Monday, April 20, 2009

Great Books: Aristophanes' Lysistrata (Part 4 of 4)

You can find Part One of this essay here, Part Two, here, and Part Three, here.

What motivates an Athenian woman like Lysistrata to take action based on her own ideas about War and Peace, even if motivated by a sense of Duty that exceeded the cultural expectations of her time? In the Syntopicon, Adler defines a Hero as one who does “not despair in the face of almost helpless odds” as well as possessing “the strength and stamina to achieve whatever they set their minds and wills to do” before finally adding that “they would not be heroes if they were not men of courage.” [195]. In other words, Lysistrata is a Man of Courage…except, of course, that she is not a man at all. Possessed of marvelous modern minds, we can easily remedy this malapropism by calling her a Woman of Courage or, perhaps a Person of Courage.

While this glissando may pave over some of Adler’s unattractive chauvinism, it does not clarify his meaning or even defuse those critics who might argue that Lysistrata is a incredible (as in not credible) character because no woman could have done what she is portrayed as doing in the time and place where she does it. In order to untangle this cluster of irreconcilables, we must do as Lysistrata herself suggests and “put it to the spindle, unwind it this way, now that way” as “that’s how we’ll unravel this war, if you’ll let us.” [853]

It would be disingenuous to characterize the unmistakable patina of phallocentrism in Adler’s opening description of Courage as a mere byproduct of his worldview and not endemic to the material he is drawing from in his delineation of the Great Ideas one from another. There is a particular telling passage a few paragraphs later where he asserts that “such courage is a virtue in the primary sense of the Latin word virtus—manliness, the spirit, or strength of spirit, required to be a man” [196].

To see the illogic inherent in a sentence like that, one must think it in three modes, Greek, Roman, and Modern. His first assertion, that Courage is a virtue sets specific parameters wherein Virtue is the Set and Courage is a sub-set. This is reasonable enough as we can easily think, as could the ancient Greeks, of other kinds of virtue as well; some masculine in nature, some feminine in nature, and some inhabiting no gender at all. The Greek word arete (translated into English as virtue) had more to do with the ultimate fulfillment of something’s function than some warm and fuzzy feelings about how people ought to treat one another.

Moving to his second premise we are told that Courage is, in itself congruous with the primary meaning of the Latin word virtus which, as we can see from his description, is neither feminine nor neuter but specifically masculine. This admission places every other kind of virtue (of which there are many) as subservient to the ultimate fulfillment of what it means to be a man. In Greek, this masculine Courage (or Courage of the body as he later defines it) is one type of virtue among many. In Latin, all virtue is made subordinate to that of being masculine. In English, the distinction is invisible but no less potent in its connotation.
Adler, to his credit, does not end his exploration of Courage with this exclusively masculine expression though he does lumps the remainder as “other sorts of Courage” [196].

The courage of the tragic hero, of Oedipus and Antigone, goes with strength of mind, not body. This, perhaps even more than being lionhearted, is a specifically human strength. Courage does not consist only in conquering fear and in withholding the body from flight no matter what the risk of pain. It consists at least as much in steeling the will, reinforcing its resolutions, and turning the mind relentlessly to seek or face the truth. [196]

Pausing for one last moment to remark upon the cluelessness of not recognizing that childbirth is pretty damn obvious example of “conquering fear” while “withholding the body from flight no matter what the risk of pain”, Adler does extend the personhood of mind to women, going so far as to describe his Courage of the mind it as a human strength rather than a manly one. He also provides more criteria by which to judge the courageousness of Lysistrata’s actions in her capacity to summon her will, enact a plan of action based on her convictions and confronting her culture’s long-held notions on gender in the service of Truth.

Turning to the text at hand, there is ample evidence of not only Lysistrata exhibiting both kinds of Courage but other women as well. There are a number of obstacles that threaten to derail the wives’ strike before it is even fully hatched. The most persistent one is the women’s own hunger for sex, already badly malnourished as they are by the never-ending war. While this is the hurdle to which Aristophanes returns to the most often (because it’s funny and this is a comedy), it is not the most dire in terms of consequences.

LYSISTRATA: Just imagine: we’re at home, beautifully made up, wearing our sheerest lawn negligees and nothing underneath…and the men are all like ramrods and can’t wait to leap into bed, and then we’ll absolutely refuse—that’ll make them make peace soon enough, you’ll see.

LAMPITO: Din ye mind how Menelaus threw away his sword when he saw but a glimpse of Helen’s breasties?

CALONICE: But, look, what if they divorce us?

LYSISTRATA: Well, that wouldn’t help them much, would it? Like Pherecrates says, it would be no more use than skinning the same dog twice.

CALONICE:…What if they take hold of us and drag us into the bedroom by force?

LYSISTRATA: Cling to the door.

CALONICE: And if they hit us and force us to let go?

LYSISTRATA: Why, in that case, you’ve got to be as damned unresponsive as possible. There’s no pleasure in it if they have to use force and give pain. They’ll give up trying soon enough. And no man is ever happy if he can’t please his woman. [827]

There is no disputing that Aristophanes’ dialogue here is very funny. There is also no disputing that anyone of those things could happen to a Greek woman if she refused to fulfill her wifely duties, whether domestic or carnal. The threat of social retribution is real. The threat of physical violence is real. Fitting in with the tone of the play, however, the men’s response to their wives’ abandonment of them is mostly one of confusion and helplessness.

Lysistrata’s usurpation of male authority does not end, however, with the mere refusal of women to act like wives. The more subversive facet of her strategy, to occupy the Acropolis, thus depriving the men of the money they need to continue waging war is not met with the same hapless amusement. A chorus of men arrive almost immediately with fire to burn them out of the Temple. Though the battle that erupts between dueling choruses of old men and old women is more comedic than threatening, the violent timbre of the men’s exasperation is unmistakable and met by an equal fury from their female counterparts.

LEADER [to his neighbor]: Are we going to let them go on blethering like this? Shouldn’t we be bringing our logs down on their back?

STRATYLLIS: [to her followers]: Put down your jars too. We don’t want any encumbrances in case it comes to a fight.

LEADER [raising his fist]: Someone ought to give them a Bupalus or two on the jaw—that might shut them up for a bit.

STRATYLLIS [presenting her cheek to him]: All right, there you are; hit me; I won’t shy away. Only if you do, no dog will ever grab your balls again!

LEADER: If you don’t shut up, you old crone, I’ll knock the stuffing out of you!

STRATYLLIS: If you so much as touch me with the tip of your finger—

LEADER: All right, suppose I do; what then?

STRATYLLIS: I’ll bite your chest and tear out your inside! [830]

The women of Lysistrata are clearly shown exhibiting both physical and mental courage despite Adler’s assertion that the former is the exclusive domain of the masculine. One might say (and some have said) that the women of this play behave not as women do but as men and, therein lies its comedy. While that interpretation is open to those seeking it, Aristophanes’ comedic technique of inversion (something Lysistrata shares with The Clouds) is effective because of the unexpected truths that it uncovers. Though the women of Greece may not have been any more able to act in accord to end war (or even desire such as thing) as the women of the world today, Aristophanes’ meditations on the relationship of women to war and, on a broader level, to the societies to which they belong are universally potent in their insights.

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