The man with whom I had an affair tried to tell me once, but it didn’t work so well. I can’t remember anything of the scene: where we were, what we wore, when—in the four-month stretch between the implosion of my marriage and the end of our ‘love affair’—the declaration was made. Those details are gone, swallowed in the no-where of non-remembered experience. But I recall his voice. Like I’m sitting in a sound-proof room. All aural stimuli cancelled, except—
“I love you, Ariadne…”
Each syllable hitting a different note. I could find that melody on the piano—the peak on ‘love,’ descending unevenly only to rise at the end of my name. But this isn’t the quality that carved the phrase into my memory. It was his tone. Which was false.
Gallant, and therefore galling, as if he were performing the words—either for me, or for himself. Performing, as if to say: ‘I’m the kind of man who says such things to a woman whose marriage has fallen apart because of me.’ As if to redeem the past, proclaiming that the ‘Truth’ of our love could outweigh whatever violence we’d done to marriage vows, and his implicit oath of friendship.
His tone was beige.
It was beige velour, like fabric furred on the tongue.
He’d forced himself to speak the words his body didn’t want to say.
And, as a side note: my marriage didn’t fall apart ‘because’ of Bryan. I’d say he was solely the ‘efficient cause,’ to use a term of Aristotle, whose Poetics featured prominently on Bryan’s bookshelf. In other words: Bryan was the means for my escape. He was also a man I loved, one of only three in my life. One of the others was my ex-husband.
“I love you, Ariadne,” Bryan said.
We never made love again.
I write that Bryan “performed” the words I love you, meaning he wasn’t speaking as himself but as a role—a type of person—he wanted himself to be. I need, now, to distinguish this notion—‘performance’—from the theory which I’d thought would be the backbone of this book—‘the performative’—the theory put forth by British philosopher J.L. Austin.
To review: a performative is a category of speech, distinct from the constative. This distinction—“between doing and saying”—lets us think about language differently. Communication is no longer a staid affair, a description of reality, of what is true and what’s false. Communication is propulsion; language exists in dynamic interplay with the world. It’s a force, an act, which alters.
At the outset of his lectures, Austin tries to establish his new linguistic category through a process of elimination: we can’t see what it is unless we exclude what it’s not. He lists two main restrictions. We need to keep these in mind; when taken in tandem, they’re particularly important to Austin. He doesn’t directly say why that’s the case. Instead, he noodles around the nub of his objection. This concerns me. First, though, to the restrictions themselves. Performative statements:
· do not “‘describe’ or ‘report’ or constate anything at all, are not ‘true or false.’”
· are not “the outward and visible sign […] of an inward and spiritual act.”
I spent hours with these points, attempting to figure out what Austin was getting at, why he was so insistent. I finally cottoned on: to express one’s ‘true feelings’—an expression of an ‘inward and spiritual act’—could easily be slotted into the category of speech which merely reports a fact.
It’s true that I, in the depths of my being: I love you.
For example. This would not be a performative, as Austin is at pains to explain.
Having defined the negative space around the performative—thereby creating the external boundary of the category—Austin then describes what must be internal to the utterance, bolstering it from the inside, in order for it to be “happy.” According to Austin, ‘happiness’ requires:
· a context that’s recognized, by law or custom, as legitimate (a wedding ceremony, for example).
· a speaker who intends to act in ways that are clearly related to his/her statement.
Given these restrictions, the performative can go awry through myriad missteps at various points in the process of speaking. Austin articulates each of these missteps, labelling his theory the “doctrine of the Infelicities” (his emphasis). This doctrine is vast—as vast as an English meadow—in which Austin has a romp in Lectures Two through Four. In Lecture One, however, Austin enunciates only one infelicity: the vexing case of a promise made in bad faith. In this case, the words deceive: the speaker’s statement implies an intention which doesn’t exist—not in his thoughts, nor in his desire. Simply put: I might’ve made a promise, but I never intended to keep it. Or, stated with a more poetical flourish:
“My tongue swore to, but my mind did not…”
Austin quotes that line from “Hippolytos,” a play written by Euripides in the fifth century BCE. It’s a puzzling piece of rhetoric—to pull a quote from this ancient drama, especially since he doesn’t reference literature anywhere else in the lectures—but I’d like to use his little example. I’ll let the Brit cavort and cogitate, creating charts and graphs to describe the abuses of language; I’ll watch him skip merrily to the lecture halls at Harvard. But I’ll still be here, in the Meadow of the Infelicities.
Here I am.
It’s quiet now. I’ve been sitting in the grasses. My hair is golden—no hair on my body. Not yet: I’m still a child. Knees bent; I’m focused intently on the ground, on the hole I’ve dug with my fingers. I worm inside the dirt. I like the straggly roots that I snap with my finger—those hairy roots—I like the thick one, too. I’ll form a moat around it. Scoop the whole thing up, from its base, so it doesn’t tear. That’s hard to do: I need to wiggle my finger deeper. Pull some more. It’s a very delicate operation, especially for a kid who’s impatient. And angry. But I become calm when I do this: when I ease my finger inside, knees bent in the meadow.
The men have cavorted away. I lift the root. The first thing I do is take it toward my mouth, and breathe.
“My tongue swore to, but my mind did not.”
These words are spoken by Hippolytos, the teenaged son of Theseus, the hero who slew the Minotaur decades before, when he himself was a teen. Hippolytos speaks the words to a nurse, the servant of his stepmother. The nurse has just disclosed a secret. Hippolytos responds by yelling in disgust.
“Please!” the nurse says, grabbing at his clothes, his hands, then falling to her knees. She begs him to be quiet, afraid that someone will overhear: “Silence, child…”
“I can’t be silent and listen to that,” he spits. She continues to plead, reminding him he’s sworn an oath that he wouldn’t betray the secret—a promise he’d made before the secret was revealed. As a condition, in fact, of being told.
The secret is that his stepmother wants to fuck him.
The play “Hippolytos” is often portrayed as a study of the dark and dangerous sexual hunger of a middle-aged woman. Opposed to her is the proud, pure teenaged boy—a virgin whose revulsion toward sex is the base of his identity.
I find it quite odd that Austin would choose this play to quote.
He could’ve chosen any number of plays in which a false oath forms the dramatic pivot: a scheming antagonist makes a pledge which he intends to violate—a promise which sets the plot in motion. Two parallel stories, the audience (beautifully) forced to construct how each character builds a cohering sense of the world, its dynamics of trust, desire, power, fear. We’d watch—with titillation and horror—as we’re drawn toward the inevitable end. But Austin doesn’t choose such a play.
In a lapse of intellectual acumen, Austin chooses an example that contradicts his point: Hippolytos doesn’t betray his oath. In fact, it’s his stubborn, staunch adherence to the pledge that causes his gruesome death.
Austin seems not to have understood. Focused elsewhere—enjoying, perhaps, the surface ripple of the words—the philosopher makes a flagrant mistake. I’m pleased, however, that Austin gave me a reason to reread “Hippolytos,” now that I’m a middle-aged woman with sexual hunger.
The play begins with Aphrodite in her glory—cocky, not seductive; sadistic, as if risen into her power, hand on her pearl. She’ll punish Hippolytos for spurning her, for worshipping the virgin huntress, Artemis. Instead of attacking the boy with desire, however, she’ll cast her affliction on Phaidra, his stepmother. Aphrodite lays it all out: “Desire is terrible,” she says. “You see my plan.” As she slinks away, Hippolytos gamefully enters. He’s praising Artemis, declaring her to be the “most beautiful, most beautiful, of those on Olympos!” He trembles in her uncut meadow; reverently, he offers a crown of grasses he’s woven with his own hands. But I don’t get the impression that Hippolytos is fay: as the son of an Amazon queen, he isn’t averse to physicality—to feeling himself potent in his own body. But it’s a physicality of mastery and self-control.
Hippolytos proclaims his purity repeatedly. He talks about Shame as a goddess, akin to Modesty, a goddess who waters the meadows of Artemis with morning dew. How different from nocturnal shame—the shame of knowing our internal desire but hiding it, fearing what others might say if they knew. If they saw who we really were. Unlike his stepmother, Hippolytos can’t fathom such a feeling—at least, that’s what we’re led to believe, if we merely listen to his words.
But Euripides is clever. He coyly yields a drop of information: one drop, like a bead of nectar on a flower. We’re told, in passing, that Phaidra feels the sting of desire when she sees her stepson at the sacred mystery rites. Her gaze catches sight of him, and Eros’s arrow enters. Forbidden: to desire your child. But also forbidden—with just as much consequence—for the uninitiated to attend the secret ceremony. In spying on the Mysteries, Hippolytos had violated Greek codes of conduct. Yet he went, in darkness, to witness what women do in their abandon.
Euripides feels no need to mention this fact again. I, however, feel the need to emphasize it: this boy was not immune to desire. He was, instead, afraid of it, so terribly afraid that he tried to contain it in a silo so strong, it couldn’t seep inside his body or his conscious mind. Benumbed to sensation, yet still acutely physical, Hippolytos sought sanctuary with Artemis. Within this retinue of wild, non-heterosexual woman, Hippolytos could claim his chastity with arrogance—a trait that Greeks, as a culture, find loathsome. Everyone, from slave to king to god, despised hubris: “Will you accept some advice from me?” Hippolytos’s servant asks. Without overstepping his bounds, he warns Hippolytos not to be too proud: it’s an obligation to honour Aphrodite, he says. Hippolytos responds with scorn, then walks away. The servant bows low: “Aphrodite, be compassionate!” he pleads. “If someone who is stretched tight inside himself talks reckless talk, best not to listen.”
Unfortunately, compassion doesn’t come naturally to Aphrodite.
Raving, weak, as if from fever: “Where have I gone from my own good mind?” she wails. Phaidra is in agony. The physical torture—the sexual fire that rages through her body—is compounded by the mental torment of wanting what she wishes she didn’t. Phaidra doesn’t want to desire her stepson. She’s tried to smother her feelings for weeks, but nothing can soothe this “disease” of love. Phaidra decides she has no other option: when gripped by such transgressive desire, she concludes she must kill herself.
“Endure your passion,” her nurse replies, with sturdy practicality. “You are sick. Change that. Spells and magic words exist.” The nurse concocts a plan: she’ll make a potion to cure Phaidra. In the process, however, she’ll need to tell Hipploytos that Phaidra is lusting after him. “Relax,” she says. “I’ll do it right.” By which she means she’ll make him swear an oath.
Phaidra hears Hippolytus yelling in fury when he’s told the secret. She assumes he’ll break his pledge—telling all of Athens about her wantonness—besmirching not only her memory, but, more importantly, the lives of her two biological children. She resolves to carry out the suicide.
In her note, she accuses Hippolytos of rape.
“Evil on evil! Not endurable not sayable!”
Hippolytos hears his father’s screams; he comes running, not knowing about the suicide, or the contents of the note. Theseus is revolted by his son: “Get yourself out of this land,” he snarls. He exiles the boy; he wants to send him “beyond the Black Sea and the boundary of Atlas if I could, I hate you so.”
Here is where Hippolytos could’ve broken his oath—
My tongue swore to…
the moment has come. If Hippolytos never intended to keep his pledge—if, as Austin argues, he’d made a “false promise”—then he could’ve spoken now. But he doesn’t. His mind might not have sworn, but his oath binds him: Hippolytos is too rigid to break his pledge, too strict with rules and laws. He must abide the oath he took, since he can’t admit to moral ambiguity: ethics, in the abstract, is cleanly cut and beveled to perfection. It’s a code of right and wrong, with every situation necessitating a certain response: if x, then y. The body, however, is slippage.
Hippolytos dies as he drives his horses from Athens. Despite his expertise as a charioteer, he loses control: the animals panic—rearing up and tearing forward—entangling him in the reins. As they run, they smash his skull against the rocks.
His death seems like an accident, a result of human distress and error. But the story is more complex, far-reaching through time, and extending up, to the realm of the eternal gods.
Poseidon wanted the boy dead.
He sent a wave that spooked the horses—a wave with the shape and power of a bull. A fitting end, since Phaidra was the half-sister of the Minotaur, a monstrous figure born from the coupling of a woman with a luminously white bull—a coupling which only happened because the woman lusted unceasingly after the strange, white beast. A lust which came upon her as a curse from Poseidon himself.
We are not responsible, the Greeks seem to say. We could not possibly be responsible for the grotesque inelegance of desire. These feelings—these fantasies—arrive in us. We are possessed.
Phaidra’s mother, Pasiphae, became so desperate to feel this bull inside her that she asked the craftsman, Daedalus, to build a structure—shaped like a female ox—in which she could hide: a structure that could entice, yet withstand the animality of what she wanted.
And why did Poseidon punish her by cursing her with this desire?
Not for anything she’d done.
No. He made her want that bull because her husband didn’t slaughter the animal as a sacrifice—an offering of flesh and fat, of savoury smoke as the meat burned on the fire—a means for the king to give thanks to the god. To acknowledge him. To supplicate. To live within the laws, which state that humans are subservient to the whims and will of the divine.
The king didn’t do that.
Because he loved the bull. Not as his wife would come to love the bull: not as a genital-sexual hunger. But certainly erotic.
King Minos liked the potent masculinity; he liked that all society associated the bull with him, as if he uptook every attribute of the animal into his body: breadth of chest, his voice as a bellow, his cock and balls, his very presence was a menace and a thrill. The ability to mount and master any other—the ability to murder or rape—this is the measure of power.
Repulsive. And yet. The king, yes, liked that power.
This is why he didn’t sacrifice the bull.
If we follow the thread—as Theseus did, once he’d killed the Minotaur—the story of Hippolytos leads us back, through Phaidra’s desire, to her husband Theseus, whose sex with an Amazon produced Hippolytos—Theseus, who’d already abandoned Ariadne, the girl who gave him the means for escaping the labyrinth (the thread, of course, but also the plan)—Ariadne, whose sister was Phaidra, both of whom were daughters to Pasiphae who was rocked by the beautiful bull whom her husband refused to slaughter. Follow the thread. It’s not easy for us, for you and me, but a person in ancient Greece would’ve sensed it, electric, the thread like a web of meaning—disparate points of a constellation—clear, despite millions of stars. They can read the relation among those points. We can’t. We look up. We can gaze at the paltry heavens dimmed by human light—so few stars in our lesser, polluted sky—but still: we can’t read the myth or its significance. The Minotaur, the Amazon queen who cuts off her breast; the ritual sacrifice every person in that audience would’ve been part of—the temples to Poseidon or Aphrodite, the blood of the bull caught in the basin, with flutes trilling and women screaming at the climax: I don’t hold that knowledge in my body. Maybe in my mind, if I study and read. But that comes through my brain, not through fear and awe: my sense of being alive in the presence of powers I don’t understand.
Derrida says as much. Derrida, whom I want to hate, but can’t. He has something I need; I’m not sure what. I might not be hearing what he wants to say.
In his excoriating response to Austin, Derrida argues that no statement can ever be saturated with meaning: we can’t define a circumscribed context for our words. The act of speaking—this moment, my presence before you as I try to give my thoughts into language which you understand—this event is not unique, since it can always be cited, repeated in duplication and “duplicity.” I might attempt to maintain possession of what I say and what I mean—to add my signature, as if to lay a claim—but my words are inevitably churned inside the iterability of language. “Signature Event Context”: this is the title that Derrida gives to his essay, and names are important.
To me, this feels violent, this theory. In speaking, I am sundered. Not just my words, which can be ripped from their context and placed elsewhere, in other paragraphs, arguments, throats and minds, but my self: I feel riven or “cleft,” as Derrida says.
He’s speaking about language—how language is rupture—but he’s also speaking about the psyche. He says as much. His theory can be extended to “experience.” To the fact that experience is never pure because, in the act of understanding—of coming into consciousness and putting into language—I am alienated from myself. My self is split. This ‘self’ can’t be coherency, a unity, a plenitude of beauty and intention that’s fed by sources beyond my conscious comprehension. What we have, in language, isn’t an “absolute presence”: the purity of my desire to speak and to speak not (merely) as my limited, corruptible, embodied self, but as whatever truth subtends, precedes, exceeds my being. Instead, we have an “absoluteness of absence.” In order for language to exist, it must—within its very structure—assume the disappearance of the speaker, the recipient, and the signified meaning.
My death is inscribed in my words.
My death, and my lack of transcendent meaning.
Yours, too. Whenever you speak or receive. So says Derrida.
I’m writing these words on a Monday morning. My children will leave soon; I won’t see them for nine days. A gap—an extra wound, two days with every cycle—because I’ve been accused. Because a declaration was made and I opted not to fight.
“Can you tell my children I love them?” I asked my lawyer, via email. I wasn’t sure when I’d be allowed to tell them myself.
That was five years ago, on a Friday afternoon in winter. Now, on a Monday at 6:53AM, I’ll reread Derrida before my kids go to school. I’ll sense his delight, the meanness with which he lacerates the linguistic theory of Austin. Men, in the hallowed halls of academe, performing their roles, their langue like a whip.
I’ll take what they’ve taught me. I’ll saturate their words with my own intention.
One last side note, before moving on: no one in “Hippolytos” says the words I love you. Theseus does declare “I hate you,” as previously mentioned, and Artemis says “I loved him.” But that’s not the same.
Artemis appears at the end of the play. Inflamed with indignation, she explains the whole story to Theseus. This ancient tragedy, in all its granular nausea, is felt. “I loved him more than any mortal,” she says. It’s an astonishing statement from a goddess whose entourage is composed entirely of women—women who’ve defied the roles of gender, choosing to foreswear children, normalcy, home. Yet it’s Hippolytos she’s loved the most. Astonishing. But even more telling, at least to me, is that she has the chance to tell Hippolytos she loves him, but doesn’t. She’s there, as his death approaches, but she leaves without saying the words. “I loved him,” Artemis says: yes, that’s true. But she addresses the statement to Theseus—I loved him—like a fact.
I love you.
“Hold me,” Hippolytos says. He knows he’s dying. He asks his father to take him, to straighten his mangled limbs. He wants to be made whole. “I can see the gates of death.” Theseus gathers the boy in his arms. He cradles his son. But he can’t: he can’t bring himself to say the words that could’ve transformed.
I’m still in the meadow, by the way. I can’t see him yet, but I know he’s there: the white bull is near me. I’ll lie back now, and wait for him to find me.
Several works are cited in this piece:
Austin, J.L. How to do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context” in Limited Inc… Trans. Samuel Weber. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988, pages 1-23.
Euripides. “Hippolytos” in Grief Lessons: Four Plays. Trans. Anne Carson. New York: New York Review of Books, 2006, pages 163-242.
Marianne Apostolides is the author of six books, three of which have been translated. She's a recipient of the Chalmers Arts Fellowship, and the winner of the 2017 K.M. Hunter Award for Literature. "Perform" is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel, I can't get you out of my mind: A book of lies, sex, love, and Artificial Intelligence. marianne-apostolides.com