Sunday, 1 May 2011

Making Connections ~ The Other

A librarian friend of mine is convinced that books talk to each other because she so often finds that a subject she has been reading about in one will then find echoes in whatever volume she picks up next.  Well, I certainly wouldn't want to disagree with her.  In fact, one of the reasons that I first took up blogging was precisely because I wanted somewhere that I could explore those connections as and when they arose, although then, as now, I was interested in connections across all disciplines rather than just in books.  My weekend decision to do a bit of weeding and try and get back to reading for more than just escapism prompted me to think about that early resolve again and so this is going to be the first of what I hope will be a series of posts about making connections and the 'added value' such thematic 'echoes' can bring to the enjoyment of a book, a play, a piece of music or a work of art.

Over the past few weeks I've gone back to some of my earliest dramatic roots and have been re-reading the Greek Tragedies.  One of the issues that has come up time and again has been the problems that the 5th Century BCE Athenians so obviously had with anyone who was in some way 'other'.  You might have thought that this would be predictably with someone who was foreign, but far more often it was  with someone who was female.  Pity then poor Medea, who being both foreign and female was on a hiding to nothing before she ever set foot in Greece.  OK, so what she did, killing not only her rival for Jason's love but also the children she, herself, had borne him, was perhaps not the ideal way to endear herself to the populous, but nevertheless she just didn't stand a chance. 

What happens to Medea, especially the way she is set aside by Jason when he wants to take another wife, and the attitude expressed towards her, epitomises the often expressed regret of the Greek male that women had to exist at all.  In a strictly patriarchal society and one which saw women as inferior beings, it was a source of great concern to the men of Athens that it was unavoidable that they had to consort with women in order to perpetuate their family through the production of a male heir.  You get the feeling that if it hadn't been blasphemy to say so they would have told Zeus he'd got it wrong somewhere.  All babies should spring fully formed out of their father's heads as Zeus's own child, Athena did - except, of course, such children should always be male.  They might be able to get rid of a foreigner, but the dreaded woman they had to keep about them.  

Coincidently (or not, as the case of the whispering books may be) I've also been doing a lot of work on The Taming of the Shrew this past few weeks.  It's proving quite a frustrating play to study, mainly because wherever you look for academic discussion you find only two subjects being given any great attention, the relationship between The Taming of the Shrew and The Taming of a Shrew and the question of how you interpret what happens to Kate in that final scene, where it seems she capitulates completely to Petruchio's mastery.  I might come back to the first of those issues at some point because I think the answer to why there are two very different but clearly related plays probably accounts, to some extent at least, for the disappointment brought about by the second, however, the interesting aspect of my study in relation to this particular set of connections was the extract I came across from Jack Holland's A Brief History of Misogyny printed in the programme for an RSC production of the play.

For men, women are the original 'Other' - the 'not you'...woman presents a...complex problem for those who designated her as 'the Other'.  She is 'the Other' that cannot be excluded.  Racists can avoid interaction with the despised group.  But intercourse with women is in the end unavoidable, even for misogynists...intimacy with her is as unavoidable as it is essential.  The very maintenance of human life and society depend upon it.

And there we have it again, this idea that there are some instances of 'otherhood' that you can avoid, but the 'otherhood' of gender is inescapable.  I'm not certain, by the way, that this is a particularly helpful approach towards understanding what is going on in either A Shrew or The Shrew as texts, but clearly there was one RSC director who thought that it might provide a way of approaching the play when it came to trying to make sense of it on the stage.

Then along came instance the third, Julia Spencer-Fleming's second book in her Clare Ferguson series, A Fountain Filled With Blood.  Spencer-Fleming is one of those crime writers whose works I shall not be throwing into the compost bin.  Not only is this second book definitely better than the first, but she is also a writer who offers you subjects that require some serious thinking on the part of the reader, demanding that they consider their own position in relation to whatever issue she has chosen to raise.  I suspect the fact that Clare is an Episcopalian Priest is not purely coincidental.

In this book the people who have been assaulted, and in one instance killed, are all homosexual.  Clare is convinced that this is not a coincidence and that the fact that they are hate crimes should be made public.  Russ Van Alstyne, the local Police Chief, disagrees, arguing that to do so could cause unnecessary panic.  However, eventually he admits to Clare that this may not have been his only reason for refusing to publicise the sexuality of the victims.

"I guess I'm afraid that, deep down, all my reasons for not issuing a general warning or going to the press with the gay-bashing idea are because of ... who the victims were.  Because I don't, you know, feel comfortable around gay guys."

"Bur Dr. Dvorak was - is - a friend of yours.  That doesn't make any sense."

"We were friends at work.  I knew who he was and what he was, but it never impinged on our relationship.  He never talked about Paul, just like I never talked about my wife.  The fact that he was gay was like having a friend at work who's Jewish, or vegetarian.  You know about it, but you don't have to think about it, because what you do together never intersects with that other part of the person's life."

Here then is the other side of 'otherness', the 'other' you can pretend doesn't worry you because you can avoid ever having to face what marks that person out as different.  (Or for that matter, what marks you out as different.  Difference works both ways, although we rarely manage to recognise the fact.)

It makes you think, doesn't it?  How many prejudices do we deny simply because we've never been put into a position where we've had to intersect or interact with the people who embody them?  If we found ourselves in Russ's position could we be that honest?  Unless I hie me to a nunnery, I have to acknowledge the gender 'other', but other 'others'?  I'm not so sure.


  1. Oh, very good questions here. It's very easy to be all tolerant and progressive while sitting alone up in one's study. Many of the people I interact with whom I could consider "other" are my students and people I have some degree of power over. I interact with them, but in very controlled circumstances. There's a limit to how much I genuinely interact with them.

  2. Isn't it great when not only a Greek tragedy, a play by Shakespeare but a modern crime novel can make you think about a question like this? I always think I am pretty progressive, too, but I am probably not in situations where I'm pushed to think about these things as much as I should. Thank heavens for literature, but it's still a very safe world!

  3. Dorothy, I've been reading Iris Murdoch's "The Bell' this weekend for a discussion group this afternoon and that raises this issue in all sorts of ways because it is very clear that she was writing at a time when there would have been universal condemnation in pueblos at least of homosexuality and yet as a reader I got the feeling that she was asking me to see michael as one of the only two really 'truthful' characters in the novel. I can't wait to see how my fellow readers have reacted to it later today.

    Danielle, safe, yes, but challenging as well. Where else could we have these debates so openly? and it's literature that forces us into them.

  4. Hi Annie,

    I thought that I was quite progressive in my outlook, but having read your great post, I am now not so sure!

    I think that maybe my idea of progressive, is based on a very limited exposure to any situation, but in reality, maybe my true feelings can be more truly aligned to those of Russ, in 'A Fountain Filled With Blood', which is one book that I shall definitely be wanting to read.

    I have no problem with the notion of 'other' or 'others', but I suppose that is just so long as it isn't flaunted in my face.

    Any 'other' behaviour regardless of what it may be, whether sexual or otherwise, should be conducted with discretion and should not need to be openly flaunted, to me, this behaviour only highlights the perpetrators own insecurities!!

  5. Such interesting questions and connections from a diverse group of reading! I agree with your librarian friend, books do whisper to each other and that is all part of the wonderfulness of reading. Books help us make connections and think about issues we might not have otherwise paid attention to.

  6. Yvonne, it's troublesome, isn't it. I think a lot of us would like to think that we have no prejudices but when push comes to shove and we are forced to face the truth it is so often something we're not particularly proud of.

    Stefanie, it's interesting as well how one book can throw light on another. I've just finished reading Iris Murdoch's book 'The Bell' set and written in the 1950s and that has a completely different take on homosexuality which I've looked at through the prism of my earlier reading. I'll probably post about it towards the end of the week.

  7. I so agree with the quote from Russ about not really having to address certain facets of a co-worker's life while you interact with them at work. It is a very controlled social environment and I don't know if that is a good or bad thing. Funny that you spend eight or so hours a day with people you don't really fully know. Thanks for leading me to these thoughts!

  8. Anbolyn, I suppose there's an argument to be made that the sort of 'otherness' concerned here shouldn't find it's way into the work place anyway. The problem is when someone uses that someone else's 'otherness' to bolster their own view of themselves and the view they project to other people inaccurately.