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Leslie Cantwell
– MOTHER TONGUES


These words are not my own; nor are they sufficient to analyze my topic, because they are themselves shaped by it––are it––and are therefore unable to produce a logic other than their own. It is human nature to speak, so I do, but inevitably the language spoken expresses the will of the powerful; its will is his who can impress his will on the world, and in so forming his circumstances, dominate the wills of those weaker than he. I find myself forced to speak a language native to those with bodies stronger than my body, with wills more vital than my will, which is stunted deep within me in a wordless womb from which it can never be born. Nonetheless, I talk to myself, for I feel my speechless will kick within, wriggle in discomfort. Though I have no hope that it will be born, made manifest in this world, I hope to make its cloister into a world of its own wherein it possesses the means to blossom within me. So, I have embarked on an experiment in generating a language suited to it, so I might express myself to myself and in doing so realize my will. The ideal means of producing such a language would be the linguistic correlate of parthenogenesis, so that my words might be genetically identical replicas of myself: free from the grammar that now determines their meaning, my meaning. Unfortunately, I have been forced to speak in the grammar of my fathers for so long that the spontaneous development of a language is impossible: I must begin with the material at hand, or else let my will shrivel within. So I have culled some words and planted them within me, selecting for traits that best harmonize with their new environment alongside my yet-wordless will. It is commonly supposed that the development of a language is a social endeavor and that alternative languages such as I strive to produce not only exist but are used by suppressed communities to reproduce their wills in the world and thus reform the structures that once rendered them impotent. But the existence of subversive grammars––the so-called mother tongues rumored to perpetuate in kitchens and yoga classes, to be woven into the braids of us daughters who believe ourselves fluent in both the common language and those better suited to represent our bodies,––are but figments grown out of misunderstanding, like  mirages in the desert that, though insubstantial, give hope to waterless wanderers. In truth, our tongues are counter-impressions left by our fathers’ tongue; our words are but theirs wearing lipstick, used by us women to say the things they allow us to say in the places they allow us to be.

She who, in a bid for freedom, conceives of a language in which she can reproduce herself without the interpenetration of others runs the risk of appearing mad to those around her, for to realize it, she must spurn the advances of the father tongue and resist the coercion of his lipsticked reflection that bends to his will and does his bidding. Such a language must develop free from intercourse with others. I admire her who tries: the saint who, choosing silence, leaves society for the desert clime; the martyr who, renouncing the tongue of her countrymen, lets herself be called heretic and put to death. I am afraid I am weaker than such women, for my endeavor is a compromise. Like the mayfly, who reproduces both sexually and asexually, I try to reproduce myself both to others in common language and to myself in my own. However, unlike the mayfly, who produces viable offspring, I only beget half-formed fruits: I am unintelligible both to myself and to others. My lack of fluency is most apparent to members of my own sex who, though they feel the same frustration in their tongues and bodies, are suspicious of my inability to speak as they do. I have always envied man’s freedom, that harmony between word and will that allows him to see himself reflected in the world, so I trained myself by his tongue and spurned its pink-painted shadow; however, I could not bring his words into harmony with my will and could only forget their dissonance insofar as men could forget my body while listening to his words in my mouth. Do I blame them? I find myself more often frustrated, not by the man’s inability to forget my body, but by my body itself and, by extension, by her who, similarly frustrated, reacts by painting her lips and molding her body to be desired by him whose desire deprives her of her tongue.

It’s not that I don’t understand this reaction of molding her appearance, which, when words fail, comes to feel like the only means of exerting her will in the world, indirect though it may be. What a man wants a woman to be is consequently what a woman wants to be so she might influence he who wants her. But this is a primitive reflex born from a misunderstanding of what it truly means to shape the world to one’s will. Our mothers lied to us, though they did not mean to, when they taught us to use our soft bodies as tools given to us by nature to influence man’s hard words. In fact, nature gave us no advantage when she made our bodies desirable to man; rather, those very traits that make our bodies desirable also make them weaker and slower, resulting in a physical vulnerability that proved to be the genesis of man’s domination, man’s language––the birth of which made nature herself subordinate to man’s word and will. Now, his grammar is the structure that determines our bodies and possesses our tongues; his words are the atoms that make up the world. Mankind no longer perpetuates through biological but through linguistic means: men live on not through multiplication of their seed, but through the stories that tell of what they have done, what they have said; that is, how well they have made their will realized in the world through their words and deeds. It is easy to confuse the relation between the biological and linguistic, and too often a woman, nearly driven mad by the desire to produce something of her own, resorts to the biological reproduction that has seemed her domain since the dawn of the species. This too, however, is nothing more than the reproduction of man’s will in this world where language structures nature. Her biological progeny are as little her own as the words she speaks. Far from achieving freedom, the pregnant woman finds herself further weighed down by the added weight of a second life that transforms her body to accommodate its own. This burden is not lifted postpartum, when the child no longer nourishes itself on her blood, nor once it ceases to suckle on her blood turned milk, for that child is but another iteration of her fate: her flesh formed by another with a will of its own. The only place where the hope for realization, for freedom, exists for us women is that wordless womb that envelopes the will. Perpetually pregnant with ourselves, our only comfort is to feel our will kick, even though it will never walk or talk among us.

I have never shared these thoughts: they are impossible to express in the grammar available to me and even my best attempt at representation would be called satire by men and treason by women. Nonetheless, I have ample evidence to support my thesis that women only resort to biological expression out of the despair of failing to express themselves linguistically. This becomes clear when the behavior of women around babies is compared with other expressions of despair, namely, the behavior of addicts. When one observes a childless woman around a baby, she appears overwhelmed by a craving to hold it, exhibiting behavior remarkably similar to that of the dieter who eyes the buffet of indulgences at a party freely consumed by the other guests, or to the recovering alcoholic who clenches her can of Coke while her friends pour themselves another drink. If these yet childless women are like abstinents on the cusp of giving in to desires, it follows that mothers are like those addicts who have forfeited their wills to vice in pursuit of the promise of pleasure. It is a fitting analogy, for just as the glutton hopes that each bite of cake will be as pleasurable as the first and thereby continue to quell her anxiety so long as she keeps eating; and as the drunk, numbed by the first drink hopes that successive drinks will sustain that sweet reprieve; so the mother hopes that having her own child will imbue her life with the sense of meaning that she has glimpsed while cradling another’s baby in her arms––only this satisfaction would be greater because the baby would be her own. But each subsequent bite does not produce more pleasure than the first, and their diminished effects only amplify the desire for satisfaction, which, frightened that it may never be fulfilled, cries for more, more, more! until any pleasure is but a concept detached from the sensory experience of pain caused by an over-full stomach. Likewise, the next drink always fails to maintain the reprieve and leads only to a drunken form of the misery that first led the drinker to take a sip. So the mother’s desire for satisfaction by means of motherhood grows as it fails to materialize. However, the mother’s lot is more tragic than that of these other addicts, who by destroying themselves need not threaten the well-being of another. In contrast, the mother’s vice lives as her flesh molded by another’s will: renunciation would be a murder-suicide. Thus, for the sake of her life and her child’s, she must feed her addiction and maintain the belief that, despite all experience to the contrary, her will is made manifest in the world through the child. If parthenogenesis were possible for our species, then a woman might look into the face of a child of her own creation to see herself reflected, but instead, the father stares back, possessing the flesh that grew from her own.

But these are all just words, a pseudo-theory that provides me with little comfort and even less guidance as I lay here in bed, watching you sleep and running my hand over my yet unswollen belly. You don’t know it, and you never will, but my body has won––you have won. Since I was a young girl, when, in horror, I watched my body bud, bloat and bleed, and now, with even more horror, when it fails to do so, I have known myself to be subject to forces beyond my control. Until this morning, I was able to hold onto the hope that, if I couldn’t reproduce my will in your words, I’d endeavor to breed my own and, at the very least, not bend to the wills of others by confusing biological with linguistic expression. But I now see that I, too, was mistaken. Language is not mine, these thoughts are not mine, my body is not mine: they are yours: man’s. I don’t blame you, nor do I doubt that you love me. I’m sure, if I told you, you’d try to imagine the despair that gripped me this morning when I realized that, despite those biology-altering pills I swallow nightly, I have nonetheless been overcome by human nature.

But I’m not going to tell you, because you wouldn’t believe me. It’s too early for empirical evidence: my period isn’t expected for at least another week, so I can neither point to its absence as proof nor convince you with the results of a pregnancy test. How, then, do I know? Your words, of course, fail me. All I can say is that I know, as surely as I exist, another exists within me: the informing forces I have so tried to resist have coagulated into a life that sucks my own away. But it is impossible to express such a feeling to one who doesn’t have a body like mine––and to those whose tongues you possess so they misrecognize your will as theirs. As surely as I lay here now, listening to your heartbeat, I feel a third throb deep within me at an imperceivably different cadence than my own. But not for much longer. None of them for much longer. Maybe when you kissed me goodnight you thought my Chapstick tasted bitter: it did––it does, as I lay here in the dark, running my tongue over my lips, tasting the poison that laces them. In that kiss, my lips, my tongue, for so long shaped by your words, have rendered your lips, your tongue––your grammar that structures this world and determined my form within it––as impotent as they. Surely, this is not what my mother imagined when she taught me to shape your world by using my body to manipulate your desires––but this is its logical conclusion. Your breathing grows shallower, the third heartbeat grows fainter, and I, as my eyes grow heavy with a sleep that my body will never wake up from, dream of the freedom of silence.