Originally published: 31.05.15
A few weeks ago, I read a beautiful piece by Sarah Ditum. She explores the ways in which women’s work – partly because it is inherently open-ended, needed to be done over and over – is dismissed, ignored, excluded from historical memorial. Drawing on a parallel history of women’s art, lacemaking and broderie anglaise, which create objects literally ‘spun around nothing’, she sets up a shockingly poignant contrast between the image of frivolous vanity and the reality of relentless, thankless labour. Ditum’s post was written in response to the news that the 2005 memorial to the women of World War II had been defaced, and so she explains how she found herself having to explain to her son why women weren’t originally included on the main memorial itself:
” … [the women] weren’t counted when the Cenotaph went up. Their work was non-work. Just air, like the holes in my lace. Wind the bobbins, twist and cross, work the piece, catch all the nothing in the looping patterns of the thread. This is how we see women’s work – the pretty arrangement of nothing. …In war, men made heaps of bodies, women made the things that would be consumed and need to be made again.”
This sudden twisting of the beautiful into the violent is shockingly effective, and I love how her writing creates its own mimetic memorial, structuring itself into an object of beauty looped around the idea of women’s absence from historical monuments, just like the lacework it describes. But her mimesis approach made me think about how language, itself functions as a memorial, and the way that idea is gendered.
It’s a theme that runs through a lot of what I’ve been thinking about this term. I’m working on trauma and memory, and my students – who’ve finished their medieval dissertations – have been preparing to sit their final exam, the Tragedy paper. Yet, tragedy, in the Western literary tradition, is very often an extended exploration of men doing unspeakably awful things to women, and authors constructing something beautiful and memorable out of these actions. It poses an ethical real problem: how do you ask women to study 2000-plus years of literature which is, amongst other things, interested in violence against women as an aesthetic process?
First I thought about women’s speech. A friend of mine recently wrote this piece, titled ‘Why Women Talk Less’, about the dynamics of male/female speech within mixed gender groups. It has a huge amount of research behind it, and for me, the stand-out point is that the problem isn’t women failing to speak; the often-proposed solution – that women should be more assertive, more forceful – simply doesn’t work. Women who attempt that approach are penalised for it, perceived as rude interrupters (a perception I notice a lot when teaching medieval woman writers). Women are expected to spend time, and words, validating male peers, and this reinforces male authority to speak up.
We can see this throughout history. We tend to see women’s speech, and women’s writing, as insubstantial, provisional, lacking the weight and authority of men’s words. Writing in the first century BC, Catullus declares that the words of a woman in love are so fluid, so fleetingly true, ‘in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua’: they should be written in the wind, on the rushing water’. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the only woman whose words have any power is the Sibyl of Cumae, the mouthpiece of the god Apollo, her body racked with pain as he forces her to speak not her own words, but his. Yet she also figures the fragility of women’s speech, for she scribbles her messages on fluttering leaves, which are blown into disorder by the wind. Her legend links her raving and her ineffectual attempts to communicate to her physical imprisonment in an ageing female body: coerced to give up her virginity to the god Apollo, she bargained for as many years of life as the grains of sand in her hourglass, and so lives on in painfully protracted old age, shrunken to tiny size:
‘For I saw the Sibyl of Cumae with my own eyes, hanging in a little jar, and when the boys asked her: “Sibyl, what would you do?” she replied “I would die.”‘
These powerful tropes of ephemeral, disordered female speech lie behind a more violent tradition. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid imagines women deprived of their human voices through literal, oral violation. I wrote a while ago, following on from comments by other scholars, about the way in which women’s speech is marked in medieval literature as the speech of the Other, as birdspeech. The paradigmatic example of this Ovid’s story of Philomela, raped and mutilated by her sister’s husband Tereus. Her tongue cut out, Philomela is forced to weave her story in order to communicate with her sister, and once this is done the two take gruesome revenge by killing and serving the body of Tereus (and Procne’s) son Itys to his unsuspecting father. Philomela’s communication becomes – of necessity – another looping-together of words around an absence: the physical mutilation, the loss of her tongue, driving her back to that seemingly decorative ‘woman’s work’ Ditum describes.
As Tereus pursues the two women in murderous fury, they are miraculously transformed into birds: Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow, forced to cry out the swallow’s song of ‘Itys, Itys’ in echo of her dead son’s name. The sound telescopes her grief to a single word, reducing it to birdsong, and it echoes backwards and forwards in literature to other women, losing its specificity of reference: Aeschylus’ Cassandra, doomed never to be believed, cries out with the same bird-like sounds, ‘like swallows, in some barbarian language’, ‘a tuneless song … Itys! Itys!’; Pound’s Canto 4 places the same horrified cry into the mouth of the medieval Frenchwoman, fed the heart of her lover Cabestan, as she throws herself to her death:
Et ter flebiliter, Ityn, Ityn!
And she went toward the the window and cast her down,
All the while, the while, swallows crying:
“It is Cabestan’s heart in the dish.”
“Is it Cabestan’s heart in the dish?
… the swallows crying:
‘Tis. ‘Tis. Ytis!”
These echoes empty out the significance even of women’s bird-like mutilated speech, reducing it to a shared effect of sound, as if all women’s voices blur into one unintelligible twittering. Eliot, incorporating the story of Philomel into The Wasteland, reduces this song further. Responding to Ovid in the sixteenth century, writers claimed that the soft ‘tereu, tereu’ sound of the nightingale represents Philomel’s crying after her rapist; they also hear the word ‘fie’, and, inexplicably (but accurately representing the birdsong), ‘jug, jug’. Eliot’s Philomel once sings ‘Tereu’ but her speech is dominated by the jarringly incomprehensible: ‘twit twit twit/ jug jug jug jug jug jug’.
The contrast between these evocations of women’s empty speech, and men’s depictions of their own words, is striking. Male writers and speakers aspire to permanence for their words, and with their words they construct memorials cemented in stone and engraved in metal. Horace, writing between Catullus and Ovid, offers this image:
“I have built a monument more lasting than bronze
Higher than the royal structure of the pyramids
… I shall not wholly die, and a greater part of me
Will escape Lady Death.”
(Exegi monumentum aere perennius/ reglalique situ pyramidum altius … Non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei/ vitabit Libitinam).
For Horace, words – the words that for women are ‘wind-written’ and fleeting, twittering and muted, looped beautifully around absence – are paradoxically concrete and lasting. And, whereas the repetition of the words attributed to women create an echo-chamber of twittering confusions, we find later writers build on Horace’s image as if it were the solid structure it describes. Chaucer’s House of Fame pays tribute to Virgil’s Aeneid by picturing it, engraved on a tablet of brass; Shakespeare adapts it into his sonnets. But this image of permanence – of the memorialising quality of words – also stands behind violent displays of eloquence in which masculine memorialisation acts upon voiceless women. So, Othello muses:
I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
His words construct a memorial for Desdemona in the Horatian tradition, an aesthetic object that takes on the function of the marble statue it describes. There is something psychopathically disturbing about the way Othello slips, so readily, from the act of smothering his wife to the glibly eloquent image of a funeral memorial, as if to elide the intervening death and his own part in it. The violence of this memorial image is something in which Shakespeare becomes complicit, because he participates in the process Horace describes – making a memorial, an aesthetic object, out of words – but uses as his raw material, his sculpting block or tablet – the image of Desdemona’s dying body.
This unsettling linguistic memorialising becomes grotesque when it is brought into contact with the tradition of treating women’s words as muted and mutilated language, as in Titus Andronicus. Titus is an incredibly violent play – the plot revolves around acts of murder (or human sacrifice), counter-acts of revenge, the threat of forced marriage and the horror of rape. Its rape subplot is based, explicitly, on the story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and where the tongueless Philomela weaves a tapestry to tell her story, in Shakespeare’s version, the rapists tauntingly anticipate this possibility, and cut off not only Lavinia’s tongue, but also her hands:
Demetrius: So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,
Who ’twas that cut thy tongue and ravish’d thee.
Chiron: Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.
It is in this state that Lavinia’s uncle, Marcus, finds her. Like the mutilated statue of the goddess at the top of this post, she wants to speak but her body stands poised in a frozen space, mouthless and armless, unable to speak or communicate. This moment is one of the much-discussed scenes of Shakespeare’s work, for, as Lavinia stands bleeding, Marcus launches into a speech whose length and self-conscious rhetorical eloquence seem jarringly out of place. His attempt to find beauty in the horrific image, to construct an aesthetic object out of his own emotional response, echoes Othello’s memorialising self-justification, yet agonisingly prolongs the display of Lavinia’s unanswered suffering. Her pain becomes, as we listen, somehow unreal; her bleeding seems fake, because quite obviously she would have died of blood loss had the wounds been genuine. The words memorialise Lavinia at the expense of making her pain, and her humanity, seem unreal.
This speech prepares for Titus’ own response to his daughter’s violation, which bursts out of him when he discovers – as she manages to trace out a message in the sand, holding a stick between the stumps of her hands – who her rapists are. Echoing Horace, he vows:
I will go get a leaf of brass,
And with a gad of steel will write these words,
And lay it by: the angry northern wind
Will blow these sands, like Sibyl’s leaves, abroad,
And where’s your lesson, then?
I can’t help reading Titus’ image of engraving words in brass as a violent one, the words cut sharply into the surface of the metal, penetrating its surface in a disturbingly pseudo-sexual way (I’ve written about the history of writing as penetration before). As with Othello, the act of memorialisation is also – although inadvertently – an act of silencing, as Titus vows to ‘lay it by’ once he has recorded the story: to preserve it, but, also, to set it aside, a memorial, but an unread memorial. In proximity to the image of Sibyl’s leaves, too, the image of scattered sand carries a submerged reminder of the coercive sex that reduced the Sibyl to a woman trapped in a failing, constraining body, wishing for death. The lines insert a masculine, permanent, solid written text over the already-scattering feminine words, and over Lavinia’s enforced muteness, speaking for her but also speaking over her.
The horror of the tragedies comes from their attempt to make beautiful – and then to make permanent – the suffering of the women they depict. But their power also comes from the long histories of conceptualising male and female speech in different ways, of imagining men’s words as permanent, inscribed, gouged upon the memory while women’s words are scattered, muted, mutilated birdspeech, a series of echoes looped around silences. If we see literature as a long conversation, stretching forward from Horace and Ovid to Shakespeare and onwards, we can interpret the repeated processes of citation and adaptation as something akin to the validation of men’s voices we see in conversations.
So what does reading tragedy – or reading literary history – achieve, especially for women literary critics? How does it relate back to that dynamic of the silencing of women, which exists outside literature, in debates between men and women?
Running a commentary around these words – knitting them up into a new pattern – feels substantial to me. Commentaries are seen as reactive work, not original work, but, like Ditum’s lace-making, they create something much more than the sum of their parts. In the context of female absences and silences, building this structure – writing this piece – feels productive, a way of relating to these texts and responding to these tropes, without replicating them. By analysing the imagery of male speech as solid, concrete and authoritative, we can deconstruct it, unpick it, turn it into the sort of text that can be unravelled and understood. Writing this, I had at the back of my mind a question about women studying tragedy: should we do it, or is it unfair to expect women to immerse themselves in literature that is so filled with violently silencing images of women? I think writing can function as a form of memorialising of that problem, a mode of ‘speaking up’ for women that fills in their silences without speaking over them.
Reading Medieval Books! I rant about women in literature and history, occasionally pausing for breath to be snarky about right-wing misogynists. I promise pretty pictures of manuscripts and a cavalier attitude to sentence structure. Twitter @LucyAllenFWR