Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Really Last Blog

Last night was to be my last and summary blog of the course, but this morning on NPR Chrysti the Wordsmith told the story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, explaining the origin of the word
hermaphrodite, to those who didn't know. I, of course, knew the WHOLE story....

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Summary of the Course

I enrolled in the course without any expectations that I would actually enjoy it - of all literature, classical held the least interest for me, but since either classical or biblical foundations are required, this seemed a little more interesting... I have to admit this really has been a worthwhile course, one I wish I had taken at the beginning of my literature courses, the way they encourage you to do in the catalog. But since I was more focused on Women's Studies, I took those classes and Literature courses were for my enjoyment. When I had to decide on a major, I had several literature classes, so I worked my way back to the basic courses. Classical Foundations would have helped in the upper level courses. But since I seem to have done everything a little late, as I have going back to school, I guess it has all worked out okay.

The Past Possesses the Present - I don't think any of us in class will ever forget that phrase...and
not just from a literary standpoint. Every time we read a newspaper (yes, some of us still do that in spite of the internet) we'll be hearing "You shouldn't be reading the Times, you should be reading the Eternities." Every time we watch a movie, we'll be looking for one of Steiner's five conflicts - men and women, age and youth, individual and state, living and dead, and gods and humans. I was reading out loud to my 11 year old - "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." Professor Dumbledore was talking to Harry about a fault of age - that you don't always remember what it is like to be young - youth isn't expected to have that understanding
since they haven't experienced age - but age has the responsibility to remember. From my own experience - parenting is an entirely different endeavor if you try to remember what YOU felt like when you were your child's age - and not just parent by the, "I'm older and I know better," but you know what, you don't always know better because of age, and you're not always right.

We had a good variety of texts, "Lysistrata" was a good balance for "Trojan Women" and Iphigenia at Aulis," and the film clips were a good visual aid, "Antigone" was a great example of all the conflicts, "Imaginary Life" was the perfect conclusion for "Ovid's Metamorphoses" using a contemporary author reaching back to Ovid. Another thing I especially enjoyed was looking at a different translation of what we were reading. I found that particularly helpful when reading "Antigone" and I had another copy that I read along with our class copy - a good example of how translations change with the times.

The group presentations have been great to watch, and I was very lucky with my group - since I drive over from Livingston each day, it really is difficult for me to do an evening or weekend meeting, my group was especially accommodating about that.

When I read an article about cattle rustling last week in the Livingston Enterprise, yes, I did think about Hermes, and even though I think a lot of Freud's theories are crap, sexist, etc., I have a better understanding of Oedipus complex, or at least where he got his ideas.

One idea I intend to look into further, is the similarities between classical myths and Christianity, how some of the "true" stories in the Bible might have, in fact, "borrowed" some ideas - especially virgin births and resurrection - I have been thinking about this since finding out the story of the flood is common in many religions, and then we saw it again in Ovid's creation story. When I have time...

Since I have managed to fulfill all my English courses and hadn't taken a course taught by Dr. Sexson until this one, I had asked several other students about his classes. Besides telling me he was a great professor and they had learned a lot in his courses, it was mentioned that he required some memorization, which is NOT my strong point. Thank you Dr. Sexson, that at least in this class there was no long memorization - I believe the shorter quotes will stay in my memory. The class was enlightening and entertaining - I enjoyed it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Little Background on Mentor and the Last Word of Homer's Odyssey

Mentor in Greek mythology - Odysseus's trusted counselor, under whose disguise Athena became the guardian and teacher of Telemachus.

WORD HISTORY - The word "mentor" is an example of the way in which the great works of literature live on without our knowing. We owe this word to the more heroic age of Homer, in whose "Odyssey" Mentor is the trusted friend of Odysseus left in charge of the household during Odysseus's absence. More important for our usage of the word "mentor," Athena disguised as Mentor guides Odysseus's son Telemachus in his search for his father.

I found this at:

The other word Dr. Sexson asked us to find was the last word of Homer's Odyssey. So I tried to find an online text of Odyssey, and this is the last line: "Then Athena assumed the form and voice of mentor, and presently made a covenant of peace between the two contending parties."
I found a couple of other translations, but they were similar, no dramatic last word.

But "parties" didn't seem like a great last word, so I went to several sites to see if there was anything more. I found this "Concluding Sonnet" from the Harvard Classics:

Homer, thy song men liken to the sea,
With every note of music in his tone,
With tides that wash the dim dominion
Of Hades, and light waves that laugh in glee
Around the isles enchanted; nay to me
Thy verse seems as the River of source unknown
That glasses Egypt's temples overthrown,
In his sky-nurtur'd stream, eternally.
No wiser we than men of heretofore
To find thy mystic fountains guarded fast;
Enough-thy flood makes green our human shore
As Nilus, Egypt, rolling down his vast,
His fertile waters, murmuring evermore
Of gods dethroned, and empires of the Past.

I found this at:

"Past" is a better last word than "parties." I look forward to Wednesday to see what it is.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sarah's presentation

Over the last year since Bear Stearns (sp) I've listened and watched with fascination as the greed in the stock market and big businesses has brought our economy close to ruin - deregulation and finally the Bush bailout with little oversight, and the taxpayers paying for CEOs to get their millions in bonuses. Sarah's comparison of Erisychthon greediness as he cut down the trees and his eventual devouring of himself - to America's greed and consumption was wonderful. It was thought-provoking and well-stated. As Erisychthon was not concerned about who his actions affected, it appears that those in control of wealth and power in this country have little concern for the "others," the workers, and those consumers who keep it all going by spending their dollars. This is really an exciting time in our country to see how this will all play out...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Death is the mother of beauty

I googled "Death is the mother of beauty" and got a lot of interesting websites. The one I believe is the most meaningful and connects the best with our class was really long, and had a few stories of people dying before his analysis of the quote. There are several classical allusions that allow me to make sense of his analysis, that I wouldn't have been able to as easily understand a few months ago. A great quote from the article:

"In a life without death and knowledge of death, what could stir our passions. Without the need to realize ourselves before we die, to cross the mountains or sail the sea...what would drive us to write poems or symphonies that amounted to more than repetitive celebrations of the unchanging boughs that Stevens imagined, hanging heavy in a perfect sky with ripe fruit that never falls? Why would we tell or listen to stories? How could we because in that paradise, without desire and hope and fear, there would be no stories, no beginnings, no endings, no past and no future-only a single, eternal enslaving moment beneath those boughs of fruit whose very sweetness would be dulled, if we could taste it at all, by the easeful death of our infinitely ongoing lives."

This might be the reason that people who get cancer have said it changed their lives in incredible ways, not just the fear of the disease itself, but with the realization of their own mortality, they appreciate each day in a way they hadn't before, and are thankful for each day. Or people that have lost someone they love and have gone through pain and suffering because of the loss, are able to appreciate the beauty and briefness of life as they hadn't before.

I think when you understand how uncertain life is, you have the opportunities to make your life richer. One morning when I was 16 I went to school, and my mother came to tell me that my father had died of a massive heart attack, no warning, no chances to apologize to him because I was a normal, self-centered, smart-mouthed teenager. I've chosen to live my life in such a way that I tell the people who matter most to me that they do matter. I tell my kids I love them, maybe give an extra hug or two - yet in a way I think it has made me a better parent, because as they've left home for college or marriage it's been easier to let go because I have said the things I wanted to along the way. They know they are important to me, and I know I am important to them. We continue with our lives knowing death is waiting in the sidewings and appreciate the beauty of life even more because of it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Classical Literature of the Phallocracy and Its Value in the Twenty-First Century

Yes, I'm the student who had concerns about the value of studying classical literature written by old, white men (it isn't the old part that bothers me as much as the white men). But I was intrigued by the readings with women as the central characters and especially interested in the motivations of the men who chose to use strong women in their stories, men from the phallocentric society of ancient Greece. I was not unfamiliar with the term phallocentric; anyone with an interest in women's history understands the concept, even if not familiar with the word. What I discovered was not surprising, but gave me a better understanding of how the past continues to possess the present.

Eva C. Keuls, in her book "Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Greece, gives a concise definition of phallocracy in ancient Greece: "a successful claim by a male elite to general power, buttressed by a display of the phallus less as an organ of union or mutual pleasure than as a kind of weapon: a spear or war club, and a scepter of sovereignty. In sexual terms, phallocracy takes such forms as rape, disregard of the sexual satisfaction of women, and access to the bodies of prostitutes...In the political sphere, it spells imperialism and patriarchy in civic affairs" (2). The ongoing wars for domination that were integral to our readings demonstrated the phallocracy's attitudes towards women that extended beyond times of war.

In "The Trojan Women," women were little more than prizes of war; they were raped, taken as concubines and slaves, and were subject to ownership of male victors. However distressing this might be, rape as a demonstration of violence, power and domination is portrayed closer to the truth in our society than how it used in Ovid's "Metamorphoses," where a beautiful woman is seen by a man who is so overcome by intense, overpowering passion that a natural outcome is his rape of her. In the twenty-four tales of Ovid that we read, five dealt with rape or coerced sex; it might be interesting to see what it is in the complete "Metamorphoses" tales. The idea of women complicit in their rapes because of how they look/dress continues to be a concern even in the present; rape as an act of power and aggression is a relatively new concept. Rape has nothing to do with passion, but with violence and power. In "Callisto and Arcas," Callisto is raped by Jove, and when Diana discovers Callisto's pregnancy, she banishes her - still a response to women who have been raped or unwed and pregnant in many present cultures.

"Antigone" has a strong female character and also gave us the conflicts important in drama, but the most interesting of these conflicts were the ones between Antigone and Creon. While Antigone's conflict dealt with the individual and the state as well as mortals and gods, Creon appeared to be more concerned with the man/woman conflict in a very particular way. Creon's anger over someone disobeying his edict to leave Polyneices unburied is greatly intensified when he learns it is a female who has disobeyed him. In his first response to learning it is Antigone he says, "Listen, if she's not punished for taking the upper hand,/ Then I am not a man. She would be a man!" (484-5), and "As long as I live, I will not be ruled by a woman!" (525). In his conversation with Haemon he is especially angry that his son would make excuses for Antigone, "And there must be no surrender to a woman./ No! If we fall, better a man should take us down./ Never say a woman bested us!" (678-80). This man was much more concerned about the sex of the miscreant than the actual disobeying of his orders.

So the question; was Sophocles telling the story of a strong woman because women were beginning to challenge male power and authority? Because of Antigone's strong convictions and her willingness to die because of the injustice of leaving Polyneices unburied, she has been viewed as a heroine. But Sophocles based "Antigone" on Theban myths of the rulers of Thebes, and it is more likely he was commenting on authoritarian rule and the status of females in society.

"Lysistrata" was a fun story, with yet another strong female character. Aristophanes wrote "Lysistrata" when the Peloponessian War had been going on for twenty years; he addresses the serious issue of the loss of male lives which was affecting how society functioned. If women had any power, it might be within the walls of the bedroom, yet Aristophanes does bring up the possibility of the women being forced or beaten if they don't submit willingly to their husbands/lovers. Was Aristophanes an early feminist giving women power over their own lives and able to change or control their country's actions in the story? We have to remember "Lysistrata" brought the serious issue of war to the stage, and by using the comedic story of women successfully ending the war, Aristophanes might have hoped he could influence men to rethink their actions. The loss of men meant fewer marriages, fewer children being born, and a weaker society. An interesting note; although the story has survived the centuries, Aristophanes did not win any prizes for it when it was performed, so we have no idea how well the story of a strong, successful woman was received. For some, the idea of women accomplishing what men can not continues to be a reason for laughter.

Sarah Ruden made an interesting point in her essay "Athenian Women" that might suggest a possibility of how women were viewed by the phallocracy, "Ancient Greek homosexuality was in part a signal of the opinion that women were not fully human and therefore not fit to mate with" (Ruden 104). I won't venture an explanation of reasons for homosexuality in the present, but Ruden's statement certainly fits the conversation in Plato's "Symposium." Phaedrus states that the highest type of love is between virtuous men and youths; a nation or army made up of such men would be invincible. Pausanias talks of common love as being of the body, of male and female parentage, whereas heavenly love was born of male parentage and seeks the male as the more valiant and intelligent being. Socrates says Diotima has explained to him that immortality and creativity is what all men seek; male/female creation creation only produces a child, but male creativity produces art, wisdom, and virtue, and is more preferable than children.

The plight of females as possessions given as sacrifices is illustrated in Euripides's "Iphigenia at Aulis." When Iphigenia first learns of her father's intent to sacrifice her she mourns, but when Achilles enters the scene and says he will fight for her she comes to her senses and says, "It is not right that a man come to blows with all the Argives and die for a woman's sake. One man is worthier to look upon the light than ten thousand women" (348). By the end of the story Iphigenia does what any obedient female would do; she sacrifices herself for her father and fatherland. Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz says in "Anxiety Veiled," the text supports the sexual hierarchy and the continued passivity of women even while representing aggressive females" (2), she sees two sacrifices being enacted, one is granting freedom and glory to the sacrificial victim - "the apparent voluntary nature of these sacrifices obscures and mystifies what is at stake: the exchange of young women and her staging the spectacle of women willingly sacrificing themselves, Euripides reinscribes the sacrifice and does considerable cultural work...if women choose self-sacrifice they have no one to blame but themselves. Second, she shores up the status quo. By praising the youthful female figure Euripides has a cultural effect on the men, who are reassured that this separate and independent "other" can be, even wants to be, used by and for men" (38). This appears a more reasonable explanation of Euripides's motive in writing Iphigenia, than that he believed in, and wrote, a heroine. I doubt the men writing these women were making a case for allowing them autonomy or power within their cultures. And in the belief that what is past possesses the present, in many ways circumstances have changed for women within our society, but remain distressingly the same in other cultures.

This paper has written itself since the beginning of the course. Since my personal interest is concentrated on women in history and literature, I felt compelled to try to discover the realities of these women, and the men who wrote them. Unfortunately since history was written by men, most theories are based on what little information is available about women's lives. My own interest aside, I found I've gained a greater appreciation for literary history. In earlier literature courses, I was often distressed when reading a text, having to stop and read footnotes, and if no explanation was available, I knew I was missing some information that would enhance my understanding. This brief course won't erase my ignorance completely, but I have a little better understanding of at least some allusions to classical literature. A quote I read reflects what Dr. Sexson told the class early in the semester, and was reinforced with each of our readings. Just substitute "person" for "man" in the quote, "Every book from which you can get new interests and ideas is alive, although it was written many centuries ago. To realize that is to open a broader universe to your own mind. The difference between an educated man and an uneducated man is that the uneducated man lives only for the moment, reading his newspaper and watching the latest moving-picture, while the educated man lives in a far wider present, that vital eternity in which the psalms of David, and the plays of Shakespeare, the epistles of Paul and the dialogues of Plato speak with the same charm and power that made them immortal the instant they were written" (Highet 545).

To varying degrees each student finishing this or any other course recognizes and appreciates what has come before, and has a better understanding of the world they inhabit. That recognition is our first step out of ignorance.

Sources Cited
Highet, Gilbert. "The Classical Tradition: Greek & Roman Influences on Western Literature.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1949.
Keuls, Eva Co. "The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens." Berkely: University
of California Press, 1985.
Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin. "Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic in Women." Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1993.
Ruden, Sarah. "Athenian Women." "Aristophanes: Lysistrata." Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing
Co. Inc, 2003. 98-109.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Friday's presentations

Allthe presentations were good - a couple in particular made me really think. Brian talked about Pinocchio - the stage of growing - acquiring ass's ears - everyone going through that stage, and literature moving in a circle. I appreciated Dr. Sexson's comment during Wednesday's class - that we started with Demeter in the Homeric Hymns and will end the course coming full circle. I think that is what I have enjoyed the most about my education - when very different classes talk about the same thing - like learning about Pythagoras in a philosophy, communication, literature, and math class, maybe all in a little different way, but still connecting the knowledge gained in each course.

Zack's presentation reasonated the most with how I learn - he spoke of connecting the past to the present through emotions at a deeper level. That might be why we learn certain things the way we do - that it strikes a deeper chord than just "hearing" something - that feeling it, or being inspired by it causes us to retain a stronger memory of something we have learned. Maybe that explains the feeling of deja vu or that we have been here before.