Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Resistant Readings of the Classics

Straddling the Divide/Reception Studies Today Conference
University of Melbourne, 1888 Building
2 December 2011

This paper comes some thirty years after leaving the field of Classical Studies. I was, as Stuart Hall would say, an oppositional reader. If I was an oppositional reader, why was I studying Classics? I enrolled in Classical Studies several years after travelling to Crete in 1976 and reading up on the archaeology and at that time there was a burgeoning of new feminist thinking about ancient history, the roles of women, the very many ways in which archaeological finds could be interpreted. I spent the next few years studying Demotic Greek and reading the works of Jane Ellen Harrison. In 1979, I proposed to do a PhD on the Structure of Belief in the Ancient World in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. I won a scholarship and duly enrolled. By then I had been studying Ancient Greek for one year and my studies now became a part of my PhD.

My battles in the Philosophy Department saw me falling out of the department one year later, discouraged by unhelpful supervision. But by now I was totally in love with Ancient Greek, reading the plays, the writings of Plato and Aristotle and the work of Homer. I dreamt that maybe one day I would be able to read the works of Sappho.

For some reason that I will never understand, in my third year the Classics Department suggested I combine a third and fourth year and do an MA (Prelim.) in Greek. These days I would refuse such a suggestion, knowing that an extra year of language would be of inestimable help in getting through. Doing an MA (Prelim) meant writing a 10,000-word thesis. I was excited about this and decided to do a reading of the Homeric Hymns to Demeter and Aphrodite. I had wonderful supervision from Robin Jackson.

My reading of the hymns was a feminist reading, and through my study I began to see some very different ways of interpreting these hymns. What I sought to do was to look at “the role of poetry in Greek culture and of the poet as an instrument of παιδεια: that is of the transmission and formation of cultural values” (Hawthorne 1981: 4).

My reading of the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite explored the origins of this Dawn goddess either in the Middle East (Astarte, Ishtar) as represented in the name Aphrodite Ourania or more likely in India as a variant of Uṣas whose Greek form is Eos and whose Indo-European name was *Ausos (Slatkin 2011: 37). Aphrodite, at the beginning of the hymn has pretty substantial powers and as the hymn progresses this is gradually whittled away until she becomes merely διος θυγατηρ (daughter of Zeus). In a further reduction of power, by the end of the poem it is not Aphrodite who is in charge of love, rather the mortal hero Anchises is leading her to his bed. From a dawn or sky goddess in charge of all the heavens, she is laid just like any other woman.

This conclusion of mine was not popular in the Classics Department. But I went further, I went on to dismantle the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

The abduction of Persephone one fine day is a feminist story if ever there were one. Hades is granted the right to abduct Persephone by his brother Zeus. None of Persephone companions speak up (indeed, we don’t hear of them until the story is retold by Persephone at line 417 ff), her mother Demeter and aunt Hekate do not know where Persephone has gone. Hekate knows only that she has been carried off unwillingly, because she heard her cries. ‘Presumably Hekate’s whereabouts at the time – deep in her cave (line 25) – enabled her to hear Persephone’s cries as she was led off to the underworld. There also seems to be a suggestion that since Hekate and Helios were deities of an earlier religion, they were not as easily duped by Zeus, or alternatively bound to silence as are the deities that owe primary allegiance to Zeus.’ (Hawthorne 1981: 24) Hekate manages to find out via her brother Helios that Zeus has given Persephone to Hades. Following this disclosure, Helios backs up the male right pointing out that Hades will make a high-standing and worthy son-in-law.

What follows in the hymn is an extraordinary rendition of a mother in shock. Her wandering around expressing how distraught she feels; Her self-exile from the immortal realm because only they could achieve this and not have her know the name of the culprit. She removes herself to the world of mortals disguised as an old woman. In telling her fictitious story to a group of young maidens she tells a tale of identification with Persephone, making out that she has been abducted by men from Crete. The household into which she moves becomes her zone of safety.

The character of Iambe/Baubo is transformative. She is a woman who knows how to make sexual jokes, how to make the goddess laugh. No mean feat. And while a mortal, Demeter attempts to immortalise the male child Demophoön. At the moment of her failure, when interrupted by Metaneira, Demeter reveals her rage and her plan for retribution against te gods.
The problem for Demeter at this moment is that she cannot inhabit either the world of the immortals (who are reponsible for the violation of her daughter) but nor can she inhabit the world of mortals (who are subject to ignorance and the inability to overcome death). She reveals herself saying:

‘I am Demeter, honoured, a help to immortals and mortals alike, one who brings joy’ (lines 268-269).

She insists that the mortals build her a temple and propitiate her in her anger. The women immediately hold an all night vigil; The next day men build her a temple. All of this fails. The gods then get involved in attempts at persuasion. She will not budge. Zeus begins to work at Hades, who in turn tries to talk Persephone to remain in the underworld, and while Persephone eats the poemgranate, when telling her story to Demeter (lines 411-13) she claims that Hades forced her to eat it.

Demeter, in the period between the abduction and the return of Persephone has brought about a long drought. The land becomes barren and she refuses to allow any rain to fall. Clearly, this a powerful goddess, one who has control over life and death. And yet at the end, both Demeter and Persephone have had to compromise. Persephone will get to spend only part of a year with her mother Demeter, the rest of the time she must spend in the underworld with Hades, as Queen of Death.

These two stories have had a profound influence on me and on my work as a poet. There is a moment when Demeter enters the mortal world and approaches the four young women at the well, a place where women gather and which is a point of contact between the upperworld (the world of live mortals) and the underworld (where mortals go when they die).

In my book Bird, a collection of poems that explores the shock of epilepsy, the experience of near death and temporary confinement in the underworld, I wrote the following poem.

The well
Women meet at the well head–
they are perched high above me
their faces black against
the bright blue of the sky

I rest deep in the well
as they toss orphan words
into the depths, waiting
for the plink, calculating te depth (Hawthorne 1999: 50).

I find myself returning again and again to these stories. After the death of my mother, I found myself writing about Demeter and Persephone yet again, about the red foods which one must not eat:

I will / not eat of the food of the dead. This much I / have already learned. The table is filled / with fruit: apples, pomegranate, plums / grapes, wild roses and a glass of red wine / are left to tempt me. (Hawthorne 2005: 137).

In 2009 I spent a whole year writing poetry. What a luxury. If you were in the reading session, you will have heard some of the poems. Suffice it to say here that among the poems I wrote for my collection Cow, are some conversations between mothers and daughters, cows and calves. Demeter and Persephone are here transformed thus:

what Demeter says to Persephone
next time tell me when you’re about to wander off on your own
I knew that bastard had it in for you
munching hyacinths on a hill should be safe
but the world has changed
I heard the pounding of his hooves
but I didn’t know he was headed for you

Ekaterina and Baubo and I
look everywhere for you
we climb the hills
set all the world’s eyes alight
crawl through clouds
creep into ink dark caves

no one has seen hide nor hair of you
days of interminable worry
no one knows where you are
I threaten
I say I’ll stop the rain I’ll bring cold winds
no one takes me seriously
but when the rains don’t come
then they begin to listen

three months it was before Helios owned up
he’d seen that bully taking you down to his yard
why couldn’t he have said something sooner?
male ego
he liked being visible every day
gloried in his own light as if the sun shone out of it

it was the best deal I could manage
so when you’re here next spring
we’ll take a trip together
a long ramble through the hills
chew the cud and sleep flank to flank (Hawthorne 2011a: 27)

what Persephone says to Demeter
you know I thought I could trust him
but family gatherings are different from solitary walks
when he appeared I was happy to say
g’day uncle
you know how chatty he is
new stories jokes always the funny charmer

so when he said
why don’t you come home with me
and have a drink on the terrace
I thought finally someone thinks I’m grown up
well I wasn’t ready for the kind of grown-upness
he had in mind

I screamed
but no one in that godforsaken hole could care less
they’ve seen it too many times
I tried to leave but they barred my way
said since I’d eaten that damned red pomegranate
I had to stay

I was so relieved when you came knocking
so it was auntie Ekaterina who told you where I was?
I’d given her up as a gossip
please tell her again thanks from me
maybe we can visit her
when I get out of here next spring (Hawthorne 2011a: 28)

In my time studying Greek I came upon the name Diotima. In the Symposium, Socrates speaks about her. He says that Diotima of Mantinea was his teacher and that she had taught him all about Eros. My argument in the essay is that Diotima is frequently asserted to be a fictional character, a fantasy of Socrates imagination. But it is rare for men to present philosophical argument using the metaphor of women’s bodies in any positive way. I conclude that Diotima is probably the earliest named woman philosopher to ‘think through the body’ and ‘write through the body’ (Hawthorne 1993: 91).

what the philosophers say: Diotima
how the words on the page
are to be read

that old bull Socrates calls an afternoon
meeting a gnosh up
of food and talk
all about love

they go around the circle
each one
in the steers’ stall
taking his turn
to speak at length

Socrates can’t stop talking
about the concept of fecundity
at the heart of my philosophy

since the bull walks off
how can we expect
him to invent a theory
of existence founded
on the metaphor of pregnancy?

I’m no figment
of his imagination
too real to conceive
through solitary thrills

becoming he calls it
a dynamic philosophy
concocted over my kitchen table
a trapeza
two equilateral triangles

how the dots on the page
are to be read

a stack of wood
the lambda letter
from the snake’s mouth

when I’m in full flight my intellect
swings I explore
not static existence
but moments of between-ness
the metaxu

the amphibious zone
between existence
and reality a method
of communication

the wall at the dead end
the means
by which prisoners

trapeza: Greek: table; also a rectangle comprised of two triangles of ten dots.
metaxu: Greek: between. (Hawthorne 2011a: 61-2)

As a lesbian feminist, I was keen to read the works of Sappho in Greek and I have translated a couple of Sappho’s poems and also written variations on poems of Sappho. In my book Bird I wrote three variations on Fragment 31, surprisingly to me not because of her lesbian content – it’s not in this poem, but rather because when I read it in Greek I saw another way of reading the poem, that is as a poem about epilepsy. I have no idea if anyone else has ever noticed this aspect, but it was one of them moments when you are hit between the eyes.

Variation on Fragment 31
Fortune has deserted me today
as I watch the one sitting
face to face with you

Across the room I listen as
words and laughter fall
from your lips

My heart becomes a
jolting carriage and my
tongue is electrified by

fear. Fire runs through
my veins and I can no longer
hear your words, your laughter,

for the humming in my ears.
I convulse, and sweat
runs cool down my face,

pale as dry summer grass-
death would be better
than this jealousy.

More recently I have translated several other poems by Sappho including Fragment 16. This is one of Sappho’s best-known poems. I first read it as grafitti on a toilet wall in an inner urban suburb of Melbourne in the mid-1970s. Underground poetry always survives. Between then and 1979 when I began studying Ancient Greek a whole new world opened for me. But it’s really only now that I appreciate the craft of Sappho’s poems. In this poem Anaktoria is responding to Sappho’s Fragment 16.

Fragment 16 by Sappho
some say an army of horses some say an army of feet
some say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing
on this black earth but I say it’s whom-
ever you love

easy to make this thought catch
for she who was more beautiful
than all of humanity
left her sublime husband behind

to sail to Troy
neither children nor loved parents
could she perceive
but deceived – she went

recall to me now Anaktoria
no longer here
(Published in Sinister Wisdom 81, 2010: 7)

In my collection Cow, I have written a number of love poems from cow to cow. Here is my bovine love poem based on Fragment 16:

what Anaktoria says to Sappho
when the herds are running the ground thrumming
sunlight scaling every beam of dust like a horde
on the move your finest poems are for me
that’s what I love best

when the sun strikes your coat roan with heat
we all stand dazzled by your beauty
and none of us will ever abandon you
you the brightest of us all

when the summer grass grows pale
and the longing strikes up again
I think of you standing always knowing
which way to go

your doubts are few your face dewy
in the morning light and your eyes
brown soft but your glance is as sharp
as thorns

let me follow you on this track
into that thicket by the river
let us stand flank by flank our love
our armour (Hawthorne 2011a: 138)

Anne Carson writes about Sappho’s Fragment 22 that Gongyla means yoke-mate (note 22.10 p. 363). In Sanskrit the root verb √yuj means to yoke, harness or fasten. It can be applied to two cows yoked together; it can also mean unite or connect in a relationship or through longing. Carson says the first two letters of Gongyla’s name are missing from this poem. Sanskrit for cow is gau/go-: go- are the two missing letters like the lesbians missing from history.

Fragment 22 by Sappho
limb test…
cry out
if not wintry torment

sing of
Gongyla Abanthis grasp
the harp –and again – longing
wafts all around

your loveliness for when you saw her
garment you were excited
and I thrilled

Cyprus-born Aphrodite condemned me
for praying one word:
want (Hawthorne 2011b)

what Gongyla says by Susan Hawthorne
when winter ices my coat
when it strikes
the heart
whatever can you do–

she has made it public
her longing for me
she wants me to sing
my heart pain

she says Aphrodite
is hard hearted
her love searing

but all I want
is want (Hawthorne 2011a: 142)

Reception theory some thirty years ago would have given me a way to frame my ideas. Feminist insight did give me a framework, however, the idea that one could write about one’s reaction to the work from a contemporary context was anathema. I did battle with the Department, and they won. I was forbidden to enroll in another degree. Ten years later, my supervisor said to me, what you did is now all the rage.

These days, I find myself among Sankritists and poets and since it is far too late to take up a career in Classics, instead I find myself drawing on that background knowledge for poetic inspiration. But Greek still inspires me; it inhabits my synapses and appears on the page without bidding. I am thrilled to discover this new (for me) branch of scholarship thriving at a time when languages, poetry and knowledge of the ancient past is given so little importance. If we lose our connection with the deep past, we will lose more than our souls.

Carson, Anne. 2002. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. New York: Vintage Books.
Hawthorne, Susan. 1981. 'Women and Power: A feminist reading of the Homeric Hymns to Aphrodite and Demeter.' MA (Prelim) thesis. University of Melbourne.
Hawthorne, Susan. 1999. Bird. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
Hawthorne, Susan. 2005. The Butterfly Effect. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
Hawthorne, Susan. 2010. 'Translation of Sappho, Fragment 16.' Lesbian Poetry–When? And Now! Sinister Wisdom 81. Berkeley, CA. pp. 7-10.
Hawthorne, Susan. 2011a. Cow. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
Hawthorne, Susan. 2011b. 'Translation of Sappho, Fragment 22.' Unpublished.
Slatkin, Laura M. 2011. The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays. Center for Hellenic Studies. Trustees of Harvard University.


  1. Awesome! Thanks for this. I want to give this a closer reading. :-)

  2. You might also be interested in my poetry blog. It's called simply susanscowblog