The Magazine

Classical Gas

Seeing things in the Hellenic world that aren’t there.

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By JAMES SEATON
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A look at the speech itself, however, reveals nothing shocking about the scene except the extent of Dreyfus and Kelly’s misrepresentation. Helen, the text reveals, does not talk about leaving Menelaus and running away with Paris at all. Instead, she tells a story calculated to please both Telemachus and her husband. Odysseus, she relates, once during the war sneaked into Troy in disguise. She helped him, kept his secret, and was delighted when he got back to his camp after killing many Trojans. Helen makes it clear that her sympathies were with the Akhaians, not the Trojans:

The Trojan women raised a cry—but my heart

sang—for I had come round, long before,

to dreams of sailing home, and I repented the mad day Aphrodite

drew me away from my dear fatherland,

forsaking all—child, bridal bed, and husband—

a man without defect in form or mind.

There is nothing shocking, after all, about Menelaus praising a speech that ends by praising him so highly. Notice as well that Helen “repented,” an emotion that Dreyfus and Kelly claim was unknown in Homer’s world.

Helen’s description of her feelings in the Odyssey speech is confirmed by her presentation in the Iliad. Speaking to a sympathetic Hektor (Fitzgerald’s spelling) in the sixth book of that epic, she calls herself “a whore, a nightmare of a woman” (Fitzgerald’s translation). She appreciates Hektor’s refusal to condemn her even though You are the one afflicted most / by harlotry in me and by his [Paris’s] madness. Apparently not only Helen herself but most of the Trojans are not willing to write off Helen’s role in causing the war as an illustration of “just the way life is.” In the last chapter of the Iliad Helen mourns that, with Hektor dead, no one is left who will befriend me, none; / they all shudder at me.

Dreyfus and Kelly compare Helen to Achilles: “What makes Helen great in Homer’s world is her ability to live a life that is constantly responsive to golden Aphrodite. .  .  . Likewise, Achilles had a special kind of receptivity to Ares and his warlike way of life.” But Achilles is not linked with Ares anywhere in the Iliad or the Odyssey. Ares supports the Trojans, not Achilles and the Akhaians. Ares, furthermore, is presented throughout Homer as an unpleasant character whom the other gods despise. In Book Five of the Iliad, Zeus warns Ares, Do not come whining here, you two-faced brute, / most hateful to me of all the Olympians.

Those inclined to accept Dreyfus and Kelly’s portrait of the Homeric gods as “a diverse but tolerant family” might turn to Book Twenty of the Iliad, in which Ares, angry at Athena for injuring him earlier, throws a “giant spear” at Athena. Unhurt, Athena hurls a “black, jagged, massive” boulder at Ares, hitting him in the neck. She lets him know who is boss: Fool, / you’ve never learned how far superior / I’m glad to say I am. When Aphrodite tries to help Ares get away, Athena from the side struck Aphrodite’s breast / with doubled fist, so that her knees went slack, / her heart faint, and together she and Ares / lay in a swoon upon the earth.

If Dreyfus and Kelly largely ignore the Iliad, at least they don’t argue that Homer shouldn’t have written it. They are not so restrained with Dante. In their view, he should have stopped when he finished the Purgatorio and not bothered writing the Paradiso at all: “If Dante had stopped with Beatrice at the top of Purgatory, therefore, he’d have described a completely livable world that could bring joy and meaning into his life. .  .  . Unfortunately, that is not the path Dante takes.” If Dante had only realized, first, that Christianity is best understood as a mood, “Jesus’ contagious new mood of agape love,” and second, that Aquinas’s attempt to use Aristotelian reason in articulating a Christian theology “turns out to have been a bad idea,” we would have been spared a poem that wrongly privileges the love of God over the love of a human being. Dreyfus and Kelly cannot accept that in the Paradiso Dante’s “individual will along with his love of Beatrice and his political commitments have been overwhelmed by the bliss of contemplating God.”