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Severed Tongues: Silencing Intellectual Women

In her essay “Silence,” in the original cluster, “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation,” Nancy K. Gish adroitly theorizes the habit of silencing women, noting that “women are not simply individual images from many ancient texts but a series of the silenced.” This reminder of collective silencing resounded for me in profound ways—I am part of this series of the silenced—but I could not have predicted that the very cluster would be used to perpetuate further attempts at smothering women’s voices. In this connection, Christopher Ricks’s recent diatribe against Megan Quigley is both dismaying and revealing. It provides us an opportunity to return to that most central question of the ways that highly articulate women are silenced, a question that is crucial to the work of many female modernist writers.[1] I want to note at the outset of my response that the journal Essays in Criticism, which counts Ricks among its editors, is complicit in providing him a platform to belittle others’ scholarly work in a key that is primarily one of personal attack. Ricks’s lengthy riposte is largely intended to insult and demean, and it lacks any acknowledgement of the value of the cluster on reading T. S. Eliot in the #MeToo era. That Essays in Criticism published Ricks’s extended invective, one that is disrespectful of Quigley as a scholar, and of her fellow contributors, could easily have a chilling effect, especially on emerging scholars in our precarious profession, who rightly want to speak, teach, and write in a discipline that respects new voices, new ways of reading, and new values in literary studies. Most disturbingly, Ricks’s aim is clearly to discredit and to silence an intellectual woman who dared call into question his editorial choices.

What I find genuinely difficult to comprehend is that Ricks did not see the profound irony of his gendered attack, given the topic at hand. Did he really not consider the context, of violence against women, before he wrote and published his attempt at shaming a female colleague’s scholarly investigations (one of Ricks’s specific accusations is of “shameful carelessness” [477])? Did he really not consider the inheritance of Philomela’s tongue being cut out by a man who has violated her— the spur for Gish’s piece— as he crafted his attempt at shaming and silencing a female Eliot scholar? The pedantic, chastising posture in Ricks’s rant reveals, primarily, his low tolerance for a woman’s criticism. Is there any doubt that his “response” would have been radically different if it were addressed to a male colleague? Or would he have also branded a male scholar as shamefully careless?

This incident, the current #MeToo and racial justice era, and some of my own experiences of gender, power, and professional abuse in the academy, have recently called me back to a particular modernist text, “Indissoluble Matrimony,” by Rebecca West. This story is timely because of its seemingly extreme depictions of silencing an intellectual Black woman. In this cultural moment, we must pay particular attention to Blackness and to womanhood, and thus to the ways that West’s character Evadne represents a particular historical erasure and silencing. In the context of these two Eliot clusters, we must also return to the meaty question of tongues in West’s story from 1914, and collectively admit that the academy is itself still regularly bent on silencing intellectual women, cutting out our tongues, more than one hundred years after West centered this question in the first issue of BLAST.

West, Women, and Intellectual Discourse

In “Indissoluble Matrimony,” Evadne serves her husband George Silverton a plate of tongue for his dinner, in contrast with her meal of fruit. The dish of tongue leads to a central image of attempted silencing. Seeing his dinner, George remarks on the carelessness of Evadne’s preparations, “what an absurd supper to set before a hungry solicitor’s clerk! In the center, obviously intended as the principal dish, was a bowl of plums, softly red, soaked with the sun, glowing like jewels in the downward stream of the incandescent light [and] a great yellow melon, its sleek sides fluted with rich growth, and a honey-comb glistening on a willow-patterned dish.”[2] Unlike this preposterous centrality of fruit, George notes that the “only sensible food to be seen was a plate of tongue laid at his place” (West “Indissoluble” 99). This sensibility is, of course, linked throughout the text with his attempts to silence Evadne, who he repeatedly animalizes and sexualizes.[3]

The connections between masculinity, silencing, and meat-eating implicit in West’s dinner scene rest largely on the highly pluri-significant plate of tongue that Evadne presents to her husband, and which clearly recalls the fate of Philomela. George believes Evadne to be careless and absurd in her “original” preparation of dinner (fruit as the main course) because her meal does not emphasize the ritualistic elements of incorporation, the real and symbolic anthropophagies that function to set man apart from women and from animals. Indeed, George remarks of her presentation and behavior, “There was no ritual about it.” The “sensible” plate of tongue is unusually provocative here. George may eat animal tongue in order to over-mark his mastery of the vocalizing “animal” and thus recite his own exclusionary claim to “language.” It also clearly establishes his violent intentions to silence the “careless” woman who nevertheless dares to engage in political and intellectual discourse. This moment recalls Ricks’s repeated questioning of Quigley’s “qualifications,” despite her well-established scholarly record. Indeed, the tone of Ricks’s response is compatible with the line in Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes, that men inevitably desire to “do a girl in,” a line that Gilbert and Gubar raised decades ago in their discussions of sex “battle” in modernism.[4]

What I notice especially now, returning to the West text with a #MeToo and Black Lives Matter lens, is the vibrant, colorful, and sensuous descriptions of the fruit that Evadne gives pride of place on the couple’s dining table: “a bowl of plums, softly red, soaked with the sun, glowing like jewels in the downward stream of the incandescent light [and] a great yellow melon, its sleek sides fluted with rich growth, and a honey-comb glistening on a willow-patterned dish.” Evadne’s fruitfulness in this story is not biologically reproductive, but rather intellectual, and this is precisely what her male partner cannot abide. The glistening images of fruitfulness and fecundity highlight the value of Evadne’s intellectual and political capacities, jewels of public thinking and acting, and they highlight how she is an enriched, evolved, and powerful Black woman (this power is clearly indicated by the softly red color of the plums).

Collective Shining

Evadne inhabits her own vibrancy when, for instance, she is rehearsing her socialist speech.[5] It is this intellectual productivity that makes her comparable to the great yellow melon “fluted with rich growth” and “glistening on a willow patterned dish.” The “meat” of the fruit and the overtly feminine image of the “honey-comb” glisten, to show us just the kind of vibrant feminine matter of thinking and speaking that George wants so desperately to suppress throughout the remainder of the story. This glistening intellectualism comports with a line from contemporary Black feminist singer-songwriter Lizzo, in her song “Juice”: “if I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine, yeah I’m goals.”[6] And isn’t this the Black New Woman version of Evadne’s threat—if she can be an intellectual force, then so can all women, of all races. Ricks’s invective has the clear, threatened subtext of the outworn “how dare they?” How dare these women venture critiques of male decisions? How dare female scholars raise their voices, and raise questions about male scholars’ choices? Moreover, how dare they put something feminine at the center of a critical discussion that male critics believe is their purview?

George cannot abide the shining Black feminist who is his wife, and the text repeatedly shows how he is enraged by her vibrant intellect. As George contemplates her determination to speak, he becomes violent and chastising, and vows to silence her: “‘Evadne!’ He sprang to his feet.  ‘You’re preparing your speech!’ She did not move. ‘I am,’ she said. ‘Damn it, you shan’t speak!’ ‘Damn it, I will!’” (104). George repeats his demand: “’Evadne, you shan’t speak! If you do I swear to God above I’ll turn you out into the streets—.’ She rose and came towards him. She looked black and dangerous. She trod softly like a cat with her head down. In spite of himself, his tongue licked his lips in fear and he cowered a moment before he picked up a knife from the table. For a space she looked down on him and the sharp blade” (104). The threat of cutting out an “outspoken” woman’s tongue looms repeatedly in this story. The tongue appears and reappears in this violent text, as West clearly centers George’s desperate need to silence his thinking wife.

Rebecca West’s story from 1914 is not remotely outmoded, if we recognize the many ongoing attempts to silence women in our intellectual profession. So how do we get our tongues back?  This essay hopes to be an intersectional, inclusive example of talking back. Evadne talks back, saying damn it, I will speak as an intellectual Black woman. West’s story is thus a good example of the way that #MeToo and Black Lives Matter agendas can come together, which is one of the reasons I teach it regularly. In fact, this story should be taught much more often, perhaps alongside The Waste Land, as a form of remediation. West’s story ends with the triumph of the speaking woman of color. We intellectual women will not be silenced, especially about intersectional questions of power, violence, and privilege in cultural and artistic work. We will keep our fruits, our voices, our intellectual pleasures on the table and at the table. This is how we change the conversation, and we will continue to change it.


Notes

[1] Christopher Ricks, “To Criticize the Critic,” Essays in Criticism 69 (4): 467-479.

[2] Rebecca West, “Indissoluble Matrimony,” BLAST, vol. 1, 1914: 98-117, 99.

[3] For a detailed discussion of the ways gender, race, and animality are marshaled in West’s story, see my essay “On Marrying a Butcher: Animality and Modernist Anxiety in West’s ‘Indissoluble Matrimony,’” Mosaic: a Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Special Issue: “The Animal, Part II,” vol. 40, No. 1, March, 2007: 27-43.

[4] Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, vol. 1, 1988, 99.

[5] For scholarly work that addresses the complexities of West’s feminism and of her depiction of Evadne, in relation to the female body, masculinist aesthetic conceptions of modernism, and other dynamics, see: Erich Hertz, The Gender of Form and British Modernism: Rebecca West’s Vorticism and BLAST, Women’s Studies, 45 (2016): 356-369; Moira Ferguson, “Feminist Manicheanism: Rebecca West’s Unique Fusion,” The Minnesota Review 15 (1980): 52-60; Ann V. Norton, Paradoxical Feminisms: The Novels of Rebecca West (Landham, MD: International scholars Publications, 2000). Despite these complexities, Evadne’s power and “victory” in the story remain significant.

[6] The implications of “shine” in Black and feminist discourses are multiple. While Lizzo’s use may reclaim a potentially derogatory term referencing Black shoeshiners, the term also seems to evoke “Shine Theory,” coined by Ann Friedman, which encourages women to cultivate successful women in their networks, rather than compete against them. Lizzo’s own tweet reads, “And as we let our own light shine, We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, Our presence automatically liberates others.” Saidiya Hartman discusses “Shine” as “a beautiful myth about a Negro who could survive anything and everything a white man could send his way, and yet weather the catastrophe that was life under Jim Crow,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: Norton, 2019), 259. See also Krista Thompson’s description of techniques for performing Black visibility in relation to camera and video lights in Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).