Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.18

Matthew Gumpert, Grafting Helen: The Abduction of the Classical Past.   Madison, WI:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2001.  Pp. xiv, 338.  ISBN 0-299-17124-8.  $21.95.  

Reviewed by Shilpa Raval, Yale University (
Word count: 2274 words

In recent years the scholarship on Helen of Troy has been enriched through the application of comparative and theoretical models, most notably in works such as Mihoko Suzuki's Metamorphoses of Helen: Authority, Difference and the Epic (1989) and Norman Austin's Helen of Troy and her Shameless Phantom (1994). Now Matthew Gumpert has written an ambitious new book that traces the myth of Helen, first in ancient Greek poetry and then in medieval and modern French texts, in order to examine the Western tradition of imitatio. Steeped in post-structuralist theory (especially Derrida), Gumpert argues that the abduction of Helen is a figure for the appropriation of antiquity (and particularly Homer) by Western culture. Although later authors try to claim a seamless connection to the past -- since the past, according to Gumpert, is something valuable, something to be stolen, imitated, and coveted -- the relationship between past and present is in actuality an artificial suturing. Gumpert's aim in the book is "to bring the seam to light and show that continuity is always grafted" (xi-xii). The book is divided into two parts, each consisting of six chapters which focus on strategies for reading the past into the present. Gumpert suggests that all of these methods of recuperating the past are variations on "graft." The study concludes with a brief treatment of Helen in modern Greek poetry. Part one examines Helen in archaic and classical Greek texts. Chapter one, "Mimesis" sets out a central tenet of the book: there is no original or "real" Helen, only a multitude of myths, posing as the truth. Even the Helen who appears in the Iliad (her debut in Western literature) is already a graft, a composite of other versions of the story. Moreover, Helen is an elusive figure (epistemologically, ontologically, and ethically), marked by deception and contradiction. Because of this indeterminacy she acts out Plato's understanding of mimesis. Gumpert tries to connect the teichoskopia of Iliad 3 with the allegory of the cave and the condemnation of poetry in the Republic. While the analogy of Helen as an idol who turns the Trojan elders into prisoners is not fully persuasive, Gumpert is on firmer ground when he turns to Helen as an emblem for poetry (and particularly Homeric epic), a literary form which seduces and corrupts the soul and thus must be expelled from the city. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Aristotle's treatment of metaphor in the Rhetoric. Building on Aristotle's description of metaphor as the exile or transference of the name from its proper object, Gumpert reads Helen (herself an exile in a foreign land) as a figure for metaphor itself.

The second chapter ("Anamnesis") treats Helen as a figure for temporal instability (i.e. the shuttling back and forth between past and present) in the Odyssey. Gumpert argues that the poem is dominated by the dynamic of memory, "in its obsessive referring back to Troy" (25). After surveying some moments of what he calls "epistemological and temporal dislocation" in the poem, Gumpert focuses on the scene in book 4 in which Telemachus visits Menelaus and Helen in their home in Sparta. Husband and wife give differing accounts of Helen's actions in Troy. At issue, Gumpert suggests, in the opposing speeches are questions of authenticity, resemblance, and recognition.

In chapter three, "Supplement" Gumpert turns to Derrida's analysis of Platonic mimesis. For Derrida, there are two contradictory conceptualizations of imitation: on one hand, the copy is devalued as being merely an illusion and thus inferior to the original; on the other hand, the copy threatens to replace the original and therefore has the potential to be superior to the model. Euripides' play Helen is a site where the possibility of the copy replacing the original is made quite literal. Gumpert concludes that "the eidolon is the standard Helen myth in its starkest, most explicit form," (45) since it reveals how Helen, even when "real," is always a phantom. This reading of Stesichorus' palinode and the eidolon variant as an explication, rather than a revision, of earlier Helen myths is one of the more useful aspects of the study.

Chapter four, "Speculation," builds on the image of Helen as a commodity to be appraised, exchanged and circulated. Drawing on the distinction that Aristotle makes between economics (distribution fueled by demand) and chrematistics (pursuit of profit based on desire), Gumpert argues that Helen stimulates a "chrematistic economy," since her beauty sets into motion unending contests for possession and repossession. While the discussion of the Judgment of Paris as the founding myth of a chrematistic economy -- the purpose of this archetypal beauty contest was to settle the quarrel about the fairest, but instead serves as the catalyst for another battle for the fairest -- is quite good, I was not as convinced by the remainder of the chapter. Gumpert goes on to analyze Sappho's Fr. 16, which, like the Judgment of Paris, revisits the question of the "most beautiful." He concludes that the poem "mounts ... an argument for chrematistics, and it relies on the figure of Helen to make this argument" (66). But Gumpert does not seem to take into account the way in which Sappho critiques Helen's status as a commodity (and, I would suggest, by extension, her presentation in Homeric epic). Surely it is significant that Helen, who has been judged to be to kalliston is in this poem the subject, rather than object, of desire, the one who herself judges the beauty of another.

In "Epidexis," the fifth and most persuasive chapter, Gumpert analyzes Gorgias' Encomium on Helen and Euripides' Trojan Women to argue that Helen is not only the topic of rhetoric but is a figure for rhetoric itself. Gumpert rightly suggests that the Encomium is as much a meditation on rhetoric as it is a defense of Helen. He goes on to discuss the ways in which Helen and rhetoric are distrusted in the Greek imagination: like Helen who is improperly transported to Troy, rhetoric is an importation, "a foreign and improper sort of language" (72); both are beautiful and seductive and have the power to lead men astray. Part one concludes with a chapter devoted to Helen in lyric poetry.

The subject of Part two (Helen in France) is the varied strategies by which the Western poet seeks to imitate the antique precursor. In chapter seven, "Idolatry," Gumpert persuasively suggests that there is an equivalence in medieval troubadour poetry between poetics and erotics. Just as erotic possession is continually deferred (a prerequisite of the genre is the inaccessibility of the beloved), so the poet is exiled from the past. Both poet and lover must content themselves with substitutes or supplements, as union in courtly love is always metaphorical and occurs only on the linguistic level. The site where poetic and erotic deferral converge is the mythic exemplum, of which Helen was a favorite figure. Gumpert argues that with these exempla, which were always from the distant past, the poet simultaneously reveals and nullifies his estrangement from the past (since the poet re-enacts the amorous and literary exploits of figures from antiquity).

In chapters 8 and 9 ("Translation" and "Genealogy") Gumpert examines the ways in which the myth of Trojan origins (and specifically the Judgment of Paris) is used for political ends. The tropes of translatio studii (transfer of learning) and translatio imperii (transference of empire) are often linked in medieval French romance, and Troy (mediated through Rome) provides early modern France with "genealogies of national origin, apologies for cultural conquest, and strategies for achieving political hegemony" (124). Within this framework, history is viewed as "the recurrent exile, dislocation, transmigration, and revival of empire" (126), i.e. Trojans = Romans = French. In "Translation" Gumpert focuses on the work of the poet Benoit, who claims that he is translating a Latin text based upon late Greek texts themselves derived from the epic cycle, which in turn refer back to and/or supplement the Homeric poems (thereby establishing a lineage for his work which he can trace back to Homer). But, although the poet insists that his is a faithful rendition of his model, with nothing added, the characters are usually cast in contemporary terms. Homer is referred to as an "extraordinary cleric," and Antenor who betrays his city to the Greeks as "that vile Judas" (133). The Judgment of Paris is read through the lens of salvation theory and becomes an allegory of the Fall (the Wedding of Thetis and Peleus serves as creation and the promise, through the figure of Achilles, of redemption; the Goddess of Discord plays the role of Satan and the apple is still the apple). If in romance the Judgment functions as a theological allegory, in the work of Jean Lemaire, historiographer of the House of Burgundy and Austria, the myth is translated into a political allegory. In Illustrations, Lemaire narrates the history of Troy, the childhood of Paris, the Judgment and subsequent war and finally the diaspora of the Trojan nobility in order to demonstrate that the states of France, Burgundy and Austria (now united through royal marriages) are all the scions of Troy. Since marriage during this period was the guarantor of a stable genealogy and a "seamless transference of the past to the present" (143), the Judgment of Paris and its tragic consequences for Troy served as a moral exemplum for the future emperor, who must choose between Prudence or Spiritual Knowledge, Power, and Pleasure.

Chapter 10, "Cosmetics," deals with early modern lyric, a genre which Gumpert suggests might be best read as a stitching together of previous works, with originality provided through cosmetic changes. Within this model of poetry as a graft of prior passages, the poet Ronsard's Sonets pour Helen, Gumpert suggests, can be appreciated as a recycling of earlier poetic models. Gumpert argues that what is at issue in the sonnets is not passion for or praise of Helen but the "replication and dissemination of phantom or supplementary Helens (Helen, for example, as a portrait, name, dream, gaze, letter, public figure, poem, myth) pieced together out of premanufactured parts" (162). Students and scholars of Latin love elegy will find this chapter particularly useful. Gumpert makes a convincing case for Propertius and Ovid as the precursors of Ronsard. In his treatment of the motifs of erotic pursuit and metamorphosis (with death as the ultimate transformation) Gumpert is quite right, I think, to link poetics and erotics in order to argue that the desire to possess the beloved is also a desire to possess the past. His equation of poetic and erotic appropriation might have been strengthened through a consideration of the way in which Woman is in many Western works a synecdoche for the text itself. Many scholars of Latin elegy and lyric, for example, have argued that the beloved is a scripta puella, a marker of the poet's Callimachean allegiances and aesthetic practices.

The final two chapters ("Miscegenation" and "Prostitution") examine the anxieties about purity and contagion inherent in the graft. In chapter 11, Gumpert explores this concern vis-à-vis national identity. Using Nerval's translation and importation into France of Goethe's Faust as his point of departure, Gumpert examines the simultaneous resistance and attraction to the foreign (here Gumpert suggests that the past is a category of the foreign). Nineteenth century France, Gumpert suggests, wants to imitate without imitating, to be French and other (German, Greek, or Latin). On the poetic level, this paradoxical desire plays out as both a nostalgia for a lost purity contained within a Edenic-Hellenic past and the dream of a poetry that is perfectly autonomous, self-sufficient and without a past, since every trace of the past "is the fingerprint of a crime" (205). Chapter 12 provides readings of select nineteenth and twentieth century novels and dramatic works to investigate Helen's role as "poetry's sacred prostitute" (218). In his discussion of the novels Gumpert argues that in the case of Helen there is a link between sexual and textual promiscuity. The dramatic works demystify Helen's role as cause of war and expose what is at stake in fighting "for Helen." Helen is merely the excuse for a war waged for a multitude of other reasons.

The study ends with a conclusion and a brief section ("Prosthesis") which treats Helen in modern Greek poetry. Gumpert argues that the classical past was a vehicle for Greece, after being freed from Turkish domination in 1832, to forge a national identity for itself. Modern Greek poets, Gumpert suggests, attempt in their works to expel the foreign and return to an originary source.

Grafting Helen is a complex and imaginative work. Gumpert's erudition is quite evident in the impressive range of texts which he includes in his analysis. Although there is much to recommend in the study, by the conclusion of the book, it is no longer clear exactly what Gumpert means by the word graft. Although he defines the term quite lucidly in the preface, in the course of the study it seems (to this reader at least) that anything and everything may fall under the rubric "graft." Consider the following excerpt from the conclusion: "it is the nature of graft always to bridge the specific and the general, the literal and the metaphorical, because its structure both figures and maps out -- literally -- the operation of metaphor itself. Graft is a metaphor, but not only a metaphor, for metaphor" (253). The relentless post-modern jargon and the sometimes obscure method of presentation make it difficult at various moments to follow Gumpert's argument, but Gumpert's conclusions about Helen and the Western literary tradition have much to offer those readers who have the patience to unearth them.

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