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Dirty wordies and fiendish thingies

Joanna Russ, who died late last spring, is another of my favorite fantasy/sci-fi authors. In addition to her fiction she did a good bit of writing and thinking and speaking about writing: women and writing, women and sci-fi, and so on. This morning I ran across a speech of hers from PhilCon in the 1970s, posted by a Feminist SF contributor, and it's fantastic. It's about taboos -- tabooed words specifically but also about taboos in general, how they're not just inconvenient but actively dangerous:

What is a taboo, really? Is it a magical way of controlling actions? Certainly the taboo on talking plainly about something makes it difficult to think plainly about it, and hence very difficult to do it...make something unspeakable, and eventually you will make it unthinkable.

If there are no words to describe something, that thing falls through the cracks both in your head and in the world; it vanishes because we have no way to hold on to, to talk about it.

She also criticizes authors who use taboo words like "fuck" purely for the purpose of appearing daring and shocking as having lost sight of what writing is for:

Somebody who does not respect his reader, somebody who hates him, somebody who says Boy, am I going to impress you; Wow, am I going to shock you; Wow, will you be sorry you picked up this book, you stupid, old, middle-class blockhead -- somebody like that is hopelessly corrupt. He has turned aside from the real business of writing to indulge his rage or his vanity and that is sheer self-indulgence, just as bad as any other kind of self-indulgence.

For those of you who, like me, lament the limpingly stunted vocabulary apparent in so many of today's movies, books, songs, debates and even everyday conversation ("So she goes, really? and I was all like, yeah, and she was like, well what then? and I'm like, oh nothing..." ::beats head against wall::), there's this:

Virginia Woolf has said that reading Chaucer is an odd experience because he uses the whole of the English language, and that when a modern writer tries to do this, he finds that some words have gone rusty from disuse and if you touch them, like keys on a piano, you don't get the proper musical note but a kind of discordant shriek.

Isn't that a great metaphor? Language like an out-of-tune piano. Even words that are still in common parlance have lost their zing, or changed beyond recognition. Think of the word "gay" - it's impossible to use it the same way someone did in the 1800s. Or the word "nice" - today it's a vague but largely meaningless compliment, but in Victorian England it was a mild sort of insult meaning picky or artificially genteel (makes me think of these guys LOL!). And in the original Middle English is was a positive insult, meaning foolish or stupid! (I guess that would be the equivalent of hitting a C two octaves above middle and hearing a D two octaves below?)

Here's my favorite bit, though:

We know now (and if we don't, we never will) how men see women. Men have painted women, men have described women, men have written poems about women, and poems to women, for centuries. For example, the world is full of men's descriptions of beautiful women. But where are women's descriptions of themselves, of what it is to be a woman, or what it is to be the mother of a son, of a daughter, to be pretty, to be plain, to be old, to be desired, to desire someone else? Men's opinions about women would fill this whole hotel, if you wrote them out, but women's opinions of men hardly exist. And women's opinions of themselves hardly exist. And that's one reason I write about sex.

This was in the 1970s, when women's lib and women's issues were just coming into their own, and I do think things have changed since, though perhaps not as much as one might hope. My Italian Renaissance seminar a couple of years ago, for example, included Paternal Tyranny, a book by Arcangela Tarabotti, which is part of a series called "The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe" whose purpose is to publish contemporary Renaissance works by women. These are not easy to find, though once they started looking there were more than they thought. (Tarabotti is worth a read - her father stuck her in a nunnery because he didn't want to pay her dowry, and she minces no words in writing about it.)

Anyway, Joanna's full speech is excellent -- surprisingly pertinent given that it dates from nearly 40 years ago, and as well-written as any of her short stories or books. You can read the whole thing linked from the Feminist SF page above or on Dreamwidth here. FSF also did a four-part series on Russ which starts here.


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Dec. 4th, 2011 10:03 pm (UTC)
Glad you liked it! And I'm glad people are reading it.
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