2 February 2014

HOMER'S ILIAD BOOK 6 AND S AMBROSE: Episode 2

No; Hector does accept Helen's transgressive invitation to join her in the thalamos. You knew he wouldn't. Before returning to the battle, he goes back to his own house. But Andromache is not there. Standing ep'oudon, on the threshold, he demands an answer from the housewomen: "C'mon! Tell me the truth". He wonders if she has gone to visit her sisters-in-law, or to the Temple of Athene, with all the other well-haired (would our Holy Father have described them as capillary?) women, to propitiate the goddess (in fact, she had gone, with chaperon and child, to a vantage point to watch the battle).

Observe that Hector, apparently, does not go beyond the threshold of even his own home. And notice that he is surprised that his wife is not where a wife might normatively be expected to be: at home. And don't let it elude you how few are the alternative possibilities which Hector, rather hectoringly, offers. To an extent which it is difficult for us to appropriate, pre-modern societies had very definite assumptions about this sort of thing. Even in the twentieth century, women would not visit the billiards room in a gentleman's house. There was no rule; no notice on the door; it was simply assumed that women didn't go there. And I don't think it was expected that men would galumph at all hours around the Morning Room. In Rebecca the belle anonyme gets it wrong by trying to enter her own bedroom at the time when the maids expect to have it to themselves to get it straight, after the butler has made it clear that it is very unexpected that she might wish to be in the library. Ethnosociologists have written fascinating articles about the customs of instinctive, customary, gender segregation that still exist in traditional Middle Eastern societies. There are times when no man would dream of going near the village fountain because that is when the women go there to collect water and to do their business there with each other ... We need to grasp how totally exceptional is our Western assumption that men and women just wander anywhere and mix with anybody at any time.  For that matter, it is still as a general rule true, in my local Orthodox Church, that men are on the right and women are on the left. We've moved a long way, fast, so as to reach the situation in which, not long before last Christmas, in an English university, a major row could erupt when, exceptionally, it was proposed to have segregated seating in a lecture-room to accommodate the unusual preferences of a visiting lecturer.

I find it frankly frightening how readily we assume that our own habits, different, I suspect, from those of every other known culture, are a norm to which others ought to conform or to be forced to conform. I'm not suggesting starting a great campaign to return to pre-modern habits; I haven't lost all touch with reality. I'm simply suggesting that, since we are the cosmic Odd Men Out, we ought to let just the tiniest smidgeon of humility enter our treatment of others. But I know even that is a lost cause: so arrogant have we become. We are the big global cultural bullies who know exactly how everybody else should behave, from Saragossa all the way to Sarawak.

The third and final Episode will bring us up to S Ambrose.

3 comments:

Don Camillo SSC said...

I never cease to be amazed at the way some who are always going on about the relativity of moral standards and cultural customs, are quite prepared to absolutise their own moral and cultural preferences. If there is a natural law, and "human rights", it and they can only be founded upon the will of the Creator.

Oliver Nicholson said...

Many years ago I lived briefly in California. People who had read of such things in Eng.Lit. told me how 'uncivilized' it was to have women withdrawing to the withdrawing room once the cloth was drawn and the men were left to their port and dessert (in the English sense of dessert). But when you went to one of their dinners, the women would instantly take off into the kitchen and the men were expected to stand around on one foot for hours holding Drinks talking to each other in stilted tones about car repair and getting hungrier by the minute. This was merely 'normal', because it was of course behaviour specific to America. It struck me as highly uncivilised.

RG said...

is there a "not" missing from the first line?