Some thoughts on Homeric gender politics

Iliad

It’s almost too obvious to say that the Homeric epics are misogynist. What strikes me is how systematically misogynist they are, how they have to keep repressing a feminine element that always threatens to resurface. Sometimes it does, most dramatically when Hecuba bares her breast in an attempt to dissuade Hector from rejoining the battle, more mundanely when the soldiers chide each other for being womanly.

Every story that is, on the face of it, about the relationship between a man and a woman is displaced into a story about a rivalry between two men or about the loyalty between two men. The presenting issue in the Iliad combines both moves: Helen is induced to be unfaithful to her rather unimpressive husband, Menelaus, but this marital tension is displaced into a rivalry between Menelaus and Paris (abortively staged in Book 3) and then of course balloons into an international conflict lasting a decade. Achilles’ apparently sincere love for his war captive, Briseis, quickly becomes fodder for rivalry with Agamemnon. This does not explode into violence due to party loyalty, but Achilles can only join back into the captive after the death of his beloved comrade Patroclus (male loyalty) opens up a more serious male rivalry with Hector. That then sets up the uneasy truce between Achilles and Priam — where two men, united in their grief over men, call a temporary halt to the war started over a woman.

This aggressively homosocial gender politics may work in war, but it starts to fall apart when we turn back toward home in The Odyssey. And that incoherence is brought to a head in the figure of Penelope. On the one hand, Homer seems to be trying to set up some kind of tension through the constant reminders of Agamemnon’s fate — will Penelope really be faithful, or will Odysseus be betrayed? On the other hand, there are only two ways for a human woman to be: either utterly devoted and submissive or maliciously traitorous. (Helen shuttles back and forth, but at any given moment she is either one or the other.) At times this strains credulity, as when we learn how happy Briseis was at the prospect of becoming the lawfully wedded wife of her husband’s murderer, or what Penelope exults after Telemachus basically tells her to shut up because he’s the man.

There is no room for a woman who is seriously torn, though Penelope sometimes come close. Unable to give her a complex internal life, Homer instead puts her into a complex situation where she can’t be sure whether her husband is dead or alive. If we ask why she doesn’t simply tell the Suitors to leave, the simplest answer is probably that if she did that, she wouldn’t be a proper submissive woman — open wilfulness, even in the service of faithfulness to her husband, is breaking the rules. Her only weapon is passive-aggression, exemplified by the burial shroud trick.

In the later epic tradition, it is the women who start to get what we moderns would identify as a complex interior life — above all the impressive figures of Medea and Myrrha, who are faced with a genuine internal conflict (whether to betray her father for Jason and whether to seduce her own father, respectively). As for the men, we see profound depths of emotion — to a point that is almost comical from a modern perspective at times, or at least from the perspective of impatient student readers who are tired of all the crying — but never real depth of character. The price they pay for their relentless repression of the feminine is being stuck at the surface of things.

Memorization

I’m finally getting around to reading Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, and I’m finding it really exciting and helpful. Of particular interest is his emphasis on memorization as a form of intellectual emancipation. Thinking ahead to my Heidegger class for next year, it occurs to me that if I could get every student to memorize one important paragraph from Being and Time, they could conceivably wind up being ahead of a student who passed an exam on the best-ever lecture course in terms of actually understanding how to read Heidegger.

My colleague Aron Dunlap has suggested incorporating a memorization component into our literature class next semester, and while I was open to the idea before, now I’m positively intrigued. Have any of you incorporated memorization into your teaching, specifically of poetry? What were your experiences?

What depends on a red wheelbarrow?

Yesterday in class, we discussed a poem that is virtually obligatory for every introductory literature class: William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” For those who aren’t familiar, it goes as follows:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

The discussion in one section became very heated, in part because one student recalled a teacher who “spent an entire class on this because she hated it.” Ultimately, despite my efforts, a sense emerged that the poem was so vague as to be meaningless, or susceptible to whatever meaning one projected onto it.

Now it’s clear that there are many interpretations. Yet I have a simple one, which I advanced in class.

Read the rest of this entry »

Raw: A Poetic Journey

I  just found my copy of Raw: A Poetic Journey, which has yet another subtitle, Finding a Way From Conflict to Revelation, in my mailbox.  The book is edited by Amiee Saude Sims, features a foreword by Jennifer Knapp, and is published by the new press NuWine Press.  The book is a collection of poetry and reflections by LGBT Christians and their supporters.

My contribution is a poem and reflection of my Divinity School days, back at the University of Chicago, where I took a summer course with the University’s poet-in-residence, Alane Rollings.  The course was, I think, a typical creative writing course, and as a college course cross-listed as a graduate-level course in the summer, it had a bunch of high school kids in the class.  In fact, I think I was the only one who wasn’t a high schooler in the class.  Read the rest of this entry »

“Ecstasies before bunnies’ burrows”

In a certain way, I think the likes of Herman Herman — for whom “‘though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright” — might very well agree with the cynicism, much bemoaned & beloved, expressed by Michael Houellebecq about nature.

I have no time for those pompous imbeciles
Who go into ecstasies before bunnies’ burrows
Because nature is ugly, tedious and hostile;
It has no message to transmit to humans.

How pleasant, at the wheel of a powerful Mercedes,
To drive through solitary and grandiose places;
Subtly manipulating the gearstick.
You dominate the hills, the rivers, and all things.

The forests, so close, glitter in the sun
And seem to reflect ancient knowledges;
In the depths of their valleys must lie such marvels,
After a few hours you are taken in;

Leaving the car, the irritations begin;
You stumble into the middle of a repugnant mess,
An abject universe, deprived of all meaning
Made of stones and brambles, flies and snakes.

You miss the parking-lots and the smell of petrol,
The serene, gentle glint of the nickel counters;
It’s too late. It’s too cold. The night begins. The forest enfolds you in its cruel dream. (via Collapse IV)

Reading this today, I most immediately thought of Lewis Mumford’s wonderful bit comparing Ralph Waldo Emerson and Melville:

Emerson was the perpetual passenger who stayed below in bad weather, trusting that the captain would take care of the ship.  Melville was the sailor who climbed aloft, and knew that the captain was sometimes drunk and that the best of ships might go down.

Where the lesson of one such captain, Ahab, drunk with monomania if not drink, was that the “pasteboard mask” covering such truth might ultimately be there for a reason, and that one should strike through it with care; it seems to me that Houellebecq exemplifies one possibility of what becomes of us when there is no mask at all, when it, perhaps, has already been stricken.

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