Monday, January 19, 2015

The Philoctetes Project

Freshly back from Antarctica, Arline points us to Wikipedia's article about Sophocles' Philoctetes. Besides offering a helpful summary of its backstory, the piece speaks of the "Philoctetes Project":

The story of Philoctetes, dealing with the wounded man and the interwoven relationships with others, has been frequently noted. In 2005 Bryan Doerries, writer and director, began a series of readings of the play in the New York city area. Noting the reactions of the audience to the reading, especially related to the reactions of audience members to the interaction of the suffering soldier and the conflicted caregiver, he and others started the Philoctetes Project.[4] The project revolves around presenting such readings, especially to audiences of medical professionals and students. 
A number of readings were followed by a panel discussion about doctor-patient relationships, involving presenters in psychiatry, physicians, and military medical personnel[5] among others. 
The concept has also been extended to training of medical students, such as a presentation also in 2007 to the first year medical class at Weill Medical College of Cornell University,[6] involving not only the students, but also faculty members. The presentation included a discussion of an actual case dealing with the patient-caregiver interactions that parallel the situation that Sophocles presented. 
In 2008, at a conference dedicated to finding new ways to help US Marines recover from post-traumatic stress and other disorders after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, four New York actors presented a dramatic reading from Philoctetes and Ajax. The plays focussed on physical and psychological wounds inflicted on the warrior.[7]

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Living end: Heracles' Fate in Women of Trachis


And you, maiden, do not be left at the house. 
You have seen immense, shocking death, 
with sorrows great in number and strange. 
And in all of them there is nothing that is not Zeus.


The entrance of Heracles in Women of Trachis is an image of the supine hero at his most  weak, vulnerable moment. We never see him in his prime. Imagine an American superhero in a film that presents only the moment of his impotent, agonizing death. The sole reason we remember our heroes (or go to the box office) - their immortal deeds and abilities - is absent. Imagine Superman reduced to an unrecognizable hulk, crying out in frustrated, mystified anger. Helpless, then dead.

As his flesh is being eaten away, Heracles evokes his former role, struck by the seemingly intimate absurdity of how he was brought down:
Not spearmen on the battlefield, nor the Giants' earth-born army, nor the might of savage beasts, [1060] not Hellas, nor the land of the barbarian, nor any land which I came to purify has ever done this to me. No, a woman, a weak woman, born not to the strength of man, all alone has brought me down without a stroke of the sword!
His helplessness tempts us to write Heracles off as a has-been, no longer capable of acting, of doing anything worthwhile for or in the world to which he had so long labored to bring vital order.

The word he chooses has more than order in it. He says καθαίρων ἱκόμην - "I came to purify." καθαίρων carries the root sense of "cleanse," but connotes a purging act that carries an ethical, and thus sacred, mode of action. He had a job to do, as the son of Zeus. His career, all of it, was Zeus, and now this unintelligible turn defies understanding -- why does his Father allow this?

It would be very 20th Century of us to adopt the approved smartass attitude. Hyllus speaks with seeming anger of the lack of compassion of the gods. But the story of Heracles deliberately addresses that apparent inference, that glib assumption that the existence of incomprehensible suffering is a sure sign that we humans are essentially alone. (One might ask a confirmed atheist if that conviction requires god to not exist, or simply to not care about us.)

Heracles would of course be a great hero if we only remembered him for his accomplishments of strength and cunning, but he would not be a tragic hero. Sophocles is adding another dimension - one which he clearly feels is necessary for his Athenian audience to understand, ponder, and remember.

Why does he want us to ponder this dimension of the strongest human being's career? Throughout the play we have been hearing (from Deianira, mostly) that one bears an innocence, and ignorance, of the suffering of others until one experiences it for oneself. That would suggest that the gods might not have much understanding of mortal slings and arrows.

Labors of Heracles, 3rd c. CE
But Heracles is that nearly immortal being who, at the last, is consumed by an extraordinary experience of mortality. But why, if the gods do not understand or care about what we suffer, would Zeus have prophesied in advance all that's happening to his beloved son?

Perhaps we need to look past the spectacle of violent pain to examine how Heracles handles it. At first he is loudly complaining and vengeful, seeking to kill Deianira. But he moves on to other tasks, which he makes Hyllus swear to perform before telling him what they are. They are not trivial: Enabling the death of his father, and marrying his father's new chosen queen. It is the allegedly Oedipal desire of all sons that the father here is imposing upon his beloved son.

It would be consistent with the thinking of the hero to make this demand upon Hyllus only if he saw in it a reflection of his own response to his father's imposed word. For he now understands that his fate was foretold by his father; his fate "is" Zeus - and this, as unintelligible as it is, he now sees summoning him to duty.

He has broken the world he was supposed to cleanse:
  • broken his first family with Megara and her children; 
  • broken his marriage to Deianira, and 
  • broken the world of Eurytus, killing his son and raping his daughter. 

The temptation to curse Zeus and die might be quite powerful. Or to order Hyllus to kill Iole and all her people. Or, to seize the throne of Trachis. But this is not what Heracles does. Instead, he makes a last stab at mending things. Hyllus must marry Iole - an unthinkable thing for all - the request causes Hyllus to doubt his father's sanity (which in turn awakens Heracles' torment). Yet in one stroke, it gives both children status as heirs of Heracles, gives legal protected status to those children of the next generation he cares most about, and creates a protective dynastic order. It is an act that might seem baffling or strange to all, but in its effects, it authors a remnant saved from a broken world.

Asking his own son to prepare his pyre and to set it ablaze - this too suggests a duty that is unthinkable. Hyllus agrees to prepare the pyre, but not to light it, and Heracles agrees. That task will fall to Philoctetes. The entire series of commands up to the blaze is like the charm of Nessus, only here, perhaps, a countercharm.

The question of whether Heracles "knows" that his fate is to undergo apotheosis is undecidable - the play offers no indication (other than the negative -- Heracles promises to come back from "below" to curse Hyllus of that possibility, which is no assurance of anything).

Heracles steels his "tough soul" to undergo death. Only the actual experience of death will decide whether Hyllus is a polluting murderer (as the boy himself believes (1028-29)), or a healing physician, as Heracles claims. Death swallows infinite pain, but is this all the healing one can hope for? It is our fate to not know our fate until it has happened to us - as Deianira says at the very beginning of the play:

There is an ancient word people tell

that none can judge the life of any man
for good or bad until that man is dead;

The fate of Heracles demonstrates that ancient word (λόγος) with the deadbolt force of a syllogism. No one knew better than Deianira how powerless we are to know, before our end, our end. Heracles orders his own death believing he is fulfilling a foretold fate, as the son of the highest god, but not knowing what that fate might be. It is left to Hyllus to offer, as the only true thing that can be said, the hypothesis that all these ancient words did not lack sense.

The first word of the play is "λόγος"; the last is "Ζεύς." If the alpha and omega of the Women of Trachis are one, if the play trues its circle, then Heracles and Hyllus are dutiful in believing they are on sacred ground. Are they obeying the cathartic will of Zeus, or collaborating in a primal act of patricide? If the former, the career of Heracles ends with a final heroic purgation. If not, it's the most polluting act of murderous nihilism. Heracles is borne off alive. Until his end, can one say?

There is nothing here that is not Zeus.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Spelling doom: Writing, Heracles and Deianira


. . .too late for it to be any use, I reap the knowledge

Throughout Women of Trachis, Deianira points to the moment of consciousness, the dawning awareness that comes from suffering, then from reflecting upon the experience. She tells the chorus:
You have heard of my trouble, I would guess, and that has brought you here. But the anguish which consumes my heart—may you never come to know it through your own experience!—to that now you are total strangers. (141-144)
First she distinguishes between hearing of trouble (in this case, hers) and actually experiencing it for oneself. This difference between knowing-through-hearing and direct experience is the difference between being a young girl and being a wife:
Yes, a young life grows in those sheltered regions of its own, and the Sun-god's heat disturbs it not, nor rain, nor any wind. Rather it takes up a toilless existence amidst pleasure, until such time as she is called “wife” instead of “maiden”, and takes her portion of anxious thoughts in the night, fearing for husband or for children. At that point a woman could understand the burden of my misfortunes by recalling [σκοπῶν: looking, considering] her own experience. (144-150)
One's own experience sheds light upon that which one hears about from others, enabling understanding.

It's precisely that light of experienced understanding that is eclipsed in charms. The "precepts" of Nessus, carved in her memory, banish all light:
I neglected no part of the precepts which the savage Centaur gave me when he was hurting from the bitter barb in his side; they were in my memory, like the graven words which no hand may wash from a tablet of bronze. Now this was his order to me, and I obeyed it: [685] to keep this potion hidden in inmost recesses always away from fire and untouched by the sun's warm ray, until I should apply it, newly spread, where I wished. So I had done. And just now, when the moment for action had come, I performed the anointing secretly in the rooms of the house [690] with a tuft of soft wool which I had plucked from a sheep of our home-flock; then I folded up my gift, and laid it, unvisited by sunlight, within its hollow chest, as you saw.
Just previously she had spoken of the tablet carved with strange signs that Heracles had shown her. The signs could not be read, at least by her - they are dark, but they contain the fate of Heracles. But after she's finished composing the charm in perfect darkness, an accident brings light, and something unexpected:
But as I am going back into the house, I see a thing inexplicable by words and beyond the knowledge of the human mind to understand. [695] For somehow I happened to have thrown the ball of wool, with which I had been anointing the robe, into the full blaze of the sun's rays. As it grew warm, it ran all into confusion, and quickly crumbled to powder on the ground, like nothing in appearance so much as [700] the morsels left by a saw's teeth when wood is cut. It lies just so, fallen. And from the earth, where it lay exposed, clotted foam seethes up, like the rich juice of the blue fruit from the vine of Bacchus when it is poured on the ground. (680-704)
This event - much like a chemical reaction in an experiment - triggers thinking:
And so I am distraught, and I do not know to which side my thoughts should fall. I only see [ὁρῶ] that I have brought a terrible deed to completion. For why or in thanks for what should the monster in his death-throes have shown good will to me, because of whom he was dying? Impossible! No, he was enchanting me in order to destroy the man who had shot him.
Into the dark spell of the charm-making stabs a ray of sunlight, and immediately, because Deianira is no fool, she sees what she has been doing in an entirely other "light." The script of the charm was precisely like those inscrutable symbols on Heracles' tablet, until the sun not only brings it to light, but acts upon the tuft of wool. In an instant, her mind is changed, the illusion is consumed in a flash of insight. Then come the words printed above:
 ὧν ἐγὼ μεθύστερονὅτ᾽ οὐκέτ᾽ ἀρκεῖτὴν μάθησιν ἄρνυμαι.
And now too late I gain the knowledge of this, when it can no longer help.
Deianira sees that she was blind when she acted, but that doesn't change the act. It is "too late": the lethal effect of the deed executed in ignorance cannot be reversed in the throes of consciousness, although its meaning can be, and is.

No clearer example of the tragic divorce of power from knowledge, action from thought, is necessary. Sophocles is never more Sophoclean than when this divorce is what is on offer on his stage. He wishes us, epigones of both Chiron and Nessus, of divine logos and dark magic, to "see" that while we are creatures that know and creatures that do, it is perfectly possible that we have no understanding of what we are doing, and no power to do anything about what we've done once we understand, too late, what it was.

Later on we learn that Heracles wrote down the prophecies he heard at Dodona:
It was foreshown to me by my father far in the past that I would perish by no creature that had the breath of life, but by one already dead, a dweller with Hades. So this savage Centaur in death has killed me alive, just as the divine will had been foretold. And I will show you how later oracles tally with the first and testify to the old prophecy. I wrote them down [εἰσεγραψάμην] for myself from the mouth of my father's oak of many tongues [πολυγλώσσου] in the grove of the Selli, who dwell on the hills and sleep on the ground. (1159-69)
Can Zeus's "oak of many tongues" in fact be unambiguously translated into unequivocal writing? It's one thing to write down what one hears, another to know how to read what's written. By the time Heracles knows what his writing says, it is, once again, too late.

The Centaur who kills Heracles is dead, but his precepts, "like the graven words which no hand may wash from a tablet of bronze," live on. Automata working beyond the end of the tongue that spoke them, Nessus's words charm beyond the grave.

Both Deianira and Heracles discover that they had utterly misread signs that they were given - signs from Zeus in Heracles' case; signs from Nessus for Deianira. The pattern beautifully described by Deianira of the young girl who must experience suffering before she can understand life holds: we act, then suffer discovering what we were doing, or what was being done to us.

The joint errors of Deianira and Heracles bring the play to a climactic impasse. What can Heracles do, other than die? Yet the play doesn't end quite that way. He acts again before his end.  The effect of that remains to be seen.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Marooned man

Odysseus
This is the headland of sea-washed Lemnos, land untrodden by men and desolate. It was here, child bred of the man who was the noblest of the Greeks, Neoptolemus son of Achilles, that I exposed long ago the native of Malis, Poeas' son, on the express command of the two chieftains to do so, because his foot was all running with a gnawing disease.



Our next play, Sophocles Philoctetes, can be found with both Jebb and Torrance translations here at Perseus. There's also a complete, but different, version of Jebb's translation here.

I still aim to say a few more things about Women of Trachis before turning the blog over to the man with Heracles' bow.


Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Science vs mageía: The Greeks' polemic view

710 ἔθελγέ μ᾽:  he bewitched me

Before we discuss the nature of charm in The Women of Trachis, let's take another quick look at how Sophocles quietly makes us aware that the heroic career of Heracles begins and ends with Centaurs. Chiron stands at the beginning, the divinely wise master of the greatest Greek heroes. Nessus, after bewitching Deianira, sends Heracles a "gift" that ends his labors, and his earthly life.

What's worth noting is the symmetry: these two centaurs are positioned like bookends at either end of the hero's life. One brings enlightenment, skills, the powers of the mind and body, medicine; the other brings delusion, error, and death.

Deianira links the two in her momentous epiphany. Nessus, she says,
bewitched me in order to destroy the man who had shot him. And now too late I gain the knowledge of this, when it can no longer help. Yes, I alone—unless my outlook prove mistaken—I, miserable one, shall completely destroy him! For I know that the arrow which made the wound harmed [715] even the god Cheiron, and that it kills all varieties of beasts that it touches. Since it is this same black venom in the blood that has passed out through the wound of Nessus, must it not kill Heracles also?
Deianira is beginning to work out, to reason about, what has happened. She is no longer in thrall to the dark power of the charm.

Today we are confident that if we mix vinegar and baking soda, we can make a bottle rocket. It's a recipe or formula that produces a predictable result so long as the materials are combined in the prescribed manner.

The ancient world was suffused in charms that had designs upon people. I recently came across a collection of ancient Mesopotamian charms which in fact were counter-charms. They were used to ward off, or neutralize, the work of other people's charms.

Here's a sample counter-charm from Babylonia taken from a scholarly collection at the Universitat Wurzburg:
[If a m]an is constantly frightened (and restless) on his (sick)bedhealways suffers from [depres]sion4he has [ver]tigo (and) his feet cause him a stinging pain5figurines of that man have been buried in the tomb of a dead person6[In the mornin]g you purify the claypitYou take clay from the clay pit7You make [two figur]ines.[For the] male [figurine]8[You take] a bronze ring [an]d you press(it) on [his] wais[t]9[... of ced]ar wo[od ...] you press (it) on her[wa]ist10You have them stand [...] ... [...]11[...]you libate beer.12[...] ... [
While this practice made for an elaborate system in the Middle East, it was not received without skepticism by the Greeks, according to the authors of the Wurzburg site:
from the very beginning, mageía is not a word that objectively refers to ancient Near Eastern practices, but a term that carries a value judgment prompted by Greek perceptions of the Middle East. Therefore, the origins of ‘magic’ may well be regarded as an early example of ‘Orientalism’, and, characteristically, a blend of fascination, contempt and misunderstanding has accompanied the concept of magic ever since its inception.

Indeed, the authors go on:
Early on Greek authors used the term mágos, a direct loan from Old Persian maguš, not only as a designation for Iranian experts in religious matters, but also as a pejorative term for ritualists whose practices, in the author’s view, lack piety. Derived from mágos, the term mageía soon ubiquitously carried the same polemical connotation. Usually it served as a derogatory label for ritualistic activities that are, by using this designation, characterized as obscure, irrational and impious. Ultimately, in this line of argument, mageía is a powerful deception performed by shrewd practitioners on their immature, credulous victims.
This is not to say the Greeks didn't enjoy elaborate narratives involving magic. But if we think of a character like Circe in the Odyssey, we find a localized "shrewd practitioner" whose powers are not unlimited, and in fact are thwarted by Odysseus with the help of a counter-charm Homer calls moly. For the Greeks, the world was shaped less by rote charms and more by relations between humans and the gods.

One can almost feel the Greek contempt for the roteness of magic formulae. To succeed, a charm does not depend upon anything other than the proper repetition of a series of actions. One need not know chemistry or science, one simply (mindlessly) follows a set of instructions, with the idea that a certain result is guaranteed.

We might suggest a basic distinction here between a charm and a scientific experiment. If one is applying knowledge of materials, of chemical properties, to discover new facts about the world, and follows a set of procedures to that end, this is cognitive: one learns something about the properties of materials and about the world.

But if one simply follows instructions that purport to convey power, or perform some act, there is no burden of inquiry, no yield of discovery. Rather, there's mere repetition of a set of actions. If the actions are properly executed, they produce an effect - somehow. A charm is a technique -- a power that can be accessed by anyone who can access designated materials and follow a set of scripted actions. It's dark technology, causation divorced from any understanding of its nature.

The only thing is, from the standpoint of an outside observer, it might be difficult to tell whether someone is working a charm or performing a scientific experiment -- they share a good deal of external attributes, even as the thinking and intent behind them can be entirely distinct. These happen to be the alternatives embodied in our two Centaurs: Chiron the wise teacher of science and medicine, and Nessus, persuasive Hydra-bile salesman.

The next post will look at a few more aspects of the charm motif in The Women of Trachis.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Where words work: Anne Carson on Greek

A friend in California shared this observation of Anne Carson's (author of Eros the Bittersweet and translator of Sappho):


"I don’t know every language in the world—maybe if I knew Sanskrit and Chinese I would think differently—but there’s something about Greek that seems to go deeper into words than any modern language. So that when you’re reading it, you’re down in the roots of where words work, whereas in English we’re at the top of the tree, in the branches, bouncing around. It was stunning to me, a revelation. And it continues to be stunning, continues to be like a harbor always welcoming. Strange, but welcoming."
It's an excerpt from an interview published in full here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Exchange and Gender in Women of Trachis: Wohl

Before we turn, as Sophocles' Women of Trachis turns, from Deianira to the dying Heracles, here's a discussion of Deianira that raises many of the themes of womanhood, male power, reciprocity and the impossibility of it that run through the play. It's from Victoria Wohl's Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy. See especially the commentary in Chapter Two.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Mirroring Centaurs and inverted medicines: Chiron and Nessus

Here's an odd example of unexpected symmetry in The Women of Trachis -- some might say it's a stretch, but bear in mind, the material of the myth was all one giant text to the Greeks.

Deianira is about to relate her discovery -- her dawning apprehension that Nessus gave her no love charm. She tells how she faithfully followed the dying Centaur's every instruction:
I let fall (παρῆκα) no part of the precepts which the savage Centaur gave me when he was hurting from the bitter barb in his side; they were in my memory, like the graven words which no hand may wash from a tablet of bronze.
ἐγὼ γὰρ ὧν θήρ με Κένταυρος, πονῶν
πλευρὰν πικρᾷ γλωχῖνι, προυδιδάξατο
παρῆκα θεσμῶν οὐδέν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐσῳζόμην
χαλκῆς ὅπως δύσνιπτον ἐκ δέλτου γραφήν.
She is thinking of Nessus as if he were a teacher, not a rapist. She adheres to his formula for making the charm as if it were a medicine she is learning to compound from a learned pharmacist. This of course should remind us of Chiron, the one Centaur who was learned in many arts, including medicine. (Chiron was a giver of the gift of knowledge not unlike Prometheus, only he did not suffer the wrath of Zeus for having stolen sacred fire.)

The irony is that Heracles killed both Nessus and Chiron with the same poisoned weapon -- though in the case of Chiron, it was an accident. At least one well-known tale goes this way:
Chiron had been poisoned with an arrow belonging to Heracles that had been treated with the blood of the Hydra . . . this had taken place during the visit of Heracles to the cave of Pholus on Mount Pelion in Thessaly when he visited his friend during his fourth labour in defeating the Erymanthian Boar. While they were at supper, Heracles asked for some wine to accompany his meal. Pholus, who ate his food raw, was taken aback. He had been given a vessel of sacred wine by Dionysus sometime earlier, to be kept in trust for the rest of the centaurs until the right time for its opening. At Heracles' prompting, Pholus was forced to produce the vessel of sacred wine. The hero, gasping for wine, grabbed it from him and forced it open. Thereupon the vapors of the sacred wine wafted out of the cave and intoxicated the wild centaurs, led by Nessus, who had gathered outside. They attacked the cave with stones and fir trees. Heracles was forced to shoot many arrows (poisoned with the blood of the Hydra) to drive them back. During this assault, Chiron was hit in the thigh by one of the poisoned arrows. (Wikipedia)
The tale continues with Chiron, who was immortal, suffering so greatly that he wished to die. Heracles then brokered an exchange by which the Centaur was permitted to die and Prometheus was freed from his savage punishment.

Heracles, then, killed both the noblest Centaur and the worst of them, and used knowledge gained from Chiron (about the poison) to do it. When Nessus tells Deianira that he can give her a potent charm, he is imitating Chiron's instruction of Heracles. And when he is struck by the Hydra-tainted arrow, he replicates the death of Chiron. Deianira, then, could have been misled by a kind of chiastic mirroring:

Chiron - teacher of Heracles - wounded by Heracles' poisoned arrow:
<> 
:Nessus - mortally wounded by Heracles - teacher of Deianira

The similarities are superficial. Upon closer consideration one might realize that if anyone could have used the Hydra's poison to good purpose, it would have been Chiron, but he couldn't. Chiron gave men medicine to preserve life and knowledge to make the best of it. Nessus, the doppelganger, gives a charm that horribly takes life. And the charm takes the form of a shirt, a copy, or replica, of the human form beneath.

Chiron certainly gave Centaurs an aura of primal learning - an air of authority and respectability which even someone as intelligent as Deianira might mistakenly attribute to all Centaurs.

The balanced structure of the myth would surely have fascinated the Greeks: Heracles was brought up and became who he was thanks to the illumination and humane tutelage of Chiron. And then he was brought down thanks to the prescription of a fraudulent beast who resembled him superficially. That doubleness, the real and the mere copy -- is itself underscored by the reality that Chiron and Nessus are "like" each other precisely in being dual creatures, double natures. And the difference between the dual natures lies precisely in the gift of benign culture -- of teaching, paideia.

We are not far from the Phaedrus's lesson in the differences between true knowing and mere writing. And writing is indeed present in Deianira's account of how she faithfully followed Nessus's precepts:
they were in my memory, like the graven words which no hand may wash from a tablet of bronze.
In a coming post we'll look at the charm itself in the Women of Trachis.