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Grafting Helen

The Abduction of the Classical Past

Matthew Gumpert

Publication Year: 2001

History is a love story: a tale of desire and jealousy, abandonment and fidelity, abduction and theft, rupture and reconciliation. This contention is central to Grafting Helen, Matthew Gumpert's original and dazzling meditation on Helen of Troy as a crucial anchor for much of Western thought and literature.
Grafting Helen looks at "classicism"—the privileged rhetorical language for describing cultural origins in the West—as a protracted form of cultural embezzlement. No coin in the realm has been more valuable, more circulated, more coveted, or more counterfeited than the one that bears the face of Helen of Troy. Gumpert uncovers Helen as the emblem for the past as something to be stolen, appropriated, imitated, extorted,  and coveted once again.
Tracing the figure of Helen from its classical origins through the Middle Ages, the French Renaissance, and the modern era, Gumpert suggests that the relation of current Western culture to the past is not like the act of coveting; it is the act of coveting, he argues, for it relies on the same strategies, the same defenses, the same denials, and the same delusions.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-11

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pp. xi-xiv

In Book 3 of the Iliad, Greeks and Trojans have laid down their arms while Paris and Menelaus prepare to fight for Helen. At that moment Helen herself appears upon the city walls, in a passage (3.154–60) traditionally referred to as the teichoskopia (the Look-...

Part 1: Helen in Greece

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pp. 1-17

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1. Mimesis

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pp. 3-23

Helen’s beauty fractures her, making her epistemologically (who is she?), ontologically (is she?), and ethically (whose is she?) undecidable: a Helen-graft.1 This undecidability is precisely what Plato will come to fear in all mimesis. In this chapter I argue that Helen...

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2. Anamnesis

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pp. 24-42

Mimetic pleasure depends upon a kind of cognitive slippage or graft: a structure of misreading or metaphorical displacement. For Aristotle that pleasure is the sign that we are learning something. What mimesis teaches us, however, and how it teaches us remain, even in Aristotle, relational: functions of linguistic displacement or pivoting (from...

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3. Supplement

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pp. 43-57

In ‘‘La double scéance’’ (1972a:212–13), Derrida analyzes the Platonic model of mimesis.What is significant for our purposes about his reading of the Philebus is its suggestion that contradiction is built into the Platonic notion of imitation. Derrida points out that there are at least two simultaneous yet irreconcilable conceptualizations of imitation:...

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4. Speculation

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pp. 58-68

We have seen that Aristotle tends to regard metaphor with suspicion, as an instrument of linguistic profiteering. The Trojan elders in Iliad 3 are not simply admiring Helen; they are speculating on and about her. The acquisition of Helen by Troy has made this appraisal imperative. How much, the elders are asking, is Helen worth? Is she worth the...

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5. Epideixis

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pp. 69-83

In Metamorphoses 14, Ovid recounts the courtship of Pomona by Vertumnus. It is a tale about persuasion as a form of violence barely checked and barely concealed. Pomona is a wood-nymph or hamadryas, one of a class of nymphs, according to the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, ‘‘whose lives were co-terminous with their trees...

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6. Deixis

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pp. 84-98

‘‘Eros is always a story in which lover, beloved and the difference between them interact,’’ writes Anne Carson (1986:169). This is arguably the essential plot of the lyric, reduced to its basic outlines. This chapter focuses primarily on the role Helen plays in the works of the lyric poets Alcaeus, Alcman, Theocritus, and, above all, Sappho. The lyric Helen, I contend, always acts as a pivot or a point of articulation, as that ‘‘difference...

Part 2: Helen in France

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pp. 99-115

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7. Idolatry

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pp. 101-122

In ‘‘Se j’ai esté lonc tens en Romanie,’’ a chanson courtoise, or courtly love song, from the thirteenth century, the troubadour Raoul de Soissons (active 1243–55) resurrects the image of his beloved from afar. He is remembering her, in other words, but not only her. In order to confer upon his dame the greatest possible value, the...

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8. Translation

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pp. 123-142

This chapter examines the myth of Trojan origins, and Helen’s role in it, in late medieval and early modern France. This myth functions as a genealogical graft in which (pagan) past is sutured seamlessly to (Christian) present through a repetition of migrations: Trojans become Romans, Romans become French, and thus France is Troy...

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9. Genealogy

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pp. 143-161

Marriage in the twelfth-century romance promises the possibility of a stable intertextual genealogy, a seamless transference of the past to the present, and the present to a future still to come. Helen, classic exemplum of adultery, figures in this setting above all as a threat to cultural succession and therefore legitimacy. At the same time, ironically...

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10. Cosmetics

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pp. 162-192

What if new poetry is just old poetry, stolen, stitched together, and given a makeover? Early modern lyric continues to be judged almost solely by the criteria of originality and authenticity. Even when it appears to be nothing more than a collection of conventions and clichés, a good poem must refer, we persist in believing, to something...

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11. Miscegenation

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pp. 193-217

In Lorely: Souvenirs d’Allemagne, Gérard de Nerval recalls attending a performance of Goethe’s Faust in 1850 with a group of compatriots (1961:729– 82). ‘‘Many times we had talked about the possibility of creating a Faust in the French style, without imitating the inimitable Goethe’’ (‘‘Nous avions si souvent discuté ensemble sur la possibilité de faire un Faust dans le goût français, sans imiter Goethe l’inimitable...

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12. Prostitution

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pp. 218-238

Chénier, de Lisle, and Valéry share the same fear of impurity, and the same fascination with corruption. Helen is an emblem of that corruption: poetry’s sacred prostitute.Why is nineteenth-century France fascinated by the figure of the prostitute? Because the prostitute is a woman with a past and stands for any space that others have traversed. At Iliad 3.180 Helen, now Paris’s wife, remembers that she used to be Menelaus’s...

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Prosthesis: Helen in (Modern) Greece

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pp. 239-250

In ‘‘TheVirgin of Sparta,’’ a sonnet by the modern Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos (1884–1951), Mary, or Helen, is implicitly invoked as the patron saint of graft: ‘‘Not of Pentelic marble nor of brass / shall I erect Thy deathless idol [τὸ ἀθάνατο εἴδωλό Σου], but / from a tall column made of cypress wood / that my work may be fragrant...

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pp. 251-264

It seems fitting to conclude this book as tourists on a trip to Greece, returning, in a sense, to where we started. But only in a sense. (One cannot help but note how pervasive the gesture of continuity is in all forms of cultural discourse. Here my effort to make a neat segue from ‘‘Prosthesis’’ to ‘‘Conclusion’’ suggests how much we value seamlessness..


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pp. 265-299


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pp. 300-319


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pp. 320-321


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pp. 322-338

E-ISBN-13: 9780299171230
E-ISBN-10: 029917123X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299171247
Print-ISBN-10: 0299171248

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2001

Edition: 1