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Women and Honor (Julia posting through Esty's account)

jhunter's picture

As stated in the title line, this is Julia posting from Esty's account (which she kindly lent to me until my own is restored). 

I've probably made clear in one or many classes that I consider Adrienne Rich to be my favorite poet and perhaps even writer of all time.  The first poem of hers I ever read was "Diving Into the Wreck."  Here is a link to the poem from  The poem ends:

We are, I am, you are by cowardice or courage the one who find our way back to this scene carrying a knife, a camera a book of myths in which our names do not appear.

I found myself thinking continuously about this poem when reading "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying."  The phrase that grabs me the most is, "by cowardice or courage."  Rich mentions both throughout her piece on honor, but I don't think she discusses either enough. 

Our truths are often created for us.  They can be conditions that we do not choose but that we often must choose to disclose.  I wonder how important the distinction between cowardice and courage are.  Is one always lying and the other always honesty?  If I find myself in the wreck, does it matter if it is cowardice or courage that caused me to arrive there? 

I don't think that I believe that all truths or all lies are created equal even if I believe that they are all created.  We all have many truths and many lies, and there are those that form our identities and others that we distance ourselves from.  I am unsure how many truths I have to share to be a honorable woman.  Does one truth make up for many lies?  Does my silence, my absence of truth (or what Rich considers to be a lie), devalue the many truths I may have shared? 

We all struggle with what to tell, how much to share, and what silences are natural vs. unnatural (as in Olsen's classification).  I don't think the absence of truth is always a lie.  The calculation of a woman's honor seems too complex to ever state with any authority.  The truths we value are a direct result of discourse about what needs to be spoken and what is assumed through silence.  The people who need to tell the truth are often those whose truths are most painful.  Yes, that pain may be a result of the shame we create, but that doesn't make it any less real.

I believe Rich's words, "When a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her."  But I don't think there is any end to truth, and I know, by both the truths I share and those I don't, that my silence about certain truths does not make them any less real or make me a liar.  One day I may choose to speak about them, or I might not.  Perhaps people will assume some things about me to be true, and they very well may be right.  But I don't think I should force any woman to speak a truth that she is not ready to share with herself or with others.  Honor is complicated, and once many of us arrive in the wreck about which Rich writes, cowardice and courage are no longer separate entities.



sara.gladwin's picture

some ideas about the wreck and rich's notes

This is my favorite poem. I never fail to discover something new about it.

As I was rereading Diving into the Wreck after I read your post, I was thinking about the Book of Myths, which begins her Journey: "First having read the book of myths..." For me, the word myth implies something outside reality but still within our imagination. In some ways, truth and lies become almost indistinguishable in mythical stories, as the myth is staged as a variable possibility between reality and the impossible. While it is now widely accepted that stories about sailors who encounter mermaids are possibilities outside reality, there still remains elements of truth within that story, anchoring the story back to reality. The sailor may have seen something, and if so, what did he see? Myths are implicated with mysteries, and by nature rely on the things we do know as true.

In Rich's poem the character begins with the myths. She uses the words and stories to find the wreck "I came to explore the wreck...The words are maps." Reading this poem with Rich's other text in mind, the character reads the myth to find what she believes is truth, "The thing I came for: / the wreck and not the story of the wreck/ the thing itself and not the myth." She pursues the reality underneath the myth.

While I was reading Rich's notes about "silence and lies" she seemed to emphasize the complexity of truth but not necessarily fully address the complexity of lies. One too many people have bit my head off for saying this; but I've never been fully convinced that all lies are bad lies. Where would the diver in the poem be without the Myth to begin with? and I'm pretty sure santa was the happiest lie I've ever believed in. Lies are associated with maliciousness and selfishness, but I don't think all lies are told for these reasons. I remember once a friend complained to me about how the author of "A Million Little Pieces" later admitted the memior was not at all true and how she could no longer stand to read it. While I understand the anger that attends to feeling betrayed or lied to; I also couldn't help but wonder if it's falsehood made it any less of a good book. Does our assessment of whether or not people or stories are good only rely on whether or not they are true?