Wednesday, March 10, 2010

As the foolish women speak

Sometimes I really do think the feminist moment is over. This often happens when I bring a feminist text to class, like today's "Translating Job as Female," a brilliant analysis by Ann W. Astell of tensions in Gregory the Great's attempt to understand Job as a classical hero, and how they are brought to the surface by Chaucer's imagining a female Job in "The Clerke's Tale." The argument's too complicated to summarize here, but in essence Astell argues that Job is a figure more complex than an implicitly gendered conception of heroism or patience can make sense of. Recovering those parts which are pushed aside because they don't fit (or inverted by allegorical reading) takes us closer to Job, a figure who, like much in the "paradoxical language of Scripture" (69), can take us beyond our limiting categories.

Astell's argument (and its incisiveness) should have been plain to see - we've just come from reading just those passages in Gregory and Chaucer which she analyzes. But something didn't compute. Although she was doing what all interpreters of Job do (criticize earlier intepreters for getting him wrong) students had a hard time understanding "where she was coming from." Translation problem! For instance Astell didn't feel the need to signal her distance (perhaps through use of scare-quotes) from the gender dichotomies of medieval analysis in claims like:

In order to interpret the Book of Job as a whole as a heroicum carmen ... medieval readers necessarily had to subordinate the feminine text of the Dialogue to the masculine text of the frame story and interpret the former from the perspective of the latter. (61-62)

Is it that hard to imagine that a scholar writing in the late 1990s would not be endorsing these binaries, that it's the gender assumptions of Gregory and his readers to which she refers by "feminine" and "masculine," not anything she herself accepts or endorses? (In the 9os at least "feminine" and "masculine" came with built-in scare-quotes.)

Perhaps it is. In the 1990s (as evidently no longer) it would have gone without saying that gendered assumptions permeate western culture (as they do all cultures) and that one thing scholarship can do is make those assumptions explicit and help us think beyond them. Along the way, what was celebrated as virtuous is often found to be problematic and restricted to men, while what has been coded female and inferior is often found to be commendable and even liberating. That's what's happening in Astell's analysis, who must have taken some pleasure in the knowledge that the "impatient" Job celebrated by modern readers had been so unacceptable to Gregory that he'd argued it couldn't be taken literally. Bully for him! Freed from medieval gender assumptions, we can hear Job's true voice. And women are free to be Job, maybe even freer than men are, something even Chaucer probably didn't really think possible.

So why didn't all my students get this? Why was the idea of a female Job unwelcome? (We have happily rehabilitated Mrs. Job, several times over.) Several said that Job's story is universal, and so gender analysis adds nothing. While the author of Job surely didn't consider the possibility of a female Job, the story is so powerful that it transcends such distinctions. We know better than to think of any characteristics in the gendered terms of Gregory and his times; why bring all that back? Job's is a human story, available and inspiring for all people.

Perhaps they're right, perhaps my views are warped by the 1990s. But to my warped sensibilities, parts of our discussion sounded pre-feminist. If the truly human has no gender but is virtually always represented by a man, don't women have to shed their gender to imagine themselves fully human? (Men of course have to do no such shedding.) Job is an interesting case here, actually, since he does seem to have been stripped of all social ties and identities by his afflictions... his persistence and vindication tell us that even when all else is taken away, our integrity can survive. Perhaps his transcendence (through loss) of gender makes him a particular source of comfort to women in a post-feminist time.

Ann W. Astell, "Translating Job as Female," in Translation Theory and Practice in the Middle Ages, ed. Jeanette Beer (Studies in Medieval Culture XXXVIII) (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University Press/Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), 59-69

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