Saturday, October 26, 2013

The tallest woe: Notes on Theseus

Theseus was a huge cultural icon for Athenian audiences.Traces of his heroic past can be heard in his speeches in the Hippolytus.

In scene 5, when the palace doors open to reveal the body of Phaedra, Theseus sings a powerful lament. His language breathes the heroic world of forces he long strove to tame:

ὤμοι ἐγὼ πόνωνἔπαθον τάλας,
τὰ μάκιστ᾽ ἐμῶν κακῶν τύχα,
ὥς μοι βαρεῖα καὶ δόμοις ἐπεστάθης,
820κηλὶς ἄφραστος ἐξ ἀλαστόρων τινός:
κατακονὰ μὲν οὖν ἀβίοτος βίου.
κακῶν δ᾽ τάλαςπέλαγος εἰσορῶ
τοσοῦτον ὥστε μήποτ᾽ ἐκνεῦσαι πάλιν
μηδ᾽ ἐκπερᾶσαι κῦμα τῆσδε συμφορᾶς.
τίνι λόγῳτάλαςτίνι τύχαν σέθεν
βαρύποτμονγύναιπροσαυδῶν τύχω;
ὄρνις γὰρ ὥς τις ἐκ χερῶν ἄφαντος εἶ,
πήδημ᾽ ἐς Ἅιδου κραιπνὸν ὁρμήσασά μοι.
830αἰαῖ αἰαῖμέλεα μέλεα τάδε πάθη:
πρόσωθεν δέ ποθεν ἀνακομίζομαι
τύχαν δαιμόνων ἀμπλακίαισι τῶν
πάροιθέν τινος.

What misery is mine! I have suffered, luckless one, the greatest [τὰ μάκιστ᾽] of my woes. O fate, [τύχα] how heavily you have fallen upon me and upon my house, [820] an unknown [ἄφραστος] taint sent upon me by baneful powers! No, it is the very destruction of my life! Unhappy woman, I look upon a sea [πέλαγος] of troubles so great I cannot swim out of them or cross the flood of this sorrow. What is the name, poor woman, what is it, that I can rightly call your grievous fate? For you are gone from my hands like a bird, and have sped your swift leap to the house of Hades. [830] Alas! Alas! Terrible, terrible are my sufferings! I am reaping the stroke of the gods because of the sin of someone before me, someone in time now gone.
The shock of what he sees provokes his outcry. 
τὰ μάκιστ᾽ ἐμῶν κακῶν
"the greatest of my woes" 
The word for "greatest" -- μάκιστ᾽-- is a physical word that basically means "tallest." As we meet Theseus for the first time, this hero of a thousand exploits (think George Washington melds with Davy Crockett but looks like Anthony Quinn) is encountering an opponent more daunting than any previous challenger.

It might help to hold on to this sense of a man who measures his world in terms of big and small, strong and weak. The world he knows is the heroic world of external monsters -- the list of those he killed is long: from club-wielding Periphetes to Sinis the pine-bender to Sciron, who kicked men off a cliff as they bowed to his demand they wash his feet -- not to mention his adventures: the Marathonian bull, the voyage of the Argo, the battle with the Centaurs, the Calydonian boar hunt, the Minotaur.

This world as a place of dangers in need of weeding and clearing, ordering and cultivation is basic to the tale of Theseus. It was he who first made the road from Troezen to Athens passable. When Theseus confronts Hippolytus, the father's world of heroic and civic action comes into sharp relief against his son's private cult of Artemis and Orpheus -- a scene we'll look at later.

What's very different about this new, tall, heavy evil that Theseus meets in the bedchamber of his own home is that it is ἄφραστος -- literally, "unable to be shown," "unutterable." Note the symmetry of going from μάκιστ᾽ (tallest) to something that's not simply too large, but rather has no magnitude, no tangible presence, no name: τίνι λόγῳ, he says, 
What is the name, poor woman, how can I speak to (address) your grievous fate?
τίνι λόγῳτάλαςτίνι τύχαν σέθεν βαρύποτμονγύναιπροσαυδῶν τύχω;
The thing he would have wrestled with, that has conquered him, is a thing he can neither see, nor hear, nor touch. And now Phaedra is also gone from him:
ὄρνις γὰρ ὥς τις ἐκ χερῶν ἄφαντος εἶ, 
you are gone from my hands like a bird
The translation from Kovacs is potent, but perhaps misses the strangeness of Theseus's word, ἄφαντος. The alpha in ἄ-φαντος negates the word it precedes. Just as with ἄφραστος the evil was unable to be spoken, here Phaedra is  - φαίνω, unable to appear, to be seen, to come to light. The living queen, wife, mother whose own name means "bright" is deprived of the visibility dependent upon the brightness of light.

For Theseus, the world he can sense and touch is vividly, massively real. And he touched everybody, everything. Phaedra is not just beyond his hand, like some person out of immediate reach; rather she is invisible to it, forever beyond, like a bird in flight who made it to the "secret hiding places of the rocks" of the central choral ode (732) .

The same physicality informs his characterization of her death as a robust act. She doesn't simply die, as one to whom death happens: 
πήδημ᾽ ἐς Ἅιδου κραιπνὸν ὁρμήσασά 
You rushed in a headlong leap to the house of Hades.
It's as if, like an Olympic broad jumper, she beat him in a contest of speed, stamina, muscular strength.

Phaedra's inexplicable leap leads Theseus to his conclusion:
I am reaping the stroke of the gods [τύχαν δαιμόνωνbecause of the offense [ἀμπλακίαισι] of someone before me, someone in time now gone.
πρόσωθεν δέ ποθεν ἀνακομίζομαι
τύχαν δαιμόνων ἀμπλακίαισι τῶν
πάροιθέν τινος.
Just as Phaedra is beyond reach, so this event seems to Theseus to spring from some hidden origin. Moved by a source inaccessible to the senses, it's impossible to take on in a fair fight.  Perhaps for the first time, Theseus is experiencing what it's like to be ἀμηχανία -- without resources, helpless.  ἀμηχανία is how the chorus describes a woman's inharmonious imbalance of birthpangs and madness:
φιλεῖ δὲ τᾷ δυστρόπῳ γυναικῶν ἁρμονίᾳ κακὰ δύστανος ἀμηχανία συνοικεῖνὠδίνων τε καὶ ἀφροσύνας. 
Women's nature is an uneasy harmony, and with it is wont to dwell the slack unhappy helplessness of birth-pangs and their folly. [165]
Before Theseus even enters, Phaedra has taken matters out of his hands. His news from Delphi is pre-empted, as is his "management" of Phaedra's predicament. He is in full reaction mode to her acts. Even as he experiences the birth of his own helplessness, she has authored an interpretation of her death. Under a golden seal, dangling from her hand, her news is about to explode.


ane pixestos said...

I suppose I am moved to write because of the very interesting connection drawn in this post between logos, rather the lack thereof, and helplessness. This evening, I learned the word ἀπαραίτητος and wonder again at the relation of words to actions. Words of life to be 'read' that are not the words of wishes. I do not know if you encourage comments from your less knowledgeable readers, but hope you will look past that and accept this comment as appreciation of your blog.

Tom Matrullo said...

Thank you for this word. With this -

the relation of words to actions. Words of life to be 'read' that are not the words of wishes.

- you anticipate what I had not yet surmised when I wrote this post. All readers' comments are welcome here; please feel most welcome.