Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.27

Nancy Worman, Abusive Mouths in Classical Athens.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2008.  Pp. xi, 385.  ISBN 9780521857871.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Bruce Krajewski, Texas Woman's University (
Word count: 2256 words

Contemporary historians of rhetoric will need to rethink the discipline after encountering Nancy Worman's latest analysis of abusive language in the ancient world, for the book, despite a kind of non-erotic, disciplinary auto-asphyxiation (the discourse struggling mightily to maintain academic respectability and professional boundaries while dealing with the topic of anuses, for example), demonstrates convincingly that rhetoric is a product of the anus (keeping in mind Worman's contention that one cannot avoid the "mouth-anus combination" [16]). Worman describes early on the plan: "This study charts abuse in classical Athenian literature that centers on the mouth and its activities, especially talking, eating, drinking, and sexual practices" (i). In short, the book might be considered a celebratory sacrifice to Iambe, the Greek goddess of abuse who rescued Demeter from her melancholic state (due to the loss of Persephone) by using ribald humor, and perhaps a touch of exhibitionism, the anasyrma. Those familiar with the Iambe/Baubo material will recall that Iambe's belly, in at least one account, is also her face and her vulva. While Worman includes at the beginning of her book various narratives linked to Iambe, Worman focuses on iambos, the Greek term for caustic, abusive poetry, and its cognate iambizein, "to mock."

In an introduction, six chapters, and an epilogue, the author fashions an extensive case that the "ancient literary tradition...reveals a consistent focus on oral imagery as the catalyst for mocking depictions of speakers, especially those who speak in public and/or for pay" (324). The introduction sets up the groundwork that allows Worman to talk about the embodied mouth and to announce a few of her key theoretical guides for the book, Mikhail Bakhtin (mainly the Bakhtin who wrote about Rabelais) and Pierre Bourdieu. Foucault shows up later, but Nietzsche, arguably the prime mover here, has no exoteric role.1

Chapter One, "The Mouth and its Abuses in Epic, Lyric, and Tragedy," sets out to display the range of content linked to iambos. "Abusive talk runs the gamut from invective and character assassination on the one hand, to mockery and lampoon on the other. . ." (25). Odysseus plays a central role in this chapter, as he does in Chapter Three. Worman devotes a good deal of the chapter to Homer, and episodes in the Iliad and the Odyssey that highlight two associations: (1) "the association of a clever speechifier with food and thus the crude, needy body; and (2) the association of harsh talk (e.g., curses, invective) with battlefield savagery and thus the raging with the ravening mouth" (31). In an effort to assuage Achilles' anger, Odysseus reminds Achilles of the meals that they have shared. Worman contrasts that scene with a later one in the Iliad when Achilles swears that no nourishment will "pass down his throat while his friend [Patroklus] lies unavenged" (31). This emphasis on what passes through the mouth (Worman does not distinguish between mouth and throat here) and what it means on another hermeneutical plane becomes heightened as the emotional temperature rises toward the end of the Iliad. In his quest for revenge, Achilles stands over Hector's body and declares an urge toward cannibalism: "If only my fury and passion would somehow drive me to cut your raw flesh and eat it" (32).

Worman moves on to the dining scenes in the Odyssey and what she calls the "transgressive eating" (35) of the suitors, who are consuming Odysseus's house in several senses. Part of this narrative includes Odysseus disguised as a beggar declaring his need for food and the exchange of stories (words) for food, allowing Worman to reiterate the belly/mouth linkage. In the later part of this chapter, Worman uses examples from Hipponax, Pindar, Euripides, and Sophocles to solidify her argument. The abusive mouths shift from individual characters like Odysseus to groups of people, one important group being mageiroi , chefs. Worman states that "John Wilkins has demonstrated definitively how comedy depicts chefs as boastful types who not only oversee public and private eating rituals but also often behave like proud sophists, making extravagant claims about their virtuosity and magician's abilities" (55). This is perhaps easier to comprehend in the contemporary scene that includes a number of chefs, female and male, who are prominent in popular culture.

Chapter Two, "Open Mouths and Abusive Talk in Aristophanes," attempts to extend iambic discourse to a larger social sphere that involves the training of citizens, though Worman adds in a footnote that "precisely how, when, and to what extent these literary images do coincide with the actual attitudes and perspectives of Athenians during this period is largely unrecoverable..." (63). That footnote does not prevent the author later in the chapter from an effort to equate, via Bakhtin, performative rebellion (transgressive acts in the theater) to revolutionary potential in the larger political sphere (68).

Sometimes, according to Worman, the literature suggests that iambic discourse can result in turning the world upside-down, undoing hierarchies, shifting power from elites to the disenfranchised. At other times, the literary evidence points to ways in which corrupt characters have the power to persuade others to become corrupt. That potential appears in the Clouds when the Stronger Argument, initially repulsed by the life described by the Weaker Argument, succumbs to temptation. "Once [the Stronger Argument]...comes to see that most of the elites who engage verbally in the public arena (e.g., poets and politicians) are gape-assed (euruproktoi) types who indulge similarly, he divests himself of both dress and verbal decorum, exclaiming, 'O fuckers (kinoumenoi); take my cloak, damn it, so I can desert to your side'" (65). (Some scholars might translate kinoumenoi as "the fucked" rather than "fuckers.")

A significant portion of Chapter Two is devoted to providing materials supporting Worman's claim that particular bodily excesses (too much talking, eating, fornicating, etc.) tend to be labeled as feminine traits in the ancient world. Having open holes of one kind or another, or aggressive openings, makes one suspect and vulnerable. Ridicule visits those whose appetites are immoderate, and men who exhibit immoderation are charged (by other men) with possessing effeminate characteristics. "A connection [exists] between facile public speaking and a taste for being penetrated. That is, indiscriminate use of one hole fosters indiscriminate use of the other" (80). One consequence of this kind of association is that some ancient Athenians judged their fellow citizens, at least in some part if we are to accept Aristotle, on their physical appearance and bodily conduct, and that generated opportunities for politicians and sophists to gain political traction by charging their opponents with corporeal indiscretions of various kinds (118).

Chapter Three, "Gluttonous Speechifying in Euripides' Cyclops," hammers home the topos that brings together how one eats and how one talks (121). The satyr play returns Worman to the figure of Odysseus and to issues of cooking and cannibalism (the Cyclops intends to eat Odysseus and his men). Worman offers up a rich reading of the play, and reveals that the double entendres at work in the play reinforce themes from previous chapters. She writes, "Odysseus and Polyphemus ... both demonstrate a grotesquely humorous attention to the belly, the consumer ethic of which is reflected in their appropriative argumentative strategies" (149). In short, the Cyclops " the trope of the sophistic butcher" (152).

Chapter Four, "Crude Talk and Fancy Fare in Plato," "argues that Plato's depiction of Socrates and the sophists participates directly in an iambic discourse about public speaking shaped largely by old comedy in the fifth century and adopted by orators and rhetorical theorists in the fourth" (155). Worman wants to draw a line of progression from Aristophanes to Plato. She also suggests that Plato's dialogues should be read politically as a cautionary tale (157) and argues that "For all the recognition that Plato is funny and that Socrates is funny looking, readers of the dialogues have not noticed the imagery in Plato that frames an iambic stance and passes defaming judgment on oral excesses" (160). Socrates critiques the couture of sophists and rhapsodes, and implies that their objectionable dress corresponds to their "superficial word-crafting" (199). In addition, Worman suggests that Odysseus was a model for the formulation of "Socrates' type" (168).

In Chapter Five, "Defamation and Oral Excesses in Aeschines and Demosthenes," , Worman contends, "While some scholars have recognized that the usage in Demosthenes' speeches in particular echoes that of old comedy, I want to argue instead that both orators make use of a discursive pattern of vocabulary and typecasting that aims at the extreme alienation of one's opponent from the mass of Athenians" (216). Both orators cast the other as a traitor, and both insist that their motives concern the maintenance of every citizen's well-being (217). As with the Platonic dialogues, one strategy that a speaker can invoke to win over an audience is to convince the audience that the opponent is a professional speaker, someone who is not spontaneous, but prepared, with designs on the audience, a panderer. Worman offers numerous examples from a host of speeches that sully both Aeschines and Demosthenes. Each orator attacks the other for a range of activities from wearing feminine attire to drinking excessively to having a monster-like mother. At one point, Demosthenes labels Aeschines an "iamb-eater, since his theatrical training encourages him to interlard his speeches with poetic quotations" (269).

Chapter Six, "The Intemperate Mouth in Aristotle and Theophrastus," underscores Worman's appropriation of Bourdieu for theoretical backing of her refrain in the book that Athenians believed that "moral features manifest themselves in the citizen's physical behavior" (275), though that point seems to be prominent already in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Worman concentrates on Theophrastus's sketches "that highlight the types of oral excesses familiar from other settings. Characters as a whole is organized around the ways in which appetitive behaviors broadcast one's character, and these often involve the mouth" (281). As for Aristotle, her reading challenges the usual sunny scholarly interpretations of Aristotle's Rhetoric and Nicomachean Ethics. Worman discerns that Aristotle's account of character and performance can be read as evidence of his disdain for radical democracy (287). For instance, some of the essential characteristics attributed to Aristotle's great-souled man are not available to the masses, and Worman highlights more than once Aristotle's denigration of audiences for their susceptibility to oratorical manipulations (287, 295). Audiences are sheep-in-waiting for the sophistic butcher.

Worman concludes by bringing modern writers into the mix--Allen Ginsburg, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, and Phillip Roth--and suggesting that a predecessor for the group could be someone like Catullus. "The open mouth threatens to devolve at any moment into an 'unclean' aperture, stuffed with obscenities, hungering after food, drink, and bodies alike. The appetite for talk thus merges again and again with that for other substances or body parts, so that in these novels, as in Aristophanic comedy, the powerful speaker is still just as likely to 'eat' in the spaces normally reserved for polite consumption" (324). One wonders why women writers and performers are excluded from Worman's epilogue. Fay Weldon, Erica Jong, Sandra Bernhard, Dorothy Parker, Mae West, Ethel Waters, and Gertrude Stein (a semi-random sampling) would all seem to count as women capable of bawdy humor, invective, the kind of iambic discourse Worman attributes to the male writers.

One of the many admirable parts of the book is its ability to demonstrate that audiences ought to be suspicious of satire and iambic discourse. Can satire be trusted by its users, much less its interpreters? Like rhetoric, satire is an unstable discourse that can be taken now this way, now that. Worman deserves credit for pointing out that "the most pervasive and damning labels reveal themselves to be mutable, easily conforming to various situations and settings and thus especially useful" (238).

What is less admirable is when Worman becomes an advocate for viewing audiences as sheep, as victims of discourse. Worman mentions "the apathy and cultivated ignorance of citizens in modern democracies" (apparently not including herself as one of those citizens), and then offers up an ethical judgment: "One may still wonder what is wrong with dramatic techniques if they can induce the public to support good policies" (296). Worman's end justifying the means ought to make her readers more cautious about other ideological engines at work in her book. The induction Worman has in mind has its etymological root in the world of leaders and commanders, extending all the way to Mussolini's adoption of "Il Duce." One of the difficulties with the dramatic techniques Worman catalogues is the veil they introduce between speaker and audience. Worman forgets her own evidence, such as the quotation from Pindar she cites early on: "Cleverness [sophistry] operates secretly, leading astray with stories" (49). The citizens of a democracy cannot participate in a reasonable fashion when leaders (or speakers) maintain secrecy in order to sustain power and control, or when the citizens are supposed to be happy with sophistic manipulations, as long as the manipulators are well-intentioned.

For all Worman's efforts to untangle the thickets of irony in the Platonic dialogues she cites as part of her study, she does not come to grips with Plato's Seventh Letter, the text that tells us that Plato thought it would be foolish to reveal in writing his genuine philosophical views. He endorses in that letter the use of covert language (a dramatic technique?) for the sake of self-preservation. If one takes the Seventh Letter seriously, understanding Plato means that one is obliged to understand esotericism. What surprises me about Worman's book is that she ends up not wanting to understand esotericism but to endorse it as a political strategy.


1.   For the benign story of Nietzsche's influence on Bakhtin, see, for example, Dragan Kuzundzic, The Returns of History: Russian Nietzscheans after Modernity (SUNY Press, 1997), esp. pp. 68-69. For a more alarming view of what it might mean that Bakhtin is a Nietzschean, see Nietzsche: Godfather of Fascism?. Eds. Jacob Golomb and Robert Wistrich (Princeton University Press, 2002).

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2009
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

HTML generated at 12:26:52, Wednesday, 14 October 2009