On Getting Disoriented

“I asked my new tutor if a Chinese person naturally spoke Chinese better than an American ever could. He said the shapes of the mouth, tongue, and lips of each race were best suited to its particular language, as were the ears that conducted words into the brain. I asked him why he thought I could speak Chinese. He said that I studied well and had exercised my mouth to such a degree that I could move my tongue differently.”

The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan

I open this post with a quote from Amy Tan’s latest novel, because as I read these words on a beach in Virginia, I sat up in shock. Tan writes from the perspective of a young girl, Violet, in early twentieth century China who at this moment in the narrative is deeply concerned about being mistaken for being Chinese. Immediately after the passage I cited above, Violet continues on to catalogue her features–fair skin, brown hair, and green eyes–in order to disavow being Chinese, despite being able to speak the language. Violet later finds out that she is in fact half Chinese and half American; however, this passage highlights the linguistic politics inherent in national or ethnic identity. Further, this passage highlights the corporeality that is implicated within language practice and acquisition.

The passage from the novel also raises the issue of “passing” or “fitting in,” which is a timely conversation. Dorothy Kim writes brilliantly about divergent bodies in Medieval Studies. In her blog post, Kim discusses what it means to be a female person of colour teaching within this field. She says, “The structures within academia and our field have imagined authority as white, male, upper-middle class, and cisgendered. Divergence from this standard operating body is imagined as a disturbance.” I highlight both the passage from Tan’s novel and Kim’s blog post because both tacitly raise issues of imagined linguistic authority. For Violet, Chinese is a “lesser” language and being able to speak it threatens her ethnic identification as white; for Kim, divergent bodies (e.g. non-white, non-cisgendered, disabled) are constantly questioned in a way that the “normative” or “authoritative” body is not. I would argue that among the divergent bodies that occupy medieval studies are those who are non-Western as well, pushing back against an institutional and cultural monolingualism that is tacitly assumed in much of Medieval English Studies, both in scholarship and in teaching.

When it comes to English departments, raising the question of multilingualism becomes vexed. I increasingly find that understanding or discussing multilingualism in 2014 first requires us to break through the idea that somehow nationality imposes a type of monolingualism on its citizens’ bodies. The institutional power of the modern nation-state is invested in retrospectively reconstructing a homogeneous cultural history, which extends to language. If nationality is the orientation point by which we understand language practice, perhaps we need to disorient ourselves in order to discuss multilingualism. My own work is currently on John Gower, a trilingual author in fourteenth-century London, and what his multilingual practice can offer to modern understandings of multilingualism.

Gower’s use of English and his political affiliations have been explored in depth. However, by focussing on his nationalism, we limit our readings of the Confessio Amantis to the status of an English vernacular text, leading to reading the Confessio as participating in toppling the hegemonic authority of Latin and French. When we turn the conversation to multilingualism, those linguistic hierarchies don’t hold up. Understanding Gower as a multilingual author not only affects how we read the Confessio, but also complicates how we understand Gower as a translator.

In the Prologue to the Confessio, Gower expounds on the notion of division extensively. For Gower, man “Is as a world in his partie,/ And whan this litel world mistorneth,/ The grete world al overtorneth” (956-8). Therefore, when man is out of balance, the larger world is “divided” (966). He writes that division “aboven alle/ Is thing which makth the world to falle” (971-2). Division is the mother of confusion, the cause of all sin. However, division is the natural state of man. Man’s “complexioun” is made of division, which is why man is mortal- “He mot be verray kynde dye” (976-8). Latin marginalia accompanies this passage, reading “Quod ex sue complexionis materia diuisus homo mortalis existat. [That, divided because of the components of his constitution, every human being is mortal.]” Division, we see, is not simply inherent in men. It visually manifests in the manuscript itself by demarcating the difference between Latin and Middle English.

Division has largely been viewed in Gower scholarship as a comment on Gower’s own rhetorical strategy. Divisio has generally been understood to be the structuring component of the Confessio– a prologue and seven books organized according to the seven deadly sins, plus a book on the education of a king. The material itself is viewed as an anthology of various texts that Gower draws from other authors and translates into the English vernacular, which he then redeploys for his own ends. However I would argue that division in the Confessio must also be considered in terms of linguistic division. Gower repeatedly calls attention to the multilingual nature of the Confessio. I focus on how he connects the tower of Babel to his understanding of division as a way to potentially understand polyglot practice.

Gower writes that it was the “hihe Goddes myht” which divides language (1021). The Latin marginalia accompanying this particular passage reads “Qualiter in edificacione turris Babel, quam in dei contemptum Nembrot erexit, lingua prius hebraica in varias linguas celica vindicta diuidebatur. [How in the building of the Tower of Babel, which Nembrot erected in contempt of God, language, at first Hebrew, was divided by heavenly retribution into various languages.]” We are thus told that language, at first Hebrew, becomes various languages- “in varias linguas.” If we turn back to the Middle English, Gower writes that the division of language so that the people “wiste non what other mente” so that the tower of Babel can no longer be constructed (1024-25). Gower is paralleling this moment with the (biblical) Fall as a type of linguistic fall. The people not being able to understand each other’s meaning stops the tower from being constructed, and the fact that Gower takes the time to make this explicit point seems significant. Is he saying that language variation is problematic for creation or construction? Is he implying something about his own ability to write in multiple languages? Moreover, if man’s natural state is that of “divisioun,” if it is division that makes men mortal, then how are we to understand the connection between linguistic division and bodily division? What is the connection between corporeality and multilingualism?

Gower is not simply talking about how the attempt to construct the tower of Babel led to linguistic division– he calls attention to it on the page via the Latin marginalia. Gower enacts his own polyglot practice at this moment. I would argue that the way in which Gower draws our attention to the page thus disorients us, just as Babel was an experience of disorientation. I draw from Sarah Ahmed’s understanding of orientation in Queer Phenomenology. She writes about the “here” of bodily dwelling: “the skin that seems to contain the body is also where the atmosphere creates an impression… Bodies may become oriented in this responsiveness to the world around them, given this capacity to be affected. In turn, given the history of such responses, which accumulate as impressions on the skin, bodies do not dwell in spaces that are exterior but rather are shaped by their dwellings and take shape by dwelling” (8-9). Ahmed offers a way in which to connect Gower’s understanding of bodily division with linguistic division. Gower’s own discussion of division as inherent in men and in the world around them resonates with Ahmed’s understanding of bodily dwelling. Division within men for Gower, as we have seen, creates division within the wider world, just as Ahmed discusses the ways in which bodies shape and take shape by inhabiting space. Extending Ahmed’s understanding of space, we should ask what the dwelling of language is– do bodies inhabit languages, or do languages inhabit bodies? Moreover, if we consider the space of the text, we might consider the coexistence of the Latin and English as similarly mutually transformative.

Ahmed extends her discussion of orientation into direction, in that bodies or objects only become orientated when they acquire “direction by taking a certain point of view as given” (14). Ahmed helps us, as scholars of medieval English literature, put pressure on the way in which we tend to treat the Anglo as a destination point, due to modern conceptions of language which are heavily intertwined with the idea of the nation-state. Moreover, we as medieval scholars should put pressure on ourselves to be open to conversations about divergent bodies and tongues both in the texts we read and in the academic environment in which we participate. Scholarship can only find new direction when a plethora of voices and perspectives take part. Reading both multilingualism in Gower’s work and Gower’s own multilingual practice offers us new avenues by which we might conceive of both medieval and contemporary polyglot practice. So let’s get disoriented.

Written by Shyama Rajendran, PhD Candidate, The George Washington Univeristy


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