Mary Beard wrote this in her brief, vigorous manifesto Women & Power:
“Public speech was a — if not the — defining attribute of maleness. Or, to quote a well known Roman slogan, the elite male citizen could be summed up as vir bonus dicendi peritus, ‘a good man, skilled in speaking.’ A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman.”
Beard’s assessment of western art and history finds that speech, the act itself, is by default a male act. Silence, in public at least (but preferably in private too) makes a woman a woman.
Beard’s words, like every spark that enters my mind of late, penetrated slowly but persistently through my transitioning identity. This transition most notably occurs externally via my body; but of course everything else that is Leigh undergoes the transitioning process. Including my own memory.
And so reading Beard sent a ping into my hippocampus (thanks, Dr Christine Blasey Ford), which surfaced a long past memory of my own interaction with speech, and silence.
When I was a boy, specifically a teenage boy, I was one of those very common brand of boys that loved The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger’s book spoke to me and I have a copy, in my hands at this moment, that is worn, weathered, an annotated through and through. From ages sixteen to twenty, I read the book countless times, and marked the margins continuously. The memory evoked by Beard was this: my sophomore year of college I loaned my copy of Catcher to a friend, a private act that was to me as intimate as sharing a diary. She noted one annotation that stood out, and asked why I might think as I did and if I was, really, okay.
First, the passage. It’s towards the end of the book, when 16-year old Holden is spiraling nearly out of control, and is looking for dramatic exits from his life:
“What I’d do, I figured I’d go down to the Holland Tunnel and bum a ride, and then I’d bum another one, and another one, and another one, and in a few days I’d be somewhere out West where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody’d know me and I’d get a job. I figured I could get a job at a filling station somewhere, putting gas and oil in people’s cars. I didn’t care what kind of job it was though. Just so people didn’t know me and I didn’t know anybody. I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody. If anybody wanted to tell me something, they’d have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me. They’d get bored as hell doing that after a while, and then I’d be through with having conversations for the rest of my life. Everbody’d think I was just a poor deaf-mute bastard and they’d leave me alone. They’d let me put gas and oil in their stupid cars, and they’d pay me a salary and all for it, and I’d build me a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life. I’d build it right near the woods, but not right in them, because I’d want it to be sunny as hell all the time. I’d cook all my own food, and later on, if I wanted to get married or something, I’d meet this beautiful girl that was also a deaf-mute and we’d get married. She’d come and live in my cabin with me and if she wanted to say anything to me, she’d have to write it on a goddam piece of paper, like everybody else. If we had any children, we’d hide them somewhere. We could buy them a lot of books and teach them how to read and write by ourselves.”
Reader, how does that passage strike you? This is the vision of a boy wanting to escape life. Does it strike you as depressive? Concerning? Holden’s story is that of expulsion to institutionalization after all, and this vision comes only pages before he will bottom out at the sight of some school graffiti, and end his whole story with this advice: “don’t ever tell anybody anything.”
I can’t account for how this fantasy is read by any other reader in the history of this too-often read book. But in the margins of my copy, it says this: This is the life. Holden’s fantasy for escaping the world and its unbearable hypocrisies and failures is built entirely on the abandonment of speech. In silence, escape. Put in Beard’s terms, Holden views his liberation as an abandonment of his masculinity. Giving up the act of speech is giving up the embodiment of man-ness. How queer.
In my copy, on the previous page, there are also multiple colored underlinings of this sentence: “That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddamn stupid useless conversations with anybody.” Red, green, and blue lines underscore that one. No more stupid, useless conversations with anybody.
Beard’s book triggered in my memory the confusion my friend expressed to me when she read this marginalia. This is the life?, she said. Why?
I couldn’t tell her. I didn’t really know.
Later, in college and for about a year afterward, I told people, out loud, without irony, that I wanted to be a monk. I would take a vow of silence, and a vow of celibacy, and cloister myself for the rest of my life in some monastic community where I could work the land and read and write and drink whiskey (this fantasy was inspired in no small part by Thomas Merton). In this silent life, I would never again have to travel through the mundane world of conversations and small talk and performing normal interactive person-to-person engagement with the world.
Contemplation, instead, would be my life’s objective.
The motivation behind this impulse never seemed clear to me, but this remains an undeniable on-the-record part of my life: for years, I wanted to escape speech. I still, if that friend asked, couldn’t explain why.
But hindsight provides a lens. Queering my youth, my memory, I can’t help but wonder if what Beard is saying about speech and gender wasn’t incubating in my mind, permeating even as my behavior overcompensated in masculinity. Because even as I longed for silence, I spoke. Too often. I happily partook of my privilege in the classrooms and communities I inhabited. But I also sought a way out of it, permanently.
Anyway. I never took a vow of silence. Never abandoned speech. Instead I abandoned masculinity.