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

Reading—Not Writing—the Patriarchy: Limits of Language in Eugenides and Cixous

anorton's picture

Reading—Not Writing—the Patriarchy: Limits of Language in Eugenides and Cixous

Alexandra Norton

"Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling"
(Eugenides 217).

Cal(liope), the intersex narrator and purpose of the story of Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, declares this assertion midway through the text, just after recounting the circumstances immediately preceding her [note: I have elected to sex Cal as female or male depending on her/his age: As Cal immediately introduces, he "was born twice: first, as a baby girl...; and then again, as a teenage boy" (1).] birth. This quick, anecdotal statement is surrounded not with evidence but with examples that, for all intents and purposes, are quite unrelated to its two central claims; its transience demonstrates Cal's belief that the "facts" he posits—that the language is patriarchal and that it over simplifies language—will be taken unquestionably at face value by the reader. The assertion betrays—or willingly communicates—Cal's assumption that "the language is patriarchal": this is posited as the base truth to which the evidence presented—"that it oversimplifies feeling"—attests. It is so quick as to be absorbed by the anxious reader in his or her pursuit of the plot; but what Cal casually assumes will be taken for fact are two essential claims about language, the exploration of which is crucial to the development of a universally-gendered—or non-gendered—language.

Though "the language is patriarchal" is, syntactically, the first potential untruth, there is greater need to examine the primary evidence that Cal offers to defend this belief: Is it true that language oversimplifies feeling? Cal is led to this claim by his dissatisfaction with "single words": "I don't believe in 'sadness,' 'joy,' or 'regret,'" he declares (217). Cal's asserted disbelief demonstrates an arrogance that devalues the complexity of even common, generalized words (two of which, unlike his proposed alternate, linked nouns, have the power to function as both nouns and verbs). Much later in the book, Cal experiences the elaborative and extending nature of words to both clarify and complicate themselves in an interconnected web of meanings when he traces synonyms through Webster's Dictionary (430). How, then, can he honestly deny the multiplicity of meanings inherent in the word "sadness"? Even the basic, introductory definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary establishes "sadness" as "the condition or quality of being sad (in various senses)" (emphasis mine) [Note: Unless otherwise noted, all quoted definitions come from the OED.]. The entry does not end with this potential for ambiguity; no, it elaborates and offers as potential definitions such variances as "weariness," "gravity of mind or demeanour," "seriousness," "constancy," "gloomy appearance," and "mournfulness." Granted, several of these definitions are now classified as obsolete or rare; nevertheless, the fact remains that the words in use today—the simplest, most seemingly-generic words—are steeped in a long history of evolving meanings and exist now as multifaceted complexities.

Thus, it is not individual words themselves that are "simple": Could it be, instead, that our interpretation of language—our understanding of what Cal means when he says words like "happy" and "sad" and even "I" and "the Obscure Object" (the latter two's being words that ostensibly have a concrete meaning as defined in the context of Middlesex)—is what oversimplifies feeling? When Cal writes "'joy,'" most readers will quickly understand the word as they have taken it to mean in other contexts, both literary and extra-textually. They will not likely consider all—or even any—of the present-day definitions, such as "a vivid emotion of pleasure arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction," "exultation of spirit," "jubilant festivity," and "a source or object of joy;" or, in verb form, "to find or take pleasure," "to be glad," and "to fill with joy." The three-letter word is at once something that one can have, be, or do; it can simultaneously express the way one affects others or the way others affect one. In needing to comprehend and move on with the text, however, the reader settles on likely one meaning of the word and freezes it in his or her mind as meaning that one thing; becoming aware of the multiple meanings of "joy" does not so much enrich an understanding of Cal's meaning as it does complicate and frustrate the ability to move forward, to continue receiving Cal's linguistic communication.

Though the words themselves contain vast if not infinite meanings, the act of quick reading and understanding a text necessitates that the reader accept one potential meaning of each word. This settling on one common, not-fully-understood meaning of a word is perhaps what Hélène Cixous warns against when she writes, "Beware of diagnoses that would reduce your generative powers. 'Common' nouns are also proper nouns that disparage your singularity by classifying it into species" (2055). It is not the word itself but the "diagnosis"—the "distinctive characterization in precise terms"—that limits the writer's powers to create. Interpretation of a text settles the narrator into one position, categorizes him or her as one type of being; and, by typifying that being, by making it part of a conceivable group or category, the interpretation detracts from its inherent individuality and uniqueness.

Even the language Cal uses to condemn the improperly-expressive, common words do not carry quite the negative connotation he intends. The current definition of the verb "simplify" is a worthy goal of language in expressing the unique experiences and sentiments of individuals: "to render less complex, elaborate, or involved; to reduce to a clearer or more intelligible form; to make easy." The words in the definition bear a reductive tone that could easily be viewed as negative were the point of language not to facilitate—"make easy"—the reader's understanding of a writer's expressed ideas. The only valid complaint, then, about the "oversimplification of feeling" about which Cal bases his judgement of language is that it clarifies expression perhaps beyond what is necessary for the reader's understanding; in which case the oversimplification is merely a minor annoyance and waste of time rather than a deliberate oppression of the women's sphere of feelings. Clearly, Cal cannot escape the complexity of his own words; rather than simplifying his intended-to-be-expressed thoughts, they allow the reader potentially infinite ways of understanding him.

Cal's proposition to generate "Germanic traincar constructions" for complex feelings or ideas would inundate the English language with an innumerable number of new words with meanings highly specific to and dependent on their creators (217). In just six lines of printed text, Cal comes up with as many new, multi-worded ideas that he would compress into single, universally-known words. Purely from a pragmatic perspective, this proposition is absurd and destructive: new words would enter the language far too quickly for their ever hoping to be documented and learned by anyone other than their individual creators. The high degree of specificity that Cal encourages might indeed result in a language that can fully and—this is important—succinctly express the individual; the problem is that there would be as many separate languages as individuals, each with its own words and particular meanings attached to those words: Language as a means of communication between people would cease to function.

At present, an agreed-upon language is necessary to communicate; as far as we aim to achieve this goal of communication, we must operate within language, even if in an ultimate effort to create a new method of expression. For a multiplicity of reasons, the majority of people participate in cultures and societies that classify or categorize people, objects, thoughts, everything according to potentially-arbitrary but established distinctions to help organize and encompass an understanding of the world. The mere act of writing, of trying to elucidate one's expression of identity, means working within a system that, although theoretically allowing for a variety of meanings to accompany each word, ultimately encourages the interpreters of those words to settle on (their own) one meaning. Cixous posits that, even in a "patriarchal language," woman's "speech... is never simple or linear or 'objectified,' generalized: she draws her story into history" (2044-2045). This assertion acknowledges that women can write their non-simple, non-linear, non-objectified, and non-generalized stories in the language that may or may not be patriarchal. By refusing to adhere to linearity—as Cal regularly boasts when he calls attention to his "feminine" narration: "there's an innate feminine circularity in the story I have to tell"—women can express themselves in existing language (20).

The pertinent question then becomes not whether the language is patriarchal—for as long as society yields dominance to the patriarchy, and as long as control of language belongs to that patriarchy, language will always be arguably patriarchal—but whether reading is. By viewing words as fixed and generic—the only view that allows that language truly oversimplifies feeling—we uphold the concrete system of classification that helps perpetuate the patriarchal hierarchy of categories. Instead, we must understand that language is fluid, that linguistically-expressed meaning cannot be pinned-down and simplified without consequently losing the unique perspective of its expresser. Cal, in providing us with six unique descriptions of amendments to common English nouns has begun the process of challenging the singular meaning of words. Women have begun to write more, have begun to claim voices of their own using the same language that men have dominated since its inception, and they must by all means continue to do so; what must change in order for us as readers to understand what the woman writer is saying is our insistence on the singularity of words' meanings.


Works Cited

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch, et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 2039-2056.
"diagnosis, n." Def. 2. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 2 Oct. 2008. <>.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Picador, 2002.
"joy, n." Def. 1a, 1e, 3a. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 29 Sept. 2008. <>
"joy, v." Def. 1, 2, 3. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 29 Sept. 2008. <>.
"sadness, n." Def. 1, 1.1, 2, 3, 6, 7a. OED Online. Sept. 2008. Oxford University Press. 29 Sept. 2008. <>.
"simplify, n." Def. 2a. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 30 Sept. 2008. <>.


skumar's picture

Reading vs. Close Reading

In your paper, anorton, you write: "though the words themselves contain vast if not infinite meanings, the act of quick reading and understanding a text necessitates that the reader accept one potential meaning of each word."

I agree with you, in part, Allie that an initial reading of a text requires the person to grasp meaning (most probably a universal meaning) of a word so to continue reading and understand the text. I, too, read a word and try to correlate it with a broad, less exact interpretation. While quick readings do not posit the variabillity of meanings and interpretations, it nonetheless provides the reader with a general understanding of the text. I mean, I could argue with you and say the meanings of individual words do not matter because the purpose of reading is to walk away from the text with a broader understanding.

I think Lifting Belly presents an interesting dynamic to your exploration of the limits of language. In the case of Stein's poem, I do not think it makes a difference whether the reader knows or does not know the meaning of individual words, individual sentences, or even individual stanzas (are there even stanzas?). In this text, it can be argued that sounds of words triumph meaning of words. I think LB would challenge your stance that reading a word or a group of words necessitates a consideration of the multiplicity of meanings. In Lifting Belly, a reader just needs to close there eyes, tuning out preconcieved understandings of words, to appreciate the sensuality of the scene being described. I do not have a complete answer to this question, especially since I am on the fence about the limits of language.

Actually, I plan on exploring the limits of language in my next paper by "experimenting" whether sounds or meanings of words serve to better understand the purpose of Lifting Belly. Keep an eye out for it! I would be interested to how you would respond to the "results."

Random, but still related: I would be curious to know if you thought pictures or words to be more explainatory?

Another thing, if you are interested in exploring masculinity and feminity of words and of language, I would suggest you look into the French langauge--a language where the default article is "le" (masculine). French completely disregards the femininity of the word itself. In fact, my French teachers in high school suggested I always use "le" in speaking, in writing, on exams etc if I was ever in doubt about which article to use for a single word. In French, there are more "masculine words" than feminine words. It would be interesting for you, I think, if you wanted to look into whether or not a word retains or loses its femininity with a masculine article. I don't know, something to consider for future writing projects...

Anne Dalke's picture

"Beware of diagnoses that would reduce your generative powers"

You cover quite the distance here, anorton, in this complex unpacking and re-narrating of Cal's single throw-away line. You've got an impressive compliation of "evidence" that words--even the simplest, most seemingly-generic words--are multifacted and complex, and your final turn, to claim that it's our reading habits which must alter, to move us beyond the patriarchial restrictions in which we are embedded, is quite adroit.

You've raised a couple of questions I'd like to think about some more with you: whether the point of language, esp. literary language, may NOT be to facilitate the reader's understanding; whether language, by nature a communication between people, must be ambiguous and general (if entirely exact, entirely specific, it would not communicate; generalizable=generative), so it necessarily involves a simplication, a reduction of what is.

I found myself smiling throughout my reading of your essay, both because of the gifts embedded in it--like the quote from Cixous to "beware of diagnoses that would reduce our generative powers"-- and because it nibbles @ the sorts of questions I've been asking, and writing about, for some time now. If you want to go on thinking along these lines, you might be interested in a piece I published last year called Why Words Arise--and Wherefore, which plays, in part, with the notion

that ordinary language is not "supposed" to be unambiguous, because its primary function is not in fact to transmit from sender to receiver a particular, fully defined "story". Ordinary language is instead "designed" (by biological and cultural evolution) to perform a more sophisticated, bidirectional communication elicit information from/about the receiver, to find out what is otherwise unknowable by the sender: what ideas/thoughts/perspectives the receiver has about the general subject of the ambiguous transmission/story links teller/transmitter and audience/receiver in a conversation (and, ideally, in a dialectic from which new things emerge).

For more on this see both Grobstein, Two Cultures and Norretranders' The User Illusion. And for a real test of your idea that women might write and read differently, multiplicitously rather than singularly, turn to next week's assignment of Gertrude Stein's Lifting Belly....