Thursday, October 03, 2013

Lair of silent women: Hippolytus's ideal polis

Theseus captures the Bull of Marathon

As Hippolytus unfolds his "argument" regarding women (Hipp. 616-668) -- how if he were Zeus, he'd delete them from human procreation; how they drain their fathers and their husbands, who spend down their wealth adorning these "statues" (ἄγαλμα), he then goes on to offer a singular word picture of how things would stand in his ideal republic:
[645] One ought to let no slave pass in to see a woman. Rather one should companion them with wild and brute beasts so that they would be unable either to speak to anyone or to be spoken to in return. 
But as things are, the wicked ones plot evil [650] within doors, and their servants carry their plans abroad. 
χρῆν δ᾽ ἐς γυναῖκα πρόσπολον μὲν οὐ περᾶν, ἄφθογγα δ᾽ αὐταῖς συγκατοικίζειν δάκηθηρῶν, ἵν᾽ εἶχον μήτε προσφωνεῖν τιναμήτ᾽ ἐξ ἐκείνων φθέγμα δέξασθαι πάλιν.
νῦν δ᾽ αἱ μὲν ἔνδονδρῶσιν αἱ κακαὶκακὰ βουλεύματ᾽, ἔξω δ᾽ ἐκφέρουσιπρόσπολοι.
It's a remarkable bit of poli-sci phantasmagoria: In the ideal city of Hippolytus, women would be kept within. But not simply consigned to the house and away from the realm of public affairs, because that alone would not solve the main problem women present: their power of speech. Woman as the locus of rampant, uncontrollable desire must be prevented from uttering, i.e., outering, her desire. To imprison them and make them literally unspeakable, Hippolytus offers his novel proposal -- worthy, indeed, of Swift's well-intentioned modest Proposer -- that all women be held in solitary confinement, companioned solely by dangerous, biting (δάκη) animals that are ἄφθογγα - "voiceless."
ἄφθογγα δ᾽ αὐταῖς συγκατοικίζειν δάκηθηρῶν
This hyperbolic concept sits strangely alongside the verb συγκατοικίζειν, which carries the sense of colonizing, establishing jointly, a means of living together. It's a perfect word for one attempting to think of how cities, neighbors, even kingdoms can form civil bonds in a world of competition, limited resources, and different values and gods.

Hippolytus is in fact using a term of ancient political theory that was associated with his father, Theseus, from an early time: Synoikismos (Synoecism):
Synoecism  Ancient GreekσυνοικισμóςsunoikismosAncient Greek: [syːnɔi̯kismós]), also spelled synoikism (/sɨˈnɔɪkɪzəm/ si-noy-kiz-əm), was originally the amalgamation of villages in Ancient Greece into poleis, or city-states. Etymologically the word means "dwelling together (syn) in the same house (oikos)." Subsequently any act of civic union between polities of any size was described by the word synoikismos
In a way, Theseus was the hero who fostered the idea of alliances, marriages, between political entities, just as he sought to bridge and unite Crete and Athens in marrying Phaedra.

By having Hippolytus echo the language of his father's inclusive political vision even as he is in fact describing a mode of exclusion that divorces womankind from all human intercourse, a dimension of irony is introduced that seems almost Swiftian in its incisive power. If like Hippolytus's devoted friends we were to envision a city in which men meet and conduct their lives while women are relegated to a lair of violent beasts, we are looking at a very strange city indeed.

It's only possible to fully appreciate how far this political vision is from even his own chosen form of life if we remember how Hippolytus spends his days. Far from the city, he loves to hunt in the wild. Aphrodite gives us a picture of him early in her opening speech:
In the green wood, ever consort to the maiden goddess, he clears the land of wild beasts with his swift dogs, and has gained a companionship greater than mortal.
χλωρὰν δ᾽ ἀν᾽ ὕλην παρθένῳ ξυνὼν ἀεὶκυσὶν ταχείαις θῆρας ἐξαιρεῖ χθονός,μείζω βροτείας προσπεσὼν ὁμιλίας.
The roving life of Artemis, free from all allegiance to men, to sexual desire and procreation, is the energetic hunting and killing of wild animals -- the triumph of sheer negative power over uncivilized creatures. Here, though, we find Hippolytus reversing all that: Coming full circle, he ends by introducing wild beasts into the heart of the polis itself, summoned into service to roam between the lips of women and the ears of anyone who might hear. The problem of women is "solved" through the complete suppression of their voice.

Nothing could be farther from Aphrodite and Artemis than this bizarre version of rus in urbe. Nor is it something to which Hippolytus's Amazonian mother was likely to have given her blessing.

Hippolytus here verges on becoming a satirical target, but the effect is passing, momentary. It's as if a door onto an engulfing possibility of dizzying irony and negation opens, then shuts. One wonders if Aristophanes' literary attacks on Euripides might not have been provoked by a certain envy, the sensing of a comedic savagery a bowshot beyond his own.

Theseus kills the Minotaur

No comments: