BMCR 2003.10.21

Imagining Illegitimacy in Classical Greek Literature

, Imagining illegitimacy in classical Greek literature. Greek studies. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003. xi, 121 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 073910537X. $22.95 (pb).

Mary Ebbott’s (E.) book is very brief and very useful. In it she gathers together important examples of what might be called the “poetry of illegitimacy” and distills from them the principal ways in which Archaic and Classical Greek literature sang and wrote of the problem of legitimate birth. While it is certainly possible to imagine a longer book on the same topic, with a broader scope and a more complex methodology, E.’s book has the advantages not only of actually having been written but also of not placing over-heavy demands on its reader: Imagining Illegitimacy is among its other virtues very easy to assimilate. The book should find a place on the shelf of anyone engaged in the study of topics touching on the family in Archaic and Classical Greek literature.

As E. points out in her introduction, nothoi seem to have been “good to think with,” and their embodiment of the polarity legitimate/illegitimate pops up often in literary texts in association with a consistent range of other important pairs: light/dark, free/slave, fertile/sterile, current/counterfeit. Ebbot’s achievement in this volume is the achievement of all good literary criticism: to help her reader take a fresh look at several texts that seemed familiar. As her particular manner of defamiliarization she explores the fascinating, if predictable, inter-relation of illegitimacy as a poetic construct with the other poetic constructs of the texts where nothoi play a decisive role.

The book consists of an introduction (“Metaphors of Illegitimacy”), four chapters (“Where the Girls Are: Parthenioi and Skotioi,” “Teucer, the Bastard Archer,” “Images of Fertility and Sterility,” and “Euripides’ Hippolytos“) , and a brief conclusion. Though E. gives no explicit rationale for this arrangement, it is effective in its way, as the discussion shifts from generalities to specificities and back again in successive chapters; Hippolytos also works in a certain sense as a culmination in that, E. argues, it deploys many of the terms discussed in previous chapters.

As I said above, the methodology E. develops in her introduction, and to which she finally returns as a coda in the conclusion, is simple: in practice, it is to demonstrate and to describe the associations between illegitimacy and important concepts like the oikos and its thalamos (p. 13). From time to time E. refers to her critical process with some justice as of one of “decoding” (e.g. p. 6), but it is striking that even at its initial adumbration (p. 6) this method has difficulty deciding what the encoded material is: “This study examines how metaphors … can help us decode some of the many associations that ancient Greek culture would make with this complex status [sc. of nothos ]…. To fully exploit the possibilities of decoding metaphors concerning illegitimacy, I am particularly interested in elaborated narratives about nothoi.” The question of whether it is the associations or the metaphors that are to be decoded is not a quibble but a crucial concern for the construction of a coherent understanding of the ideological discourse of illegitimacy. Indeed, ideology itself is something E. mentions when the discussion needs a term for the cultural place where metaphors happen, but ideology does not play a role in the discussion per se. As a critic who believes very strongly in the importance of understanding the true powers and effects of ideology, I found this use of the term unsatisfactory, but it is only fair to say that I doubt that most of E.’s readers will have the same problem. Though I find E.’s more sweeping methodological gestures ultimately unhelpful, the nothos has not been studied within poetics in anything like a consistent way, and E.’s book, easy and palatable as it is, is most welcome.

Chapter 1 explores the associations of nothoi with darkness and with immature femininity, two classically subordinated terms in the overdetermining polarities of ideology. From various recensions of the story of Danae, E. draws the important term of enclosure as a sort of bridge between the imagistic systems of dark/light and feminine/masculine: two characteristic euphemisms for nothos, parthenios and skotios, are thus brought into a sensible coherence — one which, moreover, helps us tie important elements of poetry from the Iliad to Euripides’ Ion more precisely into the network of social norms surrounding legitimacy in a broad spectrum of Greek societies.

Here and elsewhere I find that E.’s assimilation of the culture of the Iliad to the cultures of classical poleis tends to simplify more than necessary with such characteristic phrasing as “Although the social system operating in these narratives is different from those we find in classical poetry, they nevertheless point to a distinction that continues in the representations of women’s sexuality.” More importantly, although in her introduction E. is careful to note that the book will concern poetic representations of nothoi rather than real nothoi, in practice (e.g. pp. 20-32) the distinction seems occasionally to disappear, as sociology and literary criticism are juxtaposed in an unproblematized fashion. E. is working with a conception of the Greek social imaginary operating in terms of images very much as poetic texts do — a conception I find immensely frutiful — but she seems reluctant to take on the problem of the important differences between social metaphor and poetic metaphor (the inter-relations between which are of course, very complex and correspondingly very interesting). So, for example, she is content to shift from the Iliad on p. 20 to a reading of Athenian marriage ritual as if it were a poetic text (21-23) and back to poetry (23-32). Here, perhaps, we find the practical drawback of a slight imprecision about what precisely needs to be decoded: to assimilate the social realm to the poetic one can produce, as in E.’s book a fascinating range of questions, but it also renders those questions not susceptible of answers.

Chapter 2, to my mind the most successful section of the book, focusses on the always-overshadowed figure of Teucer, brother of Ajax. E. takes this discussion from the Iliad, through Sophocles’ Ajax, to Euripides’ Helen, in each case profferring, through her unwavering concentration on the centrality of the subaltern Teucer, interesting new ways to understand the relevant texts. It is worth noting that this chapter is free of concern with ideology and the imaginary, and is thus the most traditionally literary-critical part of the book. I was particularly struck in this chapter by the cogency E.’s arguments lend to the presence of Teucer in Helen; the chapter is thus a significant contribution to the ongoing project of renewal in Euripidean criticism.

The short Chapter 3 brings us back to the fluid mix of social practice and poetry to be found in Ch. 1, once again ending with Eur. Ion. The chapter begins from the fascinating problem of the Partheneiai of Sparta and moves through Theognis to Euripides. E. argues that the nothos is associated with both hyperfertility and with sterility (in the fashion of, most notably, the mule), and that this paradox tends to be resolved in elaborated narratives by the institution of a new legitimacy for the nothos in a new milieu. This chapter contains much that is evocative, and reading the Ion in particular alongside the narratives of the Partheneiai is a welcome bit of New Historicist criticism. As elsewhere in the book, though, the productive blurring of lines between cultural contexts (here between prose-elaboration of an ideal archaic Sparta, the didactic poetry of Megara, and Athenian state theatre, taking in Plato and Herodotus along the way) is rendered rather less productive by E.’s seeming reluctance to engage with the differences between those contexts. The matter of sterility poses the real problem here: it seems to me that the various textual moments that E. brings together under this rubric (pp. 70-71, 73-77, 78-81) need more careful discussion. Is Socrates’ ironic speculation about illegitimacy among the gods really to be assimilated, for example, to the materially-motivated failure of the Spartiate lineage in Ephorus fr. 53?

Chapter 4’s discussion of the Hippolytus fits very well in the final spot perhaps most of all because in it E.’s choices of emphasis are prominently displayed. Readings of Hippolytus are superabundant, of course, but I know of no other reading that takes so seriously Hippolytus’ illegitimacy as a significant generator of the tragedy’s meaning. E. thereby makes a worthy contribution to the tragedy’s criticism. At the end of the chapter, E. offers the following, important dividend of her discussion (p. 107): “Because Hippolytos is dead, his reincorporation can happen only through the institution of his cult. The perpetual lamentation for the loss of Hippolytos necessarily implies a questioning of the exclusion of the nothos from the community. What is the cost to the polis of the exclusion of such young men?”

At the same time, however, Ch. 4 displays rather starkly what I find to be a drawback of the book’s approach to the meeting of poetics and ideology when that approach comes, as it must, to tragedy: a de-emphasis of the way these metaphors are complicated by psychology. Notably, in this chapter E. uses psychoanalytically-tinged terminology (especially the terms of “identification”), and refers to psychoanalytically informed critics like Segal and Devereux, without defining the relation to her argument of the numerous accounts of the very involved problems of psychology in the tragedy. P. 88 n. 254 exemplifies this difficulty: “Although we come to similar conclusions, I am dubious about Devereux’s method of “psychoanalyzing” a fictional character.” Though, as noted above, I am doubtless very much in the minority of E.’s audience in finding real fault here, the more theoretically-informed reader who seems to be the core audience for this book should at least be made uneasy by E.’s disclaiming precisely what she has been doing when she argues for “Hippolytos’ overidentification with his mother” (p. 88).

Again, however, these methodological quibbles should not be allowed to detract from E.’s achievement in this book; it is not only a significant contribution to the criticism of some key texts, but also an evocative raising of questions about the evocative questions raised by the enigmatic figure of the nothos.