Under the mesmerizing metrics of Algernon Charles Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon (1865), the turbulent mixing of oedipality and Fate moves us historically upstream from the Law of the father to the Fate of the mother. Swinburne imagines his Greek precursors as totemic parents who know no taboos, and he thus reinvents Fate as a guilty Victorian's masochistic response to forbidden family desires. In a mode more "ante-Oedipus" than "anti-Oedipus," Atalanta discovers, in the figure of a mother (Althaea) who will not play by the rules and a son (Meleager) in love with his own death, the interior limits of Freudian oedipality. Even as she slaughters him, Althaea transforms her oedipally challenged son into a masochist, a sublime unmaker of himself. The poetic drama keeps the spotlight on female subjectivity by arguing that we are all so "foul / With kinship of contaminated lives" that we never get beyond the deadly mother who gives milk, language, and desire as concurrent sacrament and poison. This essay moves from Fate to masochism and from masochism to poesis by following the drama's erotic investment, not just in repetition for repetition's sake but also in all reduplicative linguistic strategies. In the end, it argues that the mobile configurations of Fate and desire make an aestheticized masochism a necessary response to the Law.
- Copyright 1999 The Regents of the University of California