Monday, May 25, 2009

"How does a change in vocabulary save your life?"

I located the sentence from Fanny Howe that I parsed yesterday and can now confess to having misrepresented Howe's meaning, if not the way in which language itself creates a schism between "nature" and "adoption." The sentence can be found in Howe's essay, "Immanence," from The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life (UC Press, 2003). This essay is about Edith Stein, a Jewish philosopher turned Catholic who was murdered in 1942 at the hands of the Nazis. Howe finds fascinating the difference between Stein's academic writing on empathy, writing that "was almost unreadable--it lacked the fluidity of experience or any way of speaking directly, and rested instead on a carefully constructed logic as stiff as wood" (45) and her writing about the experience of writing about empathy. The latter Howe finds moving, based on experience, empathetic. The shift from a logical, impersonal tone, to one "softer and more subtle" is crucial to Howe and matches her own method of moving between her own experience and her ideas about it.

The question Howe asks is this: "How does a change in vocabulary save your life? Replacing one word with another word for the same thought--can this actually transform your feelings about things?" (47). This question (which she never answers--who can?) leads her toward the distinction that bothers me. Howe's concern here is with emptiness: "Each time we exert our will we are exhibiting hope inside emptiness. And over time all the necessary actions that we take will help us develop a familiarity with objects and with space that makes our comforts seem natural rather than adopted" (46). Before I pause to consider the words "familiarity," "natural," "adopted," let me permit Howe to finish her (and Stein's) thought: "We begin to trust the logic of our own and the world's machinery working in tandem and forget the mysterious disjunctures between hopes and arrivals" (48) In other words, "natural comforts" are mystifications, whereas "adopted" ones recognize disjunctures. We think we are natural when we are actually adopted into the world as we become familiar with it.

But consider the vocabulary she uses and does not change, a vocabulary of family, divided neatly into "natural" family (sometimes birth mothers are called "natural") and "adopted" family (where familiarity is set apart from nature). This is the division that inspired a pediatrician to ask me, as I sat with my son, if I had "any children of my own at home." Or one that caused discomfort in an emergency room nurse who asked my husband and me, bringing in a baby having a hard time breathing, "how can we describe his relationship to you?" Or the rather frequent question I got early on: "where did he come from?" (So that the question of birth, if unanswered, inspires questions about history.) I could go on, and I realize that Howe is not using the terms ignorantly or insensitively. But still she has not changed the life of her vocabulary.

How can a vocabulary change your life? Consider that the words we use to talk about family are abstract, that they do not apply to most of us well. Consider then that to write about these words is to bring those abstractions closer to our experience in the way Stein came closer to her meaning for "empathy" when she wrote from experience rather than from "logic." If empathy comes out of a recognition of the fluidity of histories, including one's own, then those fluidities may inspire new words. What, for example, is the word for the relationship between me and the adoptive mother of my daughter's birth sister?


Vance Maverick said...

Or the relationship between different senses of a word, even when they seem derived from a common base or heritage? If I'm "adopting" a strategy, is my thinking about that term governed by the family sense of "adopt"? I don't quite think so; but I'm not myself adopted or adoptive. Obviously it's wrong, though, at the other extreme, to say that both those senses are governed by the meaning of one historical "root" -- even if there is such a traceable root, it's no longer part of the family of usages.

susan said...

Thanks for your comment. Yes, it's probably an over-reading, but an over-reading with a purpose. Roots tend to show through the loam, after all!

jpc said...

My response will sound like an oversimplification. But I think the problem here is that poets and critics slip into thinking of language idealistically. To be aware of this doesn't take the sting out of that moment when language works, in context, to hurt. To have someone make it obvious that you're not a "natural" mother hurts, whether you're talking to a clumsy or cruel person in the grocery store, or a nurse with legitimate concerns about biology and patient history. And this is because we tend to presume natural equals real. You are a real mother, as would be the mother of your child's sister. And this is one of many familial relationships for which we have no name. I think the feeling we have that this is "off"--unnatural--goes right to the truth that language isn't natural, at least as natural as phenomenal experience. And now I think I've gone in a circle back to Howe.

Yes, roots do show through the loam. And the problem may go back to the same bankrupt notions of legitimacy that inform the genealogist's tree. It may be a problem for some people, and sometimes they may make it your problem. But you are a real mother, not an unnatural mother. Language is not as perfect as your love.

mongibeddu said...

I will have to read the Howe essay: I got interested in Edith Stein a few years ago, after learning that she wrote a dissertation under Husserl and had a hand in the survival of his papers, which were smuggled to Belgium sometime after the Nazis came to power.

The phrase "seem natural rather than adopted" could also be thought about in relation to Stein's conversion from Judaism to Catholicism. I don't know her thought very well. It may be that the naturalizing is appropriate to Stein's own sense of transformation. Certainly such a sense would be ironized by the Nazi definition of Judaism as a racial rather than religious category.

Thanks for this note and the pointer!

Ben F.