Saturday, November 16, 2013

Women and Language

The main difference between women and men, in my view, is simply that men are willing to put up with more abstraction than women. Men can work themselves into boundless philosophic, technological and scientific ecstasy, leaving their bodies behind. They compete and measure themselves and each other by abstract measurements women don’t use. They also accomplish and create things women didn’t know they wanted, such as Skype chats across continents!

Women hear the call of their bodies, not only on a monthly basis, but several times a day for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. Women are profoundly changed by the children they bear and their immediate and intimate needs. Their attention stretches across generations. The home they make for their family is real, friends are real and the ceremonies they create to celebrate life are real, each demanding time and thought.

Language is, of course, an abstraction, which may be one of the reasons we have heard less from women down through the ages. Claudine Herrmann writes in The Tongue Snatchers, originally published in French in 1976, that a “virile” culture pervades the public intellectual and artistic sphere, that women must use a language they have not developed and learn to restrict themselves in using. But all of us have experiences which are difficult to put into words.

Herrmann makes the point that “women’s vision could serve to shed light on the most varied of questions.” As a lover of language, I agree. Without the harmonic that women’s voices provide, abstraction becomes a thin veneer on the rich, inchoate life of culture. In addition, speaking or writing is one of the ways we seize our humanity, a way we “actualize the sheer passive givenness of our being,” as Hannah Arendt says.

I know of no better example of women shedding light on varied questions than the books the scholars Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong and Lesley Hazleton have recently produced. Having absorbed the manuscripts found at Nag Hammadi and other early texts, Elaine Pagels describes in Beyond Belief how the early church codified beliefs for the sake of unity. She insists however that suppressed gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, actually enrich and extend our understanding of Christ’s teachings and the early church, helping us get past rigid belief structures.

In The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, Karen Armstrong studies the ways four cultures contributed to the Axial Age, the name Karl Jaspers gave to the period between 900 B.C. and 200 B.C. Armstrong uses current archaeological, historical and textual scholarship to show the shift in the ways people thought of themselves, how the needs for liberation and redemption were awakened. Lesley Hazleton’s book entitled The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad tells the dramatic story of how Muhammad, a young camel driver at the edges of society, received divine inspiration, came to power as a political leader and worked toward social justice. Helped greatly by his first wife, Khadija, I might add.

All three of these women write to help heal the fragmentation and divisiveness our closely-held religious beliefs have led to, the sticking points of abstract language. Karen Armstrong believes that at the heart of all religions, spiritual traditions and ethics lies compassion: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Having recently read the three astonishing books noted, I am thrilled to find mainstream, accessible work being done in this area. By women!

Since we live in an information age, I am free to write in this casual way, pointing to what has moved me. And you are free to copy any of these cues into your favorite search engine and learn more about them.