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Edith Södergran's Modern Virgin: Overcoming Nietzsche and the Gendered Narrator



Edith Södergran's Modern Virgin: Overcoming Nietzsche and the Gendered Narrator


Benjamin Mier-Cruz

Doctor of Philosophy in Scandinavian Languages & Literatures

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Linda Haverty Rugg, Chair

This dissertation is an interdisciplinary study within a comparative Nordic-Germanic framework that proposes new approaches to reading representations of gender in European literary modernism and philosophy via the works of Finland-Swedish poet Edith Södergran and Friedrich Nietzsche. I posit that Södergran's avant-garde poetry presents feminine, masculine, and androgynous narrators that subvert the function of misogyny in Nietzsche's philosophy, which she had fervently read and incorporated into her writing. Surely, Södergran must have faced obstacles as she confronted Nietzsche's ostensible ad feminam; however, her progressive poetry, I contend, illustrates how Nietzsche's own discourse is constructed by androgynous rhetoric that exhibits paradoxically helpful appropriations of the female body. I therefore suggest that Södergran's reception of Nietzsche ushers in a transvaluation of the "modernist body" that overcomes the cultural body of Man and Woman as she opens up philosophical discourse with the feminine other in Nietzsche's otherwise phallocentric discourse. Using a shared framework of post-structural feminist theory, narratology, and poetry criticism, this dissertation attempts to overturn long-standing interpretations of Nietzsche's philosophy and to revise Södergran's mythologized biography and traditional analyses of her poetry.

In chapter one, I attempt to separate Edith Södergran from her romanticized biography and refigure the female writing subject in history in a way that de-emphasizes her glorified, personal afflictions and instead elucidates Södergran's creative efforts to redefine gender. In chapter two, I posit that Södergran's lyrical narrator is not an exclusively female subject but a speaker that is multiple: Södergran's narrators are voiced by female, male, and androgynous bodies; which leads to a type of transgendered experience of narration.

Chapter three focuses on Nietzsche's representations of women that I suggest influenced Södergran's writing. I attempt to show that Nietzsche's misogyny is actually a latent discussion of the cultural body that has been constructed and maintained by Western caricatures of femininity and masculinity. In chapter four, I examine the paradoxical representations of women in Also Sprach Zarathustra [Thus Spoke Zarathustra]. I look at what Zarathustra's hyper-masculine rhetoric can mean to a female reader who may be seeking ways to demystify essentialist constructions of sexual difference, and I explore the implications that Zarathustra's prophecy of the Übermensch--an advanced, idealistic human being--has for the human body.

In the final chapter, I look at the narratological techniques that Södergran and Nietzsche employ in their poetry. Through a combined narratological and feminist approach, I suggest that Södergran and Nietzsche meticulously construct disruptive archetypes of the cultural body via multi-gendered narrative voices. I argue that Nietzsche and Södergran transcend normative narrative devices and introduce unprecedented post-gendered bodies and voices into the European modernist tradition. Their particular depictions of the post-gendered body thus resonate with contemporary theories and philosophical discussions of sex and gender.

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