BMCR 2008.04.40

Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought

, , Laughing with Medusa : classical myth and feminist thought. Classical presences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xiv, 445 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9780191556920 $125.00.

Table of Contents

Two dynamic modes of inquiry are helping to make Classical Studies a livelier and more inclusive discipline in this new millennium. Feminist theory proves to be a powerful tool of analysis for Greco-Roman culture, while the Classical Tradition, an umbrella term that includes both the reception of ancient culture and its influence on modern literature and thought, has effaced the boundaries that have fenced off traditional philology from the other humanities. This collection of fifteen essays plus one short piece of fiction combines both these intellectual enterprises in a unique and well-timed volume that presents feminist scholars from other disciplines alongside Classicists whose work has been informed by feminist theory. The project takes its title from the “The Laugh of Medusa,” the foundational 1975 essay by feminist poststructuralist Helene Cixous. The purpose of the volume, which is part of an OUP series “Classical Presences,” is to explore how classical myth has influenced the development of feminist thought, and correspondingly how Classical Studies can be interpreted within a feminist framework. The collection is interdisciplinary in nature and will not only be of interest to students and scholars of Classical Studies, but also of Women’s Studies and Cultural Studies.

The volume is divided into five sections in addition to a good introduction outlining the history of previous scholarship informing the project, a bibliography and general index. The first three essays, grouped under the title “Myth and Psychoanalysis,” critique Freud’s use of mythology in his theorization of ego formation. Rachel Bowlby sets the agenda with “The Cronus Complex: Psychoanalytic Myths of the Future for Boys and Girls.” Bowlby confronts Freud’s reading of Greek myth as a kind of history which facilitated a phallocentric theory of social development. Although her thesis should by now be self evident, Bowlby makes a competent case: that Freud, himself a product of a patriarchal culture, was influenced by a social construction of gender that is less relevant to modern children. The following essay by Vanda Zajko (“Who are We When We Read: Keats, Klein, Cixous, and Cook’s Achilles“) continues to explore the process of “identification” (including the formation of gender identity), with special consideration of how a reader identifies with characters in a fictional text. At the center of her study is the figure of Achilles, with whom various scholars and writers including Cixous herself have identified. As Zajko points out, the transference that occurs between a female reader and male figures like Achilles exemplifies Cixous’ formulation of the “Imaginary” which is central to her theory of the unconscious as a conceptual space that precedes gender identification.

The final essay in this section is by influential feminist art historian Griselda Pollock. “Beyond Oedipus: Feminist Thought, Psychoanalysis, and Mythical Figurations of the Feminine” begins by considering how Cambridge ritual theorist Jane Harrison’s reconfiguration of the feminine in classical mythology provided a new intellectual template for modernist novelist Virginia Wolff. Pollock investigates Freud’s analogies of historical periodization with the development of the human psyche, and Harrison’s intervention in the construction of such periodization. The article takes a curious but fascinating detour to the collection of classical art that adorned the walls of Freud’s study, and arrives at Ingre’s print of Oedipus and the Sphinx, iconographic proof of Freud’s obsession with the Oedipus myth. Pollock challenges the centrality of this myth in psychoanalysis which only offers the feminine as a monstrous archaic potential. Instead she suggests the figures of Antigone, and to a lesser degree Eurydice (Creon’s wife), as possible signifiers for a feminist intellectual community. She arrives at this suggestion via a complex journey that defies synthesis in a review of this length. “Have I lost you all?” she asks at one point (111). I have to admit that at times my answer was “yes,” although there are some remarkable insights in this challenging essay.

Pollock’s piece is a natural segue to the second section, entitled “Myth and Politics.” The three essays of this section deal in some way with the figure of Antigone, who continues to exert a powerful attraction for feminist scholars: Judith Butler’s Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), for example, has influenced several of the essays in this volume. Antigone is central to post-Freudian psychoanalysis, particularly the conflict between Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray whose own rebellion against the patriarchal hegemony of psychoanalysis is a cornerstone of contemporary feminist theory.

The section begins with Miriam Leonard (“Lacan, Irigaray, and Beyond: Antigones and the Politics of Psychoanalysis”) who continues Pollock’s musings on the possibilities that Antigone (rather than Oedipus) offers for psychoanalysis. In “Antigone and the Politics of Sisterhood,” Simon Goldhill reflects on the centrality of Antigone to influential feminist projects such as those of Irigaray and Butler, but wonders why feminism has all but written her sister, Ismene, out of the text. Goldhill poses a challenge to recent analyses of Sophocles’ tragedy by questioning why they privilege the relationship between brother and sister yet ignore Antigone’s treatment of her sister.

Katie Fleming’s “Fascism on Stage: Jean Anouilh’s Antigone” explores the production of Anouilh’s play both in terms of its historical context (France, 1944) and as a moment in the history of the reception of Sophocles’ play. Fleming’s subtle reading of Anouilh identifies the political significance of a pointedly deliberate departure from the Sophoclean version which produces a character that is “the barest characterization of meaningless refusal” (169) and thus contradicts the post-war reception of Sophocles’ heroine which includes her status as a feminist icon.

Part III “Myth and History,” features two essays. In “A Woman’s History of Warfare,” Ellen O’Gorman investigates how both ancient and modern military historians ignore women — a logical enough omission given women’s peripheral or non-existent role in making war. How can feminist historical revision deal with such exclusions? O’Gorman approaches this question by considering how historical narratives can use women as causes of war; the most obvious — and arguably the most complicated — example is that of Helen. In a careful analysis of how the texts of Homer’s Iliad and Euripides’ Trojan Women deal with Helen’s role as the “cause” of the war, this essay generates interesting questions about the fundamental meaning and articulation of causation. One of the most stimulating points in this paper is a reading of Helen’s self-deprecating remarks (e.g. Iliad 6.356) as a subversive critique not only of a war fought for a woman but of any war fought for any reason.

Gregory Staley’s excellent contribution, “Beyond Glorious Ocean: Feminism, Myth and America,” builds on Cixous’ characterization of woman as “the dark continent” to consider the conceptualization of America as feminine. The idea was facilitated by an impetus to find a colony of Amazons in accordance with Spanish Queen Isabella’s wishes; the concept has its genesis, however, in ancient constructions of the Other which situate the feminine and bizarre at the edges of the world. According to Gregory’s elegant analysis the tendency of 18th century American thought to disengage from ancient mythology can be seen as a parallel to feminism’s challenge to patriarchal ideology.

Part IV, “Myth and Science” starts off with a fine essay by Duncan Kennedy, “Atoms, Individuals, and Myths,” that draws parallels between the reductionism of sociobiology’s claim that human behavior is a product of our genes, and the atomistic theories of Lucretius; both are examples of hierarchical thinking that can be challenged by feminism. Allison Sharrock continues along this line by exploring how Lucretius’ De Rerum Naturae creates a tension between a scientific surface text — hard and real — and a feminine mythical subtext, which uses female personifications of abstractions. In a witty, perceptive analysis Sharrock focuses on an extended simile of a mother cow searching for her lost calf as a possible analog for the philosopher. Yet the atoms, points out Sharrock, the real agents of the poem are (despite their neuter grammatical gender), apparently male, or at least take on masculine roles such as soldiering.

The final piece in this triad by Genevieve Liveley (“Science Fictions and Cyber Myths: or Do Cyborgs Dream of Dolly the Sheep?”) employs one of the most popular tools of recent feminist analysis. The concept of cyberfeminism developed by Donna Haraway is a challenge to the ideological construction of the body as entirely natural, composed of living tissue, with a relatively standard collection of components (one head, two arms, etc.). Liveley uses this new approach to embodiment to consider ancient mythic automata, for example the robotic helpers created by Hephaestus in Iliad 18.417-21, and hybrid bodies such as the Centaurs. The essay offers an idealistic analysis of the revolutionary potential of cyborg bodies to redefine boundaries between self and other in contemporary thought.

Part V, “Myth and Poetry,” consists of four essays and a short piece of fiction. In “Putting Women back into the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women” Lillian Doherty offers an exciting possibility: that vestiges of a female narrative tradition are embedded in the Catalogue. Working with the premise that in many extant traditional cultures women have their own form of narrative that is often based on geneology, Doherty speculates that such a form of story telling might have existed in early Greece.

The next contribution is by Penny Murray (“Reclaiming the Muse”), an erudite comparison of the function of the Muse in ancient literature and in literature and art from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. This intriguing survey features a critique of the fetishized Muse figure (or “White Goddess”) of Robert Graves and culminates with a discussion of the role of Sappho as a Muse for contemporary women poets. Murray’s essay is complemented by Efi Spentzou’s “Helen in Modern Greek Poetry.” Spentzou evaluates how the compelling power of Helen has been kept alive by the veneration of male poets such as Angelos Sikelianos who wanted to lock her in a “mighty church.” This study provides insightful comments on how Helen’s poetic persona mutates according to the political changes that took place in twentieth century Greece. In her most recent metamorphosis Helen is constructed by female poetic voices in terms of loss and longing. The final essay by Rowena Fowler (“‘This Tart Fable’: Daphne and Apollo in Modern Women’s Poetry”) investigates how contemporary female poets have utilized the myth of Daphne’s metamorphosis as a symbol for the transformative processes of poetic composition.

The volume ends with a short piece of fiction, “Iphigeneia’s Wedding” by Elizabeth Cook, which seems to owe a lot to Euripides’ Iphigeneia at Aulis. According to the introduction it was specially commissioned for the volume, but instead of reflecting any of the themes or sophistication of the essays (perhaps it can be read in tandem with Sharrock’s discussion of Lucretius’ version of the myth) it seems out of kilter with the richly nuanced scholarship of this fine collection. On the other hand, the lines from Cook’s Achilles which appear on the first page of the introduction are a wonderful example of how a contemporary feminist poet can re-articulate the standard tropes of classical literature, in this case desire for Helen. It thus exemplifies the observations and conclusions of the contributors of the last section on the book.

In conclusion: this is an excellent compilation unified by a well defined concept which allows for a multiplicity of perspectives and disciplinary interests. Many of the authors (e.g. Liveley and Staley) convey a sense of passion and idealism in their analyses; all of the contributions demonstrate originality, creativity and erudition. This volume works so well because it reveals how the evolution of the Classical Tradition can be mapped so precisely onto one of the most significant intellectual movements of our new era.