The pulverization of literary taste and finesse under the massive, trundling mill wheel of feminism continues. As the month of May began, I graded the last round of student essays on Homer that I’ll ever see. I had anticipated a bittersweet, slightly nostalgic feeling… but most of that was overcome by a sense of exhaustion and despair. I’ll skip over the butchery of grammar (e.g., “possess’s” for “possesses—this from graduating English majors), though I don’t really understand it. If these same students are writing twenty-page research papers for their other professors, as they claim, then why have they not learned how to spell? But then, they also say that the papers are written according to strict guidelines (meaning that they seldom express any of their own ideas) and that the submission date is invariably at the end of the semester (meaning that the professors in question needn’t annotate and return the work). In short, it does seem to be possible to compose hundreds of pages as a literature major over four years and never learn how to write.
Yet what depresses me far more than ignorance of the apostrophe’s purpose is the moral bankruptcy of feminism applied to literary criticism. How many times in recent years have I read the indictment that there are no women in the Iliad except for Helen, and that Helen is just another pretty face? “On rare occasions when she does speak, she degrades herself.” Oh, yes, there’s also Briseis—Achilles’ trophy-girl, a concubine whose husband and family he had slaughtered in the expedition’s early days. Hector’s wife Andromache is about the same thing, in this view: a hero’s sex toy who knows how to weave.
In the first place… yes, the Bronze Age was a man’s world in the sense of force majeure and “might makes right”. Since guns weren’t around yet, your fate as a woman was either to be defended by one man or carried off by another. Helen, to her “credit” (and I’m shocked that feminists don’t frame the issue this way, though the argument remains morally bankrupt), appears freely to have chosen elopement with Paris: Herodotus writes that everyone east of Greece recognized as much—and that the Greeks feigned ignorance only to nourish their pretext for a plundering expedition.
And, yes, Helen was stunningly beautiful… and, yes, her few speeches are oddly self-deprecating. Oddly, but fascinatingly. How many times in “real life” have people who were somewhat spoiled and vain due to their good looks harbored a suppressed sense of inferiority because no one (including themselves) ever noticed their inner qualities? My father’s generation would cite the tragic Marilyn Monroe. Ariosto’s Angelica certainly belongs on the list, as perhaps does the Welsh Branwen.
But let’s not forget the real issue, according to the feminists: men are getting all the glory on the battlefield, and women are just cheerleaders or contestants in a beauty contest. Don’t start obscuring the outrage here by talking about characterization and psychology!
The handling of Briseis and Andromache in this vein particularly upsets me (speaking of outrage). Achilles has exterminated the families of both and will end up making both widows; Andromache differs from the slave-captive only in that Hector had married her and transported her to Troy before the deadly Achaean superman invaded her native island. Briseis clearly deserved a better fate, and the subtle Patroclus (he’s a man, you know) is indeed seeking to secure her a superior status as the hero’s wife when he is slain. The saner, more humane world toward which these two lesser characters (Achilles’ concubine and his adoptive brother) struggle in vain is nothing less than the Iliad’s implied indictment of the whole warrior/reiver culture. Achilles himself is at last rendered miserable—and “forever glorious”, for what that’s worth—by scorning or neglecting the domestic intricacies of life and refusing to acknowledge that “weaklings” have the power to make our time here on earth tolerable. The tears he sheds with Priam come too late. His beloved old father Peleus, his best friend Patroclus, his might-have-been bride Briseis… all can be viewed now only through the veil of lost opportunity and imminent death. The “man’s world” hasn’t worked out so very well for him.
“Yes, but… but he made Briseis his whore. That’s all she’s good for—Homer’s telling us that women are good for nothing more than that!” And this is what you’ve learned after an advanced study of literature for four years?
As for Andromache, no figure of either sex is more tragic than she, in the whole of Greek myth. Even Niobe somewhat deserves the loss of all her beautiful children, thanks to her boastfulness; but Andromache wants nothing more than to be left in peace with her young husband and infant son. The Greeks slay the former and murder the latter (lest he grow up and avenge his father: the Iliad doesn’t relate the atrocity, but Homer’s audience knew that it loomed). The fact that this tortured woman can only weave away as the battle rages beyond the city walls is of course a portrait in the concentration of the condemned as they await execution: and, yes, it’s a horribly passive role. Far easier would be some cathartic exit through the gates with sword and spear—as Euripides’ Medea famously declares in her first long speech… and, oh, how feminist critics love Medea! But the sorceress’s notorious comments in the later play about wishing she could go to war aim at manipulating her naive hearers: she’s setting everyone up for a vengeance that will include killing her own young sons (speaking of passive, defenseless victims). In the “real world”, the weak and humble indeed have no option but to endure.
Is it an outrage that Andromache cannot transform herself into Wonderwoman? Would this have helped either her husband or her child, in Homer’s world (which turns out to be more realistic than our Hollywood/comic book alternative)? What exactly are these students of mine envisioning as the option that a later Andromache should be supplied in a better world? Homer, I think, is trying to alert us to his world’s serious flaws precisely by crushing us with the woman’s tragedy. Is a better world one where women have hook-ups but no permanent commitments, abortion on demand, the occasional designer-child raised in government-financed daycare, and a piratical freedom to curse and pillage and swagger up the career ladder? Can we at least spend a few moments appreciating Homer’s portrait of the human condition in its own terms before we start grafting some new HBO mini-series upon it?
No, apparently not. And the final kick in the gut for me is to realize that these coeds aren’t just making it all up as they go along in subjective bursts of pique: they’re drawing upon the feminist critics whom they’ve been required to cite—repeatedly—in their other courses. They’re being “scholarly”.
Definitely time for me to hang it up. Idle question: I wonder if the feminist scholars whom my kids have spent so many years citing know when to use an apostrophe?