Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Greek Life (by res ipsa loquitur)

Hello, and thank you, Echidne, for the welcome and the opportunity to contribute to your blog. While you're gone, I'll be reading (among other things).

What will I read? Well, right now: this. Toting around I Don't has provoked some interesting reactions. Examples: Today I had my annual mammogram, and the radiologist, une femme d' un certain age who somehow managed to charm me while she painfully smushed my breasts between two super-thick pieces of plastic, laughed uproariously when she saw it sticking out of my bag. "Don't get married, dear heart! I was married! You're much better off on your own. Did I tell you I'm going gambling this weekend?" Then there's my cousin, who saw it when I met her for sushi one evening and said, "What the hell do you mean, 'I Don't'? What if your mother had said, 'I Don't?' You always overthink everything!" Finally there's my SO, a fine gentleman (and feminist) who glanced at the cover, raised one eyebrow, and said, "Interesting artwork. So who messed up this institution? It had to be the Christians, right?" Well, honey, it was flawed from the get-go, but the Christians certainly did their part!

In any case, about halfway through the book, my initial thought is this: the Greeks had it all figured out. Well, not Greek women, but the Greek men, who set up a seemingly perfect closed system to serve their need for care, companionship, and carnality. Your basic Greek guy -- no, not slaves, I'm talking Greek men of privilege -- had at least three women in his life:
  1. Gynaekes (wives) to keep the home fires burning, bear and raise children
  2. Hetaerae (courtesans) to stimulate mind and body. Educated, cultured, talented, beautiful: their conversation was sought, their opinions valued, their talents appreciated -- but they were still tossed when they lost their looks.
  3. Pallakae (prostitutes) to sate one's day-to-day lust.
Excellent system (if you were a privileged guy) -- and one I'd like to try myself -- if I could be sure it wouldn't get me thrown in jail, exiled to St. Helena, or burnt at the stake.

But it also occurs to me that modern wives -- American ones, anyway -- are expected to possess the characteristics of all three classes of Greek companions -- and that that's way too much pressure for any one woman. A wife is supposed to make a home, maintain her own career or interests so that she can talk about something other than that home she's worked so hard to make, and be a vixen in the sack. (To be fair, modern husbands don't get off easily, either. You've got to simultaneously be SuperProvider, SuperDad, and SuperStud.) But back to those Greek guys ... well, the knee-jerk reaction is, "Sexists! How dare they be so piggy and so self-centered!" But then I think, "Wait. Maybe they were onto something, specifically, that being all three things simultaneously was going to be extraordinarily difficult."

So how did we go from isolating these functions into three separate roles to combining them into one single superwoman (or superman, as the case may be)? (Hint: Martin Luther is partly responsible) And does anyone really buy into the idea that a spouse -- female or male -- can or must even be all three? Or is such belief the provenance of the young and naive spouse? Is two out of three so bad? If so, which two? Would one out of three make a marriage?

I have questions. Do you have answers? Put 'em in comments.