Marguerite Yourcenar’s Aphrodissia: The Widow

In Marguerite Yourcenar’s (1903-1987) Oriental Tales, there is a story “Aphrodissia, The Widow” which deals with the problem of secret grief, that is, secret because the source, the relationship with the lost object is a secret but also forbidden.

Many years ago, I saw a woman who was unaccountably full of sorrow. Everything about her spoke to an intensity of feeling. Her movements were as if wrapped, like a mummy, in lint. Her face was impassive, rigid, as if anytime now it would crumple and drain to the floor beside her, a mere puddle. She said very little, her lips quivering between the tremor of anguish and the stoicism that is itself a suffering, that holds its back erect as it is flailed and whipped by life. The depths of her despair were unfathomable, literally unplumbed.

Gradually, it became clear that she had been having an affair although married. Her lover who was also married had died suddenly of a cardiac event. So, we had a woman who was bereft, who was unable to express her grief, since the love object was a forbidden object. Her profound love was replaced with profound grief. No wonder the immobility and greyness of her inner landscape. No wonder the fragility like glass of her surfaces, as if, with the merest of inquiry she might shatter, as if the inner pigments might leak out to flood, in the colours of hopelessness, her very existence.

Once her predicament was revealed and she was able to acknowledge the roots of her sorrow, her dolour, she seemed more at ease. I can remember an interview jointly with her husband who remained ignorant of the basis of her ailment- he told me that she was better and that he was pleased with her progress, but “doctor can you tell her to come to bed at night rather sleeping on the sofa in front of the tele?”. This was dramatic irony at its keenest!

In Yourcenar’s “Aphrodissia: The Widow”, Kostis the Red who had a reputation for assassinations and who preferred ‘the taste of fresh air and stolen food’ was captured by the villagers after the murders of two or three village folk. He was hunted down ‘as if he was a wolf’. They brought him to town with his throat slit and with his head planted on a pitchfork to decorate the town plaza. This is the opening segment of Yourcenar’s story, violent and picturesque like the opening sequence of a Western set somewhere in the wild West, except that this was Greece in some timeless mythical space.

Kostis the Red had killed the old Greek priest, Aphrodissia’s husband some 6 years previously. So, when Kostis was caught and cut up, she wept and offered ouzo to the peasants who had avenged her. In private, she sobbed and wailed and her ‘cries had grown louder than those of her companions’. Her display of grief was intense and exaggerated but in secret she spat on the men who killed Kostis and wished she could punish them by sprinkling poison on their bread.

This was the agony of secret grief, the depths multiplied and amplified by the inability to acknowledge openly the concealed sore that was festering and unexposed to the healing powers of sunlight. She was unable to confess to her love affair with Kostis. How they had met on a secluded road under a mulberry bush and how their passion had been born with the suddenness of lightning during a hailstorm. And how the town folk could never imagine that Aphrodissia’s grief could have been born of anything other than the death of her priest husband.

The contradiction of human existence is exemplified by Aphrodissia’s almost love for her drunkard of a husband:
‘In spite of this [being a drunk], in spite of the snores that used to keep her awake and his unbearable habit of clearing his throat, she almost missed him, this credulous and vain old man who had allowed himself to be deceived.’

The only thing that Aphrodissia blamed her lover for was the murder of her husband but not for the loss of her husband but because the old man served as a blanket to hide her illicit love. There was, too, the pregnancy that resulted from their affair and how Aphrodissia’s mother-in-law assisted at the birth and how the new-born was stifled ‘like a new-born kitten, without even having bothered to wash him after the birth’.

This is a story of misery in a bleak, materially impoverished physical environment. It is likely that the external bleakness was mirrored in her inner world. Aphrodissia was taking, perhaps, the only pure pleasure that was on offer despite the dangers, despite the possibility of social ruin, and despite the moral turmoil.

This is a story of classic Greek proportions, simply told but powerful and restrained. Aphrodissia rescued the headless body of her lover and buried it in the grave of her deceased husband, secretly at night, partly to give him a burial in consecrated ground but also to hide her illicit love because the corpse bore her name in a tattoo on his arm. She then grabbed his head, streaked with blood and wrapped it in her skirt, running towards the precipice, sobbing and her tears flowing on the dead man’s face.

‘At last, a stone gave way under her foot, [she] fell to the bottom of the precipice as if to show the way, and Aphrodissia the widow plunged into the abyss and the evening, taking with her the head all smeared with blood’.

There’s not much more to say, is there?

Phots by Jan Oyebode

4 thoughts on “Marguerite Yourcenar’s Aphrodissia: The Widow

  1. Writers and psychiatrists . . . there is something of a commonality in plumbing the depths of human emotion is thought and words and in seeing it play out in real human suffering. You were able to ameliorate hidden grief whereas the novelist could only take it to its more painful conclusion.

    1. Carolyn
      Thanks once again for your comments. Just at the periphery of my thinking was what you’ve expressed so well- Yourcenar wrote a tragedy whereas life produced a narrowly good outcome. I was surprised to see that fiction had created a situation similar to real life & which is usually hidden to view.
      Once again thank you.

  2. Hmmm! Again, it reminds one that the choices one makes, choices thrust on one by society, circumstances et cetera often have far reaching, even tragic consequences in the long run!
    And the clinical encounter you had sir reminds me of why I chose Psychiatry, the only specialism in medicine I think that takes the time to (as much as possible) understand the individual and probe the psychosocial contexts of their illness.

    1. Ayomipo
      Thanks once again for your comments. I agree that psychiatry at its best situates the problem within a life & even the biological conditions are best understood within a life.

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