Saturday, October 19, 2013

The wound and the knife: a note on reading

according to unfounded report, he was trained for a professional wrestler; note on Euripides

ἰὼ ἰὼ τάλαινα μελέων κακῶν:
τοσοῦτον ὥστε τούσδε συγχέαι δόμους,
αἰαῖ τόλμας,
βιαίως θανοῦσ᾽ ἀνοσίῳ τε συμ-
815φορᾷσᾶς χερὸς πάλαισμα μελέας.
τίς ἄρα σάντάλαιν᾽ἀμαυροῖ ζόαν;

Alas, poor woman, how luckless you are! You have endured, you have done such things as to destroy this house! What hardihood was yours: you have died by violence and by deed unhallowed, [815] yourself the wrestler and yourself the thrown. Who was it, poor woman, that brought your life down to darkness?

One of the practical results of close reading is that instead of discussing "Greek Tragedy" as if that were some single, unified thing, we remain attuned to one play, in this case Euripides' Hippolytus, which we've been reading slowly and with much discussion.

The tale of the play is extreme, and can provoke heated responses from the spectator/reader. One can't help but argue with what happens. We find ourselves looking for alternative paths to those chosen/suffered by Phaedra, Hippolytus, Theseus and even the Nurse. To not look for other ways of resolving the antagonism of Aphrodite and Artemis, other means of coming to terms with the choices faced by Phaedra and Hippolytus, is to refuse the play's invitation to work on its problem. There is a difference between mere onlooking and this sort of wrestling with a text.

In the passage above, the chorus, addressing the dead Phaedra, says she has had a bold and violent death, and compares her, in a remarkable figure, to a wrestler: "yours the hand that throws you down." Think of how that could be, for a single being to wrestle with herself, to be the hand that overthrows even as it is resisting being overthrown. A fatal opposition of self to itself, clearly etched 2,000 years before Baudelaire would write
Je suis la plaie et le couteau! I am the wound and the knife!

Every reader of the Hippolytus faces the play's predicaments. One might decide that Phaedra had other options than to kill herself; other choices than to write her letter. Another might say the conditions of the play set a steel trap.

Simply put, one might ask: In this play that keeps turning upon sophrosyne, upon the sound-minded possession of oneself (and, thus perhaps of choice), could anything that happens have run another course? Could these characters have acted otherwise? Got a better idea of how Phaedra could have "managed" this "situation"? Where, when, how? To confront these ineluctable difficulties is to engage Euripides, to wrestle with his text, to read.

1 comment:

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