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.

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