Academic journal article Intertexts

Helen, Achilles and the Psuche: Superlative Beauty and Value in the Iliad

Academic journal article Intertexts

Helen, Achilles and the Psuche: Superlative Beauty and Value in the Iliad

Article excerpt

Was this the face that lancht a thousand shippes? And burnt the toplesse Towres of Ilium? (1)

Such is Christopher Marlowe's calculus of Helen's beauty in Dr Faustus, a scale by which to measure a face that Homer can only compare to divinity. Helen's extraordinary beauty motivates an equally extraordinary effort to reclaim it once she has been abducted by Paris. A reader of Homer's Catalogue of Ships as literal-minded as Thucydides might quantify this beauty precisely in terms of the scale of this effort, deriving the formula 1 face = 1,000 ships. (2)

For Marlowe and the tradition on which he draws, "a thousand" is less a precise quantity than a hyperbolic figure that suggests a number past counting, matching the immeasurable height of towers without tops. (3) The hyperbolic language of what seems at first to be a scale thus indicates the ultimate incommensurability of the beauty of Helen's god-like face, a "peareless" beauty that earlier in the same scene prompts a failure of descriptive language (scene 12, lines 16-20):

2 SCHOLAR. Too simple is my wit to tell her praise, whom all the world admires for majestie

3 SCHOLAR. No marvel tho the angry Greekes pursude with tenne yeares wane the rape of such a queene, whose heavenly beauty passeth all compare.

Not even metaphor, the last refuge of that which exceeds ordinary description, can convey beauty that literally "passeth all compare". The only sense of scale the third scholar can offer is the expansive effort to win her back.

In Dr Faustus, Helen's excessive beauty is one reward among the powers and pleasures unbounded in scale or scope and limited only by time--the twenty-four years stipulated in the contract with Lucifer--for which Faustus forfeits his soul. For Marlowe, then, Helen is implicated in an economy within which she both represents a notional limit as a singularly superlative beauty and at the same time exceeds that limit, incomparable to any other prize bought for the price of Faustus' soul. But in this moralizing tale even the most excessively beautiful prize is of course no fair exchange for the immortal, Christian soul. The play suggests that the soul, in much the same terms as Helen herself, whose famous visage it evokes for exactly this end, is incomparably valuable, a possession so precious that is exceeds any system of exchange.

In raising these questions of commensurability around the figure of Helen, Dr Faustus provides entry into the Iliad's own troubled representation of Helen as an excessively valued object of desire and the cause of the Trojan War. Moreover, Faustus' forfeiture of his soul points to the price the Greeks pay for Helen's return, measured in lives (psuchai) lost in their struggles with the Trojans. Taking its cue from Marlowe, then, this essay explores the Iliad's representation of value and exchange through an examination of two superlatively valued individuals, Helen and Achilles. In Part I, I argue that Helen plays a doubled role in this Iliadic discourse of value: as an object of desire, Helen embodies an ideology of superlativity that seeks to justify the loss of many lives for a single woman; at the same time, as a desiring subject, she raises sinister doubts about this ideology of superlativity. Part II turns to Achilles, who not only represents Helen's counterpart in superlativity as the best of the Achaeans but also, like Helen, has a troubled relationship to the Iliadic discourse of superlativity. Although his strike, which itself costs many psuchai, depends upon the recognition of his own superlative value, Achilles mounts a powerful critique of Agamemnon's justification of the effort to retrieve Helen, which culminates in the assertion that there is nothing so valuable that it can adequately compensate for the loss of the psuche.

Part I. Regretting Helen

Limit case

The failure of description expressed by Marlowe's third scholar above echoes Homer's single attempt to describe Helen's face in Iliad 3. …

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