Never Too Late for Romance

On feelings that awaken after the death of love

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"So, just as he was divorcing her, at that very instant, he fell in love with her? Can you believe it?"

Achilles killing Penthesilea. A cup from the Etruscan city of Vulci, circa 460 B.C.E.

That's what I heard - and much more - through the open door, in the evening, from the waiting room of the cosmetician where I'd gone to pick up my friend. My friend was still ensconced in some inner room, subject to some sort of torture in the name of beauty, under the skilled hand of H.G., expert cosmetician. From the open door next to me I heard one of her assistants talking to another client, who was unable to open her mouth at the time. Although the cosmetician glanced my way when I came, and invited me to sit and wait, it was clear she didn't consider me to be a "listening ear" that had to be taken into account. The fact that I was a man, in that place, turned me into something totally transparent.

This was the monologue I heard, almost in its entirety:

"Just as he was divorcing her, he fell in love with her. At the rabbinate! At that very second, he gave her the get [writ of divorce] and fell in love with her. Suddenly he saw how pretty she was. Before that he wanted her to die. How he fought with her! How she fought with him! She almost killed him. And then, bingo! As soon as he divorced her, he fell in love with her. And really fell in love. He began to woo her. He wouldn't leave her alone. She herself told me, here on my treatment bed, what he did just to see her. And now - would you believe it - she's pregnant! Her sister-in-law Simi told me. My sister-in-law told me that it's not his, that it's from before the divorce and not his. But her sister-in-law Simi said that it's from him.

"And his brother, my sister-in-law told me, came to him and tried to bad-mouth her after they divorced, and laughed at him for wanting to go back to her, and he almost killed his brother for saying such bad things. He literally almost killed him. That's how much he's fallen in love with her again. And now she's in her sixth month and he wants to get remarried. And what did she tell me when she talked to me here? That she'll marry him again. That's what she said, that she'll marry him again. Why? Because she saw how he fought. I swear to you, that's what she said: that because of the way he fought with her and was ready to kill her before, she fell in love with him again, too. And I'm telling you, even if he found out that she was pregnant with someone else's child, he would forgive her and not make a big deal of it - that's how much he loves her. But Simi told me it's his baby, for sure, that he fell in love with her again after the divorce."

There's no need to explain what it is that makes this story interesting. I was sorry I had to abandon the waiting room at that point, and clandestinely folded up the paper on which I had quickly jotted down the main elements of the story. And something bothered me, too: I had a feeling that I had already heard this story. I rummaged through all the memories of my family members and acquaintances, but couldn't recall anything that reminded me of the story of the divorced man who fell in love with his wife again. And then, on the way to the grocery store yesterday, I remembered: I know the story not from my close family, but rather from a somewhat wider "circle." This is the story of Penthesilea, the beautiful queen of the Amazons in Greek mythology, who was killed by Achilles' sword in the Trojan War (as per one of the stories recounted in the "Iliad" ) and was often recalled in the writings of the ancients until her story eventually turned into an amazing, blood-soaked tragedy in the hands of Heinrich von Kleist.

I then reopened "The Fall of Troy," by the forgotten Greek poet Quintus of Smyrna - in an old and abridged translation by Arthur Way: Penthesilea, the beautiful Amazonian queen and daughter of Ares, the god of war, went to Priam king of Troy in that war-torn city for help, after the death of Hector. She came in order to atone, through acts of heroism and sacrifice, for killing her sister Hippolyte by accident. Her heroism in battle turned her into an important military asset and she dared to go out to battle Achilles himself. For his part, Achilles was looking for the famous woman warrior, fought her and with one blow easily penetrated her armor. Indifferent to her pleas, he killed her, abused her body and disdainfully removed her helmet. And then, amazed by her beauty, he fell in love with her: "She was made a wonder of beauty even in her death ... Yea, and Achilles' very heart was wrung with love's remorse to have slain a thing so sweet, who might have borne her home, his queenly bride ... for she was flawless, a very daughter of the gods."

The Roman poet Propertius, in his "Elegies," put the moment into sharper focus, and wrote that Penthesilea's "bright beauty conquered the conquering hero."

But the main parallel between the cosmetician's tale and that of Penthesilea is not the fact that love was aroused after or because of the divorce or the killing - but that the story is really a hodgepodge of versions piled on one another, like the stories told by in-laws, and it is these different versions that reveal the hidden undercurrents. And as in the case of the man in the story I overheard, there was also someone who mocked Achilles. There was even a pregnancy, too.

Achilles' love, aroused immediately after he killed Penthesilea, acquired various interesting interpretations by the ancients. One Byzantine scholar mentions an important fact: Thersites (a wicked and ugly fighter in Achilles' army ) dared to mock his commander's love and the beautiful dead woman warrior, and gouged out Penthesilea's eyes. Achilles then killed him with one blow. Diomedes, a relative of Thersites, then threw the corpse in the Scamander River. Achilles went down, pulled out the body and held a mourning ceremony.

On the other hand, Byzantine scholar Eustathius of Thessalonica (12th century ) added a violent detail about the moment Achilles fell in love: Achilles, in his opinion, lay with Penthesilea's corpse as a final act of humiliation. Other scholars remarked that it was not humiliation but desperate love that was at play, and that Penthesilea's body also conceived from this coupling of love after death.

Kleist works the theme of necrophilia into the main plot of his play: There, Achilles dies from Penthesilea's blows and is resurrected, and only then does the dance of death and the coupling between them happen.

So, next time you overhear a conversation, wait for the moment when someone says "my sister-in-law" or "her sister-in-law" - because that's the moment when mere talk turns into a real story.

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