Unveiling Authority: Cloistered Solutions to the Anxiety of Authorship

Kathleen Dillon, University of California, Davis

On the one hand, the convent has been considered to constitute the ultimate subjugation of woman via her renunciation of her female sexuality and potential motherhood and her submission to the male authority of the Church. On the other hand, convent life also offered women an opportunity to attain both the independence that results from the celibate state and the potential authority that accrued to the monastery abbesses. For those nuns who also sustained a writer's life, self-expression and publication were further modes of self-realization, and in Derrida's terms an alternative form of procreation. A recent study of the lives of early Hispanic nuns observes that many writing nuns appealed to divine inspiration and command to authorize their daring and to relieve what has been called the anxiety of authorship. Insofar as I have determined, no similar analysis of the writer/nuns of Russia has yet been undertaken.

This paper (part of an incipient larger work) focuses on the life and works of two Russian women who wrote and published both before and after entering the convent. It aims to demonstrate that behind the cloistered walls, validated by considerable moral power, their writing evolved, becoming bolder and increasingly authoritative. It is informed by the extensive work done by two prominent scholars. Brenda Meehan-Waters, in works such as Holy Women of Russia, and Opportunity, Curtailment and Transformation: The Case of Women's Religious Communities in Russia, and Barbara Engel in Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth Century Russia, have examined in depth the misogynistic attributes of Russian society and the consequences for the religious life and experience of Russian women.

The paper's first subject is Elizaveta Nikitichna Shaxova/Mat' Marija (1822-1899). It focuses in particular on Judif, a poem-drama in five acts that she dedicated to the orthodox people of Serbia, oppressed during the 1870 uprisings against the Ottoman Empire. This text, in subject matter and in tone, presents itself as a prime example of the assumption of authority that appears in Shakhova's writing once she took the veil and became the Abbess of her convent.

The second writer/nun is Elizaveta Yur'evna Kuz'mina-Karaeva (1891-1945) who was born in Riga and died in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. As Mat' Marija she became a political activist, first ministering to the Russian ÈmigrÈ poor in Paris and then becoming involved in the French Resistance. As one of the few Russian women ever to have produced works of theology in addition to literary religious texts she is an outstanding candidate for a study of women's spiritual authority.