To what extent do experiences of conception and/or infertility challenge mind/body dualism? – Frances Tuoriniemi


Image: Keith Haring – Fertility, 1983

Frances Tuoriniemi is a final year English and Creative Writing undergraduate student at the University of Birmingham, who will be continuing on to study an MA in Writing at Warwick next year. They particularly enjoy work that plays with color and feels alive, work that moves and shifts to hide and expose. Previously, they have been published by Gravel Magazine.

To what extent do men’s/women’s experiences of conception and/or infertility in David Szalay’s All That Man Is and Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door challenge mind/body dualism?

In her book Volatile Bodies, Elizabeth Grosz challenges traditional perspectives of the Cartesian model of mind/body dualism using a feminist lens. Grosz claims, ‘lateral associations link the mind/body opposition to a whole host of other oppositional (or binarized) terms’, leading to problematic constructions of the secondary half of the binary as subordinate to the primary, as with gender (men/women).[1] This aligns men with mind and women with body, where body is defined in ‘nonhistorical, naturalistic, organicist, passive, inert terms, seeing it as an intrusion on or interference with the operation of mind’ (pp. 3-4). The concept of “intrusion”, with its negative connotations, illuminates a structural instability, which could free the body and women from the subordination inherent to dichotomous thinking. This could be a way ‘towards a corporeal feminism’ (Grosz), where both ‘physical and social dimensions must find their place in reconceptualizing the body, not in opposition to each other but as necessarily interactive’ (p. 23).

Gender functions as intrusion for Clare Hanson, who opens her essay ‘The Maternal Body’ by claiming it is ‘a troubling, disruptive body.’[2] Expanding this to include not only pregnant embodiment, but the broken link between infertility and the symbolic body of Woman, allows one to see how David Szalay’s All That Man Is and Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Dooruse conception and/or infertility to challenge the binary. In the fourth section (of nine) of All That Man Is, an unexpected pregnancy disrupts a man’s, Karel’s, view of a perfect, noncommittal relationship and his career path; in The Woman Next Door, infertility causes a woman, Hortensia, to repress emotions, retract into herself, and, she feels, causes her husband’s affair. This essay will demonstrate how these narratives challenge mind/body dualism, and, as a result, how close they come to approaching a form of literary framework for Grosz’s corporeal feminism.

When examining the maternal body throughout literary history, Hanson points to a gendered divide in twentieth century writing. She claims: ‘Male writers […] regard motherhood from a social point of view, with pregnancy seen as a disruptive event that may threaten the stability of family ties’ (p. 96). Szalay’s characterization of Karel could fit into this description of a twentieth century novel; he is career-driven and treats pregnancy as disruptive. Upon hearing Waleria is pregnant, Karel replies: ‘That’s shit.’[3] This bluntness shifts into anacceptance of (or perhaps, resignation towards) fatherhood (p. 172).Karel’s story ends:

The situation, anyway, is simpler than he thought. […] There was only one ever one possible outcome. He sees that now.
They stay there for a long time, on the pale sofa.
The sun won’t stop shining.
‘Now what?’ he says finally. What he means is: Where does this leave us? Where does that leave our two lives?

He finds it hard to imagine anything. The future, again seems no longer to be there. […]  (p. 194)

Here, mind is grounded by bodily experience which is at odds with his state of mind, crucially prompting him to question the future. The idea of “two lives” draws attention to the blurring of their selfhood, leading to a communal future he never has, and can’t, envisage. While not a positive example of mind/body blurring, this demonstrates how a deflation couldoccur, which I argue the novel encourages the reader towards. The LA Review of Books states: ‘that none of them are particularly admirable, suggests that the author’s circumscribed approach to these subjects does not constitute an endorsement of Eurocentric, cisgender, heteronormative masculinity.’[4] This unfulfillment when trying to fulfill prescribed ideas subverts twentieth century expectations, and shows a need for different models of masculinity in the twenty-first century. This is supported by how Karel’s story leads into Kristian’s, starting: ‘Every morning he takes his daughters to school […]. It is usually the only time he sees them during the day, since he arrives home late, long after they are asleep’ (p. 197). Kristian being a career-hungry father reflectively makes one hope Karel will be better, with mind/body blurring posed as his opening to do so.

In comparison, Hanson argues women’s writing focuses ‘principally on the subjective experience of maternal embodiment and the difficulty of negotiating the somatic, psychological and social changes associated with pregnancy and birth’ (p. 96). Hanson illustrates a tradition from the nineteenth century onwards of female authors foregrounding how ‘identity is compromised by the division of the body, and [women] draw attention to the psychological pressures associated with taking up a maternal role’ (p. 96). The Woman Next Door fits into this tradition by foregrounding body in Hortensia’s identity formation, centering around her infertility, and exploring the pressure caused by being unable to fulfill the maternal role society demands. Hortensia’s insistence on separating herself from mind is shown most poignantly here,

She rejected in herself the urge Marion displayed. The need to talk, the need to have someone listen. […] All those years in Ibadan, stalking lovers, all that time spent grieving, this was the direction her broken-hearted logic had led her in. It was not wise, but it was, like a fossil, self-preserving. She’d survived. The machinery of her body had kept going, hatred’s venom for oil; her skin was taut, no one ever guessed her age. Surely if she’d lived that other life, a life of unburdening and revelations, […] she’d have let life use her, not the other way around. And used things grow old. She had Peter to thank, then, for her flawless complexion, her beauty.[5]

Hortensia shows an awareness that mind and body are inherently interactive, while simultaneously attempting to reject this. This rejection is framed by naturalistic and mechanical terms like ‘fossil’ and ‘machinery’, which Grosz would find problematic, due to her views on passivity and body (Omotoso, p. 224; Grosz, pp. 3-4, 11). This passivity is false, though – Hortensia herself remembers ‘deciding to be tough, hardening, making the trade between fulfilment and not being duped’ (p. 225). Hortensia ‘started to hate’ (p. 185) at thirty-one; Omotoso divulges this after Hortensia watches Peter have sex with his lover, and vomits. This moment creates the Hortensia the reader first meets, an old lady refusing to make mental and emotional bonds. I argue this is rooted in internalized ideas of the symbolic Woman’s body, leading to Hortensia’s unfulfillment, much like the entrapping of mind has on Szalay’s men. Reflectively, Hortensia knows this, but has resigned herself to this fate. Over the course of the novel, she begins shedding internalized ideas, slowly opening up to Marion, which culminates in forming a mental bond with Esme (the daughter of Peter’s lover whom he ordered her to meet through his will) despite lacking a bodily attachment. That Hortensia’s half of the novel revolves around this final choice to meet Esme, and the resulting happiness she feels, makes it clear maternity and mind/body blurring are some of the novel’s central themes.

Viewing these texts through the lens of Hanson’s theory, demonstrates how the looming maternal figure disrupts mind/body, and begins to show Karel and Hortensia as each other’s inverses. Szalay’s men reflect those that make up ‘society’ (‘society’ here meaning those included within Western structures e.g. in laws, media, etc.), and problematizes the macro, whereas Omotosoputs a magnifying glass on the micro to see how the structural affects individuals. These ideas manifest in how Karel struggles to think of ‘a single significant instance, in his whole life, when he did not get what he wanted’ (p. 185). Since mind/body dualism forms structures of dominance, the dominant subject has partial blindness to the subordinate’s experiences. Karel doesn’t connect his ability to become ‘in the world of Germanic philology, a household name’ (p. 166) to his white, European, male body, which offers many privileges. In fact, Karel only views body as a distraction from work, sexualized in relation to Woman’s body, as he must, ‘Stop thinking about his thingall the time’ (p. 166). This illustrates how ‘singular models’ of society portray one story type, and problematizes this by not glorifying these men, as discussed earlier (Grosz, p. 22).

Hortensia’s life, however, is a struggle against an elusive, societal force, which she realizes, in old age, stems from maternal pressure. She is also always hyperaware of how her racialized body affects her movement through the world, especially within white-dominated Katterijn. When compared to Karel, it shows how dichotomous thinking creates polarized world views. To fix this, a ‘field of possible body “types”, no one of which functions as the delegate or representative of the others, [and] in being recognized in their specificity, cannot take on the coercive role of singular norm or ideals for all others’ must be created (Grosz, p. 22). By telling a black woman’s story, Omotoso adds Hortensia as a body to this field. Omotoso seems conscious of this, saying in an interview: ‘What we miss is that the reason hate is there in the macro is because it’s there in the micro.’[6] She shows this micro-hatred in many ways, including Marion grappling with apartheid (another breaking of mind/body), but by showing the pressure Hortensia feels when she cannot become a mother, Omotoso also explores how strongly motherhood is ‘mythologised and fabled […] in our society.’[7]

A deviation, now, into Franz Fanon’s concept of ‘racial epidermal schema’ is necessary, as I propose the idea of ‘dermal schema’ as a way into Hortensia’s character.[8] When reflecting on outwards recognition of his person through stereotypes, Fanon writes, ‘I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness […]; and I was batter down by [stereotypes]’ (p. 84). This same reduction of selfhood occurs with the dermal schema, despite not being read off one’s skin in this way. Rather, it is read, generally, in negative space, such as cases of invisible disabilities. This also builds on the idea of ‘the body as a cultural product’ (Grosz, p. 24), making room to include the internal as well as the external that Fanon’s model considers. For Hortensia, a lack of children marks a “symptom” of infertility, forming her dermal schema. In keeping with this analogy, these “symptoms” are metaphorical ingrown hairs – minor, barely visible (to both the self and others), painful disturbances. When “ingrown hairs” are “read”, by others or the self, the subject feels societal pressure; Hortensia’s inability to have children leads to her toughening, and when compounded with a lack of children, Marion then believes Hortensia can’t be good with children – in actuality, she is (pp. 156-7). The main irritation here though, is how Peter’s infidelity causes Hortensia to feel the pain of infertility more acutely, causing her to internalize ideas further (or, visually, the ingrown hair growing back into itself), leading to further pain.

The reason Hortensia internalizes issues so deeply begins, chronologically, with an abortion, but readers meet Hortensia in old age, after Peter’s death. Arber and Ginn claim that an ‘older woman may [develop] a more authentic identity and orientation, especially following widowhood, when they are no longer constrained to fulfill gendered role obligations expected within marriage.’[9] This is central to my claim that Hortensia’s story revolves around shedding her internalized bodily role – the abortion is not a focal plot point, only mentioned in the last forty pages, which highlights Hortensia’s reticence to face this topic, making it clear how deeply it impacted her. Hortensia discusses making the choice to abort, made with clarity when she was ‘busy and happy’ (p. 235) in her marriage and career (an interesting parallel to why Karel assumed Waleria would want an abortion). She continues on to discuss how when Peter, who she did not tell about the abortion, and her later were trying to conceive, ‘[she] would torture herself with the notion that she had brought this upon herself. […] she would always know that her lament was different to Peter’s and each new time she would hate that distance, hate him, hate herself more’ (pp. 236-7).The way Hortensia herself links her abortion to her infertility and emotional distancing exposes abortion as the root cause of why she has been shackled to body – the act of the ingrown hair turning in on itself. As such, Hortensia blames the abortion, as a moment she privileged mind, as the reason she feels like a failure to live up to the symbolic Woman’s role, saying: ‘“Each new time, each failure, I felt the anger coming. You know how tough you have to be? To fight a voice in your own head”’ (p. 237). She explains she believes this toughening caused Peter’s infidelity, highlighting the voice in her head echoing society’s:

‘I don’t want to let him off the hook, but sometimes I think: maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why he took up with someone else. It was easier than coming home to me.’


‘I know he was a selfish bastard. There’s no escaping that, but sometimes I think perhaps I gave him a good excuse.’


‘And you know what? You know, I didn’t really want children. Not really anyway. Not until just that moment when I realised I would never have any.’ (p. 237)

This verbal acknowledgment is the act of removing the “hair”, allowing her to address the issue at its metaphorical and literal root – the fact that she never really wanted children. By finally admitting this, Hortensia frees herself from the shackles to the role of Woman’s body, and begins accepting mind again.

Realistically, “plucking” this root does not mean Hortensia has un-internalized all her issues, but can work towards doing so – just as Grosz cannot dictate exact rules of corporeal feminism,but rather explores a way towards it. Shortly after Hortensia’s admission, Marion expresses her own lack of connection to her children, and Hortensia reverts to old ways, provoking Marion to say: ‘You’re hardly the person to tell anyone anything about family’ (p. 248). Hortensia slaps her – while not a positive moment, nor an exemplary model for Grosz, it is nevertheless this final connection to her emotions that leads Hortensia to the conclusion: ‘It was enough, she thought. It was done’ (p. 250). Hortensia sheds the guilt that weighs her mind down (the inverse of Karel being grounded by bodily responsibility), meaning she can make an emotional connection with Esme. This moment is clearly of importance to Hortensia, as she said, ‘Esme certainly does not need me. Maybe the other way around’ (p.270). As such, this final fulfilling connection of mind brings Hortensia to a certain peace within herself, one free from a toughened body.

Karel, on the contrary, must begin acknowledging body as more than a nuisance. Grosz sees the male body as never being ‘seen as a limit to man’s transcendence; at most, the humanity of his body – its facticity and mortality – are abstract and universal characteristics that may restrict man’s potential for transcendence’ (p. 16). Karel expresses this in how he initially is ‘unable to imagine living more happily in the present’ (p. 165), and how he pontificates on how, ‘We are unable to believe our own world will pass. [It] is already happening, is always happening. We just can’t see it’ (p. 156). As the LARB says, he ‘perceives the world in a state of constant change, but he tries to force his own life into stillness.’[10] He must face change to accept his body as implicated in Waleria’s pregnancy, thus realizing his ease was a privilegedposition, bringing him down closer those trapped by body, like Hortensia. He also must decide what he will do: to take bodily responsibility means going against patriarchal ideals, an idea that Szalay seems to encourage when reflecting on how deeply the last man in the previous section of the novel , Tony, regretted how he handled fatherhood.

This decision is not easy – Karel’s ingrained response is tocontrol the situation, because of his usual position as structurally dominant. He automatically assumes Waleria will get an abortion, and when she might not want to, Karel feels, ‘It is initially just something in his mind, working through every possible permutation in its machine-like effort to understand, […] He fights off a splurge of panic’ (p. 175). Here, mind attempts to rationalize the situation (inherently posing Waleria as irrational), followed by bodily panic disrupting his thinking. When Karel asks what Waleria wants, he ‘tries to sound loving or sympathetic or something’ (p. 175), showing he thinks he must appear emotional to get the response he wants from Waleria. She seems to sense this, immediately saying, ‘“You can’t make me have an abortion”’ (p. 175). This reaction shows a threat of domination, followed through on when they have sex later:

It’s what they always do […]. This time, however, he makes no effort to please her. He wants her to dislike him. If she decides to dislike him, he thinks, she may decide that she does not want this pregnancy. He is hurried, forceful, almost violent. (p. 178)

Karel using sex as a tool shows he feels it would be easier to manipulate her through bodily domination than talking, literalizing man’s mind dominating woman’s body. This lack of communication echoes Hortensia discussing sex as ‘a domestic task to keep something from rotting’ (p. 177). This is also more abstractly shown in Karel having an affair with an undergraduate – using his position of power, rooted in the mind, to fulfill his desire for a student (p. 158). Celia Wolfe-Devine explores how radical and ecofeminists (whom Grosz disagrees with due to sex/gender implications (pp.15-6)) think ‘males seek to establish and maintain patriarchy […] and use violence to maintain their control.’[11] While disagreeing on many levels, Karel’s behavior towards Waleria reflects this. Karel apologizes, but does so twice, as the first did not feel sincere, explaining this was a ‘“shock to him”’ (p. 179). At this point, among others, Waleria must remind Karel she is also involved in this situation – not just the idealized version in Karel’s mind. However, Karel keeps pushing, while thinking, ‘He does not want her to feel that he is pressuring her. It is very important […] the decision should be hers, that she should feel it was hers’ (p. 181). Karel links her thinkingto feeling, following the lateral binary to mind/body of ‘reason and passion’ (Grosz, p. 3), showing he still feels her to be his subordinate.

Waleria finally says,‘“This child has chosen me to be its mother, and… and I just can’t turn away,”’ and when she asks if he understands, he says he doesn’t, but admits but to himself that’s ‘not quite true’ (p.193). It seems, here, that her bodily appeal is what finally makes him stop pushing. Despite how her use of bodily argumentation supports mind/body dualism, I would argue it was positive, at least for Karel, who begins recognizing and accepting bodily responsibility towards his child. Jan Draper, in her study on contemporary fathers reactions to pregnancy, discovered that ‘their lack of continuous physical experience meant that they were able almost to opt in and opt out of their involvement with the pregnancy; they had an element of choice that their partners did not.’[12] This bodily disconnect is echoed in Karel, whose mind tends to wander. For example, when stuck in traffic, after agreeing to pay for the abortion, Karel’s mind drifts to the car’s damaged paintwork, a drifting Hortensia never experiences from body. This straying is finally vaguely grounded by Waleria’s last call to motherhood, a force so societally powerful it begins to affect Karel.

Karel pushing for abortion is also problematic in that he is clearly pro-abortion, but does not seem prochoice. This hypocrisy highlights the role domination plays in political dialogues, leading women to be eliminated from discussion. However, Karel’s story shows a way to avoid this; Waleria, and women, must be viewed as humans with agency, as opposed to the passivity generally linked to the body. While discussing sexed bodies, Grosz claim that ‘women’s bodies are conceived as the receptacles of men’s body fluids.’[13] She feels this may explain men’s anger on the topic of abortion, and states that ‘when they accept the sexual specificity, particularly, and limit that is their own, that they will respect women’s bodily autonomy and sexual specificity as well’ (p. 202).Though Grosz is discussing why men would be angered by women for choosingabortion, the same applies here. As shown previously, Karel feels no responsibility; exemplified by the word “you” in phrases like ‘“It might fuck up your whole life”’ (p. 175), showing an immediate distancing. Waleria shouts back, ‘“You already have fucked up my whole life”’ (p. 175). The difference between this and the final vision of a communal future shows a shift in how Karel’s views his responsibility in their baby’s conception, and perhaps shows he has started to respect Waleria and her bodily autonomy. As such, this demonstrates claiming bodily responsibility as a model to anchor man’s mind in body, the opposite to how Hortensia’s story shows a freeing from body – one, perhaps, Waleria could appreciate.

All That Man Is and The Woman Next Door prove, in many ways, to be fertile ground for showing how conception and/or infertility can work to complicate notions of mind/body dualism. Their polarized gender stances tackle mind/body from different angles, but both ultimately collapse this binary. For Karel, mind was grounded by taking bodily responsibility, and for Hortensia, removing internalized ideas allowed her to make new connections of mind, freed from body. These novels are not strict models for Grosz’s corporeal feminism, but neither are they supposed to be – it would seem counterintuitive that an act of blurring could be restricted by direct rules, and the ways that Szalay challenges hegemonic, ‘singular models,’ and Omotoso expands the ‘field of possible body “types”’ (Grosz, p. 22) are steps in the right direction. It is through putting pressure on mind/body, sharing underrepresented narratives, subverting stereotypes and tropes, that the binary can be broken, and these novels exemplify how literature is a critical site for this.


[1]Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Refiguring Bodies’, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 3. All subsequent references are to this edition of the novel, and will be given in parentheses throughout. 

[2]Hanson, Clare, ’The Maternal Body’, in David Hillman and Ulrika Maude (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 87. <doi:10.1017/CCO9781107256668> [accessed, 14thDecember 2017].All subsequent references are to this edition of the novel, and will be given in parentheses throughout.

[3]David Szalay, All That Man Is (London: Penguin, 2016), p. 172.All subsequent references are to this edition of the novel, and will be given in parentheses throughout.

[4]John Dixon Mirisola, ‘All That Modernism Is: Reading David Szalay’, Los Angeles Review of Books, <>[accessed 16thDecember, 2017] All subsequent references are to this interview.

[5]Omotoso, Yewande, The Woman Next Door (London: Penguin, 2016), p. 224.All subsequent references are to this edition of the novel, and will be given in parentheses throughout.

[6]Beautement, Tiah and Yewande Omotoso, ‘“In My Storytelling I Privilege The Micro.” An Interview With Yewande Omotoso.’, 1 June 2016, Short Story Day Africa, <>[accessed 16thDecember, 2017]

[7]Malec, Jennifer and Yewande Omotoso, ‘“I appreciate stories that mess with me a little”: Yewande Omotoso on her latest book, The Woman Next Door’, 3 July 2017, Johannesburg Review of Books, <>[accessed 16thDecember, 2017]

[8]Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks, ed. by H. Bhaba and Z. Sardar(London: Pluto Press, 2008), p.84. <>[accessed 21stDecember, 2017]

[9]Arber and Ginn quoted in Deutsche, Penelope, ‘Three Touches to the skin and one look: Sartre and Beauvoir on desire and embodiment’, in Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey (eds.), Thinking Through the Skin (London: Routledge, 2001),p. 153.

[10]Mirisola, ‘Szalay’, <>.

[11]Celia Wolfe-Devine, ‘Abortion and the “Feminine Voice”’. Public Affairs Quarterly3 (3), (1989), p. 86. <>[accessed 22ndDecember 2017]

[12]Jan Draper, ‘Blurring, moving and broken boundaries: men’s encounters with the pregnant body’, Sociology of Health & Illness25, (2003), p.753. <doi:10.1046/j.1467-9566.2003.00368.x>[accessed 18thDecember, 2017]

[13]Grosz, ‘Sexed Bodies’, Volatile Bodies, p.202.

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