- The Pregnant Male as Myth and Metaphor in Classical Greek Literature by David D. Leitao
David Leitao’s new book explores the rhetorical use of this image of paternity as it appears in ancient Greek philosophy with its precedent in myth. The work was inspired, as Leitao reveals in his introduction, by Plato’s description of thought as “giving birth” in the Symposium. The project of this book is to trace the prehistory of this idea in earlier philosophical and literary works; the author demonstrates that this idea was not original to Plato but part of a minor discourse that preceded him. The text is meticulously researched, and it thoroughly contextualizes the metaphor of the pregnant male as it appears in myth, tragedy, and philosophy. Leitao engages with a variety of discourses, making this work useful to scholars working in classics, the history of philosophy, political theory, comparative literature, and gender studies.
Leitao approaches the metaphor of male pregnancy from a new angle; he argues, in the case of Dionysus’s thigh birth and elsewhere, that it has “little to do with debates about the proper role of men and women in reproduction or in society more generally” (58). Instead, he suggests that this image is deployed in response to questions of kinship, paternity, and civic status and was formulated as a solution to metaphysical, theological, and scientific debates of the time. Rather than examine the intent of the authors in using the metaphor or the psychoanalytic interpretation of the metaphor as a question of gender politics, Leitao sets out to examine “how male pregnancy functions rhetorically within the economy of particular texts and in the larger discourses they inform” (4). Leitao persuasively demonstrates that the metaphor of the pregnant male is linked to historical issues of paternity and that the image of male birth expresses ownership of ideas, works of art, legislation, and similar “children.” This reading is an original and significant contribution to scholarship in classics and the history of philosophy and provides for a richer understanding of Plato’s dialogues. It is puzzling, however, that Leitao repeatedly emphasizes that the metaphor of male pregnancy is not related to questions of gender (at least not until the later fourth-century texts). While male parthenogenesis is certainly related to citizenship and authorship, as Leitao suggests, it is unclear why this analysis should exclude feminist readings that identify patriarchal devices of appropriation in images of male pregnancy and birth.
The psychoanalytic approach, which Leitao summarizes in his introduction, is not primarily interested in “the intrapsychic conflicts of individual Greek men,” as Leitao implies, but in interrogating the structures of fantasy that inform myth and metaphor (10). In the introduction, Leitao praises the work of feminist readers Nicole Loraux and Page duBois, but his comments throughout the text seem to reject their conclusions, particularly Loraux’s [End Page 159] argument that the Athenian investment in autochthony is a disparagement of women’s reproductive powers and signifies male appropriation. The metaphor of male pregnancy is about paternity and citizenship, but questions of gender, reproduction, and power are intrinsic to the historical development of these ideas. From a psychoanalytic perspective, images in tragedy and myth reflect unconscious cultural paradigms that the authors of these texts may not intend or even recognize.
Feminist readings of Eumenides focus on the violent suppression of female reproductive power, as Orestes is vindicated in his act of matricide. Since the tracing of blood lines was a significant issue at the time of Aeschylus’s writing, Leitao argues that Apollo’s defense has more to do with Anaxagoras’s “one-seed” theory of reproduction than questions of gender politics. While Leitao’s reading is legitimate, it does not expunge the visibly patriarchal themes of the play, which ends with the domestication of the violent mother-avenging Furies. Aeschylus need not have written this play with intentions of misogyny; these works of tragedy reveal undercurrents of patriarchal operations in the culture of the time, regardless of conscious complicity. Leitao...