by Mary Jacobus
Revenge. Hold on to that thought. Go to bed thinking it. Wake up chanting it. Because nothing less than revenge is called for today... The grief for our dead will be deep and enduriing... In the days that are coming, as the dead are finally counted, our rage will only build. And every time we look at the skyline of New York City, or step into an airplane, or turn our calendars to nine, one-one, we will remember your actions, and crave only one thing: blood for blood. (Philadelphia Daily News, Sept 12, 2001)
I drafted this paper before the events of nine, one -one; but the language of revenge remains chillingly the same. Electra enacts a transgenerational version of this grief-bred rage and craving for blood. My title, however, refers to the fact that Clytemnestra is the mother not just of one, but of three daughters - a dead daughter, a compliant daughter, and a rebel daughter consumed by her one-woman "crusade" for infinite justice. Jung's appropriation of the Electra story to denote a feminine counterpart of the Oedipus complex has lodged itself in popular psychoanalytic culture . But rather than taking the Electra complex at face value, I want to focus on Jung's later, throwaway remark that "incest, after all, is not the only complication in human life" . To the extent that mine is a psychoanalytic reading, I'll be drawing on Melanie Klein's and Donald Winnicott's insights (among others) to illuminate this mother-daughter tragedy of failed mourning and hatred. But Electra operates on a political as well as a psychic level, so I will also be reflecting on the uses of grief as a political weapon, along with the complex relations of freedom, speech, violence, and justice.
The traditional focus on Electra's fierce and florid mourning for her murdered father, and her strident denunciations of her mother, neglects the painful bond between mother and daughter. Clytemnestra's rage at the loss of her daughter, Iphigenia, is her motive for the murder of Agamemnon. Her act makes an unmothered daughter of Electra, who not only takes on her mother's mourning, but appropriates the role of mother to her exiled brother, Orestes. Maternal sexuality is a fiercely contested issue in Electra's quarrel with Clytemnestra. Can a mother be permitted to desire a man other than her daughters' father? Electra's grief and fury at her mother's double betrayal contrast with Clytemnestra's self-exculpatory and self-serving counter-narrative. Her story is that she murdered Agamemnon because he didn't sufficiently value their daughter, Iphegenia; he could have sacrificed his nephews insteadthe sons of Menelaus and of Helen, who after all were to blame for the entire Trojan war: "Menelaus had two children of his own/They should have died before my daughter" (lines 539-40) . Some other mother should have lost her child .
Clytemnestra's version of the story provides a plausible basis for maternal rage. But did sleeping with Aegisthus form an unacknowledged part of the revenge package? The Chorus (like Euripides) implies that lust anticipated the crime. Still, there may be something to learn from psychoanalytic accounts of the upsurge of libido that often accompanies object-loss, making the scene of mourning an occasion for unbridled sexuality - a well-attested feature of traditional wakes (compare the recent phenomenon of "terror sex" in Manhattan) . The vicissitudes of mourning charted by Klein in her own case (a.k.a that of Mrs. A) also illuminate the play's psychology of manic omnipotence, hatred, and denial. Klein, however, points not only to the triumph that forms a strand in mourning, but to the destructiveness casually meted out by women to women - in Electra, between mother and daughter. It's worth recalling that Klein herself was subjected to painfully public denunciation by her own daughter, Melitta Schmideberg (also a psychoanalyst) during the wartime Controversial Discussions that convulsed the British Psychoanalytic Society, when internecine struggles were mirrored by the bombs falling outside .
Exasperated by Electra's vociferous and intemperate condemnations, Clytemnestra swears by "Artemis, Queen of heaven!" to make her suffer for her insolence when her step-father comes home. Why Artemis? The answer provides an opening to the play's underlying matricidal phantasy. One might have expected Clytemnestra to swear by Herathe tutelatory deity associated with Argoswhose temple stood in the market-place. Clytemnestra identifies her hopes for continued prosperity with that of the royal house of Atreus and with the material and sexual rewards of the status quo. The play also opens with a prominent reminder that the ancient city of Argos was once the home of Io, the daughter of Inarchus (the earliest king of Argos). Zeus, who had fallen in love with Io, disguised her as a heifer in order to protect her from the jealousy of his wife, Hera. Given Clytemnestra's quarrel with Electrawho claims to love her father more than her mother had donea jealous wife seems a more appropriate goddess with whom to threaten her defiant daughter.
But Clytemnestra threatens Electra with the virginal, asexual Artemis. Artemis's trouble-making role in the plot of Electra illuminates an aspect of motherhood that exceeds the problem of incestuous father-daughter love or maternal sexuality. Artemis, the virgin huntress, is represented as both vengeful and unfriendly to men. But she is equally unfriendly to women, demanding Iphigenia as a sacrifice in payment for a casual injury done her by Agememnon. I'll return later to the originary role of Artemis's anger in the plot of Electra, and to her mythic association with the deaths of women. But for now, I want simply to note a curious feature about the psychoanalytic literature surrounding Electra - its replication of the split between mourning and hatred that one finds within the play itself. This is the split that emerges from Klein's theory of the relation between the depressive positionan infantile position reactivated by lossand the paranoid-schizoid position, with its primitive and persecutory retaliation, to which the psyche is always liable to revert.
In psychoanalytic or psychotherapeutic contexts, Electra is routinely invoked in two ways. Either Jung's Electra complex provides a means of emphasizing love for the father and jealousy of the mother as the content of the so-called female "Oedipus" complex, with the aim of correcting Freud's lop-sided masculinist account . Or else, in a voluminous and well-established sub-category of the psychotherapeutic literature, Electra's mourning for her father is ammexed to the plight of the abused daughter and incest survivor - a daughter who may be driven to kill her abuser . But despite the trauma of her father's mangled body and her cruel treatment by her mother and step-father, and at the risk of seeming to sideline her actual oppression, I don't propose to consider Electra's mourning as primarily that of incest survivor or abuse victim. Instead, I want to focus on the paradoxical relation between her powerlessness and her appropriation of the role of female mourner. I'll return to the constellation of mourning, gender, and political resistance in Electra's public display of grief. But first I want to explore the unconscious matricidal phantasy that (I would argue) informs the play.
" However she is wronged,/A mother never hates the child she bore" (lines 773-4). Thus Clytemnestra. Yet Orestes's self-imposed exile has made her unable to sleep except in terror. The news that he has died promises to remove her fear, and along with it, the threats of Electra"that thirsty one who lives with me, /Drinking my life" (lines 786-7). Agamemnon's children terrorize and drain their mother. In an essay called "Hate in the countertransference", D.W.Winnicott asserts baldly that "the mother hates the infant from the word go". The inventor of the good-enough-mother offers a surprisingly bleak account of the psychic and physical threat posed by the tyrannical baby, who represents a drastic interference to the mother's private life, while at the same time demanding her unstinting love. Winnicott's list of all the reasons the mother has to hate her child includes this grim warning: "If she fails him at the start she knows he will pay her out for ever" . Perhaps the Electra complex should be renamed the Clytemnestra complex when viewed from the perspective of this never-good-enough mother who lurks in the wings of Winnicott's holding environment.
Alongside the daughter's ambivalence towards her mother, Sopocles's Electra portrays the mother's ambivalence towards her children - especially towards her rebellious daughter. And Clytemnestra is right to fear the daughter who will triumph in her violent death, along with the son whom she has failed (so Electra tells her ) at the start. In the final scene, the supposed corpse of Orestes is shockingly unveiled to Aegisthus as that of a dead wife and mother. This sexualized maternal corpse fulfills Clytemnestra's warning dream of Agamemnon's return to Argos. Her doubtful dream can therefore be read in terms of the lurid figure that Freud called the death-drive and that the Kleinian Joan Riviere relocates in the anxiety of death and dying as a destructive force operating within oneself - the fear that haunts Clytemnestra . Freud's recognition of traumatic repetition in dreams forced him to revise his original thesis (that dreams are always the fulfilment of wishes) with the acknowledgement of un-pleasure revealed by post-traumatic nightmares. In Electra, the revenge plot is the nightmare that stands in for the notoriously elusive death-drive, manifesting itself as a transgenerational compulsion to repeat.
Despite Orestes's role as the agent of paternal law, Electra tends to associate death with women. Diké (Justice the Avenger) is the shadowy goddess of retribution invoked by the female Chorus in response to Clytemnestra's dream. Diké's archaic precursor is Artemis, the arbritrary goddess who demands the death of Iphigenia as payment for Agamemnon's crime. The same goddess angrily invoked by Clytemnestra to threaten her daughter is later invoked by Electra herself -
Queen of heaven,
I'll never fear them
Again, those women,
Those parasites, inside. (lines 1247-51)
- until Orestes reminds her that the angry war-god (Ares) may inhabit women too. The anger of war-like women is central to a play whose violent action is motivated by an offended woman. Clytemnestra, in turn, kills Agamemnon to avenge his sacrifice of Iphegeniaand sleeps with Aegisthus into the bargain: "Was this monstrous marriage made to avenge her death?" (line 593; Electra's sarcasm). The monstrous marriage of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus is the flagrant marriage of sex and violence that travesties the idealized parental couple. This is the couple Electra mourns, attacks, and mourns, in an endless cycle of loss and recrimination.
According to Electra, Agamemnon sacrified Iphigenia's life to Artemis under duress ("He was forced to kill her. He had no choice", line 578) - this was the only way to ransome the becalmed Greek fleet. Agememnon's crime had been to kill one of Artemis's stags while hunting in a wood sacred to her and then to boast of it. In revenge she holds up the fleet, extorting the sacrifice of Iphigenia as the price set for her slaughtered deer. When Clytemnestra swears "By Artemis", then, she swears by the same angry, arbitrary female deity who had demanded the death of Iphigenia. Artemis is not only the deity of hunting, but of female rites of passage (presumably childbirth among them). She is also the goddess thought to be responsible specifically for the deaths of women. This may explain why Clytemnestra threatens her unmarried daughter with Artemis, and why Electra too invokes an angry virgin-goddessimplicitly contrasting her with her sexualized mother and with the useless and parasitic women inside the palace. Unlike the women who surround Electra, Artemis has no truck with sexuality, weakness, or reproduction.
The rancorous circulation of threats between Artemis, Clytemnestra, and Electra suggests a powerful knot of female rage, binding women together in a murderous bond: "Blood in return for blood" (line 581) - the blood Electra claims because her mother took the law into her own hands when she murdered Agamemnon. This angry blood-knot takes over from the code of honor that drives the son to avenge his father's murder (a code implicitly endorsed by the Chorus). It points instead to the killing of women by women, and ultimately to the killing of a mother by the daughter she has enslaved: "Mother! /Jailor, I call you. I live/No better than a slave" (lines 599-600). In the slanging-match between mother and daughter, anything goes. Their furious exchanges reveal an archaic core to mother-daughter relations. Electra's out-of-control denunciations exceed any actual demand for justice. As the Chorus observes, "She's furioustoo furious to care/Whether what she says is right or wrong" (lines 610-11). Electra acknowledges her shame at what she says to her mother, but argues that the fault is Clytemnestra's: "Your treatment/ Forces me to answer hate with hate" (lines 619-20). If hate anwers hate, where is love?
Electra's compulsion to insult her mother (like Clytemnestra's hatred of her children) seems to stem from something as arbitrary and inescapable as Agamemnon's slaughter of Artemis's stag, or Artemis's implacable anger. The row between Electra and her mother is illuminated by Klein's gruesome account of the small girl's fear that the motherwhose reproductive insides she attacks in unconscious phantasywill in retribution destroy her own procreative potential (Electra is prevented from marrying and having children of her own). The fear of persecution and the instinct to retaliate are reciprocal phantasies, attesting to the unbounded sadism of the infantile unconscious in Kleinian theory (or should one say, myth)a sadism overwhelmingly directed at an all-powerful, too-close mother. Electra, banned from procreation, sees herself as powerless. But, ironically, Clytemnestra invokes Artemis when she herself experiences all the powerlessness of a woman whose man is away from home during an unseemly domestic fracas. In the midst of their quarrel, Electra seizes the opportunity to taunt her mother in a fashion that throws light on the link between mother and daughtera link that a Kleinian might call projective identification.
"Evil breeds evil" (line 621). Or, as Klein puts it, "the feeling of persecution ... is fed by hatred and at the same time feeds hatred" . When Electra says she learned hate from her mother, Clytemnestra answers that Electra talks too much of what she does and says. Electra responds: "No! Your own words, your own actions,/Speak for themselves. They need no words from me" (lines 623-4). In this confusion between words and actions, Electra might be excused for foreclosing the linguistic register. Mother and daughter exchange insults as if they were storms of planes or bunker-bombs; as if words and deeds were equivalent (as indeed they are in the concreteness of the psychotic unconscious). These women are linguistic terrorists. When Clytemnestra swears by Artemis, Sophocles's text points to what may be constitutive of the structure of revenge tragedy itselfthe collapse of the gap between words and acts, phantasying and doing. This is the gap that proves so hard to breach for the linguistically proficient philosopher, Hamlet. It is also the gap that the Winnicottian mother has to bear, just as the psychoanalyst has to bear hating the patient without retaliating: "A mother has to be able to tolerate hating her baby without doing anything about it" . Butas Winnicott also reminds uspsychoanalysis comes to a halt if the patient carries a gun.
To swear, denounce, or threatento annouce a Jihad or a crusadeis to engage in an archaic discourse of injurious speech that is in constant danger of becoming retaliatory action ("Wanted: dead or alive"Bush's Wild West performative). Psychoanalysis, atuned as it is to the concreteness of phantasy, points to something undreamed of by Austin's linguistic philosophy . Electra and her mother wield their insults as if looks could kill, and mouths annihilate. This is Klein's paranoid-schizoid theatre of infantile retaliation as evoked by Riviere: "Limbs shall trample, kick and hit; lips, fingers and hands shall suck, twist, pinch; teeth shall bite, gnaw, mangle and cut; mouth shall devour, swallow and 'kill' (annihilate); eyes kill by a look ..." . Words used concretely in this fashion expose a latent potential for violence in language itself. This linguistic abuse, blurring the crucial distinction between thinking and doing, reflection and action, suggests a psychoanalytic challenge to the Lacanian identification of language with the symbolic order (supposedly the domain of Agamemnon's rule and of the paternal law upheld by his son, Orestes). As we see, both language and law can be appropriated for the revenge plot. The suicide bomber bound for heaven, the president who calls for retaliatory air-strikes, are both operatng in the name of "Infinite Justice".
The mother who kills her husband to avenge the sacrifice of her daughter, the daughter who plots to kill her stepfather, the son who kills his mother, all lay claim to a violent code of honour which supposedly supplements the law. Sophocles's Electra distracts attention from this problematic alliance of law and primitive revenge (even the Chorus seem to endorse matricide and the killing of tyrants) by fingering mothers and daughters as the murderers. One might go further, and speculate that the play's underlying phantasy of a death-dealing woman (call her Artemis, Clytemnestra, or Electra) attributes an essentially agentless processdeathto specifically female agency. Women in this play are named as the real killers. Electra is made to respond with uninhibited jubilance to Clytemnestra's screams as she dies off-stage at the hands of her son. But, I would argue, the knot of female anger at the heart of Sopocles's play does more than implicate women as primary agents in its murderous logic. It also masks a troubling ambiguity within the law itself when it comes to the question of mourning and retribution .
Speaking of Injury
The political dimension of Electra necessarily qualifies the psychoanalytic reading I've sketched so far. But it also contests one current appropriation of psychoanalytic theory in the political domain. An emphasis on grief-work and the historical legacies of trauma has become almost synonymous with the politics of disaster, whether the subject is Holocaust memorials, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Hearings, or the destruction of the World Trade Centre. Grief counsellors provide necessary support to rescue-workers, survivors, co-workers, relatives, and by-standers; to the children, partners, and parents of whose who died. But what some of the more banalized state-approved versions of grief-work leave out of account is not just the inevitability of hatred, but the reality of political oppression. The problem, after all, is the coinciding of the psychic experience of internal persecution with the reality of actual persecution and attack. When World Trade Towers are ruined, ruination in the internal world becomes a terrifying reality and it demands a correspondingly realistic response, including the speaking of injury.
In psychoanalytically-derived accounts of modern, historical catastrophe, the necessity for closure so that life may go on (Bush's punctual declaration of an end to America's period of mourning: keep on shopping, folks) enacts a face-off with traumatic repetition (nightmares, anxiety, panic, and the grief which continues to grip survivors in the aftermath of catastrophe). For some, the impossibilty of resolving or even experiencing mourning may be what characterizes trauma, whether personal or historical. But there's another side to it. The refusal to "work through" or "let go" can be thought of as a form of political resistance. Hanging onto grief constitutes a strategy in the face of forces that refuse to remember, using forgetting as a form of cover-up, or enjoin acceptance as means of denying responsibility. Shifting from North America to South America, think of the grief-strategy adopted by Argentina's Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo when they gathered to demonstrate in the central square of Buenos Aires wearing babies' diapers instead of shawls. Their international visibility successfully embarrassed the military regime both during and after Argentina's years of political dictatorship, and they still march today.
What can we learn from the Mothers of the Plaza deMayo when it comes to Electra? These women were roused to collective action by the disappearance of their children and grandchildren. The weapon they used was their status as mothers. Despite their lack of previous political experience, they exposed the junta's policy of implementing terror via the family, building a grassroots organization among women of different classes and backgrounds. The common denominator was motherhood. As Gail Holst-Warhaft has written, in The Cue for Passion: Grief and its Political Uses (2000), "The organization of the 'Mothers' is an object lesson in the politicization of grief" . Like Electra crying her woes outside the palace gates, the mothers of the desaparecidos (the "disappeared") made themselves disproportionately annoying to the junta considering their actual lack of power. Indeed, powerlessness was inscribed in their dilemma, as the mothers frantically searched for their lost children and grandchildren, trying to extract news of their fate from a military bureaucracy that was complicit in their imprisonment, torture, disappearance, and death.
The anger and grief that motivated the Mothers fuelled their refusal to accept closureeven when it was clear that their children were dead. We see today, if we didn't already know it, how difficult it is to accept death without a body. In some cases, these women refused to buy the presumption of death in return for financial compensation by the government; they also refused bones sent to them for burial, on the grounds (correct, as it turned out) that they were not those of their children. Like some witnesses who testified in South Africa's "Truth and Reconciliation" hearings, the more radical mothers angrily resisted attempts to bury the past in the name of therapeutic "closure". They continued to insist that they would only be satisfied when their children were returned to them for burial or their killers brought to justice. In the same way, Electra refuses to shut up until those accountable for the murder of her father are brought to book. Explicitly linking Electra with the Mothers, Gail Holst-Warhaft alludes to the capacity of her grief to beget social and political disorder. Her wailing outside the palace gates poses such a threat to the status quo that Aegisthus plans to have her exiled and incarcerated in order to silence her.
Despite the fact that she is prevented from marrying and having children, a network of allusions identify Electra herself with a bereaved mother. Early on in the play, she compares her solitary grief to that of "the nightingale who killed her child " (lines 106), promising never to leave off tears. In another exchange with the Chorus, she again compares her lamentation to that of Procne and Niobe weeping for their children:
I am like the nightingale,
God's messenger, crying "Itys! Itys!",
Forever sorrowing. I am like
Niobe, all tears,
A goddess of stone
Weeping, weeping. (lines 149-154).
Procne, turned into a nightingale after murdering her son Itys, is both a Medea- and a Clytemnestra-figure, killing her child to avenge a wrong done by her husband (Tereus had raped and cut out the tongue of her sister, Philomela - who becomes the stuttering nightingale in some versions of the myth). Her unceasing mourning is linked to that of Niobe, whose tears are transformed into rivers after her many and beautiful sons and daughters had been killed by Apollo and Artemis (again!) because she had boasted about them.
One might have expected Clytemnestra to mourn Iphigenia with the broken iteration of a nightingale. Instead, the childless Electra mourns her murdered father and exiled brother. This displaced mourning makes the unmothered daughter assume the burden of the mother's disowned grief. Clytemnestra accuses Orestes of having deserted the mother who suckled him; she has lost two children, not one. But Electra's lament for Orestes jealously appropriates the role of mother:
Is this mother-envy?  According to Electra, Clytemnestra has not only forfeited her right to mourn, but also forfeited the role of mother. The shadow of maternal sadness falls on the mother-identified Electraand even the job of sustaining the memory of her dead parent, as "birds of the air,/With tender devotion, protect and cherish /The adults who gave them life" (lines 1059-60).
The reversal here (the child does the parent's grief-work, as well as parental care-taking) disrupts the generational order. Conversely, Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia puts Clytemnestra hereself in the role of spokeswoman for her dead daughter:
He was callous and cruel, a murderer.
How can you deny it? Your own sister
Iphigenia would say so, if the dead could speak (lines 546-8)
The role-swapping here between mother and daughterand between daughter and mother, mother and sister, child and parentforces each to speak the other's lines and own the other's pain. But the price is to be dispossessed of one's proper speech or pain. Kleinian theory associates this dispossession with the evacuation of unwanted or unbearable feelings and thoughts into others, so that they are unavailable to be owned, worked on, or symbolically transformed. Sophocles's play suggests a link between this concrete way of getting rid of feelings and murder. Paranoid splitting precludes the ability to see things whole, to see the mother as good and bad mixed. This is the ability that Klein associates with the depressive position and its potential for the assumption of guilt in relation to a loved object, the wish to make reparation for wrongs done, and even forgiveness.
This is not to reclaim Electra for a heavy-handed Kleinian morality or humanist aesthetics. There is such a thing as an appropriate guilt, a justified anger. But it does suggest that our modern form of the revenge plot may even now be playing itself out as a storm of planes and carpet bombing. The ability to put oneself in someone else's placeto see with other eyes, or from other points of world-viewis one lesson to be learned from the ugliness of the current conflagration. One might even claim that for the daughter to mourn on behalf of a mother who is unable to mourn, or for the mother to speak up for a dead daughter who is unable to speak, are crude foreunners of the long and arduous process that leads beyond the cycle of terror and revengeperhaps even to the establishment of an international criminal court, unilaterally rejected by the United States prior to the events of nine, one-one. For all we know, some of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo may have wanted to see their childrens' murderers swing. But they also wanted them publically brought to book so that history would not be repeated.
Electra's mimicry of the nightingale's inarticulate, repeated cry ("Itys, Itys") suggests that female mourning remains inarticulate so long as it remains exiled from the possibility of justice. Yet the current alliance of "justice" and violence appalls many people, myself among them. In Electra, the two-edged sword of Justice the Avenger bloodies the hands of the executioner. But the play's penultimate sceneElectra's raptuous response to Orestes's homecomingcontains the suggestion of an alternative, unacted ending. In her account of Mrs. A's mourning for her dead son, Klein describes how the release of tears coincided with the achievement of greater freedom in the inner world . Overwhelmed by joy at Orestes's return, Electra is allowed a brief anticipation of a different but related freedom (eleutheron)that of proclaiming her suffering publicly to the world (her mouth, her stoma, will be set free). By implication, at least, the freedom to speak is allied to the principle of justice, equated here with a principle of guarenteed personal safety from unprovoked attack as a minimum right. But, as we can see all too clearly today, "Operation Enduring Freedom" is easily appropriated for the continuing war of words.
What we glimpse in this penultimate scene is a missed opportunitythe opportunity for an articulate form of speech or iteration, as distinct from the nightingale's stuttering cry of "Itys! Itys!". I want to close with a reflection from Judith Butler's Excitable Speech (1997), in which she writes of breaking "the ritual chain of hateful speech":
The public display of injury is also a repetition, but it is not simply that, for what is displayed is never quite the same as what is meant, and in that lucky incommensurability resides the linguistic occasion for change. No one has ever worked through an injury without repeating it: its repetition is both the continuation of the trauma and that which marks a self-distance within the very structure of trauma, its constitutive possibility of being otherwise. There is no possibility of not repeating. The only question that remains is: How will that repetition occur, at what site, juridical or nonjuridical, and with what pain and promise? 
The difficulty of answering Butler's questionat what site, juridical or nonjuridical, might this non-injurious form of repetition occur?is the challenge that Electra poses for us now with such unlooked-for and terrible immediacy when we turn our calendars to nine, one-one.
Professor Mary Jacobus
Mary Jacobus is Professor of English at Cambridge. Her recent books include: Psychoanalysis and the Scene of Reading (Oxford, 1999), First things: the maternal imaginary in literature, art, and psychoanalysis (Routledge, 1996), and Romanticism, Writing, and Sexual Difference (Oxford, 1995). She is currently working on a book on British Object Relations psychoanalysis.