Epilogue to "The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours"

Patricia Klindienst

Patricia Klindienst's "The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours" originally appeared in The Stanford Literature Review 1 (1984): 25-53, and in revised form in Rape and Representation, ed. Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda A. Silver (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 35-64. The present "Epilogue" (1996) is here published on VoS for the first time. Responses to the essay and epilogue are welcomed by the author.

Patricia Klindienst is an independent scholar. She wrote "The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours" while completing a dissertation on Virginia Woolf at Stanford U. She was an Asst. Prof. of English, Humanities, and Feminist Studies at Yale U. from 1984-1992, when she chose to leave the profession to write. Originally conceived as part of a book-length study of shifting representations of rape, the "Voice" essay was followed by two companion pieces, "Ritual Work on Human Flesh: Livy's Lucretia and the Rape of the Body Politic" (Helios, 17:1 [1990], 51-70), and "Intolerable Language: Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery," in Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion, ed. Berry and Wernick, (London & NY: Routledge, 1992), pp. 226-237. Responses to the essays are welcomed by the author. E-mail her at Klindienst@aol.com (This page mounted August 1996; last revised 10/30/96)

(This essay is not to be reproduced in whole or in part, on or off the Internet, without the express permission of the author.)

       Leaning her bony breast on the hard thorn
       she crooned out her forgiveness.

                            --Virginia Woolf, from the Holograph
                            of To the Lighthouse

When Virginia Woolf cut the eerily lovely evocation of Philomela, nightingale, from the "Time Passes" section of her great novel about the struggle of the female artist to complete a work of art, she cut out the seductive desire to forgive from the position of the victim still vulnerable to injury. The romantic image, even as adapted by a powerful feminist author, denies by disfiguring the violence it bears witness to, preserving the evidence of forcible penetration (thorn/phallus) while suppressing the human agent (the violent male). But, most dangerous for the female writer/reader, the ancient figure is itself both mute and mutilated, inverting while naturalizing the action it commemorates, so that the victim becomes the only visible agent of violence: the bird leans on the thorn, choosing it, in ceaseless self-destruction, as if there were no song without this suffering, and no hope of communicable words for the pain.

In the act of revision, Woolf rejects the figural and celebrates the literal, the vivid cleaning woman, Mrs. MacNab, who, though "Trodden into the mud by civilisation" is "not among the haters of life; not among the skeleton lovers; not among those who voluntarily surrender . . . , make abstract, & . . . reduce . . . the multiplicity of the world to unity & its volume & conflict & anguish to one voice piping clear & . . . sweet." Mocking herself, checking her own tendency toward quasi-mystical prose and flights of self-destructive fancy, Woolf turns from the hidden violence of romantic pathos to the "incorrigible hope" of the stubborn survivor. She scraps the crooning thornbird for the practical woman whose song transmits "the broken syllables of a revelation more . . . confused, but more profound."[1] Beyond Philomela, there is other work to do; there are lusty songs to sing.

Catching Woolf in the act of changing her mind, I see the great writer, herself an innocent victim of sexual violence, removing a trace of the cultural imperative to not know the truth of her own experience. To forgive beautifully, to "croon," or comfort, and thus lull the world to sleep, as if for its pain, and not for the pain it has caused her, is figured, by Virginia Woolf in the thick of an aesthetic temptation, as "hard." A being almost bare of flesh presses hard bone to harsh thorn before anyone has been asked to own responsibility for its power to pierce her. But Woolf rejects the visionary for the revisionary, substituting a leering, lurching woman for an inhumanly beautiful and deceptive poetic conceit. The real work of survival, this passage argues, lies in daily acts of labor; including, I would add, the labor of writing as well as the labor of reading.

Thinking about revisionary moments like this in Woolf, who could hardly bear to bear witness to her own pain and rage, engages me, as feminist critic, no less than it engaged Woolf, as novelist, with the urge to look again at what I had once seen and thought I knew.

Time and knowledge have changed how I would open this essay, were I to rewrite it now, having come to Yale and found, in Geoffrey Hartman, one of the few people with whom I can talk in earnest about violence, persecution, and the need to bear witness to the survivors of violation. The anger my reader hears in the opening of this essay I have chosen to leave unchanged; the words would never have come clear had anger not inspired them. But the anger has been relieved by dialogue and the discovery of common ground, and I wish to acknowledge a more satisfying conclusion to an argument I had with a disembodied voice now that I know the person, the integrity, behind it.

When I initially read "The Voice of the Shuttle," I wanted to hear more about the gender-specific violence of rape and the politics of literary representation and less about that abstraction, "Language from the Point of View of Literature." Geoffrey Hartman's elegance, his apparent detachment from the central action behind the lovely metaphor for Philomela's weaving infuriated me. This reading "I" could not possibly share the calm available to that reading "You." I could not help hearing a rape story, I could not help feeling that the myth commemorates in structure as well as theme the process by which a common violence is worked against women and is passed on (and passed over) in prestigious works by men. The radical disjunction between the tone of Hartman's prose (written at least fifteen years earlier) and the charge detonating within me as I recognized (after ten years of feminist education) a founding story in Philomela's rape, mutilation, and triumph over silence was a source of pain and trouble. The critic seemed blind in the very act of revelation; his flawed text opened something to me that I could not, had not, opened to and for myself. We could not hear, we were not listening for, the same story.

Except, that is, in his suggestive discussion of the poetics of silence: I could and still can assent to Geoffrey Hartman's observation that "there is always something that violates us, deprives our voice, and compels art toward an aesthetics of silence." At the time I took Hartman's vagueness ("something") as an easy way to avoid the specific suppression of the female voice that rape always represents but which was not foregrounded in his celebration of Sophocles' metaphor. Distracted by my anger, an anger bred by his inability to anticipate a female reader for whom the female subject could not, would not be generalized into abstraction, and for whom patriarchal notions of language would be repugnant, I never truly read the closing lines of the essay. I needed for him to remain fixed in error so that I might struggle my way into clarity.

Hartman's essay, written so many years ago, reflecting an insensitivity to gender (like white feminists' insensitivity to women of color) now left behind, has a great deal to say about language and literature's role in pressing open a "middle" between overdetermined poles of existence which threaten us with "the tragedy of the elided existence." This phrase--the heart of his essay--did not come home to me as grounded in shared experience ("looking together united them," as Mrs. Ramsay says of her nemesis, Augustus Carmichael, in a moment of achieved accord) until I re-read Hartman's essay and saw that it ends where his critically important current work, the ground of our ongoing discussion of violence and witness, begins. "The Voice of the Shuttle" ends where the work that has been one of the most profound influences on my thinking begins, with the poetry of witness, two lines by Nelly Sachs,

               Wailing Wall Night
               Carved in you are the psalms of silence.

I had simply never heard these lines, nor reflected on their author and her place in Hartman's essay. Here I now find a referent for the vague, nameless "something" that violates and silences. I gain insight into the constitutive possibilities of Hartman's "we" (which had felt so privileged and exclusive) and more: the restitutive potential in his act of listening for "the voice of the shuttle" in the witness of mass destruction for whom language's power of figuration was anything but abstract and detached.

Sach's poetry is a revealing coda to Hartman's meditation on violence and language, one he has extended into the present, especially, for me, in his work with the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale.

To bear witness involves two parties: those who testify, and those who are obligated to hear the testimony. For a time after the Holocaust, those who bore witness found only a few who could bear hearing about their experiences. The rest did not wish to hear, any more than when the events were happening. Haim Gouri, the poet and film-maker, calls the second part of his trilogy The Eighty-First Blow. The title is taken from the case of a man punished in a camp and left for dead after eighty blows. When, as a survivor, he tried to tell his story, he was not believed. That was the eight-first blow, more killing than the others.

In "The Displaced Person," Flannery O'Connor describes the mentality of those who refuse to listen, who think violence is always the provenance of the other and who confuse the witness with the violence he has witnessed and so, in the act of refusing to see a human being like themselves, prepare the survivor for a new killing blow. In O'Connor, the Poles relocated to Georgia are thought to bring with them the pollution of genocide. Into the rural community already harshly divided along racial lines, the refugees from the Holocaust are guilty by virtue of having been victims and by having been in the place of extermination. But mostly, they are guilty of disrupting the community's power of denial and making others see the reality behind their displacement:

Mrs. Shortley had the sudden intuition that the Gobblehooks, like rats with typhoid fleas, could have carried all those murderous ways over the water with them directly to this place. If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them, who was to say they were not the kind that would also do it to others?

To their new neighbors, as to their persecutors, the Poles are vermin, and violence is the pestilence that feeds off their flesh and threatens anyone who comes into contact with them. As figural rats--escapees from the heaps of tangled bodies Mrs. Shortley sees in newsreels--they embody the inadvertent bringers of plague. The victim is so confused with what he has witnessed that he is perceived as a monster, and a potential persecutor in turn.

This devastatingly dry story of sacrificial thinking in America during the 1950's describes how people recoil from the bearers of the story of violence and, according to the logic of the scapegoat mechanism, mark and take the victim a second time. When the father in the Polish family works under a tractor whose brake slips, the usually opposed black and white witnesses to the danger he does not perceive stand by and do nothing: no one shouts, no one intercedes to stop the huge machine from rolling over him and crushing him. What the Nazis failed to do to this man, his American hosts succeed in doing without laying a finger on him. They reproduce the scandal of the world's indifference by simply not acting to stop a machine already in motion. The white Americans, all in the name of being "more advanced" and tolerant and offering aid for which these aliens ought to be "grateful," influence their black workers, and they unite in the moment they reproduce the very situation the Poles had fled. But in O'Connor, the violence the community commits in their act of silent collusion accomplishes what they always feared the victim, in his polluted state, would bring upon them: their lives come unraveled, and what had once been a working farm becomes a dry and empty place. This confusion of the survivors with the violence used against them is common to scapegoating, racial, political, or sexual.

Many survivors of sexual violence know only too well the forces of denial people can marshall when asked to listen to their stories; incest, even more than rape, elicits reactions that thrust the witness back into the isolation and terrible loneliness produced by their abuser's exploitation of their bodies. Nobody wants to know; whether collective or individual, violence is always perceived as polluting by those under the influence of sacrificial thinking, and it takes a strong person to unlearn the mentality that goes with and abets persecution.

In looking for the common roots of violence and considering the difference between the way the perpetrators and the victims use language to destroy or to recover their humanity (and so work to impose or struggle to come out of the extreme isolation of suffering), we have to make the difficult double movement of acknowledging the historic differences as well as the structural similarities of all scapegoating.

It is this double movement that I now know I have in common with Geoffrey Hartman, and what we have been working to translate better between us is the imperative to listen to "the nearness and pathos of . . . individual stories," whoever tells them. This is a responsibility factionalism in literary criticism tempts us to forego in the name of our chosen causes (and favorite victims).

I write this epilogue because what matters is not holding Geoffrey and myself in static opposition for rhetorical gain, but responding to the burden witness rightfully lays upon us. We labor to disprove, by our acts of attention, Paul Celan's grim but understandable conviction that

                                                         No One
                                                          bears witness for the witness.

We start from where we are, listening, first, for the voices that seem to speak to and for us. Then we go further, out from our own suffering to the harsh and specific reality of another's, including the angry recognition of the black girl who narrates the tale of rape/incest and madness in The Bluest Eye and decides, with the sobering clarity of the young, that for the victim everyone abandons it is always "much, much, much too late."

Over against this tragic laying waste--the frightful "Ash-halo" of Celan's poem, the mad black girl picking garbage in Toni Morrison's first novel, O'Connor's Displaced Person crushed in the place and by the people who were to have offered safety--the choice to write represents the choice not to let the violent have the last word; not to let the victims be erased or the witnesses to their suffering be denied. It is as important that we learn how to listen to each other in the act of interpretation as it has always been that we learn how to listen to "the voice of the shuttle" in literature as truly "ours." And this time I really mean by that collective pronoun all of us.

Patricia Klindienst, "The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours" (1979)


1. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, The Original Holograph Draft, transcribed and edited by Susan Dick (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1982), p. 216. (Back )

HTML by Alan Liu with assistance from Madelyn Detloff