Thursday, April 2, 2009

hidden English "man" of a woman's heart?

But
OOOO that Shakespeherian Rag--
It's so elegant
So intelligent
. . .
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or woman
--But who is that on the other side of you?

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
(from T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land")

Suzanne has another compelling post up: this one on the question of whether "the Greek word anthropos, when used for an individual, always refers to a 'male human being'." She quotes from and reviews and offers a counterexample to a statement in Michael Marlowe's "The Ambiguity of 'Anthropos'".

I want to draw attention to another troubling statement in Marlowe's essay, his conclusion:
The usage of words relating to gender and humanity in the Greek language are no less "sexist" than the ordinary English usages which feminists have been trying to abolish for 30 years now, and this may be seen clearly enough in the case of the word anthropos. It is also evident that [. . . writers] have confused the issue with specious arguments about Greek words and linguistics are merely distracting us from the fact that the "inclusive language" debate has to do not with Greek but with our English words and their meaning, and the recent attempts to reform our English usage along politically correct lines. On this question of English usage the professors of Greek have no more authority than any layman who is acquainted with the English language.
I'm so glad Marlowe tries to move the discussion away from "professors" to "any layman" and from ancient "Greek" to our shared "English." We should notice that he himself has a "bachelor's degree in English Literature" and in "the biblical languages. . . the MA degree." I wonder what he thinks of what the man T. S. Eliot is doing with our English language in "The Waste Land." Yes, let's get beyond this authority, this alleged sexism in common English.

So, if we just consider the English language that we all share as lay-men, then is the question of gender in our shared ordinary vocabularies really something that deconstructive "feminists" are abusing and are challenging only "along politically correct lines"? As I asked in my previous post, do men challenging a woman and her language really "hear her"? But do they actually "hear her feel"?

I'm challenging "any layman who is acquainted with the English language" to hear what the (woman) writer Nancy Mairs feels. This is from pages 86-87 of her voice lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer. In this conclusion to her chapter, "Essaying the Feminine: From Montaigne to Kristeva," Mairs starts a struggle, a stuttering adventure in communication with you using the language you know (ambiguous as it is) if you just stay with her:
As my groping here suggests, despite my instruction by a host of gifted feminist critics, I certainly don't yet have a clear vision of what woman's writing might be. Pace Jacques Lacan, I know the phallus is no transcendental signifier--nor transcendental anything else--but I don't know what my transcendental signifier is, if indeed there is any such thing, which I doubt, since the whole concept seems far too located to express my experience of the world. My "I" seems simply not to be the male-constructed "I.": It is more fluid, diffuse, multiplex (giddy, duplicitous, and inconstant, I think men have called it). Maybe we need another sort of signifier for the female self--the "O" might be a logical choice, or rather a whole string of Os: OOOOO. That's me.

The fact of the matter, though, is that when I sit down at my desk to tell a story, I can't begin, "OOOOO woke this morning to the song of a cardinal in the fig tree outside the back door." Radical feminist writers like Monique Wittig and Mary Daly experiment with techniques for reinventing reality by exploding patriarchal linguistic patterns. But in passages like this one--
The Powers to break the framers' frameworks are within women. Dis-Covering our Lust of Be-ing, we can easily swing open the doors to our freedom. We work to attain the Prudence of Prudes, the Courage of Crones, the Distemper of Dragon-identified Fire-breathing Furies. Furiously focused, we find our Final Cause.
--all those hyphens and capital letters and puns and alliterations give me a wicked case of intellectual indigestion, and after twenty pages I'm too dyspeptic to go on. If I want to speak plainly to you about particulars--and I do, more than anything else--I must use the language that I know you know.

I want a prose that is allusive and translucent, that eases you into me and embraces you, not one that baffles you or bounces you around so that you can't even tell where I am. And so I have chosen to work, very, very, very carefully, with the language we share, faults and all, choosing each word for its capacity, its ambiguity, the space it provides for me to live my life within it, relating rather than opposing each word to the next, each sentence to the next, "starting on all sides at once . . . twenty times, thirty times, over": the stuttering adventure of an essay.

2 comments:

mike said...

We should notice that he himself has a "bachelor's degree in English Literature" and in "the biblical languages. . . the MA degree."

I cannot help but that think that having a BA in English Literature has very little, if nothing, to do with one's understanding of English Grammar. There is a difference between having read widely in English, writing well, and understanding, grammatically speaking, what makes good writing. If it were not the case we wouldn't see all the nonsense from English professors who pontificate on the evils of using "passive voice"!

Anyway, that has little to do with the rest of your posts, but its what popped into my head.

J. K. Gayle said...

Mike,
Thanks for the comment. Yes, English is a divided discipline: the differences between literature, rhetoric, composition, creative writing, cultural studies, literacy studies, linguistics, and ESL do not make for great faculty department meetings. When I was doing the ph.d., I'd get different responses to my being a linguist (many negative because of stereotyping). But I guarantee you that linguistics professors can pontificate too.

Oh, and I appreciated your post on teaching Greek differently to linguists and to bible students. Interesting that Mounce had students get a bit of English grammar first--my own experience is that I learned most of my English grammar analytically by studying of Greek first.