What does a woman want?

In the medieval poem “The Marriage of Sir Gawain,” the knight gallantly agrees to marry a hag-like witch who has helped King Arthur by giving him the answer to his enemy’s riddle, which is “What does a woman want?” One of several ballad-like story poems of the Arthurian legend, this one appears in Eleven Romances of Sir Gawain (an online scholarly edition is here).

For contemporary intellectual types, however, the person who famously posed that question is Sigmund Freud. He spent many years refining the theory we now refer to as “penis envy” and arguing the displacement theory was at work subconsciously. Far too many casual references to Freud have simplified this idea as suggesting that women want to be anatomically arranged like men.

Um, not exactly…nope.

But back to Sir Gawain, agreeing to marry the hag in order to free his king from the evil baron’s grip. According to the poem, Arthur gives Gawain the secret he has learned from the witch herself. Depending upon the version or translation, the answer is: what a woman wants is her way (or her will, or to have her own way). She wants to be free to decide things that affect her and to make her own choices. Because Gawain is not only gallant and loyal and noble but also no dummy, he remembers Arthur’s secret. When the witch reveals herself as a gorgeous woman and asks him whether he’d prefer to see her lovely by day (when others can see her) or lovely by night (when her husband is abed with her), he defers to her. He says she should choose.

Delighted, she chooses to be lovely all the time (she now knows he will never forget that she has a will of her own).

So, if the medieval hag is correct, Freud was right, at least symbolically. Freud dwelt in a culture where men had authority, power, and self-agency, probably also true of medieval European culture, though I’d argue the Victorians were even more constrained. Anyway, women want those things, too–if possessing a penis as part of one’s anatomy could get you those things, one can understand envying the man, if not the organ itself. Indeed, Freud uses a bunch of lengthy theorizing to offer intellectual ballast to what he initially mentioned was an issue of power. Penis=power, in a male-dominated culture. It is almost too simple an idea, and almost too obvious, so he probably felt he had to pack it with a lot of other ideas. Transference and displacement theory have proven useful in other ways, but penis envy just suggests that females too often lack power to make personal choices within a social milieu.

As a feminist who yearns for balance and equality among human beings, I think it is crucial to point out that, despite the stories with which I’ve framed this post, wanting one’s way is not just what women want. It is also what men want.

People, no matter the gender, want to be able to say “No” and to be listened to and heeded. People want to direct their own lives, make their own decisions–and their own mistakes. I work with college students who are 17-22 years old, and I can assure you that they desperately want to make their own choices. Though they often also desperately want to blame someone else for the unfortunate consequences of certain ill-considered choices, they mature once they realize that sort of behavior limits them to the role of the naughty child–a dependent–not a responsible, independent person. If you want to be respected as an adult, I tell my students, you have to be willing to own up to your own poor decisions. And that’s just for starters.

Each young person I teach, tutor, or counsel wants some control over his or her life. Some try to get it by seeking to control other people, others by trying to control their environment, others by endeavoring to control the social situation they find themselves in…the list goes on. Human beings cannot really control as much as we think we can. But we can exert our will and speak up for our way. We can offer respect and seek respect. We ought to be able to make our own decisions as long as we are mature enough to deal with the results for good or ill. That goes for people of any sex.

Yet when a woman asserts that she wants her way, our society tends to judge her as a whiner or a bitch, a ball-breaker or a manipulator. Even now, many years into politically-correct language and Title IX and women as Supreme Court justices, I hear this sort of language bandied about, often “in jest.” Sure, it can be jesting; but it’s also pretty close to jousting–with words. Be a little more careful, my friends. Or as the terminology goes these days, more mindful. Perhaps, given the freedom to exercise our will, more of us will choose to be lovely all the time.

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Memoir & the lyrical narrative

I have decided to devote two class periods to exploring the lyrical narrative with my students. The reason evolved from, not exactly a revelation, but a dawning awareness that this particular mode of poetry connects more easily with students than other modes.

Popular music, of course, sets the contextual stage here. American country music fills the nation’s highways and airwaves with lyrical narratives and modern-day ballads. The story-song appears in a wide range of musical genres from rock to rap, born from simple blues narratives and Appalachian ballads and from John Henry and Casey Jones to glam-rock “epic rock ballads,” new wave, Motown, British invasion (think “A Day in the Life”) and quirky indie lyrics–not to mention huge hits like “Lying Eyes” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” or oft-played 70s narrative songs like “Cat’s in the Cradle” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” These tunes are all before my students’ time, but they have their own lyrical narrative popular songs; they “get it.”

Bruce Springsteen: lyricsThunder Road

Bruce Springsteen: lyrics
Thunder Road

Narrative lyrical poems hook readers who might not otherwise spend much time closely reading a poem because of those critically important pronouns “I” and “you” and because there’s a human impulse to stick with a story. We want to know how it ends; and we want to figure it out in our own subjective ways, to put the speaker/writer’s experience into our own (or vice versa) and interpret the narrative on our own terms. We also like to be a little surprised.

Why?

I’ve touched on the topic of the cognitive need for narrative in a previous post, and on Boyd’s story-telling impulse research (here), and now–in light of reading the lyrical narrative poem–I want to offer an excerpt from Oliver Sacks. In an excerpt from Speak, Memory, Sacks writes:

“There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected…Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves… Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable. We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections—but also great flexibility and creativity.”

How can we honestly interpret a poem without acknowledging immediately that our brains are highly subjective processing organs that inherently interpret and experience input differently? Our personal narratives, our memories and recollections, limit, expand upon, and influence our interpretations. That is why I insist that my students accept all “expert interpretations” of famous works with a grain of salt. Every human brain re-creates based upon subjective, unique processing; the fact need not keep us from admitting of rational thinking, but it must affect human interpretations of phenomena. Especially subjective phenomena such as art.

This is also the reason I warn my students not to assume that the speaker of the poem is the poet himself or herself. Poets invent, and they can invent personas. Furthermore, in their efforts to write truths–emotional truths, lasting truths–they may alter physical, actual, memory-based “truth.” In other words, maybe the story happened just that way. Or didn’t. Though “for the most part our memories are relatively stable and solid,” the paradox of art is that altering the facts can lead to deeper truths. Sometimes the facts seem altered from one perspective but not from another. Other times…well, I confess, I myself have changed some facts in poems in order to make the poem better. In such cases, craft supersedes the need for stony factuality. I guarantee I am not the only writer who employs this strategy.

Whose life is it anyway? And whose art? Sacks reminds us of the loosey-goosey aspects of recollection: “The neuroscientist Gerald M. Edelman often speaks of perceiving as ‘creating,’ and remembering as ‘recreating’ or ‘recategorizing.’” Thus, the lyrical narrative is a form of memoir, created through individual perception and recreated through the process of memory itself. Which, all of us being human and therefore fallible or otherwise liable to err, and subconsciously quite able to lie to ourselves, means that the lyrical narrative could end up as mythical as the stories of Mount Olympus.

And just as compelling to generations of human listeners or readers.

A voyeur’s fascination that the reader may be witness to the human-talking-to-human in the framework of a storyline is a significant part of what engages audiences. This poem might be memoir! It may be true. It may be genuine experience, something to which I can relate. There’s emotional frisson, or thrilling curiosity, or the dread of knowing it will all end badly. But I must know; and I want to believe it might be true. Tell me sweet lies, oh troubadour!

~

*Note: the image above is not Bruce Springsteen’s handwriting. He prints. An example of his actual lyric drafts is here.