Sunday, December 29, 2013

Very unlike a Squalodon: The Messenger's tale, Part II.

Euripides' Hippolytus presents a vivid sequence of events that persuade us that a great dynasty can be undone in a single day without war, natural disaster, or enemy action. That is, it argues that Eros pervades the world, driving all creatures to move, desire, act, and cause to fall.
Not fire nor stars have stronger bolts than those of Aphrodite sent by the hand of Eros, Zeus's child.
οὔτε γὰρ πυρὸς οὔτ᾽ ἄστρων ὑπέρτερον βέλος,οἷον τὸ τᾶς Ἀφροδίτας ἵησιν ἐκ χερῶνἜρως  Διὸς παῖς. (530-33)
Among the consistent lessons the text yields is how difficult it can be to rightly interpret signs, witnesses, evidence. Reading is less simple than it appears, if Theseus's reading of Phaedra's letter is any indication.

Another way of putting it: Euripides is interested both in the unfolding of actions or events and in how we think about their unfolding. Phaedra makes a lethal decision based on incomplete information. Her overhearing of Hippolytus's exchange with the Nurse is a dramatic exercise in basing an inference upon what one hears, what one doesn't hear, which in turn is yoked to what one previously knew and didn't know. Introducing garbled, or incomplete understanding into the speeches and actions of the characters reminds us - or should remind us - that the human figures here have limitations, yet they can be depended upon to arrive at judgments and conclusions by not thinking critically enough about what they have not seen, heard, verified.

This is not as simple as to say that Phaedra should have been less precipitate. Devoured by love and threatened by plausible fear of exposure, her solution disposes of both by disposing of her life and of Hippolytus' honor. Her solution is lethal yet elegant - like a mathematical proof that solves for all variables with ingenious simplicity.

Hippolytus asks, when confronted with Theseus's judgment that he shall be alien to his own house:
Will you not examine my oath and sworn testimony or the words of seers?
Will you banish me without a trial?
οὐδ᾽ ὅρκον οὐδὲ πίστιν οὐδὲ μάντεων φήμας ἐλέγξας ἄκριτον ἐκβαλεῖς με γῆς; (1055-56)

The verb ἐλέγχω names the act of examining or testing, and is linked to the idea of putting to shame. To successfully refute a proposition or allegation is to shame it as unworthy of being true. To decide truth without testing is to be ἄ-κριτον --  to lack κρίνω, the root of our word "critical," the discerning separation of something into its proper parts in the act of judgment. Theseus is not thinking critically, according to Hippolytus, and has not exposed his supposition's shame.

Given the play's dramatization of profoundly wrong judgments made by Phaedra and Theseus, we as readers/audience might sense admonishment. We might tread more carefully before deciding too quickly "what to make of" the events leading up to the end.

Take the events reported by the Messenger that reinforce Theseus's sense that he is right, that his father, the sea god, is on his side, and that they both have administered true justice by breaking Hippolytus on the rocks by the sea.

We have looked at the account he gives of the wave that stood still. As the narrative continues, it has a number of interesting elements -- the descriptions of sound, the actions of the bull, the vivid detail of how Hippolytus was "woven" into the reins, causing him to be tangled inextricably in the crash. We'll return to these, but for the purposes of this argument, take the narrative as a whole. It's yet another witnessed event, and Theseus accepts it as the fulfillment of his father's promise, confirming everything he believes about his father, his son, and himself. We know things Theseus doesn't know, but with regard to the Messenger's tale we have only the same story that Theseus himself hears. So should we agree entirely with Theseus's "reading" of the event, or not?

First, it's clear from multiple statements from two goddesses and others in the play that Poseidon had indeed given Theseus three prayers or wishes, and all agree that Theseus exercised his option and got his wish -- the death of Hippolytus. What's less clear is why this action unfolded just the way it did -- the wave, the bull, the chariot, the reins, the rocks, the rumbling roar. Couldn't Poseidon have just sent drowned the boy with a wave? Why send a bull instead of, say, a zeuglodon (a form of squalodon), a plesiosaur, or just a prosaic giant squid such as might have threatened Andromeda and killed Laocoon?


If we step back from the performance of the wish to regard how the wish is performed, we find plenty of elements that seem unnecessary to execute the deed. What do we do with this surplus of story? We can ignore it by supposing that somehow all this would either provide ornamental delight or make sense to those involved, or we can ask whether by introducing these dreamlike ingredients into his performance of the wish fulfillment, the god might have had his reasons. Given that the play appears to dramatize difficulties in understanding, a bit of critical thinking about the Messenger's tale might be in order.

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