Stesichorus, a Sicilian Greek who wrote sweet, extravagant poetry is most known for his palinode:
That story is not true:
you did not go on the well-benched ships,
nor did you reach Troy’s citadel. (fr. 192, trans. Miller)
According to Plato, he composed this after losing his vision in penalty of critiquing Helen, epically blamed for causing the Trojan War. His counter to Homer’s account (which won him back his vision) would later be echoed by Euripides’ stage version of Helen who never went to Troy. Instead, a phantom double of her went while she spent the duration of the war in Egypt.
Herodotus directly challenged Homer in his Histories over this issue, explaining how the winds blew Paris and Helen off course to Egypt. There he was forced by the Egyptians to leave her, who were outraged to hear of his actions. The whole war was a farce, a play of illusions, a failure to communicate. A mistake.
The reader steps easily into the place of Stesichorus’ addressee, sensing claims of past experience and action suddenly thrown into question. It comes as a little shock, maybe, to ask if the stories we participate in and tell are actually true.
That we might tell ourselves stories about how much money we spend, what we eat, what we need, the relationships we choose, and what we know—just to start—is a real question. The stakes are high. You might find yourself unraveling huge lengths of the elaborate tapestry of your story.
We curate and excise certain details of our experience: for ourselves, for others. It is almost customary, for some a habit. We say “I had reason...”; “Next time—”; “I wasn’t afraid”; “I had no choice.” Smoothing it over, covering over the gaps. Mopping up the blood.
Perhaps some of our motives are false. Perhaps we know this somewhere within. Or if not quite false, not true either. The situation is tricky, because the world that grows up around a story that is not true functions much like any other (ceremonies, forms, work, fun, blame, praise...).
We sort and arrange our experiences, like dreams. We do it for the past and possible. But why? As Sartre coyly remarks, the world of explanations and reasons is not the world of existence. And if there is a fine but deep rift between a story and its source, how could we tell the difference?
It may be useful to reflect on Penelope’s discerning words from The Odyssey:
There are two gates for dreams to drift through,
One made of horn and the other of ivory.
Dreams that pass through the gate of ivory
Are deceptive dreams and will not come true,
But when someone has a dream that has passed
Through the gate of polished horn, that dream
Will come true. (19.614-622, trans. Lombardo)
At a certain point one must sort the fantasies from the plans for a possible life. It is worth noting that the deceptive dreams cross through the fancy gate. If in the specious refinement of its entry a dream promises a different world, with different conditions, consider sending it out again.
Asking whether or not even the slightest of our stories or dreams is true demands letting go of all notions, however pleasant, that alter the account. It may seem impossible from the outset, but it is just difficult. The reckoning must occur.
We should return to Herodotus’ thoughts about Homer’s reliability, in the consideration of how such a reckoning might be assisted by poetry, especially poetry that aspires to documentary use. Herodotus suggests—after indicating that the surface of the epics misleads us in the service of poetic appropriateness—that Homer knew the truly absurd circumstances of the war all along, and even hinted at the understory with stray details.
Taken thus, the slightly ajar details about winds, lines about unnecessary side trips, inconsequential characters saying odd things, and uncanny moments serve as remnants of another story—perhaps less convenient for song but more complete, since textured by the unchecked play of chance and action. These remnants mark the surfaces of language (as they do life) like scars, traceable and telling.
This reading places Homer’s intentions—a little awkwardly, and enigmatically, too—between that of the epic poet and historical witness. It suggests the poet was loyal not to the true stories or prophetic dreams themselves, but to the construction of the gate through which they might arrive.
As language is the house of the truth of Being. (Heidegger)
Whether or not Helen went to Troy, or Homer knew about it, is still up for lively debate. But a useful documentary poetics could be informed by the urgency and relevance of Stesichorus’ retraction. Such a poetics could stand clearly between the stories we tell and the world they rise out of like the threshold of a door, a kind of invitation. The more open the better. Permitting the readers the same desperately needed autonomy as the artists, to enter into the act of discernment.
Susan Howe addresses this urge in There are Not Leaves Enough to Crown to Cover to Crown to Cover, while implying its difficulty: “I write to break out into perfectly primeval Consent. I wish I could tenderly lift from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate.” She speaks of a gesture, not of a judgment.
Poets committed to the silent archives, the dead witnesses, the doubled and spoken-for, the ‘unimportant’, and the brave too, must make as few concessions to poetic appropriateness as possible...but they still need to sing, if only to help with the pain.
We could test ourselves, not just our tongues. We could be more forthright in our daily lives. We could hear, feel, and think more inclusively: insisting on choices both on and off the page that depart from the full account, dreams that take aim at the possible.
We could say “That story is not true” when needed, then live out and express the consequences, straining the potential of language to invent the means for a more useful one, one that rejects all delusions of propriety.
If we wish to lift anything at all from darkness we must be able to tell the difference.
Lombardo, Stanley, trans. 2000. Homer: Odyssey. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company
Miller, Andrew M., trans. 1996. Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.