Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Logic of Female Pollution

As the anthropologists say, “Every touch is a modified blow.” The difficulty presented by any instance of contact is that of violating a fixed boundary, transgressing a closed category where one does not belong. The ancient Greeks seem to have been even more sensitive than we [in the present day Western world] are to such transgressions and to the crucial importance of boundaries, both personal and extra personal, as guarantors of human order. Their society developed a complex cultural apparatus, including such rituals as supplication, hospitality, and gift-exchange, which historians and anthropologists are only recently coming to understand as mechanisms for defining and securing the boundaries of everything in the habitable world. Civilization is a function of boundaries.

In such a society, individuals who are regarded as especially lacking in control of their own boundaries, or as possessing special talents and opportunities for confounding the boundaries of others, evoke fear and controlling action from the rest of society. Women are so regarded by men in ancient Greek society, along with suppliants, strangers, guests, and other intruders. But the threat which women pose is not only greater in degree than that presented by other transgressors of boundaries; it is different in kind. “Let a man not clean his skin in water that a woman has washed in. For a hard penalty follows on that for a long time,” Hesiod advises (Op. 753-55). When we focus on Greek attitudes to and treatment of the female, we see anxiety about boundaries from a particular perspective—that of hygiene, physical and moral. Considerations of pollution, which do not noticeably predominate in other ruses of contact like gift-exchange or supplication, assert themselves when the crises of contact involve erotic relations between male and female. . . .

First, let us consider the logic of female pollution. . . .

We might note also that the so-called Pythagorean Table of Oppositions, cited by Aristotle, aligns “boundary” or “limit” on the same side as “masculine”: over against “the unbounded” and “feminine” on the other side

--Ann Carson, Men in the Off Hours, pages 130-33

1 comment:

J. K. Gayle said...

Aristotle observes by his dry, scientific logical agreement with Hippocrates that:

"female cold & wet, male hot & dry"