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  • Simulation, Violence, and Resistance in Euripides' Helen
  • Brian V. Lush (bio)

Helen was in any case merely a simulacrum, since the universal form of beauty is as unreal as gold, the universal form of all commodities. Every universal form is a simulacrum, since it is the simultaneous equivalent of all the others—something it is impossible for any real thing to be.

Jean Baudrillard

Introduction

Euripides' "new Helen," as Aristophanes (Thesm. 850) identifies her, occupies a tenuous position between the aggressive imposition of power (divine, political, and erotic) and resistance. In Hera's replication of Helen, the goddess would nullify Helen's identity in order to remove the stakes of a military conflict predicated upon Helen's singular beauty. Although Helen's eponymous heroine seeks to differentiate herself from her divinely fabricated clone, she nevertheless re-enacts a pattern of abduction, duplicity, and martial violence which has always haunted her story. Paradoxically, her efforts at resistance, both to human coercion and to the threat posed by her double, come to simulate the irony, deception, and seduction that characterize the eidôlon (and, by extension, the prior tradition around Helen that the eidôlon embodies).1

Accordingly, as Jean Baudrillard suggests in the quotation that introduces this essay, Helen's universal mythic embodiment of beauty, seductive allure, and disarming cleverness should give us pause in assigning authenticity or priority to any of her instantiations, since each Helen is always "the simultaneous equivalent of all the others." The tension between Helen's struggle to assert her unique personhood and the weight of a mythic tradition that places her at the center of war, retribution, and abduction emerges powerfully in Euripides' Helen. At stake, then, are the mythic explanation and justification of a primeval war fought repeatedly [End Page 29] in Greek poetic tradition over the figure now (re)presented on stage. By uniquely synchronizing Helen and her double within a single poetic artifact,2 Euripides' play raises questions about whether Helen's efforts at differentiation and resistance can succeed, and about the status and rationale of the Trojan War, whose center Helen (or, rather, Helens) persistently occupies.

This explains why scholars have long been interested in issues of perception, cognition, and the establishment of authenticity in the play. Many have addressed these topics by raising questions regarding the "seriousness" of Euripides' Helen and its status as tragic drama.3 The thorniness of locating and accounting for difference in Helen has also prompted substantial commentary on the epistemological questions raised by Helen and her replica, and such readings have shed light on the play's exploration of the limits and possibilities of human thought and communication.4 Whereas epistemologically oriented approaches have addressed the difficulty of verifying difference in the play, deconstructive readings have raised ontological questions by destabilizing the distinction between the Helen on stage and her identical apparition. In particular, Pietro Pucci (1997), Matthew Gumpert (2001, 43–57), and Gary Meltzer (2006, 188–222) invert earlier readings of Helen's relationship to her double by employing the Derridean notion of the supplement, according to which Euripides' new Helen bears the trace of the eidôlon that continually threatens to replace her.5 By applying a model of substitution to Helen's dramatic action, poststructuralist critics have begun to locate fissures in the barrier between an original Helen and her copy.

Epistemological approaches to Euripides' Helen have largely assumed that notions of priority and authenticity remain stable (albeit imperceptible) in the play. Derridean readings of the play, on the contrary, invoke a "structure of replacement" (Pucci 1997, 45–47, 52) and a logic of "supplementarity" (Gumpert 2001, 43–57)—approaches that posit a shifting priority between Helen and her phantom and that do not fully account for Helen's targeted critique of war and violent coercion.6 The latter contributions have initiated crucial dialogue around issues of authenticity and identity in Helen, although their deployment of the logic of replacement limits the potential power and scope of a Derridean reading of the drama, since Jacques Derrida is everywhere concerned with breaking down and diffusing notions of priority and authenticity—a theoretical aim not entirely consistent with the dynamics of replacement and substitution...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-0228
Print ISSN
0160-0923
Pages
pp. 29-80
Launched on MUSE
2018-06-27
Open Access
No
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