“Leda and the Swan”–Warning Necessary?

Adolph Wertmuller, "Leda and the Swan"

Adolph Wertmuller, “Leda and the Swan”

My friend Rachel Kranz sent me an opinion piece, published over a year ago in the Harvard Crimson, about encountering images of rape in college literature classes. Harvard student Stephanie Newman worried that the story of Leda and the Swan (a.k.a. Zeus) as it appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the famous Yeats poem by that name might trigger painful memories in rape victims. It bothered her that the rape was aestheticized and not treated seriously as rape. Here she is:

Both works are gorgeously composed and offer much more, of course, than rape-centric plots. But in my professors’ and classmates’ eagerness to discuss the intellectual genius behind these texts, the topic of rape has been avoided or glazed over without the care the subject necessitates.

I’m troubled by this casual treatment of rape for two reasons.

The first is obvious: any student sitting around the table could have experienced sexual violence. Brushing over the issue of rape in literature to discuss Yeats’s sonnet composition or Ovid’s layered narrative shows indifference to the experiences and emotions of these students. While literature courses should certainly focus on literary topics, students shouldn’t be made to feel that scholarship excludes or trivializes an issue that already breeds on invisibility.

The second reason I’m bothered is that I fear the same attitude driving these academic conversations (an attitude that devalues the importance and validity of rape) also drives the minimization of rape in our culture.

I am always excited when students grapple with literature’s relationship with life. I myself remember, while taking a college survey course, being deeply disturbed by the impersonal violence that Yeats describes, and I can only imagine how it might trigger painful memories in one who has been raped. Here’s the sonnet, which connects Leda’s hymenal wall with the walls of Troy. Yeats wonders whether Leda, through her contact with the god, would be able to foresee how the result of their union—Helen—would bring about the fall of a great city:

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                     Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? 

However, as unsettling as I find the poem and as much as I agree that readers should be willing to talk about actual rape when they discuss it, I don’t agree with Stephanie’s proposals. Here they are:

My first suggestion to professors is to start class with a disclaimer. Let your students know upfront that you will be discussing a text involving rape. Encourage students to speak their minds, but ask them to participate with awareness and sensitivity. You can explain how your scholarly approach contends with the presence of rape in the text, and you can invite your students to office hours if they have concerns.

In a similar vein, my second suggestion is to save 10 minutes of class to talk about the relationship between the text and modern views on rape. There are many secondary sources—essays on gender theory or historical documents—that examine relevant issues: How does our present-day attitude toward rape affect the way we respond to the text? How is it reductive or illuminating to characterize the text by its representation of rape? How should historical perceptions of rape inform our understanding of the text?

My final suggestion to Humanities faculty is to consider offering a course on the issue of rape and literature.

My reasons are laid out in a previous post where I responded to what I considered a non-story in the New York Times on just this issue. I argued that, by attaching warnings to literary works, one pre-interprets them before students can formulate their own responses. Furthermore, there is no end to the disturbing situations that one finds in literature and one can’t be issuing non-stop warnings. This past Friday a class discussion on Lucille Clifton’s Quilting ventured into her child abuse at the hands of her father. I once had a student storm out of a “Madness and Literature” class, taught with a psychologist, when we began discussing Lolita. Several times I have learned about students’ experience with abusive relationships when teaching Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Stories of death—and there is a lot of dying in literature—frequently stir up students who have lost someone close.

In my previous post, I advocated, not specific warnings, but a general one, which I said could appear on all syllabi:

Warning: This course contains works that will bring you face to face with the most perplexing, the most painful, and the most profound experiences that flesh is heir to. Enter at your own risk. 

This does not mean, however, that I’m unsympathetic with Stephanie’s concerns. As I have taken students’ reactions seriously, never dismissing them as immaterial, my own awareness of literature’s profound and varied effect on readers has expanded considerably. One can’t always know ahead of time what works will trigger strong reactions, but one can be sensitive when they do.

So yes, Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” may bring up painful memories. Stephanie is right that those memories shouldn’t be dismissed. Indeed, they can be used to deepen both one’s understanding of the poem and of rape itself. It’s significant that the the rape in the poem (unlike the one depicted in many paintings) has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power. As such, it anticipates the “brute blood” that was in the air during Troy’s fall, which saw the massacre of men and their sons (Hector’s infant child has his brains dashed out) and the enslavement of the women. The literal devastation of the city works as a metaphorical description of the psychological devastation of rape victims and vice versa.

I can’t say for sure that those who have been assaulted may find a solace of sorts in seeing their experience described in “Leda and the Swan.” But I have seen other students comforted when suddenly encountering their own traumas reenacted in literature. Whether they are comforted or appalled, however, it is up to them to voice their own responses. It is up to the teacher to create a safe and respectful space in which they can do so.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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