BMCR 1998.08.05

Mothers in Mourning, with the essay “Of Amnesty and Its Opposite”


This slim volume strikes me now in translation as it struck me originally eight years ago in French as the most interesting work on male Athenians’ imagination of motherhood since Slater’s The Glory of Hera. That sentence betrays my bias instantly, but I hope that those who dislike Slater’s work will be unable to dislike Loraux’s Mothers in Mourning, at least for the same reasons. Both books explore from a more or less psychological perspective the ways by which Athenian literature attempts to come to terms not just with the threatening cultural immanence of the mother but also with the difficulty inherent in repressing her. Both books leave the reader with the impression that Athenian men found an inexhaustible fund of literary inspiration in the strategies by which they coped with their unease as to the mother, which I with Slater would call castration anxiety.

Similarity ends there, however, for while even Slater’s most ardent supporter must admit that ‘crude’ is a kind term for his use both of literature and of other kinds of cultural material, Mothers in Mourning brings with it Loraux’s remarkable sensitivity to the nuances of Greek and her unexampled range of reference to things classical and post-classical. On this small canvas, much as in the similarly brief Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman, Loraux seems to feel herself freed even more than she does in larger works like The Children of Athena and The Experiences of Teiresias to follow paths of meaning just to the point where they begin to open out into new vistas, only to return abruptly to the matter at hand; at these moments she seems to trust (correctly, I think) in the brevity of the study to give its own focus. The Roman-oriented Chapter 3 provides perhaps the best example: bringing the chapter to its close, Loraux seems comfortable writing, “We can, I think, here bring to an end a comparison that has been shown to be well-founded. Leaving Rome behind (not without regret, for the pleasure of the difference is great), let us pursue the investigation in Greek territory, since such mistrust of feminine and maternal grief is evidently distinctive of Greek cities” (34). Clearly, the price we pay for Loraux’s suggestive, wide-ranging style is as always a certain vagueness that I imagine the psychoanalytic reader no less than the classicist is apt to find vexing. There is no bibliography, and references are telegraphic (on the other hand, Cornell UP has placed the brief notes at the bottom of the page, a distinct advantage over the French edition). This allusive characteristic of the book’s style becomes more frustrating in direct proportion to the reader’s interest, so that, as in the above passage, I often find myself feeling abandoned at the very moments that the argument is most interesting.

As has often been noted, the translator of Loraux faces a particularly thankless task, and Corinne Pache first deserves the reader’s thanks for laboring at the author’s elliptical sentence structure, always liberally sprinkled with the nigh-untranslatable ne … que construction. There are infelicities, like the final sentence (“Whatever we say about them, the terrible Mothers of the Greeks are terribly mothers” (79) [“Quoi qu’on raconte sur elles, les Méres terribles des Grecs sont terriblement des méres”]; it is to be admitted that one could spend days trying to find a good translation and fail — I certainly have no suggestion to offer) and an occasional slip (“But if the queen of Athens looks like the heroine of autochthony, at least she is not a tragic queen” (39-40; emphasis added) [“Mais si la reine d’ Athénes a l’apparence d’une héroïne de l’autochtonie, du moins n’est-elle pas une mére tragique” (emphasis added)]), but Pache’s translation manages to walk the fine line between preserving Loraux’s suggestive style and preserving clarity even at the most difficult stages of the argument.

This volume fits very well into Gregory Nagy’s Myth and Poetics series, dealing as it does with tragedy’s symbolic shaping of maternal myth. Nagy provides his usual thoughtful forward, which does well to call attention to the links between Mothers in Mourning and Muellner’s The Anger of Achilles in particular. These forwards form a very helpful part of the series, and this one in particular crystallizes the connection between the translation of Les Méres en Deuil that makes up the majority of the volume, and that of the essay De l’amnestie et de son contraire, which forms an extremely apposite coda.

Loraux’s argument in Mothers, simply put, is that the figure of the mourning mother embodies for what Loraux has herself named the Athenian imaginary the danger of motherhood itself — the mother’s power over the child and her potential for wrathful recrimination. Athens encodes in the mourning mother, Loraux demonstrates, both the mother’s indissoluble tie to her child and her own (imputed) responsibility for the death of the child (as Loraux shows, almost always a son) whom she mourns. Such a powerful figure must be placated, and so, for example, the Great Mother has a vital role to play in her position in the Athenian Agora, as the Eumenides do at the foot of the Areopagus.

Loraux begins outside Classical Athens. Chapter 1, “The Doating Title of a Mother,” reads key moments of Shakespeare’s Richard III as a sort of overture that suggests themes of the work to come, but nonetheless develops its own argument. Loraux’s reading of Shakespeare is just as rewarding as her reading of Greek drama, and there is an enormous gain here in the English translation, since Shakespeare is no longer encumbered by Hugo: the crucial moment when the Duchess of York calls her woes “general” (which Hugo translated “généralisé”) possesses a wonderful immediacy for English-speakers. Loraux uses Richard III to adumbrate the connections between mothers, mourning, and wrath that she will explore within Athens in the following pages, going so far as to describe the foundational moment of the book in her watching a performance of Shakespeare’s play.

Chapter 2, “Measures against Feminine Excess,” deals with the sumptuary laws that curtailed mourning in the Greek poleis. Loraux makes a roundabout but convincing case first that mourning is gendered feminine in Greek culture and second that in Athens and elsewhere male citizens deemed it essential to circumscribe it in quantity, quality, and most interestingly location. This last springs from an incisive reading of the messenger’s words about Eurydice’s mourning Haemon in Antigone — the significance of oikeion penthos lies both in its feminine interiority and in its peculiarity to the mother.

Loraux moves in the short (5 pp.) Chapter 3, “The Effective Tears of Matrons,” to Roman material as a highly effective contrast. The chapter’s centerpiece is the story of Coriolanus and his mother, but Loraux imbues the argument with valuable new-historicist-style insights, like p. 30n3 on the significance of matrona. The notes here are uncharacteristically full, as if the author has paradoxically surrendered some of the mastery that leads her to glide through the Greek material (especially tragedy) assuming the reader’s trust; this chapter is for that reason in bibilographic terms the most satisfactory. The brief argument on Rome places the Greek material in high relief: maternal mourning is circumscribed in Rome as in Athens, but as the legend of Coriolanus shows us such mourning has an essential role to play on the civic stage.

The Roman difference lifts the book into its next three chapters (“The Pathos of a Mother,” “Black Wrath,” and “Mourning Nightingale”), which constitute the core of the argument: that a mother in mourning functions as a paradigm of pathos for the Greek imaginary; that her pathos slips imperceptibly into wrath (most especially menis, that special wrath) that threatens the polis with murder; and that for that reason the mourning mother is held responsible in the Greek imagination in general and in the myth of Procne in particular for the death of her child.

Loraux is electrifying on the political nature of Hecuba’s feeling for Polyxena: ” Polyxena is my city : an utterance that would be impossible and virtually forbidden to women in Athens outside of the theater — women who do not have the title of ‘citizen’ but must devote themselves to the city” (40). “The incommensurable character of the loss” (41) of a child, she argues, leads to a maternal menis that kills only sons, as a revenge on the father/husband (52). Chapter 5 lays its groundwork in the Hymn to Demeter, which might constitute a slippage between epic and tragedy if Loraux failed to demonstrate that Clytemnestra’s wrath owes a great deal to Demeter’s. She does not, of course, and so the epic material, which includes also Thetis’s menis allows Loraux to join her study to Slatkin’s The Power of Thetis, which Loraux cites in its early TAPA version.

“Mourning Nightingale,” however, provides the most exciting moment of the book: “In [Antigone’s mourning reference to Procne in Phoenissae ] is the mourning and despair of a murderess, less incongruent [ sic ] than it first appears, once it is put back in its dramatic context, and always paradigmatic of all feminine lament. Is it necessary to decode the imprint of hate in this configuration? As if one really mourns for having destroyed and not only for having lost. Or more precisely, as if, to avert mothers’ tears, it were necessary to make mothers criminals” (63-64). By moving from the specificity of a single tragedy to an all-embracing humanistic generality, Loraux here makes a contribution not only to our understanding of the Athenian imagination but also, I think, to our understanding of our own psychology.

Loraux’s easy familiarity with psychoanalysis is nowhere more apparent than in the final chapter (“The Mother in the Agora”) which, if we call “Of Amnesty and Its Opposite” a coda, we must call a cadenza. I am hard-pressed to understand Loraux’s omission of reference to the work of Julia Kristeva, to whose theories of the khora she should certainly refer if only to distinguish her own formulations from them, but Loraux’s argument in the end does not owe much to Kristeva’s. The Metroon of Athens, where, Loraux believes, the boule met as late as the end of the 5th C. and where afterwards the archives of Athens resided, looms (for one must not say ‘writes’) large in the civic architecture in the bargain made by the Athenian imagination with the mourning, wrathful mother — the Great Mother no less than the Eumenides. Athens placed these maternal figures in honor as the space where the andres inscribe their heredity as they inscribe the laws, yet circumscribed them entirely by that placement.

Citations of Freud abound in this final chapter, and in the end attention to psychology provides the strongest connection between Mothers in Mourning and “Of Amnesty and its Opposite,” the appended essay that fills out the volume and should make anyone interested in Loraux’s work very grateful both to Cornell and to Corinne Pache. Loraux’s psychological work always provokes two divergent responses in me, an avowedly psychoanalytic critic: on the one hand, I find myself angered by what seems a disrespect not to Freud — for Loraux cites him regularly, if obliquely —, but rather to the many brilliant analysts (Klein, Lacan, Kristeva) and psychoanalytic literary critcs (Slater, Devereux) whose post-Freudian work forms an unacknowledged foundation for Loraux’s; on the other, I find myself really grateful that Loraux has spent the extraordinary effort required to assimilate every piece of psychoanalytic terminology (not to say jargon) to her own classical methodological framework. Loraux’s greatest terminological contribution to the field may be her use of the word “imaginary,” which must owe much of its traction to Lacan’s own use of the word, but nonetheless signifies something quite different; her use of “denial” in “Of Amnesty and Its Opposite” partakes of the same reformulation. Loraux is not a psychoanalytic critic, but her work may be the best use Classics has made of psychoanalysis.

“Of Amnesty and Its Opposite” is a difficult essay, and Pache deserves some sort of Croix de Loraux for undertaking it. The constant use of nearly synonymous terms (whose nuances are crucial) for remembering and forgetting, the continual double negatives that reflect similar constructions in the Greek passages, and the sheer complexity of the argument all conspire to take aback even the theoretical reader; but the reader who has Mothers in Mourning under his or her belt has a head-start in understanding the difference between amnesty and non-oblivion. Loraux seamlessly (and, remarkably, without discernible slippage) binds together Phrynichus’ Capture of Miletus, the amnesty decree of 403 with regard to the Thirty Tyrants, the role of memory in the epic tradition, and Electra’s unforgetful mourning, to show the reader the flip-side of the unforgetting wrath of the mourning mother: the need for the Athenian citizen to remember to forget such wrath even as he projects it onto the maternal. “It is left to the citizen-spectators gathered in the theater,” writes Loraux, “to guess what, for the city, is the ultimate danger in this anger that does not forget, because it is the worst enemy of politics” (98): and the theater is the realm of the mourning mother.

I hope that the ready availability of this book (at a price that should give it wide circulation) will inspire more work in English on the maternal in tragedy; while by no means a neglected area, it deserves much more attention. Certainly Loraux’s work serves as a demonstration that we can learn a great deal from tragic mothers despite their origin in the imaginations of men. One closes Mothers in Mourning with that rarest of senses in tragic criticism — that it has become easier to project oneself into the ikria.

P. Slater, The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family (Boston: Beacon, 1968). N. Loraux, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman, tr. A. Forster (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987). N. Loraux, The Children of Athena: Athenian Ideas about Citizenship and the Division between the Sexes, tr. C. Levine (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993); The Experiences of Teiresias: the Feminine and the Greek Man, tr. P. Wissing (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995). L. Muellner, The Anger of Achilles: Menis in Greek Epic (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996). L. Slatkin, The Power of Thetis: Allusion and Interpretation in the Iliad (Berkeley: U California P, 1991). See J. Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, tr. M. Waller (New York: Columbia UP, 1984), esp. Part I.