What women want…

Due to some strange reason, which I am still attempting to gauge, a noteworthy number of my girlfriends (meaning, naturally, female friends of mine…) indulge me with the honour of sharing their sentimental plights and grace me by soliciting my opinion and advice applicable to their love relationships. I find this peculiar circumstance both gratifying and worrisome at the same time: I do not deem myself the Antonio de Nebrija of love affairs as, because of my age and my average love life, I cannot possibly be particularly qualified to steer anyone’s assessment and decision within the highly intricate romantic field.

Nevertheless I confess that many have been so far the cases submitted to my wise estimation and in reference to which I have been warmly requested to express my reflections and contribute with my discernment; and pretty various have been the knotty, dire and thorny situations I have had the chance to encounter and hear, as well as quite diverse and well assorted is the gallery of their unfortunate female protagonists: being them such a greatly heterogeneous set of samples in so far as temperament, character, age and background are concerned. Yet, in conscience I believe it would be by all means accurate to affirm that – regardless the different state of affairs and scenarios – the main sources of their pains and grief can all be easily clustered under a sole and main paramount question: “Why do I always pick the wrong man?”

In truth I have some knowledge of stochastic analysis and therefore I cannot scientifically admit that this planet could be largely – if not solely – populated by Bireno’s comrades and poor Olimpia’s companions, and thus it cannot possibly be acceptable that each and every damsel’s customary doom is to awake stranded on a desert beach on an island off Scotland finding out her loved one is gone away to Zealand as Ludovico Ariosto narrates:

“Né desta né dormendo, ella la mano
per Bireno abbracciar stese, ma invano.
Nessuno truova: a sé la man ritira:
di nuovo tenta, e pur nessuno truova.
Di qua l’un braccio, e di là l’altro gira;
or l’una, or l’altra gamba; e nulla giova…
…Corre di nuovo in su l’estrema sabbia,
e ruota il capo e sparge all’aria il crine;
e sembra forsennata, e ch’adosso abbia
non un demonio sol, ma le decine;
o, qual Ecuba, sia conversa in rabbia,
vistosi morto Polidoro al fine.
Or si ferma s’un sasso, e guarda il mare;
né men d’un vero sasso, un sasso pare.”

[Between wake and sleep her arm she gently moves
Bireno to embrace whom she so love, but in vain.
There’s no-one there; her hand again she tends;
She gropes once more; then, finding no-one still,
First one and the another leg extends,
This way and that, but all to no avail…
… Again she runs along the sandy shore,
Hither and thither; not Olimpia
She seems, but some mad creature by a score
Of demons driven, or like Hecuba,
A prey to frenzy when her Polydore
She found there lying dead; and then afar
Olimpia gazes seawards, like a stock,
Standing so still a rock upon a rock.”]

Clearly I am fully aware that scoundrels, gold-diggers, social-climbers and adventure-seekers of both sexes do actually exist and do sadly roam around; yet this is to be considered more the exception rather than the rule; besides this is not the case I am hereby contemplating. With unambiguous reference to sound and morally unbiased relations – and thus excluding shallow petty Don Giovanni and hysterical post-feminists women – I am indeed more inclined to believe that, in spite of the spreading higher level of education and of the conquests of social emancipation, still misconceptions, misconstructions, miscommunication and misunderstandings tend inexorably to lead and send astray too many interactions between good-natured and well-intentioned men and women.

Among the vast number of hardly comprehensible causes I am firmly convinced that, regardless the numerous possibilities, occasions and instruments of social contact and dialogue, there is still a great deal of authentic solitude, diffidence and seclusion around. A circumstance that affects the concrete perception and vision of real life, stimulates dangerous over-speculations, encourages treacherous idealisations, inspires highly judgmental attitudes, rises expectations up to an unrealistic sphere and altogether consequently enfolds into a bundle of stiff preconceptions the entire framework of human relations and easily leads to the frustrations of Gautier’s chevalier d’Albert:

“Cela tient peut-être à ce que je vis beaucoup avec moi-même, et que les plus petits détails dans une vie aussi monotone que la mienne prennent une trop grande importance. Je m’écoute trop vivre et penser : j’entends le battement de mes artères, les pulsations de mon cœur ; je dégage, à force d’attention, mes idées les plus insaisissables de la vapeur trouble où elles flottaient et je leur donne un corps. – Si j’agissais davantage, je n’apercevrais pas toutes ces petites choses, et je n’aurais pas le temps de regarder mon âme au microscope, comme je le fais toute la journée. Le bruit de l’action ferait envoler cet essaim de pensées oisives qui voltigent dans ma tête et m’étourdissent du bourdonnement de leurs ailes : au lieu de poursuivre des fantômes, je me colletterais avec des réalités ; je ne demanderais aux femmes que ce qu’elles peuvent donner : – du plaisir, – et je ne chercherais pas à embrasser je ne sais quelle fantastique idéalité parée de nuageuses perfections. – Cette tension acharnée de l’œil de mon âme vers un objet invisible m’a faussé la vue. Je ne sais pas voir ce qui est, à force d’avoir regardé ce qui n’est pas, et mon œil si subtil pour l’idéal est tout à fait myope dans la réalité… Peut-être aussi que, ne trouvant rien en ce monde qui soit digne de mon amour, je finirai par m’y adorer moi-même, comme feu Narcisse d’égoïste mémoire. ”

Even though this sort of unconsciously secluded sentimental life, this άβιος βίος is a genderless widely diffused state nowadays, women who truly believe to be ill-fated because they chance to date always and only wrong partners are most likely the very same individuals who tend  to be prey of this perilous enmeshment and thus somehow they are more prone in driving away any – even earnest – pursuer:

“Les honnêtes femmes, même lorsqu’elles le sont moins, ont une façon rechignée et dédaigneuse qui m’est parfaitement insupportable. Elles vous ont l’air toujours prêtes à sonner et à vous faire jeter à la porte par leurs laquais ; – et il me semble, en vérité, qu’un homme qui prend la peine de faire la cour à une femme (ce qui n’est pas déjà aussi agréable qu’on veut le croire) ne mérite pas d’être regardé de cette manière-là.”

Without any shade of doubt it is far from my aim to recommend that an unadorned and straightforward love declaration (or rather a business proposition…) such as the one declaimed by Cervantes’ personage of Doña Estefanía de Caicedo would have miraculous effects on anyone’s love twinges:

”Señor alférez Campuzano, simplicidad sería si yo quisiese venderme a vuesa merced por santa: pecadora he sido, y aun ahora lo soy, pero no de manera que los vecinos me murmuren ni los apartados me noten. Ni de mis padres ni de otro pariente heredé hacienda alguna, y con todo esto vale el menaje de mi casa, bien validos, dos mil y quinientos escudos; y éstos en cosas que, puestas en almoneda, lo que se tardare en ponellas se tardará en convertirse en dineros. Con esta hacienda busco marido a quien entregarme y a quien tener obediencia; a quien, juntamente con la enmienda de mi vida, le entregaré una increíble solicitud de regalarle y servirle; porque no tiene príncipe cocinero más goloso ni que mejor sepa dar el punto a los guisados que le sé dar yo, cuando, mostrando ser casera, me quiero poner a ello. Sé ser mayordomo en casa, moza en la cocina y señora en la sala; en efeto, sé mandar y sé hacer que me obedezcan. No desperdicio nada y allego mucho; mi real no vale menos, sino mucho más cuando se gasta por mi orden. La ropa blanca que tengo, que es mucha y muy buena, no se sacó de tiendas ni lenceros; estos pulgares y los de mis criadas la hilaron; y si pudiera tejerse en casa, se tejiera. Digo estas alabanzas mías porque no acarrean vituperio cuando es forzosa la necesidad de decirlas. Finalmente, quiero decir que yo busco marido que me ampare, me mande y me honre, y no galán que me sirva y me vitupere. Si vuesa merced gustare de aceptar la prenda que se le ofrece, aquí estoy moliente y corriente, sujeta a todo aquello que vuesa merced ordenare, sin andar en venta, que es lo mismo andar en lenguas de casamenteros, y no hay ninguno tan bueno para concertar el todo como las mismas partes”.

Nonetheless if women would include within their seduction weapons together with mascara, lip-gloss and stay-ups a sound dose of wise lenience and prudent forbearance, accompanied by a sensible non-over-judgemental attitude in accepting their partners for what they are and truly value the efforts they endeavour to please them – this could become quite a clever and judicious move. As brilliantly stated in Hugo von Hoffmannsthal’s “Der Schwierige” within an interesting dialogue between a rather dreary brother and his witty sister:

HANS KARL BÜHLMy dear, I take my hat off to your energetic resolutions, but men are not this simple, thank God!
CRESCENCE BÜHL - My dear, men – thank God! – are simple; if women take them with simplicity.

As to the final outcome: well, let us all rely on an old master – Heraclitus:

“ἐὰν μὴ ἔλπηται͵ ἀνέλπιστον οὐκ ἐξευρήσει͵ ἀνεξερεύνητον ἐὸν καὶ ἄπορον”

“If you do not hope, you will not find that which is not hoped for; since it is difficult to discover and impossible to attain.”

The women of Heinrich Schliemann

sophia-schliemann-priams-treasure

On Christmas 1890 in Piazza Carità in Naples, Italy an unknown lonely old gentleman dressed in simple attire – clearly a foreigner – while strolling with an absentminded attitude silently faints and lies down on the sidewalk; succoured by the bystanders he is rapidly transported to the nearest hospital, in vain: he passed away after two days. This elderly tourist was Heinrich Schliemann, without any shade of doubt the most legendary archaeologist of all times, the very first explorer of Troy, Tyrint and Mycenae, the discoverer of the celebrated so called Treasure of Priam and Mask of Agamemnon, the precursor of the excavations of Crete and Orchomenus. The extraordinary successful and energetic pioneer was 68 and still ready for more expeditions and quarrying. Born in North-East Germany to a underprivileged family, thanks to his indomitable tenacity, highly uncommon practical intelligence and – of course, for it is always needed – a fair dose of luck, this incredible merchant had been able before reaching forty to accumulate quite a great fortune, to retire from business and finally devote himself to the pursuit of the very dream of his childhood: to become and archaeologist and, by following the clues traceable within Homer’s masterpieces, to identify, localise and uncover the city of Ilios – which he actually did.

Being a self-made man, with inconsequential curricular studies he was apathetically scorned by the European intelligentsia and aloofly derided by the academics. Furthermore he was continuously and strenuously fighting against home and foreign bureaucracy and political intrusions. Nevertheless, supported by his remarkable determination and – of course, for it always helps – by his fathomless bank account, he finally was rewarded with great discovering achievements and received many honours. Yet, there are good reason to believe that he was in his inner nature a gloomy and murky character, inclined to sadness and altogether convinced of being unappreciated and misunderstood. This more intimate side of his temperament is indeed palpable when examining his relationships, where contradictory feelings and behaviours show the contrast between the greatly resolute successful businessman and his insecure sentimental nature.

His adolescent love Minna Meincke, a neighbour girl of better condition, got married in 1847 with someone else, while he – quite naively indeed – expected to marry her himself on his way back to Germany: as meantime working in the Netherlands and Russia he had acquired a considerable social status and significant finances. He indirectly asked her to marry him, via a friend C.E. Laué who reported him the sad outcome, which prostrated him: “But to my horror I received a month afterward the news she had just got married

Immediately afterwards he proposed to a German young lady living in Saint Petersburg, Sophie Hekker, whose greedy father, in spite of her reluctances, was more than willing to force her to accept. However Heinrich broke the romance for a rush of jealousy and went to the USA. Later, on his way back from California he proposed again to her – and at the same time to an attorney’s daughter, Katherina Lyshin; for, being a shrewd entrepreneur, he had guessed his reiterated proposal to Sophie would have been rejected. By the way it occurred that the two prospect spouses were acquainted with each other… However, shortly after his return from San Francisco on October 7th, 1852 in Saint Isaac Cathedral of Saint Petersburg Heinrich married Katherina Lyshin, who gave him three children Serge, Natalia, Nadeshda. Nonetheless it was soon evident that Katherina did not love him at all, as he writes to a friend of his: “She enjoys to portray me to everyone as a terrible tyrant, a despot, a debauched…”

Basically she deprecated his juvenile scholar dreams and youthful intellectual attempts, despised travelling with him (during their marriage years  he had visited – all by himself – several major European capitals, Egypt, Japan, India, China, Singapore…) and abhorred the idea of leaving Russia to settle down in Paris, in spite of his numerous appeals and letters: “Every night I go to theatre or conferences held by the most famous professors of the world, Touvé, Beulé, the viscount de Rougé and I could tell you stories for ten years without ever boring you…”

Knowing she loved Dresden he offered to settle down there instead of Paris, but also this offered solution was of no avail. Greedy of opulence and social ostentation, it seems she never really understood what was really important to him. Katherina, who never shared any intellectual and spiritual interests with him, slowly pushed him away in a deeper solitude and discomfort. Evidently the transformation of her husband from a highly acclaimed trader and banker to a weird amateur archaeologist, derided by the entire academic world, scantily travelling to dusty remote places and meagrely living away from the jet set and its lust and comforts was something way beyond her comprehension and acceptance. On Christmas 1868 she literally ran away from him, putting him in a deep state of consternation, as he wrote her:

You fled from home just because you knew that your poor husband was about to come back home. I had come to see you and stay with you at least one week and try to restore harmony between us, at any rate; actually I swear to God Almighty I was willing to make any kind of possible concession, I was ready to sacrifice 1 million francs to re-establish domestic peace. But how you behaved towards me! I still shiver for the dismay and the horror of your infernal conduct…. Yet, surely you never heard me utter one single bad word, even when your terrible and execrable behaviour had broken my heart…

He finally realised he could not make happy a woman who detested him and filed for divorce. Nonetheless Heinrich was stubborn in his pursuit for conjugal contentment. He confessed to a friend of his: “I strongly need to have by my side a heart that loves me”. And consequently he was contemplating, this time with the intercession of his cousin Adolph, to marry a cousin of his, Sophie Bürger: a girl he had seen only once, three years before and that apparently fancied him… Thus, to Schliemann’s businesslike line of reasoning she seemed the right one, as he explained to a friend: “human nature leads us to always esteem and love those who are more educated than us in those sciences and disciplines that we most cherish, for this reason I think I would be very happy with her…”

Yet the couple did not tie the knot – seemingly because of the large age difference. So he asked, again in his peculiar modus operandi, to his friend and highly distinguished Greek teacher Theokletos Vimpos (an Orthodox Archbishop) to find him a Greek wife endowed with the same “angelic temperament of his mother and sister”! Actually writing to his brother in law he had made a less idyllic portrayal of his intentions and expectations, bluntly stating that Greece was able to offer girls “as beautiful as the pyramids” and  as poor as rats” chasing any foreigner to escape from poverty. However, consumed merchant as he was, he placed a detailed order to Vimpos: she was supposed to be young enough to have children, amiable, enthusiast of ancient Greece art and literature, ancient history and geography, willing to accompany him in his travels and more… Surprisingly Vimpos, who likewise cousin Adolph had profited of Schliemann’s paranymph assignment to recover from some slight personal financial distress, had found him two possible prospect brides: Polyxena Giusti and Sophia Engastromenos. When Schliemann saw their two pictures Vimpos had sent him for review he commented:

As I am an old traveller I am a good judge of countenances and I can promptly describe you the character of the two girls by just examining their portraits. … Polyxena Giusti is the right age to marry me, but she is bossy, authoritarian, despotic, irritable and vengeful. I think she has developed all these faults while performing her least enviable metier of school teacher. Sophia Engastromenos, is a splendid woman, open, indulgent, gentle and good housewife, full of life and well educated.

And almost immediately showed the utmost willingness and proposed to marry her within three months, although previously asking poor Vimpos all sort of questions!:

What is Mr. Engastromenos trade? What are his possessions? How old is he and how many children he has? How many boys and girls? In particular how old is Sophia? What colour is her hair? Where does the family live in Athens? Does Sophia play the piano? Does she speak any foreign language? Which one? Is she a good housewife? Does she understand Homer and the other ancient authors? Or does she completely ignore the idiom of our ancestors? Would she consent to move to Paris and to accompany her husband through his travels to Italy, Egypt and elsewhere?

Once ascertained that all features of Sophia corresponded to his requirements and quality standards, Heinrich finally decided to propose, although with extreme tact and caution, as he wrote her:

Unfortunately, as it seems, marriages in Greece are always arranged in great haste, even only after the first meeting, and for this reason half of them dissolve within one year. My feelings repel such disastrous practice. Marriage is the most splendid of all human institutions if its sole motives are respect, love and virtue; but marriage is the most ignoble bond and the heaviest yoke if it is based on material interest or sensual pleasure. Wealth contributes to matrimonial happiness, but it does not create it by itself and the woman who would marry me only for my money, or to become a great lady in Paris, would bitterly regret to have left Greece, because she would make me and herself wretched. The woman who marries me, ought to make it because of my worth as a man.

After some more – mainly epistolary – negotiatory courting Sophia eventually responded:

Yes, my dear Heinrich, nothing would make me happier than your resolution to take ma as your spouse. If you decide to take this step, I will be grateful for my entire life and will consider you as my sole benefactor.

On September 23rd, 1869 the wedding took place. They had two children: Andromache and Agamemnon. Sophia was everything he had always wanted, beautiful, intelligent, interested in his job, apparently enjoyed helping him in his expeditions and excavations and was as enthusiastic as him about Iliad and Odyssey. But not all that glitters is gold: Sophia was also psychologically weak and slightly unbalanced, causing Heinrich a miserable family-life mixed with few sweet moments, though.. This circumstance was worsened by Schliemann’s atavic fears of giving himself to someone who did not really care about him. This highly shrewd merchant, smart investor, adventurous globetrotter and archaeologist, who in his loneliness loved to find refuge in a legendary poetical past, was deep inside very frail and vulnerable, and depressively nurtured and kept his suspicions and doubts of not being loved until his death. He wrote:

I do not deceive myself with foolish illusions. I know very well that a young and pretty girl cannot fall in love with a man like me for his looks. Because of the simple passing by of the years a man is no more physically attractive. But I’ve thought that a woman endowed with a character that perfectly harmonises with mine and enlightened by the same enthusiasm and desire for knowledge could respect me… then I dare hoping that with time she would learn to love me…

And later on he wrote her:

I suffer because of the many displeasures you give me everyday… Night and day an idea torments me: you would be happy with a young husband and maybe your compatriot…

Ultimately this unparalleled personage, who was able to achieve what perhaps anybody else would not ever dare dreaming of: success, money, adventure, travels, honours… never really uncovered what he himself considered the real treasure, as he sadly wrote:

Domestic happiness is the greatest of all earthly blessings

Timeless heartless women

As some of my readers have correctly pointed out, not all the courtesans were as kind-hearted and noble souls as Glycera – and this is obviously common sense corroborated by facts… In truth very many are the examples of  such greedy and unscrupulous women which can be found in ancient literature, actually – for the records… – they unquestionably exceed in number the loving and tender-hearted ones. Both ancient Greek and Latin literature profusely portray all different kind of concubines and prostitutes, often by stressing particularly in sarcastic and condemning tones their insatiability for richness, their absolute lack of scruples and their moody disposition and whimsical attitude.

Admittedly though, to their excuse, it must be said they were normally initiated to their art from a very young age often because of financial restraints, as Lucian of Samosata depicts in this following mime between mother Crobyle and daughter Corinna:

CROBYLE: … I want to instruct you how you should behave with men. Take my oath daughter, we have only your favour with men to depend upon for our living. You can’t figure how tough it has been for us to survive since your good father’s death. We lacked nothing when he was alive. He had quite a standing as a blacksmith in the Piræus. Everyone says there will never be another blacksmith like Philipinos. After his death I traded his pincers, forge and hammer for two hundred drachmas. We have lived on that for quite a while. I’ve found a job knitting and turning thread, earning just enough to buy us some bread. I have raised you, however, my beloved little daughter. You are the only hope that is left to me… you will earn a lot of money by being caring to nice young men, drinking in their company and sleep with them – this for money, obviously.

CORINNA: (Scandalized): You imply like Lyra, the daughter of Daphnis?

CROBYLE: Yes.

CORINNA: But she is a courtesan!

CROBYLE: So what? There is no mischief in that. You will become wealthy. You are sure going to have many lovers.

CORINNA: (sobs and cries)

And often in their adolescence, as Alciphron reports in this letter below, they had to fight against their own feelings in so much as the reasons of the heart were eventually defeated by plain financial calculations and crude survival necessities:

“Oh Mother, I am at my wit’s end! It is impracticable for me to marry the young Methymnaean, the pilot’s son, to whom my father recently engaged me, since I have seen this young man from the city, who carried the holy palm branch, when you gave me authorization to go to Athens for the celebrations of the Oschophoria. Ah, mother, how gorgeous he is! how attractive! His locks are curlier than moss; he laughs more agreeably than the sea in a calm; his eyes are cerulean, like the ocean, when the first beams of the rising sun shine upon it. And his whole countenance? You would say that the Graces, having abandoned Orchomenus [city in Beotia], after bathing in the fountain of Gargaphia, had come to frolic around his cheeks. On his lips blossom roses, which he seems to have plucked from Cytherea’s bosom to decorate them. He must either be mine, or, following the example of the Lesbian Sappho, I will throw myself, not from the Leucadian rocks, but from the crags of Piraeus, into the waves.”

And again on the same theme of the conflict between convenience and sentiments Lucianus of Samosata portrays in this dialogue a true lecture of scepticism given by this experienced mother to her too candid – alas! Not for too long I am afraid… – daughter:

MOTHER. …You see how much this boy is bringing us? Not one obol, no clothing, not a pair of sandals, not even a vase of cream has he ever given you; it is all oaths and promises and future prospects; always: “should my father die I shall inherit and everything would be yours”. And thus – as you say – he swears you will become his wife.

MUSARIUM. Oh yes, mother, he swore it, by the two Goddesses and Polias.

MOTHER. And you believe him, without doubt!? So much that the other day, when he had a payment to perform and nothing to pay with, you just gave him your ring without even consulting me, and its value just became drink…

MUSARIUM. He is so beautiful with his smooth chin; and he loves me, and weeps telling me that; and he is the son of Laches the Areopagite and Dinomache; and we shall soon become his real wife and mother-in-law, you know; we have great prospects, if only the old man would kick the bucket.

MOTHER. …They [Musarium’s girlfriends] have more common sense; they know their trade better than to link their faith to the worthless words of a boy with a taste for lover oaths. But you go in for faithfulness and true love, and will have nothing to say to anybody but your Chaereas. There was that farmer from Acharnae the other day; his chin was smooth as well; and he brought us the two minae he had just obtained by selling his father’s wine; but you, oh no sir! You sent him away with scorn; nobody but your Adonis for you….Do you expect to be eighteen all your life Musarium? or that Chaereas will keep his promises once has his patrimony, and his mother finds a match that will bring him another one? You don’t believe he will keep in mind his tears and kisses and promises, with five talents of dowry to distract him.

MUSARIUM Mother, you could not expect me to betray Chaereas and let that horrible worker (yak!) approach me. Poor Chaereas! he is my baby and my pet…

MOTHER. I only hope this all will be true. I shall jog your memory about this when the time comes.

Well, so far the heart seems still to be there. Nonetheless later in their years either pushed by the adversities of their trade and by the difficulties of everyday life, or simply by the growing greediness for a luxurious life, or more likely by the uncertainties of their future associated to the unstoppable sunset of their beauty and the unavoidable decadence of their “body assets”, these women were able to touch the deepest forms of cynicism and behave in the rudest materialistic conduct, as it is depicted in this courtesan’s “blunt” letter (composed by Alciphron) – where she is refusing any further contact with this unlucky and financially ruined lad:

“Why do you waste your time writing me so often? I want fifty gold pieces, not letters. If you do love me, well give them to me; but if you are too attached to your money, don’t bother me. Farewell.”

And especially this other rather “scary” letter, again composed by one of Alciphron’s courtesan-personages in response to a marvellous heart-breaking, full of tears love letter of her unfortunate, sincere, but now “bankrupt”, lover :

“How I wish that a woman’s household could be maintained on tears! I should live majestically, for I know you would keep me lavishly supplied with them; but, as it is, unhappily we want cash, garments, ornaments and maids. Our activities rely exclusively upon this. I have no estates at Myrrhinus, no split in the silver mines; I only depend upon the little gifts I am given, and the favours of silly lovers, squeezed from them with many moans and tears. I have known you now for more than one year, and I am no better for it. My hair is awful; it has not seen any oil all this time. I only wear one Tarentine tunic, so aged and tattered that I am absolutely embarrassed to be seen in it by my friends. I hope I may have better luck! And do you think that, while I stand by you, I shall be capable to find other resources? You weep; be sure that won’t last long. But I shall be fairly starving, unless I can discover a lover to give me something. I question your tears: how ridiculous they are! O Aphrodite! You say, Simalion, that you are crazy in love with a woman, and that you cannot live without her. Well, my friend, have you no precious drinking-cups at home? Has not your mother some jewels? Cannot you get some values belonging to your father? How lucky is Philotis! The Graces have bestowed her with favours. What a great lover she had in Meneclides, who each day presents her with something. That is way better than your tears. And me miserable girl, I have no lover, but a rented mourner, who sends me nothing but flowers and garlands, just like I was to beautify an early tomb for me, and proclaims that he cries all night. Well if you can bring me anything, come and meet me, but please — no tears. Or else, keep your sorrow to yourself, and stop bothering me.

However it is remarkable how avid ruthless women and weak pathetic lovers are to be found throughout literature of all times. Very explicit and hopelessly straightforward, sound the appalling words of the late XIX century Viennese courtesan Josephine Mutzenbacher portrayed by Felix Salten:

If you consider a year has 365 days, and calculating at least three men a day, you get around one thousand and one hundred men a year, thus over thirty thousands in three decades. Quite an army… You cannot pretend I can account for each of those “brushes” who “dusted” me… Ultimately love is a stupid thing. A woman resembles an old fipple pipe, with only a couple of holes from which you can get only two, three notes.”

Naturally a magisterial example of the power exercised by greedy cold-blooded women is Nana – it is simply unforgettable her pitiless conduct and voraciousness for all the riches of Paris pursued by exploiting every single inch of her natural “endowments” and every penny of her ill-fated lovers:

“This was the period of her life when Nana lit up Paris with redoubled splendour. She rose higher than ever on the horizon of vice, dominating the city with her insolent display of luxury and contempt of money which made her openly squander fortunes. Her house had become a sort of glowing forge, where her continual desire burned fiercely and the slightest breath from her lips changed gold into fine ashes which the wind swept away every hour. Nobody had ever seen such a passion for spending. The house seemed to have been built over an abyss in which men were swallowed up – their entire possessions, their bodies, their very names – without leaving even a trace of dust behind them.”

And how to forget the frightful, bitter and dry sense of power and self-contemptuousness of Madam Michèle de Burne, when another unfortunate victim falls into her cage?:

“Restée seule, elle sourit avec une joie victorieuse. Les premiers mots lui avaient suffit pour comprendre que c’était là, enfin, la déclaration d’amour. Il avait résisté bien plus qu’elle n’aurait cru, car depuis trois mois elle le captait avec un grand déploiement de grâce, des attentions et des frais de charme qu’elle n’avait jamais faits pour personne. Il semblait méfiant, prévenu, en garde contre elle, contre l’appât toujours tendu de son insatiable coquetterie. Il avait fallu bien des causeries intimes, où elle avait donné toute la séduction physique de son être, tout l’effort captivant de son esprit…pour qu’elle aperçût enfin dans son oeil cet aveu de l’homme vaincu, la supplication mendiante de la tendresse qui défaille. Elle connaissait si bien cela, la rouée! Elle avait fait naître si souvent, avec une adresse féline et une curiosité inépuisable, ce mal secret et torturant dans les yeux de tous les hommes qu’elle avait pu séduire! Cela l’amusait tant de les sentir envahis peu à peu, conquis, dominés par sa puissance invincible de femme, de devenir pour eux l’Unique, l’Idole capricieuse et souveraine!”

Unquestionably Huysmans vividly – yet very sadly – did synthesise this awful state of affairs within Paris de fin siècle :

“Fathers devoted their lives to their businesses and labours, families devoured one another on the pretext of trade, only to be robbed by their sons who, in turn, allowed themselves to be fleeced by women who posed as sweethearts to obtain their money. In all Paris, from east to west and from north to south, there existed an unbroken chain of female tricksters, a system of organized theft, and all because, instead of satisfying men at once, these women were skilled in the subterfuges of delay.”

Apparently altogether quite a dismaying scenario; thus, along with old wise Monsieur Lamarthe, it can only be simply acknowledged and always born in mind:

“…dans notre jeune société riche, les femmes n’ont envie et besoin de rien et n’ont d’autre désir que d’être un peu distraites, sans dangers à courir…”

Penelope revisited

Well known also to the non classicists and most certainly famous to a wider public for her faithfulness and her never ending thread, Penelope is still nowadays used a stereotypical example of the trustworthy and forgiving wife, a patiently loving companion who awaits in anguish and cries aloud for her husband Odysseus to return, pushing away the uncouth attempts of very many (one hundred and eight for the records…) of unappeasable suitors.

penelope-thread.jpg

These qualities are very well described along the verses of The Odyssey and in several occasions they are reaffirmed and corroborated. First of all Penelope is often reported to be wise and witty:

with a grace divine her soul is blest,
And all Athena breathes within her breast
In wondrous arts than woman more renown’d,
And more than woman with deep wisdom crown’d;
Though Tyro nor Mycene match her name,
Not great Alcmena (the proud boasts of fame);
Yet thus by heaven adorn’d, by heaven’s decree
She shines with fatal excellence, to thee

She is also shrewd, when for instance she devises the famous everlasting thread; as well as when she uses the bed trick to prove her alleged husband’s identity:

The secrets of the bridal bed are known
To thee, to me, to Actoris alone
(My father’s present in the spousal hour,
The sole attendant on our genial bower).
Since what no eye hath seen thy tongue reveal’d
Hard and distrustful as I am, I yield.”

Penelope is also very beautiful and experienced at the loom, two additional fundamental qualities for an ancient Greek house-woman:

Reflecting to the queen the silver sounds.
With grief renew’d the weeping fair descends;
Their sovereign’s step a virgin train attends:
A veil, of richest texture wrought, she wears,
And silent to the joyous hall repairs.
There from the portal, with her mild command,

But most important of all she knows her place as a woman, as for instance when more than once she obeys to her son’s order to retire in her quarters and devote her to the loom and other womanly activities instead of disturbing the men’s feast:

But bold Telemachus assumed the man.
“Instant (he cried) your female discord end,
Ye deedless boasters! and the song attend;
Obey that sweet compulsion, nor profane
With dissonance the smooth melodious strain.
Pacific now prolong the jovial feast

Thus at first sight Penelope embodies all the qualities that a woman was supposed to have in accordance with the archaic – and then even classic – Greek lifestyle, tradition and social customs. Nevertheless there are several instances that reveal a different character, a perspective into which Penelope seems quite shady and to a certain extent more real and womanly than how she has been portrayed. Penelope is self conscious of her beauty and endowments and often uses them to flirt, perhaps just to satisfy her petty vanity, with her suitors:

Thus wailing, slow and sadly she descends,
On either band a damsel train attends:
Full where the dome its shining valves expands,
Radiant before the gazing peers she stands;
A veil translucent o’er her brow display’d,
Her beauty seems, and only seems, to shade:
Sudden she lightens in their dazzled eyes,
And sudden flames in every bosom rise;
They send their eager souls with every look.
Till silence thus the imperial matron broke:

Additionally she does not seem so firm in her decision of waiting for Odysseus to come back instead of marrying and starting a new life, as she simply confesses:

My mind, reflective, in a thorny maze
Devious from care to care incessant strays.
Now, wavering doubt succeeds to long despair;
Shall I my virgin nuptial vow revere;
And, joining to my son’s my menial train,
Partake his counsels, and assist his reign?

And meanwhile she is pondering as whether to get married again or not, she too often seems to manoeuvre and double cross her suitors, probably only out of female narcissism or perhaps purposely, by accepting gifts and exchanging messages with more than one of them, as Antinous says:

δη γρ τρτον στν τος, τχα δ εσι τταρτον,
ξ ο τμβει θυμν ν στθεσσιν χαιν.
πντας μν ῥ᾽ λπει κα πσχεται νδρ κστ
γγελας προϊεσα, νος δ ο λλα μενοιν.
[…this is already the third year and the forth one is coming
that she deceives and makes fun of our hearts
she instills hopes and makes promises to everyone
by sending messages…]

Accordingly also Athena warns Odysseus while he is still away on the disputable behaviour of his alleged loyal wife who is playing along with each of the suitors by sending messages to them all:

πντας μν ῥ᾽ λπει κα πσχεται νδρ κστ,
γγελας προϊεσα, νος δ ο λλα μενοιν

Moreover Penelope shows even some greed, when she solicits riches by lamenting the absolute lack of gifts that the suitors are instead, according to the tradition, supposed to bring since her wedding choice/date is approaching. This witty and soft reproach will induce the suitors to profuse themselves in precious gifts that she will immediately accept and store – instead of refusing with disdain:

ς φατ ντνοος, τοσιν δ πινδανε μθος·
δρα δ ρ οσμεναι πρεσαν κρυκα καστος.
ντινόῳ μν νεικε μγαν περικαλλα ππλον,
ποικλον· ν δ ρ σαν περναι δυοκαδεκα πσαι
χρσειαι, κλησιν ϋγνμπτοις ραρυαι.
ρμον δ Ερυμχ πολυδαδαλον ατκ νεικε.
χρσεον, λκτροισιν ερμνον ἠέλιον ς.
ρματα δ Ερυδμαντι δω θερποντες νεικαν,
τργληνα μορεντα· χρις δ πελμπετο πολλ.
κ δ ρα Πεισνδροιο Πολυκτορδαο νακτος
σθμιον νεικεν θερπων, περικαλλς γαλμα.
λλο δ ρ λλος δρον χαιν καλν νεικεν.
μν πειτ νβαιν περϊα δα γυναικν,
τ δ ρ μ μφπολοι φερον περικαλλα δρα
ο δ ες ρχηστν τε κα μερεσσαν οιδν
τρεψμενοι τρποντο, μνον δ π σπερον λθεν

I guess that perhaps to better understand this rather ambiguous character it should be taken in consideration the strong educational and moral weight and importance that Homer’s poems had to have on entire generations of ancient Greeks. This would probably explain in a cultural perspective that even a positive character as the multi-quality Penelope is nevertheless always a woman, and therefore someone to be sceptic about “by principle” according to Greek moral, experience and ethic. And in fact even Odysseus, the shrewdest man known, will reveal his own identity to his wife only at the very last: she will eventually know that her husband is back only after his father, his son, his swineherd and his wet-nurse have… and when he finally unveils she justifies her coldness and scepticism by saying:

Against the fondness of my heart I strove:
’Twas caution, O my lord! not want of love.

Should we believe her?

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