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Thursday, May 10, 2007

death in the eyes

J. P. Vernant’s essay, Death in the eyes: Gorgo, figure of the other (doesn’t that subtitle sound like it was filmed by Roger Corman?) begins resoundingly, like this:

‘Why study Gorgo? The reason is that for a historian, and a historian of religion in particular, the problem of alterity or ‘otherness’ in ancient Greece cannot be limited to the representation the Greeks made of others, of all those whom, for the purposes of reflection, they ranked under different heading in the category of difference, and whose representations always appear deformed because these figures – barbarian, slave, stranger, youth, and woman – are always constructed with refernce to the same model: the adult male citizen. We must also investigate what could be called extreme alterity and sk about the ways in which the ancients attempted to give a form in their religious universe to this experience of the absolute other. The issue is no longer one of a human being who is different from a Greek, but what, by comparison to a human being, is revealed as radical difference: instead of an other person, the other of the person.

Such, we think, were the sense and function of this strange sacred Power that operates through the mask, that has no other form than the mask, and that is presented entirely as a mask: Gorgo.” – translated by Froma I. Zeitlin.



If Casaubon in Middlemarch, his “small taper of learned theory exploring the tossed ruins of the world”, had begun his “key to the mythologies” on this note, Dorothea’s confidence in him might not have completely collapsed. Or is it just that the Victorians, peering at the Greeks, saw a ruddy imperialist power that surely would have subdued the Hindoo – and we see sex?

Vernant’s essay, having proposed such a bold plan, touches on the elements we have looked at in previous posts. Vernant’s notion is Freudian, but it is difficult to read much about the Greeks without thinking of Freud. The notion is of the genital mask: as in the figurine of Baubo we introduced in the post before last, the face and the genitals are combined to form the visual joke that Demeter found so funny. It is a punchline. But underneath the comedy of the genital mask there is a horror of the inhuman, the other who is not a person. For Vernant, one of the messages in the picture of Athene blowing out her cheeks to blow on the flute is that there passes over the very face of reason the genital mask, the horrible likeness.


“But among all the musical instruments, the flute, because of its sounds, melody, and the manner in which it is played, is the one to which the Gorgon’s mask is most related. The art of the flute – the instrument itself, the way it is used, and the melody one extracts from it – was ‘invented’ by Athena to ‘simulate’ the shrill sounds she had heard escaping from the mouths of the Gorgons and their snakes. In order to imitate them, she made the song of the flute ‘which combines all sounds”… Pindar, Pyth 12.1). But the risk inplaying the role of the shrieking Gorgon is actually to become one – all the more so as this mimesis is not mere imitation but an authentic ‘mime,’ a way of getting inside the skin of the character one imitates, of donning his or her mask. The story is told that Athena, wholly absorbed in blowing into the flute, did not heed the warning of the satyr, Marsyas, who, when he saw her with distended mouth, puffed out cheeks, and a face wholly distorted by the effort of getting a sound from the flute, said to her: The ways do not become you.”

Of course, Vernant’s interpretation, here, references Freud’s interpretation of Medusa. The thing is, Vernant comes to this interpretation not through Freud, but through a track laid down in Greek history and literature itself. If there is one thing all the philosophers seemed to be wary of, it is the flute. It is easy to make the correspondence between the constant denunciation of the excitement caused by the flute and, say, the denunciation of rock n roll as a degenerate music in the fifties. But there is an element left out – the iconography of flute playing. Aristotle’s reading of Athena throwing away the flute too hastily passes over what, exactly, is so ugly about puffing out one’s cheeks. As well as what the mouth to pipe picture is all about.

Perhaps the key to all the mythologies is the conjunction, at the bottom of the world, of misogyny and xenophobia – or the reason that patriarchy is such a good framework within which to grow racism. After all, the conjunction of those two things is structural, not logical. There’s no logical necessity that patriarchy should be especially racist.

7 comments:

amie said...

LI, very suggestive posts! one of the threads that seems well worth unraveling is that of mimesis, music, and the feminine (the maternal), but I'm certainly not up
to trying to do so in a comment!

But re the mask: is not the question whether peeling off the masks, and there is always more than one, reveals a full presence -- ever. Or rather (un)covers a gap: the open mouth (in laughter), the female sex...

In other words, there is no undivided pure origin, there is (only!) the myth of origin, the origin is (a) myth.

The origin/myth of Athens - that cradle of civilization and of western man - is quite edifying.

Hephaistos has the hots for Athena who prefers to be a virgin (parthenos), but hey this don't stop the good Hep (in the latin tradition the dude is known as Vulcan and is the God of forges, the instruments of war, and ugly to boot), who when refused by her can't contain himself and ejaculates, his sperm falling on her leg, which she wipes off and throws to the earth. And lo! from this unconsummated act is born Erichthonios, from whom the Athenians trace their origin. The Athenians as such are auto-chtone, literally "born from the earth", without needing women for this birth. Well, not all Athenians, only the males. Another "genesis" will be necessary for the "race of women" (genos gunaikon). This happens with Pandora...
Pandora whose name means "who receives all the gifts" or "who is a gift for everyone". But what a gift eh, as she is the one who opens the "box" and is thus the "divine punishment" on men by the Gods.
And then there is the question of naming the City. The guys prefer Poseidon, the gals Athens, and with the deciding 'vote' of Athena the gals get their way, the city will be called Athens, but one in which the women are not citizens and cannot vote...

roger said...

Amie, you remind me of this bit in that New Yorker article, The Interpreter, about the Piraha language, which was thrown out in passing:

"Also confounding was the tonal nature of the language: the meanings of words depend on changes in pitch. (The words for "friend" and "enemy" differ only in the pitch of a single syllable.) The Heinrichses' task was further complicated because Pirahã, like a few other Amazonian tongues, has male and female versions: the women use one fewer consonant than the men do."

I found that pretty wild, especially thinking of song culture, with its strong division between the pitches of men and women. I mean, one wonders what the women of athens, gathered together at one of Demeter's festivals, said about stories like that of Hephaistos - but then again, gathered together at Christmas, we swallow the virgin birth and the difficulty, to say the least, of Mary's hymen being perforated from inside out without really thinking about it.
Speaking of semen - I was going to continue this series with a consideration of Page Dubois' essay on dildos in Ancient Greece, but... I decided I wouldn't go there.

roger said...

Oops - what was I trying to say there? That was a string of nonsequitors! Sorry, Amie. I think I'm a little burnt out today. I got up too early!

Anyway, I think my point was about gender separation - re the story of Haphaestos - that nevertheless has to supplement itself (Hop and Rousseau, man) with the fantasy, at least, of sexual non-separation. But that overall point got lost somewhere in the brief space of four or five sentences! There's nothing worse for a writer than absent mindedly losing the topic...
Oh well, and so to bed...

amie said...

LI, yes, the supplement of "the" origin would be the question, to say nothing of the prosthesis, so hey maybe you could reconsider and get to Page Dubois' essay on dildos in Ancient Greece.

But today I was thinking about this with reference to Foucault. (Btw, let me just say, I appreciated your post on Mr.Scull's review of Histoire de la Folie. It was a lesson to me in terms of doing a little research into the expertise of soi-disant experts. Why doesn't one, rather than bowing to their authority?)

Anyway, I was thinking of Foucault's noting the difference between the "treatment" of "dangerous others" in antiquity and modernity. (To be honest, I haven't gone looking for all the references yet, but if memory serves, he notes this more than once and not only in Histoire.)

The difference is almost too apparent and clear-cut: "externement' in ancient societies, "internement" or "enfermement" in the modern.

As you know, the singular exception of the "mad" is that even when the "economic" pressures of work and productivity meant that many of the "dangerous others" were released from prisons to be cogs in the treadmill of production, the mad were not. They were a limit-test for the treadmill of production, and treated as such by the "doctors".
The Greeks may not have been big on prisons but they had no prob in banishing and exiling, but there was an exception: women. And this "privilige" is because the economy and generation of the 'warrior-race" would have a damn prob (re)producing itself without . So women are this dangerous other, the strange, the foreign, the impure supplement in the very intimacy of the interior, of the proper. Which is pretty much what happens today...

roger said...

I didn't know that about the exception of women in the polis, Amie. Hmm.

You know, I was thinking that madness is, on the one hand, a very plain thing - I go into the library, some poor bugeyed soul approaches me to tell me what he's been hearing, and I go: you are mad. On the other hand, all of it is also at large as the sanest behavior. The Greeks with their slaves and their incredible tortures and deaths. The whole early modern period, where the sane got jobs as, say, slave traders. In Saint Domingue, in the eighteenth century, a slave could be punished for having eaten some sugarcane by being forced to work with a metal cage fastened to his head - an ingenious torture for a hot climate, among bugs. Now, a sane craftsman made the cage, a sane overseer puts it on the man's head, a sane plantation manager made the rules, a sane owner gets the money. I believe they were sane. But what good was all that sanity?

So, re the exclusion/confinement change. Edward Shorter, who hates Foucault, made an interesting suggestion about confinement in his History of Psychiatry - that households got too 'sensitive' for the insane. As the household members get softer towards each other - a big theme of Shorter's - as the moeurs, so to speak, amolisse - the irritability increases, too. I think women, who always get the short end of the stick, were the caregivers for the mad kept at home. I can't remember - did Rochester have a servant to take care of his wife?

Which doesn't answer the question about the greeks. The more I read about the status of women in Greek culture, the more uncertain I am that I exactly understand it. But I think you are right about the economics.

roger said...

ps - one other thing about Foucault which I've thought about, which is related to my above comment. Often, as in the Scull review, one reads that Foucault romanticized insanity, and this is why he pisses people off. I don't believe that. I believe he pisses people off because he refuses to romanticize sanity. He refuses the unspoken agreement, among men of good will, that we are all sane here. He refuses to see the dreadful networks of death and destruction, the dreadful vacuous boredom that consists of fear of boredom on the one side and the prisons on the other, as collectively sane, and you just don't make those noises in the club. The biggest and most consistant romanticizers are, after all, those who find the position they live in, all the amenities, the distant violence and the vicarious pleasures, the whole goddamn ball of wax, as something completely normal. What a crock that is. Foucault had an unrelenting grip on that thing.

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