Good enough for Jesus

Charlotte Brewer

  • The State of the Language: 1990 Edition edited by Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels
    Faber, 531 pp, £17.50, January 1990, ISBN 0 571 14182 X
  • Clichés and Coinages by Walter Redfern
    Blackwell, 305 pp, £17.50, October 1989, ISBN 0 631 15691 7
  • Rhetoric: The Wit of Persuasion by Walter Nash
    Blackwell, 241 pp, £25.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 631 16754 4

The second edition of The State of the Language, published ten years on from the first, contains 53 essays and nine poems, each by a different author. The dust-jackets of both editions are almost wholly taken up, front and back, with a well-spaced parade of contributing writers’ names, and this provides a visual counterpart to something that emerges very clearly from the essays themselves: the ‘state of the language’ is a notional concept, impossible to separate out from the myriad (famous) voices who contribute to it.

In both books, the essays are arranged under various snappy titles: ‘Proprieties’, ‘Identities’, ‘Media and the Arts’, ‘Ways and Means’, ‘Societies’ in the first edition; ‘Englishes’, ‘The Body Politic’, ‘Money’, ‘Practices’, ‘Art’ and ‘Rectitudes’ in the second. The implication, perhaps, is that the 1980s were judged by the two editors, Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks, to be likely to rate correctness of language above its political and social implications, while the 1990s will reverse these priorities. There is little point in taking issue with this, since in practice such divisions don’t hold fast: most of the writers claim, explicitly or implicitly, that their particular interest in language touches many different cultural and political issues.

‘Englishes’, the first 1990 category, begins with an irresistible epigraph: ‘If English was good enough for Jesus it is good enough for you’ – apparently from the lips of a school superintendent in Arkansas refusing a request that foreign languages should be taught in high school. The section turns out to be partly about the status and possible future of English as a world language, partly about a variety of experiences of the relationships between English and another language. Professional linguists (among them Sidney Greenbaum and Randolph Quirk) jostle with poets and novelists (including Medbh McGuckian and Amy Tan). David Dabydeen writes ‘On Not Being Milton: Nigger Talk in England Today’, and discusses, in impeccably establishment English, a question that might just as well come under ‘Art’: how does a black writer in English find an authentic voice: what does s/he do with the cultural legacy of Milton, on the one hand, and Creole writers, on the other: which of the various English-speaking audiences should be aimed at? He describes the dilemma as follows: ‘Either you drop the epithet “black” and think of yourself as a “writer” (a few of us foolishly embrace this position, desirous of the status of “writing” and knowing that “black” is blighted) – that is, you cease dwelling on the nigger/tribal/nationalistic theme, you cease folking up the literature, and you become “universal” [i.e., address the ‘narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe’] – or else you perish in the backwater of small presses, you don’t get published by the “quality” presses, and you don’t receive the corresponding patronage of media-hype ... The pressure is to become a mulatto and house-nigger (Ariel) rather than a field-nigger (Caliban).’ In ‘Talking Black’, Henry Louis Gates, searching for a black critical language with which to read black texts, describes the same problem from a different point of view.

How can we write or read the text of ‘Blackness’? What language(s) do black people use to represent their critical or ideological positions? In what forms of language do we speak or write? Can we derive a valid, integral ‘black’ text of criticism and ideology from borrowed or appropriated forms?

Put simply (or simplistically), black writers probably want to talk about the same sorts of things as white writers – love, loss, desire, power, their relationships with their personal, social and political communities, with their environment, with other texts. Each writer, whether white or black, will draw on a varying experience of these things, ranging from the unique to the universal. But the language available to writers, if they are to be accessible to a reasonably wide audience, seems to come with certain (white) cultural and political assumptions and connotations built in, some of which may be directly in conflict with the sort of experience the (black) writer wants to convey. How can a writer’s parole (individual speech or writing) make any headway against langue (the language system)?

The problem is exactly analogous to that faced by feminists, and in the section on ‘The Body Politic’ Marina Warner, Hermione Lee and Sandra Gilbert explore the ways in which women might or do speak and write so as to convey their experience in a way that communicates a female point of view without being disenfranchising. Marina Warner writes of ‘Fighting Talk’, the punitive, aggressive, violent and (she argues) male-orientated language of pleasure, which uses words like impact, force, explosive, shock, searing. ‘I find my voice falters in the site of pleasure,’ she confesses, ‘that I have no words for it, that there, I am gagged ... Is saying something violently saying it well? Is feeling something violently feeling it in the only possible way? In a study of the (male) connotations of the word ‘power’, Hermione Lee traces some of the conflicts and debates in present-day feminist theory. Is écriture féminine, that which is ‘located in the gaps, the absences, the unsayable or unrepresentable of discourse and representation’ (Mary Jacobus), a possible or indeed sensible strategy? Or is it a ‘kind of programmatic writing’ which ‘consigns women and their language, all over again (as they have been traditionally consigned by inspired “phallocentric” writers such as Yeats, Whitman and Lawrence), to the realms of “inchoate darkness”,’ the unconscious, mothering, hysteria and babble? She takes as illustration a ‘conscientious Americanised version of ‘ecriture féminine that ‘uses strategies of syntactic blurring, fragmentation, exclamation, rhythmic patterns and an alternative vocabulary to ridicule the culture’s mythical respect for male linguistic power’: ‘Save the sun, everybody, from the watery deeps, the dark underneath it must go – Into – Every night into such dangers, such soft inchoate darkness, what will become of it, will it rise again will it rise again?... That limp dick – an entire civilisation based on it, help the sun rise, watch out for the dark underground, focus focus focus, keep it high, let it soar, let it transcend, let it aspire to Godhead.’ In some ways it is easier for blacks, for black language does actually exist, while a secret and wholly female language (as reported in the Chinese press in 1986, so Marina Warner tells us) ‘cannot be produced pure, out of women’s ground of being (whatever that is) without reflection of her social and historical conditions’. Or as Lee puts it, ‘no one speaks, or has ever spoken, a distinctive, alternative female language. If it is to come into being, it must be an entirely fabricated, artificial, written invention.’

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