Monday, August 25, 2014

Curious felicity in Heroides 16: Paris to Helen (I)

I, the son of Priam, send Ledaea that pure felicity
which only if imparted by your giving may be mine.

     Quae tribui sola te mihi dante potest.

The lovely opening of Heroides 16 sets a kind of conundrum centered on the act of giving and sending. We are as yet unawares of Paris's exact location -- and this is by design. Only gradually will it dawn on the reader that Paris is not writing from far off Troy, or some other distant land. Although he says "send," mitto, his epistle is in fact being conveyed from one room in Menelaos' palace to another. Paris is already "in the building," as we say, and the echo of Elvis might not be altogether misplaced.

Let's explore the oddity here a bit more. Paris says "I send felicity," (salutem: health, well being, welfare, prosperity...) but the very thing he sends to Helen can only come to him if she gives it to him. Mitto suggests distance, but dante ("giving") seems an act much closer to hand.  Yet the salutem in question -- which Paris does not have but can send -- only exists if both parties give and receive it to and from one another. This violates distance and time, as might be clearer in a paraphrase: I am sending you something I do not have, but I will have it for you if you give it to me.

In effect this is a condition of pure mutuality -- not as in sharing an ice cream cone, but more like a glance, or a kiss - neither can occur unless both parties simultaneously participate in it. This participation seems impossible if one is sending and therefore at a distance from the receiver. Only if both distance and time vanish in the act of giving can felicity occur. This is known as a specular, or mirror, relation, in which one can only see oneself seeing oneself in a mirror (speculum) if one's eyes reflect their mirror image, like Narcissus staring at his visage in the fateful pool.

That is to say, at the very beginning of his letter, Paris suspends polarities such as giving and receiving, distance and closeness, self and other, past and future. It might be worth noting, in this letter filled with allusions to prophecies, that prophetic speech suspends, and at times harshly dissolves, all that separates our usual compartmentalization of time. Seers see a future event in all its particular and imponderable uniqueness as if it were occurring now. We might return to this conjunction of beautiful people and hoary prophecy.

The entire letter elides temporal distinctions. First it seems Paris has not yet left Troy; then he's describing how his ships were built, and decorated; next thing he's getting a tour from Menelaos (even as he only has eyes for Helen), and a moment later he's winking at her at dinner and, from his lonely bed in the palace, writing to invite her company.

Another aspect of Paris's passion elides time just as his narration elides space:
My flames I brought with me; for I did not first find them here. They were the cause of my undertaking so long a voyage; They were the cause of my undertaking so long a voyage: for no threatening storm or wandering (error) drove us hither;
     Hae mihi tam longae causa fuere viae,

Paris's tale is the exact opposite of the sequence experienced by Aeneas (Heroides 7), who first wandered into Carthage (with divine nudging), then saw Dido, then felt passion for her.

Dido confesses in the Aeneid that the embers of her former love (for Sychaeus) are reignited as she gazed on and listened to Aeneas
adnosco veteris vestigia flammae
I recognize the vestiges of the ancient flame 
The reverse is true for Paris:
It is you that I seek, whom golden Venus pledged (pepigit) to my embraces; I desired you before you were known to me. I beheld your face with my soul before I saw you with my eyes, for fame was the first messenger of your beauty to wound me.
     Te prius optaviquam mihi nota fores

     Prima tulit vulnus nuntia fama tui. (35-39)

It's one thing to see a beautiful face and fall in love; another to love someone first, and then to see what they look like. Paris is saying his experience of falling in love with Helen is a reversal of the usual order of cause and effect - which is precisely what's described by the rhetorical figure of prolepsis.
PROLEPSIS: the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished. The representation of a thing as existing before it actually does or did so, as in he was a dead man when he entered.
First he loved her, then he saw her. Paris's love is proleptic, which, according to the above definitions, is not far from prophetic. No love was more steeped in prophecy that that of these two. To represent the future as present is to have a vision of that which is not yet. Unlike Dido, who re-cognizes love, Paris's love is fore-told, and in the telling, becomes real.

Which has everything to do with the question Paris poses right after his opening couplet:

Shall I then speak? 

Paris first seemed to write from afar, but he's right next to us (and to Helen). He speaks of a passion that preceded empirical knowledge, reversing the Dido-Aeneas paradigm. But the question he asks -- that he must ask before he can say anything -- is whether to speak out -- e-loquar -- at all. In Ovid, speaking and loving, logos and eros, are so deeply intertwined as to be close to indistinguishable. Like Narcissus's eye in the speculum, fixed upon his returning gaze. We'll look at this more in another post.

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