The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
9.1 (Winter 2009)
academe in crisis
Medea’s Stepsisters: The Toxic Alchemy of Feminism, Self-Esteem, Ignorance, and Youth
John R. Harris
I. The Fascist Female Athlete
I had intended to pour myself into an essay on Vergil’s Aeneid during Christmas break, and I yet have hopes of preparing that essay for a later edition of this journal. My attention and energy were undermined, however, as a particularly grueling semester staggered to an end. My World Literature survey class has always been a source of special pride to me. I read excerpts from the original language to my undergraduates as we address Homer, Euripides, Vergil, Marie de France, Dante, and sometimes parts of the Welsh Mabinogion or wild Middle Irish sagas like the Forbhais Droma Dámhgáire. I circulate a condensed three-part description of the textual and cultural differences most readily noted between oral-traditional, transitional, and literate authorship, strained from years of research and observation. I propose comparative essay topics on the basic principle that texts seemingly unalike should be analyzed with a view to uncovering deep similarities, and that those seemingly very alike should be scrutinized to reveal profound differences. To contrast the Iliad with the Odyssey is more provocative and challenging than to compare the two: to compare the moral philosophy of the Aeneid and the Bhagavad-Gita leads to deeper insights than the obvious contrasts can reach. Naturally, the underlying assumption of all such projects must be that human cultures display similar habits, tastes, and values when at approximately the same stage of evolution from the oral to the literate. This turns out to be a remarkably solid assumption, though traditions will probably not follow similar stages where the technology of keeping records greatly varies. India and China, for instance, can manifest highly literate habits of thought among the educated elite for long periods without indicating much change from a folklore/romance style of story-telling among the quasi-literate middle classes. The “transitional” has a lot of staying power when writing systems are immensely more complicated than the European alphabetic model.
In short, there is much to excite the professor’s intellect in such a class, even if he has taught it every semester for years—and a professor’s excitement can often be contagious. I used to take almost for granted the number of students who would very sincerely speak or write to me about how much the class had opened their eyes by semester’s end. Lately, though, the numbers of the grateful have declined… or so it seems. Maybe the number of complainants has simply soared. Perhaps a decade ago, I had my first encounter with the kind of student who does not appreciate hearing the sound of Homer’s hexameters because he cannot understand them. Of course, I never expected that most students could do so; I rightly assumed, rather, that many would be fascinated by the mere rhythm of Greek epic verse. This fall, the yawns and mutters were especially audible—and they originated universally from a certain “gang” of girls. I became further aware of a “female problem” when, having offered the class a range of about two dozen essays upon which to write the first essay, every member of the “gang” chose the comparison of Euripides’s Medea with Vergil’s Dido. This was one of a few topics I had specially designed to accommodate a growing interest in “women’s issues”, little suspecting as I did so that I would be suborning idiocy. With utter disregard for my instructions, the gang of about a half dozen gave me as many essays which treated Medea and Dido as a couple of troubled dorm-mates or the latest drama queens of CNN’s headlines. No effort was made in any of the submissions to arrive at the author’s view of human nature or of the cosmos by analyzing his tragic female creation. Rather, the two characters were taken fully and only at face value. Medea’s mythic ties to the sun-god Helios were ignored, as was the possibility of her representing a psychic element in conjunction with Jason and Kreon (in anticipation of the Platonic/Aristotelian three-part division). Dido’s connection to a pastoral Arcadia before Aeneas’s arrival places her in the originally Edenic position of several male characters in the epic (Acestes, Evander and Pallas, Turnus), and the Juno/Venus conspiracy to forge a bond between her and the wayfaring Trojan must also signal that her sad tale is somehow allegorical to Vergil. Yet, again, such hints, broadcast early and often in class, were ignored. These two women were both wronged by men, and they both refused to take their abuse quietly: parameters fixed, horizon sealed, case closed. Opinion within The Gang differed as to whether Medea was the worse of the two for slaying her children or the better for striking out at the male world aggressively. That Dido had “caved in” by allowing herself to be driven to suicide by a man was not seriously questioned.
By this time, I had begun to recollect the wise words in Thomas Bertonneau’s piece for Praesidium 8.3 (Summer, 2008), “The Vanishing Cultivated Girl and her Replacement: From Reading Novels to Talking Trash on Campus”. I must add a few details about The Gang. All were members of the girls’ soccer team, with the exception of a softball star whom they had enlisted into their posse. Such bands are not uncommon on college campuses, among either gender. If one of the group fails to read an assignment, another can fill him or her in just before class. If only one has fully read an assignment, the others can parasitize off of her answers during a quiz or test. If a paper is assigned, then all put their vacuous heads together in the optimistic hope of finding collective contents sufficient to fill one thoughtful essay (the suspicion never having overtaken them, apparently, that the professor might still remember Essay # 12 as he reads Essay # 19). Obviously, my Medea/Dido polemicists had relied upon such a collaboration rather than listening to any of my lectures, consulting any of my handouts, or participating in any class discussion.
How could they have listened? Their whispered chatter was incessant. Students around them had begged me to bring them under control; and, when my appeals early in the semester—addressed indiscriminately to the whole class of fifty so as not to humiliate a select few—quickly proved inadequate, these more earnest students sometimes took rebuke upon themselves. At that point, of course, I myself felt deeply humiliated; yet I enjoyed the vain satisfaction of observing that brusque upbraiding from indignant classmates had no more effect upon The Gang than my own polite exhortations. The Gang was “in your face”. I could rivet its murmuring members with my stare and they would stare right back, murmuring all the while: I could stop talking entirely as I stared, and their lips would still flutter as they slouched toward each other on elbows. If a really public-spirited but also muscularly endowed basketball player had leapt up and smacked one of them (for the girls’ basketball team, inexplicably, has always produced model students in my experience), The Gang would probably have mobbed and assaulted this stalwart. Words like “punk” and “thug” came to mind as I pondered the members in their cotton warm-ups or sleek polyester windbreakers, the very clothes on their backs advertising that they considered class to be an interruption of their time on the playing field. And the word “fascist” also occurred to me—images of young fascists tripping or sucker-punching pedestrians who looked Jewish or homosexual on the streets of Paris and Berlin in the early thirties.
This is not a type, to be sure, which appears explicitly in Professor Bertonneau’s taxonomy. Yet he implies its existence. The ostentatious rudeness, the sullen reception of lower than perfect scores, the overweening confidence that personal resources should more than suffice to replace tutelage contemptuously refused… such behaviors were much in evidence throughout my long semester. Gang members would typically saunter in en masse five minutes after I had started class. They would come and go at will during sessions, presumably to the restroom, as one might leave for more popcorn during a movie. Indeed, on the occasion when I was showing a video of selected scenes from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, one of the bunch thumbed noisily through her math book at the critical juncture where Isabella rejects Angelo’s wicked advances, then strolled from class with a cell phone to her ear as Isabel was vainly seeking solace from her imprisoned brother. (I have no doubt that this exit was intended to ensure the call’s privacy rather than to spare us its distraction.) Some of The Gang would doze off as the mood took them; some would deposit their big feet in empty desks around them; one would routinely import a large cinnamon roll from the downstairs diner and spend half the period consuming it. The First Essays to which I referred above were mostly stamped with 75s—i.e., they were utterly average, neither lacking in thought and coherence nor possessing any profundity whatever. As fingers everywhere reached instantly for final pages and the grades contained thereon, a Gang member piped up in a Medea-like burst of divine fury, so that the entire class could hear, “This is gay!”
Upon examination, then, nothing in my sample may be found to disagree with the elements of Professor Bertonneau’s except that my group had a connection to school athletics. With those who would argue that this in itself accounts for the boorishness, I must strongly remonstrate. Male athletes are a mixed bag. Some can be quite bright, while others are indeed very poorly focused on their studies. I have already conceded that parasitizing and cheating proliferate when teammates become classmates, and that gender does not seem to me to influence the probability of these behaviors. Another section of the same World Literature class this past semester was infiltrated by a cell of male soccer players—and they turned out to be among the most subtle and successful cheaters I have ever not seen! They were also, however, punctiliously polite. I cannot recall a single instance, at any point in my career, of a male athlete’s browbeating me over a grade, sarcastically challenging me in class, refusing to quiet down once I dealt him a stare, or otherwise treating me as though I were employed to empty trash cans at his heels—nor would most of them, I think, have treated the trash man in such a way. I have also emphasized above that female basketball players have displayed the same good manners in my experience (uncompromised, I hasten to note, by any tendency to cheat). To their ranks, I might add female golfers and tennis-players.
Why soccer, than, and why softball? Surely the answer is that these two are much the latest women’s team sports to be somewhat thrust into public prominence by an aggressive interpretation of Title IX. Young women have played basketball in high school, if not college, for decades. The exploits of the American women’s soccer team in recent Olympic Games, by contrast, have been appropriated as a vehicle to advance the “anything you can do, I can do, too” doctrine. Softball bears a banner little less long and bright. ESPN actually carries the collegiate Softball World Series more or less concurrently now with its very lucrative coverage of the male College World Series. Women who engage in these sports at the college level, therefore, receive strong and steady doses of “gender pride” the way minor league pitchers used to receive steroids—but far more openly. The team atmosphere must count for something, as well. Tennis is scarcely a game in which being “pumped up” gives no advantage; yet the Dionysiac element is nevertheless negligible, since the “psyching up” is intimately private—more on the order of a karate master’s concentration techniques than a football player’s pep rally. The young women I have in mind believe “passionately” (i.e., irrationally, frenziedly, and immovably) in their superiority as women to every possible situation.
This, I submit, fully closes the connection with the type of disruptive, destructive coed autopsied by Dr. Bertonneau. Indeed, I would argue that my swaggering squad of athletes, proudly bearing quasi-fascist insignias on their clothing as they idolize She Who Gets Even in a complex mythical figure, belong a fortiori to the category of the New Woman revved up on feminism.
II. The Creation of History Ex Nihilo
After the relative failure of the First Essays (that is, after their success at achieving utter mediocrity), some Gang members exhibited a new sullenness in tandem with their general insouciance. One, in particular, interrupted a discussion of textual matters wholly unconnected to her simmering grievance (an impropriety which she would not have noticed, of course) to protest that my criteria for grading essays were not at all what I claimed them to be—that I was hoodwinking the class, in effect. She had written her opinion on all three of her essays, she pursued indignantly, and I had graded her down in every case. The teachers among my readers will know that you cannot very well forge ahead with a busy day’s agenda at these times, having simply advised the plaintiff, “You need to see me in my office if you have questions about a paper’s grading.” The air has already been fouled at such times, and the observation that class must be devoted to other things will sound like a cover-up. Of course, most students realize this instinctively, just as a large antelope knows when a lion cub is too small to charge. I therefore countered as quickly as possible that a) on only one essay had synthetic judgment been invited—the two short essays on the mid-term exam addressed the content of class notes, and b) a judgment is not an opinion—a sympathy with Medea for being tough-minded does not amount to an interpretation of textual evidence. Then I returned to my lecture, and my inquisitor returned to her whispering and scowling.
I will give her much credit—more than I give her “sisters”—for e-mailing me before the next essay was due and seeking guidance. Infallibly, she had gravitated to another topic on the syllabus about female characters: Andromache and Penelope. She hadn’t the ghost of an idea about how to proceed with the pair; and, frankly, the topic required too finessed a reading of Homer for a sophomore survey class. I redirected her, therefore, to Penelope and Shakespeare’s Isabella, a comparison which only struck me as I attempted to answer her e-mail. The girl mailed back, still puzzled. What comparison? I suggested, for starters, the following: beset by an unwanted suitor (or suitors), forced to play a largely passive role, resorting to a “virtuous guile” when strict probity would obviously fail, having to appear somewhat tractable or else expose a loved one to death. The student dutifully wrote up my ideas with no apparent awareness that they were not her own and hence needed a little something from her to come off as impressive. I would have liked, for instance, to see her add that both Odysseus and Duke Vincentio assume a humble disguise to reconnoiter and prepare their glorious return: it seemed to me a fairly transparent similarity in the narratives. Yet neither this nor any further connection was drawn.
I awarded the finished product a 90. Seasoned teachers will already have detected that I am something of a soft touch—a character flaw which runs deep, in my case. As I grade papers, I have constantly in the back of my mind Prince Hal’s magnanimous response to Falstaff’s absurd announcement that he has slain Hotspur: “If a lie may do thee grace, I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have.” An extra eight or ten points on a score seems little enough of a concession if it awakens the recipient to new levels of interest and activity. I had hopes of redeeming this young woman from The Gang—and through her, perhaps, some of its other members. How naïve of me!
I explained on the paper that my primary concern was the paucity of reference to textual detail (a subtle way of saying that my e-mail had simply been recycled with very little adornment). I added one other comment in response to the following passage:
Because Odysseus left for Troy to fight in the Trojan War, Penelope is left unsure of whether or not he has lived through it. Because of Penelope’s uncertainty, all of the suitors are trying to impress her, but she is reluctant to let them do so. She is trying to stay true to her faithfulness because Odysseus left for Troy and she is only supposed to have one husband. In that time period, males are able to have multiple wives, but women are expected to have only one husband.
And, a couple of paragraphs later, this appeared in the same vein:
It is obvious that Penelope procrastinates choosing a new husband because she does not want to disrespect Odysseus, who she believes could possibly still be alive. Choosing a new husband would damper [sic] her reputation because it would prove that she is not as faithful as she makes herself out to be. It is very ironic that Penelope uses trickery during these events because she is supposed to be a faithful person, but instead lies constantly about when she will finally choose a husband.
I commented—and underscored my objection here to be minor—that Odysseus had not been untrue to Penelope except in the shallowest, most inflexible kind of reading. I assumed that the mention of Penelope’s being restricted to one husband alluded to Odysseus’s dalliance with Circe, and later with Calypso. Students often equate the situation with various incidences of philandering that have touched their lives: hence my emphasis in class upon the otherworldly aura of both goddesses, the infertility of both lengthy unions, Odysseus’s entry into both as a means of propitiating powerful figures, his continued dissatisfaction with them as he dreams of his homecoming, and his actual rejection of immortality (explicitly with Calypso) in order to be on his way. The reaction I received through e-mail was immediate and vitriolic:
I never talked about Odysseus playing around while Penelope patiently waits? [sic] I talked about how it was normal in that time period for men to have more than one wife, but never did I accuse Odysseus of doing so… I mentioned it only to make my point about Penelope being a faithful wife, so not sure where you are reading about Odysseus playing around because that isn’t what I said… [all ellipsis point included in message, for some reason]
Well, indeed the original had not indexed this myth of polygamy to Odysseus’s adventures in various ports of call. I wrote back that now I was more mystified than ever by the claim. Homeric texts indicate no acceptance whatever of polygamy in the Greek world. Priam may be assumed to have begotten his fifty sons and twelve daughters on more than one woman—but such allusions in the Iliad may well be nothing less than an Hellenic sneer at the decadent practice. (I pointed out that the Mogul emperors, for instance, spent altogether too much of their time fighting wars of succession.) Overweening kings like Agamemnon and Pyrrhus clearly indulge in concubinage, and almost as clearly come to bad end. In terms of the comparison with Isabella, I continued, the assertion is not only inaccurate and random: it undermines the similarity sought after by the paper. Isabella most definitely does not disdain Angelo’s advances because she fears for her reputation or wishes to show respect for the lately departed (granting that Penelope is primarily motivated by either of these desires, which in fact contradicts Homer’s portrait of her): she sets spiritual ends above carnal ones. To hint that Penelope might want a second husband but is restrained by decorum and not to intend this off-the-cuff claim as a wry jab at the sailor marooned with the lovely Calypso is a factual gaffe and a mean-spirited assault upon the woman’s character, both at once. (This summary reflection I did not type in my response.)
Here was my first exposure—not in my career, but in this course, where I had warned against it during many lectures—to an appalling self-indulgence: the whimsical creation ex nihilo of sweeping “historical” regimes, customs, and beliefs. You need polygamy? Have we got polygamy! A touch of the magic wand, and… “Let there be polygamy!” Indeed, throughout my career, I had never encountered so hubristic a level of “historifaction”. I was to grow painfully familiar with it, however, before the semester’s end.
II. The “Rudeness” of Uncooperative Facts
This young blonde soccer star was not happy with her A-. She was also not happy, apparently, with history. She needed for men to be marrying wives left and right throughout the Dark Ages while having the harem’s occasional truant summarily stoned to death. If history did not reveal that just such inequity went on routinely… why, then, history was a liar. It was abetting another male cover-up. No need to interrupt her semester-long whispering sessions so that she might hear what I or any other male should say upon the subject. She knew the truth already in her heart, just as she knew that she was somebody and that no team could beat her team—not if they all played to their potential. For they were all somebody.
As the semester’s final weeks approached, I took elaborate pains to explain our remaining assignments. There would be a final exam, for whose one essay I would pass out the choices of topic (I allowed students to pick one out of three) well in advance. Then a take-home essay of broader scope would be due at the end of exam week. I distributed the long take-home essay’s topic during the last class before Thanksgiving, the choices of topic for the final exam during the first class after Thanksgiving: more than three weeks’ advance notice in the former case, exactly two weeks’ in the latter. Throughout the semester’s remnant, I often referred to these impending exercises and made suggestions about how best to complete them. Literally on the morning of the final exam, as I prepared to leave the house and was giving my e-mail one last check, I read a query from one of The Gang expressing confusion about the essays—specifically, if one remained to be written, or two. I responded:
It’s too late for me to give a long answer—I have to leave for school soon, and you’ve probably already left. Good grief, K___! The instructions for both assignments are at the top of the page, AND I went over the whole thing several times last week! Yes, there’s only one out-of-class essay. What we do in class today is the final exam, which I decided to change from short answer to essay because people were having so much trouble on the mid-term writing several short answers in one hour.
K___ was extremely cool to me at the exam. When I returned home and checked my mail that evening, I found this:
Wow I never expected you to be so rude to me! And when do we get to do evaluations for you?
So the threat of a devastating evaluation was K___’s outraged reaction to my “good grief”, or perhaps to my refusal to halt myself on the way out the door and replicate instructions distributed weeks earlier… or did the outrage target my simply pointing out that the instructions had been so distributed? I was not permitted to chastise my golden girls mildly for leaden imperviousness to oft-repeated directions. Rather, directions were to be produced fully on demand, just as history was to assume on demand the form which complemented the writer’s momentary rhetorical strategy. Anything else could rightly be construed as rude as long as one belonged to the privileged class—the group that had been held down for millennia but would now take no more abuse, that consisted only of somebodies, that had the potential to sweep all forces in the universe before it.
To those who may object that such demands for instant gratification characterize not only the contemporary student body, but indeed all of contemporary society, my answer is “yes and no”. Certainly attention spans are reduced. I knew full well that there would be comprehension problems as soon as I realized that the single word “essay” would attach to two assignments during the final weeks: hence my frequent alerts and reiterations in class. Few students today can build a chain of many connective links, whether because the connecting requires too much sustained focus as distraction from iPod and cell phone pulses through the brain or because mouse-clicking has inspired a style of reasoning more associational than deductive. An excellent example of such lapsed ability occurred on the first brief section of the final exam, wherein I elicited the major works, nationalities, and dates of various authors read. One charitable young man had designed a sheet for the whole class containing a table with all necessary information, and he distributed it with my consent. He had misspelled “Ariosto” as “Arostio”. Though we had spent two periods on selections from the Orlando Furioso and though I had pronounced the author’s name in at least half a dozen other classes, 90% of the class regurgitated this benevolent student’s orthographical blunder. Their study blazed but one short, straight trail from printed sheet to brain: earlier encounters with the word seemed to enjoy no carry-over whatever.
The performance on the actual essay pointed to the same alarmingly low horizon. Here are the brief, forthright written instructions which I submitted to every student a full two weeks before the exam:
Write on ONE of the following. [My three essay options appeared below these instructions.] Though you are directed to single out a certain work in each case, be sure to refer to the others involved as you explain how you arrived at your selection as most prominently possessing the sought-after characteristics.
Each option named three to four works to be considered. The student was required to choose the most pessimistic of three Renaissance texts, the most successfully allegorical of four medieval tales, or the most illustrative of the romance’s tendencies from among four Asian narratives. Any selection would have been defensible: the emphasis in grading would be on how the defense was made rather than on which work was put forth as the “winner”. More of that anon. First, I remark that many students in both sections of World Literature failed to discuss more than a single text in their answer: approximately a third of The Gang’s class, perhaps a quarter of the later class. (The Gang’s presence itself may have accounted for the discrepancy, for almost all of its members flagrantly disregarded instructions in this manner.) Secondly, I note that a clear majority in both classes begged for the question sheet to be displayed on the document camera—this despite the sheet’s having been distributed to everyone two weeks earlier and my having permitted all students to bring into the exam room an index card full of notes, outlining, condensed paragraphs, names, citations, etc. Though I claim to be a veteran of college classrooms, I must admit that I was shocked. How could students at this level, warned weeks in advance of their subject and allowed to import a generous smattering of textual blueprint, still need to view the original question? I can only understand the need as one for some kind of comforting visual prompt—a cue for the pen to write as Pavlov’s bell cued his dog to salivate. If this is not associational thinking, then I really don’t know what to call it.
Yet a clever little dog, if told to roll over by its master before being properly trained, would only cock its head and whimper. All of the responses I have just listed indicate a disturbing resistance to conventional training, to be sure, and hence further indicate that our culture’s cleverness is fast eroding… but none of the responses is on the order of the dog’s taking a bite out of its master’s leg. Incomprehension is not righteous indignation: we are still very far from the “wow” with which K___ greeted my refusal to recapitulate basic instructions at the eleventh hour, along with her implied threat of having me fired from my job. The clever little dog is now a Dire Wolf. It fails to register commands, but it is expressing neither that cognitive failure nor an anxiety about the consequences of such failure—nor, indeed, a defiance of commands generally. It wants to be commanded, to show off its virtuoso abilities which (it is convinced) are second to no other competitor’s. But the commands must be such as it wants to obey: it will begin performing the trick first, and then the master will issue the command. The instructor will grade essays according to the student’s criteria (and the author of the Penelope/Isabella essay had actually informed me that she possessed a 3.9 average, implying that she had already been stamped by several professors as a master-writer and stood in no need of correction from me). If there are directions to be given, then they must come—in ample detail—when the student announces herself ready to receive them. And if there is room for interpretation in writing the essay, then the student must be allowed to declare the bounds of that interpretation. Either give her a matching test with an answer box at the page’s bottom, or be sure to back well away from any condemnation of any of her opinions—even if they should overhaul long-established historical fact: for to solicit an opinion is to promise that you will abstain from “judging”.
Of this, I was keenly reminded when Gang members handed in their final exams. Every one had chosen the topic on Asian romances. Obviously, they had again put their heads together in a study session, having learned absolutely nothing from their disappointing First Essay. I had even gone so far as to warn the class (again diverting my gaze from any particular group) not to generate the same paper from large study groups; and I had further, and with very special stress, warned one and all not to read the essay’s instructions as an invitation to discard objectivity. I explained minutely what I meant by this. In the case of the romance, we had discussed (and I had summarized in a handout) how the romance draws traditional material into a somewhat more unstable setting, where travel to exotic places and awareness of social upheaval is common. I underscored the connection between such narratives and the rise of literacy, with traditional wisdom starting to seem less relevant, a new middle class starting to redistribute wealth, and tribal bonds starting to rupture as society grows more mobile and records more vital. The stereotypical “romantic” union of soulmates, I concluded, is a logical consequence of the tribe’s degeneration: people feel lost, and their emotional needs become more heavily invested in fewer individuals. The romance, however, was not to be understood merely as a charming boy-meets-girl story.
Admonitions written on the wind with water, as Catullus might have said: The Gang was off and running, each member descanting her own view of what made for a good romance without any awareness whatever of historical setting, some of them amply referring to TV shows or roommates, almost none of them (as I have said) ballasting the discussion with references to all the works listed in the question. Wrote one:
The first guideline, soulmate love, is very apparent [in Somadeva’s “Red Lotus of Chastity”]. The two [central characters] are meant to be together that is why the God Shiva gave them the Red Lotus’s [sic] so that the fear of being apart would not put a wedge between them. The main focus of the story is not their love, it is all of the trickery that goes on in order [to] preserve the love that they have for each other.
This essay—and I should note that students were racing the clock, even though they had prepared outlines at home—was by no means weak. I saw minor factual inaccuracies (such as equating Devasmita’s concerns about her husband’s fidelity with a loving fear of being parted) and non-sequiturs (such as the above paragraph’s closing acknowledgment that the love theme is minor after having declared it “very apparent”). Yet the only major problem I found was a riveted focus on this one tale, leaving three others mentioned scarcely or not at all. The young woman in question had often impressed me as The Gang’s best student. I concluded, therefore, that she had probably compromised her effort on the exam by studying with the others, who chose the same topic and adopted the same exclusive focus.
One of the worst essays, in contrast, was penned by K___. I would have repaid her scowls with interest if I had only known what she was scribbling. Though we had certainly admitted the “soulmate love” of the essay cited above as one common feature of the romance, we had defined it during class discussions in specific cultural terms: a backdrop of foreign travel, an environment of social upheaval, a loss of rootedness in the past, and so on. K___ swept the whole diligently crafted framework aside, erecting what follows in its place:
Somadeva’s Red Lotus of Chastity is the closest to a romance we read this semester. The two meet because the merchant wants his son to have a wife so they set out to Chastity to find a girl. When they find her the two fall in love. This would be similar to a blind date today. The merchant is not happy because they will live so far away. [False: the girl’s parents are the unhappy party.] The girl decides to run away with them to his land. In todays day [sic], many girls run away with their lover. After being in his country and wedding, the merchants [sic] son must go to another country to trade. The jealous wife does not want him to leave, like many jealous women with their husbands now. Then the lady [the god Shiva] decides to make them both happy by putting the Red Lotus in both of their hands, and if it wilts the other has been unfaithful. [Another falsehood: each lover receives a lotus.] However today if a husband or wife does not answer their cell phone or isn’t where they say they are, the other gets suspetious [sic].
And so on. K___’s writing had displayed a contempt for textual fact throughout the semester, and it will not stop here, as we shall see. The most uproarious blunder—one is tempted to call it downright stupidity, yet the person in question is not an imbecile—must surely be ascribing the provenance of the magic flowers to a town called Chastity! Even K___’s own garbled summary does not bring the lotuses into the story until later. More relevant to my main point, though, is the creation (ex nihilo, once again) of a set of criteria for the romance. This student, like other athletes, attended almost every class that did not conflict with a travel date for the team. She had heard quite enough of my lectures and received quite enough handouts to know that I expected a certain scale of values to be applied and did not want an evaluation based on off-the-cuff benchmarks. I remember illustrating the point by joking to both classes, “Don’t tell me that The Story of Ying-Ying is the best romance because you think Chinese girls are cute.” Yet this is in effect precisely what K___ had done: she talked about what girls and boys around her typically did in their romantic adventures and applied that narcissistic sampling as a yardstick to narratives of at least a millennium in age, every one. She even defended her choice in a concluding remark by opining, “Jealousy is a must [for the romance] because everyone gets jealous”—a callous generalization with which most healthy people of my generation would strongly disagree. The thrusting of her own impulsive responses and adolescent habits—or rather those of her peer group—into the thick of the assignment could not have been more complete if K___ had speculated about Devasmita’s prowess with a softball bat. Her paper’s dismissal of my overtly and repeatedly stated criteria was beyond defiant: it was unsuspecting, as if I would recognize its superior right to make up rules as soon as I saw the appeals—so “genuine” and “honest”—to personal experience.
The author of the infamous Penelope/Isabella essay persisted in her habits, as well. Like almost everyone in The Gang, she chose the romance question; like most of these, she awarded first prize to “Red Lotus”; and like her unregenerate self, she produced plot summary when the instructor didn’t feed other lines to her. Or perhaps I should say (since the instructor wasn’t feeding lines to anyone on this day) that like K___, she pulled criteria out of a hat at those rare moments when she decided to mention any criteria at all. I learned that “a typical romance includes the rescue of a princess,” and that “the happy ending is the biggest quality of a romance,” whatever “big” may mean in this context. The image of two steely blue eyes immovably returning my stare as curling lips worked away on very audible whispers beneath them stayed before me as I wandered through platitudes about princesses and true love. An almost perfect attendance record, yet an almost perfect immunity to every idea presented in class, and a four-square perfect confidence in her own ability to “wing it” with criteria far superior to mine… why had she even bothered attending? Because her coach checked up on such matters, yes… but what if I had simply granted her a “pass” so as to restore order in my classroom? Who would have been the worse for that—who would not have been the better?
As with the final exams, the Final Essay elucidated a tendency among all students to have difficulty with basic instructions. Throughout the semester, we had traced the mythic archetype of the Other World Journey as it metamorphosed in response to cultural forces. Probably first an aetiology to account for where the sun goes at night, with further versions addressing seasonal change soon added, the pattern also admitted great heroes to the Underworld in search of deceased loved ones or answers about life and death. Travel grew more secular as technology progressed and as the new era’s most vibrant concerns, in consequence, shifted laterally to strange places here on earth. The Underworld was now an alien culture whose population did things inside-out. By the time literacy became more than a handmaiden to the story-teller’s memory, however—certainly by the days of the printing press and the Renaissance—strange lands were not necessarily hostile at all. They were, on the contrary, more true to nature and inherently good than the highly artificial habits fashioned by the author’s culture. The polarities of heaven and hell were often reversed in this setting, as we see in Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals” and even, perhaps, in T’ao Chen’s delightful vignette from a millennium earlier, “Peach Blossom Spring”.
The Final Essay’s instructions asked students to trace this evolution of the Other World Journey by referring to six or eight works read during the course. Many limited their illustrations to three or four, and suffered accordingly. Others chose to talk about any set of works that pleased them, and may or may not have been able to point to some incidental journey in the plot; or else they selected works from the long list recommended by me, yet focused their discussion on whatever grabbed their attention rather than directing it in the required manner. These are standard disappointments for an undergraduate professor today—and probably for a graduate professor, too. I have lately come to the conclusion that Nursing and Education majors need to pass courses in History and Literature just to demonstrate that they can follow instructions through a task of several stages.
We will not, therefore, berate The Gang for pedestrian failures. My discussion is seeking out tendencies that are largely sui generis. Perhaps samples such as the following, then, are of little interest.
In such works as the Odyssey and the Aeneid, the oral-traditional culture is clearly displayed. Formularity is a trait that causes repetition…. In the Aeneid, Aeneas goes to visit his father in the underworld. Before he can gain access he must be given a sign. He gets this sign when he goes into the forest and finds a golden branch, with the help of nature and the gods, to grant him access. While there to see his father, he sees his ex-lover Dido who committed suicide. He leaves the underworld and continues on with his journey. Even though visiting the underworld was considered a big deal, the story lacked suspense and just rambled on through his adventures.
At least this coed athlete could spell “Aeneas”, which was a rare feat. Her identification of that hero with the oral-traditional type flew in the face of a week’s worth of lectures, and the very scenes she mentions above were used in class to distinguish Vergil from Homer (for what an anguishing chasm separates Dido’s cold-shouldering of Aeneas from Ajax’s of Odysseus!). Yet lack of attention in class and insipid plot summary (“rambling”, one might call it) characterize mediocre production in college these days. It did seem to me, nevertheless, that this young woman’s incompetence with basic terms was unique in two classes of some 100 students, as when she proceeded to garble “traditional” with “transitional”:
Tales from the transitional culture aren’t oral yet aren’t quite traditional either. One prime example would be Beowulf. In this story, Beowulf becomes the hero when he kills Grendel, a monster constantly harassing and killing the humans. This tale is transitional because although Beowulf has immortal strengths and fights a monster, like in oral culture, it is detailed like the traditional making it more than just the usual story where the hero fights the monster.
These references could not be straightened out even by reversing the two words uniformly—for the student does employ the correct word in a single instance. Is it unfair of me, then, to descry an inattentiveness to the course’s fundamentals verging on contempt?
Such contempt appeared to trickle down the page in tears of boredom and somnolent platitude when I came to K___’s paper. All semester long, she had been fusing the details of various works into one with the insouciance of a garbage collector who knows that all items are destined for the landfill. Why alter her modus operandi for the Final Essay?
A half-way more modern story or tale would be something like Red Lotus of Chasity [sic]. When the woman casts the spell on the King and he falls in love with the girl, he really is not in ‘love’ with her. Although there are no goblins or monsters in this story, no one person can cast a ‘spell’ on anyone. The woman is a real person and tries to corrupt the king but this would be in the middle of an oral and literate story. [Who knows what this opaque assertion means?] In another part of the story when the girl has gone to find the King, a ring he gave her slipped off her finger. When the ring dropped in the water a fish ate it. First of all a ring would not just slip off someone’s finger into the water without a little help. And secondly, fish eat small minnows or alge [sic]. The ring would have been much too big for a fish to swallow and would not be very appeasing to the fish’s appetite.
Almost all coherent sections of this plot summary seem to describe, not the tale by Somadeva named at the outset, but Kalidasa’s Śakuntala and the Ring of Recollection. (One would think that K___ might have “Red Rose” fresh on her mind, since she wrote—or tried to write—of it two days earlier on the exam.) Yet K___ appears to have lost whatever ring governs her own recollection, for her capsulation is brutally botched, especially in the claim that the poor heroine is a calculating seductress. She simply hasn’t read the material, once again. Yet she received her low scores throughout the semester in a kind of smoldering rage, she would never admit to me that her study habits were remiss, and she finally felt licensed to “flame” me for having poor manners when I cajoled her ever so lightly about her sloppy work ethic. Note the paragraph’s absurd quasi-empirical scrutiny of piscine grazing habits (much of which would come as a shock to a fly-fisherman) as a substitute for examining properly textual detail. K___ seems to say, “I’ll give you detail, if that’s what you want… but it will be detail of my choosing.” In the same vein, she has retained the word “modern” used somewhere on her final exam, though it is literarily inept and was never employed in class discussions. She is clearly determined, as always, that the terms will be her terms. Outside of The Gang, I observed not a single example of such resistance to professorial suggestion nor of such bald, almost proud ignorance of assigned reading. Remember that students had more than three weeks to select which works they would include in their Final Essay.
Another Gang member decided to use the Other World Journey as no more than a criterion for simply gathering works into her basket: once there, they would be analyzed according to whatever scale happened to strike her fancy. Medea’s fury, wild romances, and forceful women had defined the full range of themes which interested this group, so the writer in question logically enough composed a Final Essay about passion.
Similar to the epic [sic] of Medea, The Epic of Gilgamesh is driven by passion as well. In these two epics, love is the motivating force. When Gilgamesh’s beloved, Enkidu, dies, he is devastated and in turn makes it a quest to find eternal life…. In a way each epic that has been discussed, [sic] is driven by the force of passion and love. In Homer’s The Odyssey, the character Odysseus has been separated by [sic] his wife and in efforts to save his marriage and city he must return home…. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight goes beyond love and merely is an epic about loyalty and identity.
One has to laugh. Gilgamesh and Enkidu have a passionate affair of some kind (honni soit qui mal y pense), Odysseus is passionately drawn homeward to his good-looking wife… and poor Sir Gawain flutters under passion’s radar to concern himself merely with loyalty and identity! With disciples such as these, Socrates would drink hemlock without a court injunction.
Another Gang-Banger took a more interesting approach. Instead of plucking an idea out of thin air, she embraced The Gang’s practice of selecting a subject already floating along the discussion’s edge—in this case, religion—and rewriting history around it so that it becomes the vortex’s focal point.
When examining works from earlier points in history, it is evident that society at this point in time [i.e., classical antiquity] has a very theological and firm stand point [sic] on issues regarding the after life [sic]. Many believed that once life ended, a person would face either heaven or hell- [sic] and the decisions he or she made throughout his or her life would determine the destination on the after life. It was important for a person to be aware of his or her weaknesses in order to prevent the fall to temptation. In early works such as Homer’s, The Odyssey [sic], Odysseus battles with temptations first hand. Odysseus has an everlasting hunger for a glorious homecoming with his crew after battle. However, Odysseus gives into disclosing information [which information?] and falls into temptation when sailing past Siren island. Odysseus longs to hear the singing of the deadly sirens to gain his own personal pleasure [what pleasure?], instead of covering his ears as he is told to do [told by whom?]. His true desires are constantly being challenged with other worldly pleasures, in which causes [sic] his gradual fall into temptation. Homer uses Odysseus’ struggles with temptation to represents [sic] the inner struggles that all people face. A person must make conscious decisions everyday [sic] in order to do right and avoid wrong.
In spite of the challenges people face with temptation, it is how temptation is dealt with those matters [sic] the most. During this theological era, most thought if a person was to fall to temptation and commit a sin, he or she would be severely punished in the after life.
These are foolish, fatuous assertions. Their references to Homer’s text are largely fanciful (though certain allegorists of late antiquity like Lactantius might have ascribed such meaning to the Sirens); while the claim that Odysseus seeks “personal pleasure” from the Sirens is a faintly disturbing formulation, since Homer stresses that he desires knowledge (and Circe, far from forbidding him that knowledge, teaches him the trick of how to keep his ears unstopped without perishing). Much the most outrageous extravagance, however, is the bluntly wrong generalization that ancient Greeks quailed in apprehension lest their gods consign them to eternal flames for some misdeed. Odyssey 11 flatly contradicts this notion. Both hero and villain go to dwell in the land of the shades when soul departs body. There is no punishment in this eternal dusk, though its miserable oblivion is hardly an enviable prospect. The torment of hubristic Titans like Tantalus and Sisyphus is visited upon titanic crimes and bears no resemblance whatever to a typical mortal’s fate.
Yet this presumption of a grim afterlife awaiting the terrorized populations of antiquity became the foundation for an entire essay, which “traced” a gradual evolution away from such ideas as literacy triumphed and the Renaissance blossomed. Evidence offered for every stage of the transformation was as fanciful as that in the passage cited above. Indeed, another essay from The Gang advanced this same argument with even more vigor and rather fewer solecisms. Its author: she of the Penelope/Isabella paper, now having at last graduated from mere plot summary to theorizing about history. Yet it was she, after all, who had written in reference to Penelope that ancient women were confined to one husband while their men married as many comely females as their lustful paws could reach… so the final exam had merely cramped her expansive style, which had apparently awaited another long essay to flourish in the following fashion:
Punishment was often looked at as being hell, or the afterlife, in the early years during the oral phase. There was a big emphasis on doing good in order to avoid a painful and harsh afterlife. In a world of unpredictable gods who demand sacrifice and seem to randomly dispense punishment, Virgil portrays an afterlife in which people are judged according to the good value of their lives on Earth. The Aeneid is a great example of this because the driving force, or motivation, behind Aeneas was pleasing the gods and making sure that he did not fail them in any way. Disobeying the gods is the worst thing Aeneas could do which is why he decides to listen to them in order to escape a grueling afterlife…. If he were to fail the gods, he knew that his afterlife would be very grim. His afterlife is dependent upon what the gods want for him and how they feel he has lived his life.
The opening passives—“was often looked at” and “there was”—absolves our Penelope-apologist of having to produce a source for these hipshot claims any more conscientiously than she had done in her polygamy argument. The remarks about Aeneas almost make a kind of sense, and would have left me more acquiescent if they had pinpointed some scene such as Mercury’s inciting Aeneas to flee Carthage. Taken as a whole, however, they remain preposterous. Aeneas is exhilarated by his vision of the Elysian Fields, not harrowed by his glimpse of Tartarus. In any case, spirits are eventually reincarnated accordingly to the scheme which Anchises unfolds, so any sort of “grueling afterlife” would not be eternal except in the most extreme cases, such as those involving Homer’s Titans. Mercury himself, in dishing out Jupiter’s first warning, never utters a word about postmortem payback. He stresses, rather, that the young Ascanius will be robbed of a royal destiny if his father doesn’t look lively.
Might the Blonde Whisperer have been recalling in some muddled manner my forceful distinction in class between the Rogue’s Gallery of Odyssey 11 and the land of judgments meted out in Aeneid 6, anticipating Dante’s Inferno? I certainly emphasized that the more literate conception of the afterlife visited more responsibility upon human souls for their choices in this world. The literate perspective, having conferred more self-awareness and more personal autonomy upon people, also tends to frame their acts as freely selected rather than dictated by tribal expectation. But no… this student had offered the Aeneid as an example of the oral perspective, not the literate one. Of the latter, she had this to say:
As time passed, the view of afterlife and punishment in the literate phase dramatically changed to a much different idea than in the oral-traditional and transitional phases. Instead of there being a big emphasis on punishment in the afterlife, there was prominence [sic] on punishment through law. Punishment would not come in the afterlife, but instead would come here and now…. Paradise Lost is another example of here and now punishment because Satan is presented as a character who is content with his rebellious and evil ways. Satan drags hell around wherever he goes. It is evident that hell is not a place in Paradise Lost for Satan, but rather a state of mind that is clearly brought on by the lack of connection he has with God.
One can earn a splitting headache by trying to interpret such logic generously. To be sure, we discussed in class how the Renaissance saw a shift to the secular, with the Copernican Revolution at once raising new hope for human reason, suggesting the irrelevance of previous teaching, and implying (not without dismay) that rational deduction itself might first appear to fly in the face of common sense. I will go so far as to concede that Milton’s Satan gathers up some of these strands: indeed, I contended that he did before the class. As a character, he is stunningly here-and-now, a study in perverse human rationalization. Yet to maintain that his punishment is terrestrial because he leaves Hell to subvert Eden—that his “Myself am Hell” declaration is somehow a shift from superstitious shadows to empirical objectivity—produces a rhetorical pretzel. On the contrary, we see here an intensified degree of that literate awakening to individual responsibility which was already blinking and stretching in Vergil and Dante. No doubt, this new sense of inner life would contradict in some ways the new sense of an objective reality independent of human sentiment. The vectors of change involved are quite complex, which is why survey courses are always frustrating constructs ending in half-assembly—and why students enrolled in survey courses need to listen rather than gossip and, later in the dorm, make up their own explanations.
Obviously, the “Hell to Here-and-Now” theory of the afterlife (by the way, the topic was the Other World Journey, not specifically the afterlife) was concocted in some such dormitory session. I shall never know just what referents inspired its intricacies in those Gang members who advanced it—except that I can be pretty sure that my own utterances in class should be exonerated, since they had no such influence at any other time. If a Gang member had heard fragments of a lecture and haphazardly recalled them, then I suppose that might account for such resonances as the gloom of the traditional underworld, the heightened moralism in Vergil’s separation of souls, and the reading of Milton’s Satan as Contemporary Fallen Man. Yet these are scarcely even resonances: they are more in the nature of gross distortions—even self-cancelling contradictions—at the receiving end.
I return to the impression of a group of students who feel themselves fully capable of doing anything all on their on and who spitefully contemn any elder seeking to chasten their self-confidence. Purely as a speculation, I would propose that these invincible personal resources may draw somewhat—at least in the instance concerning the afterlife—upon the “Christian” upbringing which some of The Gang would on occasion advertise as a central fiber of their rugged individualism. I mean no disrespect to true faith in making this speculation, for my students probably paid little more attention to their spiritual advisors than they did to me: which is to say, they probably seized upon a stray phrase here or there that fed their hunger for self-sufficiency. A god who dishes out free pardons the way teachers now issue “homework passes” would certainly serve that objective. No need to look back over one’s shoulder, to feel oneself confined within a set of civilized expectations or chained by guilt to a party one has wronged… in that sense, yes, I suppose the doctrine of grace could be brutally perverted to let free all the denizens of Hell—and to leave Satan himself saddled with hellish torment only because of his “bad attitude”. I have indeed heard neo-Calvinist ranting in the gray area where popular culture intersects the more extroverted churches that holds the very position argued initially in Ur-Penelope’s essay: i.e., that pre-Christian peoples universally feared damnation, and that only Christ could liberate them from their obsessive terror of hellfire. Sometimes the “sermon” even goes on to insist that punishment is here on earth in the misery of those who refuse salvation.
Yet as many corners as such a blitz through Christian doctrine may cut, it is still far superior to what I read in the Final Essay. The “theology” hatched by The Gang’s faithful in their dorm could not even bring into the discussion a literate principle of internalized goodness which would make Satan’s constant torture coherent—which would render his personal Hell not a journey to the earth’s surface or into secular law, but an entrenchment in wrong will. (For his punishment is not earthly: the perverted will doesn’t secularize retribution into clinical depression—it transforms bland routine into metaphysical nightmare.) For my band of Wunderkind theologians, Satan becomes just a homeless guy in need of detox followed by proper meds… and my hope of a triumphantly synthetic writing experience thus became the caricature of a caricature.
IV. The Irrelevance of Politics
When I employed the word “feminism” in the title of this piece, my intention was not to strike a blow for the political Right by unveiling yet another progressive failure. I put little trust in some of the promises of feminism—but I have also reached the point where I can no longer discern just what those promises are. Feminism, like conservatism and protectionism and patriotism and fascism (a word I also used early on), has come to mean almost nothing: not nothing, precisely, but something vast, amoebic, without rigor, and most often employed to bludgeon opponents with an inherited, no longer deserved claim to noble crusade. Even so have those other –isms come to elicit either push-button reverence or reflexive odium. When I say that my bright but arrogant young Amazons are influenced by feminism, therefore, I mean little more than that they feel specially entitled by reason of their gender. No thinking person would ever accuse them of understanding history or meditating upon sociology. Whatever the Woman’s Struggle may be, to them it is no more than a license to throw elbows and deal cheap shots left and right since they are women. As athletes in team sports that have recently been promoted somewhat at the expense of male alternatives, they have surely heard talk of being slighted, of suffering unequal treatment, of having to perform twice as well just to claim half as much budgetary pie, etc., etc. Even before they ever donned a college jersey, however—even before they ever wore a high school’s insignia on their backs—they were almost as surely being coached in self-esteem. As six- and eight-year-olds toddling along lime-dusted boundaries while parents screamed from rickety bleachers, they were growing aware of themselves as girl competitors, as warriors who could run stride-for-stride with boys. Practically from the cradle, their generation of female was taught never to yield to anything in pants.
Of course, “self-esteem” has been the battlecry of a distinct movement in education for about three decades now. Little boys are to have self-esteem, too: everybody is to esteem him- or herself, from the disabled child to the obese child to the sullen trouble-maker to the chronic truant. This is not a bad thing, in and of itself, any more than inspiring in young women a confidence equal to a young man’s is to be regretted or deplored. The point I wish to underscore as I close, though, is that it is not necessarily a good thing. Self-esteem should be earned: it should not be a free gift thrown like candy out of Santa Claus’s sleigh, after the fashion of the charismatic parody of God’s grace. One sets goals, one works hard, one fails, one learns, one tries again, one comes closer to success… such is the proper pedigree of true self-esteem. In his off-beat masterpiece, Vida de Don Quixote y Sancho, Miguel de Unamuno took up the gauntlet against those who faulted the Knight of the Sorrowful Figure for freeing galley slaves from chastisement yet “hypocritically” chastising wrong-doers himself. “Punishment satisfies the offender, not the offended—to the point that gratuitous pardon outrages the former, since he recognizes in it that quintessential form of vengeance, contempt.” It was the cold deliberation behind the galley slaves’ sentence, argues Unamuno, that repelled Don Quixote. Retribution must be hot from the pan, for then the offender accepts it as his earned portion. So self-esteem cannot be considered in abstract. One must esteem oneself for something: otherwise one arrogantly recoils from the world of real deeds to a fantasy wherein one always plays the hero’s role.
That The Gang’s swaggering bravas were a) female and b) young thus gave them two bogus titles to set themselves above the rules of decorum; for they could thereby claim membership a) in a traditionally oppressed group and b) in the self-obsessed graduating class of the new “positive attitude” curriculum. A male who might threaten to have me fired because one of my e-mails was insufficiently deferential would be considered a bully and a boor: a female comes off looking like a freedom-fighter in some glorious revolution. A student of my own age—perhaps even a female student—who had so indicted my e-mail would be considered a crotchety, loathsome old crank. A young person in the same role might be said to effuse the self-confidence needed to carve success out of a competitive society’s hard stone. I have often noticed before that feminism, despite early and numerous ties to Marxist doctrine, will embrace this “competitive edge” in a capitalist context without flinching. The male is a robber baron: the female arouses cheers of “You go, girl!” The entitlement of the “self-esteeming” to flatten hapless obstacles in their path is rather less clear, for one has first to demonstrate why one’s self-esteem might once have suffered if gender or race or ethnicity does not offer a transparent answer. Yet if one was once a stutterer, say, or was badly abused by one’s parents, then slapping a teacher in the face is probably permissible up to the age of thirty.
The issuance of these ridiculous licenses to kill, I repeat, can have no meaningful moral or political foundation. The Gang, far from being left-wing, probably will vote Republican en masse when its members vote at all, and I have already hinted at their distinct tendency to sympathize with certain Protestant-fundamentalist views. I am confident, for instance, that few if any would endorse the stance on abortion broadcast by academic feminists. Yet their evocations of Christian doctrine are as selective and whimsical as their glib invention of historical facts to bolster rhetorical positions. They are feminists when it suits them, Christians when it suits them, young when it suits them, and wise with experience when it suits them. And it suits them to be some or all of these when they may get closer to what they want by striking the posture. They possess the libido of a savage, incapable of analyzing their impulses, not even convinced of the Other’s full existence beyond their Self, stringing together impromptu eulogies of passion or screeds against oppressors as an animal or an infant might purr or howl in response to a physical stimulus. They are not a sign of this or that political group’s ascendancy. They are bundles of the most primal motivation whose rampaging through society is lubricated by a conjuror’s words: feminist… woman… Christian… youth… education… dream… future… freedom… peace… courage… power… spirit… passion…
The Medea of Euripedes, too, was a savage. Most contemporary identification of her with causes célèbres of our time springs from her first long speech before the chorus. She catalogues the hypocrisy of the patriarchy, mentioning separation of women from their families at marriage, their need of a dowry, their close confinement to the residence, their unrecognized torments in childbirth… all of it true, all fuel for righteous indignation. Yet the next speech overheard by the chorus, after Medea “plays” Creon for another few hours before the enforcement of her exile, reveals a mind whose thirst for homicidal revenge has in one way or another determined every word to leave her mouth. Medea has played the chorus—and us—as well. The Wronged Wife was a part she had selected after a predatory calculation because it brought her prey a little more within reach. She has been wronged, to be sure—but she is not psychically crushed as the woman she acted out would be. A wronged wife would suffer: Medea seethes and schemes.
Did Euripides admire his protagonist’s barbarism because it at least possessed a vigor lacking in Jason’s degenerate, sophistical manhood? I should think so—to some degree. Yet vigor comes at a cost if it does not serve good ends: it cannot be considered an end in itself, any more than self-esteem. Villains and lunatics can be vigorous as well as saints. Athenian society was imploding at the time of the play’s composition in a manner not dissimilar to our cultural meltdown. Here is not the place to sustain that claim; but one can surely remark without grave presumption that a kind of liberation—political, social, and moral—fed by affluence, ambitious commerce, and military adventurism may well have distanced both populations from a healthy sense of reality. The fixity of the past, the preemptive claims of common decency, and the natural limitations of individual action were called into question in both environments. My students used to equate Medea with Susan Smith and other infanticidal mothers in the headlines. Now they see her—a significant minority of them—as a standard-bearer. Though she is neither, surely she resembles the former more than the latter. The “Medea mirror” shows us a Gorgon as we hold it before today’s coeds which should concern us far more than whatever Euripides had in mind.
Young men, of course, stir even more suspicion in some ways (not all, I yet say) that the zoo’s gates have been left open—but young men will always live up or down to the level of expectation thrust upon them by young women. It is an unequal burden, without doubt: that women bear the heavier share of it is unfair, perhaps. When women altogether resign this burden, however, civilization is irreparably shredded. Our girls should therefore worry us deeply.
John Harris is founder and president of The Center for Literate Values. He currently holds the rank of Visiting Professor of English at the University of Texas at Tyler.