There be dragons!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The figure of Helen and the sense of the divine.

In his introduction to the Women of Troy by Euripides, Philip Vellacott offers these insights;

Euripides' treatment of the figure of Helen is a fascinating study... it should be remembered that this play (the Trojan Women) was the third of a trilogy in which the first was "Alexander" (the other name of Paris); and it is at least possible that hte part of Helen's speech which refers to the Judgement of Paris assumes a knowledge of what happened in the earlier play, and of the character of Paris there shown... Suppose, for example that Euripides presented Paris, not as the rather flat and colourless lover described in the Iliad, but as a natural genius who, conscious of his capacity to attain the summits of glory in the arts of government or war... had deliberately set them aside and chosen instead the pursuit of beauty... if, when the third play began, Paris was established in the minds of the audience as a real man with qualities on the heroic scale, the first half of Helen's speeck would take on a clearer meaning.


For nine years, until Paris was killed, Helen had lived with him as his wife. What is there either improbable or unworthy in her statement that after Paris' death, she tried to get back to the Greek camp, but was forcibly held by Deiphobus? Hecabe's contradiction will hardly pass muster; and Hecabe's speech is, in general, on a less serious level than Helen's. Helen concludes by telling her husband that his view of the whole matter is too simple, that he is dealing with realities which he cannot understand - the power of the gods. Helen says about Aphrodite what the poet said about her in "Hippolytus": that he goddess does not forgive, but that mortals who encounter her must forgive. She makes no defence of adultery; but refuses to pretend to feel guilt, when she knows only that she, Menelaus, Paris, and everyone else, have from the beginning been at teh mercy of mysterious and incalculable forces; that folly urges revenge, and wisdom forgiveness.


The common view of Helen in "Orestes" merely reflects the common interpretation of this scene in "The Women of Troy".... Euripides presents men who are contemptible; not women. He regularly shows the weakness of heroic figures traditionally honoured; but women traditionally execrated for their crimes... are treated by him with neither extenuation nor malice, but with sympathetic impartiality. The onus of proof is with those who assert that he treated Helen otherwise. Greek society, in which for centuries men claimed power and privilege, while women had what men allowed them, used the name of Helen as a proverbial stigma. To deny this fact in a tragic play was impossible... to question its justice with veiled irony is what we should expect Euripides to do.


When Helen has finished speaking, the Chorus show that they are of one mind with Hecabe; they share in the fantastic change that has come over their queen with the appearance of Helen. "There is something sinister here," they say; but the most sinister thing is the united venom with which all the women present close ranks and face the woman they hate. (Hecabe says) "You say that after Paris's death you tried to escape from Troy. Why did you not commit suicide with rope or dagger? I told you myself to leave Troy; my sons could find other brides." Then we hear the betraying accusation, "You come out her beautifully dressed!" Helen has been dragged thgrough charred streets like the others; but she has somehow, unforgivably, found a clean dress, washed her face and combed her hair.

From the start the cards are stacked against Helen. Hecabe blames her, the Chorus blames her, Cassandra, Andromache and Talthybius all blame her. Even the audience of Athenians, who use her name as a byword for unwomanly behavior, blame her. By sympathy the readers (us) who hear the testimony of other characters first and who sympathize with the suffering and misery of the Trojans, also blame her. It's her fault that this sorrow occurs, her slatternly ways, her negligence, her choice of being with Paris and indulging her own whims. Why do people like that survive? They should be crushed! We desire her to be driven, like a goat, over the cliff to pay for our sorrow.

Yet ultimately, Hecabe (and the chorus & us) really are angry at Helen why? Because she looks perfect and untouched by the suffering that they are experiencing. Thus the conundrum that Euripides raises is our own human displeasure at the fact that the divine continues untarnished by any form of suffering. How can beauty continue or truth or power or majesty when all we ever experience is sorrow? How can the divine understand what we go through if it continually has the luxury of retreating into the refuge of the divine realm? How can the divine make us sick and then bid us to be well?

Euripides' problem is exacerbated by the fact that Helen is not just beautiful but is also intelligent. Were she beautiful and foolish we would perhaps pity her as a reckless force that creates destruction. Her beauty and intelligence make Hecabe's (and our) railing against her all the more tragic and futile. B/c of her beauty and intelligence she embodies that ideal, or divine, image that we as rational beings continually make reference to - we know the ideal and we also know how far from that ideal our lives tend to be. What is the solution? To destroy the ideal in us? The sense of the good, true and beautiful? To eradicate all that makes us great and live as animals? Is the only solution a sort of intellectual genocide or wiping away of that central thing, self-awareness, that makes us human? Euripides doesn't seem to offer a solution. He only seems to pose the problem.

No comments:

Post a Comment