Friday, August 29, 2014

Displaced fire: Heroides 16 in light of myth

"Love is like war: easy to begin but very hard to stop." - H.L. Mencken

One choice Ovid had to make in Heroides 16 and 17 was how to have Paris's immediate challenge -- the seduction of Helen -- resonate within the overarching story in which the lovers play so key a role.

The poet weaves the larger mythical structure within fine details of Paris and Helen's letters. When Paris ponders whether he should speak, he speaks of fire:

     Et plus quam vellem iam meus extat amor?

     Urorhabes animi nuntia verba mei

Shall I then speak out? Or is it unnecessary to point to a flame that betrays itself? Hasn't my love already stood out more than I would wish? I'd prefer it to lie latent till time permits sheer joy unmixed with fear. But I dissemble poorly; for who can conceal a flame betrayed by its own light? If you nonetheless expect that I add voice to acts -- I am burning. You now have the words that herald my heart.
Paris has no choice. To ask whether he should speak, he must speak. In voicing his question and its implications, he gives away the store. Not surprising that eloquar, the root of "eloquence," can be read here as a rhetorical question.

This eliding of the confession of love with the act of loving is consonant with the elisions we looked at earlier, involving space, time, giving, and self. Not all articulation works that way. I can say "I am going to the gas station" many times over, but it doesn't get me there. Saying "I love you," however, does what it says. The delicate relation of speech to action here makes it essential that we explore Paris's statement in relation to the larger mythic structure in which it plays an essential part.

For the author of this letter, passion and love are embodied in flammae. The paradox of fire is that it cannot be concealed, since it produces light, the very thing that enables things to appear. If I burn, you will necessarily see it, he says, even if I wish to keep my love hidden. Paris burning is the thing, the rebus; "I burn" are verba added to the unspoken. To say "I burn" is to "shed light" -- the light of language, of pointing (indice) -- upon light. Saying "I burn" makes patent and explicit what was latent, implicit. Indeed the very word for latent, lateatlies hidden within the word laetitiaethe explicit consummated delight of Paris and Helen. Ovid, like Freud, loved puns.

Fire is of course a key motif that runs throughout the mythic tapestry behind this tale. Pardon the compression here, but it's necessary:

  • Paris speaks of his love for Helen as flame, inciting love.
  • By the end, Troy will be consumed in flames caused by their love.
  • Paris is in love with Helen because of the apple inscribed "to the fairest," tossed by Eris into the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Three goddesses claimed the prize and presented their case to Zeus. 
  • Zeus fobbed the job off on Paris, the fairest of mortal men. 
  • Paris, the designated arbiter formae, chose Venus, who promised him the most beautiful (formae) woman in exchange for judging her to be the most beautiful goddess.
  • Even as Zeus avoided this pickle by displacing it upon Paris, let's remember that the wedding of Peleus and Thetis was itself a displacement. Thetis was a sea-nymph of exceeding beauty, unquestionably a future conquest of Zeus, except for one thing: prophetic knowledge that her son would be mightier than his father.
  • The only one who knew that Thetis was the goddess whom Zeus must not love if he is to avoid being overthrown was Prometheus. 
  • Prometheus stole fire from the gods (compromising their power) and gave it to mankind, hidden in a fennel stalk. 
  • Since fire can't hide, the theft was discovered. The Titan was bound to a rock and subjected to the torture of the eagle devouring his liver. 
  • The Titan leveraged his prophetic knowledge about Thetis to free himself from the punishment.
  • Zeus made sure Thetis married Peleus and all the gods were invited to the wedding.
  • Except Eris. 

Fire feeds the beginning, middle, and end of a tale that stretches from the transgression of the Titan credited with creating mankind through the passion of Paris to the embers of mankind's greatest city, sacred to the gods.

The tale is one of serial interrelated displacements: 

Prometheus displaces fire; Zeus displaces the egg of Thetis upon Peleus, whose wedding thanks to Eris becomes the scene of the displacement of Zeus's role as judge. Paris chooses Venus, who sets him on fire for swan-sired Helen, whom he displaces from Sparta in violation of the laws of hospitality and marriage. As she happens to be the daughter of Tyndareus, Helen's displacement sets in motion the ships and armies of the Greek princes who had sworn to protect and defend her from anyone who violated her union with Menelaos. All this because Zeus feared being displaced by his child were he to love Thetis.

Lying behind or beneath the laetitiae of Paris and Helen is the tale of a god so jealous of his own power, so fearful of adding to the world someone stronger than himself, that he would do anything to avoid what Fate held in store, hidden in dark prophecy. (Cronos ate his children, and Zeus ate Metis, the mother of Athena, but generally avoided emulating Tantalos whenever possible.)

It took the thief of fire to shed light on that prophecy -- a proleptic light which leapt to Paris and Helen and from them to Troy, brought down in key part by the child of Peleus and Thetis. We often speak of something "coming to light," which sounds rather innocent. But these interlinked prophecies that speak of love, unearthly beauty, displaced rulers and lost kingdoms are tinder awaiting flame.

The tale brings us back to the relation of things and words which Paris addressed in his opening gambit. In Paris's case, adding words to things meant to say "I burn." In the case of Zeus, Prometheus and Thetis, the revelatory light of prophetic insight helped Zeus avoid his own destruction, but the displacement triggered sufficient incendiary ardor to make Eris smile. As Paris writes near the end (l. 374) of his epistle:

"Great prizes stir great strife." 

A poet steeped in myth offers us a Paris who sets all in motion with a simple question: 


The outing of love, like the detection of unconscious desire underneath what Freud called "the dreamwork," may encounter resistance, but it's irrepressible. As the letters of both Paris and Helen show, eros is fully at play in the cryptic signs and dreamlike symbols of Paris's drunken tales, of a finger writing "amo" on a table, in the eyes and tears of a guest who dreams of supplanting the host, ruler and husband of Helen. The verba of love point to the rebus that is love, but more than point, they spread like wildfire.

When Paris says vocem quoque rebus ut addam, ("I add voice to acts") the addition is more than simple arithmetic. It's an augmentation that proleptically turns the disclosure of love into love. Just as with the imponderable reciprocity of Paris's "salutem," the elocution, the coming-out of love, can only speak if it finds love there already listening.

Helen is seduced by an eloquence that began long before Paris wondered whether he should use his words. Which is why his letter is not an impassioned effort to conquer her heart. That has already fallen. Troy is next. The task of the letter, which (as some have pointed out) reads in part like a resume, is to bring Helen's mind into alignment with her transfixed heart. Judging from the denouement, it seems to have acquitted itself rather well.

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