Weibliches Schreiben in Griechenland

Unerwartete Entdeckung, selbst für die Autorin: Verschollene Rezension von Michaela Prinzinger in der Zeitschrift „Comparative Literature“ Bd. 53/2, 2001, 189-192, KASSANDRA AND THE CENSORS. GREEK POETRY SINCE 1967. By Karen Van Dyck. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. xi, 305 p.

Talking about gender with Greek women writers is like walking across a battlefield under fire. The notions of “feminism” and “feminist” in connection with literary texts have for a distressingly long time been taboo in Greece. Most Greek women writers are cautious about associating their work with deliberate and conscious feminist positions in order to avoid compromising their credibility vis-à-vis the (mostly male) critical establishment. This hesitating stance is deeply rooted in the contexts of Modern Greek history and, subsequently, in Greek literary history and the values propagated there.

Mechanisms for expelling and excluding feminine discourse from the Greek literary canon can be traced back—as in some other national literatures—to as early as the end of the nineteenth century. From then on, a conservative and minimizing definition of “women’s literature” dominated literary criticism, until the 1970s and the 1980s, when a literary and extra-literary framework for a self-conscious Greek écriture féminine was conceived. During these decades Greek women writers had to come to terms with certain Anglo-American influences—Beat literature, for instance—and with critical dogmas that— in reaction to the years under military rule (1967-74)—established the expectation that literary texts were supposed to serve as either a political comment on the regime or a critique of Greek society from an anti-establishment perspective.

Karen Van Dyck’s Kassandra and the Censors represents a long-awaited and exhaustive contribution to feminist literary studies in Greek letters. In her book, Van Dyck sets the stage by outlining the social context of the junta and post-junta years. Her detailed readings of three poets—Rhea Galanaki, Jenny Mastoraki, and Maria Laina—are seductive, thought-provoking, and daring. Her book represents an exemplary expression of a recent trend in Modern Greek studies, one that started to bear fruit in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the form of articles by Greek women authors and literary critics. By the late 1980s, the trend had matured into academic elaborations of the phenomenon of “women’s literature” in Greece, especially after World War II.

Van Dyck offers original and refreshing readings of Greek poetry after 1967, drawing as much on Anglo-American feminism as on French theorists like Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva, and relying on her intimate knowledge of Modern Greek, as demonstrated in her sensitive translations of her chosen authors. Her book begins with the year of the colonels’ rise to power in order to provide a context for the poetic strategies developed in response to the politically suffocating times. Indeed, censorship serves as a pivot around which the whole structure of her book turns. She traces the impact of Beat literature on Greek poets like Steriadis and Poulios and explores the widespread use of a new technique of visual narrative that undermined both the “disinterested” poetics of the Laureates Seferis and Elytis and the openly ideologically “engaged” poetics of Anagnostakis and Patrikios. Widely acclaimed as the “generation of the 70s,” authors like Poulios and Steriades used everyday and even sexually charged language, commercial slogans, and comic strips. For these poets political and social censorship became a formative force.

With the emergence of the “generation of the 70s” Greek women poets (Galanaki, Chatzidaki, Laina, Mastoraki, Pampoudi, and Papadaki) developed visual narrative strategies of evasion, ellipticism, hermeticism, and deferral, which for the reader posed problems of legibility and ambiguity or indeterminacy, or, as Van Dyck puts it, undecidability and undeliverability. The production of meaning on the part of the reader is delayed by the opacity of the poems. Meaning is lost, disfigured, or denied as a consequence of the intertwining of the private and the political. Van Dyck links the poets’ reactions to the beginning of consumerism with the poetic survival strategies that were devised during the junta period and continued during the transition to democracy. Moreover, the women poets’ critique of political oppression entered a new taboo zone: the censorship of feminine sexuality. In the last part of her study, Van Dyck offers her interpretation of three poetic collections: she explores Galanaki’s The Cake in terms of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Mastoraki’s Tales of the Deep in terms of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams; and Laina’s Hers as an outstanding example of a feminine narcissistic visual narrative.


My critical remarks focus on Van Dyck’s use of Irigaray’s “subversive mimesis,” the choice of Galanaki’s The Cake, and the use of parody in Karapanou’s novel Kassandra and the Wolf, which serves as an allusive leitmotif in Van Dyck’s book. Regarding Irigaray’s critique of psychoanalysis, Mastoraki’s abundance of references to other poetic works could be interpreted as a “subversive mimesis” of the poetical tradition, underscoring Bloom’s oedipal “anxiety of influence” by ironically overdoing the quotations. A more extensive comparative investigation into that device of feminine “exaggeration”—for example, in Mastoraki’s text Crown—would have deepened Van Dyck’s account of the evolvement of feminine textuality. Another of Van Dyck’s chosen poets, Rhea Galanaki, argues in a luminous essay on women’s literature (1982) that women’s writing is indebted to the principle of “exaggeration” (possibly with hysteria in mind), which transforms everything, even the most unimportant detail, into something unexpectedly meaningful—meaningful, as she phrases it, in the woman writer’s very own sense, according to her own remembrance and to her narcissistic desire for herself. Galanaki’s use of the term remembrance points to Plato’s and, subsequently, to Kristeva’s chora, where all meanings, all traditions, all literary and visual texts are scrambled and intertwined. In Plato’s Timaios, chora is described as an all-embracing and all-containing space, shapeless, invisible, hardly comprehensible, indeterminate, an empty receptacle, a female—motherly and nursing—ground. Chora brings being and form into existence; she stands for the matrix of the representation of ideas, i.e., the vast Platonic cave of Irigaray’s spécula(risa)tion, where copies are reproduced from the original. Simultaneously, chora is not accessible to rational thought, only to nothos logismos —dreams, visions, fantasies. Kristeva’s mimesis of Plato construes the “semiotic chora” as a huge feminine “imaginary”; she reinvents Pandora’s box as a place where syntax and punctuation marks malfunction or may even be suspended.

Even by the beginning of the 1970s, Poulios and Steriadis had thoroughly subverted the meaning of production and reproduction, original and copy, by using “ready-made” language. This subversion of a provocative male tradition was driven further by the women poets, who recklessly exploited literary and visual traditions. However, whereas male writers have mostly reacted (like Poulios, featuring Palamas in “American Bar in Athens”) by oedipally slaughtering their predecessors, women writers have subversively and ironically incorporated fragments of tradition into their own texts, as if appropriating this very tradition by nurturing it like an embryo in their own textual body and then re-birthing it in a clandestinely altered way. As Van Dyck points out, this “stealing” can be seen in Galanaki’s The Cake, in Where Does the Wolf Live?, and in both of her subsequently published novels.

However Where Does the Wolf Live? goes further, representing an even more striking example of feminine/feminist reaction to censorship and the junta years than The Cake: the dedication is “To my friends between ’67 and ’74.” Because Galanaki’s essay Women’s Writing and the Cursed Pandora, together with The Cake and Where Does the Wolf Live? in fact form an entity, the exclusion of the latter text from a book on censorship and poetry cannot be justified by simply labeling it “prose fiction.” It is a text in which the boundaries between poetry and fiction are blurred. Moreover, the symbol of the wolf corresponds hauntingly to that of Karapanou’s novel Kassandra and the Wolf. (The cover design for Galanaki’s text shows the figure of a wolf with a panting red tongue, half visible and half hidden in the inner part of the book’s dust jacket. The cover of Karapanou’s novel reproduces one of Gustave Doré’s illustrations of Perrault’s fairy-tales, displaying the little maiden’s fearless gaze as the central focus, facing the huge wolf.) Galanaki’s text is a comment on “illegality”—both political (speaking as an ideological opponent of the junta) and private (speaking as a woman opposing sexual oppression)—especially when read in connection with her essay The Language of Literature Is Always Illegal, also published in 1982. At the same time, Where Does the Wolf Live? displays a mother-daughter plot and a feminist rewriting of Little Red Riding Hood (a rewriting based on Yvonne Verdier’s studies on the repressed oral versions, published in the Greek feminist journal Skoupa in 1981).

Van Dyck claims that The Cake is Galanaki’s most openly feminist statement; however, Galanaki’s feminist intentions are even more explicit in Where Does the Wolf Live? and in her first collection of short stories, especially Olga’s Story. Likewise, regarding the problem of censorship, it would seem inevitable to take Where Does the Wolf Live? into consideration. Karapanou’s novel is not merely an explicit and obvious parody of the regime’s ph/fallacies, but can also be analyzed as a prime example of “subversive mimesis.” The author “swallows” whole pieces of other texts, such as Lewis Carroll’s books on Alice, and Henry James’s tale The Turn of the Screw; even echoes of Nabokov’s Lolita can be heard. I suspect that Kassandra and the Wolf was so broadly and positively received by the Greek critical establishment precisely because it was not read as feminist, but as a political critique, as a parody of the regime. Its publication in the U.S., before the Greek text was printed, points to another context. Karapanou’s novel can be projected onto metafictional texts like Barthelme’s Snow White, Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse or Chimera, Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Coover’s Pricksongs & Descants, where myth and the disintegration of language play decisive roles. This tendency is enhanced by Karapanou’s subsequent novels, The Sleepwalker and Rien ne va plus. It is especially interesting that The Sleepwalker (which was highly praised in France) encountered a hostile reaction from the Greek literary press. This carnivalesque, apocalyptic intertext with strong homoerotic overtones is impossible to decipher as a comment on reality, which for Kassandra and the Wolf was still possible. Kassandra and the Wolf refers extensively to two texts—Carroll’s and James’s—of the nineteenth century, which had already disrupted the tradition of “mimesis,” or realism. In Karapanou’s appropriation, the rejection of “mimesis” turns into a feminine “subversive mimesis,” into Irigaray’s spécula(risa)tion and inter-dit.

Van Dyck points out that Christa Wolf (other names such as Irmtraut Morgner and Luise Kaschnitz could be added) also appropriates Greek myth to political and feminist ends. Indeed, there seems to be a curious parallel between Greek women writing after the fall of the junta and Eastern German women writing after the end of the German Democratic Republic in 1989. Kassandra and the Wolf (1980) was eagerly appropriated and exploited by Western German literary critics because it so beguilingly opposed the regime. Like Greek women writers, Wolf also launched a new mythological project a few years after 1989, this time in the name of Medea, to cope with the challenge of social-political transition and the women’s and writers’ role in it. There is another striking similarity between Wolf’s and Galanaki’s approach toward romanticism. In No Place on Earth (1979), Wolf returned to the early German Romantic movement, specifically to the figures of Kleist and the mostly forgotten Karoline von Günderrode, staging an encounter that never happened historically. Similarly, Galanaki re-introduces the historical figures of Andreas Rigopoulos and Ismail Ferik Pasha into her own fiction, thus re-assessing the past with a fresh gaze.

In her essay A Striking Contradiction: The Woman Writer and the Question of Power (1986), A. Frantzi comments on women’s writing strategies during the junta years and their use of Greek mythological figures. The essay, which is as important as Galanaki’s eminent essay Women’s Writing and the Cursed Pandora, introduces Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena as three mythological figures who in divergent ways keep struggling to gain Paris’s prize, which symbolizes the (male) power of logos. Galanaki, Mastoraki, and Laina seem to side equally with Athena, the intellectual daughter, and with Aphrodite, who stands for erotic and subversive discourse. This means that both options can be combined: the self-denying daughter, imitating the father’s discourse, and the sexually and intellectually challenging woman, who endangers the patriarchal system by killing the wolf and donning his skin.

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