So I set myself a tricky task last post and it’s been stymieing me. How to talk about a more equal culture when one’s understanding of gender roles begins in their inequality? Too easy to make lists of masculine and feminine virtues and vices, but which are innate and which learned? I have some fiction passages from my novel but I didn’t want to go there just yet; they illustrate an argument but they don’t make it.
Happily I got the opportunity to go back, if not to first principles then at least a bit closer, when my wife and I attended Studio Theatre’s production of An Iliad, Lisa Peterson & Denis O’Hare’s passionate play about the the telling of the epic tale and its meaning to humanity.
The Iliad is less gourmet than glutton, not celebrating or condemning war but being there completely, in triumph and in hissy-fit, in bloodlust and in parental guilt. There’s no question about whether it’s a good war — it’s not. Perhaps this is why the Trojan War resonates in a way other epics don’t, save perhaps Don Quixote, perhaps for the same reason: there is no righteousness save self-righteousness, no tragedy that is not earned through folly. It’s a very male book, and patriarchal too, a story of power and fatherhood and sonhood and brotherhood, but not a heroic one.
So I wonder, what would a matriarchal Iliad say? Would there even be one? Not that women won’t war — Margaret Thatcher won back the Falklands — and women have their fears and follies too, even without conniving gods for an excuse. But I doubt they would leave their homes and homelands undefended for a decade in the name of saving one peeress’s marital honor. I think they would need a reason to send their daughters and sons to die.
It is not an idle question. Lately America’s wars all have reasons, other than control and conquest, other than civilizing (making like us, or at least vassal to us) the savages (those unlike us). We have been imperialistic, to be sure, we have been brutal — and still are. But we fought the Axis for its threat to our existence, and the Soviets too, though the many proxies made the latter case less clear. By the time of the first Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, our leaders worked damn hard to find a reason — this, despite an all-volunteer military with whose members few of us have contact save through journalism.
Twenty-two years ago, on the same December 1990 page of Harper’s Magazine as Senator Bob Kerrey’s denunciation of the first Gulf War, I read a Margaret Atwood poem about a female military historian. It’s a wry poem, and sly, a narrator who talks about how others avoid her because they are disappointed her sex gives her no better understanding of war and of humanity. But she knows this:
Despite the propaganda, there are no monsters,
or none that can be finally buried.
Finish one off and circumstances
and the radio create another.
Maybe Atwood’s narrator is no better at understanding war, but she’s certainly hip to the new con, the new marketing that leads up to one — a marketing that speaks to a need for a reason.
What would a matriarchal Iliad look like? Instead of a minute of justification and ten years of fighting, maybe it would look like the reverse. Maybe it would look like Desert Storm, a war shorter than the hearings that led up to it, if you don’t count the decade of fighting since Mission Accomplished.
Maybe the coming equality — or the coming matriarchy — already has deeper roots than we realized. Doesn’t mean it can’t be hacked.