Have you ever been betrayed by your words? In the comedic ‘war between the sexes’ text, Gospels of the Distaff (Les Evangiles des Quenouilles c.1475), a sewing circle of women, led by six elderly doctresses, decide to gather and share their collective feminist knowledge in the form of a book. Their knowledge is both profound and trivial.
On Garters in the Street
Nowe ye for as true as the gospell that yf the hose of a woman or of a mayden unbyndeth in the strete & that she lese it, it is sygne & fayleth neuer that her husbande or her loue gothe elles where.
(from Watson’s 1510 translation)
As none of the spinners and needleworkers can write, they ask a humble cleric to transcribe their teachings. He wields a pen, they wield the distaff. He transcribes their words not in the frame of an intimate knowledge but unfortunately, for himself and the women, ironically, as an immense joke.
You, writer, are in possession of both your knowledge and the means to write it. What are you waiting for?
Are you writing what needs to be written? It takes guts, and balls, to do so.
Take, for example, Gwerful Mechain (1460–1502); a medieval Welsh poet who wrote Poem to the Vagina as a correction to the canon of poems about women, and women’s bodies, that neglect the quim.
Cywydd y Cedor (Extract from Poem to the Vagina)
You are a body of boundless strength,
a faultless court of fat’s plumage.
I declare, the quim is fair,
circle of broad-edged lips,
it is a valley longer than a spoon or a hand,
a ditch to hold a penis two hands long;
cunt there by the swelling arse,
song’s table with its double in red.
And the bright saints, men of the church,
when they get the chance, perfect gift,
don’t fail, highest blessing,
by Beuno, to give it a good feel.
For this reason, thorough rebuke,
all you proud poets,
let songs to the quim circulate
without fail to gain reward.
What does your world say you must not write? What are you denied to write?
The grace of writing is an allowance for change.
You, writer, are not stuck.
You are not trapped.
Take, for example, Dionysius the Deserter, sometimes also called Dionysius the Renegade (330-250BCE). He was a Stoic philosopher, poet and author of multiple books on apathy, training exercises (askesis), pleasure (hedone), freedom from the passions (apatheia), how to live, prosperity, kings, praise and barbaric culture.
Confronted with the pain of severe eye inflammation, Dionysius renounced stoicism. According to the biographical entry in Diogenes’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Dionysius “suffered so severely, he could not pronounce pain a thing indifferent.”
Instead, Dionysius concluded that pleasure is the chief good of life. He indulged his remaining years, as a Cyrenaic, in all manner of bodily luxuries and sensual pleasures.
And he wrote.
In Book II of Lives of Eminent Philosophers Diogenes recounts a story about Anaxagoras (500 – 428BCE), a Pre-Socratic philosopher who adopted Athens as his home in his twenties.
“When someone inquired of Anaxagoras, “Have you no concern in your native land?”
Gently, he replied, “I am greatly concerned with my fatherland,” and pointed to the sky.
Anaxagoras was tried for impiety and Medism in 450BCE. The accusations were based on his claims that the sun was a red, hot stone and that the moon was made of earth. Following the trial, ostracised from Athens, he returned to Iona and settled at Lampsakos where the anniversary of his death was marked as a holiday from school for all children of the region.
What claims do you own in your writing?
What statements do you utter that could befall trouble?
What lands do you call father?
What do you stand for, with your words, so that a public holiday may be named in your honour?
To the Philosopher
I have brought out two books this year. One of them as I was moved thereto by God Himself, the other because of the slander of men.
Some of those who wear the white or dark mantle [Pagans and Christians] have maintained that I am faithless to philosophy, apparently because I profess grace and harmony of style, and because I venture to say something concerning Homer and concerning the figures of the rhetoricians. In the eyes of such persons one must hate literature in order to be a philosopher, and must occupy himself with divine matters only. No doubt these men alone have become spectators of the knowable. …
A letter from student to teacher; Synesius of Cyrene (370-413) to neoplatonist Hypatia of Alexandria (355-415)
Through these years of the Christians’ brutal attempts to dismantle philosophy, and the violent abuse and murder of philosophers such as Hypatia, Synesius wrote.
He wrote homilies. He wrote letters. He wrote speeches. He wrote essays.
There is no excuse not to write, and every reason to do so.
It’s not you, it’s them; words. Have you ever noticed how words will not stay in place? Will not stay where you set them? Will not grind as you command?
You are not alone.
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still…
(T.S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’ 152-156)
As a writer it is your privilege to privately write whatsoever you wish about whomsoever you choose. You can write bad things happening to bad people. And in doing so, know you are in fine company.
Lucian of Samosata wrote satire, his work often targeting public figures. In the quote below, taken from The Passing of Peregrinus, Lucian recounts his version of the life and death of the cynic Peregrinus Proteus (100-165CE). Lucian witnessed the suicide of Peregrinus when he set fire to himself at the 165CE Olympics.
Thereafter he went away a third time, to Egypt, to visit Agathobulus, where he took that wonderful course of training in asceticism, shaving one half of his head, daubing his face with mud, and demonstrating what they call ‘indifference’ by erecting his yard amid a thronging mob of bystanders, besides giving and, taking blows on the back-sides with a stalk of fennel, and playing the mountebank even more audaciously in many other ways.
If you feel blocked in your writing take these words as permission to privately write all the things you think you ought not.
Write your foe into the town-square with a shaved head and dirty face. Write them ‘erecting their yard’ in public. Write them taking blows from vegetables. Expose them as the fraud you know them to be.
Rebel. Be bold. Write what hurts so that you may write free.
Again, have you never perceived the neck of the dove changing colour so as to assume a countless variety of hues in the rays of the sun? Is it not by turns red, and purple and fiery coloured, and cinereous, and again pale, and ruddy, and every other variety of colour, the very names of which it is not easy to enumerate?
Philo of Alexandria, On Drunkenness 173
What can we be sure of?
What can we be sure of about our writing and about ourselves as writers?
Is our writing good? How do we know?
Are we brave writers? Do we write hard and clear?
Aenesidemus (founder of Pyrrhonian Skepticism, 1CE) was a member of Plato’s Academy led by Philo. Frustrated by dogmatism in the Academy he developed a foundation for the idea that the judgements and knowledge we claim about things is dependent on a series of contingent and changing conditions. For example, people perceive the world differently to other animals, people perceive the world differently to each other, our own bodily senses offers us differing perceptions of the same thing and so forth.
For Aenesidemus, this flux means we cannot unconditionally confirm most of the claims we make about the world, ourselves and others. We can say some things that may be true in particular circumstances, but nothing holds true outside the conditions, or modes, he describes.
What happens if we see our writing as the neck of a dove? Letting it change in the light; seeing with all our senses, not restricting ourselves to the narrow mutterings of our internal one-eyed critic.
Can we now sit and write?
It took three hefty gods to chain and rivet the Titan Prometheus to Mt Caucasus. In Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus Bound (430BC), the gods of strength (Kratos), violence (Bia) and black-smithing (Hephaestus) fix Prometheus to the rock.
Kratos says to Hephaestus, “Now drive the adamantine wedge’s stubborn edge straight through his chest with your full force.”
“Alas, Prometheus,” says Hephaestus shortly before exiting the scene, “I groan for your sufferings.”
Defying Zeus, Prometheus gave us fire. Yet, in a speech delivered to the choir of visiting ocean spirits, chained painfully to the rock, Prometheus declares that he also gave us writing. He gifted us the stringing up of letters with which to hold all things in memory.
From Prometheus, we are able to write things down so we will not forget them. Over space and time the things we have written persist.
Do not struggle with your writing. Do not feel it has left you. In a brave and selfless act writing was given to you by a noble hero. It is yours for the taking.
There is an appeal against the worth of words, placed in the mouth of Ajax by Antisthenes (c. 445-365 BC, founder of the Cynic school of thought).
In an instructional speech delivered against Odysseus, the mythical character Ajax says,
Do not look at words when judging heroic virtue but, rather, at deeds. For war is decided not by word but by deed: we cannot compete in debate with our enemies, but must either conquer them by fighting or be slaves in silence (53.7)
What, then, can words do? What can we judge from words? When might a word have worth? Are not actions, after all, nothing more than the meaning of a word?
My name, for example, is a word, not a deed. It has worth, to me. My name will tell you things about me and only the one who knows it can call me home on the wild nights.
One of our tasks, as good writers, is to choose words more sturdy than the deed.
Prove Ajax wrong.