Message in a Bottle
Legislators Are the Unacknowledged Poets of the World

On June 16th, while catching up with the news of the week, I read several articles about a not-so-minor political flap in Michigan. While the state legislature was debating a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless a woman’s life was in danger, two female representatives were chastised by the Speaker of the House for “failing to maintain…decorum” and had their speaking rights suspended for the following day. One of the women had pushed for an amendment requiring that men prove their lives were in danger before obtaining vasectomies, while the other had concluded her remarks by sarcastically saying she was “flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina.”

The idea that it was inappropriate to say “vagina” while discussing issues involving human reproduction struck many observers the wrong way, and an outcry was heard across the nation. Was this mere prudish neo-Victorianism or was it Orwellian political oppression? (Note to self: Is it sexist to cite Orwell instead of Atwood here?) Others insisted it was the legislator’s tone, not her use of the word, that was being censured. There’s surely some truth to that, but I’m just as sure that far less decorous comments have been made by other politicians without gags being applied.

The incident reminded me of the brouhaha over the book that won the 2007 Newbery Prize. The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron stars a 10-year-old protagonist named Lucky Trimble, who on the first page of the novel overhears a conversation she doesn’t fully understand. A former ne’er-do-well is regaling his buddies with an anecdote about the moment his life hit rock bottom, and it involves his dog being bitten “on the scrotum” by a rattlesnake. Many people (few of whom had actually read the book) objected to the very specific anatomical reference and claimed that there was no place in children’s literature for such vocabulary. Those who did read it knew that Patron had more than shock value in mind when she chose to employ it; Lucky’s development as a character is closely tied to a search for a loving, trustworthy adult who can explain things she knows she’s not equipped to deal with on her own. The message sent by the book as a whole was not that the word or the subject was fit for casual preteen use, but that kids need guidance as they grow older and confront adult topics. Patron, a children’s librarian when not wearing her author’s cap, agreed that parents should make their own judgments about whether the story was suitable for their kids, and encouraged discussion about the topic. Seems to me that this was the right response in that situation, and that more discussion, not less, was what was needed in the Michigan case.

I found an irony in reading about that conflict when I did, because of a much earlier controversy over the appropriateness of various words. James Joyce’s encyclopedic masterpiece Ulysses was published in 1922, but wasn’t legal for sale in the US until a landmark ruling in 1933 that declared it a serious work of art despite its more than occasional crudeness. Its characters—Stephen Dedalus, Leopold and Molly Bloom, and many others—get up to all sorts of mischief in the course of the novel, and virtually all the proper (and improper) names for bodily parts and functions come into play at some point (“vagina” makes but a lone appearance, so far as I can tell). All the thoughts and actions in the book, base or exalted, famously take place on June 16th, a date that’s celebrated every year by Joyce fans who call it “Bloomsday.” It was on that date in 1904 that the fictional Buck Mulligan stood on the frigid Irish shore and violated taboo by referring to “[t]he snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea.” The Martello tower withstood the utterance of this vivid and accurate description, and so will our republic weather any storm of words from the pens of our authors or the mouths of our elected representatives.

—James

Image of mute Justice by Miel Prudencio Ma.