Offcourse Literary Journal
ISSN 1556-4975 

The Ideal, in Retroact, by Wythe Marschall.

There were never any Amazons until Leni Riefenstahl conceived her epic film Penthesilea: Queen of the Women, just before the invasion of Poland by the Nazis.  She was not inspired by Heinrich von Kleist's play detailing the savage love of the great queen; she had never read the two lines in Aethiopis and Argonautica that trivially introduce and dispatch Achilles's uxorial match.  The idea appeared out of nothing, from nothing, for the benefit of nothing.  Riefenstahl executed her idea via a thirty-four scene outline of a screenplay that was never written—itself the skeleton of a movie which would never be captured on film.

But the idea was more than enough.  Leaping from the Frau's mind into the minds of her paramours, sisters, Gypsy messenger-Junge, Ministry of Propaganda liaisons, preferred bakers, household servants, roach exterminators, translators, cameramen, best boys, grips, and furniture movers, the idea (simple, a singular mote of consciousness) grew then into the virus (self-replicating), the meme (mythic), the Ideal (divine)…  It implanted itself across generations and reached from city to city like a spider:  Small girls in Bremen wished their left breasts away at night, and finally the Dutch succumbed and declared a holiday celebrating the menarche of Hippolyte the Samartian.

The Ideal skipped across the pond of time, as well.  In fits of radiant madness, Virginia Woolf began quoting Penthesilea's nameless leftenant, the one stuck in the neck with a poisoned vire by her own queen while trying to capture Achilles, as she'd been ordered to do… by her own queen.  On the first day of spring in 1866, ten thousand slave-women in the Carolinas awoke to see strange faces in their mirrors:  They had each become one aspect of Myrine the Onyx-Hard, unmerciful conqueror of Libya.  And when, eight decades earlier, Benjamin Franklin asked his drowsy wife whether she'd prefer tea or coffee one morning, her eyes watered and her mouth spasmodically replied:  "Their island, Gynaikokratumene, which in Greek means reigned by women!"

These initial expulsions of chrono-flatus, however, were merely the first, most immature self-investigations of the new Ideal, of its fit within history, as a possibility, a reality, a motor of insurrection, a new path.  The patriarchs smelled a foul woodspice the world over, now, in the Dark Ages.  Arbitrating a theft in the Gascon bastide of Dax, a choleric old priest felt himself commanded by a sudden urge to bow before a cleft-lipped woman.  The stolen bread—still warm in the winter air—was of no concern.  But the girl's holy glow…  It shook the priest from tonsure to sandal, telling him to repent, to see the philogynistic, all-embracing misandric truth of the Christ.  Meanwhile, in Damascus, the Caliphate trembled as the harem girls began sharpening their fancy Indian soaps into daggers and demanding suffrage, armor, and wives…

We now see blemishes of the Ideal tainting every link in the chain of unending creation, of birth and copulation (of the union of mare and stallion).  The rejuvenating effects of water are clearly, for example, gifted us by the sea goddess, Poseidea; and the sky is ruled by Juno, whose peacock blinks the stars into existence each night with its extravagant, heaven-spanning tail-feathers.  Even the early chthonic cults, dedicated to Death, to the Earth-Goddess, to the Pans and Dionysuses and Yamas of the world,—even these have grown droopy breasts and full, bee-stung lips, proud hips to break the shells of nuts and pull the birth-slime from black goat-kids, and cracking nails painted with hen-blood, to scrape the luck from the cave-ceilings of the earth's most sacred bowels.

Presently, though, a hush falls on this world of glorious deeds.  The oldest mastabas and ziggurats are collapsing under the weight of the bones of queens and female cats.  Bast, Ereshkigal, Kali, Al-Lat, and the Queen of Hell each retire themselves in turn, bored with their own dominant femaleness and the pathetic, supplicant nature of man.  As she locks herself behind the last Temple of the God-Queen in Nishapur, the vestal hierophantrix, only fifteen years old but already the veteran of eight campaigns against the Boar-Men of the bleak north, sings the closing lines of the hymn of Gilgam-Ninlil, she who baked the first clay brick of Civilization:

Then the Zu-bird flew /
into the mountains with its young, /
while Lilith, petrified with fear, /
tore down her house /
and fled into the wilderness…


In a primordial, sleeping time, a screaming desert sirocco convenes the sand people, who have come to this rock to hear their woman speak the fiery Truth that she discovers only after the forty-four day climb up the great mount, the forty-four day climb down.  She opens her mouth so slowly, the little ones are not sure she will even be able to speak.  But the fathers in their white skirts, and the mothers in their leather hauberks know the woman will not fail them.  She is piecing together a history of Creation that will, much later, reveal itself to be a guide to all knowledge of all things.  Faith in it and in its central mover, the Goddess, will provide for all wants, and deepen all loves.  Slowly and steadily, the words like avalanche-boulders crash down from the woman's ruddy lips:

The she-worms congregate among leaves fallen from the Tree of Sapphic Knowledge, and Eve and Lilith are sent running from the Garden of Paradise by the underhanded tricks of the pearly-eyed Fox, who eats the Snake before it can think up any clever malfeasance.

This is all she has to say on the matter of Creation.  Tribal alliances and later empires are overturned at the thought of heresies such as the origin or ancestry of man-folk.  What puling absurdity!  He is, in his collective unimportance, worthy of an intimation at best.  The theological lawyers of the days following this one will conclude the Snake to represent the phallus—arch-symbol of mortality, funny stick.

Vibrations like this one upset the cosmic unions.  Man and man, man and girl, girl and hand—all are erased to please the queen-myth, that a woman alone is sufficient.  In place of the now purely fantastic patriarchy, a new and monolithic rule of She sets in.  Gunpowder is discovered two hundred years earlier, and slavery in the Americas is never warred out of its economic moorings.  (Though now, of course, the men are the slaves, and their various colors hold less and less interest with each year, save for that chromophiliac baroness who only makes love to men of either snow white or charcoal black complexion, and has all in between made into eunuch-waiters to work in her popular Pure Bistro™ and Very Black & Very White™ franchise coffee-shops.)

This either-or vision of the world is not confined to the American industrial elite.  Hoi polloi in China start ominous "Down With Man / Up With Life" rallies after an angry father steals his son back from the boy's abusive (but female) mother.  (The man is shaven and hung by his genitals.)  A case involving a Turkish man fired from his factory job by a so-called "spurned employerix" (the neologism coined by a blogger known as FatLadysMan) is declared a mistrial after eighteen months of protests cripple Ephesus's entire downtown.  Accusations of blood libel kindle waves of anti-Semitic hate-rallies in eastern Europe; men on both sides of the riot-fences perish in droves when police in Kiev resort to chemical weaponry to restore to the city order or its semblance.

The dearth of men should be the only debate-worthy topic of the day, but politicians fear it is too sad.  Television networks agree not to air commercials by pro-male advocacy groups (such as Yes-Man and S.M.E.R.G.E), and the last male panda finally collapses, prostrate before a crowd of one hundred thousand in San Diego.  Eris, the Red Planet, is colonized, but—it is announced, the night before the big election—will be populated by womyn, each eugenically crafted from a bank of eggs and sperm belonging to the brightest humyns on earth.

And so on.


The year is 1930, and the depression has not driven the young dancer to anything more desperate than coffee with this tall young man.  His hair, like hers, is nut-brown, and the wide avenues hum with life.  In her head, she does not see the fat boy sticking his tongue out at a passing car—at every passing car; she sees only the jungle, a verdant bed of stories, one of which should be hers to tell some day.  She is not much of a writer, but she is not meek.  Her particular set of characteristics could describe almost anyone, she thinks.  She listens, smiling, to the young man talk about himself, but he is ultimately as distant to her as the fat boy is, or even more.  There is a certain way to frame the fat boy, really, and make him an object of beauty.  He is like, she suddenly realizes, laughing aloud, no longer looking at the man at all—the fat boy is like one big breast, jiggling in the August sun, its red tip flapping out at a passing car—at every passing car…

Rewriting the epics of all the man-Greeks has not been easy, she admits to herself, years later.  But it has been rewarding.  The knots work themselves out of her hands as she writes, long pen-strokes filling reams of the studio's paper, paper she can't afford, given the film's budget.  What pittances, they shove to her.  Even now, after all the sacrifices and compromised stories.  There is one woman who will not compromise, she thinks.  Given the chance, she will uncompromise, and do so to history in its entirety.  Given half the chance, given the body of Achilles, the jackanapes' wits of Ulysses, the feral animus of Hercules—given this Frankenstein's hulk of a character, she will drive her singular consciousness so far forward and back that there can be no uprooting it from where it comes to rest.  She will linger like the marks of a pox on the body of Time, and no man will ever shout her down, drown her out, hold her back, pin her to the floor.  She will kill every ideal, even loyalty, even love if she has to…

In no document can it be proven that the origins of the Amazons did not play out this way.  And, perhaps more vexingly, in no future document can it be shown that the Amazons are not yet to come.  While the Age of Lilith is still more myth than presence (but is it?), turn slowly through the Square at noon and try to pinpoint exactly where the Amazons are not hiding, wherefrom they will not troop, like sound from silence, to overtake you and raze your last precious fortress of traditional, testicular mortar.  Can you prove they are not inside your wife?  Your young one, who turns away from your favorite albums and seeks the solace of a woman with short hair and a screeching, almost (but just almost) unintelligible voice?  Who speaks the cant of the jungle and the jaguar?

In no time can it be said that disaster was not lurking, and in no pax was war ever more than, at best, diverted for a time.  Or, as Shams of Shiraz wrote, "To the denizens of the unbreasted world, beware!  The Feminine is a potent quality precisely because it is a hidden one."  The world of round, high, arrow-bearing things tends to concur…


City Now Arriving,
1 billion BCE – CE 2007



Wythe Marschall lives and writes in Brooklyn, where he attends Brooklyn College's MFA writing program. His work has appeared in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Ninth Letter, Salt Hill, Euphony, Wishtank, Locus Novus, Silo, Kennesaw Review, Pomp & Circumstance and his own A Lush in Rio (

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