Just when our art-school student newspaper staff was having fun planning a sex-themed issue, we read about Harvey Weinstein … and then, closer to home, Artforum publisher Knight Landesman, driven out amid the shambles of the art world’s establishment publication. And then thousands of artists and art workers who signed an attack on sexism in the art world, “We are not surprised.”
It may be too much to hope that the tsunami of exposés is bringing about a cultural shift, but at least now we have an improved filter before our eyes. These stories have been at the back of my mind whenever I read the news, so I could not help thinking about the Knight Landesmans and Harvey Weinsteins when I read this other front page story in the Times about Emily Wilson, “The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English.” The story raises that ageless question about ageless art — how can we look today at art shaped by patriarchy, after we ourselves have been shaped by generations of women’s liberation?
Maybe thinking about Homer is an odd association. After all, Homer’s Muse hasn’t gone public, though there have been rumors that Homer abused her — just look at the stereotypical roles for women in “The Iliad.” Women are abducted in war and enslaved, and then – alas! — when a woman is a central characters, it’s Helen. Helen, over whom the Trojan war was fought, is the iconic scapegoat, blamed for a war as long as our Afghanistan disaster. And, for another twist of the knife, she is also the subject of that male chauvinist chestnut: “True, she’s high maintenance, a real disaster … but just look at her!” (Iliad III 156ff)
So how do we look at “The Odyssey”? Odysseus, “sacker of cities,” epic hero, another of Homer’s male fantasies? Odysseus, celebrated in an epic about the wonders he’s seen, his sufferings and the suffering he caused, through years of wandering among witches and cannibal giants. And if that’s not enough of an epic — he also has to come home to find his house invaded by Ithaca’s princelings, eating and drinking his wealth away, partying with his maidservants, while demanding his wife Penelope marry one of them.
So he slaughters them all and wins back his wife and property.
And this is all heroic, of course! He is famously introduced as the polutropos, “the man of many twists and turns,” an ambiguous epithet suggesting his twisty cunning mind, but also the many twists and turns in his wanderings — including, curiously, some flings with goddesses.
Emily Wilson jokes that polutropos can even be translated as “straying husband.” (“It was all consensual,” whines Homer. But Muse mutters, “Yeah, that’s Homer’s version. Yes, Homer, goddesses just can’t resist your hero!”)
Not your feminist poster girl
But Penelope, for feminist scholars, poses a bigger challenge than Odysseus. Penelope, proverbial for the devoted, long-suffering wife, faithful while her husband plays the field, just waits by the phone for him to call. Really, Penelope, for 20 years?!! No, not your feminist poster-girl.
Second-wave feminism did a lot to reclaim Penelope for our time. Our Penelope is a true, like-minded partner for Odysseus, matching him in trickery and courage. She tests him repeatedly when he comes as a stranger to claim his house and her bed, challenging him to prove his identity as the real Odysseus. She asks him, Can you describe the clothes Odysseus wore when he left for Troy? Can you string Odysseus’ bow? And, finally, she asks him to prove himself by “the secret signs, known to us both but and hidden from the world.” (23.123-24) The “great sign,” Homer tells us, is their marriage bed, which Odysseus built around a huge olive tree, whose stump still rooted in the ground was the bedpost. And he built their house around it. An impostor wouldn’t know this, only Odysseus would. So polutropos Penelope tells the servants to move their marriage bed out of the bridal chamber, for the stranger to sleep in. The bed is Homer’s image of their meaning to each other and the centrality of Penelope in the epic, and she hurts Odysseus with the thought that she had chopped away the roots and moved it. When he reveals his pain at the thought she had the bed chopped away and moved, he is also revealing his true identity (“Odysseus” means the one who gives and suffers “odynē,” “pain.”)
Did the “whores” and “sluts” deserve their fate?
Penelope’s reunion with her husband can now be seen in its layers of meaning and emotion. But what about those serving women who slept with the suitors? They rather liked the suitors; they partied with them, slept with them, served them as they ate up Odysseus’s cattle and drank up his wine cellar. After slaughtering the suitors, Odysseus and Telemachus humiliate and murder them, and how do we read that?
Emily Wilson points out the overlay of patriarchal language in the standard translations – Fagles’ translation, for example, has Telemachus call them “sluts” and “whores.” Wilson translates with a neutral word, “girls.” She points out that the Greek word is δμῳαί, “slaves” or “serving women,” from a word meaning “overpower.” Homer looks at them the way Odysseus does, as betrayers. But he doesn’t call them sluts or whores, because in his world there were no “whores” or “sluts” (or brothels or pimps); these girls were slaves, as Wilson points out. They had no more power to refuse the suitors than a woman today who was raped by some Hollywood producer. What really happened here? What would Homer’s Muse say in the courtrooms of Olympus? (Muse: “Read critically. Get into the poet’s head, but without leaving your own.”)
As readers, we get caught up in the world and the thinking of the great writers, and we see, too much, through their eyes; after all, that’s what makes them great writers. I don’t think many translators or classical scholars through the centuries gave a thought about the slave women. If their actual status is not a subject for Homer, then we need to make a special effort to see them. Maybe it’s easier for classical scholars now, after decades of feminist criticism and, also, scholarship on ancient slavery. And maybe after Margaret Atwood’s novella, Penelopiad, which gives the slave women a voice and has them accuse and haunt Odysseus and Penelope in Hades.
In Homer’s patriarchal world,, the women are treacherous and guilty. But we are reading them in Weinstein’s patriarchal world, where they are blameless victims and should have talked to a lawyer or a journalist. (But maybe not a male poet or novelist. To steal a phrase from Agamemnon, who was talking about his murderous wife and, also, all women, Weinstein “covers in shame/not only himself but all men everywhere,/even the honest ones to come, forever down the years.” Odyssey XI 432-35)
Look at who owns the words
The news reporting focuses on the individuals — the evildoers and the women who call them out. It’s easy to forget it’s not just about them, because we should never forget them. But notice that a man has the byline of that NY Times article about the first woman to translate “The Odyssey” — a feminist milestone that didn’t need to be marked by a man.
Another reminder that we need to look at who owns the words, who has the power, what are the structures of inequality. Liz Spayd, when she was public editor at the Times, didn’t call out some groping editor; she called out the newspaper itself for “The Declining Fortunes of Women at the Times.” Men have 61% of the bylines in the Times (2017 figures), about the national average, but they dominate far more at the top and in key areas. “Women have skidded down the power structure since Jill Abramson was dismissed as executive editor three years ago, with fewer females leading big news departments and fewer coming up the pipeline.” The Times is marketing to women with more and more articles on their experience, not just on discrimination; but the statistics about the newsroom tell a different story. And then, too, the Times eliminated both Spayd and the public editor position, reducing the need to answer criticism about diversity in its newsroom.
Lasting change? What will be normal?
Will the outpouring of complaints and support for survivors bring about lasting change? Will it become normal now, at least in some sections of the economy, for women to come forward to accuse their abusers? Many of the stories have been of egregious, bullying assaulters; but if the source of the abuse is unequal power structures, abuse will continue while the inequalities persist. Many abusers will learn from the media coverage and will learn subtlety; they will see the narratives as “how to manuals” in avoiding exposure; and human resource departments will continue to focus on avoiding litigation rather than preventing abuse.
The response will also have to find its source in power — the power of the solidarity of survivors, of bystanders, of the rest of us. So long as there is no justice in our institutions, movements will center their power in the streets, in the virtual streets of the internet, and in the pressure they bring to bear on the elites.
Meanwhile, back at the art school, we continue to come to terms with art history. What can we do? What do we do about history’s great artist abusers? Must we burn Picasso? Not very likely, but there is more to learn as we think about what it means to keep looking, and think about how to explain why the great art of the patriarchy can continue to fascinate and enthrall, as well as irritate and enrage.
And meanwhile, sex is still beautiful and fun, powerful and serious, for art school journalists working on their sex-themed issue for December. Look for it, get the email newsletter at www.fnewsmagazine.com.
And here is some art, your reward for reading this far.
- Musa reading a volumen (scroll), at the left an open chest. Attic red-figure lekythos, ca. 435-425 BC. From Boeotia. Louvre, CA2220.
- Circe and her swine. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, 1892.
- Circe. Wright Barker, 1889. Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford, UK
- Odysseus and Calypso. Hendrik van Balen, c1616. Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.
- Penelope Unraveling Her Web. Joseph Wright of Derby, 1783 – 1784.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Getty Open Content.
- Ulysses’ revenge on Penelope’s suitors. Christopher Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1814. The Hirschsprung Collection.
- Cover of Swedish edition of “Penelopiade,” by Margaret Atwood.
- Odysseus and Penelope. Francesco Primaticcio, 1563.
And thanks to my old Greek professor for reminding me that polutropos is the feminine form of the adjective, as well as the masculine.