H.D.’s Helen in Egypt: Myth, Symbol, and Subjectivity
“As if God made the picture
and matched it with a living hieroglyph…”
Although largely remembered as a poet, Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961) wrote in the diverse genres of memoir, Imagist poetry, translations of classical Greek drama, and autobiographical novels, a fact that reflects her fascination with personal history and the classical world. Likewise, as Doolittle wrote across these mediums, she continually revisited Greco-Roman myth as a framework within which autobiographical experience can be presented and explored in a larger literary and historical context. Such works as Heliodora and Other Poems (1924), Ion (1937), and Kora and Ka (1930), while written in the form of verse, dramatic translation, and prose, respectively, exemplify Doolittle’s recurring impulse to conflate myth with autobiography, contemporary with ancient, and personal narrative with society as a whole throughout history. In conveying these ideas to the reader, Doolittle frequently blends the literary strategies of fiction and memoir, while in other works combining the concrete language of Imagist poetry with the epic, the lyric, and other verse forms.
Approached with Doolittle’s previous work in mind, Helen in Egypt, published near the end of her life in 1961, reads as a culmination of the themes of myth, autobiography, and history that dominated much of her literary career, and her various literary styles. Described by critic Harold Bloom as “a culmination of a life in poetry,” and also by feminist scholar Helen Sword as one of the “masterpieces of her career,” this epic work is described throughout secondary literature about the author in terms of Doolittle’s lifelong revisions of her own literary technique. Based upon an alternative version of the story of Helen of Troy that is derived from the texts of Euripides and Stesichorus of Sicily, in which the heroine is conveyed by the gods to Egypt at the onset of the Trojan War, H.D.’s late epic poem takes the form of verse that also draws heavily from the Imagist tradition of her early career, and is prefaced by the fictionalized prose of her mid-career writings. As in other works, this mythic structure becomes a framework for Doolittle to explore autobiographical experience, namely that of undergoing psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud in the 1930s. In doing so, H.D. presents Helen as entering a period of introspection similar to what one would experience in sessions with a psychoanalyst, whereby she considers her role in the masculine culture of warfare, much like Doolittle did after the First World War. For both Helen and the author, such introspection offered resolution of these traumatic memories while presenting new problems. Although portraying her sessions with Freud in a positive light, Doolittle perceived psychoanalysis as being an ideology rooted in many of the same assumptions about masculinity that render war such a destructive cultural mechanism. As in many of her earlier works, Doolittle uses myth throughout Helen in Egypt to offer a transhistorical view of these gender politics, comparing Helen’s ancient cultural context, her own contemporary one, and the time that has elapsed between the two.
In addressing these cultural assumptions about gender, the book often focuses on two competing aspects of the psychoanalytic process, which, for Doolittle, encapsulated this tension between personal revelation and the dangers of ideology. Frequently contrasting the realm of dream, symbol, and the subconscious that are accessed as a result of psychoanalysis with the secondary language of their interpretation, Doolittle continually searches for a way to negotiate them. Just as in many of her personal writings, she depicts some aspects of psychoanalysis as revelatory and others as being rooted in male ideology. Indeed, Helen maintains a shifting relationship to both the symbols of the subconscious and their secondary interpretation, exploring the myths of her own life and the ways they have been be construed. Often using objective images to evoke these subjective concepts, these themes are frequently mirrored in and complicated by the poetic style of these writings. Throughout the psychoanalytic texts that Doolittle worked from during her sessions with Freud, the objective image was understood as a sublimation of emotions and psychological conflicts into a concrete thing, which evokes ideas much larger than itself. Freud describes this type of image as a “visible, plastic symbol” in The Interpretation of Dreams, suggesting both its concreteness and its generative nature. And, as psychoanalyst Joseph Newirth argues, within the context of Freudian theory, these highly evocative images should be interpreted through “a process of translation,” in which the primary language of the concrete thing can be understood through the “secondary process,” and hence subjective language, of analysis.
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