That Stupid Pelt

Helen King

  • Medea: A Modern Retelling by Christa Wolf, translated by John Cullen
    Virago, 256 pp, £16.99, April 1998, ISBN 1 86049 480 3

Recent interpretations of Medea have tended to focus on issues of gender and race, portraying her either as a feminist challenging Jason’s misogyny, or as a freedom fighter on behalf of the oppressed Colchian immigrants in Corinth. In what remains the best-known version of her myth, the one created by Euripides in 431 BC, her actions turn out to be as violent and tyrannical as those of her oppressors, as she kills her own children in a quest for revenge. Modern productions have tried to provide a reading of the play that makes sense of her appalling crime.

The story of Medea, daughter of the King of Colchis, has a number of variants. In some versions, having fallen in love with Jason and used her magical powers to help him steal the Golden Fleece from her father, she murders her brother on the voyage from Colchis and scatters his dismembered corpse from the Argo in order to delay her pursuing father. Safely installed with Jason in Iolcus, she restores his father to youth and murders his uncle in revenge for the wrong he has done to Jason’s family. As a result, she and Jason are forced to flee to Corinth, where Jason spurns her for Creon’s daughter. Medea arranges the deaths of Creon and the princess, and finally kills her own children before fleeing, in a chariot drawn by dragons, to Athens, where she has been given asylum. In Euripides, the action takes place on her last day in Corinth; it culminates in the infanticide and her flight.

For the German novelist Christa Wolf, the Greeks are ‘our strange guests who are like ourselves’, but their philosophical dualism is also to blame for getting us into the fine mess which is 20th-century Europe. Wolf’s Kassandra was published in 1983 (and appeared in English a year later); Medea came out in German in 1996. Her aim is to confront ‘the corpse in the cellar’, as Germany comes to terms with its Nazi past, with its division after 1945 and its recent reunification, and with the presence in the country of immigrant communities. More generally, she is concerned with the way our reconstructions of the past act to suppress our knowledge of what has made us who we are. The ‘blind spot’ she detects in Western civilisation, the catalyst of moral breakdown, is the conflict between ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and the consent given by societies to judicial execution and war.

In both Kassandra and Medea, the unacceptable truth is that the political status quo is founded on the murder of children, a crime glamorised as ‘sacrifice’. Kassandra’s Troy put an end to the practice, but continued to abandon unwanted infants – is this really any different, if the end result is the same? Wolf’s Medea is innocent of the crimes of murdering her brother, and then her children; the murder of children turns out to be not the final gesture of the oppressed, but the cold, deliberate action of a ruling power under threat. Medea agrees to help Jason take the Golden Fleece only because she is desperate to leave her native Colchis after the murder of her brother, a murder seen as part of a revival of matriarchal practices which stipulate that a proxy must die in order to give the king another seven years of rule. Settling eventually in Corinth, she finds to her horror that this ‘gleaming city-state’, too, is founded on the death of children: the present ruler, King Creon, has permitted the sacrificial murder of his young daughter. Those involved in the murder, a crime committed out of a fear that she would replace him, have ‘forgotten’: ‘no lie is too obvious for the people to believe if it accommodates their secret wish to believe it.’ The dead girl’s sister, Glauce, has also ‘forgotten’, but only at the price of the terrible fits from which she now suffers. When the rulers of Corinth realise that Medea knows their secret, they cannot confront her with it for fear that it will become generally known, and are forced to find some other pretext for taking their revenge; so they accuse her of having murdered her brother before she left Colchis.

In Kassandra, it was clear from the first page that Wolf’s reworking of myth would not go so far as to allow the survival of the prophet who was fated never to be believed. There is no happy ending for Medea either. Corinth is stricken by plague and in the course of searching for a scapegoat, Medea saves a man who has been set upon by a female mob after cutting down a tree in the sacred grove. The man then accuses her of having been the leader of these women. Medea is banished, and forced to leave her children behind. Those who failed to speak out on her behalf are left wondering whether they could have saved her. Princess Glauce kills herself, but the Corinthians put about the story that Medea murdered her, too. Jason withdraws from public life. At court, new faces replace the old ones. In a final act of senseless violence, Medea’s children are stoned to death.

In contrast to Kassandra, which was told through the central character, Medea uses various ‘voices’, starting and ending with that of Medea herself. This allows a complex interplay between strongly individuated characters; although Medea’s former pupil in the healing arts, Agameda, is out to bring down her mistress, we accept her assessment of other characters, for example of Presbon, who has ‘the gift of self-deception’, and Akamas, who compensates for his ignorance of human nature by presenting himself as a just man. The voices give us six different analyses of the events leading to Medea’s downfall: taken together they leave the impression that the process could not have been halted.

Medea is difficult for the other characters to understand because she is not tied into the power games that dominate their lives. Her view of the past is different from theirs; she believes that ‘we can’t deal with the fragments of the past any way we like, piecing them together or ripping them apart just to suit our convenience.’ Here she expresses Wolf’s own understanding of history. Wolf sees feminist invocations of a historical period of matriarchy as a trap, because matriarchy has been a myth exploited by men. Medea’s father, the King of Colchis, supported those who looked to a past matriarchy because he saw it as a way of retaining power; Medea’s brother was killed as a result of a matriarchal understanding of the transmission of power (his rule for a day – before his murder by women who believed they were reviving the old customs – allowed his father to return as the ‘new’ king). Wolf’s 1983 account of her travels in Crete, in Conditions of a Narrative, reveals how her initial reactions of pleasure to Minoan palace art were subsequently tempered by an awareness that this apparently idyllic life was based on a rigid social hierarchy, slavery and human sacrifice.

In Medea’s Corinth, the present is quickly appropriated and reshaped into the version of the past accepted by the ruling élite. The heroic story of the Fleece becomes an irrelevance, and the Fleece itself – an utterly worthless item except when there is more than one political claimant to it – is soon abandoned, to moulder in Corinth. Jason had thought that his quest would make his reputation, but now even he calls the Fleece ‘that stupid pelt’, and although the Corinthians talk about ‘Jason the Hero’, they seem unable to connect the stories with the real man living in their city, while the deeds of the Argonauts are quickly forgotten – not least by Jason himself, who has tailored the story so many times for so many different audiences that he is now unable to recall just what happened.

Wolf’s Jason is a confused character: ‘there was a time when a man knew why he was in the world,’ he complains, ‘but those days are gone.’ He understands neither his wife nor his countrymen, and he knows it: ‘Too much for me, all these complicated hidden interconnections.’ We share his conviction that there was nothing he could have done to help Medea when she finally faced trial, because we already know that the Corinthians will believe whatever keeps their self-image intact.

Jason is also infuriatingly weak. He had hoped the Fleece would win him the throne at Iolcus, but he was wrong. Now he is hoping to inherit the throne in his uncle’s city of Corinth, since Creon has no male heir. To achieve his aim, he must be all things to all men. He has learned to read the subtle changes in the balance of power at court. He sees Medea as his weak point, forgetting that she was useful when he needed the Fleece. As to the nature of his desire, from the moment they met he was drawn not only to her beauty but to her physical otherness, her brown skin and frizzy hair. He finds the way she walks attractive: ‘Provocative, that’s the word. Most Colchian women walk like that.’ So everything becomes Medea’s fault: Jason cannot take responsibility for his actions. Nor can he understand her refusal to compromise. Desperate for acceptance, he follows protocols, says what the heir to the throne should say, and all the time rationalises his behaviour by claiming he is doing everything for the security of Medea and the children. By trying to accommodate too many demands, however, he loses sight of who he is. Like Agamemnon in Kassandra, for whom it is the ‘unutterable secret’, Jason suffers from sexual impotence, when confronted by Wolf’s strong female characters. Outwardly controlled, he hides his real feelings until his final, violent outburst against Medea, and against all women.

Central to the novel is the question of power and how human beings can respond to it. Many of the characters believe that, in a regime in crisis, survival depends on getting your enemy before he gets you – even when the enemy is your own child. But the more sympathetic characters, too, make their deals with the ruling powers. Medea’s friend Leukon, for example, sees the dangers, but falls back on the talent for ‘keeping silent and ducking out of the way’ that Medea so despises.

Another of Wolf’s preoccupations is reputation and the kind of concern for it that leads to the cultivation of a public image at variance with the ‘true’ self; those characters who worry most about saving face are the ones who most deeply misunderstand Medea, believing she is just like themselves. Medea refuses to compromise; she knows exactly who she is. She ‘screams when she’s angry, and laughs out loud when she’s happy’. The Cretan immigrants to Corinth make themselves invisible, and are forgotten, but Medea cannot do this, and her self-confidence is seen by the Corinthians as ‘arrogance’. She says of them: ‘as far as they’re concerned, a woman is wild if she has a mind of her own.’ For the Corinthians, Medea has become a stereotype; she is ‘the Wicked Witch’ or the ‘Beautiful Savage’. Individual players in the power game remake her for their own purposes. For the First Astronomer of Corinth, Akamas, Medea is convenient because she gives him an opportunity to prove that the justice he advertises as his most important virtue extends even to a barbarian.

Medea fails to realise how other people in Corinth are using her, and how many are watching her movements; or perhaps she does realise, but goes on being herself regardless. The other female characters in Medea, however, are no less susceptible than the men to the temptation to take on a persona that finally overwhelms them. In Kassandra, Polyxena responds to her father’s preference for her sister Kassandra by ‘getting down in the dirt, submitting to the unworthiest of men’ and agreeing to be sold to the enemy Achilles as part of a successful plot to kill him. Is she selflessly noble, saving the city at the cost of her own comfort? Or doing a ‘good’ thing for a ‘bad’ reason? Or simply following her chosen persona to its inevitable end?

Wolf has suggested that her role as a writer is comparable to that of healer, first identifying the wounds in an individual or society before moving on to treat them. In Conditions of a Narrative she wrote that ‘storytelling is humane and achieves humane effects, memory, sympathy, understanding.’ In Kassandra, healing was presented as a female role, above all in the character of Arisbe; and in this novel the witchcraft attributed by some writers to Medea becomes a knowledge of herbs, the power of touch and the ability to listen. But, in contrast to Kassandra, healing is not depicted as the exclusive province of women. Jason was trained as a healer by his tutor Cheiron, which was something that Medea found attractive about him, but he ‘forgets’ what he learned. Nor, in Medea, is the ability to heal necessarily a sign of a character’s ‘goodness’: Agameda sees it as a way to gain influence over people. Healing cannot be imposed, moreover, on those who do not want to be healed. When Medea forces Glauce to face the trauma which is the origin of her fits, by remembering the sacrifice of her sister, Glauce refuses to believe that Corinth ‘is a kind of slaughterhouse’, and prefers to cherish hopes of sharing the throne with Jason.

Medea also develops Wolf’s concern in Kassandra with language and its abuse. Murderers now call killing ‘sacrifice’ or ‘assassination’, while the Corinthians downplay Glauce’s terrible fits by referring to them as ‘dizzy spells’. Jason thinks there is only one right way to do things; and although he can be tolerant of the customs of other social groups, he fails to accept them as valid alternatives. But Medea insists that the meaning of what people do is not absolute, it depends ‘on the significance one gives to an action’. Thus when she throws the bones of her brother into the sea behind the departing ship – an act interpreted by others as a savage piece of magic – it is for her an appropriate interment of her brother and at the same time an explanation of why she felt she had to leave Colchis. Knowledge changes according to who holds power: plenty of Colchians know that Medea did not kill her brother, but ‘not all who knew would always know what they knew’.

Wolf would like to transcend the Greeks’ binary way of thinking, which both holds their world together and tears it apart. The Greeks in Kassandra oppose inflicting death to suffering it, but fail to see that there is a third alternative: living. When he was still in Colchis, Jason could see only two options, to submit to the trials he is set, as a condition of gaining the Fleece, or to sail away: ‘there didn’t seem to be a third possibility.’ But Medea offered him one: to deceive the King. A moment of discovery for Kassandra came when she realised that the enemy is ‘like us’; the same sky covers both Mycenae and Troy. This truth is not easy to face, above all when you are at war. ‘It is so much easier to say “Achilles the brute” than to say this “we”.’ Wolf’s Greeks demand direct sensory evidence before they will believe anything. In Kassandra, it is when the Trojans start to think like Greeks and believe what they ‘see’ rather than what they ‘know’, witnessing the apparent departure of the Greek army and the presence of the Trojan horse outside the city gates, that they are finally defeated.

Hearing, many years after the event, that her children were murdered after she went into exile, Medea replies: ‘Love is shattered, even pain stops. I am free.’ Wolf has said of writing that it is ‘an attempt to ward off the cold’: but it is only an attempt, and the cold is never far away from the reader of this cogent and impressive novel.