Essay and review on Literature:or, Which came first gendered language or God? -(Work in progress)

  1. The New Jerusalem Bible, ( London, Eyre and Spottiswoode) Genesis 2, p. 6.
  2. Homans, Margaret Bearing the Word, (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986), p. 20. All other references to this text will be given parenthetically.
  3. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=genius
    (accessed 12:54 pm, 17/05/2016).
  4. Gilbert, M, Sandra & Gubar, Susan, The Mad Woman in the Attic (London, Yale University), p. 6.
  5. Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre, (Penguin, London, 1847), p.93.
  6. The Prisoner, 1967-1968.
  7. Allen, Graham, Intertextuality (Routledge, London and New York, 2000), p. 27. All other references to this text will be given parenthetically.
  8. Auden, W. H, ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ Harpers, 1948, p. 406-412,http:www.harpers.org/archive/1948/05/0033206 accessed 29th January 2012
  9. The Telegraph, Lazarus Trial to take first step in ‘bringing humans back from the dead.’ Knapton, Sarah, p. 9, May 3rd 2016.
  10. McEwan, Ian, The Comfort of Strangers (London, Vintage Books, 1981) P, 41-42.

‘In the Beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God….’ (1).
It has long been argued that women writers make their pen names ambiguous to attract a differently gendered reader to their work, or to enable their work to be taken seriously, thus disabling a gendered carrying of the Word, or, suggesting a male carrier:
Their feeling that to write is necessarily to be, or to impersonate, a man is suggested most obviously by, for example, Mary Ann Evan’s choice to write under the pseudonym George Elliot.(2.)
Since we are told that God made man in his image: from the earth, this preoccupation with language in the creation story and women as writers who may not write, creates the perception that man and not woman is inextricably linked to genus; the received narrative is that God places man in the creation story within The Garden of Eden, a womb of sustenance, and gives him the dominion over all.
Until quite recently in our western literary history writers were revered as God-like creators, as powerful; it was common to find the word genius with reference to great writers when describing them in our not too distant history. I have strong memories of this from childhood. This led me to look up the etymology of the word genius. The word genius has in its etymology: “prophetic skill”, “spirit” and “incarnation”, and is from root “gene- “to produce, give birth, beget (3). (a biblical word). Books have been referred to as babies, and a process of letting go of your work has been discussed in books about the art of writing. However, without the written word the writer would not have agency.

This suggests power lies in the Word, or text, as authors of The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar suggest:
Though many…writers use the metaphor of literary paternity in different ways and for different purposes, all seem overwhelmingly to agree that a literary text is not only speech quite literally embodied but also power mysteriously made manifest, made flesh (4).

Yet writers of both sexes have, for centuries, disrupted their gender by changing their names or adopting a nom de plume which is ambiguous; think George Elliot, Harper Lee, Ellis Bell, Currer Bell, J. K. Rowling; Robert Galbraith, J. D. Robb, P. D. James, to name but a few woman. Of course C. S. Lewis, E. B. White, J. D. Salinger, D.H. Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, J. R .R. Tolkien and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name but a few men, used initials, which arguably render them too of ambiguous gender, which gives rise to the notion that the gender of the carrier of the word is of interest or of significance to the reader.

This brings us to the idea of storytelling as a self conscious act. This highlights the metafictional, surfictional aspect of storytelling; the self-conscious awareness that as creators of fiction we bring to our work as creators. Charles Morgan, Bronte and indeed Doris Lessing all add elements of self-consciousness to their work, which brings them out of their prose to hover as if in transcendence objectively outside the text; in Jane Eyre, Bronte uses the simple address, “Reader”(5) several times to achieve this; by addressing the reader, the author disrupts her authorial authority; addressing the reader invites another perspective in and draws attention to the fact that this is story being told through the facility of language which the reader must translate. The construct of The Golden Notebook; the way Lessing has created several books in one novel, and the way this creates a pause whenever Anna Wulf picks up a notebook and begins writing, draws attention to the conscious act of writing.
Freud’s in depth analysis of what literature does; his close examination of literature as a self-psychoanalysis, or as a window into the self has also had an effect upon the way we read, not only texts but one another post Freud and post Lacan; “In the Lacanian myth, language and gender are connected in such a way as to privilege implicitly the masculine and the figurative” (Homans, p. 6) writes Margaret Homans. In the previous quote Homans notes the way in which the phallus became a signifier for loss through psychoanalytic theory at a specific period in history, which has stayed with us until today. My poetry tutor could not read poetry without finding phallic references throughout the text; I found this phallocentric approach annoying; arguably there were multiple possible ways to read the language of the poetry, and indeed prose, and yet it was a gendered reading that seemed the most readily available in spite of voices like Roland Barthes that sought to disrupt and challenge the status quo of a binary, gendered reading, suggesting structural and iconic intervention; from the Eiffel Tower to the peculiar language of wrestling, Barthes finds comedy, tragedy, morality and art, in the spectacle of wrestling in his work Mythologies, intervenes in the reading of texts; Barthes relentlessly challenges our perceptions about texts in the most unlikely of places, creating texts within texts. Barthes’s paradigm taken to its extreme: the presence of the chime of Big Ben in an episode of the iconic television show The Prisoner is enough to convince a captive of that strange world, where all is not what it seems, that he is in London; it is just this signifying sound of a famous clock bell that convinces him of this fact; and yet the sound came to him via a tape in a closed-off, curtained room. (6). This calls into question whether or not it is possible for any text, or indeed person, since a text has a creator, to be under the influence of an overarching theory, whether that be a biblical theory of creation, or a Freudian theory of the preconscious made conscious and if so, to what extent?
Homans writes about a writing back to other literature and texts, which is an idea suggested by Barthes’s work and drawn together later by Graham Allen in the theory of intertextuality where he examines in close detail the minutiae of the text and finds that, “Burns’s poem… stages the social tension within his native Scotland between an official society keen to classify (others would say Englishify) Scottish literary tradition and a growing interest in local dialects and literary traditions pitted precisely against both English cultural and linguistic domination and any notion of a homogenous, monologic culture…”(7). Allen finds Bakhtin’s paradigm of the author as visible in the text despite “the death of the Author (Roland Barthes’s paradigm of the way in which as text is read it becomes the thoughts of the reader reading the text, explored in his essay, The Death of the Author and originating from his work SZ Sarrasine, which is an altogether more complex and deeply compelling work in which, significantly, both text and gender are disrupted), For Bakhtin “the author…still stands behind his or her novel, but s/he does not enter into it as a guiding authoritative voice” (Allen, p.24), this Allen describes as a “polyphonic” ( Allen, p.29) mix of various voices with their own individual perspective. With a specific look at Ulysses Allen finds that Bloom’s thoughts “comprise .. utterances, texts and cultural commonplaces.”(Allen, p, 25) There are many examples of texts that offer this multiple and multi-layered perspective, such as Doris Lessing’s, Golden Notebook, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, or Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. However, there are others that offer individual characters as vessels for particular perspectives; for example: Bronte’s wild uncontrollable Bertha juxtaposed against the self-controlled Jane Eyre, and the godly St John juxtaposed against the worldly Rochester.
Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews demonstrates with unswerving focus how one character can be reconstructed completely by the thoughts of the other.
Then again it is possible to focus solely on elements of denouement and plot. The relationship between biblical and literary heritage illuminated by a theory of the detective and crime novel as a guilty return to the fall, an idea expressed in W. H. Auden’s essay, ‘The Guilty Vicarage’(8),(an essay which I shall return to in the future) gives expression to the assertion that all writing writes back to the Bible, at least in western literary history.
Many writers by the very act of writing with reference to fairy tales or their plots draw attention to the parallels between the narratives of these tomes and the denouement of their own works ; take Charles Morgan who refers to Little Red Riding Hood in his work Sparkenbroke, and then goes on to explore this idea of the woman lost in the wood and the wolf’s attempt to seduce her and possess her; to metaphorically devour her; except Morgan shows how this is possible in reality, placing a reference to Little Red Riding Hood early on in the story for the reader to find, as though it were an essential element of the story. Morgan then goes on, in his denouement, to arrange a meeting in the woods between both male protagonists and the heroine. The two main characters are men; the men are very good friends, which enables the reader to compare the way their love of the same woman differs, and psychologically, the way in which they possess her; one who disables her desire, who turns her into a good little housewife, and the other who provokes her desire; so arguably the two are equally bad wolves; or, which might be a more interesting question, how do we define the wolf? Is the man with the desire who provokes desire the wolf or the man who appears to either lack desire or to subdue and suppress it? Jane Eyre—(which predates Sparkenbroke by 89 years) a story based around the plot of Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, an idea I have not read anywhere as being a theme, and yet one which when you arrive at the end of the story and note the blinded Rochester, you cannot help but go back and notice in the denoument the echoes of Rapunzel, the girl trapped in a tower and controlled by a women and then a man—this too juxtaposes two men of different character against one another: St John and Rochester; a passionate man and a religious man; one who would pervert an innocent young woman, and another who would, it appears, take care of her and facilitate her service to god. In this way Bronte offers her readers two opposing choices or perspectives. Yet the woman of passion in Bronte’s work is, significantly, locked up.
Because biblical story is perhaps the first story that many nineteenth century children would have read, arguably this would impact on beliefs which would then transfer to, be implicit in, language and ultimately in the text of that period; since one text gives birth to another (see Intertextuality) it follows that this biblical legend would be ingrained in text. To test this it would be common to find references to the Bible in text and literature.
Bronte ends her famous novel, Jane Eyre with the epitaph, “Amen; ever  so come, Lord Jesus!” (Jane Eyre, p. 521). During the denouement there are references to the Bible throughout the text; Bronte’s heroine Jane Eyre is told off for admitting to a dislike of the psalms. Of course this book was published over one hundred and sixty years ago, as I write. Surely with the numbers falling in church attendance we are not still under the influence of a biblical narrative?
The proof that biblical legend is still ingrained in text came to me today, because I was thinking about the problem in order to develop this essay further, in the form of an evocation of the story of Lazarus in The Daily Telegraph which was available in most coffee shops across the country; the prevalence of the paper suggests it would exert an influence upon culture, and that it acts as a cultural reference point, at least now (not perhaps in the near future), arguably for a reasonably large number of people in the west and elsewhere.
The writer of the headline used the biblical name “Lazarus”,(9) a signifier which has the effect of promoting the idea of something incredible, which the story is, or was; the journalist was writing about the ability or the wish towards the ability of surgeons to work on the brains of people who are clinically dead, to attempt to bring back life, and the fact that they had been given ‘ethical’ permission to do this. In order to write something which appealed to many people, which would be the remit of a journalist, the writer evoked an old story which is instantly recognisable by the use of one word, Lazarus in the headline; with this word comes the whole biblical back story. There is no need to explain it; it is there in the memory as soon as the name Lazarus is invoked, visually, in the same way that a song title brings with it a host of lyrics, and memories; in this case bringing forth instantly a collective literary reference point for the idea of the ability to bring back to life from the dead; arguably this is a specific literary compass point, yet one which has colonised and spread its literary heritage to other compass points. I would suggest therefore, that the story of Lazarus is one in our collective consciousness. Famously Lazarus was brought back to life. He was already dead and yet Jesus was able to bring him back from the dead; to resurrect him.
The text of the Bible is not necessarily literal; it may be read as metaphorical. Taken as metaphor the creation story would be interesting to unpick; as a literal idea man has conceived a woman since she is taken from his rib and produced from him; she is a part of him and this tends to nullify her position as a creator. Without that essence, perhaps in the biological sense—the sperm; without this the woman cannot create. Woman is subordinate in that God created the man first and the woman as a companion for the man in this story:
Yahweh God said, ‘it is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate.’ So from the soil Yahweh God fashioned all the wild beasts and all the birds of heaven….But no helpmate suitable for the man was found for him. So Yahweh God made the man fall into a deep sleep. And while he slept, he took one of his ribs and enclosed it in the flesh. Yahweh God Built the rib he had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man. The man exclaimed:
‘This at last is bone from my bones,
And flesh from my flesh!
This is to be called woman,
For this was taken from man. (Genesis, 2, P. 6)
In this story woman is not written as essential to maintaining the human race as creator or a factor in creation. The woman appears as subservient to the man and can be read as born from him and as unequal to him. Homans writes that the woman is conceived as an object:
Jane Eyre presents the fear of the objectification of the self in a variety of ways that make particularly explicit the connection between femininity and objectification. Jane fears that Rochester objectifies her when he wants to dress her in jewels and silks that correspond…to his abstract idea of Mrs. Edward Fairfax Rochester. (Homans, p. 85)
Genesis is written, ‘Let us make man in our own image’(Genesis, Ch. 1, p.6), and the first to be made is a man and from that man is made a woman. Thus the woman cannot be read as anything other than subject to a man or God-like figure who is predominantly represented as masculine both in inherited art and as Word— (men is interchangeable with women, and man can mean mankind). ‘He’ was interchangeable with ‘She’ prior to it being outlawed as a pronoun capable of referring to either sex in our recent textual history; growing up I was privy to the knowledge that ‘he’ signified both ‘he’ and ‘she’ and I accepted that he referred to me when reading the Bible regularly on Sundays; however, this fact was not capable of rendering the narrative of the privileging of the male in our society impotent in the creation story, which might suggest a reason for the transformation of “he” as a weak signifier in our more recent literary history and revolution in expression through text or, which paradoxically reinforces the story as a story of male hegemony, a subversive necessity to remove the ambiguity; the irony and dangerousness of this is that it reinforces the pronoun “he” as a signifier for man as opposed to woman in biblical translations apprehended into narrative. This suggests that it is not man (or male dominance) that subordinates women, but the existence of God or a creation story, and that it is translated as one which bypasses the woman, or produces a theory of creation as an act of God, and the image of a male god is thus etched into our consciousness through the facility and agency of an overarching narrative: the dominant discourse of God as male, or in this case of man as a creator through God. This problem brings the argument full circle: since in the act of writing we create histories, theories, stories, truths, assertions, arguments, gender, and ultimately God, this begs the question, who created God? Or to be more emphatic, whose word created God? Was it a masculine Word or a feminine Word? Which now brings us to another question: which came first language or God?
The privileging of the Bible as a primary historical text in which we presume the male to be dominant may therefore be responsible for creating a hegemonic society which favours a narrative of male dominance or a symptom of a hegemonic society. If the woman wrote she took up names such as Currer Bell (which is loosely an anagram for both cur and rebel and might be read as such), a rebellion, perhaps.
Homans tells us that “Christine Froula has…argued that in Genesis and in Paradise Lost, it is the repression of actual maternity in the original scene of creation that enables the myth of a paternal god’s monopoly in creation,” (Homans p. 2) In fact the creation story is a story in which the creation story is always ambiguous. Adam removes a rib, a body part and creates a woman; Mary carries and conceives a child without sexual intercourse. Man in this story is impotent; it is the male in the story, and not the female, that lacks the ability of the phallus to create. Freud writes this as a lack in women which perpetually asserts itself; yet it comes across as a lack in the creation story itself.
As metaphor the creation story has more power than when taken literally; this is because therein lies ambiguity of the sexes; therein lies the idea that one sex may contain another; if it is possible to extract a part of the man to create the woman, then it is equally possible to extract another part and exchange it; this suggests a melding of the two sexes, and interchangeability, a subsuming of one into another and a bypassing of the sexual act.
Equally Bronte’s chosen pen name might disrupt identity as the duality of Bertha and Jane Eyre disrupts identity; in a structural reading the name Currer might morph into any number of translations; cur might be derived from cure, suggesting a cure or exorcism in writing, something which Freud suggested writers instinctively did, thus inventing the talking cure through their own writing; cur meaning courage in Latin; c[oe]ur meaning heart in French. The heart of a woman’s existence was in the home at this time it is argued; and yet Charlotte Bronte burnt the house to the ground in Jane Eyre, and translated the story of the trapped Rapunzel into a dark theme running through this gothic novel; Bronte’s heroine was trapped between the mother figure (the mother never has an ambiguous sex; she is always female, complexly, as though her ability to procreate enables her sexual identity) who crushes her in Jane Eyre, or cuts off her hair in Rapunzel, and the flawed ambiguous sex of her suitor, Rochester, who cross dresses in order to interrogate Jane incognito through which, it could be argued, is a direct literary line right to Ian McEwan’s sexually disrupted male, in The Comfort of Strangers:
‘You look so lovely.’ She pulled his curls free of the frilled collar, and felt for his body beneath the fabric. ‘You look like a god. I think I’ll have to take you to bed.’ She tugged at his arm, but Colin pulled away. ‘It’s not a dressing-gown anyway,’ he said, ‘it’s a nightie.’ He pointed to a cluster of flowers embroidered across his chest…(10).
Homans finds that Woolf mocks the idea “that the death or absence of the mother sorrowfully but fortunately makes possible the construction of language and culture.”(Homan’s p.2); death and absence of the mother is a theme running right through Jane Eyre, since both Jane and Adele are motherless. Yet in subduing the feminine aspect of creation and not allowing femaleness in maleness we diminish and disinherit the feminine. As we persist in holding onto our clearly defined and delineated assertions about the two sexes, and a narrative of subordination, so we diminish the possibility of duality and equality.
SPOILER ALERT For Bronte in order for Rochester to converse with Jane on equal terms it was necessary for him to become a woman. In order for her heroine Jane to achieve equality in a man’s world Rochester must first be diminished: maimed and blinded. This suggests that for a man to live in a man’s world is dangerous to his survival.
SPOILER ALERT: Mc’Ewan’s The Comfort of Strangers has a similar denouement and fate for its male protagonist Colin; Colin is seduced and disrupted, weakened first by his refusal to conform to the bisexual homoerotic scenes which he encounters when on holiday with his wife, and then half drowned by his own inability to swim (a metaphor for the repeated inability for McEwan’s protagonist Colin to settle into his maleness completely) thinking that it is his wife who is in trouble the whole time, when in fact it is him who flounders; then tricked by a couple who seem intent on Colin’s complete annihilation. The impending doom for Colin is set up in the early chapters when his wife remarks, ‘Thank God I’m not a man,…’ (McEwan, p.17)
SPOILER: Both denouements (134 years apart), suggest a sinister subduing and suffocating of the masculine. Bronte’s heroine marries one male but not when he is at the height of his powers, when he is maimed and blinded, and kills off the religious other at the end of her novel. McEwan’s narrative gradually undermines and erodes the masculinity of his character Colin; this tends to signify the slipperiness of Colin as a stable gender. Through the use of language and a deeply visual depiction of gendered characters, McEwan illuminates the question of identity as gendered, disrupts and destabilizes the reader; this is not a story about male power; in fact it is just the opposite…
It is as though mankind has unwittingly misread the message of the Bible; translating it literally as a story about male power when in fact it is a story about storytelling:
“In the Beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things came to be,…” (The Bible, John, 1, V, 1-3).
What the previous quote tells us is that without language or Word there would be nothing—because it is language that articulates the world; it is language that brings the world into being; it is language that articulates that there is a God:
The Word was the true light
That enlightens all men [women] see the notes; (the Bible, John, 1, V, 9-10)
One of the ideas I presented in the text of Bertha’s Journal: A Perfect Immleman Turn, which is a story about storytelling and power, was the idea of the Internet as a substitute for god, in that it is an omniscient information carrier, or a Word carrier. Yesterday I was struck by a radio 4 interview in which the interviewer repeatedly pressed the interviewee for an author of some content on a new newspaper site that he was advocating; the interviewee was extremely reluctant to reveal the author. It seems likely that when all the overarching carriers of the word are extinguished or side-lined—newspapers, governments, hierarchies—that there will be only one carrier of the Word that is universal to all, and that will be a virtual, sexless carrier; an omniscient, omnipotent machine. This will obliviate the need to discover the sex of the carrier of the Word, and in many senses this already obviates the necessity of a sexless carrier of the Word.
Written and edited by Hermione Laake (2012-2016).
Bibliography:
The New Jerusalem Bible, ( London, Eyre and Spottiswoode) Genesis 2, p. 6.
Auden, W. H, ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ Harpers, 1948, p. 406-412, http:www.harpers.org/archive/1948/05/0033206 accessed 29th January 2012.
Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre, (Penguin, London, 1847), p.93.
Gilbert, M, Sandra & Gubar, Susan, The Mad Woman in the Attic (London, Yale University), p. 6.
Homans, Margaret Bearing the Word, (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986), p. 20.
McEwan, Ian, The Comfort of Strangers (London, Vintage Books, 1981) P, 41-42.
Morgan, Charles, Sparkenbroke ( New York, The McMillan Company) 1936.
McGoohan, Patrick, The Prisoner, 1967-1968. (I’m not sure which episode featured the chimes of Big Ben).
The Telegraph, Lazarus Trial to take first step in ‘bringing humans back from the dead.’ Knapton, Sarah, p. 9, May 3rd 2016.
http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=genius
(accessed 12:54 pm, 17/05/2016).
Notes:
Just as I finished this essay, a few hours ago, I found an extract from one which is witty and well said, and more or less draws attention to the errors I have commented on in this essay regarding gender stories drawn from the Bible. This often happens to me when I come up for air after writing and search for something to read—(at the moment this is usually Maria Popova’s marvellous encyclopaedia of writing since I don’t have access to a university library at the moment)—should you be interested in the subject matter, Maria Popova references Ursula K. Guin on being a man, and you can find this link on my Twitter account tweeted at 7 pm. GMT , 11th June 2016. My account name is herziloph

 

Published by hermionelaake contributing editor O:JA&L

Currently, whist working on long fiction, I write short stories, poetry, essays and blog weekly. I appeared on Blog Talk Radio, 2016, interview across continents with Susan Wingate. See my twitter account: herziloph, pinned tweet; Award nominee, Jointly-published and Indie writer. Nominated for the Avon and Authonomy First Lines prize, 2014 and the H. G. Wells Grand Prize for Fiction, 2013. My flash fiction is published with Open: Journal of Arts and Letters.

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