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Semantic Slippage and Moral Fall: The Rhetoric of Chastity in Rural Greek Society Michael Herzfeld THE PROBLEM The one feature of rural Greek ethnography which seems to have attracted the most consistent and determined attention is perhaps the least accessible of all to empirical investigation. This is the premise of female chastity. If the ethnographer is told that this village of course has the chastest women in all of Greece, there is no way of knowing whether the claim is a reflection of the facts; a function of the ethnographer 's status as a prying nuisance who might otherwise report discreditably on the villagers' morals; or a statement of the ideal which informants think the ethnographer would really rather like to hear enunciated—a view in which, could they but read the published literature with its heavy stress on sexual norms, they could only find still greater conviction. Likewise, however, the view that women, and men also for that matter, are no longer as chaste as they once were should not be uncritically welcomed either, as though it were necessarily more honest as a form of a collective self-appraisal. Not only has the ethnographer no business attributing motives and moral standards in such a fashion, but there is no prima facie reason for assuming that a more critical self-view must be more factual. Indeed, the very notion of factuality is itself an inappropriate cultural or scholarly artifact for examining the present question. The lament for lost virtue may be better understood as a convention, a symbolic act, a statement about hypothetical ideals which every member of the community knows to be transgressed often enough. Indeed, the knowledge that these ideals are violated makes the reiterated allusions to a golden age all the more desirable, in that antique precedent is called upon to justify what would otherwise seem an unreasonable and unrealistic morality . The explanation of institutionalized practices and attitudes as 161 162 Michael Herzfeld "custom" or "tradition" (e.g., du Boulay, Portrait, 49) has the performative effect of constituting a standard immune to criticism. Ethnographers who show impatience with such explanations and demand a more functional interpretation are the victims of their own teleological reductionism. For Greek villagers, as for many of the people studied by anthropologists, the sanctity of age is sufficient reason by itself to respect a practice or a standard which is nevertheless thought to have suffered a decline. Whether it has in fact declined is another question altogether. In this paper, I am going to argue that Greek village women were "always" more chaste in the preceding generation. No slur is intended, nor any imputation of untruth; rather, I am taking the "contextualist" view (cf. Hanson, "Does God Have a Body?") that cultural truth is never context-free. What we are dealing with here is a culturally determined eternal verity. As an artifact of ideology, it is best treated as a primarily rhetorical phenomenon and as an expression of rural identity and morality, rather than as a statement of literal history. The evidence for my position is scattered, even thin. That, however , is in the nature of the problem itself. If one had good documentary evidence of the sort that any literalist would accept, such as medical or forensic reports, there would quite simply be no issue; and if the villagers themselves were able (and inclined) to state that a certain percentage of all women in any given time-period had violated the sexual canon, they would presumably find it hard to sustain the idea of a morally golden age simultaneously. But the evidence discussed here is not of this statistically precise kind. I have chosen instead to address an area of evidential ambiguity which is an integral part of the system of knowledge under investigation . To demand a canon of absolute factuality is to deny that the available evidence is "constituted" (cf. Goldstein, Historical Knowing), and that its basis is the very ideology that engendered the claims of bygone virtue in the first place. This does not mean that the idea of a golden age lacks historical force for indigenous actors. Indeed, what we see is an indigenous history of sexual morality. In...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3265
Print ISSN
0738-1727
Pages
pp. 161-172
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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