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Monday, February 17, 2003

Arts & Letters

No Second Troy: Imagining Helen in Greek Antiquity - Part 3

From Sappho to Plato

The fifth-century orator and sophist, Gorgias, further developed Sappho’s defense of Helen, but with two significant differences. First, in his Encomium of Helen, he contended that it is logically impossible to conceive of her as an agent who actively made choices about her desires and actions. To defend Helen, it was necessary to prove just the opposite: that Helen herself neither chose to do one thing or another nor was presented with a situation in which there were any choices to be made. She could not even be granted the illusion of a moment to imagine herself, or be imagined, as choosing sovereignly between two options. In other words, there was no dilemma, only a set of necessary and unchangeable realities that motivated her departure to Troy. Second, on these same grounds, Helen could not only be defended but proven innocent. She is shown, beyond a reasonable doubt, to be anaitios. Even if Helen was predisposed by internal or external forces to commit the “crime” of sailing to Troy, she could not be held responsible for her actions. They were beyond her control; for precisely this reason, she should not be blamed for causing the Trojan War.

Gorgias presents his defense of Helen in the form of an “egkomion,”a literary genre that in its very structure exonerates Helen from blame:

A man, a woman, a speech, a deed, a city, and an action, if
deserving praise, one should honour with praise, but to the
undeserving one should attach blame.
— Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen (translated by D. M. MacDowell), l. 1.

Gorgias’ éloge begins with the claim that those who blame Helen do so out of “error and ignorance” (hamartia kai amathia). In not speaking orthos (correctly) about her (that is, praising her), they not only misrepresent her kosmos (grace), but they turn speech from truth-telling to lying. The task of the Encomium follows naturally upon these failures of logoi, and Gorgias proposes to “say what ought to be said” about Helen and thus to accomplish four goals: “to free the slandered woman from the accusation and to demonstrate that those who blame her are lying and both to show what is true and to put a stop to their ignorance.”

By “adding some reasoning to speech,” Gorgias constructs four arguments to disprove or correct former conceptions about this woman who, “pre-eminent among pre-eminent men and women, by birth and descent, is not obscure to even a few” (l. 3). The defense, which also gives a causal explanation of Helen’s behavior, proceeds as follows: 1) If Helen went to Troy, it was because she was compelled to do so by divine necessity. Given that divine necessity overrides human projects, and that the gods are stronger than humans, the gods are responsible for Helen’s actions and she should “be released from the infamy” (argument from divine force, l. 6); 2) If Helen went to Troy, it was because she was compelled to do so by Paris’ physical strength. Given that Paris seized Helen by force, and that Helen was weaker than and unprotected from him, she was defenseless against this “barbaric undertaking.” Therefore, Helen suffered from “terrible acts” and did not perform them, and one should sympathize with rather than hate her (argument from physical force, l. 7); 3) If Helen went to Troy, it was because she was compelled by the dynamis, the power, of speech. Given that persuasive speech causes “deviations of mind and deceptions of belief,” Helen lost possession of her senses and was forced to believe in false speech, to “obey what was said and to approve what was done.” Therefore, she is not to be blamed for any misdeed of her own (argument from linguistic force, ll. 8-14); 4) Finally, if Helen went to Troy, it was because, incited and pleased by the vision of Paris, she was compelled to do so from the human disease of eros. Given that Love is a “god with a god’s power,” leaving its victims defenseless and incapacitated, Helen’s condition should not be condemned as “an impropriety but considered as an adversity” (argument from emotional force, ll. 15-9).

The forces conspired and Helen went to Troy through no fault of her own. If any charges are to be brought, they are against those who falsely blame Helen by assuming that she either acted willingly or willed her own actions. As victim of a multiplicity of forces, Helen’s passivity and lack of agency are the very grounds on which Gorgias restores the honor and praise she is due. Although Gorgias is engaged in “free, imaginative creation,” what he finally describes as his “plaything” (emon de pagnion, l. 21), the object of his discourse, is deadly serious, perhaps even more serious than the subject of Helen herself. As others before me have noted (Jacqueline de Romilly, Giovanni Casertano, and Barbara Cassin), Gorgias uses Helen as the occasion, if not the pretext, to praise and define the art of persuasive and poetic speech, and especially its power to change almost magically accepted realities and beliefs. In his article, “Gorgias and the Psychology of Love” (p. 109), Charles Segal remarks:

…the speech itself, in fact, is as much an encomium on the power of the logos as on Helen herself; and thus the Helen expresses a view of literature and oratory which touches closely Gorgias’ own practice and probably his own beliefs. Hence the speech may even have served as a kind of formal profession of the aims and methods of his art, a kind of advertisement.

Froma Zeitlin (in “Travesties of Gender and Genre in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazousae,” p. 210), in turn, explains why Gorgias chose Helen in the first place:

Helen, as the paradigm of the feminine, is the ideal subject/object of the discourse; first, in sexual terms, as the passive partner to be mastered by masculine rhetorical persuasion, and second, in aesthetic terms. Helen, as the mistress of mimesis and the object of mimesis, is a fitting participant in the world of make-believe, the anti-world which reverses the terms in mimetic display and reserves the right under the name of play to take everything back.

“Under the name of play,” Gorgias reverses Helen’s fortune; he persuades his audience “to take everything back” they ever believed about Helen’s own dynamis to shape and influence beliefs, desires, and decisions. Her dangerous power is overshadowed, if not eclipsed, by an equally dangerous and extraordinary experience, that of persuasive and poetic speech, which is used here not to describe but to defend Helen in the argument from linguistic force: “Speech is a powerful ruler. Its substance is minute and invisible, but its achievements are superhuman; for it is able to stop fear and to remove sorrow and to create joy and to augment pity” (l. 8). In particular, “false speech,” like the image remaining of the past and falsely maligned Homeric Helen, captures the mind “by violence…expelling sense” so that it is “bewitched with an evil persuasion” (l. 14). There is a shift of focus — a dangerous effect still surrounds Helen but she is subjected to, not the subject of, this effect.

Both Sappho and Gorgias attempt to restore Helen’s integrity by providing a series of logical arguments and proofs that explain the reasons why Helen went to Troy. For Sappho, Helen’s departure embodies her invincible commitment to an ethics of desire, while, for Gorgias, the overdetermined necessity of her response to external forces shields her from blame but confines her to the realm of passive victimization and subjugation. This passivity, which still grants her the virtue of having done something rather than nothing at all, seems to be the only way that Gorgias can logically guarantee Helen’s innocence. Even if he is just amusing himself by fabricating tales about her honor, his game is governed by the rules of logic, which are supposed not only to make Helen’s behavior comprehensible to his audience, but are themselves equally comprehensible as accepted discursive practices. This is not the case with either Stesichorus or Euripides. To defend Helen, they must enter into the realm of the absurd, asking their audience to suspend everything they know about the workings of divine and human reality (not to mention the reality of their mythic past), and to adopt the truly contorted logic of the fictive, the make-believe world of phantom and shadowy beings.

Euripides’ Helen
Euripides’ Helen (412 BCE) revives Stesichorus’ sixth-century palinode, which itself seems to be based on a legend originating in a Hesiodic poem (the play is also based on Book II of Herodotus’ History). Upon first slandering Helen (an ethical judgment that seems to have been motivated by his belief in Homer’s version of the Helen story), Stesichorus was struck blind. To regain his eyesight, an act of purification was necessary. This took the form of a new literary invention, the palinode, wherein Stesichorus recants and apologizes for his prior blasphemous vision of Helen:

I spoke nonsense and I begin again.
That story is not true.
You never went away in the benched ships.
You never reached the citadel of Troy.

According to Stesichorus’ new version of events, it is only an eidolon, a phantom image, of Helen and not the real Helen for whom the Trojan War is fought. The “real” Helen is absent and immobilized, lacking any causal agency. It is the false imitation masquerading as Helen — an image split off from and uncontrolled by her — who remains causally active, who continues, despite the real Helen, to generate strife and desire. While, according to Zeitlin (p. 202), Stesichorus may “avoid altogether the problem of woman as morally ‘good’ (respectable) or ‘bad’ (shameless),” he devises a new problematic for and about women within the confines of his self-conscious process of fictionalization: How can a woman who does nothing, whose participation and role in influencing private or public life is only an effect of the imaginary, be considered as aitios, anaitios, or both? How is it possible, under these conditions, to conceive of a woman as being and/or not being the responsible cause and source of her own actions?

If Helen were a tragedy, and Euripides’ Helen a tragic agent, the answer to this question — as well as the question — would be predetermined by the genre itself. Within the tragic realm, one would expect Euripides, through his Helen, to expose the very tensions and experiences of an individual who finds herself torn apart by and subject to questions of her own responsibility, guilt or innocence, activity or passivity. Elements of the tragic do in fact remain in Helen. Helen’s situation is so pitiful and senseless, her destiny so utterly beyond her control and arbitrarily willed by the gods, that she remains throughout most of the play a suppliant at Proteus’ tomb, mourning her own bad luck and the curse of her beauty, lacking even the force to sing the sorrows she has suffered through no fault or action of her own:

Here, with a song of deep wretchedness for the depth of my sorrows,
what shall be the strain of my threnody, what singing spirit
supplicate in tears, in mourning, in sorrow? Ah me….
O Sirens, if you would only come
to attend my mourning
with Libyan harp, with pipes,
with lyres, with tears of your own to give
the singing of all my unhappiness. (ll. 164-174)


But despite these tragic elements, Helen is not a tragedy, and Helen’s dilemma is not to be resolved or experienced within these terms. As Charles Segal has analyzed in “The Two Worlds of Euripides’ Helen,” it is equally insufficient to identify the play as a “comedy of ideas” (as Anne Pippin Burnett would have it), for it is as much romance and recognition play, the fusion of two literary forms that “invites paradox and irony to a high degree.” Segal continues: “The central irony of the Helen lies in its antithesis of appearance and reality. What is the real nature of the world? What is ‘word’ (onoma) and what ‘fact’ or ‘deed’ (pragma)?…The ultimate irony in Euripides’ treatment of these basic antitheses lies in the fact that the play never completely resolves the question of which aspect of reality is the true one.” (pp. 224-225) To this “ultimate irony” can be added another: It is only by conceiving of two Helens that Euripides can finally resolve the question of whether or not Helen is to be blamed. The answer to this question is itself a logical contradiction: She both is and is not.

The story behind this answer is so fabulous and unbelievable that it is repeated at least eight times throughout the play, in different versions and words by almost every character, as if its constant retelling would make it more credible and logical. Hera, angered by Paris’ judgment, devises a plan to outwit and punish mortals and immortals. From the beautiful body of Helen, she creates a “breathing image out of the sky’s air” in its perfect likeness. This image is not Helen but nonetheless has the name of “Helen.” As we already know from Stesichorus, the Helen who is the original source of the phantom reproduction does not go to Troy. She is driven far away from private and public affairs, exiled and protected in foreign Egyptian land. She is left there to observe, and lament from a distance, the suffering her namesake and double has caused Trojans and Achaeans, strangers and kin. I quote at length her most telling statement of her dilemmas:

The Phrygians fought for me (except it was not I
but my name only) held against the spears of Greece.
I myself was caught up by Hermes, sheathed away
in the films of air, for Zeus had not forgotten me,
and set down by him where you see me, in the house
of Proteus, chosen because, most temperate of men,
he could guard my honor safe for Menelaus. So
here I am; but meanwhile my ill-adventured lord
assembled an armament….
Because of me, beside the waters of Scamander, lives
were lost in numbers; and the ever-patient I
am cursed by all and thought to have betrayed my lord
and for the Hellenes lit the flame of a great war.
Why do I go on living, then?… (ll. 41-56)

In the realm of this barbarian kingdom, Helen’s honor is protected, her happiness and reputation ultimately guaranteed by the return and renewed trust of Menelaus, and her voyage home secured by the Chorus’ coaxing and Threonoe’s final decision to privilege her commitment to justice over familial duty to her brother, Theoclymenus (Helen’s intended husband in Egypt). Helen has to do nothing, has nothing to do, except convince the men and women around her that she herself did nothing, that she and they are monstrous victims of her “ill-starred beauty,” and that illusions are as real as reality, and reality as illusory as illusions, especially when one has to rely on vision for perception. As such, she is to be recognized as anaitios, an innocent observer but not a willing instigator of and participant in political ruin. Her good name and reputation are returned to her — even a land shall bear her name (ll. 1673-1675) — and she herself turns back to marital bliss and, we assume, the reestablishment of public and private harmony and equilibrium.

But this is only part of the story and, it would seem, the least difficult one. The event, as well as the memory, of the war still remains, neither of which can be erased by knowledge of the real Helen’s non-responsibility. Nowhere is the inefficacy, even futility, of this knowledge better displayed than in the exchange between the Messenger and Menelaus (who also initially refused to believe Helen’s story, “trust[ing] my memory of great hardships more than you”):

Messenger: Is she not mistress of sorrows for the men in Troy?
Menelaus: She is not. We were swindled by the gods. We had
    our hands upon an idol of the clouds.
Messenger: You mean
    it was for a cloud, for nothing, we did all that work? (ll. 703-707)

Helen herself, as we have seen in the speech previously cited, is not oblivious to the irreversible damage and unproductive strife caused by her double. In proper Iliadic fashion, she lapses into moments of self-blame, this time accusing herself not for what she did or did not do but for what she is:

…my beauty is to blame.
I wish that like a picture I had been rubbed out
and done again, made plain, without this loveliness,
for so the Greeks would never have been aware of all
those misfortunes that now are mine. (ll. 261-265)

As the beautiful original from which the equally beautiful and thus perfect-copy “Helen” was made, Helen suffers from being the inactive cause for suffering. Without the original, no image. Without the image, no “Helen” powerful and dangerous enough to deceive men into trusting their senses and acting by desire instead of through reason.

Plato’s Helen
Already, however, we have moved beyond the image of Euripides’ Helen to the image of Helen appearing in Plato’s dialogues. For Plato, there is no apology for Helen, only warnings against beliefs founded in sensual perception and actions motivated by ethical misjudgments; he provides strong reasons why Helen’s image poses the most real and powerful of dangers: bodily pleasures and desires. For Euripides, the collapse between illusion and reality — like Helen’s own dilemma — has a comic effect whose ironic and paradoxical dimensions can be resolved by congenial, romantic solutions rather than by an ideal, eternal reality and truth that constructs destructive deviations from this highest form and way of life. It takes a specifically rationalist and anti-phenomenal philosophy like that of Plato to expose systematically the necessary separation of and distinction between illusion and reality, and rational thought from bodily desires, and to explicate, not with humor but with ridicule, why their all-too-frequent collapse is not “an ethereal dance above the abyss” (to echo Gunther Zuntz) but a tragic descent into “the mire of the jumbled jungle” (Republic, 533d).

When Plato conjures up the figure of Helen in the Republic, he does so to encapsulate metaphorically his argument on the distinction between true and false pleasure, and the naturally illusory quality of bodily pleasure:

And are not the pleasures with which they [the multitude] dwell inevitably commingled with pains, phantoms of true pleasures, illusions of scene painting, so colored by contrary juxtaposition as to seem intense in either kind, and to beget mad loves of themselves in senseless souls, and to be fought for, as Stesichorus says the wraith of Helen was fought for at Troy, through ignorance of the truth? (586b-c).

As Nicole Loraux suggests (“Le fantome de la sexualité,” pp. 250-251), Plato takes Stesichorus’ palinode as true speech about the phantasmic nature of sexual desire. False pleasure, that is pleasure of to epithumetikon and not to logistikon, is similar, if not identical to, the attraction Paris experiences for the phantom-image of Helen. The object of false pleasure, like Paris’ love object, is an “illusion of scene-painting…beget [ting] mad loves…in senseless souls.” False pleasure and the Helen-as-phantasm are illusory images. The difference between appearance and reality, true and false pleasures, body and soul, reason and emotion, is collapsed. The images appear to be precisely and exactly that which they are not: that which really and truly is real, the abstract ideas of the noumenal realm. A figure like “Helen” and false pleasure alike only collapse this difference for those who — like Paris and Plato’s unenlightened and unsupervised non-philosophers — are “ignorant of the truth.”

Plato’s interest (and this is another long drama) is to foster individuals who, through knowledge and the reeducation and redirection of their desires, remain invulnerable to the dangers of false pleasures and images. Such individuals have no need for apology or defense, being neither subjects of nor subjected to the shameful experience and destiny of truly impure but deceptively uncontrollable physical desire. The image of a dangerous Helen resurfaces where one least expects it: anyplace and anywhere. Yet, this time, protection and defense against the deceptive charms and beauty of Helen’s poetic body is provided for anyone who knows or learns to heed the call of reason.

In Platonic theory, a woman like “Helen” would have no victims; indeed, she herself would never be so unlucky as to be forced to blame and name herself a “nasty bitch evil intriguing.” A future Helen would not have to be rescued from infamy. In principle, she too, if need and desire be, could save herself by following Plato’s manual for living the autonomous and self-mastered life of reason. The war she would have to wage in this struggle to gain possession of her self as an ethical subject of reason would require that she be active, even “stronger than [her] self” (to quote Plato’s definition of moderation in Republic, 430e), confronting the enemy from within, her own bodily desires, which is a power stronger than any figure appearing in the form of gods or men.

Ramona Naddaff is an assistant professor in the rhetoric department at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also co-director of Zone Books in New York and author of Exiling the Poets: The Production of Censorship in Plato’s Republic.
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