Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Robinson Jeffers' The Cretan Woman: A Tragedy of the Transition from Responsibility Culture to Collective Guilt Culture

Robinson Jeffers' play The Cretan Woman is a Phaedra/Hippolytus tragedy involving the transition from a responsibility culture to a guilt culture. In order for this transition to be staged, we should expect to see attributions of the way people behave to their group membership, with a correlative reduction of the importance of the individual. At the same time, there needs to be a conflict between individualistic responsibility culture and collectivist collective guilt culture. And these are exactly what we see in Jeffers' play.

First, note the title of the play. Euripides' play is titled Hippolytus. Seneca's is Phaedra; Racine's is Phedre. That is, all three have plays named after a character in the play. But Jeffers titles his The Cretan Woman. What does this imply? That any Cretan woman would do? Perhaps.

In Jeffers' play, Phaedra is constantly talking about how she cannot help how she feels and behaves because she is, after all, a Cretan. She makes the argument that Cretans are more civilized than the Greeks, but we can see that her behaviors suggest that at best the Cretans and the Greeks, as different as they may be, are really quite equally balanced between good and bad traits. Still, Phaedra goes on to talk about the nature of the Greeks, and in her descriptions of Theseus, one can only come a way with the image of Theseus as the typical Greek. This perhaps implies that any Greek man would do in Theseus' place.

Then, there is the introduction by Jeffers of the idea that Hippolytus is gay. Thus, his aversion to women lies neither in religious beliefs nor in his philosophy/ideology nor even in his racial aversion to members of the opposite sex (which he is said to feel, in Seneca's version, because he is an Amazon), but rather from his homosexuality. Thus Jeffers gets us away from race as nature in explaining Hippolytus' aversion to women, and brings it around to a more biological explanation.

Phaedra's discussion of the nature of Cretan and Greek (and Egyptian) societies is cultural rather than racial in nature. Thus, the Greeks, Cretans, and Egyptians are socially constructed -- this is the quality of their "nature."

Viewed from a group/collective standpoint, we do not have to have Phaedra, Theseus, and Hippolytus specifically -- any Cretan woman, Greek man, and homosexual man would do to have the story. It is inherent in those people to behave as they behave. Cretan women are naturally overly-passionate; Greek men are naturally brutish; gay men are naturally sexually uninterested in the opposite sex.

But where Phaedra insists on these cultural/group identifications, Hippolytus insists that one can, nevertheless, be responsible for one's actions. He insists that she be responsible for her actions, but Phaedra ends up condemning Hippolytus for being guilty of being a gay man who, because of his inherent nature, is uninterested in her. Only after she manages to infuriate Theseus to the point that he is willing to kill Hippolytus -- and does -- does she feel responsible for her actions. After Theseus kills Hippolytus, she berates him for killing his son. She then goes off and hangs herself. This suicide is a more dispassionate one than what we see in Racine or Seneca, where Phaedra immediately kills herself with a sword. She is still passionate, and in her immediate despondency, she kills herself. However, there is little passion in responsibility -- nor, for that matter, in refusing to take personal responsibility inherent in collective guilt. She both feels herself not responsible (as a Cretan woman), but cannot deny her responsibility in Hippolytus' death. Thus, she goes off, quietly and calmly, to hang herself.

Here, then, we see a tragedy of the transition from responsibility culture to collective guilt culture.
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