Several weeks ago I discovered that a friend of mine had never seen the 1964 film version of Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady, with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. It was rather shocking because A) I grew up with it and can’t imagine anyone else not having seen it; and B) he’s gay… and, well, musicals seem the particular purview of the gays. Hell, it’s one of the qualities that all but gave me away back in the day. (My friend Emily said, “You got way too excited about Sondheim to be straight.”)
My friend and I were talking about the moment that language goes from being merely parroting to true acquisition, when words go from sounds to meaning, and I brought up this iconic scene:
He had a percipient observation about the show: namely, that it’s a picture of imperialism. Eliza Doolittle is taken from the gutter by the chauvinistic Henry Higgins, dressed in the garb of the upper class, and taught how to speak and behave “properly.” In the same way, Native American children were taken from their homes by Christian missionaries and taught how to speak, behave and dress like proper Christians (i.e., Western Caucasian culture).
The reason we were talking about this scene, and this song in particular, is that it illustrates that “light bulb” moment. My college French teacher told my class that her’s took place one semester while studying abroad. She was reading in a tree one day, she said, and all of a sudden everything just snapped into place. She didn’t have to translate from French into English anymore. The words carries meaning.
Writer David Sedaris describes a similar moment in Me Talk Pretty One Day, from the essay collection of the same name:
It was mid-October when the teacher singled me out, saying, “Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section.” And it struck me that, for the first time since arriving in France, I could understand every word that someone was saying.
Understanding doesn’t mean that you can suddenly speak the language. Far from it. It’s a small step, nothing more, yet its rewards are intoxicating and deceptive. The teacher continued her diatribe and I settled back, bathing in the subtle beauty of each new curse and insult. . .
The world opened up, and it was with great joy that I responded, “I know the thing that you speak exact now. Talk me more, you, plus, please, plus.”
These moments came to mind because several weeks ago I finally stopped believing in God. That’s not to say that I haven’t been an atheist these past two years. I still see no evidence or reason now to continue believing in God. The difference is that, a couple of weeks ago, I finally stopped missing God. It’s like that moment when you finally get over someone you’ve held a torch for, and one day, for whatever reason, those feelings stop. The memory of the love and the feeling is still there, but the gravitational pull doesn’t yank you out of your own orbit every time it wheels around.
Walking to work one morning a couple of weeks ago, the part of me that missed having a God to believe in went away. I’m not sure why it happened just then, but it was as if a balloon had popped, or a string were, and I wasn’t tethered to those feelings anymore. I didn’t feel the need to get angry or mean when someone talked about God or faith. I still get upset when hearing about someone being hurt by Christians, but then I get upset when anyone is hurt by anybody, for any reason.
I’m still passionate about the separation of church and state, about promoting secular and humanist values in society and throughout the world, and encouraging people to think for themselves instead of letting their thinking be done for them by those who want to fetter everyone in the world to a 2,000-year-old book. But I’m not doing it out of some revenge fixation, like a jilted lover railing against an ex.
None of us had a choice about being born in the proverbial Christian missionary school and taught the clean, holy Christian ways of the White Man. Neither did any of us have a choice about being attracted to members of the same sex. Eliza Doolittle chose to become the pupil of Henry Higgins, and accept his narrative of being a “proper lady.” But in the process she maintained her sense of self, and at the end of George Bernard Shaw’s original play, Pygmalion, she does indeed go off to marry Freddy and become a teacher of phonetics. Her final words to Higgins in the play show her to be a truly emancipated woman, unlike the chauvinistic ending of Lerner and Lowe’s musical: “Buy them yourself.”
I didn’t have a choice about being raised a Christian and saddled with all the negativity. But I’ll be damned if my parents’ choices are going to steer the course of the rest of my life.
You dear friend who talk so well: you can go to Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire.