The demonic control of Greek mothers over their sons

Greek men are often controlled by their possessive mothers, especially if they are their only male child. Among male intellectuals, scholars, and artists, in particular, there may be relatively few who are not so controlled. Their oppression is brutal and life-long but they rarely protest it since it becomes an integral part of their identity and they cannot think of their lives without maternal benevolent tyranny.

One way to define this predicament is through the fascinating German notion of das Dämonische/the demonic, the condition of being possessed by the monstrous. The notion suffuses Brahms’ “demonic” Ballade no. 1, the first of 4, op. 10 (1854), also known as “Edward,” because it is based on a grisly Scottish ballade, which the composer found translated in an anthology by Herder (1778-79). Like the poem, the composition consists in a dialogue between Edward and his mother: She questions him, he dissimulates, then confesses that he has killed his father, and leaves forever, cursing her because she made him do it. Thus there are two moments of horror, of unfathomable truth: first, the revelation of the murder, and then, the revelation of the culprit: The mother made her son kill his father in order to possess him through his complicity in murder.

The middle part of Brahms’ ballad (in this clip, 1:47-3:47), the son’s sordid confession, consists of a great manifestation of the Romantic demonic in music as a Beethovenian hammering rhythm of galloping triplets intimates fate, builds through an extended crescendo, and reveals the horrible deed in a fortissimo.

One of the several conceptions of the demonic that Kirk Wetters distinguishes in his study Demonic History (2014) is “Demonic Remainders in the History of Reason and Rationalization” (197). This conception “inheres in the individuals’ contradictory sense of responsibility for events and the simultaneous inability to control their course. Such a relation to events formulates itself retrospectively as guilt: the point of the demonic is experienced most intensely at the point when it is too late to substantially alter the outcome. … The demonic is the justified or unjustified, unjustifiable sense of complicity with a finished course of events” (198).

Greek men who are dominated by their mothers (as well as by their aunts functioning as complements or by lovers as substitutes) are haunted by such an unaccountable guilt, the self-contradictory sense that they are both only partially responsible for their fate and yet unable to change its course. The distinguished poet/performer Vasilis Amanatidis (1970) has published the sixty-poem cycle μ_otherpoem: μόνο λόγος (2014), an extraordinary book-length lament on this traumatic relationship. It is the only subject that Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” is reluctant to discuss at length with me. He will touch on it with indignation and exasperation, and then drop it. Nevertheless, he has drawn my attention to the Maenadic role of mothers of pianists.

My account of this phenomenon, which I omit here, is based on matters pertaining to specific social/gender and economic/class factors and not at all on general genetic or psychological ones. That is why I limit my considerations to Greek society, which is the one I know best, and do not discuss the role of mothers in other societies.

November 27, 2016

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