Myth and the Unconscious: The Allegory of the Cave Revisited

Katerina Zissouli Allegory of the Cave

The theory of knowledge, as it develops in the Republic, is offered by Plato in the form of an allegory: the “Allegory of the Cave” (Republic, Book VII, 514a-519b). Plato maintains that there are two levels of awareness and clearly distinguishes between the two: mere opinion and pure knowledge. Claims or assertions about the physical or visible world, including both common sense observations and scientific theories are only opinions. Some of these opinions may be well founded; some may be faulty. Neither, however, is to be considered pure knowledge. Only Reason which exists on higher levels of awareness yields pure knowledge; only Reason when suitably realized may result in undeniable intellectual insight. This is where the abiding universals lie and shape the eternal Forms that constitute the real world. Consequently, it is no coincidence that the “Allegory of the Cave” appears in the very work that suggests female equality. To be sure, in the unfolding of the allegory both “men and women are chained, and both must find their way into the light of true Being and true knowledge” (Bluestone, 1987, 146).

The “Allegory of the Cave” is also used to demonstrate Socrates’ Theory of Forms (Republic, Book VI, 509d-511e), in other words, the notion that the whole being is made up of a visible and an intelligible “realm” (not what we envisage as our world). As a result, the allegory delineates the process by which we are inspired to ascend from obscure knowledge (not well defined knowledge) of the visible realm through our senses, to the clearer knowledge of the intelligible realm through the use of reason (syllogismós).

Plato, in Book VII of the Republic, prompts the reader to imagine how life would be in a dark cave, where men and women have been confined since childhood, cut off from the outside world. Within the confines of this cave, men and women are chained by the legs and neck in such way that they cannot see in any other direction but straight ahead. The only visual stimulus for the prisoners in the cave unfolds on a short wall situated directly in front of them. On the wall that assumes the function of a screen, a projected “show” takes place; it is similar to a puppet show or shadow theater. To achieve this, there are certain people in the background whose job is to cast certain images on the wall of the cave that appear to the prisoners in the form of shadows. This is accomplished as a result of a fire burning in the back of the cave that the prisoners are not able to see. This, in turn, underscores the effect of the dark shadows on the wall. At this point, Plato prompts his readers to imagine that this is all the men and women, who are the prisoners and inhabitants of the cave, understand and experience as reality. They know nothing else (Republic, Book VII, 514a-b).

Suddenly, one of the prisoners is freed from the chains and forced, having been grabbed by the neck, to exit the cave and experience for the first time the outside world (what we consider the “real” world). At first, the prisoner is obviously confused; the prisoner, naturally, has to contend with a certain manifestation of disbelief. It is difficult, to say the least, for the ex-prisoner to accept that life inside the cave was an illusion and that the artificial images which were thought of as the real thing were, in fact, untrue and unreal. In other words, what appears to be true, is clearly not so (Republic, Book VII, 515c-d).

It is not surprising that Plato’s ex-prisoner returns to the cave and tries to enlighten the rest of the prisoners by making them familiar with his newly acquired knowledge pertaining to the “real” world outside of the cave. Certainly, this jeopardizes the ex-prisoner’s security and may even put her life in danger (Republic, Book VII, 517a). The unconscious can work wonders here. This is precisely because the people in the cave have not previously been introduced to the Theory of Forms. As a result, they have a skewed interpretation of reality which is based only on their personal observations. For instance, suppose that one of the shadows passing in front of the prisoners is that of a scroll. If the prisoners were allowed to communicate, one might say to another, “I see a scroll marching in front of me.” The question is, however, does she see a scroll or an image of a scroll as it appears in its shadowy form? Regardless of the answer, she did use the word scroll. Shedding light on the reason she used the word scroll would simplify to a certain extent the Theory of Forms.

The explanation lies in Book VII of the Republic. In section 515b, Socrates raises a valid question that dissects the Theory of Forms as related to the “Allegory of the Cave.” Thus Socrates inquires, “If they [prisoners] could converse with each other, do you not think that they would consider that the names they used applied to the things they see passing before them?” Hence if a prisoner says, “That is a scroll,” she thinks that the word “scroll” refers to the very thing appearing directly ahead of her. Obviously, what Plato attempts to establish here is that the prisoner will be wrong in assuming this because she is looking at the mere shadow of the item. The prisoner cannot see the real referent of the word “scroll.” In order to see it, she must turn to face the item itself, and that is not possible. According to Plato, and various linguists, general terms in language models are not names (signifiers) of the physical objects (signified) that we see. They are actually names of things that we cannot see, things that we can only grasp with the mind, hence the arbitrary nature of assigning names to items whether animate or inanimate. (Let us consider the word dog, for example. What is this dog quality or dogness incorporated in the word dog that gives its name to the four-legged creature?)

Consequently, in both Plato and Aristotle, mimesis (The imitation or representation of aspects of the sensible world, especially human actions, in literature and art) is the relationship between reality and representation. Aristotle, on the one hand, conveys the positive notion of mimesis, whereas Plato, on the other hand, conveys the negative notion of mimesis. In fact, Serena Anderlini-Onofrio explains,

Plato established an essentialist, negative notion of mimesis which presupposes that universals pre-exist particulars (the general precedes the specific, as we moderns would say). For Plato, cultural endeavors that imitate what is sensible were copies; hence they were one more step removed from perennial essences than the sensible world. Therefore, for Plato, mimesis, which is the art of making likeness of the objects that nature offers for observation, only threatens the purity of the perennial essences–the immutable ideas of which the shadows in the cave are a mere reflection. (1999, 160)

As a result, if and when the prisoners are released, after much pain and resistance, they are able to turn their heads and see the real objects. Socrates creates an analogy based on the prisoners’ newly acquired ability to turn their heads and see the originators of the shadows: this action simply enables them to grasp the Theory of Forms with their minds. To put it in contemporary terms, we may acquire conceptual ideas because of our perceptual experience of physical objects, but we would be mistaken if we would think that the concepts we grasp are on the same level as the things we recognize.

Yet there is an incongruity when attempting to apply Feminist Literary Theory to the “Allegory of the Cave.” That is because many Feminist Literary Theorists conclude that Plato uses the “Allegory of the Cave” as a metaphor for the womb. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, for one thing, in their acclaimed book, The Madwoman in the Attic, maintain that Plato’s cave is “a female place, a womb-shaped enclosure, a house of earth, secret and often sacred” (1979, 93). “To this shrine,” they continue, “the initiate comes to hear the voices of darkness, the wisdom of inwardness” (1979, 93). They go on to say, “The womb-shaped cave is also the place of female power, the umbilicus mundi, one of the great antechambers of the mysteries of transformation and that women trapped in the cave might seem to have metaphorical access to the dark knowledge buried in there” (1979, 95).

Additionally, Luce Irigaray, in her book, Speculum of the Other Woman, also prompts her reader to look at the “Allegory of the Cave” as “a metaphor of inner space, of the den, the womb or hystera . . .” (1985, 243). She goes on to admit, however, that to look at it as such is “strictly speaking, impossible” (1985, 243). She claims that all the words used by Plato to describe and identify the cave can be seen in the light of the word hystera. In other words, she declares that the cave, where men (she insists that the prisoners are men), with unspecified sex, live, is shaped like a cave or a womb (1987, 243). However, the noun anthropos, in Greek does not refer to “man, sex unspecified” as Irigaray would like us to believe. The word actually means neither man nor woman, but rather human being. Yet, Irigaray goes on to say,

The entrance to the cave takes the form of a long passage, corridor, neck, conduit, leading upward, toward the light or the sight of day, and the whole of the cave is oriented in relation to this opening. Upward–this notation indicates from the very start that the Platonic cave functions as an attempt to give an orientation to the reproduction and representation of something that is always already there in the den. The orientation functions by turning everything over, by reversing, and by pivoting around axes of symmetry. From high to low, from low to high, from back to front, from anterior to opposite, but in all cases from a point of view in front of or behind something in this cave, situated in the back. Symmetry plays a decisive part here–as projection, reflection, inversion, retroversion–and you will always already have lost your bearings as soon as you set foot in the cave; it will turn your head, set you walking on your hands, though Socrates never breathes a word about the whole mystification, of course. This theatrical trick is unavoidable if you are to enter into the functioning of representation. (1985, 244)

Irigaray emphasizes that the most important aspect of Plato’s allegory has to do with the passage from the cave upward as a “phallic progression” (1985, 247). She claims that the “neck, passage, conduit, that has been obliterated and forgotten, can be nothing but the one, the same, penis. Simply turned inside out . . .” (1985, 248). Note that the occupants of the cave are “always already,” to borrow Irigaray’s term, men. After she goes on to say that the function of the cave is a copy of a copy, she concludes that the entire Socratic dialectic is contained in the following idea: “Nothing can be named as ‘beings’ except those same things which all the same men see in the same way in a setup that does not allow them to see other things and which they will designate by the same names, on the basis of the conversation between them” (1985, 263). This idea is overreaching, especially if it were held up to the light of the former analysis based on the Platonic idea of the “Allegory of the Cave.”

There is something to be said, however, about Irigaray’s insistence that the occupants of the cave are male, “sex unknown,” for she claims that inevitably they must be linked to the mother. “It is only after resistance and pain that the man be set on his feet in the cave and will begin to walk around it,” Irigaray warns us (1985, 258). On the one hand, one cannot help but wonder what happened to women in Irigaray’s cave; on the other hand, it doesn’t come as a surprise that she likens the coming out of the cave to the birthing process. According to her, when the man is, finally, out of the cave, he symbolically exits the womb. Perhaps what Irigaray is trying to say may be that women simply are the cave. Although Plato clearly explains that the ex-cave inhabitant returns to the cave, Irigaray believes that the ex-cave inhabitant’s departure is a one-way path with no return. Hence, the men will not be able to “turn back toward the mother” (1985, 258).

However, according to Irigaray, men will act “as if it were possible to turn the scene of the womb or at least its representation back/over. As one might turn a purse, or a pocket, or a string bag, or even a wallet inside out” (1985, 284). Clearly, these are negative connotations to daylight, unconcealment, and truth. That is to say, since Irigaray associates daylight, unconcealment, and truth with men, ideas traditionally positive and good become negative and, as a result, wrong. As far as Irigaray is concerned, this move is an “effective way to prevent anything from remaining concealed, buried, shrouded, to stop its hiding, lurking, staying under wraps, in reserve” (1985, 284). In order that one may learn the wisdom of the philosopher and be introduced to “views that are fairer, loftier, and more precise,” one must “cut off any remaining empirical relation with the womb” (Irigaray, 1985, 293). This will make men “orphans of a simple, pure–and Identical–Origin. At best, hybrids” (Irigaray, 1985, 293). Certainly, according to Irigaray, Plato espouses a misogynist, sexist idea, “[h]e who has never dwelled within the mother will always already have seen the light of day” (1985, 295).

However, according to Socrates, when certain truths are concealed, pure knowledge is suppressed and censorship is imposed. Philosophers do not flourish in such societies. After all, one cannot be a carpenter without hammer and nails. When all that human beings know comes to them in the form of a shadow theater, as impressions of “spoon-fed” knowledge on an imaginary wall, always concealed from the truth, how can they seek pure knowledge? Furthermore, even though some may find their way out of the cave because it may be increasingly difficult for them to live the lie, it is impossible to convince the rest of the cave occupants to “see the light.” As a result, the enlightened find themselves back in the cave trying, to their dismay, to convince the others that their lives are an illusion.

Simone De Beauvoir, on the other hand, terms the “Allegory of the Cave,” “The myth of the Androgynes(a man-woman, hermaphrodite)” (Liddell and Scott, 1987, 58). De Beauvoir claims that in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” “The organism of the male supposes that of the female. Man discovers woman in discovering his own sex, even if she is present neither in flesh and blood nor in imagery; and inversely it is in so far as she incarnates sexuality that woman is redoubtable” (1989, 161). Be that as it may, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” has nothing to do with sexuality. Yet when, De Beauvoir restricts woman to her sex, she limits and categorizes feminist notions of equity. Moreover, her attempt to reterritorialize the term woman without first taking it through the concept of deterritorialization results in stereotyping. It may be true that men fear women’s sexuality, but that has nothing to do with Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Michel Foucault, in fact, maintains,

For a long time they tried to pin women to their sex. For centuries they were told: “You are nothing but your sex.” And this sex, doctors added, is fragile, almost always sick and always inducing illness. “You are man’s sickness.” And towards the 18th Century this ancient movement ran wild, ending in a pathologization of woman: the female body became a medical object par excellence. . . . (1988, 115)

Additionally, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is “[a]bout the seductiveness of appearances,” according to Susan Bordo and very befitting to today’s societal ideology. Bordo goes on to say,

For Plato, the artificial images cast on the wall of the cave are a metaphor for the world of sense perception. The illusion of the cave is not mistaking that the world–what we see, hear, taste, feel–for the Reality of enduring ideas, which can only be “seen” with the mind’s eye. For us, bedazzlement by created images is no metaphor; it is the actual condition of our lives. If we do not wish to remain prisoners of these images, we must recognize that they are not reality. But instead of moving closer to this recognition, we seem to be moving farther away from it, going deeper and deeper into the cave of illusion. (1997, 2)

Undeniably, the “Allegory of the Cave” has to do with human perception, and it is certainly not antifeminist propaganda. Reaching inward for truth and wisdom ought to be up to each and every human being. In fact, according to Plato, everyone has the capability to attain true knowledge regardless of his or her gender. Thus, through the use of the original texts, and perhaps even relying on authentic translations, one can easily decipher a deeper meaning in Plato’s words. Was it all in jest? We may never know. Be it as it may, the Platonic corpus indicates that women should be treated with respect and given the same opportunities as men based on their nature and not their gender. Clearly Plato, in his Republic, argues that women ought to gain membership in the philosopher-ruler class and be chosen based on ability (nature) and not gender (Book V, 458c-e). Additionally, women in Plato’s utopian polis may partake in what is considered traditionally male pursuits, such as education (music) and exercise (gymnastics), for he believes that there is an innate need in men and women to coexist happily, in a fortunate, prosperous (eudemon) city (Book V, 458d). After all, Plato manifestly proclaims: “Is there anything better for the city than to have the best possible man and women citizens” (Book V, 456e)? That is to say, knowing oneself and encouraging men and women to pursue that in which they are able to excel based on nature and not gender will positively contribute to a thriving, flourishing society.


WORKS CITED

Anderlini-Onofrio, Serena. 1999. “Is Feminist Realism Possible? A Theory
of Labial Eros and Mimesis.” Journal of Gender Studies 8 (July): 159-181

Bluestone, Natalie Harris. 1987. Women and the Ideal Society: Plato’s
Republic and Modern Myth of Gender. Amherst: The University of
Massachusetts Press.

Bordo, Susan. 1997. Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images
from Plato to OJ. Berkeley: University of California Press.

De Beauvoir, Simone. 1989. The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley. New
York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, Michel. 1988. Politics, Philosophy, Culture. Trans. Alan Sheridan.
New York: Routledge.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. 1979. The Madwoman in the Attic. New
Haven: Yale University Press.

Irigaray, Luce. 1985. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill.
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Liddell, Henry George and Robert Scott. 1987. A Lexicon–Abridged from
Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Plato. 1992. Politeia. Athens: Kaktos Publishers.

Defining the “F” in Feminist Criticism #2

Katerina Zissouli Defining the F in Feminist Criticism

In shedding light on traditional “patripower” beliefs, to borrow the term from Hattie Gossett (1988), one only has to look at Sartre’s sexist tendencies. In his essay, “We Write for Our Own Time,” Sartre unkindly argues, “But the writer makes books out of words, not out of his sorrows. If he wants to stop his wife from behaving badly, he should not write about her; he should beat her . . . (Sartre, 1970). These are but a few examples of the prevailing thought which has, in one way or another, widely influenced society on the matter of the essential worth of the “trivial” word, woman.

Is “Femininity” natural? Is “Femininity” simply “a game played by girls, a chain passed on by one woman to another. . . a ‘mirror’ which allows for the possibility of difference” (Frith, 1991)? Is it true that “What is feminine affirms” (Cixous, 1989)? Likewise, is it true that femininity is a cultural fabrication? Simone de Beauvoir maintains that one is not born woman; one becomes one. On the one hand, that which contains femininity has been classified as soft-spoken, passive, virtuous, agreeable, compliant. On the other hand, one who is feminine can also be treacherous, lying, weak, indecisive, dull, moody, vain, superficial, dim-witted. Clearly, most of the former epithets can be classified into binary oppositions with the latter categories. Women can be good and bad, desirable and appalling, wild and tame, weak and strong, and all at the same time. In other words, women are expected to be energetic, but not too dynamic; brash, but not arrogant; beautiful, but not narcissistic. Are all these labels biological traits? Hardly!

In addition, femininity has also been established as “lack,” “negativity,” “absence of meaning,” “irrationality,” “chaos,” “darkness,” in other words, as “non-being” (Moi, 1989). According to Existential Philosophy, “Being” is requisite to any and all other potentialities. Virginia Woolf’s fair, albeit, somewhat desperate act may find a following, after all. Woolf commands: plow forth and murder the feminine “angel” who occupies the optimum space in our minds, our houses, our souls (Woolf, 1966). Woolf conveys her own “criminal act” thus:

It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her. You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her–you may not know what I mean by The Angel in the House. . . . She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draft she sat in it–in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all . . . she was pure. (Woolf, 1966)

Has “Feminism,” as some claim, corrupted women to the core? “Feminism.” Some women, even today, are apprehensive of the “bra-burning,” “women’s lib” ideas with which it has been labelled. Others refuse to associate with a term that encompasses such negative connotations. The term “Feminism” includes such disparaging ideas, as those of the ostentatious business woman who utterly neglects her family, especially her children; the seductress, who is willing to do whatever it takes to get to the top; the manipulator, who uses whatever means to get her way; the activist, who fights for women’s rights just so that she can go against the system; and those who choose to associate only with other women so that they can take revenge on men. Feminism, for whatever reason, acquired Medusa-like qualities. After all, she was classified as a “woman” too.

“Female,” “Woman,” “Other.” “So what is the beef?” Germaine Greer asserts and questions in her essay, “The Stereotype.”

Maybe, I couldn’t make it. Maybe I don’t have a pretty smile, good teeth, nice tits, long legs, a cheeky arse, a sexy voice. Maybe I don’t know how to handle men and increase my market value, so that the rewards due to the feminine will accrue to me. Then again, maybe I’m sick of the masquerade. I’m sick of pretending eternal youth. I’m sick of peering at the world through false eyelashes, or everything I see is mixed with a shadow of bought hairs . . . I am sick of being a transvestite. I refuse to be a female impersonator. I am a woman, not a castrate. (Greer, 1983)

Some would classify this as radical feminist chatter. Others would fear the mere thought of it. What will happen when women come into power and identify with it? Will it create anxiety? Is it possible that women might even take revenge? Historically, this has not been substantiated. Nevertheless, it has been regarded as a possibility. What patripower fears is the possibility of an outcome as envisioned by Helene Cixous, who estimates, “When ‘The Repressed’ of their culture and their society come back, it is an explosive return, which is absolutely shattering, staggering, overturning, with a force never yet unleashed and equal to the most forbidding of suppressions” (1989).  She goes on to prophesy to the dismay of some, “For when the phallic period comes to an end, women will have been either annihilated or borne up to the highest and most violent incandescence” (Cixous, 1989).

In light of such great drive on the part of patripower to silence and suppress women, and in spite of their tremendous efforts, women have found a voice. This voice encompasses and contains the Other. At times, it may be cryptic, foreign, and indistinguishable by males. At times, it may be foreign even to those who are classified as Other. It could be non-conformist, distinct, and aloof. In a society consumed with categorizing and classifying, it would be forced to construct its own category.

Why look at women in literature? Is it because it encompasses endless possibilities? Is it because it makes up its own rules? Is it because it cannot be “enclosed within borders” (O’Grady, 1996)? It is because “Literature is a transnational country,” in which writers must be “border-crossers” and “outlaws” (O’Grady, 1996). A writer, and a female at that, must be a conglomerate (not a union), of unique and separate parts consisting of a multi-cultural, and multilingual self.  In turn, those parts swelling with creativity must come together in what we shall call the creative, imaginative, inventive womb.  And although many a man has appropriated this womb, this ability to give birth as the ultimate creation of literary imagination, they partake not in the birthing experience. Only women are given the gift of repeated conception and genesis of literary thought. This is the nexus where women’s power lies. In defying and ignoring patriarchal ideas and plowing forth by expressing themselves, women may find that others, especially men, need not regulate individuality and creativity. Coming to terms with self and artistic expression can only contribute to attaining self-knowledge deeply rooted in authenticity and truth.

Works Cited

Cixous, Helene. “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways–Out/Forays,” In The Feminist

Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Catherine

Belsey and Jane Moore, eds. Blackwell, 1989, pp. 101-116.

——. Laugh of the Medusa, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen

and Paula Cohen. Signs 1, 1976, pp. 875-93.

Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Trans. J. Strachey. W.W. Norton, 1966.

Frith, Gill. “Transforming Features: Double Vision and the Female Reader.” 

New Formations 15, 1991, pp. 68-76.

Gossett, Hattie. Presenting…Sister Noblues. Firebrand Books, 1988.

Greer, Germaine. “The Stereotype.” In Philosophy of Woman. Mary Mahowald, ed.

Hackett, 1983, pp. 11-19.

Isenberg, Arnold. Aesthetics and the Theory of Criticism: Selected Essays of

Arnold Isenberg. University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Moi, Toril. “Feminist, Female, Feminine.” In The Feminist Reader: Essays in

Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Catherine Belsey and Jane

Moore, eds. Blackwell, 1989, pp. 117-132.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Walter Kaufmann.

Vintage Books, 1966.

Noddings, Nel. Women and Evil. University of California Press, 1989.

O’Grady,  Kathleen. “Guardian of Language: An Interview with Helene Cixous.” Women’s Education des Femmes 12, 1996, pp. 6-10.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “We Write for Our Own Time,” In A Casebook on Existentialism.

William Spanos, ed. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1970, pp. 133-139.

Stephen, J. K. “A Thought,” Cambridge University Literary Magazine, 1891, pp. 15-17.

Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women. ”Collected Essays, vol.2. Hogarth

Press, 1966.

Defining the “F” in Feminist Criticism #1

Katerina Zissouli Defining the F in Feminist Criticism

If all the harm that women have done

Were put in a bundle and rolled into one,

Earth would not hold it

The sky could not enfold it,

It could not be lighted nor warmed by the sun.

Such masses of evil

Would puzzle the devil

And keep him in fuel while Time’s wheels run.

But if all the harm that’s been done by men

Were doubled and doubled and doubled again,

And melted and fused into vapor and then

Were squared and raised to the power of ten,

There wouldn’t be nearly enough, not near

To keep a small girl for the tenth of a year. (Stephen, 1891)

It is well known that women throughout the ages have been treated as Other in a patriarchal society, which for the most part is persnickety and disparaging. Many philosophers, political and religious figures, and theorists have helped in perpetuating the stereotype. Nietzsche’s ideas may be a good place to set some examples in motion. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche claims,

Woman wants to become self-reliant–and for that reason she is beginning to enlighten men about “woman as such”: this is one of the worst developments of the general uglification of Europe. . . . Woe when “the eternally boring in woman”–she is rich in that!–is permitted to venture forth! . . . But she does not want truth: what is truth to woman? From the beginning, nothing has been more alien, repugnant, and hostile to woman than truth–her great art is the lie, her highest concern is mere appearance and beauty. . . . And is it not true that on the whole “woman” has so far been despised most by woman herself–and by no means by us?  (Nietzsche, 1966)

Later authors attest to the perpetuation of the same stereotype. Arnold Isenberg, for example, while commenting on some of Virginia Woolf’s ideas on the empowerment of women by means of writing, viciously attacks and dismisses her suggestions. He quotes Woolf, who in A Room of One’s Own, asserts: “Never mind whether you write like Keats. That’s not the idea. The main thing is that you put down what you see and feel” (Isenberg, 1973). With this, Isenberg supposes that Woolf grants license to women to produce bad writing. He goes on to say:

So reasons one of the best minds of our times, competent alike at writing and at judging. Is this dreadful, chaotic thinking really redeemed by the prose garnishes . . . Consider how extreme these phrases are: “Mean nothing.” “Most futile of occupations.” “Submit to the decrees.” “Most servile of attitudes.” “All that matters.” “Sacrifice a hair of the head.” “Abject treachery.” No, this hysterical prose cannot make up for any fault: it is itself in need of some virtue to balance it. I think I am aware of some of the good impulses behind bad writing. Virginia Woolf, when she started this passage, had just been prophesying. She had foretold a time when women, if given the chance, would become good writers. By a natural association of ideas she then found herself meditating the question, “Yes, but will they ever be as good as men?” (Isenberg, 1973)

In other words, regardless of women writers’ proven skill, and in spite of their acceptance by a good majority of the male writing establishment as successful writers, Isenberg still disputes their ability and creativity. Moreover, by comparing in an utterly sexist way women’s writing to that of men, he questions whether we can elevate female writing enough to compete with male writing. That is to say, he insists (and he is not the only one) that we must hold everything to a male microscope, saturated in male standards and beliefs. According to this view, all that is right, good, and accepted, excellent, brilliant, and accomplished is male produced.

If Nietzsche and Isenberg’s ideas do not make the case, perhaps one should take a look at Freud’s lectures on the subject of women and the castration complex:

The castration complex arises after they [girls] have learnt from the sight of the female genitals that the organs which they value so highly need not necessarily accompany the body. The castration complex of girls is also started by the sight of the genitals of the other sex. They at once notice the difference and, it must be admitted, its significance too. They feel seriously wronged, often declare that they want to “have something like it too,” and fall a victim to “envy of the penis.” (Freud, 1966)

Why does Freud assume that any girl, who either grows up around boys or not, would assign higher value to male genitalia? In whose mind a penis is significant, if not in the minds of males themselves? Clearly, penis envy is a male construct, and the castration complex has been assigned to the female identity because of the fear it has generated in the male psyche.

Works Cited

Cixous, Helene. “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways–Out/Forays,” In The Feminist

Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Catherine

Belsey and Jane Moore, eds. Blackwell, 1989, pp. 101-116.

——. Laugh of the Medusa, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen

and Paula Cohen. Signs 1, 1976, pp. 875-93.

Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Trans. J. Strachey. W.W. Norton, 1966.

Frith, Gill. “Transforming Features: Double Vision and the Female Reader.” 

New Formations 15, 1991, pp. 68-76.

Gossett, Hattie. Presenting…Sister Noblues. Firebrand Books, 1988.

Greer, Germaine. “The Stereotype.” In Philosophy of Woman. Mary Mahowald, ed.

Hackett, 1983, pp. 11-19.

Isenberg, Arnold. Aesthetics and the Theory of Criticism: Selected Essays of

Arnold Isenberg. University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Moi, Toril. “Feminist, Female, Feminine.” In The Feminist Reader: Essays in

Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Catherine Belsey and Jane

Moore, eds. Blackwell, 1989, pp. 117-132.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Walter Kaufmann.

Vintage Books, 1966.

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Press, 1966.

Book Review: Mediterranean Modernisms–The Poetic Metaphysics of Odysseus Elytis

Katerina Zissouli Book Review

Mediterranean Modernisms: The Poetic Metaphysics of Odysseus Elytis. By Marinos Pourgouris (Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011), 230 pp. $70.99/£55.00 cloth.


Marinos Pourgouris’s Mediterranean Modernisms: The Poetic Metaphysics of Odysseus Elytis is an interesting book that reads more like a thematic collection of short essays than a unified work. Pourgouris states at the outset that his book’s five chapters examine the themes of modernism, nationalism, and the Mediterranean. His contribution to the life, poetry and literary legacy of Odysseus Elytis is indeed methodical. As the title suggests, Pourgouris attempts to disentangle the meaning of Greek identity and aesthetic in Elytis’s work and formulate his interpretation of Elytis’s poetic or more accurately, solar metaphysics. Pourgouris, furthermore, focuses on Elytis’s artistic and philosophic influence. He does so from the theoretical standpoint of poststructuralism, demonstrating the limitations of the cultural/linguistic/literary paradigm’s ability to account for the negative difference embedded in language itself. However, the extensive historical account included in the book becomes burdensome and difficult to navigate.

Pourgouris argues that there are definite similarities between Camus’s Mediterranean and Elytis’s Aegean. In fact, the author does not differentiate between the two, as according to him both Camus and Elytis are writing about and under the influence of the Mediterranean, constructing what he calls “a Mediterranean Aesthetic.” However, the differences in annual average temperatures and the vastly divergent terrain found in Algiers, the capital city of Algeria, and on the islands of the Aegean Sea, I would argue, make for populations with different temperaments, values, traditions and needs.

Pourgouris is at his best when he links history to philosophy, theory and art. On the other hand, Elytis scholars have been well aware of his debt to movements such as Ancient Greek Philosophy, Surrealism, Orientalism and Christianity, just to name a few. What I find most interesting about Pourgouris’s work, however, is his ability to pose critical questions and examine the complexity of the intersections between theory and marginality. Largely informed by a late modernist (globalized) perspective, Pourgouris has compiled a substantial number of sources to argue his points.

In the first chapter, “Modernisms: From Paris to Athens,” Pourgouris gives a historical account of the development of art and poetry in Europe and Greece and the political influences that “necessitated” such development. In the words of Elytis, “1935-1945! An important decade in the chronicles of modern poetry permanently completes its circle. The polemical period is coming to an end” (p. 33).

In the second chapter, “Towards a New Mediterranean Culture,” Pourgouris takes up the limitations of poststructuralism by examining its tendencies toward negative difference, exoticization and othering. In short, he points out the ways in which poststructuralism and its advocates focus on difference without addressing its attendant compulsion: exclusion.

In the third chapter, “Theory of Analogies,” Pourgouris pieces together Elytis’s theory of Analogies, which he says was “constructed . . . from scattered references in the poet’s essays. Elytis himself does not explicitly connect these ideas in the form of a unified theory” (p. 65, N 3). Yet, if the poet himself was not interested in the need to construct such theory, it is not clear why Pourgouris has painstakingly created an idea that does not explicitly exist in the poet’s body of work. Such attempt then is futile, for according to the poet, “Everything can be assembled and disassembled except for the poet’s words” (p. 71).

In chapter four, “Solar Metaphysics,” Pourgouris claims, “Solar Metaphysics is linked to the form or structure of the entire poetic presentation” (p. 112). That is to say, the author seems to suggest that one ought to acknowledge the inevitability of referentiality and look at the challenges of modernity in art and architecture as points of departure in Elytis’s body of work.

The final chapter is devoted to what Pourgouris calls, “Architectural Poetics.” As the author puts it, the juxtaposition between Eros and Light and Death and Darkness is evident, as the concepts merge in The Monogram, Maria Nephele, The Axion Esti and The Little Seafarer. However, accepting the idea that the “modern condition” is in essence only “a condition of loss” (p. 162), negates the positive consequences of the modern condition, such as a more leisurely lifestyle, less time/space barriers, and easier communication across cultures, to name a few. Elytis, whose works celebrate the Mediterranean sun and sea, cannot be seen only as a gloomy, dark poet whose “central concepts” converge on the point where “Eros and Light” merge with “Death and Darkness” (p. 161).

The book’s rather abruptly concluded last chapter explores the ability of poetic architecture to “give shape and significance” to the poet’s meaning and “content” (p. 199). The crux of Pourgouris’s analysis then, lies on the philosophical point that “the crisis of modernism is . . . a crisis of nationality” based on the notion that Greece as the “marginalized other” is “understood both as a personal poetic resistance to the official or imposed historical narrative, and as an effort to illuminate what is suppressed or neglected, and make it public” (pp. 172, 200).

This blog was originally published on here: Katerina Zissouli’s Literature Website