U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“And Here You Have It, What A Woman Has to Say”: Agamemnon and the Academics

Editor's Note

This is one in a series of posts on the common readings in Stanford’s 1980s “Western Culture” course. You can see all posts in the series here: Readings in Western Culture.

“At least one Greek tragedy” – that’s what Stanford promised and required.  At least one.  Which tragedy to choose – that was up to the faculty teaching in the various tracks of the Western Culture program, and that selection could vary not only from track to track, but also within the tracks themselves.  Each professor could choose a different story of the high brought low for crimes against the gods.

My professor chose to have us read the Oedipus plays.  Other professors chose to have their students read the Oresteia, that tragic trilogy of the House of Atreus: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides.

In a comment on last week’s post, I mentioned that I was going to discuss Agamemnon for this series. I had a few reasons for this selection.  I’ll mention two of them now, and one of them nearer to the end of this post, though if you’ve been reading the news – any news – these past few weeks, you know the end already.

First, Agamemnon is a dramatic sequel to the Iliad, and it’s always nice to have a through-line for a blog series. Second, Agamemnon pairs with another book that many feminist scholars and even a few lucky undergraduates were also reading in the 1980s:  Christa Wolf’s 1983 novel Cassandra, translated from German to English in 1984.

Mary Lefkowitz’s NY Times review of Wolf’s novel is a jarring read today – more jarring, for me, than reading the novel itself back in the 1980s.

Apollo’s curse upon Cassandra – to ever tell the truth, and never be believed – had struck me as the most agonizing and awful of all fates.  And that was well before I became a historian.  We historians are ethically bound to be truth-tellers, yet we are doomed, it seems, to be ignored, until the present moment of our prophesying (for that is what our best truth-telling means, though we reckon time in retrospect) has itself become part of an unalterable past.  Anyhow, for my eighteen-year-old self, to read Wolf’s novel – Cassandra’s story as Cassandra, not Aeschylus, might have told it – was a revelation.

In any case, in 1984 Lefkowitz aptly summarized the poignancy of Cassandra’s story in Agamemnon and the possibilities that it suggested to Wolf:

Of the many painful scenes in surviving Greek tragedy, perhaps the most poignant is Aeschylus’ portrayal of Cassandra in ”Agamemnon.” She sees that in a few minutes she will be murdered, but the chorus cannot understand her visions, although she describes them all too clearly. Only after her death do the people realize she is yet another innocent victim not only of the war at Troy but of a family curse that will now claim her murderers as its next victims.

To the East German novelist Christa Wolf, Cassandra is the symbolic representative of women in the Western world, whose talents and intelligence have been suppressed in order to serve the interests of men, power and destruction. Mrs. Wolf arrives at this ambitious equation by a series of imaginative leaps. She sets the familiar and unfamiliar characters of Trojan legend in a world she reconstructs not from ancient myth but from the speculations of archeologists and historians – and even more, from her own perceptions of the modern world, especially the capitalist West.

So far, so good:  a novelist takes a figure from the Western canon and ambitiously, imaginatively re-tells the story in a way that speaks to her modern moment.

Lefkowitz, though, is irked by the fact that this historical novel was not very historical, for the novelist “has selected only those facts about the ancient world that suit her political purposes.  She believes in the myth of an egalitarian matriarchy usurped by a male hierarchy – a utopian fantasy without historical basis.” And on the review goes, faulting the fiction-writer for writing a fiction. ” If Mrs. Wolf had looked more closely at Aeschylus instead of relying on a 19th-century handbook’s recasting of the myth,” Lefkowitz comments a few sentences later, “she would have seen that in the original story Cassandra chose her own fate.”

Cassandra asked for it?  Come on now – no one truly chooses their own fate in Greek tragedy.  That’s what makes it fate.

Before coming across this review, I would have said that Mary Lefkowitz entered the lists of the canon wars in the 1990s, once the battle was over at Stanford, when she wrote a book challenging the thesis, championed by Martin Bernal and other scholars, that classical Greek culture was borrowed or “stolen” from African sources.  But this review, it seems to me now, is an early foray into those canon wars as they were unfolding.  In this review, Lefkowitz had in her sights not those who argued that the canon as constructed/taught was racist, but those who argued that it was sexist, that it served to prop up and perpetuate patriarchy and misogyny.  Thus, this 1984 New York Times review of a book that some Stanford students were reading as the canon wars unfolded on the campus, strikes me as a historically interesting and useful document.

And that (i.e., the newspaper) brings me to the third reason that I had planned to write about Agamemnon:  it seemed to pair, awfully, with our current news cycle, in which men mighty in their industries, with as much power over women’s professional fates and futures as Apollo had over Cassandra, are being called to account for that abuse of power.  Cassandras in entertainment, in journalism, in comedy, in academe, are crying out and telling their truth.  And, though Aeschylus wouldn’t have liked it, for reasons that aren’t altogether clear to me yet, today’s Cassandras are finally being believed.

This current phenomenon – and the backlash against it – suggested to me that Agamemon would be the most fitting Greek tragedy to consider in this series.

When I made that selection last week, I did not expect that Stanford professors – specifically, professors in the English department at Stanford, which stands at the center of my research, not to mention the center of my own experience as an undergraduate – would become infamous in this moment for alleged and/or acknowledged abuses of power.

The most electrifying and infuriating essay I have read in recent memory was Seo-Young Chu’s grievous first-person account of her rape at the hands of Jay Fliegelman, who was an English professor at Stanford from 1976 until his death in 2007.  As Chu’s essay explains, and as other reports have noted, Fliegelman was not only suspended without pay for two years by the University, but also barred from setting foot in the English department during that time.

Stanford spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote this to the Daily about the Fliegelman case:

“Both California employment law and FERPA restricted what we could say at the time about the details, though it was well known throughout the campus that the faculty member was suspended and banned from the department and its building for two years.”

Look at that again, please:  the spokesperson for Stanford University wrote to the school newspaper and said regarding the University’s findings against Fliegelman, “it was well known throughout the campus…

It was so well known that the English department hosted a festschrift for Fliegelman when he retired, and the American Studies program gave out an award named after him for years after his passing.  Goddamn it.

I should note that I did not take any classes from Jay Fliegelman, though I certainly could have. English majors had to take a course on 18th century literature (British or American, poetry or prose).  Fliegelman was teaching the American Enlightenment, and it didn’t sound interesting to me.  Instead, I took “18th Century British Poetry” from a brand new assistant professor, Frank Donoghue.  He was funny and kind and very decent – and an absolutely brilliant and compelling  lecturer.  That was one of the best and most memorable of all the classes I took in my major.  Donoghue left Stanford in 1989 to take a job in the English department at The Ohio State University.  So, anyhow, having fulfilled my “18th century” requirement, I moved on to other required courses in the major and did not revisit that period or its literature until my PhD program many years later.

But I absolutely took classes from the other English professors among whom “it was well known” (though before it was well known – I graduated from Stanford before Seo-Young Chu began her studies there).  Indeed, two of the four signatories of the Faculty Senate’s memorial resolution for Jay Fliegelman were my professors.  Those signatories were, I should add, unimpeachable in their conduct towards me and, as far as I know, towards all their other students.  Unimpeachable, except perhaps for this:  they heaped praise upon a colleague for his mentoring of graduate students, when they knew he had done something so terrible to one of his graduate students that it merited a two-year suspension without pay and a prohibition against setting foot in their own department.

Goddamn it.

But what, you say, were they supposed to do?

I don’t know.  But probably not that.  Not that.

And what am I supposed to do with this, what am I supposed to do with them – these professors who shaped my intellectual life as an undergraduate, this academic department whose internal politics and competing intellectual commitments, especially from the 1960s to the 1990s, are crucial to understand in order to discuss “the canon wars” and their after-effects in American thought and culture.  What am I going to do with these people in my book, now that I know what I know?

Early on in this project, because it’s a project for which I cannot be positionally objective (I was there, I took such and such classes, I had such and such opinions of the issues at the time, etc, etc), I decided to adhere to an ascetic regimen of “epistemic kenosis,” denying to myself or my readers the use of anything but primary archival sources in making claims about events at Stanford.  That is, the only evidence I am allowing myself is the evidence of the archive – no interviews, no personal recollections, no memories or memoirs as evidentiary support for my claims.  I can offload my own memories of Stanford here or at my own blog, but in my book, I have reasoned, I have to rest my claims about that time period at Stanford – 1960s to 1990s – only upon written sources dating from that time period.

That has been my methodological commitment.  And I don’t think that’s a bad choice.  I don’t see any other way to proceed.

But I will say this:  all of us know some things to be true that no one is going to find in any archive.

My king,
I’ll take your loving hand in mine and then…
The rest is silence. The ox is on my tongue.
Aye, but the house and these old stones,
Give them a voice and what a tale they’d tell.
And so would I, gladly…
I speak to those who know; to those who don’t
My mind’s a blank. I never say a word.
(Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 36-43)

Somehow we must find a way to speak or hear those things as well – not outside of our scholarship, not outside of our teaching, but in them.

That’s one of the lessons of this moment.  That’s one of the lessons of the debates over the relationship of ancient Greece to Africa.  That’s one of the lessons of Christa Wolf’s Cassandra.  That’s one of the lessons of Agamemnon.

And maybe that’s why the Western Culture program required that all students read “at least one Greek tragedy.”  At least one.  Some professors chose Oedipus Rex.  Some chose Agamemnon.

And some professors, it seems, chose to play such dramas out with their own students, sacrificing their intellectual daughters – or for some, their intellectual sons — to feed their own insatiable egos.  And all the while some of them no doubt wondered why Clytemnestra turned out to be such a bitch, and Cassandra wouldn’t shut up, and at the outer edges of their self-regard Iphigenia’s stricken shadow chilled them as they walked across the Quad.

God damn it all.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Yes to finding a way to include what will never be in the archives. You will find a way to do with all of them whatever you must do. And the myths roll ever forward….

  2. Thanks. I am going to stick with my method — no source but an archive. But as other people continue to publish accounts of their own experiences in academe, I see no reason why those sources can’t play a part in an introduction or an epilogue.

    BTW, I fixed two typos above and clarified one transition by adding “(i.e., the newspaper”) in italics. The relationship between a 1984 NYT review and our current news cycle was clear enough to me — the newspaper was the common denominator. But maybe not too clear to readers who are not inside my head. Lucky them/you.

  3. Of course I understand being disgusted (or whatever the right word is) at the four signatories of the memorial statement for praising Fliegelman as mentor in such fulsome terms, but I don’t see how mentioning in your book whatever role those four played in the Stanford canon wars would be an endorsement of their signing that memorial statement, or an endorsement of anything else they’ve done or written for that matter. (I’m sure I’m missing something here, so, if required, apologies for being sort of dense…)

  4. Louis, I do think you missed something, but I’m not sure I can explain it differently at the moment — that would almost require a re-write of the whole post. And it’s pretty strong and clear as it stands.

    About “these people” — I am not talking about two or four authors of a faculty obituary. I don’t have any qualms about mentioning, or citing, anyone who shows up in the archives as central to my inquiry or my argument. And what happened in 2000, or 2007, came after whatever happened in 1980 or 1990 anyhow.

    But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

    So when I’m trying to understand and convey the culture of some academic department or program in the 1970s and 1980s, and I talk about budgets and instructional hours and battles over a reading list and a backlash against feminist scholarship on the campus, I can situate all that within many broader contexts.

    But it may be that the one context I can’t examine — partly because of a dearth (or lack of access to) archival evidence, partly because “these people” collectively loomed so large in my own life — is the context that most needs to be understood in order to explain why that issue (reading lists) at that time (1976-ish to 1989) became the issue people were willing to argue about as a proxy for This Other Thing.

    I don’t know. I’m just several decades behind on being pissed off at the patriarchy, I guess.

    • The last two paragraphs of the above reply clarify this for me, esp. the ref. to the backlash vs feminist scholarship. A campus culture and/or broader culture in which sexual assault/harassment/rape was licensed/enabled/downplayed/excused/ignored etc. would be or is a relevant part of the context for the canon debates, or aspects of those debates. And so the issue of how/whether to deal w that, esp. in light of the recent revelations/developments, arises. And that’s where the fact that you were there and took courses from some of “these people” becomes problematic in terms of the method you are adopting (i.e., only source is the archive, etc.). I understand this more clearly now from your reply — thanks.

      • Louis, glad to know it — sorry it wasn’t evident before. And I didn’t mean to suggest above that this piece of writing could not be improved, or could not have been written more clearly, etc — “strong and clear” was more of a judgment on the voice and the process of getting it on the page than the prose itself. Indeed, I see lots of things I’d like to fix. But I wrote this in a white-hot fury, fast, and didn’t let it cool before I posted it. So if you missed something, it’s likely because I didn’t make it plain, my comment above notwithstanding. Just hadn’t had my coffee yet.

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