Saturday, February 15, 2014

Anne Carson's "The Gender of Sound", etc.

I recently read my first Anne Carson book, 1995's Glass, Irony & God. I liked it! A lot! In particular, I loved the opening poem, "The Glass Essay", which concerns loneliness and Emily Brontë, and which among other things succeeds in making me interested in re-reading Wuthering Heights and curious about Brontë's poetry. Unexpected!

I also loved the final piece, an actual prose essay, called "The Gender of Sound". This post concerns "The Gender of Sound". The essay raised a number of connections and suggestions in my mind, and I'd like to gesture here towards some of them, without actually investigating them in much detail here. Briefly, the essay discusses some of the historical meanings invested in sounds made by women, versus those made by men. "It is," she begins, "in large part according to the sounds people make that we judge them sane or insane, male or female, good, evil, trustworthy, depressive, marriageable, moribund, likely or unlikely to make war on us, little better than animals, inspired by God." What follows is an array of evidence from Greek and Roman literary sources on the sounds made by women, those sounds being viewed beyond the pale of civilization, animal-like, frightening, anathema, thus in need of isolation, along with some more modern commentary, including references to Margaret Thatcher, Hemingway's remarks on his break with Gertrude Stein, and Freud's silliness on "hysteria".

Of particular importance here is the Greek notion of sophrosyne:
Verbal continence is an essential feature of the masculine virtue of sophrosyne ("prudence, soundness of mind, moderation, temperance, self-control") that organizes most patriarchal thinking on ethical or emotional matters. Woman as a species is frequently said to lack the ordering principle of sophrosyne. [...] So too, ancient discussions of the virtue of sophrosyne demonstrate clearly that, where it is applied to women, this word has different definition than for men. Female sophrosyne is coextensive with female obedience to male direction and rarely means more than chastity. When it does mean more, the allusion is often to sound. A husband exhorting his wife or concubine to sophrosyne is likely to mean "Be quiet!" [...] In general the women of classical literature are a species given to disorderly and uncontrolled outflow of sound—to shrieking, wailing, sobbing, shrill lament, loud laughter, screams of pain or of pleasure and eruptions of raw emotion in general. [...] When a man lets his current emotions come up to his mouth and out through his tongue he is thereby feminized... [...]

It is a fundamental assumption of these gender stereotypes that a man in his proper condition of sophrosyne should be able to dissociate himself from his own emotions and so control their sound. It is a corollary assumption that man's proper civic responsibility towards women is to control her sound for her insofar as she cannot control it herself. 
While reading this superb essay, I was immediately reminded of three other books: Elizabeth V. Spelman's Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought, Chris Knight's Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, and George Thomson's Studies in Ancient Greek Society: The Prehistoric Aegean. And when searching for posts I've written related to those books and their subjects, this post reminded me that I'd discussed Thomson's book as a way of exploring something from a collection of Paul Feyerabend's lectures, The Tyranny of Science.

In her book, Spelman doesn't really address the kind of material Carson covers, but she does interrogate certain feminist arguments that rely on Plato's and/or Aristotle's ideas about "equality", and in doing so demonstrates the deficiencies in those arguments and how they have helped lead feminism into some serious problems, both theoretical and practical, when it comes to inclusiveness. But Carson's evidence from the Greek literary sources - and the apparent anxiety about women on display in them - suggests to me that leaning on Plato or Aristotle for theoretical support when trying to make a feminist case is even more problematic than it already seemed, given the milieu in which their ideas were taking shape, in which women were expected to be uninvolved politically, unless they acted like what was expected of men.

As for the evidence from the Greeks specifically, I was struck how the attitudes towards women reflected even more ancient practices and beliefs, and I couldn't help think about the source of those practices and beliefs, which called to mind Thomson's detailed study. And, again, the evident anxiety in the Greek sources, the considerable work being done to keep the woman separate from "civilization" (the cited authors seem very concerned about the need to isolate the women and their sounds), leads me again to Thomson, but also to Knight's great Blood Relations, which I have made many references to over the years (I can't help but wonder if Carson knows either of these books—Knight's was published just a few years after her essay).

In my post about Blood Relations, I wrote:
In his detailed survey of the ethnographic record, Knight notes in several places that, built into many of the myths, into the systems of taboos and the origin stories, is the admission by men that the true power originally belonged to women and that the men took it from them and now must prevent women from taking part in it.
And in my post discussing the Thomson and Feyeraband books -The wish was father to the thought - I suggested, first, in connection with Feyeraband's discussion of Greek attitudes towards women and birth, that "the Oresteia is in a sense a dramatization of the domestication of the female, a manifestation of the hiding, the covering up, of the older matriarchal order." Which led me, second, to introduce Thomson's arguments about the inability of, for example, Aristotle or Herodotus to integrate available information about other cultures into their understanding of their own, for, as Thomson put it,
If such things as primitive communism, group-marriage, and matriarchy were admitted into the beginnings of Greek civilisation, what would become of the dogma, on which the ruling class leant more and more heavily as the city-state declined, that its economic basis in private property, slave labour, and the subjection of women rested on natural justice? If the writings of the later materialists, Demokritos and Epicurus, had not perished, we might well have possessed a more penetrating analysis of early Greek society than Aristotle's. But they perished partly for that reason. Plato wanted the works of Demokritos to be burnt, and his wish has been fulfilled.
As Ethan observed in a comment to that post, history is written by the victors. That's one apt cliche, the truth of which is perhaps all too easily forgotten. Here's another one: old attitudes die hard.

Returning to Anne Carson, here is the last paragraph of "The Gender of Sound":
In considering the question, how do our presumptions about gender affect the way we hear sounds? I have cast my net rather wide and have mingled evidence from different periods of time and different forms of cultural expression—in a way that reviewers of my work like to dismiss as ethnographic naïveté. I think there is a place for naïveté in ethnography, at the very least as an irritant. Sometimes when I am reading a Greek text I force myself to look up all the words in the dictionary, even the ones I think I know. It is surprising what you can learn that way. Some of the words turn out to sound quite different than you thought. Sometimes the way they sound can make you ask questions you wouldn't otherwise ask. Lately I have begun to question the Greek word sophrosyne. I wonder about this concept of self-control and whether it really is, as the Greeks believed, an answer to most questions of human goodness and dilemmas of civility. I wonder if there might not be another idea of human order than repression, another notion of human virtue than self-control, another kind of human self than one based on dissociation of inside and outside. Or indeed, another human essence than self.
I love her passing defense of ethnographic naïveté (and I especially like her apparent throwaway line of it "at the very least as an irritant"). People get wrapped up in their specialties, dismissing outside attempts to understand and incorporate disparate materials. But more to the point, given what I've suggested and cited above, of course I think she is right to question this idea of sophrosyne, which seems obviously to contain within it considerable anxiety about women and the possibility of women's power. We would do well to rid ourselves of it.


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