Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.11.02

Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic in Women. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. Pp. 246. $14.95 (pb). ISBN-0-8014-8091-4.

Reviewed by Jennifer Dellner, Reed College.

Sorkin Rabinowitz presents a provocative and ultimately unsettling analysis of the phenomenon of "the traffic in women" in eight tragedies of Euripides. The phrase "traffic in women" in the subtitle of the book derives from an article written in 1975 by Gayle Rubin, which has since become the locus classicus of feminist literary and anthropological theory of women and exchange. The prominence of Rubin highlights other theoretical choices and exclusions which reveal a deeper agenda.1 In the conclusion of this study, S.R. recounts the following incident: "When I presented my work at a conference several years ago, someone in the audience asked me why we should continue to teach and read this material. I admit that this is a problem for me, given the competition for scarce resources in the curriculum, for example." S.R. continues, "It is possible for feminist readers to use these texts..." (220).

Her own ambiguity vis-à-vis the value of her subject matter produces what I consider to be the book's most dominant flaw: the assumption of the monolithic feminist "we" in a premise of despair over what tragedy means to "us" (women). Indeed, in her Introduction, S.R. speaks of adapting Althusser for "deployment in the feminist arsenal" (12), while I am left wondering why I need weaponry to approach these texts. S.R.'s assumptions are "up-front," in that they are explained at the outset and embedded in her interpretation. In what follows, I have noted several theoretical moves which may make even a feminist reader uneasy; since they often account for S.R.'s acceptance or rejection of a certain understanding of the tragedies, I present them as I move through the text.

In spite of an introductory section which traces out a by now well-known route from Mauss to Gernet to Levi-Strauss to Rubin on the exchange of gifts, women, and signs, S.R.'s analysis is more Freudian than Marxist, and it is this approach which will generate the most controversy. Her segue from Marxism to Freudian psychoanalysis relies on their shared vocabulary of "the fetish." Fetishism ties together the economy of (masculine) desire (Freud), and the social construction of commodities (Marx), and allows S.R. to "attend to the maculinity of Athens and stress tragedy's ideological function" (9), i.e. to examine the "cultural work" tragedy does when it makes its female characters "discursive practices" (12) in its form(ul)ation of masculine desire qua Athenian ideology. S.R.'s examination of the cultural practice of Euripidean tragedy comes to a view of tragedy as "comforting to men" (168), a far cry from recent views of tragedy as a destabilizing or questioning influence on Athenian life and politics (e.g. Goldhill's term, "fractive").2

All in all, S.R.'s reading yields the following triangle: the two species of commodified women are "Fetishized Victims," (Part I), who are either "sacrificial" virgins or wives, and "Vengeful Destoyers" (Part II), Matres Dolorosae, who become, in opposition to their fetishized counterparts, unheimlich or "uncanny"; both of these serve to produce "Men United" (Part III). S.R.'s reliance on the Freudian concept of the unheimlich to balance vengeful mothers with fetishized young women clearly inclines her analysis toward a psychoanalytic theory of male wish-fulfillment. S.R. makes good use of Freudian-based feminist film criticism (Doane, deLauretis, Mulvey) in her reading of female characters as projections of male fantasy. It is in this concept of "public art" that S.R. uses MacKinnon's work on ideology to relate the notions of male sexual desire and commodified fantasy to the production of epistemology (196).

Iphigenia (at Aulis) and Alcestis are S.R.'s main models for the "sacrificial" women of Part I, though an examination of Polyxena and Macaria supports S.R.'s reading of Iphigenia in the first chapter. In the first section, S.R. opposes the supposed "subject" status of women who sacrifice their lives (their seeming volition and possible power) with the male glorification ("fetishization") of them which seeks to control it. In this section, S.R. wishes to produce a "grammar of the plays of sacrifice," where she argues that sacrifice is a form of gift-exchange with the gods (31). She turns to work by Vernant and Foley to make a further analogy between sacrifice and marriage as comparable forms of exchange. Both marriage and sacrifice, according to S.R., re-organize "natural" phenomena (reproduction, meat-eating) into social, hierarchized behaviors which advantage the male: "In sum," she writes, "marriage is like sacrifice because in marriage woman is the offering through which culture is constituted" (34).

Iphigenia, Polyxena, and Makaria are marked by their "oscillation" between states as volunteering subjects and idolized objects. S.R. has apparently borrowed the term "oscillation" from Doane, and uses it five times in Part I -- pages 54,71, 83, 98, 99 -- to mark the sense of movement between the women's gestures at subjectivity/power, which marks them as "uncanny," and their only act as subjects (submission), which leads to their glorification and maintains the masculine-dominant status-quo. Fetishism, according to S.R., "oscillates between mutilation and adoration" (83), an explanation which has little to do with Marxist theory, and much more to do with Sorkin-Rabinowitz's use of "castration anxiety" to explain the attempts of Athenian males to control their potentially threatening women.

Herein lies a tension in S.R.'s analysis between the universalizing tendencies of Freudian criticism and her attempt to formulate a specifically Athenian male ideology. S.R.'s reliance on psychoanalytic explanation often feels superfluous in the face of her acute and perceptive readings of the plays themselves, and many notions of what is specifically Athenian in the plays is obscured by her discussion of what is male/Euripidean. For example, it is not clear, in her final and excellent analysis of Kreousa in the Ion, whether any male could have written a different play:

Psychoanalytic theory speculates that the infant, denied the milk of the mother (either because he is biting and hurting her or because another child has come along to take his place), responds with aggressive fantasies of destroying her but justifies his own hostility by imagining that she is harming him. Euripides, taking the part of the son, creates a scenario in which the mother does harm to the infant first. Euripides justifies Ion's attack on Kreousa by depicting her as an aggressor. (202-203)
Her analysis of the Ion and the Hippolytus in Part III argues for this scenario (or primal scene) as the governing fantasy of all the Euripidean tragedies under consideration. The idolized women are merely the solution to the "Vengeful Destroyers" (Hekabe, Alcmene, Medea and Phaidra) whom she discusses in Part II. Unable to re-incorporate the power of older powerful women under the rubric of fetished glory/virtue, Euripidean tragedy manages their potential threat by pairing them off with their younger, sacrificial counterparts, demonstrating that these older women are indeed destructive of the social order. As she writes of Hekabe, "In the beginning, she is associated with the human realm as it faces the unheimlich, but by the end she is instead viewed as a manifestation of the uncanny itself" (116). S.R. views this association as purely recuperative on the part of Athenian males, but with implications which "can be positive" (105) for "us." Athenian men "displace" their anxieties "aroused by and on behalf of masculine civilization onto the female" by making the female cede to the male spatially in the plots' narratives (Hekabe, Hippolytus), and in general by using displacement to deflect "audience attention from systemic failings to [the women's] violence" (108). These women become a "screen" for the projection of masculine anxieties about their own (male) violence. However, "we" "can look for [positive] traces of female subjectivity, but let us not fool ourselves that Euripides applauds it" (154).

S.R. is at her best in this central section, perhaps because, although psychoanalytic film theory lends her the notion of displacement onto the screen of female characters, she lets go of her tendency to use Freud to provide proof of what she finds, and instead performs very acute and nuanced readings of the tragedies which argue well for her findings. In Parts I and III, she seems much more concerned with establishing the plays' cohesion with Freudian paradigms than she is in Part II, where her use of theory backgrounds, and never overshadows, her own interpretive work.

Yet even here, her own findings often make S.R. nervous, and prevent her from drawing certain conclusions, as she attempts to quash any heroizing emotional response the women's strength produces in her by retreating to a contemporary moral agenda. She says of Medea's solution to her problems: "Given the realities of child abuse in our own time, however, I find it problematic to simply applaud Medea's infanticide and escape" (154). S.R.'s objections make plain what some feel to be a difficulty of reading as a feminist theorist: the notion that to be a feminist, one must find something positive in these women, must be able to identify with their strength and their choices. Because S.R. finds such choices (whether submission or murder) to be morally unacceptable, she cannot accept that a real woman would make these choices; only a construct in a collective male fantasy would: "the murder of the children is his [Euripides'] choice, not Medea's" (153). Her uneasiness denies the fact that women have chosen to kill and been heroized for it (Bonnie and Clyde, for example, evoke similar emotions in some, as do Thelma and Louise).

Granted the presence of difficulties such as these, S.R.'s analyses of the final two plays (the Hippolytus again from the Father-Son vantage point, and the Ion) with the "arsenal" fully deployed -- all terms operational -- are well worth foregoing one's qualms. Although it may be jarring for a classicist of the non-Freudian persuasion to encounter the phrase, "The pre-Oedipal phase of Ion's life" (193), a reliance on Freudian scenarios is nicely counterbalanced in Part III by S.R.'s articulation of what may be a historically specific psychology of the influence of repressed homoerotic desire between Athenian men. She states as a general principle that "The possibility or probability of an erotic charge between father and son was denied in antiquity because that relationship founded the social order. Horizontal desire for one like oneself is the repressed, unconscious desire of this text [Hippolytus]; it is gratified by being transformed into a vertical (asexual) desire of father for son" (174). This dynamic of desire is demonstrated in the Ion as well, and it is in S.R.'s smart and well-supported readings of the texts themselves that readers will find well-founded provocation toward more exploration and research.

S.R. has undertaken some risks by exposing, in our own terms, the psychic and moral dilemmas which may underlie the tragedies' exposition of the so many powerful, brave, and troubling women who are at the core of Athenian thought as we know it. Instead of arguing that the Greeks existed in a realm "Before Sexuality," Sorkin-Rabinowitz concludes that the insurgent power of women arises from a strong, historically situated, pre-Oedipal drive (220-221), of which Athenian men were only too aware, and had to constantly attempt to manage in a public realm where their most repressed fears could be rendered safe by a particular mechanism of fantasy.


  • [1] There are places where recent work on exchange which she has excluded could be used to bolster her argument. For example: Jean-Joseph Goux. tr. Curtiss Cage (1990) Symbolic Economies after Marx and Freud Cornell U. Press; Marilyn Strathern (1988) The Gender of the Gift U. of CA Press; Annette B. Weiner (1992) Inalienable Possessions U. of CA Press.
  • [2] Simon Goldhill (1986) Reading Greek Tragedy Cambridge U.Press.