Where is thought?

A third of the way into W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, my attention was snagged by a phrase. Given all of the insights he excavates, it seems especially odd that this one stuck: “follow one’s thoughts.” It’s a commonplace expression easy to dismiss. But on the day I encountered it, I found myself wondering if it were even possible to follow a thought. Can a thought really get ahead of one? 

If this seems a bit too literal, my excuse is that the phrase appears in Sebald’s novel (itself, about a journey) at a point when he’s describing a room he finds especially conducive to reflection. Fittingly, it’s a sailor’s reading room. Where better to let the mind rove? (And compound the metaphor.) It hadn’t occurred to me before this that thought might have a geography. A trajectory certainly, but one led by the mind, not followed.

So, I tried. But I found myself lapsing into ‘what’s next?’ Should I do the laundry? Take a walk? Continue reading Sebald? I chose to walk, but nothing emerged from the leafless trees and straw-colored fields I passed. Nothing I could follow.

Metis, goddess of thought, under Zeus’s throne

After a few days of fruitless searching, I realized that I was being followed. Sebald’s ‘thought’ was dogging me. My only option was to turn around and face it – literally put a face on it. Turns out she has one. The ancient Greeks called her Metis. Classicists tell us that she represents “a type of intelligence and of thought, a way of knowing.”(1) Metis earned her mythological bona fides by defeating the Titans with Zeus.

Zeus, it seems, had a strange way of acknowledging her help. After victory was secured, he ate her. He wasn’t about to take the risk that she’d outwit him in the next Olympian conflict – and there would always be a next. However, unbeknownst to Zeus, Metis was pregnant. Her fetus grew inside him and emerged from his head as Athena, another goddess of wisdom, to which she added war. Meanwhile, Metis lives on as a voice in his head (2) – as do all mothers. Or so they say.

The way Zeus sees it, Metis is the embodiment of a different order of intelligence, one that is closer to cunning. (Hence, the scholars’ caveat that she is a ‘type’ of intelligence.) Because Metis has been subsumed into his body, she has to resort to trickery to be heard.(3) Sorcery and the feminine thus become fatally intertwined. Should a woman refuse to be cast as a manipulator, should she speak out, Ovid tells us that the gods will mess with her head.(4) She will become grotesque. She will become Medusa. 


So argues Jay Dolmage in “Metis, Mêtis, Mestiza , Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies across Rhetorical Traditions.”(5) In tracing millennia of misogyny (as well the rejection of bodies like that of the crippled Hephaestus), Dolmage follows the thought of thought and ends up in the body. Specifically, the body as thought.(6) This is body language understood not as gesture but as the totality of appearance. Metis’s murder – the mythological catalyst for the split between the orderly-masculine and disorderly-feminine in both body and mind – still reverberates in our socialized neurons. 

Lauren Bacall

Emerging from this rabbit hole, I’m still wondering if I have any of my own thoughts to follow. Maybe one. I’ve often wondered about my attraction to certain contemporary mythological figures: as a young girl, the very young Lauren Bacall, and today, the confidently mature Charlotte Rampling. I suspect that they owe something to the fierceness of Metis – and probably more to her daughter Athena, who broke through her father’s skull.  Of course, I was unaware of the origin myth. I only knew that my father believed that what he called ‘smarts’ transcended gender. And that those actors embodied them.

Charlotte Rampling

My father saw something in me that mirrored his sense of self, which was inseparable from the idea of ‘intellect.’ His thought (that I had one), compounded with my mother’s idea that I wasn’t suited to frills, made me think I was supposed to be a tomboy. Except I wasn’t. I couldn’t read while running around; and reading was my father’s way of releasing me to realms outside of his (and mine), outside of suburban New Jersey. No Zeus, he. He pushed me into the world when the world was telling girls not to stray far from home. And he did it with the help of his literary gods: Fielding, Bronte, Austin, Thackeray — half of whom were women.

So I adopted ‘toughness’ as a style, after the fashion of my heroines. I became competitive and insistent about joining conversations that didn’t include me. It has worked to a point. But I can’t shake the feeling that in the end I am a parasite, feeding off the thoughts of others, not quite free enough to follow my own. (Just count up the footnotes.) In any case, there’s no question that Sebald’s, and every novel that resonates, seems to have found my thoughts for me. Maybe that’s enough. And maybe the operative word in the phrase that triggered this essay is not “follow” or “thoughts” but the possessive “one’s.” The idea that we have thoughts solely our own is seeming less and less likely. For what could come out of our skulls if they weren’t impregnated? Metis may be less a metaphor for the imprisonment of female bodies and their thoughts and more a figure of thoughts yet-to-be, regardless of whose head they hide in.

  1. Detienne, Marcel and Vernant, Jean Pierre, “Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1991)in Dolmage, Jay. “Metis, Mêtis, Mestiza , Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies across Rhetorical Traditions.” Rhetoric Review 28, no. 1 (2009): 1-28. Accessed March 26, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/25655927.
  2. Dolmage, Jay. “Metis, Mêtis, Mestiza , Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies across Rhetorical Traditions.” Rhetoric Review 28, no. 1 (2009): 1-28. Accessed March 26, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/25655927.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Hawhee, Debra. Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. (Austin: University of Texas, 2005) 58. In Dolmage. Accessed March 26, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/25655927.

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