BMCR 1994.11.03

1994.11.03, Rabinowitz, Anxiety Veiled (II)

, Anxiety veiled : Euripides and the traffic in women. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. xii, 246 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780801428456 $14.95.

Rabinowitz has written a very strong and provocative book. It engages the reader at every turn in a contest, even conflict, between present and past, yes and no. Passionately argued, at times disarmingly confessional, and richly documented with sources and authorities of every kind, this work takes an uncompromising stance towards Euripidean tragedy, or to be more exact, toward certain Euripidean plays, which exemplify R.’s approach in her commitment to a particular kind of feminist scholarship and principles of reading. In this enterprise, R. acknowledges a serious split in her allegiances. For her, the feminist and the Hellenist are sharply divided, even antagonistic to one another. She is caught therefore between her attachment to the canonical texts of Greek literature and her desire to recuperate them for a “resistant” reading that would expose the patriarchal ideology at work. I will return to this central issue further below.

This recuperative effort requires a demystification, wherever possible, of roles assigned to Euripidean women, whatever their age, stance, status, or fate may be. These interventions are all strategies, whether disguised or overt, of strengthening a masculine system of values and particularly of bonds between men. This position is not in itself new. Others have outlined the uses of tragedy to educate male citizens in the city and have taken cognizance of its institutional significance in shaping and being shaped by the cultural and political life of Athens. Others too have pointed to the value of Lévi-Strauss’ famous discussion of marriage as a system of exchange between families in which “women are to be exchanged as signs” in a transaction that engages only males (father and husband). Sex antagonism has long been noted as the very backbone of tragic plots and structures, as has the threat to men of women’s exercise of power, whatever the circumstances, and the concomitant need to contain it. The cultural correlations between silence and chastity, and conversely, between speech and sexuality have also been demonstrated by more than one scholar, along with the rules for an honor and shame system, which is built on men’s anxiety about (and suspicion of) women’s sexual desires. But no one goes as far as R. in insisting on an almost unbridgeable gap that separates the two genders, and in the process, no one has so thoroughly excluded female characters (and women) from any stake in the culture and society they inhabit, except perhaps one acquired through duress and the cultivation of a false consciousness. Women are ultimately pawns of men and male interests. Cut off from any female community (in which it is presumed they could properly express themselves as “subjects”), whether represented as strong or weak, heroic or vindictive, loving or vengeful, these women characters in R.’s analyses, are always subject to domination, disparagement, displacement, denegation, disinheritance, and not infrequently, disgrace.

Whatever ironies we may detect in the work of that most famous ironist, Euripides, whatever complications and dilemmas arise in the interaction between the sexes, whatever social and political critique may be embedded in the plays (all acknowledged by R.)—are subsumed under the fundamental negativity and use-value that attend the representation of women, who, at best, exist to give male heirs to the father’s line and who maintain no rights over their bodies, or indeed their souls, even when they might seem to do so. Men may “own” them in marriage; they may even sacrifice them in place of marriage, and female voices, if not silenced, are always available for appropriation by men. Compulsory heterosexuality for women enforces the system (as Gayle Rub in argued in “The Traffic in Women,” her well-known rejoinder to Lévi-Strauss) but the social structure is “consistent with, even predicated upon, homosocial behavior for men” (a concept pressed by Eve Sedgwick). Hence, as R. argues, “female identification with men supports male power by dividing women and making them seem to be agents of their own suffering; men’s same sex relations similarly support male power.” 21. R. claims her desire to avoid a reading of Euripides that ultimately makes women only victims; she would like to recognize the strength of women characters “without accepting the interpretation men have built into that construction” or without having to endorse women’s actions she would find morally objectionable. In the end, however, it seemed to this reviewer that R.’s readings inevitably place Euripides’ women in the victim’s position, whether they literally serve as sacrificial victims or eventually lose the audience’s sympathy, as R. sees it, through excessive modes of retaliation.

Interestingly enough, R. wants to see Athenian women as attending the performances in the theater (a still hotly debated issue), 1 whose presence might “lead perhaps to [their] continuing subjection.” 12. Or, she suggests , the plays “set forth codes of behavior giving women in the audience reason to participate in the culture; on the other hand, they reinforce men’s need and right to continue to control women. Women in the ancient audience may have, like many later readers, resisted this structure proposed to them, by focusing on the power and the women’s community behind the text.” 14. Ancient viewer and modern reader strangely coalesce here (and elsewhere). “Subjectivity,” it might seem, is a timeless commodity. In the frustrating lack of access to women’s private lives in antiquity, however, it is difficult, even impossible, except perhaps through imaginative identification, to establish the nature and variety of women’s relations with one another or to define their (evolving?) horizons of expectation for subjectivity and self-expression (except as ventriloquized through male-authored texts and figural representations). It is equally difficult to walk the tightrope between appeal to modern critical theories of every sort as legitimating (and informing) the entire enterprise and the risks of anachronism or overreading. Rabinowitz is a sophisticated critic; she is very conscious of these epistemological traps, even if she does not always escape them in constructing her arguments.

The book is divided into three parts, unified by the theme of “the exchange of women,” which always and everywhere confirms their subordinate position as actors (and subjects) in the society. Part I examines the “sacrifice” plays ( Iphigenia in Aulis, Hekabe, and Alcestis) in which women freely chose death in the face of masculine demands and are heroized by them for it. Part II addresses the “strong” women who “resist the norms imposed on them” ( Hekabe, Medea, Hippolytos) but whose “strength” is eroded at the end, at least in the withdrawal of “audience approval” of them. Part III turns to plays centered on young men ( Hippolytos, Ion) to explore the ways in which homosocial bonds between men are constructed at women’s, particularly maternal figures’, expense; if women are needed at all, it is in order to facilitate the passage of the son to the father. Each chapter ends with some tentative discussion of how a modern feminist, dedicated to enhancing the position of women, might resist these structures and sort out the possible (and positive) ways of discerning an admirable feminine power, while discarding the “baggage” of male authorship that accompanies it.

The first two sections draw upon the Freudian concepts of the “fetish” and the “uncanny” ( unheimlich) as updated through poststructuralist and feminist criticism (especially, film theory). For Freud, the fetish is the substitute for the mother’s imagined castration, which allows him “to understand that she does not have a penis but yet he can endow her with one,” a move that reassures him his own organ is intact. In Rabinowitz’s reading (through Mulvey, de Lauretis, and others), the female sacrificial heroine is a fetishized object available to the male gaze. She is overvalued as an object of adulation but also reassuring to men, since she is coopted into supporting a masculine code of behavior. Hence virgins’ voluntary self-sacrifice is a way of punishing them without seeming to have done so. Iphigenia, for example, is compelled to transfer her allegiance from her mother to her father and then from father to the ‘fatherland’ in the name of all of Greece as the sequence of moves that justifies her abrupt decision to go as a willing sacrifice at Aulis, while her craving for fame as a replacement for husband and children is read as a masculine desire that only reaffirms the gender code. As for Polyxena, her choice of sacrificial death (and the arrangement of her body for it) in the face of no acceptable alternative, does not make her “a subject as she would wish but an object of sadistic murderous desire”; in dying, she “enables the army both to accept and deny what they take to be women’s castration,” by baring her breast but covering her genitals. 60.

The “uncanny” ( unheimlich) on the other hand, draws its power, not from open display, like the fetish, but from secrecy and concealment in private parts ( heim) that turns the familiar into the terrifying—something “familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of represssion.” 25. The strong older woman, especially the hag figure (Hekabe or Alkmene in the Heracleidae) or the demonic (e.g., Medea), well represents these creatures of excess who do terrifying things to men. The Hekabe, in particular, shows the two forces at work in two different figures: the young virgin ( Polyxena), whose sacrifice is heavily eroticized and her aged vengeful and “sexualized” mother, who purportedly pimps for her daughter Cassandra and entices a man and his children into the secret recesses of her tent for a bloody revenge. Creousa’s attempted murder of her child with the drops of the Gorgon’s blood ( Ion) also places her in league with these other “uncanny” figures, after first winning our sympathy for her plight. Medea, of course, accomplishes where Creousa fails, and without the safety net of misrecognizing the identity of her progeny (as Creousa does), she even manages to get away with it; Medea’s “strength” in this instance only increases men’s need to control women and to beware of marriages that are not properly organized according to the rules of exchange. Alcestis is central to the general analytical frame: she begins as a fetish object (in the statue Admetos promises to make of her once she is gone) but ends in the realm of the uncanny (as the veiled ghost figure who returns). “Alcestis’s death implies weakness (and by analogy, castration, impotence, or lack) and thus leads Admetos to fabricate the fetish [the statue] to reassure himself that he is still alive, still has the phallus,” and can therefore control woman; on the other hand, reading the effigy (cold, stiff) as the “phallic woman,” it is suggested that Admetos also “reconstitutes her as himself” so that “his dream of going to bed with the statue thus fulfills his homoerotic desires.”

I am tempted to ask at this point: what about Laodameia’s fabrication of an effigy to replace her deceased husband Protesilaos, the latter also the title of another early Euripidean play? The plot, as we generally take it to be, certainly more than fulfills the male-centered scenario. She makes the statue which she keeps in her room, pretending it to be a god. A servant, however, catches her kissing it, reports it to her father, who, despite her protests, orders it burned, and she in turn throws herself into the blaze (not unlike Evadne in Euripides’Suppliants). A woman flouts the rules, it would seem, by refusing to allow herself to be exchanged again, now that she is a widow, even though her late husband (as one fragment of the play suggests) may have stipulated just that. And even if she asserts herself again in escaping male control, she might only be confirming more than one man’s wishful fantasy that his wife cannot live without him. But, more to the point, how does classical Freudian theory apply in this case? How does it explain the female’s desire to reconstitute her lost husband as her fetish object, on the basis of perceptual notions about her body? Is she now truly the phallic woman in some larger sense? 2 More importantly, how for either male or female psyche, can one transpose Freudian theory to classical antiquity without encountering a certain culture shock and a sense of serious misfit between the two? If anything, the majority of ancient evidence suggests that women’s sex was not imagined as a lack or the result of “castration”; a more usual pairing, in fact, as the famous passage in Plato’s Timaeus suggests, is penis and uterus (at times, penis and breasts), not penis and vagina. Additionally, even if the phallus is made to stand for masculine identity in general, for andreia and the exercise of male control, does not such a reading of the Alcestis reduce the complexities of the play to a genital game, one which cannot be easily supported by relevant cultural data?

R. goes still further, for example, in her discussion of the relation between Hippolytos and Theseus at the end of Hippolytos. Concluding an incisive examination of the difficulties in the father-son bond from a social point of view, she probes more deeply for signs of a repressed desire in the text, which unleashes paternal phallic sadism against the son (in the bull from the sea), before leading to the son’s embrace in his father’s arms at the end. The play “enacts the story of the destruction of (not the desire for) the mother, and the desire for (not the destruction) of the father. The heterosexual rape of Phaedra is after all a fiction; the truth of the tale is the (dominant-submissive) violence of incest repressed between father and son.” 187. In the first place, if Theseus loses both wife and son, how does he stand to gain it all, as R. claims? More to the point, fantasy, repression, and unconscious wishes may underlie much of imaginative literature, including that of the Athenians, but how is one to control or support access to them? Why should an Athenian audience fill in an alternate portrait of their civic founder, Theseus, which portrays him as regularly “raping” women, including Hippolytus’ mother (never mentioned in the play) and t hen transfer this charge to his son, the virgin-worshipping Amazon’s child? How do Greek myth and social practices, dreams and visual images, articulate anxieties about father-son rivalry and also bonding? It is not that there is not much to learn from Freud—from his views about gender, the body, and the making of culture, along with such psychic techniques as repression, condensation, displacement, antithesis, etc. The question is rather what limits are there to such interpretations, as even modern literary critics confronted with Freudian theory, are quick to acknowledge?

I single out this radical instance to express my more general concern with R.’s methodology and her eclecticism in bringing in all sorts of modern authorities, while striving to remain true to secondary sources that are closer to home. The numerous quotations, which demonstrate the wide range of her reading and her earnest efforts to create a conversation between what she perceives as two potentially opposite audiences (classicists and feminists) are at times illuminating, at other times distracting, but sometimes they even undermine the argument itself and the often excellent close readings of texts that rely on “native” categories of thought and cultural concepts. Can all forms of theory, whatever their provenance, happily coexist with one another, regardless of the latent contradictions between them? Can they be taken out of context, as they often are in R., inserted merely as quotes to justify one or another point? Are modern ideas about rape and pornography easily assimilated to Euripidean drama? The question of allegiance arises again, not just between one theory or another, but as to which comes first for the critic: ancient texts or modern theory? Clearly, we come to these texts conditioned by our own environment and our own modes of framing discussion and analysis, but those elusive qualities we call tact and discretion seem to me more productive routes to convincing strategies of reading.

The largest difficulty I find with R.’s study, however, stems from the extremes to which she applies her ruling thesis. The “bad” women like Hekabe must be vilified as much as possible to confirm men’s fear of the uncanny female. Aside from asking what Hekabe’s future metamorphosis into a dog might mean in Greek terms and for a Greek audience, should we neglect to mention that Polymestor also predicts Agamemnon’s death upon his return to Argos? We could reply that Polymestor is punishing Agamemnon for his support of the “uncanny” woman’s cause by handing the king on to another “uncanny” figure, Clytemnestra, for similar entrapment. But is there not more to be observed in this barbarian’s ‘triumph in defeat’ over a Greek, and also in Hekabe’s repudiation of what men value most? In another vein, the sincerity of Theseus’ lament for his wife in the Hippolytos must be dismissed as far as possible, so as to press for the exclusive significance of paternity and sons’ relations with fathers. Hippolyto s’ misogynistic tirade against all women is allowed more representative value for normative beliefs in the culture than his fate might have us believe. 3 Creousa’s position in the Ion is undermined so as to problematize the validity of her rape in the audience’s mind and to reduce the import of the mother-son relation in order to validate Apollo’s paternity and his right to confer his son on another father.

R. could have profited from stressing the patriarchal basis of Creousa’s standing as an epikleros, who, in the absence of male heirs, produces a child to carry on her father’s line. To be sure, the epiklerate elevates the daughter’s status in the family. But this maneuver also certainly instantiates her “use-value,” since she is now required to remain attached to her father rather than her husband in matters of procreation and to produce children whose fatherhood she is not free to assign. Yet it seems unfair to accuse Apollo of usurping the woman’s nurturant function and to dismiss Ion’s surrogate mother, the Pythia, as merely a tool of the god. Trophe refers to mother’s actual nurture from the breast, whose absence is mourned over by Ion and Creousa alike. But trophe has a broader referent in child-rearing, which is the responsibility of both parents, and it also allows for fosterage through parental substitutes. Moreover, what makes Creousa interesting as a dramatic character, as a thinking and acting “subject,” is her own ambivalence about her role in exposing the child and perhaps her ambivalence too, after the fact, about her union with a god, not a mortal. Then too, if she is to endorse a legal fiction in sustaining Xouthos’ paternity so as to ensure her son’s social standing in the polis, she is not actually separated from Ion, as R. maintains, but goes with him to Athens (with Athena as guide) and, as Athena predicts, she and Xouthos will have children of their own in the future.

In R.’s view, everything a woman is represented as saying or doing can be used against her; if noble, then displaced from the male; if heroic, then shoring up male self-esteem; if violent, then fulfilling men’s worst fears, if tender, then also compromised, etc. This single-minded focus on women’s disabilities in men’s eyes leads at times to very interesting observations that others have overlooked and salutary corrections to usual opinions; at times it also leads to special pleading and some ingenious sleights of hand. But this focus also makes these plays, in my opinion, less interesting than I think they are—less complex, less ambiguous, less challenging—not just in respect to male-female relations (and the voicing again and again of the unfair disparities between them) but also regarding general social and political ideas. It lessens the important tensions surrounding the uneasy relations between gods and mortals (which get barely a whisper in R.’s text), to say nothing of social interaction s between kin and non-kin. While I might not go quite as far as to say that Euripides’ plays “both reveal and disguise the system whereby men exchange women to institute culture, which then excludes them,” 21, I certainly agree with the principle that every play can in some sense be read to support normative gender hierarchies (and have myself argued as much). This is the case too in plays that R. does not address, in which, for example, brothers and sisters exhibit reciprocal affection and whose fates are intertwined (e.g., IT) or in which the mother’s nurturant role in both family and city is prominently featured (e.g., Phoenissae). In Euripides’ world, however, what does it mean that men are shown as far more attached to children than elsewhere in Greek drama (e.g., Herakles), when it is the woman who is traditionally called philoteknos ? And if men think they may live without women, and more abstractly, to bypass mothers in reproducing children and to keep wives firmly in their place, the plays show that men do so at their peril. In largest terms, R.’s readings seem to me to obscure unnecessarily Euripides’ psychological depth and acuity, his perception of the mutual dependencies as well as antagonisms between the sexes, and his particularly unsettling moral sensibility that continually opens the worlds of these plays to epistemological and ethical uncertainties. Is our mental and emotional world the same after having passed through the experience of a Euripidean drama? If we find nothing but male oppression and female victimage, why indeed read them? Why teach them?

It is one thing to take as a given that women are given by men to men in marriage in a law of exchange that reduces women, in a legal sense, to objects. It is quite another to translate this truism into a valid and always applicable explanation of actual social and psychological processes, even in dramatic texts. R. liberally quotes Bourdieu on power relations but not his concept of the negotiations between rule and practice and his concepts of doxa and heterodoxy/heresy; Foucault is invoked for a similar point about ruling strategies but not his concept that power is constituted between and among groups, not solely as means for enforcing victimage on the less powerful. Closer to home, the law of the talion is a highly operative principle in Greek thought and practice: not only does it extend to vengeance in the execution of “justice,” but it applies also to the principle of compensation, which levels out to some extent the potential for unlimited power of the strong over the weak. For tragedy as a genre, its effects of pity and fear are not cherished as consonant with male warrior values; they are emotions that need to be inculcated as an antidote to brute masculinity, as men undergo species of “female” experience in the course of a play’s action.

R.’s vision of Euripidean drama in the context of feminist scholarship would have been enriched by more conversation with the community of scholars, especially women, who have already toiled in this vineyard and have grappled with similar problems. While these others are mentioned in passing in the notes, often for a brief demurral, it is odd that there is no real framing discussion at the outset that would situate R. in these current debates which others, such as Foley, Arthur [Katz], Loraux (and myself) have already addressed in detail. In particular, Loraux’s more recent work, Les mères en deuil (1990) and the collection of essays, Les expériences de Tiresias (1989) would have been very useful for R.’s analyses, either for agreement, refinement, or refutation.

In concluding, I would like to address two intertwined problems: the canon, as we have it, and the purported antithesis between feminist and Hellenist. R. seems to me to practice a kind of feminist criticism which I would put under the rubric of “identity politics.” That is, women study literature, especially the best-known works and authors, not just to undermine or expose the structures of male authority in the texts, which in the old days were mostly passed over as natural and given, and not just to counter male authoritative control of these texts in the normative traditions of scholarship. Women, in this strand of feminist criticism, are also searching for role models, for women or figures of women with whom they can identify, especially regarding strength, power, and validation of themselves. They seem to me less interested in the heuristic value of gender in order to illuminate the culture they are studying—to chart the ambiguities, subversions, play of categories, and irreducible contradictions in cultural work. Instead, they stop at the anguished fact that women and their interests are continually “muted” in a system that is based on patrilineal descent and male hegemony. There is an imagined utopia in which women are freed from this tyranny in their own communities, where they may author their own texts and claim forms of cultural and social products as originary and specific to them. But stuck as modern women are, with the texts and culture(s) they have, apologetics are needed for perpetuating canonical influence, even through strenuous strategies of resistance, as if to make the best of a bad bargain.

I do not believe that this is the only mode of approach. I do not perceive some radical split between feminist and Hellenist to the degree that R. does (and as she claims more fully in her introduction to the recent collection of essays, entitled Feminist Theory and the Classics to which this is also a partial reply). Nor do I believe that identity as a woman places her always in opposition to male and male interests and disqualifies her from participation in the culture she did not “make” in her own name. What do we gain by substituting either an imaginary “rule by women” or “women alone” to replace “rule by men”—to promote sisterhood above personhood? Women’s communities as havens of cooperation and mutual love and support are, I fear, very much of an illusion in many cases, sometimes excluding other women if they do not subscribe fully to the requisite agendas. And if women are perceived as being coopted into heterosexual marriage and in caring for a man’s (not also her) children, what are the grounds for sharing in the human species or how might we in turn evade the dual problems of essentialism and constructionism in defining ourselves? These are problems that more than one of us have contended with in our work and teaching. Should we allow the anatomical and psychological bases of gender identity to limit ourselves to one set of allegiances, to constrain what we do and how we do it? A certain insistence on the fundamental, even irreducible, aspects of sexual difference (although how to define these is still contested) was no doubt necessary in the early years of feminism to establish lines of inquiry and to reorient unexamined assumptions about the cultural, not natural, bases of society. An adversarial stance was, and in certain circumstances, still remains necessary and fruitful. But why, in the process, should we concur in reinscribing ourselves in the very systems of exclusion we have sought to escape?

This said, I worry that R.’s version of Euripidean drama will allow some (primarily, men and conservatives) to dismiss feminist scholarship as itself excessive and, at times, untrue to the texts they (men) also read. It will allow others, more eager to attune themselves to what they perceive as the latest trends, whether for genuine or opportunistic ends, to invoke these constructs as their authority (and authorization) for doing likewise, complacently exhibiting their new-found sensibilities and sympathies. On the other hand, all too often, I think, feminist scholarship (at least, in classics) has been insulated from meaningful critique by those who work in the field or who are sympathetic to its aims. Women are inhibited from seeming to break “solidarity” with other women; men are intimidated from speaking up so as not to be labeled “just like a man.” I do not think such self-imposed censorship is helpful to the field, any field, in the long run. It encourages patronizing winks and tactics of dissimulation. For this reason I have attempted to participate honestly in R.’s “conversation” in the spirit of open debate. I honor the integrity and seriousness of her enterprise, its intellectual sophistication and literary flair. It should therefore be strongly emphasized that a good deal of her work is illuminating and meritorious. With some caution and some resistance on the part of the independently minded reader, there is much to learn and much to contemplate from confronting R.’s own resistance to facile acceptance of “what has been” as determining what will and must always be.

  • [1] The evidence is now collected by A. Podlecki, “Could Women Attend the Theater in Ancient Athens? A Collection of Testimonia,”Ancient World 21 (1990) 27-43, and women’s presence is now strongly argued by J. Henderson, “Women and the Athenian Dramatic Festivals,”TAPA 121 (1991) 133-47. Simon Goldhill (in a piece to be published in a Festschrift for David Lewis, which he has kindly shown me) entitled “Representing Democracy: Women at the Great Dionysia” points again to the weakness of the evidence and reframes the question in more accurate socio-political terms. [2] In fact, recent psychoanalytical theory has come to a more expansive understanding of the fetish and feminist criticism has proposed a fetishism for women as well. [3] It should also be pointed out that nowhere in the text do we find a negative moral judgment on Phaedra. Hippolytus refers to her desire for sophrosune but her inability to carry it through; Artemis in turn speaks of a “certain nobility” of spirit ( gennaiotes); it is Theseus rather whom Artemis castigates for having acted with baseness and Aphrodite against whom Theseus transfers the charge of wickedness.