Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Oscar Mandel's Philoctetes and the fall of Troy

While the general approach of our group involves close attention to a text - as we have found that reading aloud and re-reading does wonders for our awareness of the language, density, and astonishingly complex beauty of certain works - there's never harm in enriching one's sense of the tale and tradition, the mythos from which a great work is fashioned.

Of course the Philoctetes has received far less critical scrutiny than, say, the Oedipus plays of Sophocles, but this is not to say it's been ignored. In fact a good deal of ancillary material along with the text and some interpretive observations, artwork, and more has been gathered together - lovingly, if one can judge, by Oscar Mandel. 

Prof. Mandel's book, entitled Philoctetes and the fall of Troy (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1981) is a valuable study of virtually every reference to the central figure of Sophocles' tragedy.

But the best part is, it can be downloaded as a .pdf file here. Mandel quotes liberally from ancient commentators as well as from fragments of the actual works of Aeschylus and Euripides, showing how Sophocles reworked the tale in his own unique way. He also traces the iconography of the character through the Renaissance into the 19th century quite thoroughly.

The generosity of sharing such a trove of scholarship is remarkable and deeply appreciated.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Philoctetes redivivus?

Normally we tend to shy away from "modern equivalents" of ancient figures - for good reason. But in this case, let's make an exception:
Eventually, the agents found the man. He was unclothed, appeared to be in his mid-30s (he's now in his late 40s, give or take a few years), and always armed with a bow-and-arrow. Their encounters fell into a well-worn pattern: tense standoffs, ending in frustration or tragedy. On one occasion, the Indian delivered a clear message to one agent who pushed the attempts at contact too far: an arrow to the chest.
Read more of Slate's tale of "The Most Isolated Man on the Planet" 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Encountering myth and naturalism in Philoctetes

This is long and in part goes back over lines already discussed, but from a different angle, trying to clarify something. Feel free to ignore.

In his fine essay on the Philoctetes in The Wound and the Bow, Edmund Wilson notes how isolating the three main characters on a lonely island helps Sophocles get away from the "barbarities, anomalies and absurdities" of the old myths.

"The people of the Philoctetes seem to us more familiar than they do in most of the other Greek tragedies," he writes. The thought echoes that of H.D.F. Kitto who found the language of the play more naturalistic, more consonant with the familiar notes of humans suffering rage, hope, pain and despair. (Greek Tragedy.)

The bleak Lemnian setting amplifies our attention to the words spoken, the nuances of the dialogue. Nonetheless it's not as if Sophocles chooses to do away with the old myths -- he's working with the givens of a highly specific story that features prophecies of old, not unlike the ancient tablet Heracles uses to foresee his future in Women of Trachis.

Wilson seems to find that Sophocles' late work exemplifies a movement toward greater realism accompanied by a downplaying of mythic matters -- as if the playwright were moving towards some sort of 20th century stylistic mode. But is that in fact the case? It might be best to begin by simply observing the co-presence of these two very distinct elements: a direct pathos of human emotion on one hand, and elements taken from high story: a fabulous war of heroes, a sacred bow, a fateful set of conditions that must be met in order for the Greeks to conquer Troy, on the other.

Sophocles succeeds in integrating the naturalistic style with these fraught props -- not an easy task. But he did choose to tell this story, and these ingredients, while mostly in the background, are essential to it.


Why this story? For one thing, it offers something very important to the playwright -- a dramatic discrepancy between agent and effect. As we saw in the Antigone, the plot pivots on a surprise triggered by an immense gap between the proximate cause of the central action and its ultimate effect. A handful of dust sprinkled by a young girl upon her brother's corpse leads inexorably to the obliteration of the house of Creon. Similarly Women of Trachis presents us with the strongest man who ever lived, portrayed in his feeblest moment. Yet in that moment he manages to be an agent of major change while orchestrating his own last rites.

The spectacle of frail human means coupled with fiery gumption and impact beyond the individual fascinated Sophocles. In Philoctetes' story he found yet again a tale that put the bow of Heracles - this mythic agency of historical change - in the arms of a sick, abandoned man who is likened to a stumbling child without a nurse. This joining at the hip of the very small and frail with something very big and powerful forms a pattern in the plays of Sophocles, and the pattern requires for its potency the material of "the old myths" just as much as it does the vocal texture and realism of human vulnerability.

The bow of Heracles never misses its intended target, and its arrows, dipped in Hydra bile, always kill. That is, there is nothing contingent or iffy about this bow - it executes with no element of chance - it is pure necessity. Yet the fact that Philoctetes has the bow appears purely a matter of chance, doesn't it? He happened to encounter the hero building his own funeral pyre. This chance encounter is described in the choral ode that begins with Axion's tale, where the chorus goes on to say,
I have heard a rumor, but never seen with my eyes, how the man who once approached the bed of Zeus was bound upon a [680] swift wheel by the almighty son of Cronus. But of no other mortal do I know, either by hearsay or by sight, that has encountered (συντυγχάνω) a doom so repugnant as this of Philoctetes.
Philoctetes happened to meet Heracles and his own repugnant doom at the same moment - the verb συντυγχάνω contains the word τῠ́χη, chance, fortune, personified as Τυχη, or Fortuna. Philoctetes does what Heracles asks - sets the pyre ablaze, and receives the bow that cannot miss its mark. The tension of the story, however, lies in how not just the arrows, but the bow itself went astray, thanks to the misfortune of Chryse's serpent's bite. That seemingly chance encounter puts the bow and repellent Philoctetes so far outside the theater of war, the calculus of any military strategy, as to be nearly obliterated.

The action of displacing or misplacing the bow is what creates the dramatic tension of the story. (Think of the story as a bowstring being pulled back.) When the Greeks are reminded that Philoctetes and his bow are necessary to victory, they go to recover him, fully aware that they have alienated him completely.

The choral ode actually recounts three meetings. The first is that of Philoctetes and Heracles. The second is the fortune of "coming to meet" Neoptolemus -
But now, after those troubles, he will attain happiness and heartiness in the end [720] because of his meeting (ὑπαντήσας) with this son of a noble race,
ὑπαντήσας connotes an intentional encounter - one "comes to meet" another person - the emphasis is on an intentional act, not a chance meeting.

The third encounter is that of Heracles' apparent apotheosis:
in that very land where, above Oeta's heights, the hero of the brazen shield approached [πλάθω approached, drew near] the gods, illuminated by his father's divine fire.
ἵν᾽  χάλκασπις ἀνὴρ θεοῖς πλάθει πατρὸς θείῳ πυρὶ παμφαήςΟἴτας ὑπὲρ ὄχθων.
This encounter, if that's the word, is not framed as complete; it takes place outside human space and time. Heracles "drew near" something that humans may not approach. The passage has been remarked on for the fact that Heracles is described as the man with the brazen shield - not the familiar iconography of the lion's skin, bow and club. Heracles seems a bit more like any soldier, any man, requiring a shield to be safe.

With παμφαής - all-radiant, all-brilliant - we onlookers encounter a dilemma. Are we witnessing through the chorus's words transcendental light, or the quite literal fire set by Philoctetes to consume the agonized flesh of Heracles? Is this the fated, necessary, divine illumination of mythic transcendence (not unlike Ixion's eternal wheel of fire), or the natural searing combustion of Oeta's trees? Hard to tell, since this light, all-brilliant, blinds the human eye.

The three encounters of the ode cover the range of possible ways meetings can occur: one appears random, yet sets up the tale we are watching; one seems intentional, and the third, bathed in light, really doesn't appear - if an encounter with the gods does take place, it occurs beyond our ability to see it for ourselves.

And here might lie a clue as to why we might not be correct in seeing Sophocles' "naturalism" as in some way a retreat, or turning away, from myth. Certainly the play's expressive pathos seems more in line with modernity. But instead of resulting from a diminution or demystification of mythic power, it stands in strong tension to it. The chorus begins:

I have heard a tale, but never saw with my very eyes,
A moment later it repeats the opposition:


But of no other mortal do I know, either by hearing or by sight, a doom . . .

Our eyes can take us to the furthest edge of nature. But all of that "realism" gathers force by being set against what we have heard -- the ancient tales of humanity's encounters with the gods. Whether random, intended, or inscrutable, the aural realm of myth with all its "barbarities, anomalies and absurdities" is what gives the sharply observed style of Sophocles' naturalism its curiously modern force and sense.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ixion and theatrics in Philoctetes

The sole independent choral ode in the Philoctetes begins with a seemingly remote mythological allusion to Ixion:
Chorus
I have heard a rumor, but never seen with my eyes, how the man who once approached the bed of Zeus was bound upon a [680] swift wheel by the almighty son of Cronus. But of no other mortal do I know, either by hearsay or by sight, that has encountered a doom so repugnant as this of Philoctetes. For though he had wronged no one by force or thievery, [685] but conducted himself fairly towards the fair, he was left to perish so undeservedly. I truly marvel how—how in the world—as he listened in solitude to the breakers rushing around him, [690] he kept his hold upon a life so full of grief.
Χορός

680
685
690


The allusion is richly suggestive. As Jebb points out, Ixion, king of the Lapiths is the archetypal ingrate. He'd refused to give his father-in-law bridal gifts, then invited the man to his home, where he tripped him into a fiery pit. The murder was so heinous that no one would purify him. Some say he went mad, until Zeus took pity and, by purifying him, brought him to his senses.

Ixion's senses then told him to try to rape Hera, and he actually believed he'd succeeded, bragging of the feat. In fact Zeus had created a double resembling Hera, named Nephele ("Cloud"). Nephele gave birth to Centaurus, a bestial savage who mated with horses and begat the race of Centaurs.

For his overachieving, Ixion received the signal honor of being bound to a fiery wheel that spins eternally (it is said to have paused only once, when Orpheus enchanted the Underworld with his song.) Ixion, in short, tops the list of the worst mortals ever, in large measure for betraying a benefactor.

There is far too much in this tale to discuss in this brief comment. Ixion comes to the mind of the chorus as the closest analog to the plight of Philoctetes. The poor marooned man's isolation and constant pain makes him, to their imagination, similar to Ixion. This is baffling, though because Philoctetes
 had wronged no one by force or thievery, [685] but conducted himself fairly towards the fair.
Philoctetes is at once like and totally unlike Ixion. In fact, we've just seen his total joy and gratitude upon being told that he will be going home aboard Neoptolemus's ship. No, if anyone here is betraying a trust, of course it's Neoptolemus at the behest of Odysseus. Philoctetes is being seduced by a beautiful lie, much as Ixion fell for the beguiling shape of Nephele.

Just as Dante put those who defrauded kinsmen and benefactors at the bottom of the Infernal pit, the Greeks saw this kind of fraud as beyond remediation. Essentially someone who has received grace or kindness, some good work and will, is perpetrating a calculated crime towards the benefactor - calculated because it requires the fabrication of a complex, coherent lie, coupled with bottomless ill-will.

The wit of the Ixion story lies in the cleverness (sophos) of how Zeus turned the tables, producing a mock-Hera, a similitude. He defrauds the fraudster (and, some say, enjoyed the embraces of Dia, Ixion's wife) and punishes him by making sure that everyone will see him coming from miles away.

So the tale of Ixion is of doubling down on a double-dealer, a tale of disguise and reverse theatrics in pursuit of the truth. The Philoctetes is also about role reversals, reaching layers where those playing roles might no longer be able to tell when role ends and reality begins.

Ixion is as much about how the gods win as it is about the turpitude of the mortal lout. Their power to play with appearances gives them a strategic edge in any game. Yet the containment of Ixion within his burning wheel doesn't provide closure. His deranged rape of a cloud produced a race of man-beasts that are forever ruining marriages, including that of Heracles.

Consider the long view, i.e. Zeus's: The bow of Heracles that Philoctetes carries has been pointing at Paris forever. It's cradled in the arms of the loneliest cripple on earth. And there is no way that arrow, cocked and loaded, is not going to kill its fated target. The wonder of the story is how; the how lies in wonder.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Proleptic Peripety: The surprise of human feeling in Philoctetes

As Kitto and others have long noted, some of the language of the Philoctetes breathes a common air -- the passages evoking the plight of the main character have a simple, observational naturalness combined with a vivid noticing of another's condition and a pathos that is atypical of the regal, even marmoreal, language of the kings and queens that usually dominate the tragic stage. Even as they suffer, Sophocles' Deianira and Euripides' Phaedra speak with royal temper -- they seem more living statues than hulking, crippled human beings in distress.

See how the chorus describes Philoctetes:
Here, he alone was his own neighbor (πρόσουρος), powerless to walk, with no one in the land to be his companion while he suffered—no one to whom he could cry out a lament that would be answered [695] for the plague that gnawed his flesh and drained his blood—no one to lull with healing herbs gathered from the nourishing earth the burning blood which oozed from the ulcers of his [700] envenomed foot, whenever the torment attacked him. Instead he would then creep this way or that, stumbling like a child without his kind nurse, to any place from where his needs [705] might be supplied, whenever the devouring anguish withdrew.
 . . . 
Ah, joyless was his life, who for ten years never knew the delight of wine, [715] but ever directed his path towards any stagnant pool that he could find as he gazed around him.

 Χορός

ἵν᾽ αὐτὸς ἦν πρόσουροςοὐκ ἔχων βάσιν
οὐδέ τιν᾽ ἐγχώρων κακογείτονα
παρ᾽  στόνον ἀντίτυπον βαρυβρῶτ᾽ ἀποκλαύσειεν αἱματηρόν
ὃς τὰν θερμοτάταν αἱμάδα κηκιομέναν ἑλκέων 
ἐνθήρου ποδὸς ἠπίοισι 
φύλλοις κατευνάσειενεἴ τις ἐμπέσοι
700φορβάδος ἐκ γαίας ἑλών
εἷρπε γὰρ ἄλλοτ᾽ ἀλλαχᾷ 
τότ᾽ ἂν εἰλυόμενος 
παῖς ἄτερ ὡς φίλας τιθήνας ὅθεν εὐμάρει᾽ ὑπάρ- 
705χοι πόρουἁνίκ᾽ ἐξανείη δακέθυμος ἄτα:

...

 μελέα ψυχά
ὃς μηδ᾽ οἰνοχύτου πώματος ἥσθη δεκέτει χρόνῳ
λεύσσων δ᾽ ὅπου γνοίη στατὸν εἰς ὕδωρ
ἀεὶ προσενώμα.

The privation of this man, so completely alone that he is "his own neighbor," is compactly rendered with searing images. He's not just alone, but οὐκ ἔχων βάσιν - he does not "possess walking." The word for walk, or step, is βάσιν, the root of our word "basis," and suggests anything that underlies and supports one's ability to move or even stand upright (this is picked up a moment later by the image of the stumbling child.) To lack basis is to not even be "in" the game - you are immobilized and positionless. Unlike those who are supported when they cannot support themselves, Philoctetes has no "social safety net."


The chorus goes on meditate upon this abandoned, purulent life seeking nourishment from stagnant pools: 10 years without wine!

This group of Skyrian friends of Prince Neoptolemus seems to have seen something here. These men have an aroused sense of the limits of bare human existence from acquaintance with this poor creature. Their tone might not be out of place in a journalistic passage from Arundhati Roy depicting the plight of the Dalit.

But we have to indicate two elements of Sophocles' story that decidedly are not to be found in the work of writers like Roy. The first is contained in the verses we omitted in quoting the passage above:

οὐ φορβὰν ἱερᾶς γᾶς σπόρονοὐκ ἄλλων 
αἴρων τῶν νεμόμεσθ᾽ ἀνέρες ἀλφησταί
710πλὴν ἐξ ὠκυβόλων εἴ ποτε τόξων 
πτανοῖς ἰοῖς ἀνύσειε γαστρὶ φορβάν


For food he did not gather the fruit of holy Earth, nor anything else that we mortals feed on by our labor, [710] except when on occasion he obtained food to ease his hunger by means of feathered shafts from his swift-striking bow.
In contrast to the meagre, powerless, painfully slow modality of the man, here is the lightning speed and inescapable accuracy of the Bow of Heracles. This instrument comes from the world of high myth, and we need to bear in mind its provenance. Heracles used his bow for many accomplishments - to win Iole; to save Deianira from Nessus; to conquer monsters and cities. In "fact," he used it to kill the eagle that nightly fed on Prometheus's liver! The bow has the aura of a sacred relic combined with the lethal potency of a fleet of weaponized drones.

That Sophocles can smoothly go from such raw "life" to the height of numinal aura without missing a beat is remarkable. It's also is worth bearing in mind as we evaluate the rhetorical thrust of the chorus's speech.

Their rhetoric is the second element that complicates the naturalism of the tale: The chorus is complicit in Odysseus's con game. They have been going along with the elaborate fiction that Neoptolemus, because he's noble and shares the poor man's hatred of Odysseus and the Atreidai, will help Philoctetes get back home.

Right before the choral ode, the matter of trust is ratcheted to a new pitch, as Neoptolemus asks to touch the bow and Philoctetes, in gratitude for his help, agrees to let him hold it, because:
You have raised me up above my enemies
When I was under their feet. (Grene)
A key polarity in the play has to do with the opposition of certain features of Odysseus and of Philoctetes. The wounded man is limited in space and time, he knows nothing of the last decade, and is so filled with need that he hasn't the poise or cleverness (sophos) to be capable of a sophisticated reading of what is happening. He is, essentially, locked in the present, and completely sincere. And he's facing the theatrical chicanery of the cleverest living Greek, and a series of complicit performers who know their parts perfectly.

Yet, it is in this scene that we as onlookers might begin to wonder whether Odysseus's theater piece isn't showing signs of strain. As the chorus beholds this prince reduced to a poor wretch -- not only humbly begging for a berth anywhere on their ship, but also expressing the most sincere gratitude when he believes they are giving him one -- they confront the transformative power of their own wonder:
I truly marvel (θαῦμά) how—how in the world (πῶς ποτε πῶς ποτ᾽
—as he listened in solitude to the breakers rushing around him, [690] he kept his hold upon a life so full of grief.
τόδε τοι θαῦμά μ᾽ ἔχει
πῶς ποτε πῶς ποτ᾽ ἀμφιπλάκτων ῥοθίων μόνος κλύων
690πῶς ἄρα πανδάκρυτον οὕτω βιοτὰν κατέσχεν:

And this man is about commit the ultimate act of trust, handing his bow to Achilles' son. As the chorus witnesses this, something happens to them. They seem surprised by something within themselves, a kind of innocent treason. Their plotted guile appears to be undergoing betrayal by the uncontrollable motion of their hearts.

It is nothing if not Sophoclean to hear in this choral ode the beginning of an unexpected reversal (peripeteia). The friends of Neoptolemus were supposed to sound compassionate, not to be transfixed by human empathy. Yet it is difficult during this choral ode (a separate post will look at its opening) not to detect an undertone of something they weren't meant to have: actual fellow-feeling. The lie of their prepared speech becomes truth as they find themselves meaning, for the first time, what they say. The revolution is not yet overt, but the ode looks ahead to the change of mind (metanoia) Neoptolemus will soon express.

If ever was a ray of hope in Greek tragic drama, it might be here -- if what we are witnessing is indeed the baseless, imponderable power of humanity to usurp the calculated fraud of the cleverest Greek strategist.