Henry Hitchings must be holding out on us. He claims in a New York Times Opinionator blog that the verb ask “has been used as a noun for a thousand years,” but he doesn’t provide a single illustration to support his claim. Puzzled, I went back to the OED, where, I recalled, I’d found only a single medieval instance of ask used as a noun over the past thousand years. It turns out I was wrong: the OED offers three examples – one from the year 1000, and two from the early 13th century. This makes the nominative ask “obsolete” in the view of the OED editors; and obsolescence doesn’t help Hitchings’s historical case. In fact, the literary evidence offered by the OED creates a whole host of problems for the argument Hitchings tries to advance in his Times blog – especially his effort to reduce questions of grammar to “aesthetic judgment” and “aesthetics.”
Let me focus on one medieval instance from the OED – the only one I remembered when I first commented on Hitchings’s article – to illustrate the point. This is from a medieval life of Saint Juliana called Þe Liflade of St. Juliana or Seyn Julian preserved in two manuscripts from the year 1230. There’s good reason I remembered it, because in many ways Seyn Julian is a text about a subject in which I have a growing interest — namely, the power of asking.
Juliana’s story is set in Nicomedia (now the Turkish city of Izmit) in the early fourth century AD, during the last years of Diocletian’s reign. In those days, Maximianus ruled as Augustus, Diocletian having concluded that the empire was too vast for one Caesar to rule. Throughout the empire, Christians are being persecuted – tortured, put to death, and, in one notable case, in Nicomedia, burned alive in the very church where they gathered to pray. According to Seyn Julian, Maximianus was determined to put “alle” Christians to death: “Alle cristenemen he dude to deþe.”
Juliana comes from one of Nicomedia’s ruling families, but she is (unbeknown to her parents) a Christian convert. So when a government official named Eleusius makes arrangements with Juliana’s father and mother to take her as his wife, things start to fall apart.
When Eleusius proposes to Juliana herself, she at first equivocates, saying that it would be better if he were a man of “more power.” Determined to win her hand, Eleusius makes the necessary gifts and supplications to the Emperor, and Maximianus elevates him to the position of “Justice.” (In other accounts he is made governor of Nicomedia.) He now has it in his “power” – the text repeats the word here and in several other places; “power” is really the subject of Seyn Julian, as it is of so many martyrs’ lives– to do what he will (“wat he wolde”).
What he will is not what he ought, of course, and it turns out that power, or at least the kind of official power Justice Eleusius has, is not enough to win Juliana’s hand. He proposes to her again, but fails:
ȝÞis Justice wende to Juliane. þo is power was.
And wende hire habbe as is spouse ac he failede of is as.
There’s that rare nominative usage – “failed of is as” (his ask), set playfully in the line against “habbe as is spouse”; the nominative form here rhymes with “was.” But Eleusius’ “as” – his bid for Juliana’s hand – is doomed to fail, the poem suggests, because it’s an assertion of his own will, or power, against a greater power at work in Juliana’s life: he may be a powerful agent of the Emperor’s law, but (as she finally confesses) she is a “Cristene woman.” Juliana wants to be of “one lawe” with Eleusius and she answers Eleusius’ request for her hand with a request of her own: “Bicome cristene for my loue”.
What follows is probably best described as a power failure: the world around Juliana goes very dark. When, after more cajoling, Juliana won’t come around, her father hands her over to Eleusius to do “wat he wolde.” Humiliated, angry, determined to assert his power over this stubborn girl, Eleusius has Juliana stripped and subject to horrid tortures – whipped, stabbed, scalded and covered with molten “brass” (other accounts make it molten lead); she’s thrown into a dank prison cell and, after being tested by Satan and suffering fresh torments, she is finally beheaded and her body is set out for wild beasts to savage.
It’s a grisly tale, but the detailed and exaggerated account of Juliana’s torments only highlights the extent to which Eleusius has “failed of his as”: he resorts to violence, to coercive power, but that power cannot win love or obedience; it can merely kill. Juliana dies, a martyr for the asking, as it were. The tradition that associates her with the Sybil’s cave at Cumae almost makes her the patron saint of asking.
Seeing in Juliana’s story the limits of violence – the limits of the power that depends on violence or coercion – should help illustrate the point I touched on in an earlier post about asking: asking is not about subjecting another person to our will or power. It’s a non-coercive power arrangement between petitioner and respondent. The respondent always reserves the right to refuse or say no, and if the petitioner doesn’t recognize and respect that right, then nothing is being asked: instead, someone is issuing a command in the guise of a request.
Of course there are gray areas here. But for the time being I want to state the difference between asking and commanding starkly, because to my mind, this is one important aspect of the trouble with “the ask”: it converts a non-coercive request to a command, a form of coercion. It relies on what Hitchings – approvingly — calls a “distancing effect”; he thinks it makes asking “less personal” and that, in turn, “may improve our chances of eliciting a more objective response.” But what would an “objective response” be, if not one in which both parties, the petitioner and respondent, were fully constituted as subjects and recognized one another as equals? Where is this objective world, and why does Hitchings seem to think it is exempt from the very power relations — the human relationships — that constitute it?
Invoking objectivity, Hitchings skirts the very issue Seyn Julian raises – the question of power, and how power works when someone asks someone else to do something. It’s here that political and moral – and not just aesthetic — considerations enter the discussion. “Sometimes,” Hitchings admits, “we need to do things that are aesthetically unpleasant in order to achieve other effects, be they polemical or diplomatic.” That’s tantamount to arguing that the ends justify the means.
In Seyn Julian or in the corporate boardroom, “the ask” turns a request into a foregone conclusion, a command. It becomes not a request but a statement about the objective world, about some requirement in the world that needs satisfying. Hitchings suggests the effect is largely psychological; “it focuses me on what’s at stake,” but the focus “the ask” achieves is the unwavering and unquestioning focus that obedient subordinates give to a superior’s command. It is not a request that one can meet with a yes or no. “The ask” already begins to limit the autonomy and the choices of the respondent; it aligns the petitioner’s will with the objective world. You’re not asking me anything; you’re ordering me about because that’s the way things are. Or so you say, Eleusius.