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The secret lives of texts.

In contemplating what to say here I have had to fight against my worst nature, and our location for this meeting brought my moral dilemma into relief. I have been to many AOS meetings, most of them extremely pleasant, smooth-running, and successful--and as I remember all these pleasant meetings, they tend to merge a bit into each other. The ones that don't, that stand out in memory, are the ones where things didn't go smoothly, and chief of those in my institutional memory is the last one in St. Louis, in a hotel that was crumbling about our ears. I think everyone who was here then also recalls the meeting in detail, and those of you who weren't may well have heard about it from the attendees.

Similarly, I have heard many eloquent, elegant, and inspiring Presidential Addresses, many of which I remember quite well. But, again, the ones that are really etched into my mind are the appalling ones--the ones that never ended, that assumed the audience's deep fascination with the most technical and obscure facets of the speaker's work, that rode that hobby horse until the members were about to grab the reins and wrestle the speaker, however distinguished, to the ground. I name no names, and indeed no topics, but many of you will know some of those I mean.

So my temptation: if I really want my address to be remembered, if I aim for the "imperishable fame" that all Indo-Europeanists seek, to be handed down in the Society's oral tradition long after my death, then I really need to bore you monumentally, spectacularly, and at length. And unfortunately for you I can easily conceive of multiple ways in which I could do so. But you can rest easy--I am a modest woman and I seek no outsize portion of fame, and so, though I may end up boring you anyway, it will not be a deliberate bid for institutional immortality.

I will begin at the beginning. It is my belief that our philological impulse goes back to earliest childhood--the sense that children have, or I at least had, that characters in books have a full reality that is only partly glimpsed in the lines written about them; my childhood fantasy that Jo March in Little Women, or Dorothy and Toto in the Wizard of Oz, or, for that matter, Peter Rabbit might join me in my own life, and we could have further adventures not covered by the book; that (later on in my life) Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice had said many further wise witticisms that happened, alas, not to have made it to print. That they all had a life after the book ended and before it began--a secret life, if you will, because it's unobservable to the readers, what is known in Los Angeles, the city I now inhabit, as the "backstory." This also leads to our annoyance when an author presumes to manipulate characters in ways that run counter to our sense of their "reality": why did Tolstoy make the vibrant Natasha into a dreary housewife at the end of War and Peace? how dare the detective story writer Elizabeth George kill off the appealing and inoffensive Helen for no good reason? We feel, I think, that though authors create the characters, they doesn't own them--fiction is not slavery--and we become indignant when authors presume to behave arbitrarily to their creations. This sense of the reality of texts makes it something of a wonder to me that more children don't grow up to be philologists though, given the job market, it's just as well.

As an aside, it seems to me that this is the reason that the post-modern, post-structural view that a text is just a text hasn't gained much traction outside the academy: it contravenes people's deep and instinctive reactions to the "reality" of narrative, of stories.

In what way is this belief in the reality of fiction philological? We who work on ancient or medieval texts take them as two-dimensional pieces of evidence for a three-dimensional, fully real and realized world, and our job is to use the scant evidence to project three dimensions out of two. What I've elsewhere called (too often) reading between the lines. This is what I think every single person in this room does--if not with texts, then with artifacts. Even the most austere among us, the linguists (among whom I count myself, at least by origin), are engaged in this process; in fact, linguistics is perhaps the most explicit about the enterprise, for even linguists who work on modern spoken languages know that their program is to take the fragmentary and imperfect data that is living speech and construct the grammar by which these scattered utterances are generated, the mental grammar for which we have no direct evidence. This is, of course, the distinction between "parole" (the speech produced) and "langue" (the grammatical system that produces it) that goes back at least to de Saussure at the beginning of the last century. And in the same way our quarry as philological linguists working on ancient texts is to create from the written utterances in the text what was the living grammar for the speakers of the language in question and the composers of the texts.

But tonight 1 want to talk about an even more secret life, the "secret secret life of texts," as it were. And to do so in part as a response to people who are, probably, not in this room. As we all know, academic disciplines have turned more and more in recent decades to the study of areas marginal or invisible to traditional historical study--disempowered social groups, women, minorities, daily life, and so forth--using materials marginal to traditional historiography. And we who work in traditional philology, textual studies broadly construed, have come to feel somewhat beleaguered. We have been told that our discipline is unfit to take part in this new enterprise: not only are we still complicit in the colonialist and orientalist attitudes and activities of yore, but our texts "privilege" the dominant paradigm, reflect only the elite, and cannot be used to probe the margins. The very fact that something has not only been written down but that that writing was preserved and has survived for hundreds, indeed thousands, of years makes that text suspect, disqualifies it as evidence for what, in my corner of the larger discipline, is called, somewhat bizarrely, the "subaltern." For example, I was told some decades ago by some feminists scholars that it was impossible to do scholarship on women depending only on texts.

I'm afraid that, at least in my opinion, we have not always responded very usefully to our detractors. You will be relieved to know that this will not be another screed against the forces of post-Everything; I fear that such reactions on our parts, however understandable, only confirm others' view of our irremediable intransigent conservatism. Instead I'd simply like to suggest that we can actually do such research better. We who have the tools, the methodology, and the experience to probe the secret lives of texts can use the same instruments to reach their secret secret lives--to project out of two dimensions not merely three dimensions but four, if you'll permit this stretching of mathematics. I would maintain that texts are far more multi-valent, flexible, and multiply useful than they are given credit for. They can as easily subvert as assert the dominant paradigm; they can be made to reveal information about apparently invisible social groups and topics. Since we do not have direct and straightforward records pertaining to such social groups and such questions, we must make the texts tell us things they don't know they're saying. And from long experience we are adept at the subtleties of this sort of philological torture.

Enough of generalities. We are all united in this room by an absolute passion for data, for details of the most arcane variety, and especially for details that, on first inspection, don't seem to make any sense at all. By this measure my scholarly life has been sheer bliss, because I've spent quite a lot of it working on the oldest Sanskrit text, the Rig Veda, which consists of approximately a thousand hymns to a variety of divinities, or approximately ten thousand verses all told, of which approximately 9,999 are utterly baffling at first glance. Here is one, a piece of direct speech that closes an otherwise fairly conventional praise hymn dedicated to the great warrior god Indra:
  " 'Keep your eyes to yourself: look below, not above. Bring your two
  little feet closer together. Don't let them see your two little
  "lips"(?).' For you, a brahman, have turned into a woman."
  (RV VIII.33. 19)

What is this about--this little snatch of Arnold Schwarzenegger "girly men" discourse? I can tell you that the context provides us with no information about either the putative speaker (who could be the poet, or someone the poet is imitating or quoting) or the addressee, besides the fact that the latter is identified as a brahman, that is, a priestly figure and a member of the most exalted class. The tone of the passage appears to be both calculatedly insulting and mockingly derisively, belittling--I don't think cultural "constructions of gender" (as they're now called) have changed so much over the last three thousand years or so that our instinctive response to this snatch of speech should be discounted. I can also tell you that two of the words have a particular suffix that is both colloquial and characteristic of women's speech--the two words are "two little feet" (hence the 'little' in my translation) and what I've translated as "two little lips"--mostly out of despair: it's a hapax, it's a dual, it has no obvious etymology, and it seems likely to be semi-obscene--so some part of the female genitalia seems plausible.

Putting together all these slender pieces of evidence from the verse, we can conclude--actually "conjecture" is a more accurate verb--that the first three-quarters of the verse, consisting of commands--"Keep your eyes to yourself: look below, not above. Bring your two little feet closer together. Don't let them see your two lithe 'lips'(?)."--are being presented to us as women's speech, so marked both by the form, the characteristic diminutive women's suffix, and by the contents, which sound like a mother instructing her little daughter on proper decorous female behavior. And this little imitation of maternal advice (which is wildly out of place in a text consisting of solemn high-style hymns praising the great divinities--and in fact in a hymn praising the most hyper-masculine and powerful of all the gods)--is then followed by the devastating insult, "For you, a brahman, have turned into a woman!" The speaker insinuates that his addressee--a male, presumably highly respected, priest--is in need of instruction in the demure ways of little girls, the instruction just given, because he has lost his title to maleness, his right to behave like a man.

But even if I'm right about the interpretation of the passage (which is certainly open to question), what is this all about? We have managed the first stage--the always challenging task of simply figuring out what the words are and what they're trying to tell us. But why are they telling us this, and why here and why now? Almost all of this hymn is a normal praise of the god Indra--he's invincible, he's generous, and everything related to him is absolutely superlative--with repeated invitations to said god to attend our sacrifice. And then it ends, abruptly, like this a--gratuitious, gender-bending taunt directed at an unidentified priestly man with the god nowhere in evidence. What's going on? That's our next step.

There are a few things we can exclude. For example, although the Indian tradition has often found in the Vedas, their revealed texts, evidence for all the phenomena of the modern world, from jet planes to nuclear physics and now, no doubt, string theory and quasars, I very much doubt that this passage anticipates present-day trans-gender surgery. The taunting accusation does not call attention to a physical reality but to a metaphorical and emotive transformation. And some things never change, and therefore to us short-sighted moderns seem perpetually modern--and one of these eternal verities is the motivation for insults like "You have become a woman!" Why did the governor of California, Arnold Schwartzenegger, call the California state legislators "girly men"? Not because they were yielding swooningly to his masculine posturing but--because they weren't; they weren't cooperating with his legislative agenda (or with each other, but that's another story), but thwarting his budget. In another country and another era, why was John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth-century English philosopher and "public intellectual," accused of being "feminine"? Because he wrote so eloquently and influentially about the rights of women. The point being, I assume, that if you are perceived as having too much sympathy for women you are perilously close to being like them.

So here we have two reasons for calling a man's masculinity into question: (1) holding opposition views on matters of policy, and (2) championing women. And I would argue that both of these are involved in the devastating finale of our passage, "You have become a woman." Let me explain: I consider this brief passage a piece of flotsom in an ongoing debate about the place of women in Vedic ritual, in sacrifice. I also think that the debate was carried out beneath the surface of texts that seem to be about something else entirely, in a number of the later hymns of the Rig Veda. This is the secret of their secret lives, the hidden political or social message that masquerades as a different discourse, whose verbal disguise we must learn to recognize and interpret, just as we easily and automatically see behind the political discourse of our own time--say the enthusiastic and superficially innocuous patriotic clich s of a Sarah Palin, whose sinister subtext needs little "unpacking" for a contemporary audience, pro or con.

But, before looking for glimpses of other such pieces of flotsam in the Rig Veda, a little background. There is a vast body of ritual texts that more or less immediately follow the Rig Veda, our earliest Sanskrit text, chronicling one of the most fantastically detailed, and faithfully recorded, ritual systems the world has ever known, the Vedic Srauta (or "solemn") ritual--thousands of pages specifying every offering, every hand-gesture, every footstep of the multiple participants in these great ritual spectacles. And one of the standard, and required, participants in all these rituals is a woman, the so-called Sacrificer's Wife. To mount a sacrifice you (that is, the male) have to be married, and your wife has to be there and perform her prescribed duties--mostly sitting around, but occasionally being led somewhere to do something, usually mundane, like gazing at the melted butter offering, but sometimes decidedly icky, like copulating with a just-slain horse. I devoted a large part of my 1996 book, Sacrificed Wife / Sacrificer's Wife: Women, Ritual, and Hospitality in Ancient India (New York: Oxford Univ. Press), to an investigation of this role through the large corpus of Vedic ritual texts.

The Sacrificer's Wife is just there in those ritual texts; she occasions no special notice, anymore than this type of priest or that one. And when I was studying her role, it never occurred to me that it had not "always" existed--thus buying into what religions always want us to buy into: "it has always been this way." I assumed (and worse than that, unconsciously assumed--a presupposition that I didn't notice or question at the time) that Vedic ritual from the beginning (whatever that means) had always had a slot for the Sacrificer's Wife. But in fact there is only one unambiguous mention of this role in the Rig Veda (VIII.31.5-9), and that in a part of the text that is somewhat aberrant. And in the closely related Old Iranian texts, whose ritual system (once excavated from its Zoroastrian trappings) bears a strong resemblance to that of the Rig Veda, there is no trace of this female participant either. Which suggests that the Wife's participation in the Middle Vedic texts is a ritual innovation, however much it masquerades as business as usual.

And, as we all know (from reading Anthony Trollope, if nothing else), innovation does not come easily to religious institutions. On the personal level there are entrenched conservatives who stand to lose power or influence if the system changes, and of course there is an understandable fear that changing the system will cause it to lose its efficacy, its power to mediate successfully between the human and the divine, since gods seem even more conservative than church elders. And how much more magnified would the resistance and the fears be when the innovation in question involved introducing the messy, unpredictable, and often contrary world of women into the pure, ordered domain of ritual performance. It is hard to believe that this happened without a struggle, despite the placid surface of the later ritual texts, which detail the duties of the Sacrificer's Wife with a (literally) "just the facts, ma'am" attitude. The struggle must have come earlier, and the forces of change prevailed before the ritual manuals we have. I would argue that the issue was being bitterly fought in the late Rig Veda, and we see the skirmishes shaping a number of hymns that present sharply opposing depictions of female figures. The motivations and meanings of these hymns have been variously interpreted by ancient and indigenous commentators as well as modern and Western ones--often quite fancifully and often with an ultimate admission of bafflement. But these hymns are ordinarily examined singly and independently, rather than as a body of poems that collectively limn the dimensions of a theological dispute, though on, as it were, deep background.

In this mellow after-dinner setting I cannot set out the argumentation for this view at length, (1) so I'll content myself in the time remaining with sketching a few of the more memorable hymns and the female figures that populate them. I think we can count the poet of the "you have become a woman" verse as a particularly sour member of the anti-faction, against the introduction of women into the ritual and even more against the men who are for it--one of whom is the recipient of the final emasculating insult discussed above. On the pro-side, I'll mention the hymn depicting a delightful married couple, Mudgala and Mudgal[]n[] (RV X.102), who run an unorthodox kind of chariot race, using defective and makeshift equipment and with the wife, Mudgal[]n[], as charioteer; despite these drawbacks they triumph in the race. There is no direct mention of the ritual, much less the Sacrificer's Wife: the hymn is just about a race, at least on the surface. But the metaphor of the chariot as ritual is an extremely common one throughout the Rig Veda, and, with that in mind, the wife Mudgal[]n[] as charioteer can be interpreted as standing for the Sacrificer's Wife and directing the whole ritual show. The whole hymn can be read as an extended metaphorical treatment of the new ritual model, a piece of theological propaganda or advertising campaign: the emphasis throughout the hymn is on the unorthodox and makeshift nature of the equipment, and the surprising outcome in victory signals that the ritual partnership between husband and wife is a new, untried model, which nonetheless brings even more success than the old one. The message: don't get left behind! try the New and Improved Sacrifice with scientifically proven Wife-injection! once you experience the results--more gold, more horses, more cows, more sons--you'll never go back to the pokey old ways.

On the anti-side we have the famous dialogue (RV X.10) of Yama, the first man (more or less--the parentage is a little confused), and his twin sister Yam[], which is surely the most delicious name a would-be seductress ever received. She badgers her brother to have sex with her so they can populate the world; he, prudish and moralistic--not to mention a little scared--reminds her that the gods are always watching. He prevails, or rather she doesn't--it's an impasse, and she ends by exclaiming something that must be close to "You jerk, you really are a jerk, Yama"--if only we had a handle on this hapax. The sex doesn't happen (or not then), leaving us to wonder how the rest of us humans got here after all. The range of interpretations of this enigmatic dialogue probably tells us more about the psychosexual attitudes of the interpretors than we really wish to know, but I'll add my own. One of Yam[]'s arguments for having incestuous sex is that "the creator made us a married couple in the womb" (RV X.10.5), referring to their twinnedness. The word for "married couple" is used elsewhere of the pair of Sacrificer and Sacrificer's Wife. By putting it in the mouth of the sexually importunate Yam[], the poet seems to be saying that allowing a married couple, an equal and balanced pair, to participate in sacrifice would open the floodgates to the voracious sexuality of the female, which pays no heed to the universal moral order, and we men must resist.

I'll close with a hymn that attempts a middle way, seeming to recognize the anxieties of the conservatives about the new model and seeking to provide reassurance, a hymn sometimes rather histrionically titled "The Rape and Return of the Brahman's Wife" (RV X.109), though there's no hint of rape. The history of its exegesis is a cautionary lesson in what can happen when the most sober philologists--and who were more sober than the nineteenth-century Germans?--let their fancies wander--a history I will not relate here. This short seven-verse hymn begins by mentioning an offense against a brahrnan, an offense proclaimed by various cosmic forces, and its last verse pronounces the offense expiated. An inner ring of verses declares that a whole slew of gods have "given back" the Brahman's Wife, leading us to believe that taking her away has something to do with the mentioned offense. But the middle three verses talk about the power of the Brahman's Wife, and the difficult feats she accomplishes--feats recognized by the ancient gods and seers--for the protection of the kingship of the ruler. This peculiar little text finds a perfect niche in the debate I've suggested is roiling the Vedic theological waters at this time--whether to allow the Sacrificer's Wife to participate in ritual and, if so, why. The hymn admits that the entry of the Wife into the ritual is something of an offense, but an expiable one. Moreover, the potential danger she incurs by coming into direct contact with the gods on the ritual ground is nothing to worry about--they'll give her back. And what good she will do, and how much more effective the ritual will be! The views of this poet, and theologians like him, won the day, and the unquestioned presence of the Sacrificer's Wife in the next period of Vedic literature is the result.

I have ridden my hobbyhorse for quite awhile, and I thank you all for restraining yourselves from grabbing the reins. But I hope this meander through some of the enigmatic thickets of Vedic exegesis will give support to my final pronouncement--or perhaps it's a plea: we should not cede any ground in the study and exploration of ancient lives and histories in any of their aspects. To piece together what really was going on for--say--women in antiquity, their secret secret lives, requires the cunning and indirection of philology and the willingness to put in the years of slog through languages and texts, in order to think our way into the interior of those texts. We do not so much need new methodologies, new theories, as simply the willingness to frame different questions, in addition to the time-honored ones--and, perhaps especially, to guard against defensiveness, a knee-jerk tendency to consider such new questions unworthy of our skills and thus yield the floor to clumsier and more ideologically driven approaches.

I have always found my most comfortable home in this Society because it imposes no ideological or theoretical constraints on what topics we can pursue or what results we come up with. The only requirement is for us to respect and honor the texts and the people who produced them and are represented in them, and to attempt the act of scholarly ventriloquism, to give them a voice again, with as little of our own egotistical interference as possible. And so I return to my starting point--the felt, three-dimensional reality behind the two-dimensional text, the living voices we try to restore to them--though at my age I don't quite expect the lovely charioteeress Mudgalani to come out to play in quite the same way as I once did Dorothy and Toto.

Author's note: Presidential Address delivered March 14, 2010 at the AOS Annual Meeting in St. Louis, Missouri. The informal and oral style has been retained.

(1.) The argumentation is given in two papers currently in press (and seemingly quite likely to remain so in perpetuity): "'Sacrificer's Wife' in the Rig Veda: Ritual Innovation?" to appear in the Proceedings of the World Sanskrit Conference, Edinburgh, July 2006, and "Rig Veda X.109 'The Brahman's Wife' and the Ritual Patni," to appear in the Proceedings of the Vedic Workshop, University of Texas, May 2007. For women's language, see "Women's Language in the Rig Veda?" in Indologica. T Ya. Elizarenkova Memorial Volume, part I, ed. L. Kutikov and M. Rusano. Pp. 153-65. Moscow: Rossijskij gosudarstvennyj gumanitarnyj universitet [= Russian State University for Humanities], 2008.

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Author:Jamison, Stephanie W.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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