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Philosophy of Literature

The Primal Scattering of Languages:
Philosophies, Myths and Genders

Karin Littau

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ABSTRACT: In After Babel, George Steiner recounts ‘two main conjectures’ in mythology which explain ‘the mystery of many tongues on which a view of translation hinges.’ One such mythic tale is the tower of Babel, which not only Steiner, but also Jacques Derrida after him, take as their starting point to approach the question of translation; the other conjecture tells of 'some awful error [which] was committed, an accidental release of linguistic chaos, in the mode of Pandora’s Box' (Steiner). This paper will take this other conjecture, the myth of Pandora, first woman of the Greek creation myth, as its point of departure, not only to offer a feminized version of the primal scattering of languages, but to rewrite in a positive light and therefore also toreverse the negative and misogynist association of Pandora with "man’s" fall. But, rather than exposing the entrenched patriarchal bias in mythographers’ interpretations of Pandora, my foremost aim is to pose, through her figure, questions about language and woman, and, by extension, the mother tongue and female sexuality.

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In After Babel George Steiner recounts "two main conjectures" in mythology which explain "the mystery of many tongues on which a view of translation hinges". One such mythic tale is the tower of Babel, which not only Steiner, but also Jacques Derrida after him, take as their starting point to approach the question of translation; the other conjecture tells of "some awful error [which] was committed, an accidental release of linguistic chaos, in the mode of Pandora's Box" (Steiner 1975:57). This paper will take this other conjecture, the myth of Pandora, first woman of the Greek creation myth, as its point of departure, not only to offer a feminized version of the primal scattering of languages, but to rewrite in a positive light and therefore also reverse the negative and misogynist association of Pandora with man's fall.

Rather than adopting the patrilinear account Derrida or Steiner give as regards the origin of translation, I will use the figure of Pandora to combine, and rewrite, aspects both of the Babel myth and the Oedipus myth. This is because, whilst Babel is associated with loss, the loss of one tongue, and Oedipus is associated with lack, man's castration anxiety, Pandora's box has been associated with both: the threat of linguistic chaos, i.e. the loss of understanding, and the threat of woman's sexuality, i.e. woman's lack of genitals. The Pandora myth, in other words, embodies phallocentric anxieties of Woman, both as regards language — the mother tongue, and as regards her gender — female sexuality. But, rather than exposing the entrenched patriarchal bias in mythographers' interpretations of Pandora, my foremost aim is to pose through her figure questions about language and woman, and by extension, the mother tongue and female sexuality. Whilst the myth of the tower of Babel makes visible the filiations of translation and the word of the Father, the myth of Pandora allows us to uncover the matrix between translation and the mother tongue.

Babel, of course, marks the multiplicity of languages imposed on the sons of Noah by God, as his punishment for man imitating the divine Ursprache by which word and world come simultaneously into being, as his revenge on man for making a name for himself. Babel also designates the name of the city of this second fall, names confusion, and is a composite name, Ba referring to father, and Bel to God. The gift of language which God had given to man he takes back; as Derrida shows in "Des Tours de Babel", he, Ba-Bel, the god as father "poisons the present", adds (the German) Gift to the (English) gift (1985a:167). What was the Adamic tongue now became mankind's many tongues, so that men would no longer communicate and understand each other with ease. Babel, as the proper name of a city, the common name for God the father, his patronym for this city, or more generally the synonym for confusion, thus unfolds all the different threads of its filiations, and poses for Derrida therefore "the impossibility of deciding whether the name belongs, properly and singly, to one tongue" (1985a:174).

The myth of the Urweib Pandora also tells of a gift-Gift she brings to mankind. But before unwrapping Pandora's box, it is necessary to add a few words about Pandora's name, which similarly plays upon an excess of significations. For, in Hesiod, it becomes clear that Pan-dora, gift-giver, signals in one name, and in one language, three meanings upon which he deliberately plays: "she is the giver of all gifts", "she who was given all gifts", "the gift of all the gods" (see Hurwit 1995:176). What remains to be seen, however, is the precise nature of her gift, the contents of the box which she opens. For, whether it was Pandora who opened the box, or Epimetheus who opened it, or whether Pandora's box, if there ever was such a container, was a cornucopoeia, or a pithos ("immovable storage jar"), or a pyxis ("small portable vessel"), or whether we should blame Erasmus of Rotterdam for his translation of pithos into pyxis, and for his translation's grammatical ambiguity which seems to suggest that it was the man, he, Epimetheus, being the subject of the sentence, who opened the box, and not Pandora (Panofsky 1962:17) — all these versions constitute instances of the tale's history of textual transmissions of which translation itself decided the content of the myth, that is, decided both the nature of the box, and the gender of who opened it. Moreover, not only the nature but also the contents of the box points to two very different tales of the myth.

In one such tale, following the non-Hesiodic tradition of the myth, Pandora is Gaia, Mother Earth, the first woman, and wife to Prometheus, who created her out of water and earth and brought her to life with fire. Here, her container is a horn of plenty which contains all the provisions to feed mankind, and as such connotes fertility. The Pandora of Hesiod's tale, on the other hand, is created by Zeus to avenge the gods and punish Prometheus' theft of fire from them. When Pandora opens her box out of curiosity, all the ills of the worlds are released. When the lid falls shut, only hope remains at the bottom of the box. In this account, Pandora is a femme fatale whose beauty, charms and seductiveness ultimately bring about his downfall; and here, her box represents nothing other than the female body, the threats and allures of her sexuality. In a Freudian reading then, the box as an image of concealment as well as mystery, generates a metaphoric relation to the female genitals, which, unlike the phallus, remain hidden and invisible, conceal a secret dangerous to man. Her box in this sense does not so much contain gifts to mankind, but is Gift to him, hope remaining trapped in the box, and unavailable to mankind. Whilst Steiner clearly interprets Pandora's unleashing of "linguistic chaos" negatively (as Gift), T. Gantz, on the contrary, has it "that elpis should mean not 'hope' but 'expectation' or 'awareness', so that men would be denied the full knowledge of their sorry condition: trapping elpis in the jar, then would be a gift after all" (quoted in Hurwit 1995:184). Once more then, in the myth's twists and turns, Pandora and her box appear in contradictory ways, which is why myth "cannot be grasped or encompassed; it haunts human consciousness without ever appearing before it in fixed form" (de Beauvoir 1972:175). Female figures in mythology are "contradictory", and Pandora is "various", precisely because She is a principle of projection: "Delilah and Judith, Aspasia and Lucretia, Pandora and Athena — woman is at once Eve and the Virgin Mary. She is idol, a servant, the source of life, a power of darkness", from which de Beauvoir concludes that "she is everything that he is not and that he longs for".

The Pandora myth therefore tells two stories, or we might say, speaks in two tongues. Pandora brings hope and/or ills; she brings remedy and/or poison to mankind; in short, when she opens her container, she unleashes the pharmakon. Thus, not unlike Plato's doubly translatable term pharmakon (writing as poison, and/or as remedy), which, as Derrida shows, came to be inscribed differently by its translators in the tradition of philosophy (sometimes as poison, other times as remedy), so our fork-tongued Pandora has come to be inscribed differently by her mythographers (sometimes as hope for mankind, other times as his ills). For us, therefore, Pandora poses the question of translation, as the pharmakon does for Derrida, not merely "in the passage from one language to another", but also "in the tradition between Greek and Greek" (1981:72); a point which Derrida encapsulates in the phrase "plus d'une langue — more than one language, no more of one" (1986:15). Whilst for Derrida it follows though that a term such as pharmakon, or Babel, is "divided enough in one tongue", that language is already "divided, befid, ambivalent" (1985a170); I would wish to interpret this irreducibility differently. Rather than arguing that language is divided or split, which presupposes the register of an originary wholeness, what Pandora shows in our account, is that language is several, that the mother tongue never was one. This is to say, language is not split, but multiplied, is not a question of lack, lacking wholeness, but a question of excess. And translation is therefore not an extra that provides what is missing, complements a lack, as Derrida seems to indicate (1985a:188; 1985b:120); instead, the multiple translations of Pandora's name engender her many different tales, illustrate not a lack at the source, but an excess which is played out with each and every renditions. In other words, Pandora speaks (at least) two languages. This difference in emphasis is crucial and must be unfolded further.

When Derrida writes that "the original [...] begins by lacking and by pleading for translation" (1985a:184), he provides the following reason: "If the original calls for a complement, it is because at the origin, it was not there without fault, full, complete, total, identical with itself", which is also why "the translation will truly be a moment in the growth of the original, which will complete itself in enlarging itself" (188). Although this argument appears radical if we consider, as is traditionally held, that the original is characterized by richness or plenitude, whilst the translation is an impoverished version of it, apparently lacking this richness, and that Derrida deconstructs this hierarchy by posing the original in terms of lack, we might nevertheless hesitate at this juncture. What does it imply for Pandora to say that she was "not there without fault, full, complete, total, identical to itself"? To pose Pandora and her tongue as incomplete, "pleading for translation"; would this argument not run the risk of inviting endless future supplementations (see Derrida 1976:144-5) of what might contribute to Pandora's growth? To impose on Pandora a lack of identity; or posit her as an empty screen, would this not also invite endless male projections of what he wants her to be, what he longs for in her? Moreover, not only the original, but by extension the language of the original — the mother tongue — would have to be seen as lacking something, and therefore be in need of something extra.

What then might Pandora be seen to be lacking? Both the Urweib and the mother tongue would fall within the purview of a Freudian description of woman, whereby woman, measured against his possession of the phallus, is lack. What underlies this thesis is that there is only one true sex, which is male, a thesis which Luce Irigaray (1977:64-65) rewrites when she proposes that the female sex should no longer be conceived as lack, as a wound, or a black hole or "dark continent", but as the embrace of "two lips" by two more, and two more again (the lips that speak and the vaginal lips that touch). Following Irigaray's argument, rather than Derrida's then, we might say that Pandora speaks with "two lips"; and since originary translation is at the tip of the Urweib Pandora's tongue, then the Ursprache, the mother tongue, was never one from the beginning. Pandora then is the epitome of this sex which is not one, as Irigaray puts it: "a single word cannot be pronounced, produced, uttered by our mouths. Between our lips, yours and mine, several voices, several ways of speaking resound endlessly, back and forth. One is never separable from the other. You/I: we are always already several at once" (1985b:209). What Irigaray's thesis illustrates throughout her work, is that she conceives of both woman's body and woman's language as a multiplicity from the outset. She does not therefore follow a deconstructive logic whereby the binary opposition between male and female would be exposed, reversed, and finally undone.

Similarly, I have not approached the question of woman in terms of the second sex, nor the question of translation in terms of the second text in order to expose, reverse and undo the hierachization operative in the couplet primary and secondary. That is to say, rather than unknitting the metaphors which woman and translation share, as Lori Chamberlain (1992) does brilliantly, by drawing a link between the secondary roles that women and translations have played, and subsequently exposing the violence implicit in the hierarchisation at work in binary oppositions, be it the privileging of primary over secondary, the privileging of model over copy, original over translation, man over woman — I have sought to get beyond not only the one, but also the two which a binary opposition necessarily takes as it premise. And Why? Although deconstruction sets out to undermine the stability of the logic of such binary oppositions as listed above, it nevertheless remains within the orbit of two, of the binary and the duplicitous. For, to deconstruct a binary opposition, to render undecidable their separate poles, such as that between original and translation, or man and woman, is nevertheless to play on or with the illusion that there might have been a prior unity from which the two fell. Such duplicitous play is perhaps most explicit in Derrida's ascription of a "lack" to the original, as opposed to the derived, the secondary, copy or translation: rather than destabilizing the lack/plenitude couple, Derrida leaves this as the horizon, the divided whole, within which the original and the translation exchange their properties.

Irigaray, unlike Derrida then, does not deploy a deconstructive logic to undo hierarchies, but rather works with the multiplicity that the phallocentric order attempts to reduce, in accordance with the procedure Irigaray calls "hom(me)ology" to the one and its other (1985a:134). Hence, the metaphor of the "two lips". Since patriarchal culture, a culture based on the homme, can only function if he is its model, and others are modelled on him, it necessarily has to reduce women to the other of the same (= man); and rather than account for the difference of femininity, her sexuality is explained as nothing other than a mutilated copy of his. Irigaray's analysis of what drives psychoanalytic theory (and especially its explanation of the castration complex) might also be taken into a slightly different register, might also be extended to include those theories which within feminism demand equality, and within Translation Studies demand equivalence. For, those who demand that translation should be equivalent to, should be like the original, and those who demand that women should be equal, should be like man, nihilate difference in the name of the return of the same, in the name of "hom(me)ology". But precisely because translation as a process only becomes visible as it becomes serial — after all, one translation might be conceived as being merely a mirror to its original, exactly as woman, so long as she remains one, is only ever the other of man, man's other — precisely because every text can be retranslated (and every myth can be rewritten), seriality is a condition which neither has a beginning nor an end.

What is at stake in the seriality of translation, is not only a rethinking of the assumption that the original's richness or plenitude must be matched by its self-same translation, that there is one perfect translation for each original; but also, on the other side of the spectrum, a thinking beyond a Derridian approach, which in order to deconstruct the hierarchy implicit in a couplet such as original-translation, must therefore take this binary opposition as its point of departure, restrict its orbit of inquiry to the relation between these two. In either case, we are faced with two: the original on the one hand, and the translation on the other; the numerical two being evidence of a divided one (as we saw with reference to Babel), or the two being evidence of a reduction of the many to the one and its other (as we saw with reference to hom(me)olgy). Furthermore, because deconstruction seeks to undo binary couplets, seeks to destabilize the relation between original and translation, by illustrating how a word can mean two things at once, it therefore demonstrates how "there are in one linguistic system, perhaps several languages or tongues" (Derrida 1985b:100). This allows Derrida to retain, albeit as a background element, or even horizon, the suggestion of "an originary translation before the possibility of any distinction between original and translation" (Kamuf 1991:242; as exemplified in the term pharmakon). Derrida also, however, argues that through the very process of translation, this "undecidability", such as forms the conceptual core of a term such as pharmakon, its irreducible ambivalence, is inevitably "going to be lost" (1985b:120). The myth of Babel, which marks this loss, would thus be a tale of mourning, the lost undecidability illustrating to Derrida that language is "at once translatable and untranslatable" (1985b:118), that translation is "both necessary and impossible" (1985a:174). The many Pandora myths, on the other hand, lend emphasis not to the impossibility of translation, but the imposibility of putting a stop to endless retranslation, in short, show us the serial nature of translation: there are always more translations, retranslations. This then is not a deconstructive logic of undecidability, which wavers between two poles (original-translation), which wavers between two meanings of "one" term (pharmakon), but a logic of multiplication. Nothing lacks here, nothing gets lost, with each and every translation there is always one more.

The Pandora myth, which metaphorically links the female body and its speech — the mother-tongue — allows us then to look back at both Babel and Oedipus, to revise not only the deconstructive conception of translation and the psychoanalytic conception of woman, but to see with fresh eyes new possibilities for translation and gender. Just as Irigaray demonstrates a morphology of woman's body and her speech and writing, the lips which are not one, too complex, or several, to be reducible to the one, what Pan-dora, her name, exposes is a seriality that never was "one". To translate her name is therefore not finally to translate her, to translate her at last, to approximate some original condition, but rather to translate again, to retranslate.

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