Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is from Andrea Marcolongo’s ‘L’art de Resister, comment l’Eneide’ nous apprend à traverser une crise’. Gallimard, 2021 for the French translation from the original 2020 Italian. Here, we offer you this excerpt in our English translation to give you a taste of her work.
After centuries, or rather millennia, of rigorous philology, when it comes to speak of the women of classical mythology, we behave like ‘Madame Bovary’. In the best case I mean. I the worst case, we entrust the story writing to Cinderella.
The psyche of male characters has always been dissected in order to understand their wrongs and their motivations-especially their wrongs, in Aeneas’s case. It is upon the actions of Achilles, Hector, of Ulysses and others that philosophical theories, sociological models, anthropological treatises were built-with also all the expected reactions towards a society as strictly male chauvinist than the Antic society.
The fate of women, in contrast, we often just whined; and sighted, ‘poor thing!’ in front of the never-ending list of women seduced and abandoned during the antiquity.
The tragic fate women meet in mythology never really instigate a collective awareness, nor a concrete affirmation of women dignity-poetry is certainly not just pure fiction to take lightly, especially when it rises to the dimension of myth, true manifesto in verses of a vision of the world, womanhood included. Most of the time, the reader does not contemplate the issue of woman. Because, we rarely go beyond a few emotional sobs, ready worthy of the ‘reader’s mail’ to attempt to understand why these women end badly.
We are indignant, rightly, of their husbands and their lovers, their fathers and their sons who are always cowards, greedy, short-sighted, betrayers, fainthearted. And almost always violent: the region in Hell dedicated to the dead victims of the ‘rough love’, that Aeneas will visit in book VI of the ‘Aeneid’, is exclusively populated by women.
But indignation gives way to concern, to apprehension. To the chill of terror induced by doubt: ‘And what if the man I love will also abandon me?’ Then we haste lending a handkerchief to Didon, Nausicaa, Calypso, Medea, Ariadne, Andromaque, Penelope and all the others, to wipe away their tears. And we rush to close the ‘Aeneid’, the ‘Illiad’, the ‘Odysey’ and the whole library to diligently open the worn-out manual after so many readings of the perfect housewife, mother, sister, friend, daughter and ally.
‘I will not meet the same fate’ we repeat ourselves so to calm down as the anguish rises. To be not only humiliated, hurt, killed most often, lose everything of what made our before-lives, family, the house, country-even up to our own name, not to forger our pride. But it is mainly to be abandoned by the man who says he loves us.
And here is the result: while we check the cooking of the pie in the oven, or the folded lace set in the wardrobe- metaphors under the shapes of euphemisms of the complexity of our reaction to myth-, men carry on, impassible, continuing to impose their very own motivations.
Take good note of this: on the library shelves of the whole world, Homer is not the only one to tell how awesome it is to travel alone in the Mediterranean. On the opposite, travel books, outer or inner geography, inspired by classical epics have multiplied these last years. Their authors: All men.
A variation knowing a discreet trend in order not to confront the unavoidable issue of woman asked by classical antiquity is to ‘re-write’ the story. But it is simply limited to writing in an identical manner. A feminicide committed in Greece two thousand years ago would look, supposedly, faraway and alien to the reader. ‘antic’ becoming then synonym of ‘pre-historic’. If we would stage it nowadays, in our cities or our tropical paradises, and let to all women wear a skirt and a smartphone in the hand. These rewritings take the reader for an idiot, unable to recognize violence if he does not see a gun pointed at the head of his fiancée in the subway car, he rides every morning. And they masquerade as good faith, guided by the chronological and geographical distance, the obvious bad faith with which we cheerfully carry-0n to ignore that women of the antiquity have much to say and even more to claim than a few well written pages.
The same observation applies to the meager attempts at consolation that are the ‘alternative versions’ of the myths. Like this one, where Ulysses goes back to Ithaca, but does not find Penelope, who tired of waiting, is already gone with another man. Or where Helen tells Paris to get lost and choses herself her side, emptying the abscess of all the meanness committed by the Greeks or the Trojans. Or where Didon points the sword at Aeneas’ neck instead of throwing herself at it. These re-writings are not so alternative, at least not as much as they claim to be. Overall, from a philological point of view, there are not at all.
If it is about to propose a different ending to the myth from the original, where tears are mixed with blood, the Ancient had already thought about it. It is difficult, in front of a successful story, de not be tempted to create a sequel or a spin-off-Nowadays at Netflix’s headquarters in California or in Athens, two thousand years ago. The Greeks never lacked imagination to provide alternative endings to the most famous stories sung by the epic and tragic authors. These endings, nevertheless, have the taste of a revenge that is served too late.
And especially, they always have these hypocritical and odious appearances of consolation prizes. ‘Whatever, Medea marries Achilles in the Underworld, said the Ancients-‘Whatever, after’, in book IV of the ‘Odyssey’, we find Helen happy, at home, with Melenas. According to certain versions, ‘Whatever, after’, Penelope also falls in love with one of the suitors, Antinoos.
‘And what about it?’ we would fancy to answer-at least this is what I would say. Here, again, I know if it only literary naivety or obstinate dishonesty. To learn that the women of the myths have found their happiness afterwards, is a good thing, how to say otherwise? But the fake anesthesia provided by a story that ends well does not erase the reality of the wound. And it does not prevent us from the duty of understanding.
In certain contemporary reconstitution, we see men suffering the treatment, well documented in our imagination since two thousand years, they inflicted to women. It is them, the husbands, who become the newest victim of mistreatment, oppressed, slaughtered by women. And in this case, the consolation candy is not deserved. Not even in the form of literature.
It is impossible to feel any relief, in the application of the Talion law, even though on paper; law directly originated from the Hammourabi Codex. Especially in the books that are telling that in order to efficiently warn against violence, one needs to become violent too. And we see women ending up by doing to men what they suffered from them for centuries.
If there is no relativity in matters of pain, you can also imagine that there is also no relativity in evil. A killer remains a killer, let it on the plains of Troy or in Paris, it does not change anything- whoever commits it is a man or a woman does not change anything. It is not because I do to you what you did to me that no-one will ever do it in the future.
To those who would retort that some provocations are needed to awake the sleeping consciousnesses, let us not hesitate to reply: Obviously not at the cost of denying one-self. And add that if some souls do not react evenly in front of horror, it is perfectly unnecessary to apply it in practice-these consciousnesses are not only sleeping, they are in fact dead. Even worse, they are not even born.
To say it in one word, the issue is not about inversing the perspective of feminine suffering in the classical myth to try to understand them. Nor to manipulate history or geography to make them feel closer. Perhaps such tentative would allow to light a spark of light in the darkness of the Middle Age. Maybe-the whole life could be thrown into darkness.
But may a modern society, who claims to be the ultimate link of progress, not only technological, but also civic and moral, like the one we are living in, have courage to look face to face to the issue raised by the women in classical myths. More precisely: That it has the honesty to do so, in going further and deeper than a simple outraged reaction in front of male behavior.
Because it is not a fairy tale. There are not ‘And they lived happily ever after’, if it is not after they are dead in the Elysian Fields-and it will be the gods that will decide, but obviously not us writers. It is also not even a writing exercise to freely expand to sado-masochist tendencies in inflicting to men the proportionate punishment of the ‘contrapasso’- Dante’s Inferno is sold out since seven hundred years.
It’s about the classical myth. It is the only place possible-at least less bloody, because we are facing a myth and not History or local news-to try to understand how a beautiful woman, literate (the protagonists of epics are rarely illiterate peasant women, most of the time kings daughters that rule cities and empires), independent, socially integrated and quite eager to live, end up one day saying these words because of a man: ‘Quando aliud mihi iam miserae nihil ipsa reliqui’ (Because, in my misfortune, I did not keep anything more.’
Even if only to avoid that the pain felt by Didon stays literally ‘in brackets’ not only for the others, or for all the literary courts that were promptly erected as soon as Virgil described her tragic ending. But, also for Didon. For her and all the women like her, until our time.
To sum up, the issue of women raised by the ‘Aeneid’ is much more urgent than the tired stereotype of the male hero who breaks the romantic dreams of the defenseless princess. We have long ago well understood that is a despicable wrong. From now on, It is necessary to go further to look what this wrong made of and how it was born. Not for pleasure to dissect Didon’s pain. Rather to prevent that, for other women, ‘…life vanishes on the breeze’ (Aeneid, IV-705).