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Times Literary Supplement[Wohl's] results are never less than provocative.
— Stephen Halliwell
Classical Athenian literature often speaks of democratic politics in sexual terms. Citizens are urged to become lovers of the polis, and politicians claim to be lovers of the people. Victoria Wohl argues that this was no dead metaphor. Exploring the intersection between eros and politics in democratic Athens, Wohl traces the private desires aroused by public ideology and the political consequences of citizens' most intimate longings. Love among the Ruins analyzes the civic fantasies that lay beneath (but not ...
Classical Athenian literature often speaks of democratic politics in sexual terms. Citizens are urged to become lovers of the polis, and politicians claim to be lovers of the people. Victoria Wohl argues that this was no dead metaphor. Exploring the intersection between eros and politics in democratic Athens, Wohl traces the private desires aroused by public ideology and the political consequences of citizens' most intimate longings. Love among the Ruins analyzes the civic fantasies that lay beneath (but not necessarily parallel to) Athens's political ideology. It shows how desire can disrupt politics and provides a deeper--at times disturbing--insight into the democratic unconscious of ancient Athens.
The Athenians imagined the perfect citizen as a noble and manly lover. But this icon conceals a multitude of other possible figures: sexy tyrants, potent pathics, and seductive perverts. Through critical re-readings of canonical texts, Wohl investigates these fantasies, which seem so antithetical to Athens's manifest ideals. She examines the interrelation of patriotism and narcissism, the trope of politics as prostitution, the elite suspicion of political pleasure, and the status of perversion within Athens's sexual and political norms. She also discusses the morbid drive that propelled Athenian imperialism, as well as democratic Athens's paradoxical fascination with the joys of tyranny.
Drawing on contemporary critical theory in original ways, Wohl sketches the relationship between citizen psyche and political life to illuminate the complex, frequently contradictory passions that structure democracy, ancient and modern.
"A fascinating, thought-provoking book that takes time to absorb."—Peter Krentz, Religious Studies Review
In the funeral oration ascribed to him by Thucydides, Pericles urges the people to become lovers of the city (2.43.1). This speech is often taken as the quintessence of Athenian democracy: the city is at its most powerful, the demos at its most noble. In this most canonical of Athenian texts we would expect to find, too, a canonical Athenian eros, a perfect and perfectly democratic love and lover. And Thucydides (or perhaps Pericles) gives us what we desire: a manly pursuer of beauty and wisdom, an erastes willing to die for his beloved, a lover whose sensibilities are aristocratic but whose love object is the democratic city. Here we would seem to find, as iconic as if sculpted on the Parthenon frieze, the ideal eros of the democratic citizen.
While Thucydides' history is resolutely unsexy, eros runs like a subterranean current beneath its description of political affairs: sometimes acknowledged, more often denied, eros binds citizens to their city and the demos to its demagogues. Pleasure, the modality of eros, is a powerful force behind political relations; indeed, in Thucydides' synopsis of Athenian politics at the end of the fifth century, pleasure is the key term. Pericles led the people; he was not led by them and, as an orator, never catered to their pleasure (2.65.8). Later demagogues, however, competing with one another for power, "turned to pleasing the demos and relinquished affairs to it" (2.65.10). The falling away from the Periclean ideal is represented as a different relation between the citizens and their leaders, a different sort of political pleasure.
This chapter examines that pleasure and the politics it engenders. In the Funeral Oration, Pericles constructs an idealized Athenian subject as lover of the city. What is the nature of that lover and his love? What is the role of the demagogue in this patriotic love affair? Thucydides denies pleasure in the relation between Pericles and the demos: what is that denied pleasure and what is the economy of its disavowal? The speech, I argue, inculcates a narcissistic desire for an ideal self and, around that desire, constructs a democratic citizen-subject. But this ideal itself has a politics, as does the love for it: this chapter explores the politics of the speech's ideal, and the sort of political relations-both narcissistic and anaclitic-implied when the people are urged to become "lovers of the city." It is a theorization of, as well as a case study in, the erotics of politics, an attempt to unravel the threads of desire and identification that bind this patriotic passion.
The Funeral Oration offers Thucydides' vision of an ideal Athens and Athenian: the words we read in it are, for all intents and purposes, Thucydides'. They may correspond more or less closely to the oration actually delivered by Pericles in the winter of 431/30 (and scholars can argue over that "more or less"), but the original speech is lost to us, and in the speech we have, Thucydides' voice and Pericles' are effectively inseparable; indeed, as I suggest at the end of the chapter, Thucydides goes to some effort to make the two indistinguishable. When I refer, then, to Pericles and the demos in this chapter, these must be understood as "Pericles" and "the demos," Thucydidean creations. The psychic dynamics here are first and foremost textual dynamics, one text's fantasy of democratic love.
And yet perhaps we are justified in making broader claims for that fantasy and reading this speech as one textual articulation of a larger cultural psyche (a psyche, as I suggested in the introduction, that exists only as the sum of such articulations). The words of this oration may be Thucydides' but they operate within a language that is not uniquely his own. Thucydides has a strong individual voice, often highly critical of the polis; frequently he sets himself in explicit opposition to what he identifies as democratic discourse. But critique, as Pierre Bourdieu has argued, always operates within the practical logic of that which it critiques. Thucydides' oppositional stance does not place him outside democratic discourse (of which he is as much a product as a critic), and even as he challenges many of the tenets of contemporary political thought, he simultaneously reinscribes the cultural assumptions and aspirations that inform them. His vision of the citizen-lover is without doubt part of his critique (especially of the post-Periclean democracy); that it also belongs to a broader cultural debate over the erotics of democracy is attested by Cleon's parody in Aristophanes' Knights. As we shall see in chapter 2, Aristophanes' Cleon cites-if only to pervert-the ideal of the citizen-lover depicted by Thucydides' Pericles. Parody here really is the sincerest form of flattery: it indicates the hegemonic status within the contemporary imaginary of the ideal to which Thucydides (through Pericles) gives expression. Thucydides' speech, then, is no mere idiolect but rather a fluent example of Athenian civic language.
Moreover, although Thucydides often takes an antagonistic stance toward Athenian civic discourse, in this particular speech, perhaps more than anywhere else in the history, he seems to align himself with that discourse. Thucydides presents his vision of an ideal Athens not in propria persona, but in the person of Athens's official representative at one of its most important civic occasions and in a highly conventional rhetorical form. Nicole Loraux, in her seminal book on the epitaphios logos or graveside oration, has reconstructed from the scattered examples a genre of remarkable consistency, in both form and content. Her study deposes Thucydides' speech (or, as she prefers to call it, Pericles') from its unique, paradigmatic status by situating it within a civic genre and a civic imaginary that go beyond any individual text. By expressing his vision of political eros within an epitaphios-and an epitaphios, moreover, that many of his readers will have heard and remember-Thucydides himself represents it as a part of Athenian democratic discourse. Thus although I refer to this as Thucydides' Epitaphios, that genitive never marks exclusive possession and the fantasies and desires that emerge within this text belong not only to its author but also to the Athenian psyche.
Thucydides' Funeral Oration, as all commentators have noted, is idealizing: it represents the Athenians not as they were, but as they wanted to be or to imagine they were. Indeed, the genre of the epitaphios logos as a whole was idealizing. Delivered annually by a prominent politician, these speeches linked the valor of those who had died in war that year to the ideals of Athens's past (mythic and historical) and of its innate national character. Through praise of the dead-which is always also praise of the living and, above all, praise of the city-the Athenians imagined their history, delineated their difference from (and superiority to) other Greeks, and figured themselves as a unified and uniquely noble polity. In the epitaphios logos, as Loraux argues, the Athenians "invented Athens," producing for themselves "something like an ideality, well beyond the sum of concrete experiences that made up their political life."
What is the politics of this ideality and the dynamics of identification through which citizens adopt it and make it their own? What ideal of citizenship, of masculinity, of democratic subjectivity does Pericles present and what are the political consequences-for the Athenians, but also for us-of embracing it? The answers to these questions suggest the intricate ways in which the political and the psychic structure one another: the subject crystallizes around an internalized political fantasy and his political stances originate in an intimate relation to himself.
Thucydides' Epitaphios presents a mirror in which the Athenians are shown a perfect image of themselves in the unmatchable excellence of the dead, and urges them to assume this image as their own. Through this idealized mirroring, the speech constructs a specific citizen subjectivity. While much of its vision of Athens purports to be and in fact is traditional and familiar to its audience, the speech encourages a certain relation to this vision, and it is that relation, above all, that defines the citizen-subject. This is not to suggest, of course, that this speech created a citizen where there was none before. The democratic citizen was not born in any single moment, like Athena from the head of Zeus, but was the product of an ongoing process of contestation and consolidation. In this perpetual "reinvention of Athens," Thucydides' speech claims for itself a paradigmatic role.
As a cultural mirror, the Epitaphios initiates a sort of "mirror stage" for the Athenian citizen-subject. In Lacan's mirror stage, an infant sees himself reflected in a mirror. Although the child is unable to speak or control his body and is as yet unclearly differentiated from his environment, the mirror shows him an image of himself as whole and integrated, a discrete entity and a presence in the world. It is an image of himself as he will be, not as he is, and it is with jubilation that he takes on that image as his own. He incorporates this mirror image within himself as his idealego (Idealich), the core of his incipient subjectivity.
The Epitaphios presents just such an ideal-ego in its vision of the Athenian citizen. This citizen is free and master of himself, courageous in war but easy in his private life, a democrat with the manners of a gentleman, a manly warrior with a taste for the finer things in life. The perfection of this citizen is reflected in and proved by the perfection of Athens, which has left memorials of its power throughout the world, and whose daring spirit will be the wonder of future ages. And noble Athens is, in turn, embodied in the nobility of the men who fought and died for it: "The praises I have sung for the city have been adorned by the excellence of these men and others like them" (2.42.2). By praising the dead, the living will come to identify with them and the virtues they represent and, through this identification, will become the citizens Pericles describes. Like the child before the mirror, the living citizens adopt the dead as their ideal-ego and around that cathexis forms an Athenian subject.
But if the dead embody the citizen's Idealich, then that ideal is achieved only in death. The temporality of Lacan's mirror scene (an "internal thrust ... from insufficiency to anticipation," 1977.4) is at work here, too, for just as the mirror image offers a vision of a future self, the dead represent what the demos will become if it heeds the exhortations of the speech. The Idealich has an inevitable quality and at the same time inculcates an immense labor. On the one hand, this funeral for the dead is also a proleptic funeral for the living audience, inasmuch as it is in the Athenians' nature to die heroically for their city. On the other hand, this anticipatory trajectory requires a terrible effort. Live up to the dead, Pericles urges the demos. Assume as your own their virtue and bravery, for only in this way will you preserve the greatness of the city that assures the greatness of its citizens. The circularity in the logic points to the stakes in the speech: if the glory of Athens and its citizens depends upon the valorous death of its soldiers, then it is only by his willingness to die that the individual can partake in that glory. In other words, he can truly become an Athenian citizen only by dying for Athens.
This paradox speaks to both the fictionality and the impossibility of the Idealich. Originating outside himself, the mirror image is a fiction that the child can only imperfectly, "asymptotically," approximate-hence the concern in the Epitaphios about the measure of sufficient praise. This ideal is so ideal, that it may not be possible to praise it enough, even though sufficient praise is the mission of the genre (2.34.6). Can the perfection of these men's actions be matched in words (2.35.1)? Won't words always either fall short of the truth or exceed belief (2.35.2)? People don't believe things that are beyond their own capabilities and respond with jealousy or incredulity when they hear them (2.35.2-3). The speech aims to make people believe precisely such things, and not only to believe but to identify. Even as it does so, though, it confesses that its ideal may be perceived as hyperbolic (pleonazesthai, 2.35.2) or impossible. And indeed it is impossible, for, as Lacan stresses, the anticipated identity between the ego and its ideal is always necessarily incomplete, asymptotic. The subject can come ever closer to his mirror image but can never finally reach it (because the image is, after all, only an image) or, in the case of the Athenians, can reach it only in death.
Of course, this very impossibility has an advantage in the discipline it demands. The Idealich is, as Lacan puts it, orthopaedic (1977.4): it sets the direction for the subject's correct (orthos) development. The Epitaphios not only reflects an ideal but defines the Athenian subject as one who follows in the trajectory and teleology of that ideal. Within the world of the speech, the only Athenian is the man who identifies with and works toward identity with the reflection the speech shows him. Thus, to the extent that he accepts the speech's injunctions and undertakes the task of becoming a good man, he subjects himself to a self-discipline that is not just endless but also alienating, for it predicates his subjectivity on attaining an ideal imposed from without. The "jubilation" of an anticipated mastery that Lacan's child feels before the mirror cuts two ways, for at the same time as it predicts his mastery over himself and his reflection, it also subjects him to the orthopaedics of the image. The Athenian becomes a free man (eleutheros) by willingly enslaving himself to the ideal.
But what is the power that inheres in the speech? Who is served by the self-relationship it generates in its audience? This speech is often taken as the demos's imagination of itself. But although part of a civic ritual, the oration is not delivered by the demos, nor do we hear its reaction to it. Instead it is an interpellation from above, a hailing that takes its force from the gravity of the occasion and the authority of the orator and, beyond that, the authority of the historian. Cleon (ever the provocateur) accuses the Athenian people of judging their past experiences and future ventures based on the speeches of orators (Thuc. 3.38.4). Here their present, too, is mediated by oratory, as they are reflected to themselves by Pericles and Thucydides in a form that perhaps resembles those elite figures more than it does their subject. In this sense, the demos's Idealich is not its own, and when it sees itself in it, that recognition is a misrecognition. Whereas for Lacan the alienation of the mirror stage is existential-the tragedy of an ontologically split subject-in the Epitaphios the schism is, above all, social. The Epitaphios hails the Athenian demos as an elite. The entire aesthetic of the speech presupposes the leisure and breeding of "the few" (the oligoi) but generalizes those qualities to the polloi: they lead relaxed and easy lives, they love beauty and wisdom, their very excellence and freedom are bequests handed down from their noble ancestors.
Excerpted from Love among the Ruins by Victoria Wohl Copyright © 2002 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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"Wohl's book is an important contribution to a growing body of literature on the psychic experience of Athenian citizens and the fantasies, hopes, and fears that fuel democratic experience in general. She seriously advances the field and also challenges what have become the standard ways of thinking about sexuality in ancient Athens."—Danielle Allen, author of The World of Prometheus
"This is a very smart, sophisticated, well-written book that offers some new and convincing readings of important texts. Wohl's reading of Athenian culture is original, exciting, and often brilliant."—Josiah Ober, author of The Athenian Revolution and Political Dissent in Democratic Athens
Posted July 9, 2014