Three Women on Love during War: Anica Savić Rebac, Olga Freidenberg, Edith Stein

Part One

/ by Svetlana Slapšak

Love, the Opposite of War


The opposition war-peace, the expected and the “natural” one, remains in the field of public discourse and politics: The shift should be to thematize the history of emotions, or anthropology of emotions of war-time, and to follow a gender divide in it. A rather narrow space, a kind of site-catchment that I want to explore is that of women from the intellectual elite, each of them in their well-defined, small unit of exchanging and producing ideas, approximately at the same time – during World War II. Site-catchment is an archaeological term, defining possibilities of controlling a space (site) in the context of the everyday mobility requirements of a human group settled there, usually over a one-day span. My use of the term underlines limited communication frameworks – in this case, siege, war zone, exclusion and eventually concentration camps, and the expansion of theorizing under such restrictions. Further re-semantization of the term goes into the texts: War, as a kind of hypo-text, is hardly mentioned, the pain and the toils of everyday life are generally omitted, they cannot be read from the core texts which are firmly residing in theory – philosophy, ethics, history, folklore. This clear division allows for reading biographical data as part of the hypo-text. Standard textual procedures of a scientific discourse in humanities, in times of war, has to be seen in such a multi-level division. Beside the hypo-text (life during war) and the core text (scientific discourse, in this case), there is also a third text to be read – the meta-text, or the explanatory hints in choice of topics, examples, quotations etc., from which immanent poetics can be construed.


If all the three texts have some of the same narrative units, like war and opposition to war, then we could even speak of a genre, or sub-genre, polemography, which is not historiography, nor war prose, but reading-in the war through a basic anti-war procedure, a continuation of writing just as if there still were peace and normality. So why not just theorizing peace as the opposite of war? One of the answers could be found in the situation of European pacifism, which failed to prevent WWI, and to seriously affect nation-state cultures. It did not offer any powerful theoretical framework to be recycled or revived at the threat of WWII. Although Gandhi opened a way to think peace, and proletarian revolutions adopted programmatic pacifist texts, theorizing peace did not take ground until after WWII, when the threat became global. Love, as the opposite of war offered, in the cases I am going to address, a larger theoretical horizon.


Feminism and gender studies of modern times have done a lot first to “mythify” women’s “innate” opposition to war, and then quite a lot to deconstruct and de-mystify this construct, still “workable” in war zones and in grass-roots activism. Women against the war remains a powerful narrative in which some features of women’s writing can be seen more clearly against a gloomy background: Life and living as the only sense-bearers, everyday and common as meaningful and even subversive, trivial as resistance to highbrow and false discourse on sacred goals, patriotism, and the necessity of violence. Women theorizing on love during war, as scarce as it was in Europe during WWII – I am maybe referring to unique cases – opposes both mainstream gender-genre conventions, and women’s writing during (or on) war.


Antiquity in Search of Love Theories


Choosing three women who opposed the war through thinking and writing on love, all three of them during WWII, I position the philosophy of love in women’s culture, in order to celebrate these women’s breaches into the field of man’s privileged reflective, spiritual, intellectual competences, such as philosophy, and in order to put forward an unexplored, but convincingly justified, European invention of Antiquity.


There are only two moments in European history in which love was defined as a public affair, pertaining to citizen’s identity: More largely confirmed, the culture of the Greek polis of the classical period, especially the Athenian one; and much-contested, but almost lasting as long as the “golden era” of Athenian democracy, was the 1968 revolution in understanding, acting and presenting love. Of course, there have been several intellectual projects, more precisely utopias in modern Europe, and the one invented by François Rabelais is particularly evocative, by proposing a liberal sexual life as a foundation of civic fulfilment. We just cannot deny that our ways of making love, living together, choosing partners and presenting sexuality have radically changed since 1968, with deep traces in almost every section of culture and everyday life, most visibly in popular culture and the media. The “Make Love Not War” slogan can also be understood as re-vindicating the public space for love as a civic activity, in the context that I try to limit and define.


It was not surprising that one of the most successful global cultural activities in March 2003, aiming at preventing the war in Iraq, was the simultaneous performance of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata in more than 300 places all over the world. Lysistrata’s carnivalesque plot is about women of Athens who proclaim a sexual strike until the peace treaty between Athenians and Spartans is concluded, and they recruit the Spartan women into the action, too. The needy male citizens on both sides consent to peace after a number of comic twists and turns. The male sexual suffering is a public affair, seeking solutions in confronting or negotiating women’s refusal of sex as their own public and political intervention: Women were not citizens, Aristophanes’ upside-down comic world is conditioned by genre and context – and the exclusively male theater public.


But there are many other aspects that point to the Ancient understanding of love and sexuality as a public matter. For instance, there is a stable motif of Ancient Greek literature, from the Classical period to the late Hellenistic times, of the dangers of male sexuality for the stability of the state. Another fascinating issue is the position of women, the body in which a citizen is “cooked” with proper ingredients: A mother that is a daughter of a citizen, and a father-citizen. Ancient gynecologists, like Soranus, presented a female uterus in the form of a vessel. The idea of a newborn baby being milked and “massaged” into a proper form not by a mother, but rather by another (hired) woman, at the expense of the father, can be recognized not only in Ancient European, but also in Islamic cultures.


The argument that social stability depends largely on satisfied male sexual desire, or that the male sexual desire can de-stabilize the state, can be easily traced back to Lysistrata and Aristophanes. But it reappears in different literary genres later, and it becomes a standing motif in the writings of Alciphron and other late “re-inventors” of the Athenian Golden Age: Hetaerae, the courtesans, give themselves credit for keeping dangerous philosophers´ minds away from concocting revolutions and instability, by keeping their bodies sexually satisfied. Instead of preparing civil war and tyranny, philosophers are too tired to get up early and go to exercise politics, after a night of love… Furthermore, the courtesans prevent male folk from incestuous relationships and from adultery, hence confirming family values.


Social stability and stability depending on a good sex life? Male sexuality as a natural threat to the stately order and democracy? The Athenian democracy constantly feared the destructive force of male sexuality in its more political form –homosexual relations, always constructed as power-relations (younger and older lover, never two consenting adults), because they reflected aristocratic behavior and the threat of aristocratic conspiracy against democracy: The fear well-confirmed by history (Harmodios’ and Aristogeiton’s tyrranoctony), and by more recent events in Athenian democracy (the tyranny of the Thirty, executed by Socrates’ pupils). Alciphron’s ironic arguments follow a long line which can be seen in Plato’s dialogues, especially Menexenes, where Socrates produces an ironic theory that Aspasia, in fact, wrote Pericles’ speeches, and that she is an excellent, though secret, teacher of rhetoric. In Aristophanes’ Women in Parliament (Ecclesiazousae), women easily steal their husbands’ language, and make the Parliament vote to delegate the power to women. The connection with wit and irony which, in Plato’s case, serves more as a simple equation, women = (means) irony, went through a subtler change after the death of democracy and deep cultural transformations in the Hellenistic era. On one side, rich and clever Alciphron’s argumentation, which does not include the real fear of anti-democratic conspiracy, and on the other, the case of Athenaeus, chronologically close to Alciphron, who developed a concept in which gender and genre are related. His Deipnosophistae, or Philosophers at the Feast, is a curious work, of which half of the text is preserved. Athenaeus is interested in everything and anything: His guests at the imaginary (or real?) symposium debate history, literature, mythology, techniques, hard sciences, geography, travel, food, love, philosophy, art, architecture, plants, animals, condiments, but avoid any allusion to the local, political, actual, or anything concerning power games. In Book XIII, which bears the title On Women, Athenaeus' intellectuals discuss women and love. Obvious changes in women's positions, above all legal and political, have occurred between the Athenian democracy and Hellenistic time and Late Antiquity, most of them in the sense of emancipation and more rights and visibility. There is no need to fall into the trap of concluding that the only recorded functional and highly-structured direct democracy was bad for women, while monarchy was better, but the system of heirs and familial lineage related to power was quite helpful in developing some new rights for women. Athenaeus' intellectuals may be nostalgic for the old times, but they do not (at least not all of them) pose as traditionalists. However, their debating on women and love reflects some of the changes in conceptualizing women, and thus translates some strategies of dealing with alterity, which was becoming more and more complex.


Women as alterity in Antiquity (especially the period of the development of polis in Greece) are nowadays the prevailing and generally-accepted result of research, especially in historic anthropology. An Athenian citizen, to take the best-known example, searched to confirm and define his predominantly externally-oriented identity by “mirroring” himself/his self in others – women, slaves, barbarians, nature, mythical (often virtual or hybrid) creatures, divinities, animals. In this group of the wild and untamed, women were extremely dangerous, at least when basic identitarian texts of democracy are analyzed, above all tragedies and comedies. One of the possible philosophical classifications, or strategies of complexity, was Aristoteles', who defined women in quite demeaning terms, as if the debate on women's rights was not already at the table of the generation of Athenian intellectuals, like Plato, Aristophanes, and Euripides. Athenaeus' “masters of memory” had a challenging prospect: To trace a winding road of defining women in the past by the greatest authorities. This could be a very good reason to venture into the contextual framework of Athenaeus' symposiasts.


His feasting intellectuals do not have a single woman-guest among them. They also do not have women-entertainers, as it was customary for men-only at symposia – at least in earlier times. Some of the philosophers' schools, present in Athenaeus' group, are Epicureans, thus familiar not only with women's presence, but also with their participation in philosophical and academic activities. The absence of women might be explained with a new and different mentality, or maybe a new social status, which did not allow the hiring of expensive sexy entertainers (their role was always multiple), but whatever the reason, Athenaeus' group looks like an old boys' club. When they refer to tacky, or overtly obscene narratives, they seem to enjoy this acoustically, which is one of the most expanded modalities of sexual satisfaction today (a sex-prone phone industry), being cheaper, more comfortable, and a less risky way of enjoying. The contextual scenery of Book XIII can be understood fully only when we compare it to the complex setting of the Ancient symposion, seen by today's historical anthropologists – readers of images, and also to the changed context of the Hellenistic symposion: It is definitely miserable, when it comes to gentlemen's delights. The acoustic aspect of enjoyment, boldly compared and arguable through today's technologically-advanced, but anthropologically-parallel practice, appears as the main semiotic code of Book XIII.


Let us go back now from context to concepts: Discussing women and love diverges into the two main lines of explanation. Firstly, to neutralize women's impact on culture and the world as the whole – or the memory as the whole – by privileging friendship and love, detached from genre-divisions, as non-destructive emotions, although they, once expressed, may produce auto-destruction and destruction tout court. It is quite a development from the early Greek concepts of love as a disease. The complexity of love and friendship (including animals loving people, homosexual relations, and other forms of emotional relations) emerges as a new, not yet classified complexity, which does not allow for any gender-specificity, but stresses the complexity of emotional states and modes. The second line of explanation is slightly contradictory to the first. It tries to re-establish gender specificity, by constructing a special mode of verbal expression for a special kind of women. Again, the work of memory is masterly displayed, by quoting, using and re-narrating the plots of the so-called Middle Comedy, collections of anecdotes, bits and pieces of many authors, historians and poly-historians, and the textual tradition, which is defined as pornography, or “writing on whores.” Athenaus is the inventor, or the first user, of the term that we know of, and whores, or hetairai, are the class of women which serve as a screen for projecting this gender specificity, or strategy of complexity. Hetaerae are given a literary genre and a discourse. The literary genre is pornography, which is obviously understood as a form of prose, apart from comedy, and the discourse, or the oral genre, is the joke. The hidden complexity of gender relations is thus deconstructed and re-classified, with an innovative solution to the problem of self-expression and intellectual emancipation of hetairai. In fact, all the jokes cited by Athenaeus' participants (the old boys' club) are about the intellectual superiority of hetairai, especially when their charms do not count any more, in their old age. They typically outsmart men, be it philosophers, butchers, soldiers, or kings... By treating gender concepts in this way, Athenaeus proposes not only a new strategy of dealing with complexity, which we could define as disciplinary expansion, interdisciplinary cooperation, and looking for a definition between genre and discourse, but he does a much more remarkable job of connecting gender and culture. The debate about women and love moves from the anthropological situation of alterity of women towards the integration of women into the world – even if it is the virtual world of memory – allowing for women to excel in the same privileged art of commanding the memory, and having a genre/discourse to do it properly. Gender is conceptualized - and realized in culture, and this is accepted as a general framework - a theoretical pre-condition for all gender studies today. Athenaus' old boys' club did reflect on women as secondary, from the position of power and a restrained acoustic command of sexuality. But from this position, new options for dealing with complexity appeared, and the ancient alterity has been replaced by a much more responsible and intellectually-challenging process of inventing new (textual/discursive) spaces for women's identity. Athenaeus' strategy of complexity can be read as a good example of an epistemological experiment, an impressive endeavor coming from the neglected part of the past in which we should certainly invest more attention.


We will find some fragments of these arguments in many modern public debates on prostitution, clouded by modern civic (post-Christian, post-religious) moral concerns. Re-discovering the Ancient politics about love (with all the conceptual differences) unveils indirectly the still-functioning contemporary censorship and re-naturalization of love, muffled into “nature” very much as gender itself used to be presented. The cultural and performative aspects of love become especially challenging and inspirational, when theorized by women authors before and out of the great places, seasons and jargons of theory on gender, love, and sexuality.


This is part one of a three-part long-read essay. Part two and three will appear on the following Fridays.

Svetlana Slapšak

trained in Classical Studies/Linguistics at the University in Beograd. Retired professor of Anthropology of Ancient Worlds and Anthropology of Gender at ISH, Ljubljana Graduate School of Humanities since 1996. Dean of ISH 2004-2014. Published cca 70 books. Writes academic books/articles, essays, novels, travelogue, drama and translates from Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, English, Slovenian and SCB languages.