In the third season of Mad Men, Don Draper's latest extramarital interest, a freethinking schoolteacher, asks that unanswerable question: How do we know what you call “blue” is the same thing I see and call blue? Now a new book goes even further, telling us English has more color words that many other languages, and that ancient Greek appeared to have no word for blue at all. (Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, by Guy Deutscher. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)
I know it's been eons since I last posted, and I ought to have something new and different to say. But this will have to be another version of what I talk about in my note at the end of Pride/Prejudice: how language can illuminate or obscure our reality.
Deutscher tells us that the first color words to enter any language are always black and white, then red. Next comes yellow or green. Only then do other colors get their own words. Back in the nineteenth century, someone theorized that ancient peoples didn't have full color vision yet. A more recent (and believable) explanation for this progression of color terms has to do with dyes. As we became able to create colors, not just perceive them, we needed words for them.
But it seems to me that a lot of this is simply the increasing desire for specificity that occurs as society, and daily life, becomes more complex. Even in word-heavy English, in the past, the word “red” encompassed a lot of what we now separate out as orange and pink and mauve and... You see where I'm going with this. And it wasn't just colors. For a long time, there were only two seasons: summer and winter. Those great pagan holy days, the solstices, which now mark the official beginning of “summer” and “winter”on the calendar, were called Midsummer and Midwinter because “spring” and “autumn” were much later subdivisions to those two big ones.
Of course, this doesn't mean that midnight on September 22 brought an immediate deep-freeze or blizzard as “winter” began. And surely people could see the blue of the sky even if they didn't have a specific word for it. I imagine that if people needed to refer to it they might call it “sky color,” just as we still use the word for the fruit to refer to the color orange. (In German, btw, the word for blue is, in fact, “himmelfarb”--sky color.)
So what does this have to do with anything? It reminds me of another area where the language has become increasingly differentiated: sex and sexual orientation. Michael Feingold, in the Village Voice of Sept. 1-7, talks about how recent today's concept of “gay” identity is. “Homosexual practices, found throughout nature, have probably been part of human life since it first evolved, but homosexuality as we understand it, has existed for barely more than a century.” It's the exclusivity of today's identity that is so new. In the past, says Feingold, “Few [men], no matter which role they played in the act, would have assumed an exclusively homosexual preference; a great many might have been startled to know that people who thought themselves exclusively homosexual existed.”
This has been on my mind because of the two projects that have occupied me for the past months and kept me, a hopeless unitasker, from blogging. One was writing the full-length paper for that conference I spoke at more than a year ago, on Romance Fiction and American Culture. The other was auditioning and then rehearsing for the The Bilicious Show, a bisexual-themed variety show that will have its one performance, in Boston, on Thursday, September 23 (Celebrate Bisexuality Day).
Both of these projects led me to think about the issue of bisexual identity and the words that help or hinder us from understanding it. The conference paper, based on my first novel, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, discussed what I consider to be the most revolutionary aspect of the novel: its heroine—a woman, much like the author, who not merely accepts, but desires her bisexual husband. My ten-minute act in the Bilicious Show focuses on this theme, as I introduce myself and my writing, standup comedy-style, then read a short excerpt from Phyllida.
So much of the confusion surrounding my novels seems to stem from the relative newness of the term “bisexual” compared to the slightly older “gay.” People still aren't really sure what a “bisexual” person is; many people still don't believe that bisexual men exist. Yet, as Michael Feingold points out, in the past more men were, technically speaking, “bisexual,” at least in their behavior, than exclusively homosexual. We just didn't have words for any of those distinctions, and what terms we did have were often pejorative, to put it politely.
In my note to Pride/Prejudice, I compare the idea of putting explicit (bisexual) sex into Jane Austen's story to the astrophysics concepts of black holes and dark matter. Just because “until recently we were unable to verify the[ir] existence,” I wrote, “doesn't mean they don't exist.” And when I addressed the issue of whether Austen “knew” that she had portrayed a pair of bisexual men in Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, I called that a “meaningless, modern question, like looking at a black-and-white photograph and asking why everybody's wearing gray.”
We've become so fixated on the concept of exclusivity that we no longer accept the possibility of coexistence, of fluidity. If Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley love each other, and make love with each other, than how can they also love their wives? It's as if love is a solid, heavy substance that can't be divided, or a toggle switch that's either on or off, instead of that glorious feeling that overtakes us and operates by its own mysterious power, beyond our control. Perhaps there are times when it's better to call everything “red,” rather than worrying over whether it's really hot pink or fuchsia or tomato or fire-engine or...
Words alone don't create a color or an identity. Blue is still blue, whether we call it “blue” or “sky color” or never refer to it all. Sex between people of the same gender has occurred for millenniums. It's only recently that we've needed words for the people who engage in it. And it's only the blink of an eye, evolutionarily speaking, since we've needed words to indicate whether such people are exclusive in their attraction. But just as “bisexuality” begins to take root in the language, the “bi” part seems outdated—and the “sex” part seems unnecessarily specific. Surely there are more than two sexes, we insist; and it's not all about sex: it's about love and relationships.
In my work as a library cataloger, I must look for the most specific term. “African elephant,” not just “Elephants.” And yet, for people involved in real relationships in real life, sometimes specificity seems to go too far. We labor over each category: cis-gender or transgender; monosexual or bisexual or pansexual, monogamous or polyamorous. Must we each occupy a solitary niche? Isn't it enough, I sometimes wonder, simply to celebrate that we, human beings all, love and are loved?