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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #67: VS Naipaul's phallocratic utterances – Has he done us a favour by default?


Gillian Schutte - 2011-06-14

Untitled Document

Well I’ll be damned, the blasted old bigot VS Naipaul has done it again. No stranger to literary spats and barneys, he seems to have little regard for current politically correct social norms, preferring the masculine “say it like it is” inclination of yesteryear. Not so long ago he disparaged all things African. This time the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature has lashed out at female authors, saying there is no woman writer whom he considers his equal – picking on the literary icon Jane Austen in particular. He goes on to say that he felt that women writers were "quite different". He said, "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me." The author puts this down to women's "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world". "And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too," he said. "My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don't mean this in any unkind way," he added.

Of course women around the world were outraged. Our initial angry response was to lash back at this seemingly despicable little man. Message followed message about what a phallocrat he was. One-liners containing unsavoury descriptive elements such as “idiotic”, “arrogant sleazy git”, “unhappy man with haemorrhoids”, “elephantoid ego”, “pompous pretender”, “dipstick”, “conceited cretin”, “misogynistic pig”, “popall”, etc, hit Facebook pages and blog sites with revolutionary momentum. Women declared that they would never again buy a book written by said author and posted pictures of his portrait with “no entry” signs etched over his cynical expression. Some even went as far as to write the word “effing” in relation to his fucking arrogance. We bonded with strangers over our disgust at his unacceptable utterances ... and we vented. We vented because we had something to vent against. We openly declared our revulsion to his view because we knew exactly what the insult was. We did not need to wade our way through a mire of obfuscation, wondering if we had misheard him or if we had imagined that there was a snide sense of male superiority in the statement. No – Naipaul did us the favour of blatantly declaring war on thinking, literate women. He was simply saying out loud what so many men (not all) really think but are just too darned politically correct to voice.

Let’s face it, we know that in South Africa (white) men overwhelmingly dominate the publishing industry, as publishers, writers and reviewers. They are the self-appointed gatekeepers to what our society reads. We also know that these gatekeepers, who clearly favour masculine narratives, still largely overlook women’s narratives. Is this not a clear indication that women’s stories are viewed as less well-written and less relevant than men’s? If these decision-makers considered feminine narratives as interesting or as good as masculine narratives they would be publishing a lot more of them. They are not. Thus they obviously think women do not write as well as men. So why do they not just come right out and say it like it is? Well, because the tendency these days is to disguise misogyny in politically correct language so as to appear progressive while maintaining a dominant position – a position which is most often in binary opposition to women whom they still secretly view as irrational, body-bound beings filled to the brim with unsavoury fluids, sentiments and illogical thoughts. This phallocentric logic upon which the Western Christian world is predicated, goes something like this.

mind/body
active/passive
rational/irrational
culture/nature
public/private
reason/emotion
subject/object
self/other
Male/female.

In South Africa we can take this even further by replacing the male/female opposition with white/black, and within this we can add white male/black/female and then again we can also add white female/black and black male/black female ... and of course DA/whatever suits ...

But that is another essay. Let me stick to my point, which is that as modern women we often do not know what we are up against, because what used to be blatant patriarchy is now cleverly camouflaged in a new form of masculine language. It is a language that endeavours to appear universal and egalitarian by stripping away obvious male bias and neutralising its tone so as to give women the impression of change. Except that it has no intention of budging even a bit. Of course it then becomes harder to vent and revolt against it, because it proves too difficult to name or expose, so cleverly does it pretend not to exist. This patriarchy hides behind political correctness and relegates the “problem of patriarchy” to the ethnic groups and working classes. It disguises itself as “enlightened” and “concerned”, yet still demands that its view is not questioned. Anything outside this view is silently deemed wrong with an authoritative certainty that cuts short any chance for open debate. They won’t come out and tell you they think your writing is inferior. They’ll simply not publish you.

No wonder our ancestors were the ones taking to the streets with placards and passion. They knew what they were up against. We don’t. We know there is something amiss, but we have been silenced by niceness. Instead we have become armchair revolutionaries, simmering with passive aggressive anger while wondering if we are indeed a bit mad or if we heard right. This contemporary patriarchy fucks with our heads. It sabotages our instincts and creates the pathology of low-grade depression and inexplicable anxiety.

VS Naipaul’s boorish phallocratic utterances may just have done our politically correct Western world a favour. He has exposed the contemporary insidious misogynistic patriarchy that is so perilous to the collective female voice and which completely devalues feminine writing and body. I contend that we women (and feminist men) in South Africa and globally have no choice but to revolt against the continued patriarchal hold on language and collectively name a feminine discourse that stands in opposition to it.

We need to shout out in unison that while our language may be different it is most certainly equal! I say again that it is time for a feminine revolution in which we reclaim a celebratory language that speaks our body, our sex, in bold terms. In solidarity with the seminal feminists of past decades I, too, propose that to do this it is necessary to form a sisterhood so that women can use a common language which is free of the kind of patriarchal, phallocentric and logocentric notions as expressed by Naipaul. It is through this sisterhood that women will be able to share experiences, understand each other and find solutions to our problems. 

Feminist writer Luce Irigaray writes that the function of the new language will be “to cast phallocentricism, phallocratism, loose”, so that it will “no longer, all by itself, define, circumvene, circumscribe, the properties of anything and everything”. She insists that precisely for this reason it is crucial for women to create a language in which to express our sex. If we do not do that, Irigaray argues, "we will miss each other and fail ourselves".

Let us not miss each other and fail ourselves!

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