Written anonymously/Edited by: Manfredi Pozzoli
In her essay On Violence (1970) Hannah Arendt argues that violence and power are opposed to each other. Why Hannah Arendt should appear in a discussion about nationalism and Medea may not seem to be self-evident. Nationalism is only narrowly mentioned in Arendt’s treatise, which rather focuses on revolution. Nevertheless, in her ultimate conclusion that a loss of power has often been substituted with violence in history, Arendt’s analysis may speak to the greater picture of statehood, identity and nationalism. Neither an overly typical example of nationalism may be seen in Christa Wolf’s Medea.Voices (1996), which offers an alternative interpretation to the classical version of the myth of Medea as told by Euripides. Instead of portraying Medea as the woman murdering her own children, Christa Wolf looks at the greater picture of a woman becoming the scapegoat of society’s ills. With that, an analysis of Wolf’s novel gives insight into the discourses of exclusion that lie at the heart of creating nationalism as such. Bringing together Arendt’s analysis on violence and Wolf’s discourses of exclusion, the power and the mechanisms lying at the heart of nationalism become more transparent for its readers and most importantly, it becomes evident why they matter.
The title of this exploration “Whose voice?” has not been chosen by accident but rather embodies one of the core features of Wolf’s writing. The very structure of Medea.Voices achieves something very powerful; it gives voice to the actors shaping the course of action and what happens to Medea over the course of the book. In contrast to a play, such as the one by Euripides, Wolf’s book chapters constitute the voices of the actors involved. Each of them is written from the perspective of a different actor and gives insight into their individual perspective on the course of events. They abandon the perspective of an omniscient narrator portraying a distant course of action with the knowledge of how it ends. Rather, Wolf presents those actors for who they ultimately are – humans with limited knowledge, fears, concerns and a particular view on the world molded by their previous experiences. As such, it becomes easier for readers to understand what lies at the roots of the motives of Medea’s enemies, including Agameda, to paint Medea as a witch and the simple cause for far more complex problems of the society of Corinth.
In her interpretation of the mythos around Medea, Wolf draws on Euripides’ interpretation but also takes artistic liberties, which make Medea appear as a figure that is almost beyond time, illustrating how her fate could happen at different places across time. This becomes particularly evident through her use of quotes from philosophers and sociologists, including Elisabeth Lenk and René Girard, who have published about larger psychological concepts, such as the scapegoat mechanism.
As such, Wolf’s book has been received with controversial criticism and some of the literary criticism has accused her of coming close to a betrayal of the original Euripides’ version of Medea, taking the essence of how Medea was commonly interpreted. While a complex literary discussion and detailed comparison of Euripides’ Medea and Wolf’s Medea will not be possible within the scope of this analysis, a strong case can be made for seeing Wolf’s interpretation in its own right. Allowing for a version of Medea that can be seen in larger patterns and that is not limited to a particular historic and sociopolitical context is exactly what makes Wolf’s interpretation so powerful as a teacher about the mechanism of nationalism.
Moving on to a more detailed analysis of those mechanisms of nationalism, the two other aspects mentioned in the title of this analysis, discourses of exclusion and authority of speech, need to be examined further. Medea’s story, as also portrayed by Wolf, is that of a foreigner integrating into a different society. Having left her home kingdom Colchis with Jason, who needed Medea’s help in order to get back the golden fleece, Medea is confronted with different traditions and customs in Corinth. While she is not the only one who left Colchis, many of those “voices” Wolf includes critically scrutinise her. Her habits, character and even her appearance seem to not fit into the society of Corinth, which lead her to live a life at the outskirts of society, despite her attempts at participating in local ritual and festivities. Already at the beginning of the book Medea no longer lives in Corinth’s royal palace and has a distanced relationship with Jason, making any prospect for integration very slim. What Rebecca Adler-Nissen explores on the state level as stigmatisation and stigma management has become a reality for Medea, whose mere presence challenges the norm.
Imprisoned in the dualism between Corinth and Colchis, those who belong and those who do not, respect by the foreign society seems, if anyhow possible, to be only temporary. Labelling and the process of “othering” can help to conceptually understand how amplifying the contrast between the “in-group” (Corinth) and the “out-group” (Colchis) works in order to strengthen the identity of Corinthians. In this complex but likewise simple network of social realities Medea’s former friend and student Agameda contributes to the rising sentiment against her, strengthening Medea’s social exclusion.
But what seems to be an interesting case study about discourses of exclusion has also been critically examined within literary commentary. As such, every author stands within their own respective social context. In the case of Christa Wolf the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the GDR are evident influences, showing the contrast between two different systems of government. Within that context, Wolf’s personal identification with the figure of Medea has been scrutinised. In an interview Wolf asserted that she has always written out of (inner) conflict. As such, her loss of a part of her identity with the breakdown of the GDR can be seen in parallel to Medea’s shift of identity in the context of leaving Colchis and simultaneously experiencing a shift in social structures and political systems. Moving from the matriarchal Colchis to the patriarchal Corinth, Medea’s role as a women in society changes, challenging her identification with Corinth. As such, Wolf may have seen Medea as a part of her own identity and a reflection on her personal struggles of integration.
However, even more significant than Wolf’s personal struggle with identification and the parallels with Medea’s story seems to be her critical literary reception. As a former “state poet”, her cooperation with the SED regime has been scrutinised and morally questioned. While British and American discourses seem to be more tolerant, German literary discourse has particularly strongly questioned her authority. Nevertheless, as theorised by Foucault in the context of authorship, the relationship between author and identity is complex. As such, contradictions within the writing of an author may be neutralised through the identity of the author but the writing and its reception also construct the identity of the author itself. Consequently, the highly complex debate around Christa Wolf and her literary reception should not be interpreted as reasons to discredit her work entirely but may rather be seen as powerful illustrations of the fight about different “voices”, interpretation and authority of speech.
What remains from this discussion is the importance of Christa Wolf’s novel for understanding the processes at the heart of nationalism and its emergence. As previously illustrated, Wolf’s particular structure gives voice to the various actors involved, representing them with their human flaws, insecurities, fears and individual experiences. The artistic liberties the author takes in this process are shown to be a strength rather than a weakness of the book, allowing its readers to grasp the significance of larger mechanisms of human behaviour that transcend time. Medea’s identity as a foreigner is shown to be integral for her social exclusion and subsequently critical literary reception shows potential parallels between Wolf and Medea. The controversial debates around Wolf’s past as a “state poet” further have been examined to show the complex discussion around Wolf’s identity, questions of authority and interpretation.
Tying this back to the larger picture, Wolf’s Medea is not only socially excluded but also expelled from Corinth at the end of the book. The threat her mere existence constituted for Colchis and its identity let to a strengthening of identity in face of the other but also forced her exclusion. While Hannah Arendt reflected on the relationship between power and violence in an entirely different context, the idea of a (perceived) lack of power, in this case in light of the difference of the other, and how this can lead to violent behaviour may not be entirely foreign. In that context, Wolf allows for an alternative interpretation of Medea, in which Medea is the object of larger societal patterns and violence rather than the subject killing her own children, as interpreted by Euripides.
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