by Steven Hu
The night of 2014’s first-year orientation, Rui Yang and I leave our group and walk the Montreal streets, talking about homesickness. We are each the other’s first Taiwanese friend in Canada, and she tells me she has spent most of the past three weeks crying in her room, unsure exactly how to find friends, adrift in a country not her own and speaking a language she is not “herself” in. I listen to her and understand because I, too, am scared. Most of my homesickness is still to come, but after the awkward group activities of pre-Frosh I already feel unsure of who I will become in this country and how my words and actions will be interpreted by people who aren’t Taiwanese, whose lives and sensibilities are shaped by a different culture than my own. In Rui Yang, I feel I have found someone who sounds like home.
A disorienting loss of self is inherent in the experience of immigration. One’s personality and thoughts are distorted through the filter of a non-native language. Groups of people can be perceived by others as less thoughtful, less intelligent, and less confident, across a cultural and linguistic divide. True assimilation therefore often requires a reconstruction of the self, a gradual process of understanding how one’s personality is to be expressed in a cultural context of different assumptions and norms. The majority cultures establish what should be; the minority cultures operate within the orbit of the majority culture’s influence. Rui Yang and I could therefore create one friendship that could keep a foreign culture at bay, but if we were to engage in the culture of McGill more broadly, if I was to immerse myself within the literature of a Western cultural tradition, the onus was on me to adapt and adjust.
However, the influence of majority cultures does not merely exist on a racial and cultural plane. As Eileen Myles argues in her essay, “The End of New England,” the reconstruction of one’s self and one’s language can be necessitated by class mobility. She writes, “Always we are guided towards the accent of the middle class, never to the blurred cadences of the workers” (187), and in doing so, Myles charts her own intersectional identity and how her status as a working-class lesbian has shaped her language patterns in ways that are at odds with dominant middle-class norms. This pressure to thus reconstruct her language by the standards of her peers is itself an instance of class oppression — detailing a moment where she is forced to leave her house, she writes: “I have another home and I will go there soon with a little less stuff[;] I will be forced once again to say what matters and surround myself with what I imagine I am today” (192). This she places in opposition to “the Bushes [who] were leaving nothing behind… they could bring their entire linguistic family along with them… [they were] at home because it was their planet” (193). Myles describes the working-class dialect as existing on the peripheries and margins of a society that educates its people towards a certain kind of speech. It is the workers who are not at home in their country, the workers who must adapt their language to the privileged classes of society, and in the case of “The End of New England,” Eileen Myles is the working-class woman who can write her way into the middle class and still find herself alienated from her peers.
Drawing upon her background, then, Myles pushes back against the abstraction of middle-class language. She recounts a conversation with intellectual Avital Ronell, who identifies a cultural association of the physical body with a lack of intelligence. Ronell, in Myles’ lights, expounds upon the manner in which a heightened cultural interest in the physicality of women, working-class people, and racial minorities can serve to de-intellectualize those same groups of people. Instead of arguing against the association, Myles argues that it is in fact the middle class that is hyper-intellectual, removed from the embodied reality of everyday experience. Reflecting upon the differences in speech across social classes, Myles describes the language of the middle class as a “literary language which is written” and the latter as one “whose story is generally spoken[;] it is a language of pleasure, adjustment, and use” (187). Furthermore, and tellingly, she muses upon “writers who are essentially always engaged in this act of translation every day, turning things into symbols” (187) and passingly notes that language itself is already a system of symbols, something abstract and removed from real-life experience. Here she implies that what is written, what is literary, is further removed from the realm of real-world experience that intellectual thought aims to influence. The language associated with the middle class is more estranged from reality than that of the working class — the former is disembodied while the latter is embodied, the former overwrought and the latter more consistent with the rhythms of everyday speech.
As Myles conceptualizes loss as an integral part of adaptation to a continually changing present, the middle-class luxury of avoiding loss also results in a self-imposed stagnation. Myles remarks that “[t]hey say a liar always tells his story the same way,” and posits that she is “thinking of a poetry that speaks strictly in the modulated business language of the middle class in inherited cadences from England” (193). She thus accuses the middle class of being out of touch with its present-day American context, and ventures further in her criticisms: “[This poetry] upholds the law and even suggests the sea is safe and is invented to win poetry prizes and make sure the poet does not incite the body politic” (193). By its own freedom, the middle class is allowed to be oblivious to the reality of everything from societal law to the sea; it creates both literature and poetry prizes for the purpose of self-congratulation and the maintenance of class complacency. It is the working class that is continually forced to change, and in these changes finds ways to be sincere, revolutionary, and attuned to present reality — even immigrating from England to America has not, in Myles’ view, mitigated the stagnation of middle-class linguistic tradition.
Yet it is precisely this necessity to adapt that places the working class at the vanguard of the English language. As Myles suggests, “all classes borrow from the working class and the lower class, always have, the change occurs at that level, the language we know is a pulsing fabric of immigrancy, the English language grew that way,” and lists the groups responsible: “mentally ill patients, the poems of kids, so-called primitives, females and queers, the other culture even as you are educated into misunderstanding your own home as that, my family becomes the beloved, the other culture and lends excitement and even verisimilitude to the cultural body” (194). Through its lack of privilege, the language of these groups is continually being forced to change, and it therefore must be here where the English language as a whole moves forward through history, adapting to shifting times and circumstances while a middle-class language revels in a stability turning monotonous over time.
There is one oblique, possibly coincidental reference that hides in the details of the essay’s last pages; as Myles mentions the proverbial wisdom that “a liar always tells his story the same way,” she also mentions skipping an Oscar Wilde class to ponder topics of greater interest to her (192). It is in many senses valid to see Wilde as a predecessor to Myles — ostensibly conversational in writing, revolutionary in cultural sensibilities, and both homosexual to boot — and indeed, the fact that “The End of New England” comes from a book entitled The Importance of Being Iceland renders Myles’ position relative to Wilde an overt one. However, crucially, Myles stands in stark contrast to Wilde within the linguistic and class discourses she engages in. In “The Decay of Lying,” Wilde’s characters of Cyril and Vivian are aggressively educated, and their speech exemplifies the “incredibly burdened diction” Myles mocks (188).
In “The Decay of Lying,” Wilde’s character Vivian looks out at nature and sees the imitation of art. Yet by subordinating reality to art, and placing true aesthetic beauty in a practice of “lying” that circumvents reality, Wilde also places aesthetic beauty within the hands of those privileged enough to be connoisseurs of art. Tellingly, Vivian’s arguments are supported through analogies that allude to the vast artistic tradition common only to those who have read these works, whereas Myles, also stepping into discourses on the future of language and art, evokes more commonplace and quotidian images: a “guy” with his parrot on 43rd Street, a working-class cashier at the local New England store, and a family eating pineapple on sale at A&P (188). By allowing art to usurp the throne of reality, Vivian drives a rift between “true beauty” and the social classes unable to immerse themselves within the historical and literary works of which he speaks. If Wilde’s work maintains and reinforces class insularity, Myles deviates strikingly from the beaten path of her predecessor by drawing from a realm of common experience that is “truthful” and realistic to all Americans.
Indeed, Myles’ criticism of “carefully saying things wrong” (188) applies to a reading of Wilde through Myles’ framework of class dynamics. The genre of Socratic dialogue is often a didactic one, but framed by Myles’ assertion of middle-class language being a “literary language which is written,” Wilde’s work (perhaps even consciously) exemplifies an awkward parody of real-life conversation (187). Wilde halfheartedly devotes certain details to the portrayals of Vivian and Cyril as characters unto themselves: Cyril asks Vivian for a cigarette, Cyril interrupts Vivian and is chastised for it, and the two characters have different dispositions and ideologies. However, many of the stylistic details in “The Decay of Lying” fail to distinguish between the dialogic genre and an essay written by a single speaker. While there are passages where Vivian reads his article to Cyril verbatim, Vivian’s manner of speech is just as articulate and eloquent as his manner of writing, and, according to Myles’ criticism, this unrealistic eloquence becomes almost self-parodic. The way Wilde’s dialogue reads makes the reader constantly aware that the work is a fiction, and that despite the trappings of characterization, Wilde still aspires to sound like an articulate and literary authority. “The Decay of Lying” dons the costume of a dialogue, but it takes no pains to read like one.
Conversely, Myles’ own style expresses defiance to Wilde’s superficial variation of middle-class language; her writing strives to reflect the real-world, embodied sensibility she wishes to speak into. The rigid adherence to grammar that characterizes written communication amongst the middle-class is eschewed in favor of natural, speech-like rhythms. Though her sentences vary dynamically in length, even her exorbitantly long sentences are easily read and understood. The sentence beginning “After the talk…” constitutes the entire second half of The Importance of Being Iceland‘s page 185, and yet Myles packs 18 sentences within the same amount of space at the end of page 186 and beginning of 187. Often ignoring grammatical conventions, Myles varies her sentences so they may rise and fall, shorten and lengthen with the energy she exudes from line to line. Put simply, the language is alive, and incredible to read.
Within the aforementioned section, we are given two breathless sentences that present cascades of images, impressions, and effects; Myles details Avital Ronell’s ideas on the disembodiment of intelligence and offers her own internal reaction to Ronell’s ideas before the train of thought shifts, the speaker catches her breath, and the verbal energy driving each sentence drops down: “…I’m talking about the working class, these people are stupid” (186). Here the rhythm skips and Myles repeats with a stark, succinct sentence: “Those people are dumb.” Myles’ prose also skids and slows as she transitions into a section of working-class language, the prose now adopting a wholly different rhythm than what preceded it; “Working class speech. There’s a joking way of life. You have your head in your hands. You’re leaning on your register” (186). Both the long and the short sentences are contained within a single paragraph, but it is clear that the reader is now not only in different conceptual, but syntactical territory.
Myles presents one more lengthy sentence before the paragraph finally closes out, and it is a digression. Whilst affecting a dismissive attitude towards the working class to mimic the de-intellectualization of the poor, Myles’ voice abruptly breaks through in spontaneous enthusiasm over the middle-class pronunciation of “workin’ hard.” Rather abruptly, Myles pleads with us, writing “please, please, please” (186), and the sentences extend with comma after comma as the components of each syllable are described and compared to a middle-class pronunciation. Myles herself becomes an emissary of her working-class speech, and these first passages charge the rest of her essay with emotional resonance, as what is being discussed is of personal significance to Myles and worthy of our attention for that reason.
As the text resembles verbal speech, even the lengthy run-ons unspool with an unmistakable ease. Commas are often absent, but there is no punctuation in spoken language, and Myles’ long sentences are subtly organized into smaller segments of information that the reader readily compartmentalizes on his or her own. One’s eyes glide over “she did talk about race the feeling that people who are not white are not as smart as white people because they are more embodied but also that women who are of course being more body than men” (185) because Myles herself is gliding over it, anxious to talk not about race and gender but about class. Myles’ syntax enables the text to read less like a journalistic account of a conversation and more like a portal into Myles’ state of mind across Ronell; her interests are implied by her language, and not explicitly written simply because it is not necessary to.
Her unique, working-class idiom thus serves not merely to reflect a more unmediated, true-to-life understanding of Myles’ experience, but also a uniquely working-class creativity. Just as the person in diaspora loses and rebuilds, Myles’ rejection of grammatical convention allows her the space to build in its place an idiolect that maintains the memorable image, the perceptive observation, while also incorporating the intimacy and unique “music” of working class speech. It is also telling that while many essayists engage with their colleagues through their written works, Myles begins her essay on a conversation with Ronell. She does not overtly allude to another text she assumes her reader is familiar with, but also from the very beginning of her essay she esteems something embodied, a social situation, and pays particular attention to features of her conversation that a written correspondence between Ronell and her would be unable to capture. She describes how an unnamed woman “rubbed her hands lovingly and I know in some way I was thinking that’s what I want, those nice warm hands but Avitall Ronell was referring to this notion that the body is stupid…” and here the ungrammatical omission of a comma after “nice warm hands” accentuates the effect of simultaneity between Myles’ observing the hands of the woman and Ronell’s talking, a private observation jarringly and abruptly interrupted by a mental return to the dialogue between them (185). We enter into her mind as the two speak, and see what she sees — we recognize an intimacy and familiarity in her voice that is absent from so many of the works she speaks back to, and when she advises in the final paragraph of her essay to write “as if the reader or the listener were in the same room with you” (194), it is with the authority and confidence that we have felt ourselves to be in the same room with her — that it is our body she has been imagining as she has spoken to us the words of her essay.
My background before McGill was one where English was the language of school and academia, and Taiwanese Mandarin the language of friendship and daily life. For me, English maintains in its sounds a certain formality and anticipation of evaluation, and there are certain resonances I feel between this and Myles’ work — a disembodied academic English, a cultural background that is anomalous within the sphere that work is produced. In pushing for an oral, embodied literature, and optimistically pronouncing the working class as ironically empowered by its being forced to remake itself, Myles also pushes for a academic language that does not force people from a multiplicity of race or class backgrounds to assimilate. She advocates for a place where working-class thinkers can participate in these discourses without losing as much of themselves, and where those middle- and upper-class individuals can forge stronger connections between their work and the speech and rhythms of daily life. Towards the end of her essay, she declares that she sees poetry as, among other things, a way to say “I live here, and I drop as I go” (193). It is hopeful for me to see this as a direction towards which linguistic cultures can move — teeming with unique voices and dialects all driven to determine what things matter and what things can be let go of, and what will in the end create an academe that is both inclusive and relevant to everyone.
Myles, Eileen. “The End of New England.” The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, CA, 2009, pp. 185-194.
Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying. Girard, Kan: Haldeman-Julius Co, 1922. Print.
Photo: Elliðaey House, Iceland by Christopher Lynn. https://www.flickr.com/photos/chris-lynn/7706060000/sizes/l