Friday, March 2, 2012

Homer and Limbaugh and epithets

Surely Rush Limbaugh is not so deranged as to believe that the epithet slut applies to Sandra Fluke, the law student who testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act. No: Limbaugh’s purpose is to intimidate by letting women know the price they may expect to pay if they speak publicly about affordable access to contraception.

Limbaugh’s language has a peculiar resonance for me, as I just taught book 22 of Homer’s Odyssey. In that episode of the poem, a dozen women of Odysseus’ household are executed by hanging. Their crime: sleeping with the enemy, Penelope’s suitors, the young men who have taken over the household in Odysseus’ absence. Odysseus’ son Telemachus calls for the women’s execution, not, as Odysseus has directed, by sword (a “clean” death) but by hanging. And in three prominent translations (Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Fagles, Stanley Lombardo), Telemachus explains his decision by calling the women “sluts.” There’s no equivalent to slut in the Greek. In Richmond Lattimore’s highly literal Odyssey, these women “have slept with the suitors.”

A chilling recognition that might arise in a careful reading of the Odyssey : by the end of the poem, these women are forgotten. When Zeus and Athena work out a resolution to the conflict in Odysseus’ kingdom, they decide that all memory of the dead suitors will be removed from the minds of their surviving relatives. But the women of Odysseus’ house are never even remembered before being forgotten: in the ancient economy of persons, their lives and deaths do not count. The poem, we might say, does not care for them.

I’ve stumbled three or four times in writing this post, not sure what point I want to make about this ugly synchronicity of epithets. Homer’s poem is elsewhere deeply attuned to difficulties of women’s lives, and Odysseus and Penelope’s homophrosunê [like-mindedness] offers a startlingly modern way to think about the meaning of marriage. But in Odyssey 22, it is men who have the final word over women’s choices. Current events are all too reminiscent of that scenario.

Related reading and viewing
Sandra Fluke’s testimony (C-SPAN)
Rush Limbaugh’s remarks (Media Matters)

[The translations: Robert Fitzgerald (1961): “you sluts, who lay with suitors.” Robert Fagles (1996): “You sluts — the suitors’ whores!” Stanley Lombardo (2000): “the suitors’ sluts.” Margaret Atwood’s reimagining of Homeric narrative, The Penelopiad (2005), creates a voice for these women.]

comments: 2

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Interesting comment! I just came over from Daughter Number Three. I've spent part of my morning sending boycott messages to advertisers on Limbaugh's network. Your post supports my feeling that this is bigger than one loudmouth's stupidity.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, it’s far bigger than just Limbaugh’s comment. But I want to believe that the attitudes expressed in his words are on their way out — though it’s taking them a long time to get to the door, and they’re not going quietly.