Some food for thought inspired by Adriana Cavarero’s In Spite of Plato: a feminist rewriting of ancient philosophy
The Castelvecchi publishing house republished in Italy many essays by philosopher Adriana Cavarero, founding texts for gender studies and the sexual difference debate. These type of texts were difficult to find in the bookshops but they’re now available for reading. Among them In Spite of Plato: a feminist rewriting of ancient philosophy (first edition 1990) contributed to recognise, in the patriarchal thought, a ‘philological crime’: the systematic denial of the feminine reducing motherhood to a biological duty. What would Demeter, Penelope, Diotima and the Thracian servant maid have to say about body, identity, sex, motherhood and about philosophy’s greatest systems? Thirty years ago, Adriana Cavarero took these icons and she reinterpreted them, freeing them from their ancillary function at men’s service (Odysseus and Achilles, Socrates and Plato, Thales…) and returning them ‘emancipated’ to Italian and international feminist movements.
We won’t be making a thourough and specialised analysis about Adriana Cavarero’s studies, and we leave the exploration of other feminine figures to the curiosity of those who wish to read about them. We limite ourselves to briefly propose (and as informative as possible) her interpretation of Demeter and Persephone-Kore figures (korē, ‘maiden’, is Persephone’s epithet, as we’ll see, which is very significant).
The philosopher strips this myth from the patriarchal layers, while identifying a sensational liberation meaning regarding reproductive issues (such as abortion and surrogate motherhood that we will deepen in other occasions): the freedom to generate, the freedom to be or to not be a mother.
The myth is well known: Demeter (goddess linked to the earth fertility) lost her daughter Persephone abducted by Hades (god of the underworld) and he makes her his bride. Therefore, Demeter makes the earth infertile until they’ll reach a compromise: Persephone will live six months with her mother and six months in the underworld with her husband Hades. This myth is traditionally associated to the seasonal cycles of sowing and crop (the earth rests and remains unproductive in the winter season and produces harvests in the warm season).
But in a more ancient version, the myth tells us first of all about the interruption of feminine genealogy: at this point Persephone is not Demeter’s daughter and she becomes Hades’ bride. From matrilineal to patriarchal. Persephone, who by maternal line should have been associated to the birth and fertility, becoming Hades’ bride she is associated with death. This death is the “ultimate end” of Western thought: that death which has separated thought (immortal) from the body (mortal) and distinguished being from appearing, with a consequent devaluation of the living in all its forms with respect to the absolutization of the Logos, thus constructing the founding dichotomy of Western philosophy, within which immortality (obtained either through the abstract exercise of thought or through the imperishable deeds of warrior heroism) is the compensation, the revenge, the consolation of patriarchal man.
If we reconstruct the myth from an anti-patriarchal point of view, there’s another very significant consequence that descends from the rape of Persephone: the mother, once separated from her daughter, stops generating and makes the earth sterile. She’s not required to generate. If she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t generate. The heart of the myth is the maternal power to generate, but also the power to not generate. For Demeter is not enough knowing that the daughter is somewhere else (in the underworld, with Hades). Demeter wants to see her daughter, she wants her daughter to be and appear in the natural/natal dimension. This doesn’t mean coming out of nothing or from an otherworldy dimension ( Plato’s theory of ideas ) but a contingent and embodied coming into the world, a birth from a mother, not separated from the other types of natural generation (animal reproduction, the blossoming of flowers), in harmony with all the nature rhythms.
The daughter Persephone is not necessarily a mother too. Because the myth theme is the freedom to generate and not the obligation to generate that millennia of patriarchal language have covered in rhetoric, with uplifting images of women’s role as nurturers.
Their mutual eye-contact it’s enough to recognise the power of the maternal role, power to generate and to not generate. We’re rooted in our birth, because we’re daughters before becoming mothers; and the daughter disposes as she wishes of the secret of generation transmitted through motherhood. Put more simply: being a woman is being born, not generate. If we’re born it doesn’t mean we need to generate in an endless chain.
This would be the most ancient meaning of the myth, in the context of the culture of Mother Goddess.
The ‘rustic’ resemantization of the myth is all patriarchal and impoverishes it by misrepresenting it: in the analogy between the earth that bears fruit in the spring and the mother who is fertilised by the male seed, patriarchy exalts the periodic duty of bearing children, a categorical imperative from which there is no escape. But there is something even more terrible in the narrative of the daughter torn away from her mother, in the separation of the reciprocal gaze between mother and daughter:
in the patriarchal order, there is a way of being women that wants them divided and alone, torn away from a place of common belonging and reciprocal meaning, and positioned in a place that provides for them roles and functions aimed at the reign of fathers […]the mother is a container for the unborn child, and therefore tends to be controllable and adjustable by that social order that has made of her precisely a container, so that maternal power has ended up being transformed into its opposite. (p.79)
According to the patriarchal dogma, women are mere reproductive envelopes. That’s because Metaphysics is the Spirit’s adventure and already with Aristotle and the Hippocratic treatises, a woman is only the male seed’s container, the place in which there’s the corporeal envelope of the spirit, not the origin of life but the transitional incubator, the incubator of the unborn body.
But also nurturing the new borns: a nurturing that only satisfies material needs (the appearance, the non-being), while the Spirit, the Soul, is only sublimated through male paideia, which elevates to the heights of Being. Metaphysics: the ‘matricidal’ branch of philosophy that destroys its earliest roots, the being born of a mother, because being born in patriarchal thought is decided elsewhere, in the eternal and hyperuranian dimension that legitimises Man’s ethical and juridical codes (with universal and neutral significance although intrinsically masculine; never ‘this man’, ‘this woman’, in the contingency of their experience and gendering).
A masculine symbolic horizon is opened up, it’s nourished by dualisms: woman/birth and man/death, body and thought. However, those are not quietly bipolar dualisms on an equal footing because the male pole commands the other, that is, because the universalisation of one sex reduces the other to its own function by throwing its mournful categories at it (p. 83).
These seem like abstract or distant reflections, but by separating the mother/container from the embryo/unborn, in the past eras it was possible to give the surname by paternal line and to give legal foundation to parental authority and, even today, to limit and hinder the right to abortion. Because if the original Demeter-Persephone unity has been broken, if mother and child are not an inseparable unity, the choice is elsewhere and for other purposes (giving children to the fatherland, giving arms to industry and minds to the economy, according to demographic and socio-economic needs), without ever leaving procreation to the free and independent choice of the woman.
Thus polis and physis are opposed. The mother’s womb no longer belongs to the mother and even less does what happens in the womb belong to her. Generating is now a matter of state. But ‘Demeter wants Kore, the maiden, the virgin born of her, not the pregnant daughter and the uninterrupted begetting’ (p. 103).