Descartes' doubting daughters : the care of the self in the fiction of Atwood, Laurence, and Munro

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Shojania, Moti Gharib
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This dissertation looks at the way the Cartesian mind/body problem is implicated in the practices surrounding the care of the self as foregrounded in the fiction of Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro. Two arguments are offered in the theoretical discussion of the notions of both "care" and "self." First, that the novel is the discourse of the Self, an alternative to the discourse of the Subject constructed by the Cartesian paradigm. The Subject of the Novel is not the implicitly male universal subject of philosophy,'Man,' but rather the universal subject, as 'Woman.' Secondly, that novelists, the heirs of Descartes, are sceptical of their legacy, seeing in the failure of the Cartesian self the dead end of techniques of rational self-management. Foucault's notion of the "care of the self" is used as a point of departure for separate discussions of the way each of these writers approaches the mind/body problem. The techniques discussed include not only details of beauty regimens, diet and fashion, but also the construction of a persona through mimesis, through "copying." A third set of techniques resorts to "anesthesia," to using food, alcohol and anodynes to "cure" somatized symptoms of the mind/ body problem, such as headaches, tension, or sleeplessness and other. A related strategy attempts to preserve self-esteem by repressing painful memories of error, of failure or shame. These techniques include psychic numbing and a variety of escapes through denial, evasion, avoidance, as well as deception of oneself and of others. The tension between these two modes of awareness and their strange relationship can be expressed in the phrase, "the beside-herself," the human person playing ventriloquist to her "self" as dummy. These novels are about the conflicted "mind in the attic" of competing ideologies of the self rather than with the madwoman in the attic.