Thursday, September 4, 2008

Quote of the Day: Iliad 3.172-80

One thing that I thought about bringing up with my students, but ended up not looking at due to time constraints, is the famous "teichoskopia" or "view from the wall" scene in Iliad 3. There is a particular section here to which I keep returning in lines 172-80:
Always to me, beloved father, you are feared and respected;
and I wish bitter death had been what I wanted, when I came hither
following your son, forsaking my chamber, my kinsmen,
my grown child, and the loveliness of girls my own age.
It did not happen that way: and now I am worn with weeping.
This now I will tell you in answer to the question you asked me.
That man is Atreus' son Agamemnon, widely powerful,
at the same time a good king and a strong spearfighter,
once my kinsman, slut that I am. Did this ever happen?
The primary actors in this scene are Priam and Helen. Priam picks more outstanding figures from the Achaians and asks Helen who they are. Firstly, the Lord of Men, the Shepherd, the great king, Agamemnon. He also points out the "ram" Odysseus and Aias (Ajax), the human wall. It is a strange scene. It feels out of place in the year 9 or 10 of the war. It seems like it should have happened in the first year!

Many people will fix upon the phrase "slut that I am," a self-disparaging remark. Her wish that she had died (or wish that she had wished for death) reminds me also of how Helen, later in the same book, wishes (and then takes it back) that Menelaos had killed Paris / Alexandros in their one-on-one combat (and that Aphrodite had not interfered) (see lines 428-36). Or, in Book 7, when the Trojan envoy to the Achaians, Idaios, says that he wished that Paris had perished before he committed his breach of proper guest-host relations with Menelaos. Throughout book 3, Helen seems to show regret for her past actions, but also that she cannot change them. She longs for her lost, previous life (lines 139-40). But that was long ago. Nonetheless, Helen's self-effacement, sorrow, and weeping is not what stops me in my tracks. What stops me are the haunting words, "Did this ever happen?" The past is a phantom memory. It has been so long ago, so much suffering has happened since then that a previous life is almost unfathomable. Memory, it is a tricky thing. So is time. There is a certain unreality about the past. It slips away from us. It is as difficult to grasp as the mist that pervades the imagery throughout the Iliad. "Did this ever happen?" I don't know.

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