BMCR 1996.07.11

1996.7.11, Doherty, Siren Songs

, Siren Songs: Gender, Audiences, and Narrators in the Odyssey. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. Pp. 220. $37.50.

Women have been publishing studies of the Odyssey at a brisk pace in recent years. This book, relying on feminist, narratological, and reader-response theory, self-consciously enters the discussion. In accordance with the best feminist practice, the book’s rhetoric is that of a discussion among friends, who often disagree but always respect each other. So the first chapter, “Actual Audiences,” does not discuss the treatment of Penelope among recent readers as a preliminary for examining implicit readers, but positions this book carefully among them. Some critics have given affirmative feminist readings of the Odyssey, making Penelope focal within an authorial structure. Others have looks for gaps and indeterminacies that allow the reader to escape authorial meaning. This contribution argues for a closed, but oppositional reading of the Odyssey. Doherty argues that the (authorial) meanings of the Odyssey are relatively controlled and limited, that the poem strongly points its audiences toward specific responses. On the other hand, she argues that the open reading is always in danger of being co-opted into a conventional meaning. She wants to show what kind of reception the text itself demands, and she urges the reader to struggle against receiving it “correctly,” to be wary of both its androcentric bias and its support for social hierarchies. It’s an intelligent and thoughtful project, and well carried through. The book is consistently interesting and very readable. Indeed, the highest praise I can give it is that I shall be recommending it to my students as a good place to start, because it will enable them to understand what certain fundamental disagreements are about.

Doherty argues that the Odyssey is deliberately inclusive about both women and low-status males as both audiences and narrators. Women are not included in the “normal” performance audience at the aristocratic feast, but Odysseus clearly treats Arete as an important member of his audience and Penelope also serves as a privileged audience (similarly, Eumaeus both tells and hears narrative). Even these exceptional women, however, do not have men’s authority to interfere with epic performance. Odysseus describes the heroines of the Nekyia, Doherty argues, to compliment Arete, just as he tells of the heroes of Troy in response to Alcinous’ request; yet a close examination of this apparent inclusiveness of narrative content shows that the heroines are important in relation to men and isolated from other women. Inclusiveness is in the end a way of inducing women to accept their limits.

I am generally persuaded, and Doherty’s arguments for the redundancy of the narrative, and thus its limits on openness, are strong. I am uneasy with the author’s decision to treat some “amateur” narratives as closely comparable to epic performances, while excluding Odysseus’ lies—and I see no justification at all for treating the lie to Eumaeus at 14.459ff as not really belonging among the lies, because it has a “true epic setting” (73). We need to look beyond Alcinous’ praise of Odysseus as narrating “like a bard” to the similarities and differences in different kinds of narrative. Amateur narrative typically serves immediate purposes of the narrator or the interlocutor, while bardic performance is basically disinterested—although Svenbro is right that Phemius’ song about the Return of the Achaeans seems calculated to please the Suitors, it does not praise their behavior; in fact, as a tale of Athena’s wrath, it might have warned them, had they been a wiser audience. I am unpersuaded by those, Doherty included, who interpret Demodocus’ song as “about” the Odysseus-Euryalus quarrel, except perhaps at a very general level (reconciliation is good). Certainly Odysseus has not “belied his physical appearance” (p. 70)—Laodamas suggests that Odysseus compete precisely because he has noticed Odysseus’ powerful build (8.133-39). Nor can I believe that Odysseus would feel complimented at being compared to Hephaestus, even if the cuckold wins. The external audience will relate the song’s themes of adultery, cunning, and compensation to the Suitors, not the immediate situation.

I doubt, though, that more subtlety about categories of narrative would make any serious difference to the book’s conclusions. These are generally convincing. Yet reading this book makes one very aware of the defensiveness that can afflict feminist scholars of ancient literature, uncomfortable with the choice of a field composed mostly of androcentric texts produced by and for exploitative social elites (though Doherty does not discuss this directly as Rabinowitz does in Anxiety Veiled). This defensiveness is clearly one impulse behind recent scholarship that seeks to redeem the Odyssey for women (feminist Miltonists are in a similar position). Doherty, of course, does not defend, but warns against the poem’s seductions. I myself, though, at the risk of quaint humanism and political incorrectness, wonder whether we need worry quite as much as she does. My students always comment immediately on the double sexual standard in the Odyssey; it shocks them—they aren’t so easily seduced, and the poem does not seem to have the authority that Doherty attributes to it.

Doherty suggests that there can be a cost in marginalization for a gay or lesbian reader who resists the poem’s heterosexual imperative (footnote 7, p. 182). This is unnecessary, surely, because problems with literature arise less with individual texts than with the entire body of texts available. A lesbian may become alienated if her reading never provides sympathetic characters who resemble herself, but not because some texts celebrate heterosexual fidelity. I also wonder if the female subjectivity we miss in the Odyssey is to be found as the center of a long narrative (there are surely passages where it appears after Euripides, in Apollonius and Virgil) before the eighteenth century. To speak personally, I, like many women of my generation, was profoundly affected by Doris Lessing and Margaret Drabble, whose characters gave me models not always available in my life. That is a use of contemporary authors and of those who seem contemporary, whatever their date. At the same time, to enter the subject positions of people radically unlike oneself is one of the basic joys and uses of narrative, and it too can be liberating. The psychology of response to narrative is not very well understood, but I feel certain that the assumptions of feminist film and literary criticism do not match the rich complexity of reality. To identify with a character is not to approve of everything that character does, and I find myself inwardly screaming at Odysseus to stop playing games with Penelope.

There are, of course, narratives that we should never read without opposition—their implied authors are evil—but the Odyssey is not among them. The Odyssey constantly draws us, because even though it endorses hierachies of which we do not approve, it is permeated with sympathy for the human condition as a whole. While Odysseus obviously dominates his poem, others do have eyes and voices. Even Nausicaa’s mules eat grass that is “honey-sweet” (to them, 6.90). Doherty warns us not to exaggerate the force of this recognition of those excluded from power, and she is right. Nonetheless, while not an open narrative, the Odyssey is a generous one.