Saturday, September 06, 2014

The greatest glory: Helen to Paris (II)

...picking up the thread from here...

Ovid of course was familiar with the allegorization of the Judgment of Paris as a parable of choice. At stake is nothing less than one's fate, since the choice concerns the human values assigned to the pursuits of politics (action) philosophy (contemplation) and pleasure (aesthetics) -- a standard theme within the Greek and Roman thought about education (paideia). How one orders these values has everything to do with the kind of life one will live.

The first thing one notices about Paris's letter to Helen (Heroides 16) is that apart from a quick nod to Juno and Athena, he only speaks of Venus and of the love she has ignited in him. Paris seems quite unreflective about the stakes, implications and ultimate consequences of his judgment. He's all about wanting to get Helen aboard his ship and out of Dodge.

Helen's response - rescribendi - (Heroides 17) is about something else.

A word both Paris and Helen use is rustĭcus. At one point, Paris calls Menelaos "that rustic" with the sneer of an aristocrat describing a boorish oaf or peasant. Paris then applies the word to Helen:

     Hanc faciem culpa posse carere putas? (285-88)

Do you feel shame and fear to violate your wedded love, to be false to the chaste oath of the marriage bed? Ah, too simple, nay, too rustic Helen, do you think that beauty of yours can be free of fault?
The reader can safely be assumed to be summoning up a passel of movie scenes involving the city slicker coming on condescendingly to the lovely small town girl. 

Helen picks up the word and gives it her own twist:

You who entered in, were you a guest, or an enemy? I doubt not that my complaint would be called "rustic" in your judgment. Let me be rustic, so long as my chastity is not forgot, and the whole tenor of my life is without stain.
Further on in her letter, Helen uses the word once more - by now she's well past centering her response upon chastity's cold comfort:

     Vi mea rusticitas excutienda fuit
     Sic certe felix esse coacta forem.
What you basely urge on me, would that you could honorably compel me to! You should have vehemently taken my "rusticity" by force. A lawless act can bring gain to the one who suffers it. So I'd have been compelled to happiness.
Helen regards the predicament of Paris - his and hers - with an expansive, dispassionate clarity that dwarfs his simplicity. She shows him what to do with his view of her as the simple rural waif. Paris thought he was plucking a flower among the rubes, but he found Lauren Bacall, calmly appraising the goods.

Even more, Helen reflects upon what is at stake for her, and for them, with zero illusions. This woman understands herself, him, and all their options and the consequences of each down to the ground:
Oh that you had then visited our coasts in a nimble bark, when a thousand rivals solicited my virgin love! Had you appeared, you would have triumphed over the thousand; nor could my husband have justly blamed my choice. Now, alas! you come too late to joys that are the right of another; and your slow hope invades a plighted love. But although it would have been more to my wish to live with you, yet Menelaus does not possess me against my will.
Nor be you too much displeased, that I am rather incredulous; for things of moment are not credited with ease.
It is in fact Helen's ability to examine, to question with critical insight, that puts her in a league with Penelope, who simply refused to believe her husband had returned, despite his standing before her, until she tricked him into betraying the one secret that she knew no other man could know. Helen's mind and heart weigh everything that is happening. It is she, not Paris, who ponders the meaning of the judgment of Paris:
You chose me in place of valor, in place of a noble kingdom; it would be inhuman, not to receive a heart so wholly mine. But trust me, I am far from being inhuman; and only struggle against loving a man whom I scarcely can hope ever to possess.
And this is the wholly Ovidian irony of this pair of letters, that the philosophical choice every man faced according to the moralists and wise men, the choice of Athena, Juno, or Venus, was wasted upon poor Paris, who was too young, impetuous and dazzled to think much about anything. Helen's mind is a mirror to the perplexing, deep questions latent in the event called the Judgment of Paris. This man has commenced an invasive action upon her that echoes earlier and later assaults:
. . . it is still more that you love me, that you run such hazards for my sake, and follow hope through all the dangers of the main. Nor do I overlook the signs you make at our table, though I artfully dissemble all notice.

I observe your ardent wistful looks, and those meaning eyes that almost dazzle mine. Sometimes you sigh, and, snatching the cup, fix your lips where mine had been before. Ah! how oft have I marked the hidden signs wafted from your fingers, and the lively language expressed in your eye-brow!
She's the man here, and as she reads his face and ponders all of what lies before her, she is experiencing the truth of that judgment, even as she's judging Paris himself. It is about nothing but love:
Your letter is filled with ample promises, such as might move even Goddesses to yield; but if ever I violate the laws of chastity, yourself shall be the more powerful cause of my crime.
And the campaign waged by Paris is taking its toll - foreshadowing the battles before Troy, the walls of her virtue have been wounded:

     Neve mihiquam te dicis amarenoce;
Cease then, to pluck with your words at my faltering heart, and do not give pain to her you say you love.
Her word here for "pluck" is convellereit's a strong word (root of "convulsion"), redolent of rape, and of the field of battle. Perhaps it reminds her of the giant creature that took her mother Leda by force. A battle is being waged, and she sees how it will end:
     Di mihi sunt testes — lusimus arte virum.

I am unpracticed in the theft of love and never yet - the gods are my witnesses - have I made made wily sport of my man. Even now, as I entrust my words to the voiceless page, my letter performs a strange new service. 
It would be hard to imagine a more extraordinary image of the writer's critical consciousness of and in the act of writing - rescribendi. Just as Paris could not avoid betraying his love by merely asking if he should speak, Helen's written response commits her to a voiceless trace of an action. She is in wonder as she apprehends the uncanny way her inscription takes on a life of its own, leaving her to herald the inward choice that will launch 1000 ships, trigger the greatest song ever sung, spin the greatest web ever spun.

Ovid's Helen is not merely the precipitate cause of the Trojan war, or its final cause. Her clear eyes see it all right from the start, and her part in it, her heroic part, is to respond fully to this one great love despite all the dire prophecies and premonitions. For Ovid, the greatest glory accorded to anyone at the contest of the horse-taming Trojans and the bronze-clad Achaeans was not accorded either to Achilles or Hector. Only a true poet of Amor could say it, and Ovid is saying it: The greatest glory of the song of heroes goes to Helen.

No comments: