Fall 2008

The Woman Who Knew Too Much

Aleksandra Wagner

In the 1770s, the Paduan philosopher, natural historian, and Augustinian abbot Alberto Fortis (1741–1803) undertook several journeys to the other side of Adriatic, one of them to the lands of the Morlacchi. His travels were memorialized as Viaggio in Dalmazia, an epistolary travelogue printed in Venice in 1774 and translated into German two years later. It inspired Goethe to retranslate a folk poem collected by Fortis for his book and to recommend it for inclusion in Herder’s collection of Volkslieder. Goethe’s translation, initially published anonymously, made the “Xalostna pjesanca plemenite Asan-Aghinize” one of the most famous folkloric artifacts of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe.

The sorrowful poem about Hasanaginica, the noble wife of Hasan Aga, opens with the literary gesture known as “Slavic antithesis.” This odd literary conceit refers to the following formula: a question is asked; an echoing suspense, in the negative, is offered first; and then we learn the answer.

What gleams white in the green forest?

Is it snow, or is it swans?

If it were snow, it would have melted by now;
And swans would have already taken to flight.
No, it is neither snow nor is it swans,

But the tent of Aga Hasan Aga.1

Hasan Aga has been badly wounded and is lying in his military tent. His mother and his sister come to visit; his wife does not. In various Slavic renditions of the poem, the diagnostic reason for her absence is given as stid (“od stida ne mogla”); it was shame that prevented her. 

Once Aga begins to recover, he sends a message to his wife not to wait for his return. A few verses later, he will send her a written dissolution of their marriage. We learn quickly the consequences. She will have to return to her kin. Her brother will decide to remarry her. And the five children she had with her husband will have to be left behind.

There are two more pages of the ballad before it ends with the death of Hasanaginica. Yet, its emotional weight resides in events that occurred while the man and the woman were both still alive. Why didn’t she go to her husband? Why did he dismiss her?

In Goethe’s translation-cum-interpretation, which opened a path for many others, Hasanaginica could not go not because of shame, but because of modesty. This worked well. In those times, women were not supposed to enter male spaces. So, all too plausibly, Hasanaginica charts her destiny by resting her female case somewhere between modesty and obedience. 

Interpretations that, while avoiding shame, turn our eye to its sanctioned derivative—modesty—suggest that Hasanaginica knew what is called “her place.” This notion of “place” makes her into an obedient geographer who does the only thing imaginable: stay in. Viewed in this light, she merely acts out a convention. The sense of tragedy is then derived from the human failure intrinsic to the rule of patriarchy. In such a system, to know the rule and to play by the rule (a formula for success, or for passing as legitimate) can also be a formula for demise. Yet, this interpretive gesture produces characters with no elasticity; women bound by custom, tragic heroines whose future salvation would be possible only if, and when, they acquired a tint of the “civilized.” Such a reading can be inferred from the Slovenian ethnographer Matija Murko who wrote about his 1927 visit to the land of the famous ballad: “It is because she has been raised so strictly according to Moslem customs that Hasanaga’s wife was not able, for modesty’s sake, to go see her ill husband, even though he longed for her visit, having himself acquired more humanistic, more Western attitudes in the course of frequent travels to the cities of great civilization along the nearby Adriatic coast.”2

Ottoman military tents. Illustration from Tarih-i Feth-i Siklos ve Estergon ve Ustunibelgirad, mid-sixteenth century (detail).

Let us dispense with modesty. In the poem such 
a virtue is in fact not honored. Instead, let us ask what was Hasanaginica to see, had she gone? A set of crumbled ego-ideals: the diminished selfhood of a warrior; a weakened family protector; an incapable lover. She would have seen a man who would not want to be seen in such a state: an ashamed man. If there was a virtue to be found, it was in Hasanaginica’s ability to identify with shame: her husband’s, not her own. And, it is because of this sense of shame that she chose not to go and not to cast her eye. Instead, she opted for what she perceived as Aga’s preservation. Or, should we say, the preservation of his manhood.

What did such an Aga get to know about his wife, by her not coming? After all, the mother and the sister came. They seem not to have been hindered by obedience and modesty. By her not coming, he knew not that the wife did too little, but that she knew too much. Viewed in this light, Hasanaginica was dismissed for her psychological acuity. She did not need to see the shame in order to know it. By not coming, she asserted herself not as an emotional extension of the wounded hero, but as an Other altogether. In place of the formula of obedience and modesty was now a far more dangerous thing: Aga’s understanding that his wife knew him as weak and in need of protection, and that she had concluded, on her own, that this ought to remain a secret. And, indeed, this is the quintessence of the secret, if not of shame: once taken out of our possession, it is re-rendered as reality, as known to all. What Aga could not have known is the secret’s future. In those times, it might have been assumed that the secret’s knower might raise children even more unpredictable than herself. One thing assured by Hasanaginica’s dismissal—by pronouncing her guilty—was that the secret would not be passed on. The knowing mother goes. The father’s image remains intact.

But then, the sense of tragedy may be more importantly derived from the intensity of a male desire for the mixture of silence and secretiveness to be broken. Had he delivered a straightforward plea for her to come, what new type of family—and with it a whole human condition—might have arisen there and then? Had Aga revealed himself as an enlightened transgressor—liberating Hasanaginica from her upbringing, as well as from the solitude of her knowledge—would she have come then? Would she be willing to forego the pleasures of modernity that suggested she think on her own? Had she been another ‘kind’ of a woman, she might have successfully performed the “female principle” of a transgressive emotional life. One cannot fail to see its redeeming qualities: a healing power organized through the mutual recognition and acceptance of vulnerability. But, could she bear what she knew to be his shame? 

Indeed, the proto-modernity of this couple might well be the core of the tragedy of the double-bind. Viewed in this light, the sorrowful poem is not to be understood as a measure of an orientalized difference, but as the West’s emotional contemporary. Reflecting on the work of Norbert Elias,3 Thomas J. Scheff writes that “in the late 17th and early 18th century, a change began occurring in advice on manners. What was said openly and directly earlier, begins only to be hinted at, or left unsaid entirely. … The change … is gradual but relentless; by a continuing succession of small decrements, etiquette books fall silent about the reliance of manners, style and identity on respect, honor, and pride, and avoidance of shame and embarrassment. By the end of the 18th century, the social basis of decorum and decency had become virtually unspeakable.”4

Thus it should come as no surprise that the suspected female creator of the poem, as well as its listener, and later the reader, to whom its wisdom was addressed, knew that the patriarch who desires female transgression as an ultimate proof that his own rule can unravel—when convenient for him—can only be a silent one. His is the speechless kingdom, but one that assumes that the Other will undertake the proper reading of what remains unsaid. 

It is exactly in such a kingdom—or is it a tent?—that most of us still live, now.

  1. Translated by Thomas Butler as “Hasanaga’s Wife,” in Spirit of Bosnia, vol. 2, no. 3, July 2007. Available at http://www.spiritofbosnia.org/index.php/duhbosne/issue/view/8 [link defunct—Eds.].

  2. Matija Murko, “The Singers and Their Epic Songs,” in Oral Tradition, vol. 5, no. 1
(1990), p. 112.

  3. Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners and State Formation and Civilization, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1994).

  4. Thomas J. Scheff, “Shame and Social Bond: A Sociological Theory,” in Sociological Theory, vol. 18, no. 1 (2002), pp. 84–99.

Aleksandra Wagner teaches sociology at the New School for General Studies, works as a psychoanalyst in Manhattan, and harbors passionate interest in other types of oral traditions. Considering Forgiveness, a book she has coedited with Carin Kuoni, will be released in early spring 2009.