Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Adrienne Rich’s “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying”

sara.gladwin's picture

I was very interested in a particular allusion that seemed too often invoked in the conversation to be coincidental: the discussion revolving around “the void.” It is described as “not something created by patriarchy, or racism, or capitalism…. It is beyond personality; beyond who loves us or hates us” (191). The conversation creates the feeling of something not quite describable or fully explainable; something that lies just beyond and outside of words.

“We begin out of the void, out of darkness and emptiness. It is part of the cycle understood by the old pagan religions… Out of death, rebirth; out of nothing, something” As I was reading this I was brought back to the Hebrew concept of תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ (Tohu wa-Bohu). Tohu wa-Bohu, while translated into English as “formless and empty” actually has a much more layered meaning. The second line of genesis is often translated as “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (NIV Genesis 1.1). However, the interpretation of Tohu wa-Bohu is believed to be more complex, and some theologians think the English language does not have a word that fully covers the meaning of “Tohu wa-Bohu.” Other words that are considered part of the definition are “void” and “chaos” but none of those words seem to accurately illustrate the concept, which is believed to imply something more than emptiness, or “mere hollowness and anarchy” (191). Something existed there, not simply the absence of something and everything. The void was not a place of non-existence but a place for the inception of existence and creation to take place. According to Genesis, it is out of the void that God choose to form the earth: “The void is the creatix.”

I thought then the use of this concept was interesting within the discussion recorded by Rich. The formlessness seems to be thought of as desirable, and the general thought seems to be that women who have been forced to lie and be silent are being divided from confronting the void. Only within that void is the potential to re-evaluate life entirely and begin anew from a place of creation: “It forces us to reexamine the universe, to question the whole instinct and concept of trust… we are brought close to formlessness” (192).  This discussion actually reminded me a lot of our last reading last week where the author was arguing that trauma did not consistently produce a state of dissolution of the self as the conventional narrative conveys but actually produces more nonlinear responses that are cultural based, not a result of a universal pathological response. Within this argument is the idea that the mental chaos often assumed as an accompaniment to trauma also functions as a catalyst for a reorganization of a new self, which is consistent with the previous cultural and “place-specific” values that person upheld before the trauma occurred. Therefore, trauma could not possibly result in a total and complete eradication of the self since the pre-trauma self is necessary in how they construct their response. Those who experience trauma also seem to be experiencing as a result, an interaction with the void that Rich introduces. Rich seems to be making a case for the necessity of formlessness in discovering truth…. But then does lying become a necessity as well in order to reach the discovery of formlessness and truth? In order to get to the state in which we are forced to re-examine our lives, don’t we have to experience an almost violent/violating divorce from comfort and complacency? Unless she is implying that the way we have been taught to use lies severs us from learning to have a closer relationship with formlessness, that if we were allowed to be more trusting and honest that we could be more comfortable with the act of re examination and more receptive to doing so? Is it possible to confront formlessness without having to be shocked or forced into it?