OLD WIVES' TALES
A Review of In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality
by Lois W. Banner
New York: Alfred A. Knopf
Review Copyright © 1992 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
The summer I turned 20 I took a Tuesday night writing course taught by a bearded poet I admired, who had two books and a Pulitzer Prize under his belt as well as a second wife. Each week, after everyone else had dispersed, he and I did what poets are famous for doing: we went out to a local bar with two married women from the class and drank whiskey. After a while he and one of the women went someplace to perform adultery, while the other woman and I did not. I don't recall the ostensible reason we kept our hands off each other week after week, but I'm sure one underlying motive was that as the boy I was supposed to make the first move; but even though I thought she was beautiful, the woman was 10 years my senior and I felt awed and didn't know how to begin.
The night after the very last class she took me to a hillside overlooked by the zillion stars of the rural Michigan sky, lay me down upon the moist Earth, and said this is a quote; I still remember after nearly 30 years "You don't need another chaste relationship." Then, at last, we fucked.
Though for months I had a crush on her, I never saw or spoke with the woman again. At some point I sent a card to thank her for her generosity because even then, callow, ignorant, and self-absorbed as only a late adolescent male can be, I knew she had given me something even greater than a happy roll in the midnight hay. It took me years to understand, or maybe I'm still learning; but now, from the grace of middle age, it seems to me she gave me a true piece of her mind. Like a sacred prostitute, she gave me an expression of her wisdom to ponder and to grow from, even though my male Freudian psychiatrist of the day could make no better sense of it than to think I'd fucked a mother substitute. The woman was righter than the Freudian: I did not need another chaste relationship. I needed some more initiation into the possibilities of ecstasy so I could build dimension in my life. She did not write back.
For thousands of years now in Western civilization older women have given younger men expressions of their wisdom, and for the most part the young men have failed to understand the nature of these gifts, while their older counterparts and mentors have analyzed them into hierarchical, bureaucratic, penis-centered theories that missed the point entirely.
The history of these misunderstandings and misinterpretations, especially as expressed as an undercurrent in the literature of Western civilization, is the blue highway feminist scholar Lois Banner has traced in her most recent book. She sets the stage with a very careful reading of the 1950 movie classic Sunset Boulevard, in which an aging movie star played by another aging movie star takes a younger man as her lover and a certain kind of tragedy ensues; then she returns us to the thrilling days of yesteryear to examine the way issues of power and authority among aging women have been treated in Europe and North America over the past 3000 years.
Repeatedly referring back to her touchstone, Sunset Boulevard, Banner finds a history of vilification and denigration in which women and particularly aging women have been systematically separated from the powers they have earned, the powers that have inhered in them, and the powers they have sought. But rather than despair or take refuge in a retaliatory position that encourages women to get back at their historical oppressors with equal stupidity, Banner finds and optimistically celebrates another, parallel history, running alongside the unhappy main stream.
This second history is one of aging women who have refused to be silenced, refused to be demeaned, and refused to be destroyed. From their proud and hardy lineage she descries some hope that new discoveries in feminist scholarship, combined with a generally expanded understanding of aging, may afford all of us who live in Western cultures a "more promising future" in which we might learn
to overcome those dualisms of race, class, and gender that have troubled our civilization from its beginnings, and to return to what may have existed, whether in mythological construction or in reality: a prepatriarchal age of gender comity. Or perhaps rather than a return to an earlier age, this transition will be a maturing into a state of wisdom permeating all the ages and stages of life.
From the outset Banner touches lightly on what has by now become the classic era of feminist scholarship, the matriarchal period of Great Goddess worship. She notes almost in passing how the most important gods of the ancient world were the young consorts of older, more powerful goddesses, and how the goddess-worshipping tribes were overthrown, and their mythologies usurped and gradually recast, by monotheistic, patriarchal tribes.
Before her sexuality was bleached, for instance, and separated from her spirituality; before her name was changed to Mary and her position reduced to that of the sainted human in whom Jahweh planted the Jesus seed, the Great Goddess was called Mistress of the Animals. It was she who created the god who created the world. In a time when the term "queen" was applied to a wise spiritual guide who was also a woman of power, the Great Goddess was Queen of Heaven. "In Sumer the central goddess was Inanna. In Babylonia she was Ishtar. In Anatolea she was called Cybele. In Canaan, she was Ashtoreth, or Anath." At Ephesus she was Diana; in Egypt she was Isis, whose name means throne. Statues representing her date from as far back as 20,000 BCE, but since written records did not appear until somewhat later around 3000 BCE in Inanna's Sumer, as late as 1500 BCE in Crete much of her story has had to be pieced together from statuary, pottery, burial sites, and other material remains, and from the myths and legends that survived to baffle Freud, to intrigue Jung, and to persist as living tales that simply emerge around the world in art and folk legend. That's where Sunset Boulevard comes in, as well as the Odyssey.
Generally attributed to an unknown wandering storyteller who has gone down in history under the name of Homer, and who apparently word-processed oral folk tales like the Iliad with his or her: there is some reason to believe Homer may have been a woman own personal style around 700 - 800 BCE, the Odyssey is usually interpreted as a myth based on some measure of truth, recounting the adventures of a great archetypal warrior Odysseus, or Ulysses who is shipwrecked and spends 20 years trying to get home to his wife and son. But the Odyssey, says Banner, is no less about the integrity and steadfast patience of Penelope, the warrior's wife, who waits for him, rejecting the suits of 108 would-be second husbands, many of whom are little older than her son.
Banner not only explores the artful question of why these young pups seek to woo this particular lady twice their age Penelope has power, she has wealth, she is the wife of a hero she also explores the other representatives of female authority in the Odyssey, such as the monsters, queens, and goddesses Odysseus encounters. Some of them fool him, some defeat him outright, many are clearly more powerful than he; indeed, on occasion he escapes from their clutches only because he, like Penelope, is under the protection of the goddess Athena.
Beneath this tale of male heroism, then, writes Banner, lies the overthrown "muted world of female power." Here women are still a force to be reckoned with, and perhaps not coincidentally, age-disparate and power-disparate relationships reflecting those of the goddesses and their consorts appear; Banner says they may have been fairly common, if not typical, in their times.
After Penelope, Banner turns her attention to the poet Sappho, who ranked with only Homer and Socrates in Plato's pantheon of Greek geniuses. Sappho's poetry about love and sensual desire, directed especially toward young women, was known throughout the Mediterranean world we think of as the cradle of Western civ. She came from the island of Lesbos, where she was so famous her face graced local currency, and in her time she was one of the few living figures to be represented on Greek vases. In her later years she seems to have run a school for girls, to some of whom she wrote poetry. From her home we have derived the term lesbian for gay women. Her poetry was apparently so erotic that early Christian leaders, too terrified of women to even be near them unchaperoned, destroyed it whenever they found it. By the Middle Ages it was effectively lost. No complete poem Sappho wrote is known to exist today.
There is another story concerning Sappho in which she is said to be the older lover of Phaon, a beautiful young man who piloted the ferry between Lesbos and the Anatolean mainland. In the common version of this story Phaon is said to forsake Sappho because she is no longer young, in response to which she leaps from the cliffs of Leukadia and kills herself.
Phaon may or may not have actually lived, but Banner says some fragments of Sappho's poetry that survive do speak of a younger man she loved and left, because in the second half of her life she wished not to deal with the difficulties of love, an emotion the Greeks of her time regarded as a kind of madness. The youth-affirming tale of heterosexual Phaon rejecting the gay-oriented Sappho because of her advancing age, rather than the other way around, seems to have been constructed long after the poet's actual demise by men who needed to reduce the power of Sappho's memory so she would not be a threat to male pre-eminence. In this capacity the story becomes representative of the reduction of aging women's importance in Western history altogether, as the focus of their descriptions shift from wisdom, compassion, and spiritual (if not worldly) power to vengefulness and ugliness, ugliness being a physical category specifically opposed to beauty.
No one ever seriously objected to beauty, but over the course of time the category of beauty became identified with youth, and youth with all that was good and desirable; indeed, to look at today's television advertisements youth and beauty would seem all a person needs for a lifetime of excitement and happiness.
But not only are youth and this sort of beauty astonishingly brief: a few thousand years ago they were not even perceived as undiluted blessings. Beauty, for instance, was thought to inspire a narcissistic individualism that did not serve the community, to precipitate wars, and often to bring unhappiness in its wake. Moreover, insofar as beauty was desirable it was not necessarily just a physical quality. Sappho herself believed character rather than looks constituted beauty, for "he that is beautiful is beautiful as far as appearances go, while he that is good will consequently also be beautiful."
Proceeding through history, Banner dwells on Chaucer's Wife of Bath as a study of a successfully ribald and independent woman, "lusty and unrestrained," who has worked her way through several husbands and is seeking, even as she makes her pilgrimage to Canterbury, seeking a sturdy young man to slake her lust.
Banner describes in detail the evolution, reign, and fall of courtly love, where older noblewomen had specific authority in training gallantry and chivalry into the teen-aged boys who would become knights. She examines the eroticization of young men's clothes, bodies, and interpersonal attitudes in a world where older women held financial and political sway and commonly took young lovers, and explains how the old tribal wise woman known to Paganism as the "crone" became the so-called "witch" as she is popularly portrayed for Hallowe'en these days: old, ugly, and nasty terms that have become linked in the course of developing a youth-and-beauty-oriented culture with power to do evil at her bidding. Banner particularly examines the nature of women's sexuality as a point of fear for men who fought to keep what they could not understand under something like what they believed was their control.
From Sappho and Alison of Bath to the salon proprietresses who presided over and often profoundly influenced the most famous minds of the 18th Century Enlightenment, Banner celebrates those aging women variously defined as any female between about 20 and the very end of any lifespan, depending on the era and locale who would not be shackled by cultural norms established to exclude them.
In examining the family that nest of values whose traditions change with every generation Banner is especially concerned with the evolution of the grandmother's role, from a major stalwart in the education of younger generations to the nanny-substitute who through surgery, paint, and costume endeavors to look like the chippy her culture holds more dear than all her hard-won wisdom.
Banner's real tapestry, of course, is the whole experience of being female and older than the mode in Western society. For each age in which she identifies a rise in the power and prestige of aging women, she identifies a corresponding age in which their power and prestige declined. And always, ignorance and prejudice are part of the fall.
Although it was once a phrase that signified the common lore passed down from village storytellers -- usually female to the children who needed it to carry on their community's traditions, "old wives' tales" is now a label impugning as superstitious ignorance and foolish mendacity the knowledge women may acquire as they age, and the deep wisdom they derive from it. It is a wisdom, as Banner writes, that has been systematically denigrated for the centuries of Euro-American world domination. It has been suppressed by laws of State and Church that dispossessed women of property, suffrage, intellectual prerogatives, and spiritual authority, and it has been repressed through miseducation that limited perceptions of femininity in popular morality to women who were young and no less important -- compliant. When all else failed it has even been used against itself, twisted into a dangerous caricature of knowledge possessed by so-called witches purported to be in league with the Devil or whatever other temporal or spiritual effects the men in power at the moment feared or disliked and therefore named as evil.
What makes this fine, wide-ranging study of aging as it applies to the inequities of gender stereotype so consummately depressing for men as well as for women is the prodigious evidence Banner has compiled to demonstrate that for the most part Western males have been loyal to the patriarchy that promised them everything but gave them cheap perfume in expensive bottles. That loyalty is especially sad because most of it has not even been evil but merely dumb, and because on the whole it has made of us males particularly those of us whose clerical and medical traditions have named as sins or sicknesses menstruation, menopause, and whatever other female conditions or behaviors were inconveniently outside our control a demi-race of fools, robbing ourselves of pleasure, comfort, and wisdom in a boorish, frightening, and yet relentless series of attempts to disparage our mothers', sisters', daughters', wives', friends', and lovers' experiences.
Could it be we've done this simply because we haven't wanted to see our own mortality? If so, then maybe Freud was right: maybe we do see all women as our mothers, try to steal them from our fathers, usurp their power so that we may treat them like our servants or our chattel, and finally hate them for having the gall, at their deaths or at ours, to abandon us.
If Lois Banner's hope can be fulfilled, then whatever we are or have been is not all we may yet be: men may stop being boys playing King of the Mountain with fast cars, big bucks, and nuclear armaments; girls may be valued as women in their time. That, at least, is the conclusion an optimistic scenarist might write for the end of In Full Flower. The pessimistic scenario, written if her hope cannot be fulfilled, probably spells terminal in a way the dinosaurs would have understood, if they could understand, and if their scenario had turned out differently.
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