Report // Paulin Ismard, Le Miroir d’Oedipe: Penser l’esclavage, 22 March 2024

Link to original event here.

A scholar of Ancient Greek history, Paulin Ismard gave a talk that illuminated the broader context of slavery—a subject that has rightfully commanded outmost attention in the field of American Studies over the past several decades—by rethinking its inception at the heart of Western civilisation’s earliest ancestors and first known slave societies. Tracing the presence of slavery in the works of such authors as Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner back to the very earliest roots of one of humanity’s most persistent and oppressive practices, Ismard’s talk revealed how the questions that animate our field are not unique to the national context of the United States of America and in fact have a long antecedence in ancient history.

Ismard began the talk by highlighting that there are very few extant texts that reflect on—let alone attempt to justify and legitimate—slavery in the Ancient Greek context, and, save for a few brief mentions, it is likewise absent from antique philosophy. Even in such politically-motivated meditations as Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s Republic, works that acknowledge the unprecedented uniqueness of these thinkers’ socio-political world, the latter is the only of the two texts to mention slavery, which it does in a brief aside, despite the undeniable fact that Ancient Greece was one of the first human societies to rely on slave labour at such a massive scale. For Ismard, the preeminent question was this: how do we think and talk about the people who were omnipresent in this ancient world and yet had been entirely written out of this world’s narrative? It is this silence that motivated Ismard to turn to the very different socio-political and cultural context of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States, recognising the potential of borrowing from the distinctly Americanist approach to literature, which often involves identifying and inspecting slavery’s many invisible traces by reading between the lines and reconstructing its momentous presence out of absence.

This deafening silence complicates the intimate relationship that the modern Western world claims to have with Ancient Greece and its legacy, Ismard argued, which includes, most importantly, the West’s inheritance of the Greeks’ democratic tradition. Ismard emphasised that political freedom, the trophy that the West of today reclaims from the Greco-Roman history and for which Ancient Greece is tirelessly commemorated, was conceived in the first-ever slave society, democracy and slavery walking in step since long before the founding of the United States of America, joined together from the very moment of their twin birth. Ismard was particularly interested in how slavery affects the country’s cultural imaginary, how such a vast chasm between a people’s lofty conception of themselves and their oppressive actuality is inscribed into that country’s legacy, a question that is pertinent to discussions of both the Ancient Greek society and that of the nineteenth-century United States.

Following Orlando Patterson’s central metaphor and line of thinking, around which his seminal work Slavery and Social Death (1982) is organised, Ismard remarked on the age-long association between slavery and death that transcends individual societies and cultures. The transcultural imaginary’s attribution of subhuman status to the enslaved and their placement on the threshold between life and death calls for a dismantling and fundamental re-conception of the opposition between these two terms, such as the one undertaken by Jacques Derrida in his seminar La vie la mort (1975-6). Hoping to shed light on the connection between enslavement and death in the Ancient Greek context, Ismard followed Toni Morrion’s analysis in Playing in the Dark (1992), turning his attention to the recurrent image of the undead that inhabit much of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, which is likewise deeply haunted by the spectre of slavery.

Ismard further remarked that the status of the body in Ancient Greek culture has not yet been thoroughly examined and interrogated by relevant scholarship, especially in light of the fact that one of the terms used to refer to slaves, “σῶμα” (“sôma”), was the same word as the one denoting the physical body. A host of telling examples suggesting the depth of the associative interconnection between these two terms can be found in contemporary books on dream interpretation, where enslavers are instructed to view dreams about their body parts malfunctioning as signs of their wavering rule over those they enslave. Conceived as both tools and organs, the age-old image of a slave as an integral part of the enslaver’s body presents an unsettling vision of slavery as an anxiety-ridden mutual interdependence, which is a nuanced metaphorical transformation that merits further analysis. Instead of disappearing with its world, Ismard noted that this unsettling vision came to haunt the literary imaginary centuries later within a vastly different context of the nineteenth-century United States. It appears in such texts as Poe’s short story “The Man Who Was Used Up,” where the tension between inalienable nature of flesh and the alienable of property is written into the body of the enslaved, which has been disturbingly co-opted into becoming the enslaver’s prosthesis.

Moreover, Ismard commented on Ancient Greece’s canonical textual productions and the too-often overlooked role of that the enslaved occupy therein. For example, Ismard discussed the role of the enslaved shepherd in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, who is the one to announce Oedipus’ incestuous transgression. Although the shepherd is a marginal character, foreign to the local community, his knowledge of the truth is absolute, making him akin to the gods. This revelation came as a result of Ismard’s examination of recurrent oedipal references in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, a novel that is similarly replete with enslaved figures placed into the position of absolute knowledge, thus offering an important insight into the ancient tragedy that it incessantly references.

The post-presentation discussion followed three main axes of inquiry. The audience challenged Ismard’s choice to compare these two very distinct societies and their cultural productions, remarking on the great multitude of slave societies throughout history that were not included in the inquiry. While acknowledging the formal constraints, such as the inevitability of having to limit the archive, Ismard proposed a unifying principle, making a distinction between slavery and temporary servitude, and commenting on the difference between societies that happen to contain slavery and slave societies, which, unlike the former, are entirely structured by this oppressive system, as is the case for both Ancient Greece and the nineteenth-century United States. The second axis concerned the question of race and its centrality to American slavery, a question that is entirely irrelevant when considering the Ancient Greek reality, which makes the comparison between these two contrasting contexts at once thought-provoking and productive. It opened up the conversation about the incidental nature of slavery and the arbitrariness of its justifications, designed to protect the powerful group from falling victim to enslavement, within any given society, as is the case, for example, of the alleged biological differences between European and African Americans. Finally, the third axis pertained to the conception of the enslaved as existing on the border between life and death, and the evolution of this notion and the practices associated with it (e.g. mesmerism, zombification, hypnosis, etc.) throughout the ages and across various slave societies.

Citer ce billet
Anna Shmatenko (2024, 11 mai). Report // Paulin Ismard, Le Miroir d’Oedipe: Penser l’esclavage, 22 March 2024. A19. Consulté le 21 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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A propos Anna Shmatenko

Anna Shmatenko holds a BA in English from the University of Cambridge and an MA in Anglophone Studies from Sorbonne Université. She is interested in the representations of liminal states between life and death in the literature of the nineteenth-century United States.

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