Rechts und Links in Europa: Ein Beitrag zur Semantik und Symbolik der Geschlechterpolaritat.

Rechts und Links in Europa: Ein Beitrag zur Semantik und Symbolik der Geschlechterpolaritat. – book reviews

Donna Harsch

In this interesting book, Leeuwen-Turnovcova employs an interdisciplinary method to investigate the origins and significance of the negative associations of left-ness and positive connotations of right-ness in European languages, cultures, social practices, interpretations of reality, and cosmologies. She posits, first, that right-left polarity corresponds to gender polarity–left is identified with female, right with male. Second, she offers a socio-historical explanation of why the left-right polarity is value-laden and seen as antagonistic, rather than complementary. Reference to a physical attribute of human beings (i.e. 80 percent right-handedness) cannot explain the high estimation of right-ness, she contends, because only over time did left come to have negative associations and fight positive ones. A morally-charged left-right polarity developed in tandem with the evolution of separate male and female social spheres (p. 18) in which men dominated the public, “civilized” world and women were relegated to the private, “natural” realm. Right and left were no longer just two poles of the body, but represented spheres that ruled over different phenomena.

Leeuwen-Turnovcova amasses an impressive array of semantic, symbolic-religious, and ethnographic evidence to show that left-ness came to be associated with negative moral and intellectual attributes throughout Europe. In German, French, Latin, Italian, English, and Slavic languages, “left” and words derived from its root mean incompetent, shifty, and shady (e.g., gauche, sinister, left-handed reasoning) as well as crooked, irregular, disorderly, rebellious, amoral. Right and its derivations mean straight, square, regular as well as law, justice, order, uprightness, morality. She also discusses cultural associations such as the fact that “black” or revenge-seeking magic was seen as left-sided, while the right hand/side was used in “white” or healing magic.

She attempts to prove that these moral polarities were connected to the couplings “left/crooked/circular” and “right/straight/rectilinear.” She garners symbolic, cultic, archaeological, and architectural evidence to demonstrate that the evolution of sharply-divided gender spheres led to an association between, on the one hand, women, earth, underworld, nature, chaos, cycles and, on the other hand, men, sky, heaven, civilization, order, linear progress. She draws on the work of scholars who have demonstrated that in early Near Eastern and Western cultures the chthonic sphere was associated with women because of their fertility and the fecundity of the earth which they worked in the division of labor of early agriculture. Men were associated with the heavenly sphere because they looked to the sky for orientation when hunting. It appears that left was already associated with female and vice versa, because in graves males were turned on their right side and females on their left, but left/female was not weighted with negative meaning and, in fact, was highly valued. Only gradually, Leeuwen-Turnovcova argues, did a reversal occur in the normative estimation of right and left. This inversion can be traced to a transvaluation in the social significance assigned women’s sphere of activity and began with the technological revolution in agriculture ushered in by the iron age that transformed agricultural production from a female to a male activity Moreover, production in general replaced reproduction as the most significant human activity. Thus, Leeuwen-Turnovcova argues along with many feminist historians, in ancient Greece the denigration of the female sphere of fertility and chaotic nature was accompanied by the elevation of the male sphere of production and orderly civilization. She asserts that the revaluation of the male and female spheres influenced the evolution of left-right polarity, weighting it with moral meaning. For Greek philosophers, for example, “warm” was a positive quality attributed to men and the body’s right side, while “cold” was inferior and attributed to women and the left side.

To make her case that this technological-social shift laid the basis for a cultural transvaluation of male/female and right/left, Leeuwen-Turnovcova examines the evolution of sacred and secular architecture in Europe. The cults of chthonic goddesses and the fertility rites associated with them centered around circular buildings, altars, etc. Technological advances made possible the transition to rectilinear structures. The roundness of the female body, the association of women with earth-gods’ (round) sacred buildings, the (round) home, and nature’s cycles came to be contrasted to the male body’s straight lines, rectangular architecture, technology, production, and culture. The female physical world was symbolically completed by a cosmology that made sense of the universe and human reproduction in cyclical terms and drew no firm division between death and life. The male world, in contrast, sharply distinguished between death, with its chthonic associations, and life, with its heavenly affiliations. Just as a solid divide separated the living from the dead, so a rigid line divided right from wrong, law from disorder, culture from nature. Left, associated with women, became identified with the cyclical, crooked, uneven, backward, chaotic, unpredictable world of bronze-age agriculture, while right, associated with men, became identified with the regular, lawful, rectilinear, even, orderly, predictable world of iron-age agriculture and cities.

If this is the gist of Leeuwen-Turnovcova’s argument, it is a fascinating one that draws creatively on different kinds of evidence. I say, if, however, because nowhere does she state that this is the train of her reasoning nor lay out the sequence of historical causality that led, first, to a left-female connection and, second, to this being negatively viewed. My interpretation of her thesis may be wrong. The difficulty is in part organizational. I could not figure out the logic of the book’s structure nor see how the parts of the argument built on each other. Semantic, symbolic, and social evidence of either right-left polarity or of gender polarity pours forth from page one. Yet why left and female are associated with each other is only revealed on p. 147. There she claims that women were associated with left because the 80% of them who are right-handed hold the nursing infant in the left arm in order to free the right hand for other tasks. Male activity/production was associated with the right hand. Before offering this theory, she has discussed right-left polarity for dozens of pages without mentioning gender polarity. Having finally explained the link, she proceeds to discuss the shift from circular-female to rectilinear-male architecture with no explication of how this transition affected fight-left polarity. As of p. 200, she concedes that she has not yet established the nexus “left-female-circular” but vows that the next section will do just that. From the introduction on, she repeatedly promises to offer explanations later, most of which I, at least, could never find.

Though reluctant to reveal myself as someone obsessed with linear chronology, I confess to confusion about when the transvaluation of the gender and right-left polarity occurred or when it became antagonistic. On p. 68, the author opines that it took place between the eighth and fifteenth centuries of the Christian era. However, on p. 217 she writes that “gender antagonism developed in the pre-patriarchal era” and right-left polarity had emerged by the time of the classical Greeks. Elsewhere she suggests that the Romans reversed the Greeks’ valuation and saw “left” in favorable terms though they too connected it with sexuality and femininity. This last point is rather inconvenient for an explanation that rests on technological progress and the rise of urban culture as major determinants of the male/female, left/right opposition. After making so much of this argument, she then claims that left-right polarity arises from a human tendency to create categories that make sense of the world. Or is it only endemic to societies with any kind of gender division of labor? And there is the awkward fact that in China, Yin is female/right, Yang is male/left, though there the polarity is evidently conceived as complementary.

The book is extremely ambitious with much intriguing semantic and ethnographic material. But aside from its poor organization, it is repetitive and badly edited. More important, the author, a linguist, presents theses first proposed by feminist historians as if they were grand new insights. She closes with a plea to break with the trap of right-thinking that values linear development, technological progress for its own sake, and the conquest of nature. The “straight” course of order, organization, and authority has led to the threatening situation we face today. Sympathetic as I am to this conclusion, I was not convinced by Leeuwen-Turnovcova’s derivation of it.

Donna Harsch Carnegie Mellon University

COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History

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