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Monday, February 03, 2003

Arts & Letters

No Second Troy: Imagining Helen in Greek Antiquity - Part 2

Helen and Sappho

If a man is harsh himself and thinks harsh thoughts, all men pray that pains should befall him hereafter while he is alive. And when he is dead, all men…ridicule him. But if a man is blameless himself and thinks blameless thoughts, the guest-strangers he has entertained carry his kleos far and wide to all mankind, and many are they who call him…worthy.
Odyssey (translated by Gregory Nagy), XIX, 329-334


In my reading of Homer’s Helen, I have interpreted her moments of self-slandering and blame, longing and regret, as indications of both her wrongdoing and of her self-assumed responsibility for her traitorous actions. I have myself imagined that the Homeric character of Helen had another choice, which would have been more in keeping with the god-ruled world in which she lives and acts. Blaming the gods, she could herself have escaped from blame, becoming one of the many unwitting victims and vehicles of divine will and fate that order and animate Homeric verse. To have protected herself from a trial borne of self-accusations and, as the quotation from the Odyssey above suggests, to have, in turn, safeguarded her kleos, her reputation, Helen would only have had to turn herself and her fate over to the gods. The burden of her proof, as it were, could then have fallen on the side of the gods and not her. Turning her thoughts inward, approaching the interior realm of her desires and wishes as if they were her own private kingdom and not the gods’ property, Helen rejects any other self-appraisal than her own. Why does she resist being freed from blame?

Helen’s self-incrimination
One possible response is that Helen’s “willingness” to shroud herself in the language of blame is a ploy worthy of the most seductive and dangerous of all mortal women, who was simultaneously capable of causing a war and causing men who caught sight of her to forget that she was the very cause of their disasters and sorrow. (Hector alone seems capable of resisting her persuasive charms and beauty; see Iliad, VI, 359-362.) What better way to have men forgive and forget than to conjure up the image of a weak woman lost and forsaken, unable to save herself from her own worst enemy, her very own defenseless and desiring self? Degrading her “feminine” self, Helen again captures and wreaks havoc on the hearts and minds of her masculine others. Moreover, this is the Helen whom we learn in the Odyssey (IV, 290ff.) is an accomplished mistress of imitation. Mimicking their wives’ voices, she provokes “waves of longing” in the Achaeans enclosed in the “hollow horse” until they are silenced and restrained by the “great hands” of Odysseus, himself the other great wily master of mimesis.

Although Menelaus himself would prefer to consider Helen’s mimetic powers as the effect of “some superhuman power that planned an exploit for the Trojans,” this is perhaps the most superbly human and awesome power of this woman resembling a goddess. On this logic, she is capable of imitating the voice of an unworthy and shameful woman who in blaming herself saves herself from the punishment and pains of men who themselves attack with harsh words and thoughts of blame. Imitating and incorporating their judgments, she escapes their power to slander her name as Aeschylus later will: “Who is he that named you so fatally in every way?…Appropriately death of ships (helenas), death of men (helandros), death of the city (heleptolis)” (Agamemnon, 681-689).

Another alternative, not necessarily opposed to the first, is to explain Helen’s self-reproaches and remorse not as a cunning manipulation of men but as an act of defiance against gods. As I have already suggested, Helen’s self-torment arises from an interior space to which she refuses entry to divine beings and causes. This illogical and unnecessary self-blame hides behind it the powerful illusion of being a free agent who chooses to commit the crime of guilty passion. Although gods may force her to follow their path, if, once having moved as they wished, she blames herself and not them, she succeeds in limiting, if not virtually eliminating, divine intervention.

This world of self-depreciation becomes an inner world of her own making and not one made for her by the gods. To the external physical beauty they endowed her with, she counters the ugly internal subjectivity of a “nasty bitch evil intriguing.” She could blame the gods for this, but prefers to envision it as part of her ethos, which, barring death, can only be what it is and make her do what it does. Rather than debasing herself so fully that she offers herself up as a victim of external situations, this strategy of self-blame allows Helen to claim, somewhat perversely, a sphere of activity in which she is her own mistress and possesses sufficient autonomy to make decisions about herself. In short, to envision herself as the cause of her own action is to subvert the law of the gods and create an interiority that, in all its negativity, resists submission to forces other than her own. As much as she despises herself for what she has done, and assumes herself to be the cause of her own actions, so much does she place herself on equal footing with the gods. There is, in the end, a dangerous side to self-blame — not so much for Helen but for individuals accustomed to seeing themselves as objects and not subjects of action. This is especially the case with women, but especially one woman, Helen.

By the time of the Greek lyric poets, the image of a self-denounced Helen burdened with the history of her own shame disappears and is replaced (with the three notable exceptions of Hesiod’s Works and Days, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and Euripides’ The Trojan Women) by the image of a Helen deprived of any reason or context to imagine herself powerful enough to be the subject and cause of her own and others’ actions and desires. The image that begins to emerge with Sappho but most definitely with Stesichorus is of a woman compelled to comply with forces beyond her control. Gone is the possibility of imagining Helen as a malevolent seductress victimizing the Achaeans and Trojans by causing them to live the effects, private and public, of her dangerous desires and beauty. In its place comes the vision of a woman victimized — to the point of becoming a scapegoat, if not martyr — by a set of circumstances outside herself, which leave her with no internal space to imagine either yielding to or willfully defying her fate. Insisting on Helen’s lack of choice to make the fatal move of following Paris and betraying Menelaus, a tradition of post-Homeric tales arises that offers various narratives, even improbable, fictive scenarios, to explain why Helen should not be blamed for the Trojan War. It is not only the case that Helen herself is not blameworthy, but, worse, that she is blameless. The Helen of Euripides’ play, Helen, says its best: “I have done nothing wrong and yet my reputation/is bad, and worse than a true evil is it to bear/the burden of faults that are not truly yours” (269-271).

To conceive of Helen as a non-active participant in her own destiny is to take away Helen’s dynamis, perhaps as a woman, to influence the destiny of others. She is no longer envisioned as a woman against whom Trojans and Achaeans have to defend themselves, nor is she a figure who has to defend herself against herself and her own mistaken desires. Rather, she is a woman to be defended, for whom apologies and defenses are made in order to free her from blame and save her from unwarranted infamy. Further, these apologies for Helen do even more than this: by taking away her power to imagine herself as aitios, they limit this quasi-immortal beauty’s power over human beings, especially men, so that they no longer need to imagine themselves defenseless against their own passion. In saving Helen, one is saved from the shame of experiencing uncontrolled and uncontrollable human desire. Before any apologies and defenses, however, a lyric explanation for Helen’s actions is provided by another woman, Sappho.

Sappho’s Helen
Sappho’s poem 16 approaches Helen’s departure to Troy as a decision of love. From the perspective of eros, Helen’s love for Menelaus, like men’s love of war, is, above all, a thing of beauty, an esthetic experience that transforms not only an individual’s values and perceptions, but also their actions and behavior. I quote the fragmentary stanzas that remain of this poem (translated by Jack Winkler; as I have indicated in brackets, an alternate translation of lines 12ff. is to make “love” or “Aphrodite” the subject of “beguiled”):

Some assert that a troop of horsemen, some of foot-soldiers, some
    a fleet of ships is the most beautiful thing on the dark earth; but I
    assert that it is whatever anyone loves. It is quite simple to make
    this intelligible to all, for she who was far and away preeminent in
    beauty of all humanity, Helen, abandoning her husband…,
    sailing to Troy and took no thought for child or dear parents, but
    beguiled…herself [(love) beguiled her]…, for…lightly…reminds me
now of
    absent: whose lovely step and shining glance of face I would
    prefer to see than Lydians’ chariots and fighting men in arms….

As Jack Winkler remarks (“Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho’s Lyrics,” Reflections of Women in Antiquity, p. 71), “it is easy to read this [poem] as a comment on the system of values of heroic poetry. Against the panoply of men’s opinions on beauty…Sappho sets herself — ‘but I’ — and a very abstract proposition about desire.” To prove this abstract point, Sappho chooses the concrete example of Helen, who, although she is “far and away preeminent in beauty of all humanity,” is not for soldiers “the most beautiful thing on the dark earth.” This is the first correction, but not criticism, of Homer’s representation of the Trojan War: whereas it might appear that men suffered through war because of and for Helen, they were moved by a force greater than her, their love of “horsemen,”“foot soldiers,” and “a fleet of ships.” Helen then did not cause the war; rather, she is the cause of men’s desire for war, which they love and find most beautiful, kallistos, in life.

Most surely they suffer from this desire, but the cause of their suffering is not Helen but their own desire. Further, according to Sappho, the desire for someone or something is, on at least one level, an effect of individual tastes and preferences; one could almost say it is a choice, albeit of the type “rather this than that.” Just as Sappho herself “prefers” to see Anaktoria’s “lovely step and shining glance of face,” rather than the “Lydians’ chariots and fighting men in arms,” the “some” men of this poem value and long for the occasions of military displays more than they desire the beautiful Helen. This desire causes both Sappho and men to do strange things — strange, that is, from each other’s perspective. The logic and motivation of their actions become “intelligible to all,” however, once Helen’s story is recalled and revised. “Sappho’s Helen,” writes Winkler, “is held up as proof that it is right to desire one thing above all others, and to follow the beauty perceived no matter where it leads.” (Ibid., p.72)

The second moment in Sappho’s retelling of Helen’s tale concerns precisely the question of Helen’s own desire. The Helen presented in this poem resembles little the regretful and embarrassed Homeric character suffering from the fate of “ill luck.” In fact, it is only by virtue of this substantial dissimilarity, even incommensurability, that Sappho can use Helen to prove the irrefutable logic of her subjective claim: “but I assert that it is whatever anyone loves.” This in itself is quite logical, one might want to say “sophistic,” on Sappho’s part for, if Homer’s Helen did reappear here, she could be used as strong evidence to counter Sappho’s argument about desire. The Helen Sappho desires to imagine at the center of her logic of erotics is a woman who followed her desire against all odds. She is neither the self-effacing prisoner of her own longings and “if only,” nor is she the victim or plaything of the gods’ irreversible decisions about an individual’s ate. Sappho’s Helen is presented with a choice: she can either “abandon her husband” and “sail to Troy” to be near, to see, the one she loves, or she can remain in her homeland, with her husband, caring for “child” and “dear parents.”

Either way, she is going to lose something, to suffer some loss. It is not the price she has to pay, however, but her desire to be in Troy that takes precedence during this imagined process of decisionmaking. A beauty herself, she chooses to experience the “most beautiful thing on the dark earth.” It is perhaps because she is “preeminent in beauty of all humanity” that she possesses the force to withstand her own desire and act according to its dictates, imperatives that are every bit as challenging as those of the gods. (R. Bespaloff suggests that the Iliadic Helen’s beauty weakens her capacity to respond as an active agent; see On the Iliad.) And Sappho, distant from her Anaktoria, knows this as well as she knows that desire experienced from within is a power that comes from without, leaving one “beguiled,” without any choice but to choose desire madly. This decision itself is an act of madness. Once desire strikes, one is no longer able to see things, except those of beauty, clearly. In Eros: The Bittersweet, Anne Carson describes this process:

Desire is a moment with no way out…Eros comes out of nowhere, on wings, to invest the lover, to deprive his body of vital organs and material substance, to enfeeble his mind and distort its thinking, to replace normal conditions of health and sanity with disease and madness. The poet represents eros as an invasion, an illness, an insanity, a wild animal, a natural disaster….[Eros] lights on you from somewhere outside yourself and, as soon as he does, you are taken over, changed radically. You cannot resist the change or control it or come to terms with it. It is in general a change for the worse, at best a mixed blessing. (p. 148)

Sappho’s Helen is neither aitios nor anaitios. She is beyond blame, madly acting out the wild drama of desire from both within and without.

Next: From Sappho to Plato

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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