On Carson’s “The Gender of Sound”

In an effort to not work-work on Boxing Day, and to give everyone a warm-up for the rest of the week, which will be full of fun and meaningless end-of-year posts, I thought I’d start off today with my long overdue comments on the last piece in Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony & God, “The Gender of Sound.”

As I noted last week, “The Gender of Sound” is actually a prose essay that begins by claiming “[i]t is in large part according to the sounds people make that we judge them sane or insane, male or female, good, evil, trustworthy, depressive, marriageable, moribund, likely or unlikely to make war on us, little better than animals, inspired by God. These judgments happen fast and can be brutal.” She goes on to explore, with examples from Ancient Greece and Rome (both mythical and historical), Freud, nineteenth-century North America, and so forth, ways in which certain types of sounds have been designated as female and what that has meant for the sounds and the females. (Hint: it’s not good.)

But one of Carson’s opening examples struck me as unfair. She discusses Gertrude Stein, and, later, Hemingway’s perception of Stein.

Putting a door on the female mouth has been an important project of patriarchal culture from antiquity to the present day. Its chief tactic is an ideological association of female sound with monstrosity, disorder and death. Consider this description by one of her biographers of the sound of Gertrude Stein:

Gertrude was hearty. She used to roar with laughter, out loud. She had a laugh like a beefsteak. She loved beef.

Carson complains that these words carry “a whiff of pure fear…that projects Gertrude Stein across the boundary of human and animal kind into monstrosity.” The simile ‘she had a laugh like a beefsteak’ which identifies Gertrude Stein with cattle is followed at once by the statement ‘she loved beef’ indicating the Gertrude Stein ate cattle. Creatures who eat their own kind are regularly called cannibals and regarded as abnormal.” We must forget, for a moment, that the first word Mabel Dodge Luhan, the biographer in question, used to describe Stein was “hearty”—the opposite of “disorder and death.” And we should also, I suppose, not entertain the possibility instead that it’s Stein’s laugh, not Stein herself, that’s being identified with the beefsteak, and that her loving beef in turn might refer more to her liking her own powerful, hearty laughter. In any case, the passage certainly did not suggest cannibalism to me, though it does emphasize Stein’s apparent un-femininity, and possibly not in a flattering(ly feminine) way. (I guess part of what I’m saying here is: would this sound negative if it were about a man? So we have to be careful about how we gender sounds, but we also have to use the gender-appropriate sounds to compliment people?)

But my bigger beef, as it were, is with Carson’s accusation that Hemingway reacted badly to Stein because of her female sounds. Far be it from me to say Hemingway was not a misogynist; I wouldn’t even dream of defending him from such a charge in general. But the specific passage Carson quotes from A Moveable Feast about the end of Hemingway and Stein’s relationship is one I’m familiar with, and is part of a larger problem with Stein I’m also familiar with. Hemingway has just arrived and is waiting for Stein to come in and receive him.

The colorless liquid felt good on my tongue and it was still in my mouth when I heard someone speaking to Miss Stein as I had never heard one person speak to another; never, anywhere, ever. Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, “Don’t pussy. Don’t. Don’t, please don’t. Please don’t, pussy.”

According to Carson, “it is interesting to hear him tell the story of how he came to end his friendship with Gertrude Stein because he could not tolerate the sound of her voice.” That seems to me both extremely ungenerous but, more importantly, extremely willing to gloss over why Hemingway could not tolerate her voice—that is to say, what exactly it was that he could not tolerate, which I would argue was hardly her “voice” per se. What Hemingway heard was “someone speaking…as I had never heard one person speak to another,” and he uses his clear, concise harshness to indicate just how unusual and perhaps inhumane that voice was. And if you know Stein, you know that “pussy” was Alice B. Toklas, and that this wasn’t the only such argument they ever had. What Hemingway cannot tolerate is pleading and begging—and probably some quality of the bullying as well. If pleading and begging must be female sounds then we can still tar him with Carson’s brush, but she does not attempt to make that argument. Nor does she attempt to say that something about two females arguing has been designated as intolerably offensive to this man’s ear. Only that Hemingway “could not tolerate the sound of her voice,” which I don’t think indicates the main point of the passage at all.

Carson says toward the end of her essay that she has “cast [her] net rather wide and [has] mingled evidence from different periods of time and different forms of cultural expression—in a way that reviewers of my work like to dismiss as ethnographic naïveté. I think there is a place for naïveté in ethnography, at the very least as an irritant.” I don’t want to condemn this, just what I see as a particular instance of sloppiness—and one in which Carson’s point does work if she makes it differently.

On the other hand, I also disagree with the most basic conclusion (or premise, perhaps) of the essay, against Stoicism or self-control—maybe. But that’s a whole other argument that won’t get a post.

“The Glass Essay” by Anne Carson

The first poem in Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony & God is called “The Glass Essay,” and if you’re anything like me, the title might seem odd. Essay? As Guy Davenport’s introduction to the collection explains, though, Carson’s poems can seem like verse essays: “She writes in a kind of mathematics of the emotions, with daring equations and recurring sets and subsets of images. As with Matthew Arnold, truth and observation are more important than lyric effect or coloring. If a good line happens, it happens.” This seems just slightly unfair since good lines happen more often than not, but it’s accurate.

“The Glass Essay” is, roughly, the story of the aftermath of a breakup between the narrator and her partner Law, after which she goes back home to spend time with her mother (her father is in an elder care home). There is a fair amount of narrative about her activities with her mother, her walks on the moor, and her dreams, many of which are disturbing and features “nudes” that she uses to help guide her on her way to recovery. All this is mixed in with anecdotes and musings on Emily Brontë, a woman with powerful emotions and plenty of sexual energy in her work, though she apparently knew nothing of men and hardly anything even of people outside her own family.

The poem is lovely, but emotional content runs high. I wouldn’t say it was “difficult to read,” but it’s not exactly an upper. A representative passage about Law:

Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is
to watch the year repeat its days.
It is as if I could dip my hand down

into time and scoop up
blue and green lozenges of April heat
a year ago in another country.

I can feel that other day running underneath this one
like an old videotape—here we go fast around the last corner
up the hill to his house, shadows

of limes and roses blowing in the car window
and music spraying from the radio and him
singing and touching my left hand to his lips.

One of my favorite things about Carson is how she describes so much sensory experience so quickly, in a way that seems so effortless it must not be, and becomes slippery when you look at it hard but feels just right as you read it. Shadows blow into the car; music sprays from the radio. But that corner feels fast and the singing and touching feel real.

The “lozenges” are particularly apt, I thought—like pieces of stained glass to look through at the past, small physical things you could grab to get that past back.

Later in the poem, Carson writes, “My questions were not original./Nor did I answer them.” This tone—perhaps this is what Davenport means by “mathematics of the emotions,” it does seem cold though also feeling—was one of my favorite things. Still not equipped to write about it very well I suppose! But, I have to say, breathtaking.

“The Glass Essay” was far and away my favorite poem in the collection, though the others were mostly good as well. There is also, though, a “real” essay in the book, which I did not much care for at all. I hope to get around to writing about why later this week.