Garbo/Helen: The self-projection of beauty by H.D.

by Charlotte Mandel

Copyright Charlotte Mandel. This article originally appeared in Women's Studies (1980, vol. 7, p. 127-135) and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Charlotte Mandel.
       As the old Imagist label dissolves, the impressive canon of H.D.'s work is revealed to be major twentieth-century poetry of epic quest. The transition from the early lyrics to the book-length volumes of Trilogy and Helen in Egypt has not been fully explored, and appears as an unexplained break in stylistic goals. There is a vital transitional clue which has been virtually unnoticed in critical discussion of her work. That element springs into focus during the late 1920's, when H.D. lived and worked in close continuing relationship with a group of cinema enthusiasts dedicated to the serious examination of cinema as an art form of tremendous aesthetic and social possibilities.

       From their base in Territet, Switzerland, Hilda Doolittle's intimate friends, Kenneth Macpherson and Bryher (Winifred Ellerman), set up and edited the avant-garde film magazine Close Up. During the period 1927 to 1929, H.D. contributed eleven articles of film review and commentary to Close Up(1) and two poems, "Projector" and "Projector II (Chang)." As a reviewer, she was invited to showings of avant-garde films from other countries, visited movie sets and talked with directors. She played a leading role opposite Paul Robeson in Borderline, a non-commercial but artistically ambitious film made by Macpherson in 1930.(2) To help publicize the film, H.D. wrote a separate essay published as a pamphlet which describes in detail the film's progress of construction and offers a sensitive technical analysis of its themes and movements.(3)

       The articles in Close Up prove H.D.'s knowledge of film editing to be sophisticated and in touch with new trends. Even more, the style of the essays provides direct access to H.D.'s thoughts and impressions. She writes conversationally, openly expressing feelings of admiration, puzzlement or distaste. The films are described through the perceptions of the writer, almost as though she is writing a memoir. For H.D., cinema was an exciting new source for expanding the boundaries of art, and she wrote these articles at the moment of her experience. Her opinions and emotions, therefore, are immediate and fresh.

       In another paper ("The redirected image: Cinematic dynamics in the style of H.D." submitted for publication), I have analyzed detailed correspondences between film-making techniques and poetic devices in the poems. This paper will examine H.D.'s unique vision of Beauty, a vision which absorbs and spiritualizes the projection of a beautiful woman as hieroglyph, a sign. As a woman, H.D. needed to discover non-traditional articulation of her artistic sensibility. The image of a woman on the motion picture screen acted as a hieroglyphic element which later blended into the forms, rhythms and transmutations of her Helen-figure in Helen in Egypt.

       An essay subtitled "Beauty" was the first of three that H.D. wrote for Close Up under the heading "Cinema and the Classics" (July, August and November, 1927). "Some two or three years" earlier, she had seen the young Greta Garbo in G. W. Pabst's Joyless Street, a film which H.D. has called "my never-to-be forgotten premiere to the whole art of the screen."(4) In the essay, the poet-film reviewer inveighs against Hollywood's vulgarization of the actress's appeal. "Greta Garbo in Montreux, Switzerland, trailing with frail, very young feet through perhaps the most astonishingly consistently lovely film I have ever seen" had been turned out as a "vamp": "Her wigs, her eye-lashes have all but eclipsed our mermaid's straight stare, her odd, magic quality of almost clairvoyant intensity."(5) H.D.'s first impression of Garbo directly evokes the images of three beautiful women of her own creation: Helen in an early poem published in January, 1923, about two years before she saw Joyless Street; Hipparchia in the novel Palimpsest, published in 1926, and written before seeing the film or about the same time; and Hedyle, the Athenian mother of the boy Hedylus, whose name gives title to the novel published in 1927. (Palimpsest is dedicated to Bryher, Hedylus to Kenneth Macpherson.)

[Note: The article as originally published includes an illustration at this point, not reproduced on this web version of the article: "Greta Garbo in Joyless Street. Reproduced courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive, New York."--Ed.]
       The early poem "Helen" takes on visual interest when considered as a held shot, the camera lens focused on the beautiful woman:(6)

All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre as of olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.

All Greece reviles
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills.

Greece sees, unmoved,
God's daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid
white ash amid funereal cypresses.

The line "Greece sees, unmoved" places the reader within the consciousness of "All Greece," a watchful, collective audience-persona. We see Helen through an unmoving lens. Helen stands still but is alive--she smiles and grows pale. The poem contains, as does a held shot of a living image, a cinematic dynamic of tension within stasis.

       A detail from Palimpsest reveals H.D.'s perception of Hipparchia as screen-image of beauty. The woman stares at her reflection in a sea-pool:(7)

Hipparchia...gazed at a silver goddess.
     So she saw (in that spread length of sea-pool beneath her) a mirrored separate entity...The image remained silver, detached and alone and Hipparchia, gazing at Hipparchia, saw that Hipparchia was some abstraction...Grasses of frail texture wavered ever so silently like soft hair combed backward.
     Gazing at that soft hair, the only frail thing in motion against that static image...
In this example, Hipparchia's image gazes back and becomes "some abstraction" in the form of "a silver goddess." The stone boundary of Hipparchia's sea-pool acts as a frame as does the fixed screen boundary of a camera shot.

       Compare a detail from Hedylus:(8)

She lifted the polished mirror. A face regarded her in blotting shadows. It was the face of Hedyle that Athenian. It had that look, godlike tranquillity, that comes to some at overwhelming odds with destiny.
Hedyle's face is "godlike"; Hipparchia's image has become "a silver goddess"; Helen, too, is "God's daughter," and the poem's colors evoke the silent, silver screen of the 1920's: "in the white face, the lustre as of olives...and the white hands...the wan grows wan and white...white ash amid funereal cypresses." Helen, too, is a silent, white, divine abstraction.

       In H.D.'s discussion of Joyless Street,(9) she acclaims Greta Garbo as "Helen" and as an abstract image of Beauty. H.D. refers to the film character's plight in postwar Vienna as "Helen walking scatheless among execrating warriors." "Our mermaid's straight stare" reflects Hipparchia's image under water and the gaze of Helen's "still eyes in a white face." The description of Garbo's "frail, very young feet" is similar to Helen's "beauty of cool feet and slenderest knees." Beauty, Helen of Troy, and Greta Garbo have been fused into one symbol. H.D.'s strong emotional response to Pabst's film may have been stimulated by the materialization of her imagined Helen on Screen. "Greta Garbo," states H.D., "as I saw her, gave me a clue, a new angle, and a new sense of elation...Miss Garbo is a symbol as I saw her in Joyless Street [italics mine]."(10)

       As Hipparchia, Helen and Garbo blend into one vision of Beauty, the woman becomes a pictorial symbol or hieroglyph, a significant emblem (as I have termed the hieroglyphic phenomenon on screen). H.D. defines the word as "goodness in its Hellenic sense" and declares, "the world will not be sustained, will not exist without that classic ancient Beauty. Beauty and Goodness, I must again reiterate, to the Greek, meant one thing." H.D. then extends the reach of her symbol to a definition that is central to her concept of art: "And beauty, among other things, is reality...Beauty brings a curse, a blessing, a responsibility."(11) She expresses, here, her belief in the sacred responsibility appropriate to the artist within the new film medium. The accurate presentation of Beauty is a sacred trust; to H.D., a "silver goddess" image could function as an eidolon, a mystical evocation of deeper meanings, an inner reality, the "something beyond something." That sacred responsibility applied to film-maker as to poet. In Trilogy, H.D. affirms the sacred role of the poet, insisting that the "scribe" must have "protection":(12)

he takes precedence of the priest,
stands second only to the Pharaoh.
Both the art of poetry and the art of film were responsible for the evocation of deeper truths.

       The goddess-image dominates a scene in Bid Me To Live, H.D.'s autobiographical novel published in 1960, the year before Helen in Egypt.(13) This roman à clef portrays a period in H.D.'s life during the first World War. In a key scene, the heroine, Julia Ashton (H.D.), goes to a cinema and experiences an intense mystic reaction:(14)

...she realized that the silver wavering was the very shape and texture of olive leaves, flickering in the wind. [Julia waits for] some unravelling of this mystery...This was the answer to everything, then, Beauty, for surprisingly, a goddess-woman stepped forward. She released from the screen the first (to Julia) intimation of screen beauty. Screen? This was a veil, curiously embroidered, the veil before the temple.
It is probable that H.D., in this scene, has recreated her own experience responding to Garbo, although the film in this novel is not identified. Also, the imagery echoes the early Helen poem, as, "The silver wavering was the very shape and texture of olive-leaves" recalls "the lustre as of olives where she stands." Julia mirrors H.D.'s experience: "Greta Garbo, as I first saw her, gave me a clue, a new angle...". H.D. does not delineate "the new angle" by logical, declarative sentences. Her approach is intuitive, looking to the woman's image as "a clue" to new sources of meaning.
[Note: The article as originally published includes an illustration at this point, not reproduced on this web version of the article: "H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). Photograph by Man Ray. Copyright Perdita Schaffner. Reproduced by permission."--Ed.]
       In a recent retrospective essay, John Peck discusses H.D.'s "neoplatonism," her concept of Garbo as eidolon--the image that gazes back at the poet, from which she derives mystical meaning. Peck is dubious about the validity of her concept; he sees H.D.'s eidolon as a "cinematic projection" of the self, her Garbo-image as "hybrid of the Botticellian and the hypnotic."(15)

       And yet, male poets traditionally have called upon a female Muse, a mysterious vanishing woman-figure which symbolizes the poet's quest for Beauty--as, in Shelley's "Alastor," Keats's "Lamia," Poe's lost young women. For Hilda Doolittle, the projection of Beauty legitimately arises from the self.

       Hipparchia and Hedyle visually absorb their own symbolic goddess reflections. All the world stares at Helen, and at the woman on screen as portrayed by Greta Garbo. The Helen-figure in Helen in Egypt is hieroglyph: "She herself is the writing," a figure projected in shifts of context like cinematic visualizations, and the final section of Helen in Egypt is given the title, "Eidolon." The goddess-woman-beauty hieroglyph is the poet's identifying emblem of sacred meaning. Hilda Doolittle was herself an extraordinarily beautiful woman. In Bryher's autobiography, The Heart to Artemis, she states, "H.D. was the most beautiful figure that I have ever seen in my life with a face that came directly from a Greek statue and, almost to the end, the body of an athlete."(17) Editing The Pamphlet Poets Series in 1926, Hughes Mearns romantically terms H.D. "a fair young Greek revisiting earth."(18) I believe that H.D. accepted that identification, but the a deep sense of sacred responsiblity. In the mirror-images and in the screen-eidolon, she saw herself as symbol, a source of Beauty's own statement as she created her art. She drew from herself, as into a well of stars, the projections of her poetic vision.

Notes and References
1. These articles include reviews of G. W. Pabst's Joyless Street, Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings, Conrad Veidt in The Student of Prague, the Russian films Expiation and Turksib, and a three part essay on "Cinema and the Classics."

2. For discussion of Borderline in historical perspective see Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black (London: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 209-11.

3. Borderline: A Pool Film With Paul Robeson (London: Mercury Press, 1930). The pamphlet is unsigned, but definitively attributed to H.D. in a bibliographical listing of her works: Jackson R. Bryer and Pamela Roblyer, "H.D.: A Preliminary Checklist," Contemporary Literature, 10, No. 4 (Autumn 1969), 632-75.

4. H.D., "An Appreciation," Close Up, 4 (March 1929), 62.

5. H.D., "The Cinema and the Classics: Beauty," Close Up, 1 (July 1927), 33.

6. H.D., Selected Poems (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1957), p. 48.

7. H.D., Palimpsest (1926; rpt. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), pp. 54-55.

8. H.D., Hedylus (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1927), p. 152.

9. "Beauty," p. 31.

10. "Beauty," pp. 28-29.

11. "Beauty," pp. 32-33.

12. H.D., Trilogy (New York: New Directions, 1973), p. 15.

13. Linda Wagner finds similarities in structure and movement between this novel and Helen and Egypt. Linda Wagner, "Helen in Egypt: A Culmination," Contemporary Literature 10, No. 4 (Aut. 1969), 523-36.

14. H.D., Bid Me To Live (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1960), pp. 123-24.

15. John Peck, "Passio Perpetuae H.D.," Parnassus, 3, No. 2 (Spring-Summer 1975), 51.

16. H.D., Helen in Egypt (New York: New Directions, 1961), pp. 22 and 91.

17. Bryher, The Heart To Artemis (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962), p. 186.

18. Hughes Mearns, Introduction to H.D., The Pamphlet Poets (Simon and Shuster, Inc., 1926), p. 5.

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