Frances Oliver

Masha Gessen at her apartment in Moscow in the early 1990s, when she was in her mid-twenties

As I begin to read a review* in my favourite magazine, The New York Review of Books, I am caught up short by the following: “… Gessen’s credentials as an observer of autocracy are impeccable. Aged fifty-three, they (Gessen identifies as binary) spent their childhood …” Who are they? Oh of course – binary – they is/are Gessen the writer. But then there are some quotes the reviewer makes from Gessen’s no doubt valuable book (alas, so much about the evils of Trump, like so much about the climate crisis and exhaustion of our planet is more about preaching to the converted). This is Gessen her/his self:
“In a representative democrac

y, a politician’s primary audience is their voters … In an autocracy, the politician’s primary audience is the autocrat himself, because he apportions power and influence.” (Italics mine)
So the politician gets a plural (neuter) pronoun but the autocrat a masculine one. Does this imply that autocrats are always male? That this is a male evil? But no, the heroes, the anti-autocrats are male as well. The masculine pronoun is given also to “everyone who still tries to resist … such a person appears to his ever more indifferent neighbours as an eccentric, a fool, a Don Quixote …” So are the few remaining heroes, like the autocrats, invariably masculine?
I haven’t read Masha Gessen’s book. Perhaps she switches throughout between masculine and feminine pronouns, as a few writers do. I write about Hari Kunzru’s review because it has prompted a lot of thought about the absurdities and confusions of our new politically correct English and the deterioration of English in general, especially through the media. Does it all matter? I think it does. When the mania for non-offensiveness reaches a point where J K Rowling gets a barrage of abuse for supporting what is after all biological reality and feels she must tell a personal history to defend a stand which in a free society should never need defending, something is very wrong; and it’s just in this climate of fear and confusion that autocrats, of whatever ilk, can thrive.
The Gessen review also leads to much thought about the whole question of genders in language. In the three languages I know well, each has a different approach to gender. In French not only living creatures but objects have genders. In German they do as well but children and young girls have a neuter gender. French has a masculine sun and a feminine moon; German the opposite. In English gender applies only to living beings but animals may be hes, shes, or its. In Turkish – another language I know a little – there are no gender pronouns at all: one pronoun, with its case variations and its singular and plural, serves everything from men and women to tables and chairs. If we continue to be so hung up on pronoun gender, why don’t we do the same and invent a new one, an ‘it’ for everything?
No doubt there is a book or at least a long dissertation about the fascinating question of language and gender. In myself, it has inspired a sequel to Edward Lear’s immortal poem ‘The Table and the Chair’:

Said the table to the chair
Let us go take the air
But I’d rather lead the dance
As a lady like in France
Said the chair to the table
Be a lady if you’re able
I myself will gladly be
As in Germany a he
But why let ourselves be vexed
In old England we’re not sexed!
So like people let us range
With the liberty to change
And from Stuttgart to Toulouse
We shall be just what we choose
And wherever we may stay
He, she, it but never they
To use plurals we are loath
Unless speaking of – us both.
(italics theirs)

*Hari Kunzru: Democracy’s Red Line Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen The New York Review of Books, July 2, 2020

Volume 35 no. 1 September / October 2020

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