Let’s start with a classic, shall we? I’ve been reading the Aenid – in fact, I was liveblogging my reading over on tumblr the other day with some of my favourite quotes, if you want to have a look. It’s an epic poem by the Roman poet Virgil, making up six books. It’s a uniquely foundational text in Western literary tradition.
I want to talk about a passage from Book Two, which is concerned with the very end of Troy. (I’m assuming most of you know how this goes, a fight over a woman called Helen, a ten year war between the Trojans and the Greeks, the Greeks sneak inside the city walls in a giant wooden horse, they win.) I’ve taken it from Robert Fagles’ 2006 translation, which is rather beautiful. The following passage comes shortly after the death of the Trojan King Priam and it’s from the perspective of Aeneas. Lines 703-728 are as follows:
at just that moment I was the one man left
and then I saw her, clinging to Vesta’s threshold,
hiding in silence, tucked away – Helen of Argos.
Glare of the fires lit my view as I looked down,
scanning the city left and right, and there she was…
terrified of the Trojans’ hate, now that Troy was overpowered,
terrified of the Greeks’ revenge, her deserted husband’s rage-
that universal Fury, a curse to Troy and her native land
and here she lurked, skulking, a thing of loathing
cowering at the altar: Helen. Out it flared,
the fire inside my soul, my rage ablaze to avenge
our fallen country-pay Helen back, crime for crime.
“‘So, this woman,’ it struck me now, ‘safe and sound
she’ll look once more on Sparta, ner native Greece?
She’ll ride like a queen in triumph with her trophies?
Feast her eyes on her husband. parents, children too?
Her retinue fawning round her, Phrygian ladies, slaves?
That – with Priam put to the sword? And Troy up in flames?
And time and again out Dardan shores have sweated blood?
Not for all the world. No fame, no memory to be won
for punishing a woman: such victory reaps no praise
but to stamp this abomination out as she deserves,
to punish her now, they’ll sing my praise for that.
What joy, to glut my heart with the fires of such vengeance,
bring some peace to the ashes of my people!’
“Whirling words – I was swept away by fury now”
And then his mother, the goddess Venus, appears to him, and tells Aeneas to not blame Helen but the gods.
Now, this is a curious passage, because it doesn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts. There are a number of theories as to why this is. Virgil hadn’t finished the Aenid by the time of his death  and there are lots of lines that have been left unfinished. The status of this particular passage is uncertain: did Virgil strike it out? Was he going to work on it more? Did someone else remove it? Is it his writing at all?
So, with that in mind, I want to raise a few questions about the passage. I can’t relate to a lot of the ways of thinking in the Aenid, set in a world so long ago and far away. But the attitude towards Helen here is very familiar. I’ve no problem with Aeneas’ anger in itself; he’s lost his king, his country and in the next few pages he loses his wife. Keeping in mind that the structure of the Aenid isn’t in chronological order and this is the only passage including Helen I’ve encountered thus far, that the anger is so exclusively directed at Helen seems unfair. After all, she’s terrified, and I’m not certain whether the Aenid specifies this, but in many versions of the myth she’s a victim of kidnapping. It seems to place the blame on Helen for existing, for being a beautiful woman who men fight over. She may be held as the catalyst for the war, but she’s essentially powerless and after all didn’t fight this great long war herself.
Aeneas, though, thinks himself quite within his rights to take vengeance on her. It wouldn’t be right to punish a regular sort of woman though, but he’d be praised for stamping out ‘this abomination’. He has to reduce her from a woman to an abomination, take her humanity out of it, in order to feel justified. And that reduction is something I cannot stomach. It recalls countless instances in which men have ignored or explained away women’s humanity in order to feel that committing acts of violence against them is permissable, and often proper, too.
What do you think? Have you read the Aenid? What do you think about this passage in the context of its uncertain publication history? What do you think of representations of Helen in general?
 There’s a story that may or may not be true that says that Virgil asked that the unfinished work be destroyed. I thought you should know in case that would factor in to your decision whether to read the Aenid or not. I myself won’t read anything by Kafka out of respect for his unfulfilled wish that his work be destroyed.