The concept of femininity
The Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann represents the German voice in the quest for answers to questions about feminine identity and the feminine voice amid what both she and Luce Irigaray, her French contemporary, see as a dominant male discourse. Through an analysis of the interplay between their distinct discourses, it is possible to tease out a precise definition of the feminine essence.
Bachmann rigorously challenges the idea of a precise and absolute definition or expression of the essence of the self. In this context, she dissects the concept of a literary self and traces its authenticity as a reflection of a true essence of the self; she considers the validity of a literary or perhaps artificial expression of an author’s “true” self by analysing the correlation between a true self and a literary expression of this self. Bachmann springs from this pool of questions to a more particular reflection on femininity, and thereby raises critical questions concerning the essence and the expression of the feminine self. She reflects on how this particular self may find expression in a world perceived as dominantly patriarchal.
Ingeborg Bachmann’s discussion of the self as manifested in poetry, and of the relationship between the actual essence of the self and its literary representation, is to be found in her lecture entitled ‘Das schreibende Ich’. (The writing Self)
Bachmann begins by questioning to what extent the self, “Ich” (Self), is a direct and true representation of the author’s essence “ohne Verstellung” (without displacement), and concludes that a literary manifestation of this “ich” (self), is not necessarily a direct expression of the nature of the creator of a text. She refers to “die Interferenzen zwischen Autor und ich” (the interferences between the author and the self), which are sometimes present, and states that on the other hand with some authors, there is no “Trennungsstrich” (hyphen) between the author and “das schreibende Ich” (the writing Self). By illustrating the problematic, multifaceted nature of interpretation of the literary representation of the self, Bachmann reveals the multiplicity of the voices and hence the differentiated authority inherent in this self: “meine ich, dass es da viele Ich gibt und über Ich keine Einigung—als sollte es keine Einigung geben über den Menschen, sondern nur immer neue Entwürfe.” (I believe, there are many selves and no unification – therefore, there should be unification amongst humans, in place of that there should always be new designs)
Bachmann highlights the significance of the assertion of this self in the process of human development. She perceives words, and literary or poetic assertion, to be paramount in the growth and progression of human evolution, particularly in the definition and affirmation of the self. She describes speaking in paradoxical terms as: “ein Schritt zum Schweigen, zum Ende des Wahns, des Wahns, sprechen zu müssen und es nicht zu können.” (a step towards silence, towards the end of the delusion, the delusion that we have to speak and cannot speak)
In order to move forwards, one must assert the voice. She sees assertion as instrumental to humanity. Transposing this network of ideas onto the gender debate, Bachmann hints that the masculine essence is dominant, as it has asserted itself in the public domain. In contradistinction to this, the feminine essence is in effect non-existent, as it has been ignored and subdued to the gain of the vocal masculine. According to Bachmann’s discourse, in order for the feminine to be defined and hence in order to the feminine to come into being, she must be given the microphone: she must be represented and allowed to assert and articulate herself.
She quotes Beckett’s Mahood in intimating the necessity and the ultimate authority of words, as well as their power to define and, moreover, to create: “man muss Worte sagen, solange es welche gibt, man muss sie sagen, bis sie mich finden, bis sie mir sagen.” (one has to speak words, as long as there are words, one has to speak them, until they find me, until they speak me)
Throughout her writing, she demonstrates the ultimate authority of the “Ich”, which, although described as a fragile concept, is shown to be essential in any attempt to pinpoint, and more importantly to shape identity: “Es ist das Wunder des Ichs, dass es, wo immer es spricht, lebt; es kann nicht sterben…” (It is the miracle of the Self that it lives, wherever it speaks, it cannot die)
“Und wenn keiner ihm glaubt, und wenn es sich selbst nicht glaubt, man muss ihm glauben, es muss sich glauben, sowie es einsetzt, sowie es zu Wort kommt…” (And when noone believes in the Self, and when it doesn’t believe in itself, one has to believe in it, it has to believe in itself, as it asserts itself, as it comes to speech)
In relating these thoughts to the feminine discourse, we deduce that, for Bachmann, in order for women to be able to discover their essence, to tap into their true feminine potential, this feminine must assert herself: her essence must be represented and authorised. The way in which this may come about is through literary representations of the feminine self, which will then attain true autonomy and creativity.
The literary assertion of the self is closely bound up with the idea of creating a self, or controlling such a self. Bachmann asserts: “Ich spreche, also ich bin.” (I speak, therefore I am)
The assumption here is that the more the feminine is articulated, the more autonomy she will acquire. In order to achieve emancipation, the feminine must speak out. Vocalising her nature is seen as the first stage in assuming control over it, the first stage in creating or determining its existence. By asserting or by performing the feminine, an idea of the feminine is produced, and subsequently, something of the feminine is born, or created. According to Bachmann, this will bring about a feminisation of the human “Ich” (Self), which is perceived by Bachmann to be the “Platzhalter der menschlichen Stimme”. (the placeholder of the human voice)
 The period in question is the early 1970s.
 Bachmann, Frankfurter Vorlesungen.
 Bachmann, ‘Das schreibende Ich’, 219.