Friday, October 03, 2014

John Ashbery’s “The Egyptian Helen”

John Ashbery, c. 1975
(Photograph by Peter Hujar)

Out of the cormorancy: a John Ashbery prose piece called “The Egyptian Helen.” In a note appended to the “Introduction” to Ashbery’s Selected Prose (2004), editor Eugene Richie—conjecturally assembling “seminal texts in a representative selection of Ashbery’s prose poetry and fiction”—lists its provenance thus: “‘The Egyptian Helen,’ written in 1952, is a short story that I found in a folder in Ashbery’s desk drawer in his apartment in Chelsea and that was subsequently published, first as an appendix to Rosanne Wasserman’s doctoral thesis, ‘Helen of Troy: Her Myth in Modern Poetry’ . . . and later in the English-Russian magazine Gnosis 11 (Winter 1995), edited by the poet Victoria Andreyeva and the fiction writer Arkady Rovner.” Gnosis proved introuvable. What’s here is the piece as recopied out of Wasserman’s 1986 CUNY dissertation. Of the Greeks, Euripides, Stesichorus, and Herodotus all put Helen in Egypt during the Trojan War. In Euripides’s Helen, the Helen who runs off to Troy with Paris is a likeness constructed by Hera, an eidolon, phantom. Ashbery’s story:
The Egyptian Helen

      A beautiful girl, a wild impish girl. A girl with a weak will and pronounced characteristics, with strange hoarse mannerisms that are revolting at times. Do not get too close. A girl to inspire the heart and mind of an academician. We read that she was associated with trees, and this is not hard to believe as we see her in Sparta with the other girls, her sisters, on a Saturday night in summer as they emerge from their house to watch the bright lights and the boys showing off, just before bedtime. A shrinking but unforgettable figure, genuinely attractive, minus a few bedbug bites, and exactly like a tree. Then there is the “tree of Helen.” What is it? Perhaps someone will tell me, for I do not know what it is.
      We read that she may have been a goddess, but that men forgot this at some point and made her an aristocrat. She behaved like an aristocrat, but also very much like a goddess. For instance, her childhood was largely taken up with questions like, Does what we eat affect our personality? and, What is right? She wrestled all her life with the first question, so that as a wrinkled and white-haired old lady she approached every morsel in an agony of indecision, though knowing that the question cannot be answered. She was constantly finding new answers to the second question, like an unscrupulous pioneering goddess, like a very beautiful one. It is fun to consider what is right and to make up new names for it. Unlike most games it grows more amusing the longer one plays, since one always feels on the point of a move which will recoup all one’s losses. One does not grow cross and ugly in old age. One imagines one’s death as a magnificent though costly move, which might win the game if one could stay to see that justice were administered. It is not the removal of oneself that does the trick, but the fact that one has finally succeeded in becoming emotional. This was difficult for a girl like Helen, who was two-thirds dead to begin with, owing to the confusion about her mortal or immortal status, which stemmed from a confusion in her own mind.
      “The dear girl,” people in Sparta used to say, “but of course she has no heart.” Of course she had a heart; she was very sensitive; but she was always watching to see what her next move would be. People who have their attention fixed on the events of the next five minutes cannot be called spiritual, but they do have that attitude of peaceful expectancy which, among other things, lends inspiration and fury to the academicians’ flailing chisels. What about the academicians? They were an ugly lot, with even baser natures than the true bohemian artists. But even the lowest of them had the knack of selecting one characteristic from the subject at hand and making it seem all-important. Helen was always very patient with them. It was through deep contemplation of their work that she noticed her own unspirituality, and after that it was as if all doors opened before her. She saw that it was her characteristic of waiting that gave her significance, and she was able to make it, not spiritual of course, but all-important. A slight improvement, but the most that could be expected of her. She knew it and was glad.
      How often we hear it said of someone, “She changed my life,” and much less often, “It was through her that I found out who I really am.” Of Helen the first could not be said; in spite of her violent beauty she made very little impression, and she did not make so little that one thought about her afterwards. It was strange, but she seemed to have the beauty of a very beautiful cat or tree which one admires but very soon forgets. But it was she who made men know what they were. After she found out about herself (just before she left Sparta), that waiting was her great characteristic, but before she had begun seriously to consider it, she began having this effect on the men who met her. Not that she had found out who she was—the old confusion hadn’t vanished, because she continued to think about her next move—but she now knew about her confusion, and men saw it and discovered theirs. As she stood on the deck of Paris’s ship, with the men making ready, as quietly as possible, to set sail from Sparta, she thought about her newly discovered self, about the effect she had had on Paris, but most of all about her forthcoming decision in the game of what is right. “I shall discover the rule of right and proper conduct,” she exclaimed to no one. “But it won’t apply to everyone—just to some people.” But this is an even more difficult part of her confusion, because according to this legend it was a phantom of her which Paris carried off to Troy, and the true Helen spent the war years in Egypt, living quietly at the court of King Proteus. Yet it is certain that, just as she was in a way the cause of the phantom’s existence, as the phantom was somehow a part of her, though she would have sincerely denied, if she had been questioned, ever making the remark or laying eyes on the man the world supposed her to have eloped with.
      And yet she might have admitted these things, as she would have admitted, on finding herself in Egypt, that she was at a loss. Perhaps deciding to discover a law was the same as discovering it, and subsequent attempts to apply it the same as losing it, as imagining more of an improvement for herself than was possible. She was unhappy; she did not know how to eat. She did not know there was a phantom of herself far away having her old effect on men to the extent we know about, but somehow she felt downhearted. But she was happy that she had not abandoned her quest for right because she had discovered it accidentally; she knew that she would not be lost for long, even though she found a new place instead of the old one, or remained exactly where she was. She felt that she had made her last move and that it was now up to others to make what they would of the game. She was given a sumptuous apartment in the palace and a maid named Lois, who did not speak at all. She was a sad, impudent negress. It was impossible to escape for long from her responsible gaze, though Helen tried it at first. She used to go for walks around the city, hoping for some adventure which might make her feel at home, for her feeling of pleasant victorious uncertainty was beginning to be replaced by the ordinary old one, the kind she had felt at Sparta before she found out she could affect what went on around her. No doubt it was the phantom, which was now causing events of a more and more terrible importance, and thus encroaching more and more on people’s thoughts, though they did not mistake it for the real Helen. She felt a little light, a little silly. But she knew she was the true Helen, even though the phantom (of whom she was not aware) might end by being more lifelike than herself. How did she know this? Because she did not mistake people for their thoughts, as they were letting a thought of her gradually replace her in their minds. Of course no thought of her, however clearly defined, could have any importance for them. And though there was less and less of her, the less there was the more it seemed to be she.
      Nevertheless she felt uncertain. So she decided to take Lois along on her expeditions for a little weight, a little color until she should be feeling sufficiently lost to begin contemplating another move. It was impossible to make an adventure of these sly Egyptians, of their flat sky and buildings and the evil smells that escaped from their sewers. Lois introduced her to a number of people; there was a young man whom she liked well enough to try to test her old powers on him; but none of this was really any use, and she could not seem to do whatever it was these people had in mind for her, though she realized how important it was to try. Every day they went to an outdoor café on a big square where all these people used to come. They seemed to take little interest in life, sitting or moving about much as the phantom Helen might move about Troy, caring little for any advantage it might or might not have over those about her. Helen was afraid of becoming like this herself, and decided to do her best to attract their attention.
      “I have heard that far, far away,” she said, “a terrible war is being waged in my name. Every morning men set forth full of the hope of gaining me, and every evening they return, crushed and hopeless without me. And this has been going on for years.” But Lois and the young man only pretended to look astonished, or perhaps they had not heard. Perhaps they were not there at all. Still, Helen felt better. She got up from the table and began walking away. Neither Lois nor the young man made any move to follow her.
      She walked on through the half empty squares. Occasionally a sentry or a slave would stiffen as she passed and clear his throat as though wishing she would speak to him. But she did not notice her surroundings, or that night had begun to fall. She felt angry with herself for her long idleness. She had been drawn away from her interests by an absurd double who was menacing the world, which was no concern of hers, and now she had returned to find herself in a place that was not at all like home, among people who were merely shadows, who expected her to tell them what to do. In the absence of anyone to play her game with she had been playing with the phantom Helen. She was a goddess who had played with a mortal, which was forgetfulness. What was there to do? In her despair she did not notice that she had become again the old watchful Helen, full of anxiety but doing neither more nor less than what was expected of her.
      As she neared the palace she noticed a little old man seated at an easel in the shadow of an archway, painting from a tiny paintbox. It was King Proteus! “Why do you paint at night?” she asked. But he seemed not to hear. Boldly she stepped up to him and took the picture from the easel. It was a portrait of herself, done in the pale academic manner she had known so well in days gone by. There was in fact nothing to distinguish it from the dozens of portraits of her that the Spartan painters had made. The central quality was once again elusiveness, a lack of decision which had been so common a characteristic in their work that for a time it had seemed a trademark of artistic excellence.
      “Why have you done this?” she demanded sternly.
      Tears flowed from the old king’s eyes. “Because I missed you,” he answered simply. “I knew you were dwelling in my palace. At the same time, it seemed your thoughts were always far away, goodness knows where, so I decided to paint your picture to remind myself that you were here, that you still loved me, and that I loved you. Now, if you don’t mind, I should like to continue.”
      Helen returned to her apartment and went to bed. She did not think about the king’s words, for they were only a reflection of her own thoughts, but about the portrait of herself. “I am the Helen of all those pictures and plays and poems,” she thought. “It was not my face that launched a thousand ships, or received the kisses of Paris, or did anything wonderful. My face was valuable only because it could be reproduced an infinite number of times. I might have been watchful Helen, or the impatient Helen, or the gay Helen; those artists did not care so long as I reflected their own sorrowful emptiness, which I now am.” She looked in the mirror and discovered she had grown old and tired, though not cross or ugly. “It is just as well,” she sighed. “At least I discovered the rule of right and proper conduct.”
      After that time passed very quickly. She would lie in bed wishing it was Thursday, and almost before she had formed the wish it would be the Thursday after next, or the next year. One day an old woman came to the palace selling things, and she bought this, that and the other. The old woman asked her as a favor to keep her dog for a year and a day, for she had to go on a long journey. Helen asked her why she was so fond of the dog. “Because it is a magic dog,” she replied. “It does what I tell it to.” Helen promised to cherish it as though it were herself, and the old woman departed.
      Helen gazed for a long time at the dog as it lay on a comfortable rug before the fire. She decided to test its obedience. “Go and bring me my husband,” she commanded. “Why do you disobey my mistress?” the dog asked, and putting its paws on Helen’s breasts, it nipped her lightly on the cheek and vanished.
      The year and a day passed quickly enough. On the appointed day Helen lay in bed clad in her most beautiful robes, and wearing her costliest jewels. The scar where the dog had nipped her had not gone away, but it seemed to make her more beautiful than ever. Lois ushered the old lady into the bedchamber. Helen noticed that she looked strangely like old King Proteus, but she was too tired to look at her very closely.
      The old crone did not seem surprised or displeased to learn that the dog had vanished. “It was not a dog anyway,” she said. “It was only a phantom. Look, here is a letter I have brought you as a reward for your pains.” And so saying, she too vanished.
      “No doubt this is a letter from my husband, Menelaus,” Helen said to herself. “He has discovered my identity, and wants to claim me. Well, let him do as he wishes. In any case I am too tired to open this letter.” But Lois opened it for her and placed it on the bed. Sure enough, it was from Menelaus announcing his immediate arrival in Egypt, and full of regrets over their long separation and the unhappy struggle at Troy, “all over a lost cause,” as he said.
      Euripides tells us that Menelaus discovered his true wife in Egypt and managed to escape with her back to Sparta despite the efforts of King Proteus’s son, who had fallen in love with her. Since there is room for an infinite number of legends, I shall suppose that she remained in her apartment, attended by the faithful Lois, and refusing all nourishment because she knew there was no answer to the question of whether what we eat affects our personality. So she grew always less and less, and so (she felt) more like herself, except for the scar on her cheek, which seemed to make her more beautiful than all the illicit kisses of Paris. She would now have seemed a very likeable little girl, just as she had seemed in Sparta so very long ago, if there had been anyone to see her, except that she had entered the country of shyness, and was as far from everyone as they were from her.
      Being shy, it seemed, was not the same as being correct. But anything was like waking from a beautiful daylight sleep, more certain of what was to come than of what had already happened. Lois and the young man, the old king, the old lady and the dog, all seemed like beautiful friends on the deck of a ship which was tugging excitedly at its moorings, who now approached to introduce her to the charming young stranger, the lady so much like herself, even more beautiful, though without a scar, who extended her hand as the sailors shot the silvery sail up into the blue night sky.
Isn’t it the ending that seems most particularly Ashberyesque? The taut reciprocity of “tugging excitedly at its moorings” versus the “silvery sail” being “shot . . . up into the blue night sky.” That sail, full of salutation and possibility—I think of the ending of the prose poem “For John Clare” in The Double Dream of Spring (1970): “So their comment is ‘No comment.’ Meanwhile the whole history of probabilities is coming to life, starting in the upper left-hand corner, like a sail.” Or of the sail at the end of the eponymous poem of Houseboat Days (1977):
A little simple arithmetic tells you that to be with you
In this passage, this movement, is what the instance costs:
A sail out of some afternoon, beyond amazement, astonished,
Apparently not tampered with. As the rain gathers and protects
Its own darkness, the place in the slipcover is noticed
For the first and last time, fading like the spine
Of an adventure novel behind glass, behind the teacups.*
* Originally:
A sail out of some afternoon, like the clear dark blue
Eyes of Harold in Italy, beyond amazement, astonished,
Apparently not tampered with. . . .
Subsequently truncated for the Selected Poems (1985)—the only instance of post-book-publication revising by Ashbery I know of.