Sunday, September 19, 2004

A Thought on Helen of Troy and on the Sentimental Sex

I was thinking yesterday, for some reason, of Helen of Troy. One of the things I find most intriguing about her characterization, to some degree in Homer, but much more in the Greek tragic authors, is the difference in the way she is perceived by men and by women. The (Greek) men will call her all sorts of names; but there's something rather perfunctory about it. When she's actually there, men tend to be a bit more forgiving; and, in the case of the Trojans, the only one who really is consistent in criticizing her is Hector, whose love for Andromache makes him impervious to her beauty. With the women, however, it is rather different. They do not see the Trojan War as a matter of honor, nor as the matter of reclaiming (Greek) or protecting (Trojan) a beautiful women.

Marlowe (in the person of Faust) famously wrote:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?--
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss --


Faust then goes on to babble about how he'll be the new Paris, and how it will be Wittenberg, not Troy, that is sacked. This is very much a man's view. Anyone with sympathy for the women (Greek and Trojan) has to see Helen in a rather different light. For they don't see the Trojan War as anything else but a massive bloodshed, caused by a woman who couldn't keep her legs together, in which their fathers, husbands, and sons are dying and which (in the case of the Trojans) they themselves are likely to be enslaved and (in the case of the Greeks) they themselves are likely to be replaced by other women. So whenever they talk about Helen (and this includes even Helen's sister Clytemnestra), they are merciless; they would never call her 'sweet'. Instead they call her 'slut', 'whore', and the like. And I can't help but think that the men are being overly led by sentiment rather than reason. The women, at least, do not have that luxury; they have to face the cold, hard facts, and in light of those facts Helen's actions seem to be very serious crimes indeed. And (unlike the men) they don't buy for a moment this whole nonsensical story of the golden apple and the Choice of Paris. In Euripides' The Trojan Women, Hecuba rips apart Helen's appeal to that story as an absurd excuse, and, indeed, a blasphemy. Can anyone honestly and sensibly think that the wise Athena would enter a beauty contest and try to bribe the judge?

If I ever get around to writing my verse novel on the Curse of the Atreides, this would form a considerable part of the plot.

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