Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, September 07, 2013

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 6 / Helen and Andromache)

Of all the characters in the Iliad, the most complete person in the whole story may not be a Greek, but a Trojan. Hector and his wife Andromache are the most complete characters we meet in the Iliad. Homer uses these two characters to define the excellence of what a good man ought to be and what a good woman ought to be. Hector isn’t as strong as Achilles and he’s not as handsome as his brother Alexandros. Andromache isn’t as beautiful, nor is she as witty, as Helen is. But Hector and Andromache reveal what Homer believes are the best qualities for well-rounded human beings to possess. What are they?
Let’s compare Andromache with Helen and see what we find. Here’s what Helen says when she’s speaking (alone) to Hector: “I wish I had a good man for a lover… this one (Alexandros/Paris) his heart’s unsound, and always will be, and he will win what he deserves.” Helen is a shrewd judge of men. She sizes up Paris well; his heart really is unsound and it really will always be that way. Men usually get what they deserve. But she also seems to be sizing up Hector when she offhandedly wishes she had a “good man” for a lover. Her definition of a good man is not the same as Hector’s definition of a good man. What she really means is: I wish I had a good lover. She continues by asking Hector to “Come here and rest upon this couch with me, dear brother. You (Hektor) are the one afflicted most by harloltry in me and by his madness, our portion, of all misery, given by Zeus that we may live in song for men to come.” Helen isn’t really thinking of Hector as a “dear brother.” She’s thinking of him as a good man; which means as a good lover. And she’s perfectly open about the “harlotry in me” and the divine madness of erotic love. This is the kind of stuff they write songs about. She’s offering an invitation to a love affair “that we may live in song for men to come.” It’s like that Kenny Rogers’ song a few years back: Let’s go out in a blaze of glory! Helen would have done very well in 17th century or 18th century France. For French culture see Moliere’s play The Misanthrope or Diderot’s short story about Rameau’s Nephew. Helen would have thrived in those cultured environments.
Andromache doesn’t have the beauty or the ready tongue of Helen. But what she lacks in beauty and speech she makes up for in authenticity. She says what’s on her mind and she means what she says. Her need of Hector goes far deeper than a love affair. She tells him without any reservation: “Oh, my wild one, your bravery will be your undoing! No pity for our child, poor little one, or me in my sad lot; soon to be deprived of you… I have none but you, nor brother, Hektor; lover none but you! Do not bereave your child and widow me!” Hector isn’t just her lover. He is her whole life. This may sound a bit maudlin or insincere to modern ears. What is Andromache really after anyway? Is she just a clinging vine? Does she really need Hector to find fulfillment in her boring life? Doesn’t she have an inner life of her own? But in Homer’s world these kinds of questions are out of place, downright low-class. Hector is a noble classic hero. He’s a noble man and needs a noble woman. Andromache is that woman. In response to Helen, Hector says “No, Helen, offer me no rest; I know you are fond of me. I cannot rest.” Hector doesn’t need, nor does he want, the kind of “rest” that Helen has to offer. What he needs, and what he wants, is the kind of rest that only Andromache can give him. Here is Hector’s response to Andromache: “Lady, these many things beset my mind no less than yours.” Andromache understands Hector in a way that Helen does not. Andromache needs Hector. She’s openly honest about that. And the truth is that Hector needs Andromache in a way that he does not need Helen. All this neediness makes modern readers uncomfortable. But it brings to mind another old song: people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.


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