Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sexism Before Aristotle, and after

(quick update: on Aristotle's roles in sexism - given after the quotation by Euripides, below).

Last night, one of my daughters and I went to hear one of the women's history month lectures at the American Airlines C.R. Smith Museum. Researcher Ric Gillespie gave a presentation on his book, Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance, in which he provides evidence that challenges some of the conventional wisdom about what happened to the famous woman pilot. At the book signing, he was excited as my daughter told him her name, Amelia. So on the spot, he tells of being on the research ship near where he thinks Earhart breathed her last breath: "The crew and I were there on Amelia's birthday, and somebody had baked her a cake, and everybody wanted me to blow out the candles. 'I can't do that,' I said. So we all agreed that I should slide open the window and we all watched as the breeze came in gently then briskly and blew out those candles. 'Happy birthday, Amelia,' we all sang."

Sometimes history has to be told and retold. Sometimes it has to be relived, and the silent voices from the past have to be allowed to speak.

Here's the retelling of Helen by Euripides. He has to explain things very differently from how Greek and sexist men had been telling them for years. He has to let the actors perform the telling. And he allows, then, Helen to speak. You can go to wikipedia for the synopsis of this re-visioning. Or you can listen for yourself - performing it as you read it, in Greek or in English translation [mostly] by E. P. Coleridge. (I was interested in how open Helen's word τεῦχος "teuchos" is. Here the translator doesn't commit what Robert Altar calls the "heresy of explanation" which is so often the problems in the translations of the penta-teuch after the septuagint translation in Egypt. Coleridge has it "vessel" - not a closed canonical book of certain and singular interpretation but a cup or a vase or a pitcher which may be emptied and refilled and may also fill.)

φίλαι γυναῖκες, τίνι πότμῳ συνεζύγην;
ἆρ’ ἡ τεκοῦσά μ’ ἔτεκεν ἀνθρώποις τέρας;
γυνὴ γὰρ οὔθ’ Ἑλληνὶς οὔτε βάρβαρος
τεῦχος νεοσσῶν λευκὸν ἐκλοχεύεται,
ἐν ᾧ με Λήδαν φασὶν ἐκ Διὸς τεκεῖν.
τέρας γὰρ ὁ βίος καὶ τὰ πράγματ’ ἐστί μου,
τὰ μὲν δι’ Ἥραν, τὰ δὲ τὸ κάλλος αἴτιον.
εἴθ’ ἐξαλειφθεῖσ’ ὡς ἄγαλμ’ αὖθις πάλιν
αἴσχιον εἶδος ἔλαβον ἀντὶ τοῦ καλοῦ,
καὶ τὰς τύχας μὲν τὰς κακὰς ἃς νῦν ἔχω
Ἕλληνες ἐπελάθοντο, τὰς δὲ μὴ κακὰς
ἔσῳζον ὥσπερ τὰς κακὰς σῴζουσί μου.

Dear friends [fellow women], to what a fate am I yoked? Did my mother bear me as a wonder to mankind? [For no other woman, Hellene or barbarian, gives birth to a white vessel of chicks, in which they say Leda bore me to Zeus.] My life and all I do is a wonder, partly because of Hera, and partly my beauty is to blame. If only I could be rubbed out like a painting, and have again in turn a plainer form instead of beauty, and the Hellenes would have forgotten the evil fate that I now have, and would remember what part of my life is not evil, as they now remember what is.

(quick update: The title of this post plays on the title of a work by Richard Leo Enos, Greek Rhetoric Before Aristotle, which does a fantastic job of providing much evidence that Aristotle follows a rich tradition.

But Aristotle, in his own writings on the history of rhetoric, distorts history. This is well documented by Edward Schiappa in his work on logos and the anti-aristotelian Protagoras. [Schiappa goes on to show how Aristotle disparages the idealism of his own teacher Plato and the dialectic method of his teacher Socrates - as they all disparage the rhetoric of sophists.]

And Aristotle, in his own writings on males and females, distorts the facts about females. This is well documented by F. A. Wright, in his Feminism in Greek Literature from Homer to Aristotle. Wright begins to see that "Euripides and Plato are almost the only [male] authors who show any true appreciation of a woman's real qualities, and to Euripides and Plato, Aristotle, by the whole trend of his [sexist, bigoted] prejudices, was opposed."

So, I wanted to show that Euripides allows the male-disparaged Helen of the Hellenes to speak for herself. He was reworking some of the pre-Aristotle distortions of the history of this famous female.

And, I should add how much work the re-working of Aristotle's distortions that have to come after him must be. Cheryl Glenn, for instance, in her amazing Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance, talks about the various methodologies required saying [tongue in cheek vis a vis the crooked Aristotle] the following:
We must risk, then, getting the story crooked. We must look crookedly, a bit out of focus, into the various strands of meaning in a text in such a way as to make the categories, trends, and reliable identities of history a little less inevitable, less familiar. In short, we need to see beyond the familiar to the unfamiliar, to the unseen.
end of update)

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