“What? We fought the war for nothing? We suffered so much just for a phantom?”
Are these the furious questions of an anti-war protester? A returning Iraq veteran? A disillusioned President Obama? No --Euripides wrote these lines more than two thousand years ago in his play, Helen, a work that cries out about the tricks played on soldiers by the powerful.
Conventional wisdom has it that we don’t know the causes of most conflicts -- except for the Trojan War, the one waged over the most beautiful woman in the world. But was Helen the real cause of that war? Certainly, this is what the Homeric poems tell us; so, does Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film, Troy.
There exists, however, an alternative explanation, little known, that claims Helen never really traveled to Troy. The archaic poet, Stesichorus, wrote that a phantom, an eidolon, took her place while the real Helen remained in Egypt. Paris, the Trojan prince who abducted Helen (or with whom she eloped), did not know this deception of the gods. Nor did the rest of the Trojans or the Greeks for that matter. They all believed they were fighting for a just cause, the Trojans to protect their city and the Greeks to avenge a national shame. For ten years both sides slaughtered themselves by the banks of the Scamander River, its silt flowing with blood. The gods, though, were playing games at the expense of mortals: the real Helen lived in the Nile Delta all along.
Interestingly this tradition has been marginalized in history. We know of Stesichorus’s poem only in the few lines that Plato cites. Otherwise, little survives. The Homeric version of the Trojan War has prevailed, trumping the one that questioned the causes of the conflict. The historian Herodotus claims that Homer actually knew the truth behind the gods’ deception. But this would not have suited his literary purpose. So the idea of Greeks and Trojans butchering themselves makes a great plot. Yet the realization that they killed each other for nothing seems of marginal interest to epic story telling.
The alternative view was not completely silenced, however, re-emerging in Euripides’s play. The playwright asks: What does it mean then for human beings to learn that a war has been waged for nothing? How do people react at the discovery that so much loss of young life took place for a simulacrum? That they have been duped?
Euripides has the Greek warrior Teucer learn that his brother, Ajax, died for a fiction. And Menelaus, Helen’s husband, discovers that he launched a pan-Hellenic expedition for an illusion. The messenger returns on the stage, horrified at the thought that Troy was sacked for a misty cloud. The pitiful Trojans and Greeks killed each other in vain. The story of Helen’s abduction is a fable.
And what do we, who teach literature, learn from this myth? The easy lesson is that literature poses questions that history glides over. In the contemporary parallel, Helen lands in Iraq rather than Egypt, in the form of the weapons of mass destruction. They too were ghosts. So literature allows us to ask painful questions: How do today’s Teucer and Ajax deal with this horrible truth? Was the citadel of Baghdad sacked for nothing? Were we all manipulated by the gods and made to look absurd?
But perhaps there is a more profound lesson here beyond divine deceit that has to do with literature’s own trickery. It lies to tell a great story and we love believing the deception behind people’s suffering. Helen is the ostensible reason given by the powerful to persuade people to fight. She is a name for an unjust cause, a void, an empty blouse.
But she also stands for the literary play between reality and illusion, actuality and resemblance. Helen’s tale is that of the double, the real person on the Nile Delta and the phantom hovering over the walls of Troy. She represents literature’s fascination with reality and its reproduction. Hers is a story about a legend, the myth of war. If all stories, if all poems, tell of the difference between actuality and illusion, seeming and being, then her story is the most true. It tells us that the cause of the war was really an invention, that the Euphrates overflowed with corpses because of a fable. People continue to fight over fictions. And we want to believe in these illusions because, to paraphrase Herodotus, reality is too horrible to contemplate.