Rape, New Criticism and the Humanities Core Course

By Jack Miles

The literary theory dubbed “New Criticism,” dominant in American academic and popular criticism half a century ago, has long since gone out of fashion, but I find its core insight – that the intent of an author is separable from the effect of the author’s work – validated again and again. Several such validations came at points in my teaching of a section of a recent Humanities Core Course on the theme of war.

The quarter started with a reading of Homer’s Iliad, a work that begins with the supreme Greek hero, Achilles, sulking in his tent because the Greek commander, Agamemnon, has taken Achilles’ concubine, Briseis, to replace his own concubine, Chryseis, who for “theostrategic” reasons has been returned to her priest father. “Concubine” is a term commonly enough employed in Homer criticism for Briseis and Chryseis, but these two women are both prisoners of war, prisoners for life, taken as spoils by the victors and used for their pleasure. Another perfectly legitimate term for them is “sex slaves.”

“Our era regards rape as avoidable even when war is not – not a simple aspect of war then but rather an instance of war crime.”

Another phrase, with a contemporary echo, might be “comfort women.” This was the connection made independently by two different women of Korean descent in my section. Neither had a family member taken as a sex slave by the Japanese military in World War II. Both, as it happened, had only recently been touched by this matter, one of the two very profoundly, on a trip to South Korea, by a Korean art film on the subject. Homer is far from oblivious to the catastrophe that defeat in war was for captured women, and yet for him their plight is just one item on the list of inevitably ghastly consequences of war. Our era regards rape as avoidable even when war is not – not a simple aspect of war then but rather an instance of war crime. In any case, the effect on my students of Book 1 of The Iliad was not the effect that Homer intended.

But is it only young women who are subjected to sexual enslavement? A man in the same Core Course section devoted one of his blog posts (students in this course were required to create websites and then post to them) to bacha bazi, the prostitution and, in some cases, outright sexual enslavement of boys in Afghanistan. Should American military, cooperating with Afghan military, ignore this practice when they encounter it among their local allies? Is America in Afghanistan to bring about a reform of sexual mores? But if bacha bazi can be countenanced in Afghanistan, why can “comfort women” not be retrospectively countenanced in Japan? Such were among the questions that the student raised.

Later in the quarter, we read Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, a play in which, near the end, Katrina, the German protagonist’s good-hearted but simple-minded daughter, is raped. Brecht is a playwright virtually all of whose success has been due to effects other than those he intended. He did not want his plays’ audiences to love the heroes and hate the villains. He did not want them to embrace the victims and indict the perpetrators. As an orthodox Communist, he wanted to write plays whose audiences would recognize the entire dramatis personae as trapped in an evil capitalist system in which they were all equally victimized. In the Cold War, accordingly, he stood with communist Russia and against capitalist America. But to his horror, at the 1949 Berlin premiere of Mother Courage, German women in the audience broke out in sobs at the rape scene, recalling the reign of terror rape that Berlin endured when it fell to the Red Army in 1945.

After Mother Courage, a male student whose German grandmother’s house had burned down during an American bombing observed that he had grown up in a world of fiction and cinema in which Germans were always villains, never heroes; always perpetrators, never – like Katrina – victims. Was there perhaps a rape victim among the German women in his extended family? The victim of an American soldier? The victim of a Russian?

He never said, but I wondered. In retrospect, I might have asked, but the fact is that I didn’t. To the limited extent that as a section leader I was ever truly the author of my class, it sometimes had effects like these that I not only never intended but about which, at times, I could scarcely speak.

Miles is professor emeritus of English and religious studies. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for God: A Biography.