Saturday, December 14, 2013

ὡς εἰπεῖν ἔπος: The mousetrap of words

This exchange occurs at the beginning of Scene 6 of Hippolytus:
I bring you news that deserves your concern and that of the citizens who dwell in Athens and in the land of Trozen.
[1160] What is it? Has some fresh disaster seized the two neighboring cities?
Hippolytus is dead, as good as dead; though he still sees the light of day, yet it will not take much to incline the balance the other way.
Who killed him? Did someone have a quarrel with him [1165] whose wife he ravished as he did his father's?
His own chariot destroyed him, and the curses of your mouth which you uttered against your son to your father, lord of the sea.
stretching out his arms, palm upwards, in prayer
Merciful gods! So you were after all truly my father, Poseidon, [1170] since you have heard my prayer. How did he perish? Tell me, how did Zeus's cudgel strike him for dishonoring me?

Just a couple of notes. First, the messenger is not merely informing a father of the loss of his son. He frames it as news that will matter to Theseus and to the citizens of Athens and Troezen. The frame is large and public as well as intimate and personal. It concerns even Athens.

Theseus's first thought is that the news concerns some large natural disaster, or war, but no, it's that
Hippolytus is dead, as good as dead
Ἱππόλυτος οὐκέτ᾽ ἔστινὡς εἰπεῖν ἔπος:
More precisely, the messenger says: "Hippolytus no longer is -- as the saying says."

ὡς εἰπεῖν ἔπος repeats the word for "word" or "speech" - it was apparently a commonplace expression much like our "as the saying goes," or, "as they say." But here it's rather odd. The messenger begins by saying Hippolytus is no more, then qualifies it as if in some way his being no more is not so much a literal fact as a linguistic one. If we put ourselves in Theseus' place, we might wonder at a messenger who can't just say someone is alive or dead without tossing the actual state of affairs into suspense via a trivial figure of speech.

Or perhaps not so trivial. Theseus asks for details, and the messenger states that it was Theseus's words that have caused Hippolytus to be near death:
ἀραί τε τοῦ σοῦ στόματος - the prayers/curses of your mouth
At the very moment we are trying to decide if Hippolytus is alive or dead, the power of a father's language to destroy his son is made evident.

Theseus's response to this is also notable: it's gratitude to the gods, as well as confirmation of what seems to have been uncertainty surrounding his own parentage. The fact that his words killed his son confirms the truth of the story that Poseidon is Theseus's father. As speech acts go, this is pretty potent stuff.

And we as the audience can at least ask ourselves: given that Theseus is entirely wrong in believing that Hippolytus raped Phaedra, what shall we make of this apparently gratifying confirmation that (a) his son deserved the curse that destroyed him and (b) his claim to be the son of Poseidon has achieved legitimacy.

However we decide this, we at least have to give close attention to the tale of the messenger that follows, since Theseus is making inferences that his curse was fulfilled before even hearing the tale. Will the tale bear out his belief that Poseidon did what he was asked to do?

That will be the burden of a close look at the entirety of the messenger's tale. But there's one other point that we can note here. Theseus asks a question that launches the messenger's tale:
Tell me, how did Zeus's cudgel strike him for dishonoring me?
εἰπέτῷ τρόπῳ Δίκηςἔπαισεν αὐτὸν ῥόπτρον αἰσχύναντ᾽ ἐμέ;
A more literal rendering might be:

Tell me, in what way (by what turn, manner, twist) did Justice's
wooden trap [ῥόπτρον] strike him who tainted (dishonored, shamed, disfigured) me?

At the moment Theseus enjoys confirmation of his divine genesis and of Justice avenging him for his son's horrific acts, he happens to use the word ῥόπτρον

ῥόπτρον has as its primary meaning:
-- the wood in a trap which falls when touched and catches the mouse
What more perfect metaphor for the predicament, not of Hippolytus, but of Theseus, who is about to find out that everything he "knows" is wrong, despite appearances of divine confirmation.

ῥόπτρον has two further meanings:
 -- musical instrument of the Corybantestambourine or kettle-drum
-- knocker on a door
What translation can do "justice" to the poetry of this, these overtones? At the moment Theseus stands most empowered by the ineluctable force of his own curses, the word he chooses to describe the execution of Justice far more accurately depicts his own situation. He who earlier scoffed at seers and bird signs is about to have an unexpected visitor. Her words, with blinding force, will spring the trap he has helped make. A musician scoring the play could do much with a single drumbeat.


ane pixestos said...

I've been wanting to comment on this post since I read it because I so enjoyed it as I often wonder why it is that more people don't see hearsay as a trap, but I had nothing to offer in return until just now - a brief (and unfortunately just barely relevant) quote from a book on Native American folklore: "when we rationalize other people's expressions in our own terms for our convenience and peace of mind [which happens when we] listen primarily to our voices, not theirs". Taken from Barre Toelken's The Anguish of Snails.

Tom Matrullo said...

Thanks for introducing me to yet another whole dimension I was innocent of. Would it be naive to think I'm rapidly losing whatever innocence I had left?