Tortoise Tuesday: The seeds of an essay — in praise of personal motive
Throughout my time at Princeton, one significant change I’ve noticed in my writing is in the way I think about motive. Like many people coming into Writing Sem., I was initially confused about motive and especially about the relationship between different kinds of motive. Once I had a stronger grasp on these lexicon terms, I focused mainly on in-text and scholarly motive in my writing. Over the years, though, personal motive has taken on a more and more important role in my papers. More often that not, I choose topics for my papers because my personal interests and experiences draw me to particular elements of a text, and I want to explore these elements in my own close analysis of the text and in my engagement with the scholarly conversation surrounding it. Writing on topics in which you have a personal investment— and which may even be triggering— can certainly be challenging, but I have also found these projects to be some of the most rewarding I have undertaken at Princeton.
I am currently working on my second junior paper, where my personal, textual, and scholarly motives are very much intertwined. In fact, I was motivated to choose my topic in part because I got angry with a scholarly source! For my JP, I am writing on patriarchal violence in Euripides’ Medea and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, and examining how the female characters of each text resist this violence through language. To give a brief summary of the myth recounted in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Hades abducts Persephone, and Demeter (her mother) manages to get her back from the underworld. Yet because Persephone has eaten a pomegranate seed, she must return to live with Hades for one-third of every year. One piece of evidence in the hymn that has become important to my analysis is Persephone’s account of how Hades forces her to eat the pomegranate seed. As I read it, this scene stands in for another penetrative violation that Persephone does not describe. But because Persephone’s narrative conflicts with an earlier account of the same events (focalized from Hades’ perspective), many scholars have discounted it as falsehood. For example:
In 372 (“ἔδωκε φαγεῖν”) nothing is said of the compulsion on which Persephone here insists. Plainly Hades did not use actual force or compulsion of any kind, especially as Hermes was present. Persephone only means that she had no wish to eat, and could not refuse the food. Nor would it be unnatural for her to overstate the case, from a desire to avoid blame for her thoughtlessness.Allen and Sikes n413
In my opinion, interpretations like this one are really just victim-blaming masquerading as scholarship, and the assumptions they make aren’t grounded in morality or the text.
My personal motivation for “picking a fight” with these scholars pushes me to be especially rigorous in how I engage with this passage of the hymn and these secondary sources. I have tried to reframe my strong emotional response to my sources as observations and questions that can form the basis for my textual and scholarly motives. There is clearly a tension in the text between how the pomegranate incident is described earlier in the hymn and how Persephone describes it to her mother. Is there a way to explain this tension without discrediting Persephone’s account? (Answer: yes!) How have other scholars accounted for this discrepancy? What assumptions do their interpretations make? How do these assumptions hold up to a close analysis of the text?
Obviously, I can’t treat such personal topics in all of my academic writing — and I’m sure it would be exhausting to try! But it is deeply satisfying whenever I can do scholarly work that is important to me at an emotional as well as intellectual level. Motive can be about what motivates you to write, about the unique perspectives and experiences that each of us brings to our writing, and about how your voice can change the stories we tell and how we tell them.
– Meigan Clark ’22
Homer, Thomas W Allen, and E. E Sikes. The Homeric Hymns. London: Macmillan, 1904.