Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Helen of Troy: Romantic Illusion or Tragic Realism

"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" asks Christopher Marlowe's Faustus (in the play—written about 1590— that got the Faust legend going in Europe.) "Sweet Helen," he says foolishly (for she is but an image and his request is blasphemous--or would have been), "make me immortal with a kiss." And, in a sense, she does, for these are famous lines.

A little more than 400 years later, John Updike, gives (shall we say?) a modern, anti-romantic, view of the women who, according to Homer started the war that forms the subject of his great poem, the Iliad:

Fair Helen

Helen of Troy, shining from Priam's porch,
her absent-minded gray gaze telling all
the dying, striving warriors below
that she suffices, the glorious cause
for Hector's and Achilles' men to die for,
held coiled within her a yard or two of shit,
of fecal matter waiting for its truth
to find the Turkish air and disappear.

The purplish blue of her well-hidden bowels
was not the sea-mist tint with which her gaze
accepted Menelaus and the horde
of men adoring her for giving them
the rage to die. The shit below, the shit
within are incidents; she turns and shines.

Now, I have to say that this, one the last poems that Updike ever wrote, is uncharacteristically crude, and adds nothing interesting or even relevant to what we necessarily know about her or anyone else: who doesn't have a gut full of shit inside them? Homer's own portrait of Helen in her bitterness and despair is much more deeply and significantly realistic: "I wish bitter death had been what I wanted, when I came hither following your son [Priam's son, Paris] forsaking my chamber, my kinsmen, my grown child, and the loveliness of girls my own age. It did not happen that way: now I am worn with weeping —slut that I am. Did this ever happen?" (Bk. 3, lines 171-80, in Lattimore's translation.) Homer's Helen, like Achilles, is tragic. The Iliad is the first tragic poem. The art of tragedy begins with Homer.

And what is tragedy? NOT just some very bad, very sad event or action but a whole set of circumstances in which someone has managed to trap herself. When there are no good choices or outcomes, when equally rational arguments and courses of action lead to equally disastrous results, when you're damned if you do and damned if you don't—no exit—that's tragic.

For those who have Faith, in God or Reason, there is no such thing as tragic experience.

In 1914, the great powers of Europe stumbled into the trap that their leaders had been busily but unknowingly preparing for themselves, and found no exit. Now, after almost a hundred years of virtually incessant warfare, the intellectual elites of the West have largely lost their faith: no God, no Reason.

1 comment:

  1. I am reminded of a poem that Jonathan Swift wrote called "The Lady's Dressing Room" which includes the line, "Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits."
    According to Jewish tradition, there is a blessing to be said upon urinating or defecating that thanks God for creating the complexity of our internal structure. Elimination is thus recognized as normal and as a sign of good health--something we should be thankful for. As it happens, few people know about this blessing and even fewer say it. Too bad.