A blind seer's sexual peek

The Experiences of Tiresias
June 21, 1996

Writing last year in The THES (March 10), Colin McCabe recalled the objection of the classics department at the University of Birmingham to the establishment of a centre for cultural studies. Cultural studies already exists here, the classicists said - it is called classics. Nicole Loraux's book, a honing and reworking of articles she originally published in journals, is a vindication of such a viewpoint.

Her aim is to show by means of psychoanalysis how the Greeks saw the notion of sexuality or, to be more accurate perhaps, sexual difference. As Loraux recognises, such a study tends not to satisfy either psychoanalysts, who prefer Hellenists to remain firmly on their own turf, or classicists, who are mistrustful of social constructions. By carefully keeping close to the texts she discusses, however, Loraux draws her conclusions from a reading of those texts rather than by applying psychoanalysis to discover what the character in the text "actually" saw or said. In the Tiresias myth, for example, Callimachus says little about what the seer saw when he confronted the naked Athena, but Loraux is able to use the poet's reticence about the goddess's nakedness and emphasis on the seer's blindness to suggest what the myth may have meant to the poet and the contemporary Greek reader.

The myth of Tiresias is her starting point. The seer, having been changed for a while into a woman, is best placed to resolve a dispute among the gods as to who has more pleasure in the sexual act; his reply is the woman does - a subversion of the normally subordinate position of women in ancient Greece. (Women had no civic rights. If they sometimes appear privileged - as, for example, in Sparta, where women had property rights - their "privilege", when seen in the context of the society to which they belonged, becomes less of a privilege.) In support of her argument, Loraux makes use of various texts. The chapter on the Iliad and its use of metaphors is a gentle elucidation of the conflict of fear - and weakness - and the bravery engendered in the hearts of its heroes, where their (womanly) weaknesses in the face of the enemy serve to enhance their heroic status. Further chapters elucidate her theme with reference to Plato; the portrayal of women in the literary sources, Athene, Helen and Clytemnestra. Though women seem in all cases to have a subordinate position to men because of their sex, Loraux shows how even this representation of women can be fraught with ambivalence. This review only hints at the range of Loraux's reading and argument. Her subject is a controversial one, but her arguments are judicious, and they merit consideration.

Philip Warnock is librarian, The THES.

The Experiences of Tiresias: The Feminine and the Greek Man

Author - Nicole Loraux
ISBN - 0 691 02985 7
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 348
Translator - Paula Wissing

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