and empty no man's land of the hospital ward lacks definite temporal and spatial coordinates. The enclosed nature of both spaces makes them resemble the claustrophobic Neapolitan province where Maria grew up, and the room in which she locked herself to study as a teenager. Yet, while the suburbs of Naples and Maria's childhood house were like prisons for her, the hospital and the artificial womb in which Irene survives are, literally and metaphorically, spaces of rebirth. In them two new lives--Irene's and Maria's --are forming and will hopefully be able to exist.

Identifying with her daughter's "suspended" condition, Maria attempts to recreate for herself the uncertainty characteristic of Irene's existence. Both within and without the antiseptic walls of the prenatal ward Maria finds herself living in a universe with no clear and fixed points of reference. Replicating her daughter's extreme solitude, Maria becomes an absence for the world: "Attorno a me si era creata una sospensione [...] io sola a casa, Irene sola in ospedale" (46). Maria's fusion with her daughter has not only psychological but also physical consequences, as she stops producing milk to breastfeed her daughter upon discovering that Irene has a stomach stagnation and will not be fed for two days (84). Similarly, after finding out that Irene will indeed survive, Maria develops "un dolore sordo al tallone" (111), akin to the one that her daughter will endure for the rest of her life as a result of the frequent blood transfusions that she received.

The symbiosis between mother and daughter thematized in Lo spazio bianco leads us back to the crucial issue of the coexistence of identity and difference inscribed in the experience of motherhood and in the mother-daughter bond. Along with Kristeva and Benedetti, Cristina Faccincani takes up the issue, going as far as suggesting the possibility of a role reversal between mother and daughter:
   La relazione madre figlia implica infatti il problema originario
   della coesistenza fra dimensione speculare identitaria e dimensione
   asimmetrica, ossia appartenente alla differenza di posizione (chi
   accudisce e chi viene accudita, chi nutre e chi viene nutrita, chi
   contiene e chi viene contenuta, chi cura e chi viene curata, etc.)
   e la realizzazione del bisogno d'amore segue nella relazione il
   destino delle possibilita, degli spazi lasciati aperti dalle
   traversie, dalle vicissitudini di questa difficile coesistenza fra
   simmetria identitaria e asimmetria della differenza (estesa a
   qualsiasi differenza d'essere) (5).

In Lo spazio bianco, Maria and Irene seem at times to exchange roles to the point that it becomes legitimate to wonder who is the mother and who is the daughter. While Maria is Irene's biological mother, it is also true that Irene gives birth to a new Maria since, by embracing her maternity, Parrella's protagonist starts her life anew, overcoming her past difficulties and unresolved complexes. Faccincani's words are, again, a valuable support in understanding the dynamics that lie at the heart of the mother-daughter relationship, dynamics that Valeria Parrella portrays in her text:
   [II] lato oscuro e paradossale che appartiene ad ogni relazione
   madrefiglia implica che ogni figlia, in un certo senso mette al
   mondo la propria madre, madre che le chiede di essere confermata
   come tale e che ha bisogno di lei per riparare le proprie lacune
   materne, innestate sulle proprie lacune infantili (8).

The blank space in which the exchange and fusion between the mother and her daughter takes place compels Maria to question the set of values that constituted her credo before Irene's birth. Her beliefs derived from science and logic and are imbued with a markedly Catholic sense of guilt. The latter Maria inherited from her mother and from her working class and provincial background:
   Per far coincidere le cause con gli effetti mi ero arrampicata su e
   giU per secoli di filosofia; chiunque passasse il Bosforo in un
   libro, a venire o ad andare, aveva sempre una progenie che
   dimostrava la derivazione naturale di gioie e dolori; e poi c'era
   la Necessita di ottenere quel risultato: posti quei termini in
   matematica o quelle sostanze in chimica o quei fonemi in

   E tutto intorno le catechesi a scandire i rapporti tra cio che
   accade prima e cio che accade dopo. Era questo allenamento che non
   mi lasciava respiro di fronte al dolore, che non mi permetteva di
   dire 'sono cose che succedono' e 'stiamo sotto il cielo'. Che in
   una statistica mi faceva sentire sempre l'eccezione.

   Che non mi permetteva di arrendermi alla casualita del male

Maria's pre-Irene values belong to the two dominant patriarchal discourses--science and theology--that according to Kristeva appropriated the theoretical meditation on motherhood's essence before its feminist revision. In Kristeva's analysis, both fields failed and still fail to consider the mother as agent and active subject: science because it sees maternity as biological, and therefore natural and necessary; Christian theology because it idealizes motherhood as the place of a transcendent union in which an uncontaminated woman functions as passive recipient (Portable 301-302). By making women generative subjects rather than agents, both these discourses prove inadequate in accounting for Maria's choice to carry out her pregnancy and become a mother.

In her interrogative journey, Maria feels the inadequacy of both religion and science. As far as religion is concerned, Maria, despite her name, is "una madonna che non aspettava piu l'annunciazione" (16), to whom the traditional symbols of the Holy Spirit, the doves that she regularly sees on the hospital terrace, "hanno sempre fatto schifo" (6). (4) In terms of science, while acknowledging its crucial role in keeping Irene alive, Maria concurrently challenges its laws and objective imperatives. With these, she questions the system of values--rationality, causality, order, linearity--on which her life was based before Irene's birth, values that have been traditionally associated with the male sphere.

While, before Irene, Maria was used to approaching the world through the lens of rationalistic, objective, and analytical categories and according to scientific rules, in the face of such inexplicable event as the premature birth of her daughter and her struggle for survival Maria's rational faculties collapse. After Irene sees the light, the reader learns that Maria "has lost her head" (8) as "non c'era una regola in cui Irene si sarebbe potuta incanalare, piccola com'era, senza dare fastidio" (11). She becomes part of the "umanita senza testa" (9) that finds distraction reading Novella Duemila instead of the essays on the history of secularism that Maria attempts to study but almost immediately gives up. As Maria is forced to admit, her previous logical way of thinking offers no answer or relief to the tragedy of Irene's situation:
   Tutto quello che dovevo fare, ora, era smettere di credere al nesso
   causaeffetto. Da quarantadue anni mi ci affidavo con gratitudine,
   e, insieme a una buona parte di umanita occidentale, in questo modo
   avevamo sistemato il mondo (42).

In Lo spazio bianco one of the traditional categories undergoing striking revisions is time. (5) In the limbo of the prenatal ward, Maria experiences what she calls "il silenzio del tempo fermo" (7). Her life in the hospital is a "vita sospesa" (31) in which the only possible temporal structure is that of an endless and excruciating wait. The rite that determines the separation between an outside temporality, linear and regularly measured, and the "tempo dilatato e fermo" (45) of the hospital is the antiseptic sanitization that the women have to go through before entering the intensive care section:
   Non portavo piu l'orologio, nessuna di noi lo portava, perche il
   lavaggio antisettico prevedeva che fosse tolto e noi vivevamo per
   il lavaggio antisettico. Misuravo i giorni che passavano con la
   lunghezza della mano di Irene stretta su una delle mie falangi

The difference between Lo spazio bianco's inside and outside temporality is analogous to the one that Kristeva identifies between male and female senses of time. The male's is the planned, linear, teleological time of history and science. The female's is monumental--that is, all-encompassing and infinite--and cyclical, while its distinctive features are eternity and, because of the female body's biological rhythms, repetition (Women's Time 16-17). In Parrella's novel, history and science's temporal linearity continues to exist even inside the hospital: it is the temporality of medicine, which struggles to keep the prematurely born alive bringing them to their second birth, the moment when they will be able to breathe without a machine. This medical time however coexists with the temporality of the mothers who wait and hope, a time that is as white, blank, and empty as the no-man's land that they inhabit. This kind of time is maternal and feminine, and as such it is all-embracing, cyclical, eternal (or so it seems to Maria), and markedly distinct from the frantic rhythms of the outside world. (6)

While time becomes for Maria a concept to renegotiate on female rather than male grounds, it is ultimately Irene's condition--the fact that she is a body without a substance--that truly summarizes the paradoxes of her existence and her daughter's:
   Lei non era nessuno, era un feto sgusciato, un corpo nudo il cui
   cuore batteva centottanta volte in un minuto, la cui faccia era
   cosi piccola che nessuno avrebbe potuto intuirne i lineamenti. Era
   una forma senza immagine, un atto vivente che dietro di se non
   aveva nessuna idea platonica a sorreggerlo, l'individuo che non
   arriva a nessun paradigma (28) (7)

The state of pure immanence of a body--Irene's--that is singular without yet belonging to a subjective consciousness (despite Maria's attempt to make an individual out of her daughter by baptizing her with a proper name) brings to mind Gilles Deleuze's revision of traditional conceptions of subjective identity. Irene's paradoxical status subverts established notions of what constitutes a human being since she is endowed with a corporeal sensorial dimension--she is, indeed, in Deleuzian terms, a life--that is yet still impersonal, a-subjective, pre-reflexive (Deleuze 25). In Potentialities (1999), Giorgio Agamben tackles these Deleuzian concepts. His words a propos appear as a transcription of Irene's condition, as she is indeed "experience without either consciousness or subject" (225), and comes thus to represent "the enigmatic cipher of bare biological life as such" (230). (8)

While at first Maria tries to conceptualize the puzzling nature of Irene's life rationally, she soon capitulates to the inadequacy of her typical logical way of thinking: "Fosse stato un aborto avrei aspettato il raschiamento, fosse stata una bambina l'avrei tenuta in braccio. Io non avevo altre categorie a disposizione" (26). Maria realizes that her daughter's case does not call for new categorizations; it requires rather no categories at all. In the prenatal ward, paradox and ambiguity replace Maria's rationality. Here, opposites merge and become indistinguishable. Life and death ("Il fatto e che mia figlia Irene stava morendo, o stava nascendo, non ho capito bene: per quaranta giorni e stato come nominare la stessa condizione" [9]), human and pre-human (25), presence and absence overlap requiring Maria to configure new interpretative tools and methods.

Maria explicitly confesses her difficulties at accepting the fact that Irene's situation lies beyond what reason can grasp and explain: "A me non serviva un'infermiera, e neppure il primario o la psicoioga. A me serviva un esegeta che mi spiegasse cosa tutto questo voleva dire" (26). For Maria, a teacher of grammar and literature, Irene is a hermeneutic problem, an interpretative dilemma to be approached as a literary critic would an enigmatic text. The woman views Irene's body as a script in becoming, to which she would like to add prefaces and afterwords, introductions and epilogues, commentaries, glosses, and footnotes. The correlation between the textual and the biological comes to life when Maria describes the mechanical screen recording Irene's condition and growth:
   E poi c'era un led che lampeggiava nero su uno sfondo bianco, e che
   sembrava il trattino di Word sullo schermo del computer. All'inizio
   della pagina, quando stai aspettando di scrivere il primo verbo: e
   quello era il cuore che batteva (39).

The allusion to the binary of corporeal and manually or mechanically written re-surfaces in the examination that Maria's middle-aged night students have to take to obtain their middle school degree. When her favorite student, truck driver Gaetano, asks for her help to continue his composition, Maria suggests, "Mettici uno spazio bianco e ricomincia a scrivere quello che vuoi" (112). The interruption on Gaetano's essay is analogous to the existential suspension undergone by Maria during the three months spent at the hospital. Both on Gaetano's page and in Maria's life, this "spazio bianco" disrupts continuity logic allowing for a fresh start. In the same way as Gaetano is able to pick up his writing again after hitting a dead end, and hopefully do so on renewed terms, so does Maria's suspended, white time in the prenatal ward's limbo come to its conclusion by the end of the novel, enabling the woman to start thinking about her new life.

This parallel between experiential and written interruptions brings us back to the question of what constitutes a female mode of writing, while also addressing the issue of the role of real and symbolic mothers in the individual's subjective development. In L'ordine simbolico della madre, Muraro advocates for the importance of the maternal in the process of language acquisition. In her view, verbal communication can occur only in relation to the mother: "Saper parlare vuol dire, fondamentalmente, saper mettere al mondo il mondo e questo noi possiamo farlo in relazione con la madre, non separatamente da lei" (49). Ida Dominijanni updates and expands Muraro's theses by making explicit that verbal and maternal are united because of their shared generative faculties. Linguistic production reproduces the creative instance that lays at the heart of every act of birth, first and foremost that of the mother delivering a child. Since language originates in the mother and with the mother, there exists no distinction between the verbal and the corporeal, the word and the body (182), as Lo spazio bianco shows. Indeed, it is through their bodies that Maria and Irene communicate:
   Un pomeriggio, in cui la poppata stava andando abbastanza liscia,
   per un momento persi di vista il monitor, l'inclinazione del polso,
   il livello del latte sotto la ghiera, e guardai Irene. Aveva gli
   occhi aperti come non avevo mai visto occhi aperti: l'iride
   riempiva quasi tutto lo spazio, era perfettamente tonda e guardava
   me. O forse non mi vedeva, perche l'oculista di reparto dagli esami
   strumentali non poteva escludere la cecita. Forse sentiva solo il
   mio battito, acceleratissimo, che rincorreva il suo, o neppure
   quello. Ma mi sentiva. Stava nel mio braccio, la tenevo, mi sentiva
   e io le sorrisi. Non quella smorfia che mi ero calcata in faccia
   dal primo momento, quella che era solo la variante socialmente
   accettabile di una fuga. Proprio un sorriso di quando, in un
   momento, nella vita, sbuca una cosa inaspettata e piena e tua.

   Quel giorno avevamo scoperto il linguaggio (95).

Muraro's and Dominijanni's theories hold particular political relevance for today's state of post-symbolic crisis, as Slavoj Zizek terms it, a state that constitutes the backdrop against which Parrella's novel is set. According to Zizek, the feminist movement and the twentieth century's social and political changes have challenged the supremacy of the Father within society and of fathers inside the family to the point of no return. (9) With the end of the Father's authority, the symbolic order has entered a stage of permanent crisis; patriarchy as we know it finds itself critically ill and might ultimately be approaching its end. The crisis of the paternal is indeed apparent in Lo spazio bianco, as Maria describes her father as a defeated figure. Despite his authoritative behavior towards his wife, Maria's father was a vinto of society, oppressed by the world, by history, and also by politics, betrayed even by his beloved Communist Party. Indeed, the first and only time that Maria saw her father cry was when the man discovered that the Red Brigades had kidnapped and killed Aldo Moro, an inexcusable gesture that, he felt, his political party should not have allowed to happen. While still alive within the family, the father's authority succumbed to the social and political structure, especially as the latter employed violent means that he did not endorse.

In Zizek's view, violence is precisely what has threatened to fill the power gap caused by the demise of patriarchy. The political and social scene of the last few decades has witnessed the return of archaic and violent forms of coercion that need to be replaced with more constructive systems of government articulated on new, non-patriarchal grounds. In this scenario, the women's movement could offer a model of congregation, relationality, and acceptance to configure innovative and successful alternatives. Having been for centuries the silenced subjects of politics, in the post-symbolic world women could finally come to the forefront, especially as they take subversive decisions that challenge the status quo, like Maria does.

Considered from within the anthropologically new universe of what Zizek calls the post-oedipal phase, Maria's choice to embrace motherhood unconditionally, and her subsequent interrogation of traditionally patriarchal paradigms, can be read as an attempt at conceiving a new feminine political order based on the maternal and specifically on the mother-daughter bond. This new order recalls the one articulated in Muraro's L'ordine simbolico della madre, where the recovery of the maternal figure is seen as an alternative to today's state of post-symbolic crisis, uncontrolled hedonism, and nihilism: "Dalla madre, dalla nostra antica relazione con lei [...] possiamo imparare a combattere il nichilismo, che e perdita del senso dell'essere" (29). (10)

The political implications of Maria's story are made explicit by the fact that the woman's job is to teach the Neapolitan subproletarians to read and write, thus giving them a voice and a chance at social betterment and political redemption, and by the fact that the night school is another "white space" of possible rebirth comparable to Irene's incubator and Maria's three-month wait in the prenatal ward. Along with being a mother and communicating to Irene through her body, Maria gives Gaetano and his fellow students access to the linguistic sphere. On the one hand, the language that the students have to master is the conventional one, since they are required to pass an official examination. On the other, however, under Maria's guidance Naples' dispossessed are able to subvert its rules from within, as Gaetano does when Maria recommends that he incorporate non-written space in his composition before beginning another paragraph with a new subject.

The discontinuous development of the first person narrative in Lo spazio bianco, signified on the page by the frequent white spaces left by the author in between thematic blocks, is Parrella's paratextual correlative of Gaetano's blank paragraph. One stylistically, the other diegetically, Parella's editorial choices and Gaetano's unconventional composition show that Lo spazio bianco does not only portray a white space and a white time, those of the intensive care section at the Neapolitan hospital, but that it also materializes a "white ink," an ink as candid as a mother's milk. A notion introduced by Helene Cixous in the 1975 essay "The Laugh of the Medusa" (419), the same "white ink" characterizes the newly found voice of Irene who, at the end of Lo spazio bianco, cries. Hers is a new feminine voice, a new voice of interrogation.


Agamben, Giorgio. Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Stanford: Stanford University Press,1999. Print.

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University of Pennsylvania


(1) One of the first texts to denounce the oppressive nature of the institution of motherhood was Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949). Several other feminist theorists followed in de Beauvoir's wake. Some of the most influential contributions are Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (1976), Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Bom: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), and Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (1978).

(2) Interestingly, both Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born and Julia Kristeva's article "Stabat Mater" (1983) are theoretical essays on the significance of motherhood as well as personal diaries of the authors' experience as mothers.

(3) Feminist writer and philosopher Helene Cixous coined the term in the 1975 essay "The Laugh of the Medusa." On a general level, this term refers to the dispute that originated in France in the Seventies and continued in the following decades over modes of inscription of sexual difference in writing and language. Such theorists as Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva partook in the debate.

(4) At the same time, however, Maria's physical and psychological state recalls the figure of the Virgin Mary in the thirteenth-century hymn, "Stabat Mater," which is also the title of a Kristeva article on the Catholic interpretation of maternity and womanhood. To a certain extent, in Lo spazio bianco Maria is a stans mater dolorosa, a mother who waits and beholds.

(5) Time and its pressing rhythms play a central role in Parrella's novel. Irene, Maria, and the students of the night school where the woman works not only lack time, but they also were unable to use the time they had wisely. Irene was born too early; Maria waited too long to have a child; her students did not have the opportunity or the time to study and receive a degree because of their dramatic familial and social backgrounds. Time is also central to Comencini's adaptation of Parrella's novel, representing Maria's "interior landscape of uncertainty" (Karagoz 111).

(6) The quotation from Jorge Luis Borges' The Golem that opens the text already suggests that conventional categories of linear and progressive time will lose their validity. "Gradualmente si vide come noi altri / imprigionato in questa rete sonora / di prima, poi, ieri, mentre, ora, / destra, sinistra, io, tu, quelli, gli altri." The premature children like Irene embody this new concept of temporality as they live according to what is called a double time, "uno anagrafico, quello registrato dall'ospedale, e uno reale, quello che corrispondera [...] al momento vero in cui sara autosufficiente" (26).

(7) The image that epitomizes the ambiguity behind Irene and Maria's case is the pre-Colombian mask that Maria sees at a local art exhibit, and that shows half of the face healthy and the other half stricken by disease (99). By simultaneously displaying opposite aspects, the healthy and the unhealthy, coexisting in the same entity, the mask becomes an objective correlative of Irene's and Maria's lives: the joy of a newborn entering the world is marred by the tragedy of her effort to survive.

(8) A thorough analogy between Irene's condition and the Deleuzian notion of pure immanence opens a new field of inquiry with respect to Valeria Parrella's novel that is beyond the scope and content of the present article. However, it is necessary to note at least one additional parallel that confirms Irene's status as a purely immanent life. Irene lives in a transitory, in-between moment: she is a virtuality "engaged in a process of actualization" (Deleuze 31). Like Deleuze's impersonal, indeterminate life, she exists in a state of in-betweenness: "This indefinite life does not itself have moments [...] but only between-times, between-moments; it doesn't just come about or come after but offers the immensity of an empty time where one sees the event yet to come and already happened, in the absolute of an immediate consciousness" (29).

(9) Zizek's theories on the decline of patriarchal authority appear in several of his texts. Among his English contributions, an early theorization can be found in Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (1991), where Zizek also introduces the notion of pathological narcissism as the primary condition of the individual in contemporary society. The Ticklish Subject (1999) further clarifies the post-oedipal foundations of today's liberal social universe. In addition, Living in the End Times (2010) delineates features and modes of the contemporary state of crisis caused by the demise of patriarchy. A thorough summary of the Slovenian philosopher's theories and a comprehensive Italian bibliography is included in Diana Sartori's "Con lo spirito materno" (2007).

(10) Interestingly, Muraro somewhat negatively compares the uncertainties of an existential condition that is detached from the mother to the state of a premature child who is unable to live autonomously: "[La] troppo grande distanza dalla matrice della vita anzi, dal nostro rapporto attuale con essa--ci toglie ogni fiducia nelle nostre forze passionali e razionali, e nella possibilita di metterle fra loro in un rapporto di proficua collaborazione. Di conseguenza, siamo simili ai nati prematuri, deboli ed affidati per la loro sopravvivenza ad una incubatrice" (28).
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Author:Consolati, Claudia
Article Type:Critical essay
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Date:Sep 22, 2014
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