Friday, November 22, 2013

A tempting existential reading of the chorus (Hippolytus Sc. 5)

I want to return to the choral ode that concludes Scene 5 of the Hippolytus. Our discussion the other day was very helpful in getting a bit further along with it. Some of the difficulties of that ode as noted in a previous blog post now seem a bit clearer. Or perhaps what's clearer is the nature of the difficulties.

It comes right after the confrontation of Theseus and Hippolytus and the final condemnation that Theseus pronounces upon his son, sending him into exile. The chorus -- probably a combination of male friends of Hippolytus and women of Troezen, (men singing strophes and the women antistrophes) -- is reacting to this.

The first strophe is the hardest:

 μέγα μοι τὰ θεῶν μελεδήμαθ᾽ὅταν φρένας ἔλθῃ,
1105λύπα παραιρεῖ ξύνεσίς τετίς ἐλπὶς  κεύθει
λείπεται ἔν τε τύχαις θνατῶν καὶ ἐν ἔργμασι λεύσσειν;
ἄλλα γὰρ ἄλλοθεν ἀμείβεταιμετὰ δ᾽ ἵσταται ἀνδράσιν αἰὼν
1110πολυπλάνητος αἰεί.

Here's yet another translation - by E.P. Coleridge:
strophe 1
In very deed the thoughts I have about the gods, whenso they come into my mind, do much to soothe its grief, but though I cherish secret hopes of some great guiding will, yet am I at fault when survey the fate and doings of the sons of men; change succeeds to change, and man's life veers and shifts in endless restlessness.
 The rest of the ode in his translation:
antistrophe 1
Fortune grant me this, I pray, at heaven's hand,-a happy lot in life and a soul from sorrow free; opinions let me hold not too precise nor yet too hollow; but, lightly changing my habits to each morrow as it comes, may I thus attain a life of bliss!

strophe 2
For now no more is my mind free from doubts, unlooked-for sights greet my vision; for lo! I see the morning star of Athens, eye of Hellas, driven by his father's fury to another land. Mourn, ye sands of my native shores, ye oak-groves on the hills, where with his fleet hounds he would hunt the quarry to the death, attending on Dictynna, awful queen.

antistrophe 2
No more will he mount his car drawn by Venetian steeds, filling the course round Limna with the prancing of his trained horses. Nevermore in his father's house shall he wake the Muse that never slept beneath his lute-strings; no hand will crown the spots where rests the maiden Latona 'mid the boskage deep; nor evermore shall our virgins vie to win thy love, now thou art banished.

While I with tears at thy unhappy fate shall endure a lot all undeserved. Ah! hapless mother, in vain didst thou bring forth, it seems. I am angered with the gods; out upon them! O ye linked Graces, why are ye sending from his native land this poor youth, guiltless sufferer, far from his home?
The first strophe is riddled with ambiguities:
In very deed the thoughts I have about the gods, whenso they come into my mind, do much to soothe its grief,
Do we think of the gods as caring, or does the gods' care cause us to have thoughts of them? It's unclear whether the gods are products of our thought, or our thought the result of their care. This suggests an awareness of certain complications in the mind's understanding of its own understanding, of what it knows.

This is followed by statements that use verbs which chiefly mean a lack, a removing, or negating, rather than some positive action. The verb which Coleridge translates as "soothe" the mind's grief, or pain,  is παραιρεῖ -- "take away, remove, filch." The taking away of pain or grief could in fact leave an emptiness that, in contrast with the prior pain, is experienced as soothing, but that's an inference. What is described is a void where before there was grief or pain. The loss of the thought of the care of the gods leaves an absence, a lack.

Our translators show how this in turn is open to reversal. Kovacs gives us grief, the pain of ξύνεσίς, of understanding, banishing the thoughts of the gods:
Thoughts about the gods, when they come into my mind, are banished by painful understanding: [1105]
Our two translators are at odds: does the thought of the gods help us by taking away painful understanding, or does the pain of understanding removes thoughts of the gods?

What's common to both is the sequence that goes from (uncertain) knowledge of the gods to a void which is experienced as a loss, a banishment. The chorus, witnessing the banishment of Hippolytus, confronts a sense of banishment on a cosmic level, as if to say, "If this can happen, then we can't believe in divine order." This is not unlike a modern person witnessing the horrors of WWI, or WWII, or a vast natural disaster, and having his or her faith in some Deity shaken to its foundations. A kind of existential crisis.

The next clause, though tricky, can be parsed:
Coleridge: though I cherish secret hopes of some great guiding will, yet am I at fault when survey the fate and doings of the sons of men;

Kovacs: what hope is there left to see their hidden workings in the fortunes and doings of mortals?
Grene: So I have a secret hope / of someone, a God, who is wise and plans  / But my hopes grow dim when I see / the deeds of men and their destinies.
Where Coleridge and Grene see the hope as being kept a secret by the self that is speaking, Kovacs sees the workings of the Gods as what is concealed, hidden from human verification.

Despite the differences, all three agree that there is another failing, another lack: the verb is λείπεται -- "to leave, to quit, to fail, to lack." Whether or not the chorus's hopes were a guarded secret, such hopes might just as well have not existed, because they leave. failing us when we look upon the works and fates of men.

Both the thought of the gods and the hope of some divine order appear to be negated, or at least thrown into radical doubt, as the chorus witnesses Theseus's harsh judgement. Their sense of the care of a just god is itself experiencing a leaving, a banishment, as they watch Hippolytus leave the city.

One could see this as the existential crisis that takes place when an entire structure of belief in divine order comes crashing down. The vision of human life as πολυπλάνητος αἰεί -- forever much wandering -- comes home just as Hippolytus begins his journey into exile. Human life, to the extent it is banished from order, from meaning, from being at home in the world, is not merely in exile from a home it knew in some anterior condition. Rather, there never was a home. The only possible fate of wandering men -- and we are all wanderers -- is the endless error the Greeks call hamartia.

Now while it might be tempting to hold up a reading like this of the first strophe and declare it a potent statement of the radical existentialist skepticism of the author Euripides, let's note, first, that we've just seen a powerful dramatization of a judgment (Theseus's) based on erring reading of a voiceless witness. Now it is this very scene of bad judgment, or poor reading, which the chorus witnesses, giving rise to its dashed hopes. Shall we, the audience and readers of the play, rush to read the chorus's reading of Theseus's misreading as the summation of Euripides' thinking about men, gods, and life? What's transpired up to this moment in the play might caution us to be more critically aware of hyperbolic interpretive pitfalls.

In short, for the reader of this play about errors of reading, it could be premature to leap from these few lines sung by the chorus to interpretive conclusions about the play and its author as a whole. Besides, this is only the first strophe of the ode; the antistrophe pursues a different tack.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"hyperbolic interpretive pitfalls" -- I love it.