The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays

  Slatkin, Laura. 2011. The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays. Hellenic Studies Series 16. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Part II. Chapter 7. Remembering Nicole Loraux Remembering Athens [1]

I wish this morning to offer a few remarks on method and memory, topics that this anthology asks us to recall and rethink. In the course of these remarks I wish as well to recall explicitly the work of our co-editor Nicole Loraux, whose astonishing series of books and essays—along with those of her colleagues J.-P. Vernant, P. Vidal-Naquet, and M. Detienne—enjoin us to reflect on the inescapable politics of memory as well as on the rigors and nuances of method.

An early favorable, if somewhat arch, review of Loraux described her as “one of the best, most prolific, and most solidly ‘historical’ of the Paris ‘structuralists.’” [2] With scare quotes around both “historical” and “structuralist,” the reviewer alluded to a methodological opposition that one might hope is now old news. It is by now a familiar criticism of structuralism, and the so-called structuralist “method,” that it elides history, suppresses conflict, and hypostatizes process. This criticism is relevant, it seems, only to those works—largely Anglo-American, it must be admitted—that have seized upon structuralism as a kind of reification, a readymade toolkit built for breaking down a cultural system or classical text into its smallest constituent units. It is certainly true that structuralism—as manifested, for example, in the magisterial and highly influential work of Lévi-Strauss—has come in for its share of salutary criticism: one may think of contemporary critiques like Sartre’s, or of Derrida’s famous analysis of the illusory mechanics of structuralism in his “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966). Yet the Anglo-American resistance to structuralism was {214|215} more importantly, as we know, a resistance to things French, or—and perhaps this is the same—to things Parisian, and theoretical. What we see in the work of these French classicists in Antiquities is an imaginative dialogue with, never a vulgar appropriation or a reification of, structuralism. Leaving aside the question of defining “structuralism”—for this I refer you both to the anthology’s introduction and to the vast literature surrounding the structuralist problematic—let us concede that those French classicists associated with newer “schools of thought” (anthropological, psychoanalytic, hermeneutic) have often been tarred with the structuralist label. What we see, however, when we turn to the work of these classicists, is their unflagging commitment to history, to politics, and, in the broadest sense, to committed reading.

The hostility that this work has sometimes encountered, particularly from British and German classicists, must be attributed, not only to national styles of scholarship or even to national chauvinism, but also to the profound challenge such brilliantly eclectic yet remorselessly argued books and essays {215|216} present to our received notions of democracy, rationality, the political: I think here of Vernant’s “The Spiritual Universe of the Polis” and Loraux’s Invention of Athens.

The crude rift between, say, classical philology and modern “schools of thought” is revealed to be precisely that, crude, in such works as The Invention of Athens, Children of Athena, The Experiences of Tiresias, and Mothers in Mourning, which ingeniously, imaginatively, and thrillingly illuminate the politics, myths, state genres, gendered discourses, and institutions of antiquity. As her work on gender and the body shows, Loraux pointedly rejected any reduction of “difference” into binaries—for example male/female—which could then be “subsumed under a ‘law of symmetrical inversion.’” As she remarked, following Froma Zeitlin’s work on transvestism in Greek drama, [6] this “overly mechanical process” must be resisted; it is our task rather to identify the complex layers, sometimes overlapping, sometimes not, of representations and institutions of difference. For indeed to invoke, as Loraux does, the vocabulary of the Prague school, if “male” emerges as unmarked and “female” as marked in the classical city, this marking bears always an ideological weight and a political meaning; however “structural” this opposition, it works in historical, political ways. So we see that, even as she found in structuralism, or in later work in exchange-theory, workable tools for approaching and describing systems, her sense of history and her alertness to the mobility of ideological formations always informed, we might even say governed, her use of these tools.

If the text of Athens inevitably becomes something of a culturally narcissistic reflecting pool, nevertheless Loraux does not invoke these readings simply to dismiss them. She recalls them, instead (we might say, anticipating her discussion of amnesty), in order to recall against them. These readings thus emerge as diagnostic of the predicament of reading, and more broadly of the historical project: “there is no such thing as an innocent reading,” Loraux says in her first book, and all her work attests to her commitment to rigorously knowing readings.

There is a certain gap between Athens and Athens, between representations and the array of practices, institutions, and beliefs we call “the real”; the task of the classicist is to identify—to reconstruct, in fact—that critical, political gap. Loraux makes explicit the vocabulary of her method: “I have preferred to use the notion of the imaginary to designate the process by which, in the oration, an ideal of the polis, both opaque and dominant, is constituted.” [11] Insisting that “the imaginary/imaginaire” is a constitutive element of the real, Loraux taught us to see not only the complexity and contradictions encoded within, for example, the funeral oration, or in the representation of the mourning mother, or in Greek discourse on gender: she shows us again and again how the field of representation, particularly as it emerges in a democratic terrain, is the field of contest. If the funeral oration worked to secure for the state the glorious deaths of its warriors, the oration, a double form—both a genre and an institution, as Loraux taught us—also accomplishes other cultural work. Announcing the dead warrior’s embodiment of aretê and securing this virtue for the city, the funeral oration also enacts a conspicuous silencing: the silencing of alternate genres (lament), emotions (anger), genders (women), roles (mothers), and histories. She pointedly remarks on “the silence observed by the funeral oration on the subject of slaves.” [12] Such silences are paradigmatic, ultimately marking out the system of the city itself: “silence brings us back to a much more general omission: the oration ignores whatever does not belong to the sphere of war or politics, that is, everything related to the physical subsistence of the city.” [13]

And indeed it is no accident that Loraux zeroes in on that topos in which the boundaries and affiliations (all affiliations involving a recognition of difference) within the city are most violently contended: namely, the condition of stasis, of seditious dissent, culminating in civil war. “Stasis” emerges as a keyword in Loraux’s corpus: stasis, this strife, this chaos, this rejectamenta within the political, the refusal of which guarantees the city’s apparently seamless self-representations and foundational oppositions.

At the close of her essay, Loraux restates her central question: “Anthrôpoi or andres, anthrôpoi and andres: we will not attempt to choose between the two models, any more than the Greeks did.” [18] It is characteristic of Loraux not only to raise these questions but to suspend them over the course of an essay, to rephrase, refine, and rediscover them over the course of an argument, to refuse prematurely to resolve them; her interest is, indeed, not to resolve but rather to identify the constitutive “dilemmas,” to use her word, running through Greek thought. Hidden within her “or”s (e.g., anthrôpoi or andres) are always deeper recognitions of “and”s (anthrôpoi and andres), soon to be turned by “but”s or modified by “perhaps”es. Her style enacts what her methodological commitments enjoin, that is, a combination of rigorous hovering and surgical penetration. Let no one think this hovering bespeaks indecision: as numerous critics have remarked, Loraux’s style is characterized by its authoritative tone as well as a syntactic precision and complexity that have dazzled and challenged many a translator and reader. In the words of a reviewer, “To summarize [Loraux’s chapters] is to distort them, for Loraux’s every paragraph qualifies, colors, or even contradicts the previous one, and nothing is more alien to her than simplification.” [19] It is as if, through her pauses, her divagations, her sharp turns, her subjunctives, conditionals, “detours,” and negations, she were performing—not theatrically but exem- {220|221} plarily—the texture of her thought: nuanced of course, but also interested in displaying the exact force of resistance that a trope, a concept, or a discourse might present to us.

Thought preventing itself from thinking: here is one pithy formulation of Loraux’s recurring topic. The reduction of stasis to savagery and cannibalism—whether by Greeks or by us—is a “mental dodge” designed to keep us from thinking of the horror within the political, the horrors humans as political beings perpetuate and yet disown, or at least distance, through a discourse of “bestiality.”

It is clear from this vantage that Loraux’s work was always concerned with the politics of memory. What shall be remembered? How? By whom? For whom? These were some of the questions implicitly posed by The Invention of Athens, focusing as it did on the destination of the oration as much as on the topics central to it. Coordinating past, present, and future generations, the oration emerges in Loraux’s account as a state genre and institution through which official memory is performed, cultivated, and transmitted. Throughout her oeuvre she returned to the problematic of memory and its institutions, perhaps most stunningly in her essay “Of Amnesty and its Opposite.”

That the Greeks were expert technicians of memory—of owning and disowning—is clear; Loraux revivified some aspects of Athenian mnemotechnics, notably in her work on mourning mothers and on the concept and practice of “amnesty.”

Such a passage condenses the operations of Loraux’s style, a style always inseparable from the argument, the “steps” always sure, whether taken forward or back. Having posed her central question, “What does an amnesty want?” Loraux offers a proliferation of possible answers, or rather a series of ramifying questions, responses over which she, and we, must hover: does an amnesty want erasure? A healed scar? A planning of a time for mourning? These alternatives, yoked by their “or”s—this, or that, or that—mark the paths we might take; but as always with Loraux, our next movement is a surprising one, a “detour,” as she says, a “step back.” Observe the detours of thought, the perpetual questioning, the surgical opening of the question of amnesty, which will involve us, as Loraux indicated, in matters of erasing, mourning, and history.

Let us stay with the question of amnesty; for, in its thinking through and around amnesty, the city offers us a history and an allegory of what Loraux calls “the uses of oblivion.” In tragedy and in epic, in the funeral oration and in myth, the Greeks contemplate the pleasures and dangers of forgetting and equally those of its opposite, undying remembrance. Mourning is, as Loraux has shown us, a profound form of perpetual remembrance, vengeance another; and mourning modulates terrifyingly easily into wrath—a modulation Achilles perhaps best illuminates. Excessive mourning and excessive wrath threaten the polis, challenge cosmogonic order, and yet the polis ceaselessly meditates on such obsessive remembrance—to exorcise it? Or to remind the citizenry of another order?

The negative construction underlying the amnesty—encoded linguistically in the privative ‘a-mnesty’, and in such semantically-related terms as ‘a-lastor’—reveals that amnesty is, as Loraux suggests, a promise to refuse not only to recall misfortunes but indeed to refuse to “recall [misfortunes] against” an as-yet-unspecified object. As Loraux argues, to recall misfortunes would be, in this case, to recall them against the city; to promise not to recall misfortunes is to consent to the new, fragile self-representation the city offers itself in 403. When wounds are too near, forgetting is impossible. Amnesty is one solution—not the suppressing of memory but the performance of a suppression which in itself inevitably speaks the live presence of the suppressed matter. If it is dangerous to remember, it is also impossible to forget, and thus one announces, citizen by citizen, one’s public commitment to forget. In the structure of amnesty, the Athenians illuminate for us the terror of a past not yet past enough, a past that, if acknowledged, would have to re-inaugurate the cycle of stasis and vengeance.

Again, the trajectory of Loraux’s analysis of amnesty and its opposites—amnesty always alluding to, if suppressing, its opposites—offers a decidedly non-curatorial reading of “the past.” Making us feel the edges of every question the Greeks posed and surgically opening the body of Greek thought to discover endlessly new contours and edges, Loraux offered us not images of ourselves, but problems to think with, figures to think through. {224|}

Works Cited

Fisher, N. R. E. 1982. Review of N. Loraux, L’invention d’Athènes. Histoire de l’oraison funèbre dans la ‘cité classique’ (Paris 1981). Greece and Rome 29:93.

———. 1984. Review of N. Loraux, L’invention d’Athènes. Histoire de l’oraison funèbre dans la ‘cité classique’ (Paris 1981) and N. Loraux, Les enfants d’Athéna. Idées athéniennes sur la citoyenneté et la division des sexes (Paris 1981). Classical Review n.s. 34:80–83.

Frontisi-Ducroux, F. 1981. “Artémis bucolique.” Revue de l’histoire des religions 1:29–56.

Loraux, N. 1984. Les enfants d’Athéna: Idées athéniennes sur la citoyenneté et la division des sexes. Paris.

———. 1986. The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the Classical City. Trans. A. Sheridan. Rev. 2nd ed. 2006. Cambridge, MA. Originally published as L’Invention d’Athènes. Histoire de l’oraison funèbre dans la ‘cité classique’ (1981). Paris.

———. 1998. Mothers in Mourning. Trans. C. Pache. Ithaca, NY. Originally published as Les mères en deuil (1990). Paris.

———. 1995. The Experiences of Tiresias: The Feminine and the Greek Man. Trans. P. Wissing. Princeton. Originally published as Les expériences de Tirésias: le féminin et l’homme grec (1989). Paris.

———. 2001. “Greek Civil War and the Anthropological Representation of the World Turned Upside-Down.” Trans. A. Goldhammer. In Antiquities: Postwar French Thought III, eds. N. Loraux, G. Nagy, and L. Slatkin, 54–70. New York. Originally published as “La guerre civile grecque et la représentation anthropologique du monde à l’envers.” Revue de l’histoire des religions 212:299–326.

———. 2002. The Divided City. Trans. C. Pache and J. Fort. Cambridge, MA. Originally published as La Cité Divisée (1997). Paris.

Schaps, D. M. 1996. Review of N. Loraux, The Experiences of Tiresias: The Feminine and the Greek Man (Princeton 1995). Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.09.12 (1996),

Zeitlin, F. 1982. “Travesties of Gender and Genre in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae.” Reflections of Women in Antiquity, ed. H. Foley, 169–217. Reprinted as Chapter 9 of F. Zeitlin, Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature (Chicago, 1996), 375–416.


[ back ] 1. This essay is a version of a talk presented at a conference in New York City in April 2001, on the occasion of the publication of Antiquities: Post-War French Thought (New York: The New Press, 2001), co-edited with Nicole Loraux and Gregory Nagy. I include it here as a tribute, however inadequate, to Nicole, who died in 2003. My thanks to Ramona Naddaff, general editor of the Post-War French Thought series, for her characteristic thoughtfulness and generosity, which greatly facilitated our collaboration.

[ back ] 2. Fisher 1984.

[ back ] 3. Fisher 1982.

[ back ] 4. Schaps 1996.

[ back ] 5. Loraux 1986:7.

[ back ] 6. See especially Zeitlin 1982 = 1996:375–416.

[ back ] 7. Loraux 1995:17–18.

[ back ] 8. Loraux 1986:14.

[ back ] 9. Loraux 1986:6.

[ back ] 10. Loraux 1986:14 = 2006:42.

[ back ] 11. Loraux 1986:335–336 = 2006:417.

[ back ] 12. Loraux 1986:334 = 2006:414.

[ back ] 13. Loraux 1986:334 = 2006:415.

[ back ] 14. Loraux 1995:15.

[ back ] 15. Loraux 2001:56–57, citing the argument in Frontisi-Ducroux 1981, and Loraux 2002:20.

[ back ] 16. Loraux 2001:67.

[ back ] 17. Loraux 2001:57.

[ back ] 18. Loraux 2001:67.

[ back ] 19. Schaps 1996.

[ back ] 20. Loraux 2001:67.

[ back ] 21. Loraux 1998:83–84.

[ back ] 22. Herodotus 6.21.

[ back ] 23. Loraux 1998:85–86.

[ back ] 24. Loraux 1998:84.

[ back ] 25. Loraux 1998:92–93.