3. jan. 2010

Getting the blues with Tom Robbins

Review of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976)
(Full text.)

There's girls on the Rubber Rose who are political, but I don't share their views, Jellybean Bonanza says to Sissy. I got no cowgirl ideology to expound. I'm not recruiting and I'm not converting. (...) Delores del Ruby makes a big fuss about cowgirlism being a force to combat cowboyism, but I'm too happy just being a cowgirl to worry about stuff like that. Politics is for people who have a passion for changing life but lack a passion for living it. (152)

First edition cover from 1976

In other words, Bonanza is convinced that politics are dull, ideology-driven and incompatible with creative, joyful and supposedly non-ideological resistance that she choose for herself. This dichotomy is stipulated in the novel's climax where the cowgirls from the Rubber Rose ranch are facing a battle with the federal police (a remake of the classic Western shoot-out).

The FBI is there because the girls have kept the last flock of migrating whooping cranes in United States at their lake for a suspiciously long by feeding them LSD, prevented authorities from accessing the flock, and refused to negotiate. When the protagonist, SissyHankshaw, returns to the ranch, and despite the situation, her cowgirl friends organize a small welcoming party behind the barricades because, well, Sissy Hankshaw Gitche had returned and a party was only proper (368). 'Aint' that just like women,' growled the ghost of General Custer, peering through the grass. Yes, oh yes yes yes sweet yes. Ain't that just like women, indeed, (368) is the narrators comment who quickly corrects himself by adding that ghosts, because they can walk through the walls, have a tendency to generalize (...). Your author, however, should know better. What should have been said was not 'just like women' but 'just like some women' or, better, 'just like the feminine spirit'. All women do not possess the feminine spirit (368).

Tom Robbins's essentialist definition of “femininity” seems to be reserved for women who have joined the party. The women who stay on the barricades are seen as unfeminine, and the way this notion connects to Robbins's idea of Sissy's “magical” and “poetic” innocence is further established when he adds that they did not join the party because Sissy meant nothing to them; she was noncowgirl. A goofy-handed freak. An older woman who had starred in advertisements that had told them that their cunts smelled bad (368).

If the only women in the novel who criticize Sissy's politics (or, rather, their absence in the traditional sense) are in Robbins's view unfeminine, it is further possible to claim that the writer's perception of women's feminist political engagement is quite stereotypical: it is “essentially masculine” and turning women into men because they fight against authorities in a “masculine” way: in this case, with armed struggle, supposedly inappropriate for women who are “pacifist by nature”.

Still, rather than concluding that political violence is, in Robbins's eyes, less important or valid than Sissy's poetic rebellion, I would suggest that the final pages of Cowgirls hint at his Jungian understanding of “femininity” and “masculinity” as different ways of perceiving and approaching reality, not as qualities pertaining to people of different sexes. His controversial view is feminist in the sense that Robbins is aware of both material and (to a lesser extent) metaphysical foundations of gender asymmetry in the West.

However, I see it as controversial exactly because it seems that the basic condition for Sissy's indeed poetic and magical fight against assimilation and normalization is her political ignorance, guaranteed by her physical and mental “perpetual motion” which re-introduces the utopian idea that in order to challenge the axis of domination, one has to step outside the social order; one has to ignore rather than subvert “the master's tools”.

This position is utopian because, as Sandra Harding and Donna Haraway have shown, it is impossible to inhabit “the culture of no culture” unless you sacrifice the very differences that constitute your accountable position in the world and at the same time believe that you have in this way “exited” the world (discourse).

Tom Robbins favors Sissy's feminine, natural, poetic, magical, pure and individual resistance to the collective, separatist and armed struggle of cowgirls fighting against cowboyism. However, he does not dismiss the latter as irrelevant. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues reads as an attempt at questioning what counts as “significant resistance” and offers an answer, similar to that of Sandra Harding: the proliferation of narratives of resistance is possible only by abandoning Cartesian dualism. While Robbins fails to do so in the context of his essentialist feminism, he successfully constructs a shifting postmodernist narrative in which there is space for a multitude of voices.

The Chink observes that in times such as ours (...) when there is too much order, too much management, too much programming and control, it becomes a duty of superior men and women to fling their favorite monkey wrenches into the machinery. To relieve the repression of the human spirit, they must sow doubt and disruption (229). If the reader is willing to join this postmodern game, he or she will learn that feminist politics are not immune to totalizing accounts of “subversion” and “liberation” and that “disruptive” strategies of resistance are situated – they are specific responses to specific mechanisms of disciplining.

Moreover, this poststructuralist approach allows one to see why the playful and shifting narrative in Cowgirls is necessary for contextualizing the “middle ranges of agency” between the “extremes of compulsion and voluntarity” (E. K. Sedgwick). It also allows one to see why the novel ends in a fit of laughter and does not joins the mourning rock that “weeps for the cowgirls who think like cowboys”.

Like cowgirls, Robbins seems to get the blues when he is forced to choose between politics and poetry.

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