Thursday, March 26, 2015

Odysseus's "winning words" in the Philoctetes

When Odysseus arrives on Lemnos, he ascertains first that Philoctetes is still alive, and second that he is and has been totally isolated. Having anticipated as much, the wily emissary is already working on the ruse to bring back the man he abandoned on that spot nine and a half years earlier.

He tells Neoptolemus:
τὴν Φιλοκτήτου σε δεῖ 55ψυχὴν ὅπως δόλοισιν ἐκκλέψεις λέγων 
You must deceive the soul of Philoctetes by speaking craftily.
He fully acknowledges that this goes against all that the noble son of Achilles believes is honorable, yet insists:
ἀλλ᾽ αὐτὸ τοῦτο δεῖ σοφισθῆναικλοπεὺς ὅπως γενήσει τῶν ἀνικήτων ὅπλων
No, the thing for which we must devise a ruse is just this: how to become a thief of his unconquerable weapons.
If Philoctetes has that formidable bow, force is not a viable option. But Odysseus has Neoptolemus, and a blank canvas. He saw immediately that Philoctetes is cut off from access to what is happening in the world, and thus is susceptible to virtually any representation. The world's greatest liar is tasked with persuading the world's most informationally deprived man, who happens to hate his guts. The talespinner's entire focus is on the "ruse" - σοφισθῆναι - a word that runs the gamut from "the teaching of wisdom" to "use fraud:"

σοφίζω ,
A.make wise, instructLXX Ps.18(19).8; “τινὰ εἰς σωτηρίαν” 2 Ep.Ti.3.15.
2. Pass., become or be clever or skilled in a thing, c. gen. rei, ναυτιλίης σεσοφισμένος skilled in seamanship, Hes.Op.649; “Μοίσαι σεσοφισμέναι” Ibyc.Oxy.1790.23; so ἐντοῖς ὀνόμασι ςX.Cyn. 13.6: abs., to become or be wise, freq. in LXX, Ec.7.24(23), al.; “βέλτερος ἀλκήεντος ἔφυ σεσοφισμένος ἀνήρ” Ps.-Phoc.130.
3. Med., teach oneself, learnἐσοφίσατο ὅτι . . he became aware that . ., LXX 1 Ki.3.8.
II. Med. σοφίζομαι , with aor. Med. and pf. Pass. (v. infr.), practise an art, Thgn.19IG12.678; play subtle tricks, deal subtly, E.IA744, D.18.227, etc.; οὐδὲν σοφιζόμεσθα τοῖσιδαίμοσι we use no subtleties in dealing with the gods, E.Ba.200; to be scientific, speculate, “περὶ τὸ ὄνομα Pl.R.509d, cf. Plt.299b, Muson. Fr.3p.12H., etc.; σοφιζόμενος φάναι to say rationalistically, Pl.Phdr.229c; καίπερ οὕτω τούτου σεσοφισμένου though he has dealt thus craftily, D.29.28; σοφίσασθαι πρός τι to use fraud for an end, Plb.6.58.12; 

As the first scene closes, the question is not whether Neoptolemus will have to tell Odysseus's lie. The question facing Odysseus is what specific form of "speaking craftily" will get the job done.

* * * * *
Merchant 
There was a seer of noble birth, [605] a son of Priam, called Helenus, whom that man, out on a solitary night raid—that deceitful Odysseus, whose repute is all shame and dishonor—captured. Leading him back in bonds, he displayed him publicly to the Achaeans as his glorious prey. [610] Helenus then prophesied for them whatever matter they asked, and, pertaining to Troy, he foretold that they would never sack its towers, unless by winning words [πείσαντες λόγῳthey should bring Philoctetes here from the island where he now dwells. And, as soon as he heard the seer prophecy this, Laertes' son immediately promised that he would bring the man and show him to the Achaeans. He thought it most likely that he would get him willingly, but, if unwilling, then by force, and he added that, were he to fail in this, whoever wished it might sever his head. [620] 

The merchant is speaking according to Odysseus's script. In point of fact, the merchant is almost certainly Odysseus in disguise. Not only would that make sense, given the character's masterful ability to play any role, but it would enable Odysseus to give out precisely the information he wishes to further his ruse. Onstage it would play wonderfully as he denigrates himself. And, it's entirely in keeping with the wit and craft and fun of polutropos Odysseus. Only, why does he disclose precisely this information?

Now Philoctetes might be spurred to have Neoptolemus take him from the isle, fearing the coming of Odysseus. But at a certain point he will know that he's been tricked and that the lord of Ithaka has him -- how willingly will he go? Is there not a good chance the plot will backfire? Why does Odysseus tell the man he's trying to persuade "by winning words" that he, Odysseus, stands to lose his head if his attempt to capture Philoctetes fails? What stronger motivation could Philoctetes have to ruin the plan?

* * * * * 

A writer acquaintance recently shared an essay in which he describes a man he knew more than a half century ago in North Florida:
[He] was a complex man. He lived by a code that I find difficult to understand much less explain. He was loyal to a fault to his friends. He was honest and you could depend on him regardless of the circumstances. His word was his bond. He understood the nature of people. He was the most adept man I ever met at making quick assessment of a person’s character. He knew how to arrange people and events in a fashion that caused the result that he wanted to occur. He was like a Master of Chess except he applied those skills to politics.
Two things are given with the figure of Odysseus: First, he is theatrical in the most persuasive way - he can successfully simulate anyone (or outis - no one) - it's a trait he shares with his great grandfather Hermes. Second, like this Florida gentleman, he could read people -- he knows what makes them tick, and how to get them to tick to his beat.

Keen insight into the tumblers of human nature was a key component of the craft of the master rhetorician -- a trait shared with Athena. Sophocles brings in the full range of Odysseus because he's deeply interested in the power of rhetoric, of "winning words."

Small digression

It gets more interesting. Much of the tradition deriving from Plato and Aristotle addresses the same inquiry -- the power of rhetoric as wielded by sophists to seem to speak truth. In fact they either do not know the truth (as Socrates usually ferrets out) or it's irrelevant -- they brashly use the power of tropes and syntactical dexterity to their advantage. Sophists win arguments regardless of the truth -- their power lies in "speaking craftily."

With Sophocles, it's different, I think. YES, all the beguiling charms of rhetoric are fully seen in all their misleading beauty, BUT the comfortable edge, the clear frame dividing mere crafty speech from truth is not so easy to locate. Just as we saw above with σοφίζω -- instruction that makes one wise and fraudulent pretense can make strange bedfellows within one and the same word, and do. Crafty speech indeed.

This can be seen in the Merchant's tale of Helenus' stipulation that Philoctetes must be brought back to the war, and reintegrated into the Greek cause not by force, but with πείσαντες λόγῳ -- linguistic power that persuades, or in Jebb's inspired translation, "winning words." What we call truth is what we are persuaded of. Many times in the tragedies a character will intend, "such and such is true," but what he/she actually says is, "I am persuaded of x."

* * * * * 

Later in the play Odysseus will describe himself as one whose natural desire, in everything, is to win:
νικᾶν γε μέντοι πανταχοῦ χρῄζων ἔφυν  (1052)
Victory, however, is my inborn desire in every field
There is no question of losing; it's a matter of discovering what craft will do the job. After telling Neoptolemus he must lie to Philoctetes, the first thing he coaches him to say is that he's the son of Achilles. The truth, if it will serve, is the best lie.

But we still have to ask: why does Odysseus introduce through the Merchant's mouth (which is his own, literally or no) the imminent arrival of himself? Why inject himself into the fiction, given how anathema he is to Philoctetes? What's the strategy, the rhetorical advantage, of disclosing that he is on his way?

A lesser liar would have kept that to himself. Is he not making his task ever so much harder? We'll take this up in another post.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Aeschylus' Lemnos




This fragment (400b) from Aeschylus' Philoctetes makes me wish we had the whole play:


“Where the wind allows you neither to stay nor to escape.”


‘ἔνθ’ οὔτε μίμνειν ἄνεμος οὔτ’ ἐκπλεῖν ἐᾶι’.
via Sententiae Antiquae, with the comment: "A remnant of Aeschylus’ version of Philoctetes. The phrase refers to the title figure’s lonely island."



Saturday, March 21, 2015

Persuasive paradigms: Latour and Sophocles's Philoctetes

In some ways, a play like Sophocles' Philoctetes is more than a rendering of a single story evoked from the tapestry of Greek myth. In choosing this story of a duel between, on one hand, a noble Greek reduced almost to a beast through social indifference, and on the other, the cleverest favorite of Athena, polutropos Odysseus, Sophocles set in motion a paradigm of the Greek world. In that world, a theatrical piece could and did think through the forces that formed it, tested it, and threatened to break it apart.

If one wishes, one can find contemporary authors who have similar aspirations -- whether their art succeeds quite as well remains to be seen. One example might be Bruno Latour's recent Gaia Global Circus.


Circus is "a tragicomedy," writes Erik Bordeleau, that “attempts at plunging into the internal drama of science.” The particular agon of the work relates the question of the Earth (Gaia) and climate change -- a global theme indeed.

Latour, a French philosopher deeply concerned with science, is clear about the aim of his drama: “A good scientific experimentation is like a theatrical situation of dramatization,” he wrote. 

Latour has a point: It might very well be that what physicists like to call "thought experiments" are precisely what were taking place in amphitheaters 2,500 years ago.



The Greeks had numerous stories from their bottomless world of myth that spoke to similar giant themes: questions of world order, the place of man in that order, the precarious state of that "terrible wonder" described by the chorus of Antigone:

Many wonders, many terrors, 
But none more wonderful than the human race, 
Or more dangerous 
This creature travels on a winter gale 
Across the silver sea . . . 
(trans. Peter Meineck)

One way to think of a "classic" is as a work that attacks questions so fundamental that it never ceases to interest and concern us. 

There's much to interest us in Sophocles' drama set on Lemnos. The island is not an idle choice of scene -- it's where Hephaistos landed after he was tossed out of Olympus, some say, because his mother Hera found the limping god too ugly to bear. 

The play alludes to that tale in passing - it's the divine paradigm of ejection, or rejection, of an individual by society - ratcheted up by the fact that the "society" here is the mother who brought little Hephaistos into the world. For both men and gods in this world, part of being "social" is being mobile -- the capacity to run, march, dance, hunt, and all the tasks of war and athletics require health and agility. To lack these is to run the risk of alienation; of course there are degrees of outsiderness. For Hephaistos and for Philoctetes, whose smell offends the senses as his cries of pain unsettle the mind, estrangement on Lemnos proved extreme.

Sophocles provides a rich contrast in pitting Odysseus versus Philoctetes. The latter is given large amounts of dramatic and choral time to arouse compassion both in us and in Neoptolemus and his crew -- he is a study in impoverished selfhood and lack, a human being verging on dissolving into the wild. It is not by accident that a key subtext of this play is the tale of Polyphemus from Odyssey 9 -- Philoctetes's body, mind, and soul are disintegrating in this solitary place into something no longer human. Monstrous.

It's necessary to fully apprehend the radical nature of Philoctetes' physical and emotional state -- the pathos and his huge anger at the leaders of the Greeks that erupts late in the play -- in order to appreciate the challenge facing Odysseus. 

Odysseus is the essential man -- everything Philoctetes no longer is. Strong, cunning, sophisticated, connected, capable of taking on any manner or role (polutropos), and intellectually capable both of seeing the big picture and of thinking through every strategic piece of business needed to win. As he himself puts it:
What kind of man the occasion demands, that kind of man am I. [1050] And accordingly, where the judgment at hand is of just and good men, you could find no man more pious than me. Victory, however, is my inborn desire in every field,


What's striking is how confident Odysseus is. Sure, he's worried that if Philoctetes sees him -- the man who so totally abandoned him 10 years before -- he won't survive the ineluctable arrows. But when the Greeks first realized they couldn't win the war without Philoctetes, Odysseus embraced the task with complete confidence, saying they could remove his head if he didn't bring back the wounded man, even though the prophet Helenus specified that Philoctetes must be persuaded and not forced to return to the war.

The full measure of the gageure has to be taken into account -- only so can we see how high are the stakes in this Latourian "thought experiment" of Sophocles. And only so can we enter into the wily fun and strategic gamesmanship of Homer's greatest character. 

In a way, the play works because we give full measure to both antagonists, much as we must to Antigone and Creon. If we reductively "side with" one or the other, the full dimensions of what is at stake never appear, and our experience of the play suffers from our lack of imaginative scope. In many ways Philoctetes is quite similar to the Antigone -- the fiercely antithetical motives, the rift between the State and the individual; the stark contrast of apparent strength and woeful weakness -- and the absolute need to bring them into harmony. 

What's different of course is that the earlier play ended with a tragic lose/lose, where this play -- the next to last produced by the playwright -- ends with a resounding Odyssean "win."

A subsequent post will look at some details of how this plays out.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A sonnet with Philoctetes

WHEN PHILOCTETES IN THE LEMNIAN ISLE

WHEN Philoctetes in the Lemnian isle
Like a form sculptured on a monument
Lay couched; on him or his dread bow unbent
Some wild Bird oft might settle and beguile
The rigid features of a transient smile,
Disperse the tear, or to the sigh give vent,
Slackening the pains of ruthless banishment
From his loved home, and from heroic toil.
And trust that spiritual Creatures round us move,
Griefs to allay which Reason cannot heal;
Yea, veriest reptiles have sufficed to prove
To fettered wretchedness, that no Bastile
Is deep enough to exclude the light of love,
Though man for brother man has ceased to feel.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

νήπιος: Philoctetes and Polyphemus

Sometimes looking at a work from another angle brings a renewed appreciation for something one thought had already been sufficiently savored.

Having recently read Daniel B. Levine's close study of the resonances in Sophocles' Philoctetes of the encounter of Odysseus and the Cyclops in Odyssey 9, I've been thinking about the relation of the play to the epic scene, and while I still think there's more to it than I have fathomed, it's already enriching elements of the play in ways I'd not have imagined.

Take for example the scene (already discussed here) in which Philoctetes makes his first entrance. Before he's even on the stage, the wounded man is rumbling, crashing, making noises, not articulate sounds. If we superimpose this scene upon Homer's, we note that Polyphemus arrives with his own crash:
           φέρε δ᾽ ὄβριμον ἄχθοςὕλης ἀζαλέηςἵνα οἱ ποτιδόρπιον εἴη,ἔντοσθεν δ᾽ ἄντροιο βαλὼν ὀρυμαγδὸν ἔθηκεν:
He bore a mighty weight of dry wood to serve him at supper time, [235] and flung it down with a crash inside the cave.
The only reason Odysseus has stayed in the cave is to see whether the cave's inhabitant was capable of hospitality -- i.e., a civilized being, not a monster -- and now he knows.

Sophocles sets up his scene beautifully to draw us in -- the island setting is just like island settings in the Odyssey where marvels occurred, and we are there. Only here, the crashing sounds of Philoctetes are made by his jagged walking -- he sounds monstrous, and as he approaches the chorus says:


His cries are loud, and terrible. (217)


But when the unknown being appears, he's very much like a man.

The chorus is grappling with the same question Odysseus had: human or inhuman? As the scene unfolds, we get Philoctetes' first view, or actually, his first hearing, of the sailors. And with a beautiful symmetry, Sophocles depicts this creature -- who but a moment before seemed a monster -- to swoon with delight to hear well-spoken Greek:


O cherished sound!

The tongue reveals to him, before anything is even said, that these are men like him, and to them that he is a well-spoken man, a Greek like them. If we think of our underlying Homeric scene, this happy recognition of similars is precisely what is missing in the Cyclops' cave:


“So he spoke, and in our breasts our spirit was broken 
for terror of his deep voice and monstrous self;"

Before Polyphemus establishes that the only place Odysseus and his men will go is down his gullet, his voice, though speaking Greek, makes it clear that he is no man who honors guests, suppliants, and gods:
he straightway made answer with pitiless heart: ‘A fool (νήπιοςart thou, stranger, or art come from afar, seeing that thou biddest me either to fear or to shun the gods. [275] For the Cyclopes reck not of Zeus, who bears the aegis, nor of the blessed gods, since verily we are better far than they. Nor would I, to shun the wrath of Zeus, spare either thee or thy comrades, unless my own heart should bid me.
Only a νήπιος would assume that humanity is everywhere alike. νήπιος in fact means incapable of speech -- exactly like infans in Latin. To be νήπιος is to fail to see difference, unlikeness -- here, it's the failure to see that one is looking at a monster.

Odysseus now has the answer to his question: alas, it's the bone-crunching end to all questing. The mouth of the Cyclops produces no cherished sound, but opens to use his guests with engulfing savage power.

One effect, then, of the parallel with Homer's scene is to highlight a difference that lies, unquestionably, in the mouth. Philoctetes sounds like a monster but delights in hearing the tongue of Greeks. The scene brightens through its difference with that of the Cyclops, but a dark cloud lies within: the potential heartless, godless, monstrous use of a man that lurks through the scenes that follow.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

ἀκτὴ: Some edges in the Philoctetes.



5


The opening lines of the Philoctetes. Here's Jebb's translation:
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.

The first word of a work of Sophocles often is worth attending to. Here it's ἀκτὴ:

ἀκτή (A), ,
A. headland, foreland, promontory
2. generally, tract of land running out into the sea
II. generally, edge,

The word takes on meaning from the text it opens. This is not the time for a full exploration, but a few elements might be worth thinking about:

From the vantage point of a sailor or a drowning man, a headland or promontory is the prospect of salvation. 

From the perspective of a stranded Crusoe figure, the point where land runs out to the sea is the limit of one's motion -- the isolating (isola = island) wall or threshold of one's world.

The ἀκτή  can be the hoped-for, salvational terra firma, or a limiting wall of despair, depending on whether one is drowning at sea or attempting to escape a deserted (οὐδ᾽ οἰκουμένη) island. That is to say, the edge cuts both ways - it's liminal.

We are at the edge of the text. Odysseus is speaking, introducing Neoptolemus and us to the scene. He begins with ἀκτή and moves through a concise statement of how he, Odysseus, isolated Philoctetes here under the orders of the Atreidai, before he ends at Philoctetes' dripping (καταστάζοντα) foot. Another edge, suppurating flesh and liquid mixed - a shedding wound upon which the serpent-bitten man cannot stand, move, or rest.

In a play that is deeply about separation, about a vast interwoven story of two nations and the isolated individual who yet is necessary to the resolution of their conflict, the question of edges, borders, limits is basic. Consider the moments in the play in which edges appear to disappear. One example might be the central choral ode in which the singers, taking part in Odysseus's plot to trick Philoctetes, are moved by the subject of their song -- the wounded man's plight. Another might be the moment Philoctetes set fire to Heracles' funeral pyre -- where the hero's suffering body, consumed in fire, ceased to suffer and, the tales tell, began another journey

From its first word, the Philoctetes is grappling with edges -- encountering the nature of their limits, discovering that they can be suspended, crossed, transcended. Sophocles gives us much to attend to.