Wombiness

Mary Lefkowitz

  • In and Out of the Mind: Images of the Tragic Self by Ruth Padel
    Princeton, 210 pp, £18.00, July 1992, ISBN 0 691 07379 1
  • The Age of Grace: Charis in Early Greek Poetry by Bonnie MacLachlan
    Princeton, 192 pp, £21.50, August 1993, ISBN 0 691 06974 3

In Euripides’ drama Hippolytus (428 BC), when the women of Troezen learn that Phaedra, their queen, is ill, they wonder if she has been possessed by a god or whether her ‘soul’ has been bound to her bed by grief because her husband has found another woman. ‘An evil helplessness of labour pains and folly likes to dwell in the difficult composition of women,’ they conclude. ‘This breeze once rushed through my womb, and I called on the goddess Artemis, the heavenly one, who eases the pain of childbearing.’ This ‘breeze’ that attacks the womb from outside and causes labour pains is so foreign to modern ways of thinking that translators are forced to rephrase the passage, to suggest an internal condition. For example, David Grene, whose translation is used in most American universities: ‘My body, too, has felt this thrill of pain.’ After reading Ruth Padel, one would understand, even if one did not know a word of Greek, that the women of Troezen were describing Phaedra’s disease in the same language that ancient doctors used. Pain and passion are breathed into the body from outside; madness is a wind; apoplexy is caused by breaths.

For all its outward opacity, the human body was regarded by the early Greeks as infinitely penetrable, if not by wind, then by waves of passion, or streams of pleasure, or drops of poetic inspiration. The main target of these forces is the mind, the phrenes, which until the mid-fifth century, was thought to be located, along with the emotions, somewhere near the heart, in the centre of the chest, among the splanchna, or ‘innards’. The phrenes, were thought of as containers that could be filled with ideas, feeling and knowledge; if they were empty, or if the body somehow lost contact with them, the result was madness. This model of the mind and feelings produced vivid metaphors of emotional experience, often lost or obscured in modern translations: anger as a headwind into which the prow of the heart must sail, waves of black bile forcing tears from the eyes. Passion swells and rises; grief or lust, like heat, cause the body to melt. Anger is food on which the mind can feed itself.

If the mind and emotions are part of one’s innards, it follows that their emissions and excretions, like the body’s, can be beneficial or corrupting. Women’s bodies, according to this model, are by nature more likely to pollute than men’s, and Padel notes that wombs are sometimes described as bowels or intestines. This helps to explain why Greek men tended to distrust Greek women, and why the Greeks thought that the children of Earth included the goddess Night, and her daughters the cruel Furies, whose very breath polluted and whose eyes oozed repellent liquid. But impurity is by no means the sole explanation of women’s untrustworthiness. It is curious that Padel does not discuss the idea ancient doctors had of the womb becoming dislocated and pressing upon the phrenes, causing the hysteria, or ‘wombiness’, that made women like Phaedra behave erratically and irrationally. At the same time the Greeks seemed to like the notion of the phrenes (which are female) giving birth to good ideas. As Padel observes, in one of many interesting but frustratingly brief reflections on Greek myth, ‘the male Greek journey of knowing is bound to darkness, womanhood, coming from and returning to women.’ The Greeks thought that what destroys can also illuminate; the deadly Sirens have true knowledge. Knowing thus comes from an inherently female source, the dark interior of the body.

This is the model of the emotions to which we owe the notion of the separation of reason from passion, the idea that the human soul is as Plato brilliantly describes it in his dialogue Phaedrus, like a charioteer trying to control a chariot pulled by two horses, one good and one bad. The connection between destructive passion and animals is expressed in the earliest Greek texts. Passion bites; desire stings. Like a bird, the delusion that leads to destruction walks on human heads. Winged Madness swoops down and sinks into the heart of the hero Heracles, causing him to slaughter his wife and children. The Greeks regarded emotions as potentially dangerous and amoral, like the fire-breathing bulls or man-eating mares of the myths. They thought that the source of human destructiveness lay outside them and that emotions, like animals, were capable of conquest or manipulation by human beings. Padel also suggests that the use of animal metaphors to describe mental states may derive from a literal belief in the possibility that animals, or at least certain animals, have access to a kind of knowledge unavailable to human beings. In particular, animals that were able to move in ways different to humans were thought to have a direct connection to the gods. Snakes were regarded as messengers between gods and men. They represented the healing god Asclepius in his sanctuary; if a snake licked your eyes, you would be cured of blindness. The pattern of a flight of birds could be interpreted to predict the future.

The notion that knowledge is hidden in men’s (and women’s) innards helps to explain why the Greeks, in both art and literature, placed such importance on the eyes, the only openings in the body that allow the passage of light. It enables us to understand why the Athenians in their dramas and the Greeks in all their historical writing so rarely talk about a person’s inner motives, since they could not be seen, and hence could not be known. It also allows us to account for the significance of a curious ritual, which the Greeks borrowed from their neighbours in the Near East: the practice of removing the liver of sacrificial animals, and inspecting it to determine the future from its configuration, in which messages from the gods might be hidden.

A final chapter deals with the horrific madness that afflicts the principal characters in Greek epic and tragedy. Madness was personified in the goddesses Ate (‘delusion’) and Lyssa (from the same root as lykos, ‘wolf’, hence ‘animal madness’) who descended on people and attacked them, causing them to destroy themselves and those closest to them. In addition, there were the Furies, who appeared when the bond of a parent-child relationship was broken, or when any individual seemed in danger of stepping further outside himself or his normal sphere than the gods would allow. In tragedy the Furies represented not only the ghosts of murder victims but remembered injuries. These representatives of madness are described as dogs, who track and pursue their prey and lick up spilled blood. Eventually they enter their victim and drink from his innards the blood that represents his connection with the family that he has violated. It is not coincidental that tragedies were performed in the theatre of Dionysus. As Padel puts it, ‘his persona links extreme outer violence, murder, to extreme inner violence, madness.’ He is the god of illusion, of the distortions of perception that make evil seem good, and right wrong. His rituals celebrate all that is right in family relationships, hospitality, gathering in friendship, and also all that can go wrong with those relationships, instead of libations of wine on the ground, the spilling of human blood.

In and Out of the Mind proceeds almost as if by association, offering many interesting insights in the course of its whirlwind tour of Greek thought and feeling, but in such quick succession that it is hard to take them all in, particularly since Padel does not attempt to resolve the many contradictions that the Greeks themselves seemed to accept. As a result, her discussion raises almost as many questions as it answers. Did tragic performance, with its exits and entrances, mimic the opacity of the human body? And what about the doors of the theatre building, which opened only at the end of the play, when it was too late to change the course of the action? How can we know, in the absence of any secure information about audience reaction, what the Athenians would have thought about the meaning, for instance, of Aeschylus’ the Eumenides? Would the play have made Athenians aware during their ritual libations to Dionysus (Choes) that they were surrounded by polluting waste-matter (normally unseen), because of their ability, as family members, to bring grief to the persons with whom they were most closely connected? Other links between thought and deed which Padel suggests are so subtle and profound that one wonders whether the Greeks would have been aware of them.

Padel raises but does not seem able to resolve the question of whether individual writers consciously chose the metaphors that seem to us so striking, or whether they drew on them instinctively, as one would use a grammatical form. If the latter is the case, are they strictly metaphors, except in the sense that all words are metaphors for the things they represent? Finally, for all the singularity (at least in our terms) of their metaphors, were Greek notions of the mind so fundamentally different from ours, even in the post-Freudian era? Freud, as Padel observes, continually drew on Greek myth for his interpretations.

After brooding about the beleaguered tragic self, it is a relief to turn to a book that considers one of the ancient Greeks’ most attractive concepts, charis, the grace or pleasure that results from mutual exchange. Bonnie MacLachlan shows, with a light touch appropriate to her subject, that the term can be applied to almost all aspects of life. The standard farewell, chaire, means (in effect) ‘charis to you.’ An honorarium or tip is a form of charis; charis quite literally resides in an attractive young man, or in a grove of apple trees frequented by young women in love. It is the gift that praise poetry can bestow on human achievement, or that a cure can bring to someone suffering from disease. In and before the age of tragedy the goddesses who dispensed charis were worshipped and invoked by separate names: Brilliance (Aglaia), Joy (Euphrosyne) and Conviviality (Thalia). Only later were they lumped together in the anonymous and largely ornamental collectivity of the Three Graces.

Although nowadays manners are usually considered separate from morals, the Greeks rightly regarded the reciprocity of charis as a moral force, because it served as a glue that held society together. As such, it plays a major role even in the dark world of tragedy. In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon the old men of Argos complain that ‘somehow the charis of the gods comes with violence,’ since mortals must commit murder and suffer the consequences to enforce a justice that appears beautiful to the gods. MacLachlan suggests that it is this beauty, however unattainable, that attracts us, and leads us to believe human suffering will bring wisdom. Such hard-won wisdom will be of little benefit to many characters in tragedy, who die or suffer irreparable loss before they have an opportunity to learn. The only certain beneficiaries of tragedy are the audience: they will attain wisdom as a result of the suffering of others, and of the painful invasive learning processes portrayed on the stage.