BMCR 2001.11.10

Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society

, , Making silence speak : women's voices in Greek literature and society. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. x, 302 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 069100465X $11.95.

‘Throughout human history people have knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity… Nor will you have escaped worrying over this problem—those of you who are men; to those of you who are women this will not apply—you are yourselves the problem’ —Sigmund Freud.1

I begin with this notorious moment from Freud’s lecture ‘On femininity’ partly because this well-known fan of Greek learning here mimics Pericles’ equally notorious apostrophe to the women of Athens in his Funeral Oration, but mostly because it raises the central problems of any project that takes the mystery of women as its subject. Freud’s lecture offers to make intellectual masters of the listeners, to show them what to look for under the microscope of academic enquiry. Women are, for Sigmund Freud, objects, not subjects, of science. Between men, this assumption can easily be taken for granted; but when women too strive for control of psychoanalytical master-discourse, the symmetry of the gender-matrix is radically disturbed. Their presence among his acolytes makes for a curious crisis of control. The assertion that women are ‘the problem’ represents Freud’s performative attempt to wrest back the control of the situation, seeking to reinstate ‘women’ as the objects both methodologically of psychoanalysis and theatrically of humour (the reassuring comical stereotype of the unruly woman).

The search to unlock the mysteries of woman is, arguably (and many—not least Luce Irigaray—have argued it), one of the definitive acts of masculinist intellectualism, from the Odyssey’s playful hermeneutic of the disclosure of Penelope,2 through the tragic plotting of the secrets of the house (focusing upon the door as the site of mediation),3 through to Bacon’s desire to torture nature’s secrets out of ‘her’, to Freud’s mastery of the aphatic Dora, to Lacan and beyond. The ‘masculinism’ of this practice would be not necessarily dictated by the sex of its practitioners: it would denote an intellectual praxis, not a biological determination. And from one perspective the volume under review replays this founding gesture. Making silence speak, as a title, hints at disclosure through torture: we have ways of making you speak… And, as Page duBois has argued,4 torture tropes the acquisition of particularly prized knowledge, knowledge hidden from view, knowledge artfully extorqued from its recalcitrant hiding-place. The gendering of the secret as female all too easily reciprocates, troping the acquisition of knowledge as intellectual rape.5 But what’s in a name? Title aside, this volume stakes no explicit claim for engagement with any feminist tradition—a silence which, necessarily, speaks volumes for its ‘post-feminist’ rhetoric of political neutrality.

Not that the volume as a whole presents a dogmatic or simplistic approach to its subject-matter. The thirteen essays (plus McClure’s brief introduction) in this volume deploy a variety of different methodological implements. The most direct approach is Rafaella Cribiore’s descriptive account of a series of letters to and from women in Roman Egypt, showing that women could and did communicate expressively on the page. Other contributors use different strategies: new angles on literary works by women (Lardinois on Sappho, Stehle on Erinna) and on women’s voices in male-authored texts (Worman on Helen, Martin on female personifications in early poetry, Griffith on women in tragedy, Gagarin on Attic oratory, Skinner on female art critics in Theocritus and Herodas, Rosenmeyer on Phryne in Alciphron and others), and discussions of ‘real’ scenarios of female speech (Maurizio on the Pythia, Blok on female speech in Classical Athens, O’Higgins on cultic joking). The individual contributions are in general, as one would expect from this cast-list, compelling in their own right; but what unifies these diverse essays is the desire to make their subjects synecdochic (notwithstanding obvious issues of diversity of class, geography and period) of ‘woman’ in a more paradigmatic sense. That is to say, where this volume really turns the screw—where it promises to become more than the sum of its parts—is where it knocks its head, as Freud would have it, against the riddle of the nature of femininity. And it is here, inevitably, that the issues arise.

It is at least a defensible position that there was no exact equivalent in the ancient world to ‘woman’, in the marked, post-1960s sense of a site of privileged experience that unites all members of the biological sex. This emerges clearly from Griffith’s piece on ‘Antigone and her sisters’, where he observes that despite the large number of female speakers in tragedy, there is no set of characteristics that defines the voice as female (passim, esp. p. 121). ‘The urge…to find and maintain distinctions, to listen for the authentic voice of “woman”… is found to lead in circles; women do not all speak alike …and they do not always speak as “women”—though sometimes their words will be misheard, or heard in a particular way, or not heard at all, precisely because all that is heard, or noticed, is a “woman’s” voice’ (p. 136). To construct a unified typology of women in tragedy would be to superelevate one aspect of identity by cutting across others (free/slave, rich/poor, married/unmarried, etc.). Griffith does not deal with the set of instances where the idea of a common female identity is evoked within the tragic texts: Deianeira’s sympathy with the chorus of Trachinian parthenoi and pity for the slave Iole (Soph. Trach. 141-52; 329-34), for example, or Medea’s claim to Jason that her tears are the consequent upon her female ‘nature’ (Eur. Med. 928). But such evocations of female nature are provisional and strategic, overdetermined by their context: born of the breakdown of normative social roles; and in Medea’s case, at least, an irony-laden deception.

It is when, as in Griffith’s essay, ‘woman’ is taken as a constructed (and self-deconstructing) category that this volume is at its most successful; when, that is, the rhetoric (rather than the testimonial value) of ancient sources, is probed. In her influential work on gender and Greek drama, Froma Zeitlin has argued for a profound connection in Greek thought between the feminine and the theatrical.6 It is this deeply rooted problematisation of the feminine as composite, artificial, ‘supplementary’, that complicates any use of the literary tradition to access the ‘real’ voices of women (however we gloss that ‘reality’). Women are metaphorised into ‘problems’, aporetic and intractable, long before Freud arrives on the scene. Several essays here explore this phenomenon. Worman (aptly named) opens the collection with an account of Helen’s multiple, mimetic voicing. Although much of this is familiar material, it is sharply presented with some innovative insights. It is also an important piece in the context of this volume, complicating the search for women’s voices with cautionary parables of vocal dissemination. Maurizio’s piece on the ambiguous language of the Pythia again draws heavily on well-known work (particularly that of Vernant and Sissa), but again interestingly reorientates the debate by pointing to the tension between overweening male control and the Pythia’s autonomous agency. Pythian ambiguity emerges as an artfully chosen style responding to the needs of colonists, the unknowable language mirroring the unknown world into which they plunged themselves; and it also mobilises the symbolic associations of women with womb-like darkness and interior. Martin’s essay extrapolates from a riddle in lines 861-4 of the Theognidea (which he takes to refer to Penia: a plausible suggestion thoughtfully argued for) to claim an intrinsic connection in sympotic texts between female gender and abstraction.7 In these pieces, ‘woman’ (thus reified) is treated as a construct within ancient society, rather than as a self-evident identity with an existence anterior to the text.

The volume also contains three artful readings of female authored (or female ventriloquised) texts, in which the very category of ‘the female voice’ is put on the line. Stehle interprets Erinna’s Distaff as structured around an opposition between immobility and movement, as emblematised by the game of ‘Torty-tortoise’ apparently described in the text (14-17). The poem thus becomes an eloquent meditation upon female confinement. Skinner treats the series of Hellenistic poems on female viewers, particularly Theocritus XV and Herodas IV, arguing for the central influence of Erinna’s Distaff and the epigrammatic collections of Anyte and Nossis: both Theocritus and Herodas, she argues, are reacting to a trend correlating female authorship with intricate and highly refined verse. Rosenmeyer’s discussion of the first letter in Alciphron’s Letters of the courtesans unpacks the dramas of possession and control enacted by this brief text. Placed by a male author in the mouth of a female hetaira (Phryne), but addressed to a male (Praxiteles) who has constructed her/ a statue of her, this letter enacts the central problem of ‘making women speak’: qui parle ? That is, the eroticised, voyeurised, constructedness of the female voice exposes itself here for the pleasure—and discomfort—of the reader.

Issues arise, however, when the silence of women is treated as a historical problem to be cracked. Blok’s historico-anthropological account of the opportunities for women to speak in (territorially gendered) Classical Athens is sure-footed, but unlikely to disturb many received opinions (though the emphasis upon grey areas between public and private is welcome). Gagarin’s discussion of the ‘evidence of oratory’ (p. 161) for female speech is no doubt correct in its conclusion (that the portrayal of women speaking in the orators is conditioned by the requirements of the orators, rather than reflecting reality), but again perhaps rather underwhelming. Lardinois argues (using Todorov) that Sapphic poetry reflects the ‘ordinary female speech genres’ of public life (p. 75). The risk here, however, is always of circularity: we have just about no direct evidence (whatever that might mean) for the form of prayers, laments and bridal songs (even assuming, which is dangerous enough, that there was a single, constant form). If there are resemblances between Sapphic and Homeric passages, the former can be argued to be imitating the latter; and if there are similarities with Catullus 62 (p. 82), Catullus can hardly be assumed to be free from (another example of) intertextuality with Sappho herself. The suggestion that ‘we’ can hear, ‘however faintly’, the distant sounds of ‘real’ female speech (p. 92) presumes ultimately upon our faith in the chapter’s premise, namely the inevitable interrelation between ‘real’ and ‘literary’ speech genres. It also insists upon a rather quaint distinction between the real and the literary, implying a solid and unproblematic bedrock of actuality that lies below the kaleidoscopic obfuscation of literature. Why assume that ‘real’ speech is homogeneous? And, conversely, why is Sappho’s poetry itself not ‘real’? O’Higgins’ discussion of cultic mockery at the Thesmophoria invests female joking with a power (evoking that of Bakhtin’s carnival) to double and reincorporate social identities, an attractive suggestion, but again hindered by the problem of male sources (as acknowledged on p. 148): for example, the section that considers how ‘shame’ was perceived by women (pp. 157-9) depends upon male -authored constructions of women’s perceptions. Do the recurrent stories of male infiltration (Battus, castrated by Cyrenean women; also, of course, Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazousai) tell us something about the operative practices at the festival, as O’Higgins argues (p. 155), or do they dramatise the manner in which this particular ‘mystery of woman’ enters the (male) literary tradition? The male voyeur, of course, is theorised and overdetermined in the Greek tradition (in Euripides’ Bacchae and the Actaeon tradition); and such stories testify to a powerful exploration, already in our ancient texts, of the profound problem of ‘knowing’ women.

The problem of sources, indeed, haunts the project from the very start. It is no coincidence that McClure begins her discussion of female speech in her introduction with cross-dressing. Euripides in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae and Praxagora in the Ecclesiazusae both offer indices of gendered speech, but of course the former is no more an authentic woman than the latter an authentic man. It could be argued that transvestism is precisely the best place to look for women’s voices, on the grounds that matrices of identity are most vigorously policed where boundaries are crossed. But the Butlerian tradition might assert, contrarily, that transvestism exposes the radical non-essentialism of gender categories; that what is being demonstrated is not what women’s and men’s voices are like, but how likeness (resemblance, similitude, mimesis) is the real focus of Aristophanic metadrama.8 McClure is not unaware of the problems of using Aristophanes as evidence, but concludes that such scenes are instructive in that they ‘illustrate how a comic poet could exploit associations between a speaker’s gender and speaking style for humorous effect’ (p. 4). They certainly do (although in fact Aristophanes is insisting in the first instance upon a dissociation between the two), but it is unclear exactly how this sentence explicates the question of the evidentiary value of Aristophanes for female speech. Is this the ‘kernel of truth’ argument? What exactly do cross-dressing jokes tell us about ‘reality’?9

A fascinating collection, then, with a number of challenging and enlightening essays; but still hampered in parts by the traditional questions of sources, evidence and reality. These questions are ‘traditional’ because answers would be so covetable, but also because answers are not (and never can be) attainable. The risk is that constructing of the ‘real’ voice of women as an embedded secret, veiled by layers of textual and historical obfuscation, buys (no doubt unwittingly) into a historically and ideologically freighted myth of the penetrative prowess of the intellect. (I have suggested that this myth is already problematised in many ancient texts that deal with the problem of knowing women; but this may be a different matter.) For this reason, methodological self-criticism is all the more important: the story of women’s silence in antiquity is one in which we all still invest (myself included, of course), and the form and effects of that investment crucially determine the outcome. Where Making Silence Speak succeeds most conspicuously is where, rather than confronting intractable sources with coercion, it homes in on the problems and issues raised in the process of ‘making’, of constructing, gendered speaking subjects.


1. S. Freud, New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis (Harmondsworth, 1973), 146. Thanks to Will Batstone, for inadvertent contributions, and to Rebecca Langlands for advertent ones.

2. See esp. F. Zeitlin, ‘Figuring fidelity in Homer’s Odyssey‘, in Playing the other: gender and society in Classical Greek literature (Chicago, 1996).

3. See esp. R. Padel, ‘Making space speak’, in J. Winkler & F. Zeitlin, eds. Nothing to do with Dionysus? Athenian drama in its social context (Princeton, 1990), 354-6.

4. P. duBois, Torture and truth (New York, 1991); also H.L. Morales, ‘The torturer’s apprentice’, in J. Elsner, ed. Art and text in Roman society (Cambridge, 1996).

5. M. Bal, Narratology: an introduction to the theory of narrative, 2nd ed. (Toronto, 1997), 34-5.

6. F. Zeitlin, ‘Playing the other: theater, theatricality and the feminine’, Representations 11 (1985), 63-94; revised in Winkler & Zeitlin (n. 3); also in Playing the other (n. 2).

7. See also E.J. Stafford, ‘Masculine values, feminine forms: on the gender of personified abstractions’, in L. Foxhall & J. Salmon, eds. Thinking men: masulinity and its self-representation in the Classical tradition (London, 1998).

8. F. Zeitlin, ‘Travesties of gender and genre in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, in H. Foley ed. Reflections of women in antiquity (London, 1981); also in Playing the other (n. 2).

9. Fuller arguments on drama as evidence for real women’s speech in L.J. McClure (Princeton, 1999).