Laurie Maguire


On her book Helen of Troy: From Homer to Hollywood

Cover Interview of March 16, 2010

A close-up

No one can write about Helen of Troy without thinking about the meaning of beauty.

Consider the following statements about Helen’s beauty.  Here is Guido delle Colonne writing in the thirteenth century: “Helen was famous for excessive loveliness.”  Guido’s phrasing is interesting: Helen is not the most beautiful woman in the world (that would be a compliment: Helen as the absolute of womankind); she is a woman with too much beauty (a hint of a problem: that in this case surplus is deficiency).  Here is the Renaissance writer Giovanni Petro Bellori, arguing that Helen did not have enough beauty: “Helen was not as beautiful as they pretended, for she was found to have defects and shortcomings.”  Here is the New York Times film critic reacting to Diane Kruger’s portrayal of Helen in the Hollywood film Troy: “she isn’t sufficiently fabulous-looking to be convincing as the face that launched a thousand ships.”

Common to these statements is an economy of surplus and lack: Helen’s beauty is “excessive” or “insufficient.”  These binaries are attributed to beauty but they are also, as it happens, properties of narrative.  Plenitude and lack are common to both, and the result is the same: desire.  In life we call it longing; in narrative it is called suspense.

In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra Enobarbus attempts to describe ancient Egypt’s most beautiful ruler, Cleopatra.  Although he can describe everything around her in sumptuous and erotic detail, when it comes to Cleopatra herself he summarizes simply: “she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies.”

What is true of Cleopatra is true of Helen and is true of narrative itself: it makes hungry where most it satisfies.  Narrative detail is the literary equivalent of the dermatological itch, where one scratch of inflamed skin is too many and one hundred is never enough.  Any attempt at literary representation of beauty invites detail (was she blonde? tall? what color were her eyes?) and all details about Helen prove problematic, for reasons related to the binary sketched above.  As Susan Stewart put it, in On Longing, “detail . . . does not tell us enough and yet it tells us too much.”

Thus beauty, like its linguistic proxy, detail, paradoxically creates the one thing it tries to forestall: the longing for more.  Of all other desires—a good meal, a new car, a bigger house—the fulfillment of the desire coincides with the termination of longing.  As Elaine Scarry argued, when the object is acquired or the dream realized, desire ends; beauty, however, renews the longing.

In this sense, the specific narrative problem of detail is a problem of closure.  For in attempting to describe and to detail, narrative tries to pin down and to contain.  Detail is really an attempt at closure.  The history of Helen’s story is a series of attempts to close that story, a closure Helen and her narrative consistently elude and frustrate.  Closure is something that beauty, not just Helen’s beauty, resists.