From Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, a version of Euripides’ Helen, published by New Directions. The play was performed 2019 at the Shed’s Griffin Theater, in New York City.
War creates two categories of persons: those who outlive it and those who don’t. Both carry wounds.
changing attitudes: An ancient Homeric catalogue of battlefield trauma would include wounds to the eyeball, nose, palate, forehead, throat, collarbone, back of skull, nape of neck, upper arm, forearm, heart, lungs, liver, spleen, thigh, knee, shin, heel, ankle. Lasting psychological damage, however keen a concern of modern research, does not seem to have interested the ancient poet.
continuities: On the other hand, Homer has given us Achilles, who went berserk in the midst of battle (Iliad), and Odysseus, who went berserk afterward (Odyssey), while Euripides makes a hero out of Helen, who was brutalized by merely staring at war too long.
teachable moment: In Euripides’ play Helen, we watch Helen watch her husband, Menelaus, as he ambushes and slaughters a boatload of unarmed people. She cheers him on, shouting, “Where is the glory of Troy? Show it to these barbarians!”
discussion topics: Compare and contrast catching a spear in the spleen with utter mental darkness. Consider ancient vs. modern experience. Consider whether any of these is what is meant in poetry by “a beautiful death.”
How do you define dirt? Here is what the ancient Greeks thought of it: dirt is matter out of place. The poached egg on your plate at breakfast is not dirt. The poached egg on page 202 of the Greek lexicon in the library of the British Museum is dirt. Dirt is something that has crossed a boundary it ought not to have crossed. Dirt confuses categories and mixes up form.
applications: Use this spatial hygiene to explain certain neoliberal neuroses. Because the spooky thing about dirt, if you’re a neoliberal, is that dirt is not passive. Dirt is coming to get you.
case study: The noun for “concubine” in Greek comes from the verb that means “to sprinkle.” A concubine is a stranger who sprinkles herself into someone else’s household—as Helen does when she follows Paris to Troy—hoping to assimilate herself to the texture there. Helen does not belong in the house of Priam. She comes in tracking Greek mud all over the floor.
can you pass: Assimilation is tricky. You have to invent a new self in a new household. Even Marilyn Monroe had trouble at the start. “When I signed my first autograph, I had to go slow. I wasn’t too sure where the y went or where you put the i.”
teachable moment: Helen’s very first appearance in history and literature, at verse 126–129 of the third book of Homer’s Iliad, shows her sitting in her chamber in the palace of Priam, weaving. She is weaving a vast tapestry that depicts, minute by minute, the battle going on outside her window. Notice that Homer uses the verb “sprinkle” to describe how she embroiders the dooms of men into her web. Helen knows dirt. Helen is a death-sprinkler.
battlefield cliché: Her thread is deep, dark red.
Think about bronze. It was the Bronze Age when the war at Troy took place (if it took place at all). Killing a man in full bronze armor—helmet, breastplate, greaves—was not an easy task. Two relatively small targets affording maximum bloody access were the neck and the groin, i.e., exposed areas at the top and bottom of the breastplate. A person wounded there would bleed out in a few hours. But for instant, certain death, you would aim your sword or spear or arrow or sharpened stick at the place where the helmet stopped above the eyes, the temple of the head. These three locations were called καιϱόα, mortal spots, from καιϱός, which means “the exact right place and time for something to happen, the critical juncture, the perfect opportunity.”
not yet irony: Notice καιϱός has its accent on the final syllable. This same word with accent moved to the initial syllable, καῖϱος, was a technical term from the art of weaving to indicate the thrums of the web or, more specifically, that critical point in space and time when the weaver must thrust her thread through a gap that momentarily opens in the warp of the cloth.
teachable moment: We have already reflected on Helen’s first appearance in Homer’s Iliad, where she sits in her room live-streaming the war at Troy onto a tapestry. Her thread weaves in and out of living skulls.