Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Encomium of Arlen Specter, Mark C. Taylor, David Plotz, and Helen

Arlen Specter, Mark C. Taylor, and David Plotz have abandoned their own and have, according to their own kind, run off with the enemy. (Yesterday, we read how Specter dumped his political party for the other; how Taylor systematically trashed his American University system for a proposal sounding as foreign as the film Gung-Ho, and how Plotz rejected reading The Good Book as his fellow Jews would [i.e., "Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or none of these, every Jew who is not totally alienated from his people"] for the practice of reading "the Hebrew Bible as you'd peruse the newspaper.")

They sound like Helen, don't they? I mean Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore of whom Bettany Hughes writes and remembers so beautifully. Remember, Helen abandoned the Hellenes and ran off with Alexander and the other non-Greek Trojan men.

How could Helen be praised? How could she be defended for her defection? And how now Spector, Taylor, and Plotz?

Hughes gets us thinking about the "how"s of rhetoric:
When, in Ancient Greece, the rhetorician Gorgias stood up and delivered his 'Encomium of Helen' (a defence of Helen of Troy's indefensible character) - this was a great joke. How can you laud the most sluttish femme fatale of all time? But the rhetoric also got people thinking - maybe, just maybe the skilled speaker had a point.
Can we listen, and think? Why, oh why, why, why why would Helen (the most beautiful woman in the world) abandon the men, the Hellene men, who had her first?

Here's a little of the answer: the joke, the reasoned rhetoric, the poetry (the confessed word-play of Gorgias), and a good part of it even rhymes:

ἢ γὰρ τύχης βουλήμασι
καὶ θεῶν βουλεύμασι
καὶ ἀνάγκης ψηφίσμασιν
ἔπραξεν ἃ ἔπραξεν,

βίᾳ ἁρπασθεῖσα,
λόγοις πεισθεῖσα
ἔρωτι ἁλοῦσα
. . . .

πῶς οὖν χρὴ δίκαιον ἡγήσασθαι
τὸν τῆς Ἑλένης μῶμον,
ἥτις εἴτ' ἐρασθεῖσα
εἴτε λόγῳ πεισθεῖσα
εἴτε βίᾳ ἁρπασθεῖσα
εἴτε ὑπὸ θείας ἀνάγκη ἀναγκασθεῖσα
ἔπραξεν ἃ ἔπραξε, πάντως διαφεύγει τὴν αἰτίαν

Rosamond Kent Sprague translates these words as beautifully with:

For either by will[ed decision] of Fate
and [willed] decision of the gods
and vote of Necessity
did she do what she did,

or by force reduced
or by words seduced
or by love possessed.
. . . .
How then can one
blame of Helen as unjust,
since she is utterly
acquitted of all charge,
whether she did what she did
through falling in love
or persuaded by speech
or ravished by force
or constrained by divine constraint?

Plato, of course, can't stand it. So he writes his own play, the dramatic dialogue we call "The Gorgias" in which the central character is this slick sophist named Gorgias playing with words and taking money for it right out in public. But in this play of Plato, in which he plays with words all on his own, Plato has his teacher Socrates calling Gorgias out. Gorgias is the defender and praiser of the defecting defective woman - saying she may have been in "love." But the man Gorgias is just a "word lover," as vulnerable as Helen. In Greek, love is ἔρωτι /eroti/. This word plays (in Greek) with Plato's own play on words, the philosopher's neologism: ῥητορικῆς /rhetorikes/. Plato's Socrates gets Plato's Gorgias shamelessly to confess that what he's doing is "rhetoric" - something as filthy as "erotics." So, do we notice the hypocrisy of Plato? By putting words in the mouth of Gorgias, he actually invents here the word "rhetoric."

But we digress - isn't wordplay fun?

Now, French rhetorician Laurent Pernot explains:
Gorgias undertakes to excuse her by arguing that... she [Helen] could only have done so [run off with a non-Greek man] for one of these four reasons: (1) she obeyed the gods' commands; (2) she was carried off by force; (3) she was persuaded by speech; (4) she succumbed to love.
What Pernot (or perhaps our translations of Gorgias) fails to mention is that Helen, according to Gorgias, is worthy of praise for her decision. She's not just a passive damsel or a some-how compelled defector. No, she's also the master of her own destiny. She's a dissident. And men don't like it one little bit. The patriarchy is threatened. (Which brings up entirely different questions about whether and how Spector or Taylor or Plotz should be praised.)

Luce Irigaray gets at the questions of change, profound change, and who best might be the agents for such:
Patriarchal culture is a culture founded upon sacrifice, crime, and war. It lays upon every man the duty and the right to fight for food and shelter, to defend his possessions, and his family [even his women in and around his family] and [his] country as possessions. A decision about war from the patriarchy is necessary at this point but it will fall far short of providing cultural mutation. . . . Men are always plunging deeper and deeper into exploitation and plunder--without understanding very well why. Men go out in search of something they imagine they need without questioning who they are and the relationship between what they do and their identity.

To address such failures of understanding, I believe that the race of men needs the help of persons whose function would be to promote self-understanding among men and to set limits. Only women could fill this function. Women do not belong to the patriarchal culture as fully responsible subject. Hence they have the potential to interpret this culture in which they have fewer vested interests and involvement than men and in which they themselves are not so much products of the system as to be blinded by it. . . . Furthermore, women are not, in principle, supposed to be in hierarchical relation with men. All other minority groups are caught up in such hierarchies. And it is with a completely patriarchal, unconscious or cynical condescension that politicians and theoreticians interest themselves in such minorites and exploit them, with all the risks of the possible reversals of the master-slave relations. --Sexes and Genealogies, pages 186, 87.
Jane Stranz got me rereading Irigaray yesterday when she quoted her and then quoted Grace Jantzen quoting her:

"Love of God ... shows the way. God forces us to do nothing except become. The only task, the only obligation laid upon us is: to become divine men and women, to become perfectly, to refuse to allow parts of ourselves to shrivel and die that have the potential for growth and fulfilment."
--Luce Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies

"According to Irigaray the wisdom that women and men in the postmodern world most require is the wisdom of becoming divine, without which we 'shrivel and die'."
--Grace Jantzen, Becoming Divine.

In light of the praise of Helen by Gorgias and the agency of women within the patriarchy where we find ourselves (as noted by Irigaray), Jane's quotations do offer men and women hope. Notice how a woman (unlike either the man Plato or the man Gorgias) is able to see love and God and words (without force) as agencies for change. If there is force, it is never forcing, and it is never war or abduction or abuse or rape.

If I were like Gorgias, I might ask you to pay me for this post and any cleverness therein. If I were like Plato, I might be a hypocrite by criticizing another for doing the very thing I was doing in my critique of him. If I were going to try to teach wordplay and poetry, to get students to overcome difficulties, I might have them look for examples (even in this post) of what George Steiner calls "epiphenomenal" or "tactical" or "modal" or "ontological" difficulties. If I were going to try to change the world myself, to abandon my own kind for the opposers, I think I might consider (more than the "telling strategy," more than the "forcing strategy," and even more than the "negotiating strategy") what Robert E. Quinn classifies as the self "transformation strategy."

I'm thinking instead about some fragmented (perhaps final) lines of Sappho's poem on Helen:

εὶ μεν ἴδ]μεν οὔ δύνατον γένεσθαι
λῷστ᾽] ὀν᾽ ἀνθρώποις, πεδέχην δ᾽ ἄραστηαι,
[τῶν πέδειχόν ἐστι βρότοισι λῷον]
[ἢ λελάθεσθαι.]

And about Anne Carson's even more fragmented translation of them:

]not possible to happen
]to pray for a share

I think by now you may have figured that I really do think some change is needed. I think by now you may also have figured out that I have enough on my plate for myself. I think by now you may have considered even that I'm not going to praise or criticize, to defend or denigrate, Specter, Taylor, Plotz, or even Helen. Are you?


Jane said...

beautiful translation of the Helen of Troy and great quotes from Irigaray - must look up some of her stuff myself!

J. K. Gayle said...

Jantzen is on my list to read. Thanks, Jane, for posting on her work.