Monday, June 10, 2002

Ventriloquism & Hemingway Heroes

Over the weekend Chris Locke (aka Rageboy) wrote to me that his sister refers to the tendency of women (most notably in business) to act like men as "ventriloquism," a concept found in Folklore studies.

A quick search turned up a paper on this subject by Galit Hasan-Rokem of The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Hasan-Rokem discusses what she describes as "the garbed or even distorted voice of ventriloquism," in which "a ventriloquist looks as if she or he are quiet and the voice emerges from somewhere else, from somebody else's mouth, very often the mouth of an effigy." Questions arise in instances when ventriloquism is identified as preferable to the true articulation of voice, leading one to ask: Who causes the mouth of the owner of the voice to hide its own voice and to transpose the voice to another, false source? And why? Hasan-Rokem suggests that the answer to this question may be found in experiences with children, in which the authentic mouth is forbidden to utter its speech. Alternatively, it may be ashamed to speak, or have another tactical reason for hiding the source of speech, such as a contrived deception, or simply for play.

This explanation reminds me of so many of the early female voices of literature, which were masked behind the names of men, such as the Bronte sisters, publishing as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and George Eliot, who was really one Mary Anne Evans. Now we are seeing the inverse in the form of the token female at the helm of business, smiling at us from the other side of the glass, but she may in fact be just a mask for what amounts to just another male voice. Much like Hemingway's scarce and notably unfeminine female heroes.

I recall my frustrated response to reading The Sun Also Rises in college -- I was infuriated at his female heroes far more than their male counterparts, namely in the case of Brett Ashley, because she was not in fact a woman at all -- rather she was a female ventriloquist masking a male voice and a male persona. And even more interesting and enraging was the fact that Brett featured not only as the odd heroine, but that Hemingway wrote her onto a pedestal, elevated higher even than Jake (our male protagonist and Brett's failed lover). As I recall, by the end of the story Brett is left standing alone as the one example of a "real man," after all of her male peers have shown themselves to be cowards or failures in some form. In Brett, the Hemingway voice finds not only his ideal human -- a man -- but a man in the bodily form of a woman, whom he could take as a lover and love as a lover, and yet respect as a man.

There is of course nothing wrong with the male voice -- nor is the so-called "male" voice necessarily strictly male, any more than the "female" voice is strictly female. In fact, quite often I find that I am able to express myself sometimes more articulately but no less genuinely through languages that I have picked up from my male peers, or a fusion of those languages and my own.

But I suspect there is a distinction somewhere which finds its source in the notion of "integrity," one definition of which is: the quality or condition of being whole or undivided; completeness. The insult lies in the distortion of a form (a person, a role) into something that it, at its core, is not.

Of course, literature is symbolism, and symbolism tends toward the extremes of black and white to make itself understood -- not so in real life. My lone female CEO I'm sure is no Brett Ashley, but it may just be that the same societal influences that gave birth to Ernest Hemingway, thus in turn giving birth to Brett Ashley, have had a hand in shaping our modern day Hemingway Heroine-style female CEO.


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