Parrhesia & Rhubarb--Writer and alumna Aritha van Herk, ’76 BA, ’78 MA, on speaking one’s mind and the vegetable of promise
Before he died, in a series of lectures at University of California, Berkeley, the distinguished French philosopher Michel Foucault discussed the concept of parrhesia, arguing for a personal relationship to truth through an expressive frankness. For the Greeks, parrhesia meant to speak one’s mind, without rhetoric or blandishment, directly and to the point. Its second meaning was to ask pardon in advance for the discomfort kindled by such candour. Parrhesia implies risk; it requires courage to declare uneasy facts like, “The emperor has no clothes.”
I learned plain speech from my parents. My mother told no lies, but she was a gifted exaggerator. Eloquent and loquacious, my mother could spin a metaphor into amazing proportions. If she had to wait for an appointment, it took not just forever but “an eternity.” If she wanted to make a point, she did so with a fierce exclamatory delight that could be very funny, although her bluntness occasionally took people aback. Some would say that she had a wicked tongue, but I think of her oral dexterity as astringent, creative. This candid fluency was hers despite the fact that she did not really speak English until her thirties. As an immigrant to Canada from the Netherlands, she had no formal instruction, but learned the complex idioms of this language from my siblings’ schoolbooks.
"Rhubarb can describe a heated dispute, usually over insignificant matters."
She was a woman who loved language, and had her life been different, she would, I am convinced, have found a way to spend it working with words. Language was to her an amazing tool: persuasive, malleable and sometimes tricky. She knew only too well that language could be an instrument of both truth and lies, and that trust was a matter of effective communication. Some of her trenchant observations, even if I did not believe them at the time, have turned out to be resoundingly true.
She died last summer, and I am reminded often, to my own surprise and with fresh grief, of what she said or what she would have said. As is the case with many children who lose parents, we turn, for comfort, to their words, spirit echoes that continue to connect. That whisper in memory’s ear is probably our most important inheritance, a ghostly thread from those deceased to the surviving world.
My father, who died six years ago, was a quiet man whose voice I hear less often than my mother’s. I think of him most in the spring when the heirloom rhubarb that I transplanted from his garden into mine begins to poke through patches of leftover snow. A magnificent rhubarb plant, enormous, with leaves that could serve as umbrellas, it unfurls with heartening reliability. Every year, when I pick the first stalks, I have an internal conversation with my quiet and reflective father.
Rhubarb is one of the few plants determined to flourish in our unforgiving climate. In this northern hemisphere, where warmth before June is a fond hope, rhubarb’s arrival is a version of promise, a covenant of reemergence. I use my father’s rhubarb deep into the summer for every possible concoction that can be made from that tart vegetable.
“To rhubarb” also means muffled rather than sharp declamation. As a dramatic term, it refers to a group of actors giving the impression of indistinct background conversation, made by mumbling “rhubarb” over and over again, used because the word contains no sharp or recognizable phonemes. Rhubarb can describe a heated dispute, usually over insignificant matters. Here is a word that can be both instrument and obfuscation, while the real vegetable, impertinent as it is determined, presents an audacious face to the retreating back of winter.
Rhubarb is a tonic, fresh and tart, without guile. Purgative and sour, it is the vegetable version of parrhesia. Memory and grief, trust and rhubarb, together gesture toward an intimate parrhesia that we all, with loss, must face. When someone we love dies, truth and lies map a new dimension, the foreign country occupied by those who have said goodbye, but who still speak volumes to our trust.
Aritha van Herk is the author of novels, non-fiction and hundreds of articles and reviews. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.