BMCR 1996.09.12

1996.9.12, Loraux, Experiences of Tiresias

, The experiences of Tiresias : the feminine and the Greek man. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. viii, 348 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780691029856

“A man,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir, “would never get the notion of writing a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: ‘I am a woman’; on this truth must be based all further discussion.”1 It is one of the lasting achievements of modern feminist scholarship to have shown that the masculine gender role is no more self-evident than the feminine, and that men as well as women fulfill roles defined for them by the society in which they live. It is possible today to write a book whose topic would be “the peculiar situation” of the Greek male. 2 The book under discussion treats a particular aspect of the subject: the way in which Greek men assimilated—the authoress no less than the reader is tempted to say “appropriated”—aspects of the feminine for their own self-definition.

A major book by a brilliant and profound authoress of international reputation does not need my recommendation; all the less so when it is a translation of a book that has already appeared in French and been well reviewed in many important and accessible journals. I dispense, therefore, with the question of whether or not this book should be bought. It is a major contribution which cannot and will not be ignored by anyone who deals with the subject. After a brief summary, I shall allow myself the luxury of a discussion of the book’s method, and an attempt to define what it does not achieve, and what it does.

Each chapter of the book is an essay in itself, and in fact every chapter except the introduction had already appeared elsewhere in an earlier version. The chapters are nevertheless clearly investigations around a single theme, and we are dealing not with a collection of articles, but with a book whose chapters were published separately as they were written. To summarize them is to distort them, for L.’s every paragraph qualifies, colors, or even contradicts the previous one, and nothing is more alien to her than simplification. Nevertheless, since a reviewer owes his readers more indication of the content of a book than what could be read on the dust-jacket, I will offer the briefest of summaries.

The attitude of the Greek male toward the feminine is not simply one of opposition and superiority: Greek men on the contrary prefer to see the masculine as encompassing the feminine, a view that on the one hand shows the superiority of the masculine and on the other propitiates the feminine by giving it its place within the realm of the masculine. After stating this theme on page 9, L. proceeds to develop it in various aspects:

Childbirth was the one accomplishment of a woman that matched the battles that were a man’s pride. The peculiar suffering of women, however, is attached metaphorically to the wounds and the painful labors of men, so that “feminine” suffering becomes an attribute of the male hero. In the context of the polis, the ideal of the “beautiful death” includes the discipline to accept it, not to seek it; in the context of epic, fear and trembling, and the opening of the body to wounds, are part of the hero’s ponos. Strangulation, a death in which no blood is spilled, is a particularly feminine way of death, matching feminine anatomy (as the Greeks understood it) no less than feminine weakness; the polis reserves strangulation for condemned malefactors. Nobody demonstrates the ambiguous relationship of the Greek male to the feminine more than Herakles, the terror of women and their slave, “a hero strong in his weakness,” the most masculine of heroes in his deeds, the most feminine in his suffering.

As in other fields, it is Plato who revalues everything: in the perfect dichotomy between soul and body, Plato’s Socrates exemplifies an andreia that does not depend upon bodily suffering, that indeed denies the experiences of the body: but the body reasserts itself, not as the true Socrates, but as the clearest indicator of the state of his soul. His Herakles is a Socratic one, a true aner without admixture of the feminine.

As for the women themselves, their claim to the world was a primordial one. It had indeed existed, as the Greek men admitted when they put feminine deities at the beginning of their cosmogony; but that cosmogony itself was a demonstration and a justification of the overthrow of feminine power. The female images that dominated the male imagination were those of Aphrodite, pure body; Helen, pure desire whose body is so nebulously defined that she is more likely to be spoken of in the neuter; and finally Athena, who in the deepest sense can be said to have no body at all. It is well known which of these the men of Athens considered their patroness and protector. Women themselves may take part in history, but they are always dangerous, and their unwelcome appearance in the historical narrative is followed immediately, reassuringly, by their return to the hearth, leaving the stage for the men who embody, in their contradictory way, a masculinity that includes and only thereby comes to terms with femininity.

If this summary seems opaque, I must warn the reader that it is not only brevity that makes it so. Neither L.’s ideas nor her style are simple. Reading the book will add depth but not transparency to my summary. Many simpler thoughts than her own will surely be read into, or perhaps out of, this book and attributed to L. That is the price she pays for thinking and writing more deeply than most people are willing to read.

An excellent book, an important book, a profound book, and yet the reader should be warned: the thesis of this book is not one that can be treated as objectively true. This is not to say that L. is guilty of errors of fact or of judgment, though of course any thinking reader will find here as in any book grounds for debate; but I do not think that she has succeeded in the task she has set herself, nor do I think that any of us can do so.

The task that L. has set herself is to reconstruct “the imaginary” of the Greek male, a term that she has placed prominently among the concerns of the history of gender. This effort is based on the presumption that Greek men as a class perceived and organized 3 reality, in their own mental universe, differently than we do, and that the way in which they perceived and organized reality is, at least to some extent, recoverable through the writings and other artifacts that they have left us. I believe that this presumption is correct, 4 and that the task L. has set herself is a reasonable one. She has read her texts carefully, even minutely, and teased out of them connections often surprising and revealing. In the postmodernist world, where subjectivity is no vice, this book is a remarkable achievement. But L. seems to have tried more, to provide an interpretation of the mind of a Greek male that would be, as it were, the Greek male’s own, “by refraining from indulgence in one’s own interpretative impulses … speaking as a (female) historian of the Greek male, whom I see as he constructs himself” (18). At this, I cannot agree that she has succeeded, although it is her effort to do so that has produced a book far more valuable than those that “indulge in [their] own interpretative impulses”. At every turn—and I do not think that any other outcome was possible—it is the mind of L. that stands between the reader and the Greek male, imposing on her observations a construction peculiarly her own; and in fact, although she declares at the outset what would look like a desire for “objectivity,” her own “generous and passionate”5 style displays constantly her own organizing intelligence behind the material.

Consider what L. has to say about Hector, deciding whether he should offer to surrender to Achilles:

And in this dialogue between Hector and his heart, his heart, the place where honor resides, responds to the element that wishes to live in the hero: “If I go to him, am I not to fear that he will have neither pity nor respect for me, that he will kill me, as if I were naked as a woman?” As naked as a woman: it is unwise to be too quick to apply the anachronistic grid of psychological analysis to these words. As he thinks of the monstrous Achilles, Hector does not identify himself—not yet nor, it will be seen, any longer—with a woman. He simply knows that if he lays down his arms he will be naked—gumnos, which is functionally the case for the lightly armed warrior, like the archer Paris whom the combatant with his shield habitually likens to a woman, because war, true warfare, is not a woman’s business. A woman? The mere thought is humiliating enough to ward off all temptations to make a treaty, and he dismisses it as impossible: “No, no, this is not the time to go back to the oak and the rocks …” (which is to say, to lose himself in the chimerical myths of man’s origins, in which man is not born of men but of rocks and trees); so he banishes it as utterly out of place: “This is no time for tender talk between young man and maid—as a young man and a maid tenderly chat.”

In the hero’s strange admonishment to himself, who is the young man and who is the maiden? … Does Hector refer to the debate inside himself … Or does he see himself as playing the role of the parthenos opposite Achilles? It is more likely that the emphasis falls on the verb denoting tender conversation … Hector accuses himself of not knowing that warriors engaged in single combat are not flirting. But was he as mistaken as he wished to believe? For on two occasions the language of the Iliad refers to battle unto death as a “rendezvous” … (pp. 80-1).

A subtle and in many ways compelling reading of Hector’s doubts and his somewhat surprising metaphors: I shall neither read nor teach that scene again in quite the way I would have done before reading what L. has to say about it. And yet throughout, it is L. who is instructing us, who is determining what should be considered where, which modes of analysis are appropriate (“It is unwise to be too quick to apply the anachronistic grid of psychological analysis to these words”), what the words mean (“Which is to say, to lose himself in the chimerical myths of man’s origins,” a conceivable but hardly obvious interpretation of Hector’s thought), whether the poet means what he says (“But was he as mistaken as he wished to believe?”). Nobody else, I venture to say, would approach the matter in quite this way.

Throughout the book, essential questions lurk unanswered behind comparisons: are two versions of a myth parallel, interchangeable, or contradictory? Does one illuminate the other or merely give another person’s opinion? These questions can rarely be answered authoritatively.

From beginning to end, some facts are put in concessive clauses or treated as authorial feints, while others are read as essential clues to the Greek male imaginary. Sometimes, as in the last words quoted above, a justification is given for these choices; often they are simply stated. Opening the book at random I find: “I would willingly wager” (90); “It is true that … But” (ibid.); “as if a law decreed” (91); “A great deal could be said” (ibid.); “Perhaps then” (ibid.); “To illustrate the reversals of war, I prefer” (ibid.); and all of these without turning the page!

What the book shows us is not the Greek male imaginary, but a Greek male imaginary, as seen through the eyes of a perceptive and thoughtful French female scholar, whose own “imaginary” intrudes in every paragraph. Objections are often presented as if L. were sharing with us her own inner dialogue, only to be disposed of: “Most certainly there is another … But …” (31). “Of course, there is another leader … However …” (36) “So is the simile … exceptional? Undoubtedly. … But …” (ibid.) “One might well respond … Perhaps.” (40) “One could probably object … I will answer …” (ibid.) “But Deianeira? Doesn’t she …? I will be careful not to deny it…. But …” (42).

These constant interpretative decisions, sometimes forced by the material but often personal and perhaps arbitrary, are not the result of carelessness: they are a conscious strategy, by which L. associates the reader with her in her quest, showing clearly the route she has taken and the paths she has chosen at every fork in the road. Without them the book would be a dry and uninformative collection of parallel passages, so broad in its possible meanings as to be vacuous. The book is not less valuable or less scholarly for admitting openly the extent to which individual choice has determined the path taken and the description offered, rather than pretending that every interpretation was the objective and inescapable truth about the mental universe of “the Greek male”—himself an abstract composite of innumerable individuals, mostly unknown to us.

The concept of an “imaginary” that can be described is not, of course, L.’s invention; it is a basic concept of Lacanian psychoanalysis. 6 L., however, has not written a psychoanalytic text, nor a Lacanian “reading” of Greek literature or mythology: on the contrary, she has explicitly avoided it, and states as much. “There is nothing to know,” she says correctly, “about Tiresias’ unconscious, but the Greeks have a great deal to say about his blinding. And there is much food for thought for a Greek reader (listener) concerning Athena’s femininity. Therefore I have not interpreted these elements, eschewing the ‘It’s …’ method, which one should be so careful to avoid: it’s the mother, it’s the Greeks’ homosexuality, etc., and then one stops, already overwhelmed.” (18) Lacan himself does not occur in the bibliography.

One might wish—and it seems clear that L. does wish—for a way of describing the phenomena she sees in a way that would be independent of theoretical prejudice or authorial determination. But without a theoretical underpinning, there is no real way to describe the imaginary of the Greek male, or of anybody. The problem in trying to map the Greek man’s psyche is not so much with our knowledge of the territory as with the limits of our cartography. We can see well that L. is observing something that is there; but it is equally clear that nobody else would see it in quite that way.

This fact, that our most perceptive reading cannot hope to describe definitively a phenomenon whose existence seems incontrovertible, shows our discipline both in its narrow limits and in its unbounded horizon. For it is precisely this sort of study, coming to terms with the utterly familiar and yet irreducibly alien world of the ancients, that poses the questions from which new ways of thought, and even new disciplines, have sprung in the past and will continue to do so.

The translator, Paula Wissing, did not have an easy job. The dust-jacket claim of Helene P. Foley that it “preserves much of the striking style of the original” is true and deserved, for the translation is far from mechanical. Take, for example, the sentence quoted above, “As naked as a woman: it is unwise to be too quick to apply the anachronistic grid of psychological analysis to these words.” A more “literal” translation of the French would be: “Disarmed as a woman: one will not rush to apply lazily to these words the anachronistic grid of psychology.” Wissing has thought about this sentence. She has seen that by désarmé L. is translating gymnos, which she will explain shortly thereafter; she chooses “naked” to give the English reader the temptation towards Freudianism against which L. is arguing. She has avoided the pronoun one, a correct but stilted equivalent of the much more colloquial French on. She has decided that the French words s’empresser … paresseusement, although an oxymoron, would not be well rendered by the literal “rush … lazily”, which is hardly conceivable. Lastly, she has chosen to define psychologie more closely as “psychological analysis”, since psychology is not properly applied to words, but to people. The superiority of her translation to my own translationese is, I think, clear. 7

Nevertheless, there are a number of mistakes: and the nature of L.’s style is such that a single mistake can make an entire train of thought incomprehensible. I did not compare the translation with the original systematically, but merely referred to the original when the English text seemed utterly impossible. For the convenience of other readers, I append what I have found: 8

Are these corrections too many? I am not sure. Some of them are mere slips of the pen, others matters of opinion: it would be unfair to claim that the translator has made this many “mistakes”. It is also true that L.’s dense style makes problematic translations more obtrusive (and harder for an editor to spot) than they would be in an easier read. And lastly, nobody can translate almost four hundred pages of French without occasional infelicities. In general Wissing has not taken the easy road, and has succeeded in producing a book as readable as the original. One could wish, however, that the difficult points were fewer.

If everyone who deals with Greek men has an implicit mental image of the people about whom he is thinking, this book challenges him with an explicit image, researched more thoroughly and thought out more deeply than his own often a priori picture. Those who read it carefully now will have their perceptions sharpened, deepened, and often changed. The next generation, alas, will grow up with it. They, or their teachers, will absorb the generalizations and simplifications that L. so carefully avoids, thinking both that they are coming to know how Greek men thought and that the simplified version they understand is L.’s. Then others—or perhaps these same students themselves, grown into scholars—will write a number of papers demonstrating from the sources that these simplifications are not necessarily so, as indeed they are not. None of them will get from this book what it offers to mature scholars of our generation, the exhilarating experience of having the views they had learned from their teachers or from their own reading so penetratingly challenged.

  • [1] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (trans. & ed. H. M. Parshley, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, ’53), p. xv. [2] A beginning in that direction, in fact, has already been made, in the collection L’homme grec (ed. Jean-Pierre Vernant, Editions de Seuil, Paris, ’93). [3] In the language of Lacanian psychoanalysis, the “imaginary” deals with things as they are perceived; their organization goes beyond that into the realm of symbol. L., as far as I can tell, does not observe this distinction, and so neither shall I. [4] “In the case of a society dominated by men who sequester their wives and daughters, denigrate the female role in reproduction, erect monuments to the male genitalia, have sex with the sons of their peers, sponsor public whorehouses, create a mythology of rape, and engage in rampant saber-rattling, it is not inappropriate to refer to a reign of the phallus. Classical Athens was such a society.” So Eva Keuls began her book The Reign of the Phallus (University of California Press, Berkeley, ’85), p. 1, and although one may express reservations about each of the clauses, I believe that nobody has shown so succinctly and conclusively that the men of Athens were by no means “just like us”. [5] Catherine David’s term, from the dust-jacket. [6] Jacques-Alain Miller, ed., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, tr. John Forrester (Book I) and Sylvana Tomaselli (Book II) (Cambridge University Press, ’88), passim; for a description of his theory, see Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis (Croom Helm, London, ’86), 130-159. [7] But not without its pitfalls: L., too, had chosen carefully when she translated gymnos as désarmé, since “naked as a woman” is a very odd phrase: Homer’s women were no more accustomed to nudity than his men, and the word gymnos only makes sense when understood, as L. explains it, to mean “lacking heavy armor”. [8] I do not distinguish between the seventh and eighth chapters, which are reworkings of previous translations by others, and the rest of the book, which is here translated by Wissing for the first time: I presume that Wissing takes responsibility for the entire translation. [9] The reader, of course, still has to exercise his own brain in reading L.: only on p. 42 does she state explicitly the schematic division she has in mind into “womanly women, virile men, men-women, and women who act like men”.