Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Our Odysseys, Ourselves

"Ongoing discussion about the wide range of issues
that come under the heading of reproductive rights is needed
if females of all ages and our male allies in struggle
are to understand why these rights are important.
--bell hooks,
"Our Bodies, Ourselves"
Feminism is For Everyone

"And if the woman has not been defiled and she is pure,
she will be cleared and sown with seed
--the Lord to Moses to the sons of Isra-El,
Robert Alter translating for us,
Numbers 5:28

"[a] Rhetorical situation may be defined as
a complex of persons, events, objects, and relations
presenting an actual or potential exigence
which can be completely or partially removed
if discourse, introduced into the situation,
can so constrain human decision or action as

to bring about the significant modification of the exigence."
--Lloyd Bitzer,
"The Rhetorical Situation"
Philosophy and Rhetoric 1.1 (1968): 14.

Here I go again. Starting a post with heady epigraphs. Which may give some of you the impression that I know what I'm talking about. So let me start over.

I didn't read Numbers 5 until the mid 1990s. Not until our exigencies - those of my best friend and me. I'm talking about the dual exigences of our egalitarian marriage on the rocks and of our little daughter deathly ill with a disease so rare and the complications so unusual that the finest team of physicians in Norfolk, Virginia conferring with superior teams in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Dallas, Texas and San Francisco, California confessed that they didn't know how to save her. Then there was the pastor's wife telling us not to pray for healing "because you'll only be disappointed." Then there were the name-it and claim-it pray-ers who came to our house anyway. Then there was father, the missionary, or was it my wife's father, the preacher, saying in a heavy Texas drawl to me, "Boy, you need to read your Bible." One parenthetical detail: our marriage had been built on the solid rock of the earliest writings of Sheldon Vanauken, who fought the sexism we saw in our fathers. Vanauken even coined the term "sexism" (in 1968 or 1969), and he and his spouse Davy gave us the model for our relationship; no hierarchy or patriarchy, no father's abuse under God. (Later, of course, Vanauken turned to God, and we took note: it turned out badly for him and his beloved, who died. All he got was - what his grief-observing friend C.S. Lewis called - his "Severe Mercy," which forms the title of his first autobiography the last half of which leads him to the unfortunate reversal of convictions, to the assumption of an imagined position of headship in a relationship that was no more. My wife and I preferred the first half of the book that didn't quote either the bible or C.S. Lewis so much, if it did remind us of the author trying to be both F. Scott Fitzgerald and his Jay Gatsby at the same time). I read the Bible all the way through, we're still married, and our daughter is alive and well today. So let me back up a bit more.

I didn't read the Septuagint when I started reading Greek the summer of 1982. Not that Dr. Richard Cutter would have been opposed to his students reading the LXX, but he assigned instead Plato and the New Testament for translation exercises, which we did in the dialogues or in John or the epistles of. Then, by then I mean, I'd already re-read for myself some forty times the Odyssey of Homer in English translation by Alexander Pope, by Richmond Lattimore, and by Walter Shewring, whose edition had just been published with a painting of Odysseus blinding Polyphemus (the cyclops) on the front cover and the epilogue on translation (in the back, where Shewring coyly confessed cowardice: "More slippery still is the vocative gunai, for which the first dictionary rendering is simply 'woman'. . . . In the Greek of the Gospels, Christ uses the same word to his mother and to Mary Magdalen. In Book XIX Odysseus disguised calls Penelope gunai. To her it would have the force of 'Queen', but to him it would have the force of 'Wife' as well, and Homer's audience would doubtless have relished the ambiguity. Here I have chosen the rendering 'Queen'. In Book XXIII Odysseus uses the word again when Penelope even now denies recognition. She is still a queen, she is still his wife, but at the moment she is also an object of indignation, and the word might be a resentful 'Woman!'. Here I have been cowardly enough to omit the vocative altogether.") Then I'd begun to think, as many braver than I am do, that men who control language, who define it monocularly, may be looking for the force of the cyclops. I'd never read any of Aristotle, or so I thought. So let me rewind some more.

I didn't read any more of the bible than I had to or was paid to the summer of 1975. Not getting any less than $10, I read Exodus with mother every day - she reading aloud a chapter one day and I another the next - until we finished it in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Then, at that time, she knew, I was already an atheist having been compelled by the state of Texas to go to school, where I read with utter fascination the highly believable facts of Mr. Mikulecky's natural science textbook in Bryan, Texas the spring before. The force of Exodus, I recall now, was that force of the Odyssey, Moses being strong, reminiscent of Odysseus (in the Lattimore, which she'd read to us through and through), and startlingly stronger, even in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible she and father had given me for Christmas (instead of the football I'd asked for). Neither mother nor I had any idea of the wordplay in the Greek between the Ex-Odyss and the Odd-ussy. And I was not, in the United States, a bookworm because it was the 1970's and because the 18 year old girl next door wore a halter top and once found the keys to her absent father's Firebird convertable and wanted to show me how fast it could go. But I feel I need to put this story in reverse once again.

I didn't read much until 1968. Not even in English or in Vietnamese. There was Dr. Seuss and Bảo Vân. But then there was that Tết -- yes, "the Tet Offensive," waking us up in the middle of the night, men shouting from fear not joy and M-16s rattling and a rocket blasting right outside the window, yes that window of the room where I learned to read when we were living in a little village just north of Sài Gòn. Then it was quick, off to Bangkok during the dry season, nights under a single bulb light listening to mother reading us to sleep with father gone, staying with the mission. Then we were back but now in Saigon during the long days of rain, which seemed to make mother more insistent that we come inside more often, where I lost myself or found myself in stories, some make-believe but all truly believable more or less. So let me confess something else: I've always tended to have other interests besides Numbers 5.

We come back to the exigencies. The rhetorical situation. Men (and women) looking at a text without necessarily teasing out the ambiguities and without necessarily any ongoing discussion that might help us grow up and to bring about a significant modification of our sexism.

(Yes, I realize I'm writing some English sentences here without verbs. But one of my blogger friends - John Hobbins, and a new acquaintance too - "Mrs. Webfoot", were insisting that I be self-critical and somehow show some of the problems of an egalitarian marriage. Don't mind us. This is mere discourse introduced into the situation of my getting around to talking some more about Numbers 5 and its translation which may help some.)


Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thanks so much for writing all this. Some of it so familiar, Sheldon Van Auken and Davy. The sailboat, the sun, the commitment to service, her death.

And your daughter, and my daughter, both alive and living.

John Hobbins said...


Your autobiographical reflections are very beautiful.

You apparently misunderstood my call for egalitarians to be "self-critical" of the egalitarian marriage framework, the need to recognize, as I see it, the framework's unintended consequences, its weaknesses as well as its strengths, as a call for self-examination. "Know thyself" is always an excellent thing.

But I am glad you did misunderstand. It was nice to hear more about your journey.

J. K. Gayle said...

Your comment, remembering Vanuaken and the familiar details, helped me think to link (in the post) to the places where he and Davy coined the useful word, sexism. Thank you for sharing again in public that your daughter is, like mine, alive and well. That is awesome and wonderful!

I appreciate your kind words, sincerely. But did I really misunderstand? My story, which I've hinted at elsewhere, is one that shows how an egalitarian marriage is vulnerable, is often a rather rebellious over-reaction to hierarchical (male-on-top) marriages. I think about this every day, as I parent, as the father, trying not to be like the abusers I've known in patriarchy. Recovery groups for various addictions help to get at the roots of resentments and fears -- but oh how they fuel and infect well-intentioned egalitarianism. I also think about being an "American" and that rather rebellious and revolutionary warmongering Declaration of Independence. How it seems to intend to say "All men and women, regardless of race and class, are created equal." But alas, a bloody civil war (with Bible verses fired as often as bullets) was a terrible consequence of commitment to egalitarianism. I love what Rachel Barenblat writes at her blog today: "Slavery damages not only the body but also the soul, and that kind of constriction lingers in the heart. God knew it would take the Israelites forty years to learn another way of being." Those are weaknesses in our odyesseys, in social and in marital egalitarianisms, I think.