Monday, November 11, 2013

Euripides' Hippolytus and the powers of fiction

Before Theseus explicitly remands Hippolytus into exile, saying,
Go forth from this land with all speed as an exile, and come no more either to god-built Athens [975] or to the borders of any land ruled by my spear.
Right before saying this, he points to the unimpeachable evidence, the witness whose testimony is irrefutable:
. . . but why do I wage this contest against your speech when this corpse, witness most reliable, lies near?
τί ταῦτα σοῖς ἁμιλλῶμαι λόγοις νεκροῦ παρόντος μάρτυρος ;
We must consider the irony that Hippolytus, who wanted to suppress all women's voices, is here condemned by the "clearest," or "most reliable" [σαφεστάτου] words of a woman who is not merely isolated from all other women. Phaedra, though dead, has testified so authoritatively that Theseus sees any mitigation of the harsh sentence of banishment as tantamount to giving his entire life the lie:
if I am to be bested by you when you have done this to me, Isthmian Sinis shall no longer attest [μαρτυρήσει] that I killed him but say it was an idle boast, and the Skironian rocks near the sea [980] shall deny that I am a scourge to evil-doers.
This is another one of those moments when Euripides takes his theatrical creation to the limit. Just as Hippolytus gets so carried away by his scheme of using wild animals to inhibit women's speech in the city -- a suggestion so ludicrous as to nearly bring laughter -- so here, Theseus, whose entire life story is filled with fabulous tales, says that his own literary identity would be destroyed if he failed to be consistent with it.

It's a bit like Don Quixote in the second volume of Don Quixote having to grapple with the fabled Name he has acquired as a result of a book about his knightly adventures being read by his neighbors. Theseus, a figure of myth, here argues that he must condemn his son because if he did not, the dead monsters of his fables would rise and give him, as we say, the lie. He would no longer be Theseus the slayer of monsters, he would be someone pretending to be that fictional figure. A fictional figure in a play is claiming that if he does not act in accord with his fictional tales, he will be seen to be a fiction.

Theseus, in a sense, would evaporate -- as would the play -- if the spell of the performance were shattered by pointing to itself as a piece of theatrical fiction. The place where this happens in Greek theater is not usually in tragedy, but comedy. At certain moments in the work of Aristophanes, the characters leave and the chorus steps forward (parabanein) and speaks to the audience. The disruption is radical, as the chorus doesn't even talk about things or persons in the play we are watching. This is called the parabasis:
In Greek comedy, the parabasis (plural parabases; Ancient Greek: παράβασις, plural: παραβάσεις) is a point in the play when all of the actors leave the stage and the chorus is left to address the audience directly. The chorus partially or completely abandons its dramatic role to talk to the audience on a topic completely irrelevant to the subject of the play. 
For example, in the play The Wasps by Aristophanes the first parabasis is about Aristophanes' career as a playwright to date, while the second parabasis is shorter, and contains a string of in-jokes about local characters who would be well known to the ancient Athenian audience (e.g. the politician Cleon).
This breaking of the frame, of the illusion's fourth wall, is not unfamiliar to fans of U.S. comedy. Think of George Burns' direct comments to the viewer about the goings-on with Gracie in Burns and Allen, or the hilarious disruptions of story lines found in the films of Mel Brooks, committed by Mel Brooks. The moment they step outside the frame of the fiction and speak as themselves, we laugh as the illusion explodes.

When Theseus claims that Sciron would come alive to testify that he was never killed by Theseus, he is stretched nearly to the edge of his reality. Indeed, if the rocks testify that he was not a scourge -- βαρύν - to evil-doers, they are saying something like this: The root meaning of βαρύν is "weight," or "heaviness," which then extends to the sense of "grievous, stern, strict, deep, serious."

If Sciron's rocks, which are certainly heavy, were to deny Theseus's solid, massive seriousness, then suddenly he and the play itself would lose gravity. Euripidean tragedy is not at the opposite extreme from comedy, it is uncannily near by.

This adjacency becomes more relevant in light of the fact that Theseus is asserting the validity, legitimacy and truth of his own history at the same instant that he is denying all weight to the history and reality of his own son. Standing "face to face" with Hippolytus, Theseus sees only a fiction, a figment invented by Phaedra. The Hippolytus whom Theseus and all of us have known, the priggish devotee of Artemis, is a lie, a thing of no weight, annihilated by the the dead woman's script. The true boy is the lying bastard who raped his father's wife; nothing that he can bear witness to or do will make any difference.

At this moment, Theseus does not step forward, disrupting the scene with some comedic gag that would explode the tensions and gravitas of the play into a shambles. But he almost has. Though he mocks Hippolytus for reading books, Phaedra's little book is as real to him as the tales of Sinis and Sciron. The power of this corpse, witness most reliable, compels Theseus to expel Hippolytus, to put him outside the boundaries of Athens and Troezen forever (symmetrically reversing Hippolytus's expressed wish to banish all women).

Weightless, Hippolytus is sent beyond the fourth wall, outside the framed space of the play and of the state. To his father and friends, it is as if he were to fly off the face of the Earth. States and tragedies cannot exist without gravity, Euripides appears to say. The continuity of the spectacle of Theseus, of the State, and of the Hippolytus is protected, but at a very high cost.


ane pixestos said...

What we show (or our φάντασμα) is the rock of words?
I wonder if one might be correct in generalizing that there is more of a humility towards the word in these ancient Greek texts, a doubt in the "saying" that even courses through more philosophical works.
Perhaps I should add - not that some of us always seek to generalize, but rather like the Chinese landscape painting, we wish, as our ideal, to see both from afar and those small areas of detail.

ane pixestos said...

I wish I had abstained from commenting until now, for I found something far better, from Jowett's intro to the Phaedrus, which I am reading at the moment: "We avowedly follow not the truth but the will of the many (compare Republic). Is not legislation too a sort of literary effort, and might not statesmanship be described as the 'art of enchanting' the house?"

Tom Matrullo said...

I am happy to have as many comments as you wish to offer. "Humility towards the word" - I think so, perhaps even something of awe, fear, a sense of uncanny power.

As for Chinese landscapes, of which I know nothing, the attention you describe is what one hopes to give textual landscapes.