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Essay

Backstory: Laugh of the Wives

By Adam Greenfield, Associate Artistic Director
July 2, 2019

When aliens arrived on earth, Forest Whitaker hired Amy Adams to communicate with them. (This is the 2016 sci-fi movie Arrival.) So to save us, Amy and Forest enter one of the alien spacecrafts to decipher the language of the scary heptapods. Then, later, Amy and Jeremy Renner are freaking out in a tent:

Jeremy: You know I was doing some reading, um, about this idea, um, that if you immerse yourself into a foreign language, then you can actually rewire your brain?

Amy: Yeah the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It’s the theory that, uh, the language you speak determines how you think.

Jeremy: Yeah. It affects how you see everything.

And so the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis entered pop culture. This hypothesis suggests that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition: “We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language,” Whorf wrote. “The world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds.” Understanding this becomes key to how Amy Adams saves all humankind from annihilation. Later in Arrival, she confronts Forest Whitaker on his methods of communicating with the aliens:

Amy:Are they using a game to converse with their heptapods?

Forest: Maybe. Why?

Amy: Well let’s say that I taught them chess instead of English. Every conversation would be a game. Every idea expressed through opposition, victory, defeat. You see the problem?

(Thanks, Amy, and yes.) This is a problem that’s pulsing underneath the writing throughout Wives, by Jaclyn Backhaus, who — like Sapir and Whorf (and Amy and Jeremy and Forest) — asks fundamentally why we think the things we think. Not at all a play about alien encounters, Jaclyn’s new work wrenches us back and forth through several centuries to confront, and possibly dismantle, the linguistic and narrative structures that have built the decidedly patriarchal worldview we perpetuate today. In crafting this play, she confronts stories themselves, and the writing that makes them.

“When literary works were not assured longevity, the canonization of a work ensured its preservation.”

The word “classic” first entered the culture when the 2nd-century Roman writer Aulus Gellius, in his miscellany “Noctes Atticae,” referred to one of his contemporaries as a classicus scriptor, non proletarius, a “distinguished, not commonplace writer.” But it was the Greeks across the Ionian Sea who began the practice of actually ranking their cultural works, inventing the notion of a “canon,” a word derived from ancient Greek meaning “measuring rod” or “standard,” and using the term hoi enkrithentes (“the admitted,” “the included”) to identify the writers that had been canonized. Such high-ranking literary works were considered the record of a civilization, an insight to the hearts of an age; and in the expanse of literary history that pre-dated our age of mechanical reproduction, when literary works were not assured longevity, the canonization of a work ensured its preservation. The texts admitted to the canon were all but exclusively written by men.

Today, the term “Western canon” signifies the works considered essential, the best of Western culture: an anthology largely curated by academics like John Erskine and the other men who created the influential Great Books Program in the 1920s. In 1994, the literary critic Harold Bloom published a tome-like survey of major works that, as if to drive home a point, was actually titled The Western Canon. This was an expansive list, but Bloom focused tightly on 26 authors who he deemed central to the canon, 23 of whom are men. More recently, in 2015, the English writer Robert McCrum was asked by The Guardian to list “The 100 Best Novels Written in English.” And like Erskine’s and Bloom’s, his ranking was notably dominated by males: only 21 of 100 were written by women; and of the 67 titles on his list belonging to the 20th century, only 15.

“The universe of arts and letters has been systematically skewed in favor of male voices.”

Considering the use of canonization to create a standard for excellence in light of Sapir-Whorf’s notion that our worldview is determined by the structures of language, it’s unsurprising that the culture, built on the myths and traditions reinforced by the Western canon, chronically privileges males. As Amy Adams wisely said, “The language you speak determines how you think.” When the universe of arts and letters has been systematically skewed in favor of male voices — male perspectives on work, domesticity, strength, weakness, psychology itself — the sense that these perspectives are subjective gets distorted, and increasingly the male experience begins to be assumed as the universal one.

The Australian scholar Dale Spender, in her book Man Made Language (1980), zooms in past the narrative surface of writing to language itself, speaking to the evolution of conceptual semantics to both create and uphold a patriarchal worldview. “Both sexes inhabit a male-decreed reality and make sense of the world in terms of male meanings,” she wrote, adding that “those meanings which do not support the patriarchal order are frequently seen as threatening.” To Spender, it was not “mere coincidence that there were more positive words for males in the language, nor was it an accident that there were so many negative words for females with no semantic equivalent for males. These manifestations of a patriarchal order were rule-governed and the rule is that words which are marked for females, which are used in association with females, become ‘pejorated’.” Why does it stand out so noticeably when, in English, the word “she” or “her” is used as universal pronoun? Why does the word “governess,” a feminine version of “governor,” take on such a different meaning? Also consider the difference between “mistress” and “mister;” “courtesan” and “courtier;” “madam” and “sir.” Where the male versions of these words speak of power and high status, the female forms connote subordination or sexual service.

“Hers was a call for writing that tears down walls that have silenced women’s interiority.”

In 1977, the French playwright Hélène Cixous swore off going to the theater. “It was like going to my funeral,” she wrote, “and it does not produce a living woman or (and this is no accident) her body or even her unconscious.” In her manifesto, The Laugh of the Medusa (1975), Cixous ardently appealed for Écriture Feminine, “women’s writing,” a new paradigm in which “woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.” Hers was a call for writing that tears down walls that have silenced women’s interiority, that have relegated women’s experience to the realm of privacy, so that she might cry out,

"I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst — burst with forms much more beautiful than those which are put up in frames and sold for a stinking fortune. And I, too, said nothing, showed nothing; I didn’t open my mouth, I didn’t repaint my half of the world. I was ashamed. I was afraid, and I swallowed my shame and my fear. I said to myself: You are mad! What’s the meaning of these waves, these floods, these outbursts? Where is the ebullient, infinite woman who, immersed as she was in her naivete, kept in the dark about herself?"

Wives is a kaleidoscope, bending time and space to whisk us through the narrative tropes of a male-dominated culture. But vibrating inside each chapter of this story, each word that comprises it, is the reaching arm of a writer pushing past the structures set down for her, searching for the freedom and honesty of her true self. It’s a wild and undeniable force, a worldview that’s reaching for the language to deliver itself.