The Mansions of Helen

by George Santayana (1922)

Concerning the visions which men have of the gods there is much uncertainty. It is written that no man can see God and live; but I think some evil god or evil man must be spoken of, and that they come nearer to the truth who say that the vision of God brings perfect happiness. I suspect this is true in a humbler and more familiar sense than is intended in discourses about the state of the soul in heaven; for there is a heaven above every place, and the soul mounts to it in all its thoughts and actions, when these are perfect. I incline also to another opinion, which would surprise those religious friends of mine who call me an atheist; namely, that Whenever we see anything, we have, or might have if we chose, a partial vision of God, and a moment of happiness. For all experience comes to us fatally, from an alien source which in physics is called matter, in morals power or will, and in religion God; so that by his power (as I learned when a child in my Spanish catechism) God is present in everything. The same authority added (and how full of meaning that word is to me now!) that he was also present in everything by his essence; since what is brought unimpeachably before us in any vision is some essence which, being absolutely indestructible, is in that respect divine. It is indestructible because, if all trace and memory of it were destroyed, it would in that very obscuration vindicate its essential identity, since not it, but only things different from it, would now exist. Every essence, therefore, lies eternally at the very foundations of being, and is a part of the divine immutability and necessity; an intrinsic feature in that Nous or Logos which theologians tell us is the second hypostasis of the divine nature. Yet to say that we see God when we see him only in part is perhaps hazardous and open to objection, because a part of anything, separated from the rest, becomes a different being, qualitatively and numerically; and it will be better to speak of our visions as visions of angels or messengers or demigods, having one divine parent and one human. In everything, if we regard it as it is in itself, and not selfishly, we may find an incarnation or manifestation of deity.

How the divinity of our daily visitants shines out at certain moments and then again is obscured by our practical haste and inattention, is admirably expressed in the history of Helen. Her birth was miraculous, and yet quaintly natural, for her father Zeus, having taken the form of a swan when he wooed her mother Leda, she was hatched from a great white egg; and there was always something swanlike in the movements of her neck, in the composure of her carriage, as if borne on still waters, in the scarcely flushed marble of her skin, and in the lightness and amplitude of her floating garments. She was hardly of this world, and it seemed almost a desecration to have wedded her to any mortal. Yet she offered no resistance to love; it was indifferent to her whom she might enamour, or into what nest of robbers she might be carried by force. Was it not violence, she said to herself, to exist on earth at all? What mattered a shade more or less of violence? If she remained in a manner chaste and inviolate, it was only because she was too beautiful to tempt the lusts of men. Neither of her two husbands loved or understood her. Menelaus because he was a dullard, and Paris because he was a rake, approached her as they would have approached any other woman, and they found no great pleasure in her society. Yet wherever she appeared, every one stopped talking and was motionless; and she was worshipped by all who saw her pass at a distance. Supreme beauty is foreign everywhere, yet everywhere has a right of domicile; it opens a window to heaven, and is a cause of suspended animation and, as it were, ecstatic suicide in the heart of mortals.

Helen passed her childhood dazed, but with a pleasing wonder, because she loved her brothers, and they, absorbed though they were habitually in their violent sports, were tender to her. When they died, how gladly would she have followed them and become the third star with them in heaven! But she found herself married to Menelaus the king; and this her first mansion at Sparta, the narrowest of citadels, was far from happy. The palace was a great farm-house, and the talk in it was all of harvests and cattle and horses and wars. The men were boors, and their scruples about sacrifices and auguries annoyed her; being half divine, she felt no need for religion. "What advantage is it," she said in her thoughts, "to be a queen when I am a prisoner, or to be called beautiful where nobody looks at me."

Accordingly it was with a vague hope and a secret desire for vengeance that she heard of the approach of a brilliant stranger, from a far more populous and flourishing city than Sparta, who came with gifts and a glib tongue to view the wonders of the island world. When his eyes fell on her, his unfeigned surprise filled her with exultation. To be so discerned, for her, was to be won. Those eyes could recognize divinity. No doubt he was preparing new fetters for her and new sorrows, but for a moment she would be free, and in following him she would feel herself once more the goddess.

In fact, so long as they sailed the dark-purple sea, or rested in caves or in island bowers, all was pleasantness between them. Their very galley, with its white sails spread, took on something of Helen's beauty, and seemed a cloud wafted across the Aegean, or the swan, her father, riding on the rippled reaches of the Meander. Paris proved a candid and light-hearted lover; never vexed, he was all grace and mastery in small matters: one of those lordly travellers who can feel the charm of nature and of woman in every dime, however exotic, however pure, or however impure; and the incomparable Helen seemed indeed incomparable to his practised mind. He adored her, but he preferred other women. Moreover, she found that at Troy he counted for nothing. He moved amid battles and councils, quite at home in the scene, but never consulted; a prince turned shepherd, a familiar but superfluous ornament, like a fop or a ballet-dancer that everybody smiled upon and nobody respected. It was given him in the end to slay the redoubtable Achilles with a chance arrow, Apollo secretly directing the shaft, but he was no warrior. It was a useless triumph, as his abduction of Helen had been an innocent crime: both were the work of gods laughing at human arrogance. There were doubtless street rhetoricians in Ilium who upbraided Paris and Helen, as there are reasoning philosophers and politicians to-day who attribute the ascendancy or decay of nations to the ideas that prevail there, forgetting to ask why those particular ideas have been embraced by those peoples, when all ideas, in the universal market, are to be had gratis. The wise old Priam and his counsellors knew better. They did not disown Paris for his escapade, as they might so easily have done, nor did they return Helen to her wronged husband, useless as she was at Troy. They knew that the confused battles of earth must be fought over some nominal prize; men and animals will always be fighting for something, not because the thing is necessarily of any value to them, but because they wish to snatch it from one another. Helen had lent her name and image to colour an ancient feud, and make articulate the dull eternal contention between Asia and Europe. It was for existence that each party was fighting; but it added to their courage and self-esteem to say they were fighting for beauty, and that the victory of their side would be a victory for the gods. But the gods were in both camps, and in neither, as in her heart was Helen herself. In her isolation, her conscience sometimes reproached her, and she wondered that she never heard these reproaches from the lips of others. Hector and Priam and the other old men, even the queen and the gossiping women, treated her with deference; but they cared only for Troy and for their own affairs. If less beset than in her strict old home, she was more neglected in these spacious palaces, and no less melancholy. Was it a miracle of generosity that nobody blamed her, or was it a supreme proof of indifference, that standing in the centre of the stage she remained unheeded? Was she so much a goddess that they thought her a statue? Would she be borne away by the victors like an inert Palladium, to be set up elsewhere on a new pedestal? She did not understand that it is not the vision that men have of the gods that works their safety or ruin, but that fatal maladjustments, or natural vigour in them, in shaping their destiny, call that vision down. Nor is it an idle vision; for the sight turns the dreary length of their misery into a tragedy flashing with light and tears; and the presence of Helen on those beleaguered walls, which might have irritated the foolish, consoled the wise. She was not the cause of their danger nor of their coming disaster, as she had not been the cause of the harsh virtues of her Spartan clan; but as those harsh virtues had created her beauty, so the wealth and exuberant civilization of Ilium had recognized it, and made it their own; and she was a glory to both nations, for not every city, of all the cities that perish, has had a queen like her. When Troy fell at last, when Hector and Paris and Priam were dead, and Aeneas had escaped just in time, she waited, impassible, at the gate of the smoking acropolis, neither glad nor sorry, not ashamed to see her first husband again and his shouting friends — for she despised them — nor unwilling to be removed, as it were, into the evening shadow of her old queenliness. Something told her that in her second life at Sparta she would be more feared and more respected; in her advancing age and intangible isolation she would be as a priestess whom no one — not even Menelaus — would dare to approach. Her crime would be her protection; her rebellion, proudly acknowledged and never retracted in spirit, would lift her above all mankind. Even while still in this world, she would belong to the other.

There is an obscure rumour that after the fall of Troy Helen never returned to Sparta but was spirited away to Egypt, whilst a mere phantasm resembling her accompanied her dull husband back to his dull fastness by the pebbly Eurotas. This turn given to the fable hints darkly at the unearthly truth. Helen was a phantom always and everywhere; so long as men fought for her, taking her image, as it were, for their banner, she presided over a most veritable and bloody battle; but when the battle ceased of itself, and all those heroes that had seen and idolized her were dead, the cerulean colours of that banner faded from it; the shreds of it rotted indistinguishably in the mire, and the hues that had lent it for a moment its terrible magic fled back into the ether, where wind and mist, meteors and sunbeams, never cease to weave them. The passing of Helen was the death of Greece, but Helen herself is its immortality. Yet why seek to interpret the parable? There is more depth of suggestion in these ancient myths than in any abstract doctrine which we may substitute for them. Homer and his companions certainly were not writing intentional allegories; but they had a sense for beauty and a sense for the flux of things, and in those two perceptions the whole philosophy of Ideas is latent. Sight, thought, love arrest essences; and time, perpetually undermining the existence that brings those essences before us, drives them, as fast as we can arrest them, like a sort of upward flaw, back into heaven.

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