Prix de Paris

In Brief

As he often does in this jocoserious book, Stephen takes his probing metaphysical thoughts in an absurdly comic direction, turning the idea of a mild "Seadeath" into an advertiser's pitch for a desirable new experience. His musing consideration of Homer's Odyssey, continued in the phrase "Prix de Paris," gives way by complicated shades of ambiguity to the huckster's cry, "Just you give it a fair trial," and his customers' hilarious testimonial, "We enjoyed ourselves immensely."

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Odysseus' death at sea, Gifford observes, stems from the prize of Paris in the sense that the Trojan War was set in motion by the Trojan prince's awarding of the apple of beauty to Aphrodite over Athena and Hera. Gifford does not mention that in fact two prizes were exchanged: the apple that Paris gave to Aphrodite, and Helen, whom Aphrodite promised to Paris as a bribe to induce him to choose her. This second prize, the queen whom Paris abducted from Sparta and took home to Troy, was the more immediate origin (the Aristotelian "efficient cause," perhaps) of the war.

Gifford brings Helen into the picture by noting that Stephen's following phrase, "beware of imitations," may possibly refer to another version of the Paris-Helen story told by the ancient Greek poet Stesichorus, in which "only a ghost, or 'imitation,' of Helen went to Troy with Paris, while the real Helen remained faithful to Menelaus and sat out the Trojan War under the protection of King Proteus of Egypt." If Stephen is thinking of this alternate telling, the Greeks would have done well to "beware of imitations."

Regardless of the precise contours of Stephen's recollection of ancient Greek myths, a second layer of meaning is developing as he thinks these phrases. The Grand Prix de Paris, Gifford notes, was an immense cash award (250,000 francs in 1904) awarded annually to the horse that won France's biggest race. Sitting in Mr. Deasy's study in Nestor, Stephen has contemplated a portrait of "the duke of Beaufort's Ceylon" who won the prize in 1866. The prize of Paris, then, morphs in his imagination from a momentous classical exchange to a modern chance to get rich quick.

Gravity declines further with "beware of imitations" and "Just you give it a fair trial," which takes us from the splendor of rich men's thoroughbreds to the banality of advertisers' pitches for life-enhancing products. The punchline, "We enjoyed ourselves immensely," is quite funny. Homer was right! Death by drowning is quite delightful! Try it yourselves and your family can be as happy as ours now is!

JH 2014
Prince Paris with Apple, marble sculpture by H. W. Bissen, ca. 1830-40, displayed in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket in Copenhagen. Source: Wikimedia Commons.