Luo Lianlian — Relating with Mothers Differently: “Rite of Passage” of Telemachus and Penelope in “Meadowlands” and “Averno”

In two books of poems Meadowlands (1996) and Averno (2006), American poet Louise Gluck (1943—) ingeniously takes up again themes of the classical mythology into a modern context, and she discerningly shows that relationship with the mother ending in the adolescence’ rite of passage remains vital in both the mythical stories and the modern lives. Revolving around the stories of Penelope and Telemachus, the adolescent’s identity crises in the two books are distilled into the characters’ acceptance of their mothers.

In this paper I would put the poems of Gluck in conversation with the theories of Luce Irigaray, who suggests that Western philosophy does not acknowledge its debt to women’s role, particularly the one of the mother—this is explained in many of her works such as, for example, “Women-Mother, the silent substratum of the social Order” and “The bodily encounter with the mother”. I argue that by retreating classical mythology, Gluck purports to probe the limits of Western logic: in prioritizing the mother’s role in the children’s rite of passage, she echoes Irigaray’s philosophical ideas concerning subject formation and the mother-daughter relationship.

In Meadowlands Gluck demonstrates how Telemachus severs the connection with his mother Penelope to gain his identity, which agrees with Irigaray’s interpretation of the story saying of Clytemnestra that Western culture is founded on a general acceptance of matricide. When he came of age, Telemachus had to address his childhood trauma caused by the conflicts in the conjugal union of his parents. At the core of Telemachus’ identity problem lies his relationship with his mother, which is clearly manifested in his psychological growing up process: he moves through heartbreaks due to the mother’s negligence, anger resulting from his mother’s erotic desire, dilemma about defining his parents, guilt for his castration complex, kindness and reconciliation to the self-assertive mother and the philandering father, ultimately a passage from its origin and separation from his mother to identify with his father.

Gluck’s Telemachus eventually learns to demonize women and becomes a manipulative and sinister antagonist, confirming Irigaray’s claim that “the womb…is fantasized by many men to be a devouring mouth… a phallic threat” (‘The Bodily Encounter with the Mother’ in The Irigaray Reader, ed. by Margareth Whitford, p. 41). Succeeding in accepting his mother as the emotional burden, Telemachus completes his personal transformation, and he decides that “My mother grieves enough for us all” (Gluck, Louise, Poems, 347). Gluck dissects how the ideal ego of Telemachus imposes on his imagined self identifying with his father Odysseus. In spite of an apparent denial, Telemachus pits himself against his father. He is marveled at his father’s sexuality and manhood, his father’s attraction to the mistresses and power over women. This completes Telemachus’s subjective formation allowing him to enter into the symbolic world ruled by the Father. According to Irigaray’s words, “Becoming oneself is a complex undertaking for a human” (To Be Born, p. 37), and Gluck’s Telemachus eventually becomes “paralyzed in its development” (To Be Born, p.38) as it is cut off from his origin, partly manifested by his natural loving relationship with Mom.

Gluck’s poetic portrayal of Persephone in Averno is also quite in line with Irigaray’s analysis of the breaking of the mother-daughter bonds in Thinking the Difference. Gluck’s Persephone, is confronted with the issue of major rite of passage that the lost of virginity represents, the violence inflicted on her body, the denial of her sexual desire and love. She also feels compelled to break her daughterhood and the control of her mother. However, Persephone’s desire for freedom paradoxically entails the link with her mother. This explains, according to Irigaray’s remarks, why women’s power or initiatives to love are totally denied: “The path to reciprocal love between individuals has been lost, especially with respect to eroticism” (Thinking the Difference, p. 99).

The response from Gluck’s Demeter to her daughter also coincides with Irigaray’s discovery, through her analyses of sexuate language, that when young girls seek an intersubjective dialogue with their mothers, their mothers do not reciprocate. Irigaray has expounded how the repression of female genealogy, notably in its divine aspect, is recounted in various ways in the mythical stories, so much so that “none of these women has a mother in whom to confide. The female line of descent is already interrupted” (Thinking the Difference, p. 106). Irigaray also calls for a cultural restoration of the mother-daughter relationship “to heal a loss of individual and collective identity for women” (An Ethics of Sexual Difference, p. 189). Likewise, in Averno, Gluck unravels in a prevalent idea in the Western literary tradition: girls reach their self-identity through severing the ties with the mothers. It is reasonable to argue that Gluck also considers that mothers must present themselves differently to their daughters, and emphasize their different subjectivities. Gluck pursues the discussion about the mother and the daughter as subjects in their own rights.

To a certain extent, Persephone’s initial attraction to Hades also testifies what Irigaray develops about love and desire expounded in one of her last works To Be Born: “Rebuilding the world from a relationship of desire and love between a man and a women” (To Be Born, p. 98). Gluck has obviously noticed some inevitable but veiled desires on the part of Persephone.

Blending the classical world with the modern world, even as a autobiographical reality, Averno embodies a marvelously artistic yet convincing, answer to the critics of some scholarship arguing that “There is an impasse in Irigaray’s work that… to “restore” the mother-daughter relationship via Greek myth… becomes difficult to use and rather risks drawing the feminist scholar back into the imaginary that she is attempting to subvert” (Jacobs, Amber, ‘The Potential of Theory: Melanie Klein, Luce Irigaray, and the Mother-Daughter Relationship’, in Hypathia, 22-4, p. 179).

In all, Gluck examines rites of passages of the two sexes, showing that their different ways of relating to their mother lead to the establishment of different cultural identities—while the son performs matricide to gain his identity, the daughter maintains a complicated separation from and link with her mother. Gluck brings back to light the partially buried mother to explore the construction of two different subjects. She contributes to the symbolization of the mother-daughter relationship, and endeavors to define mother and daughter’s independent subjectivities.