Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Witness to a pure act: The end of the Hippolytus


. . . would that you could utter speech on my behalf 

and bear me witness!

This is the second of two afterthoughts on the last portion of the Hippolytus (the first is here). Given that the reading of a work of this richness is never really at an end, more may occur.

We have noted some of the many symmetries of the play -- mirrorings, both verbal and structural, between opening and end; the "bookended" goddesses, and more. The structural circularity gives the audience the formal equivalent of a closed system that is destined to ever repeat the antagonism between Aphrodite and Artemis, which can be translated into any number of conceptual formulae. E.g., the erotic desire to possess and be possessed vs. the aversive assertion of the independence of the integral self.

The play examines certain inherent dangers posed when either of these divine powers moves toward absolute plenitude. Examples include the speech of Hippolytus that rabidly wishes to silence and isolate all women, reaching a vision of wild beasts patrolling cities to ensure the end of the communal bonds and procreative sexuality of the human race. Likewise eros bends Phaedra to a desire that would mean the end of marriage, children, and social position; her solution is suicide and murder.

Given that each goddess's power in its pure form leads to absurdity and death, the play is driven of necessity to explore the virtue of sophrosyne as a means of mediating, reconciling the goddesses through the achievement of a complex balance allowing for love yet also for a freedom from it -- an oxymoronic sweet servitude, chosen subordination, independent agreement to bonds of love and obligation, etc.

In a sense the play then seeks to work out the probability of some viable synthesis or exchange of the properties of love and freedom, after demonstrating some quite extreme versions entailed by the divine fullness of each. Instead of witnessing some realized fusion of the goddesses, the audience gets a vivid rendering of a hanging, a chariot crash and a vow by Artemis that she will destroy Aphrodite's next human lover in an endlessly reversible contention of symmetrically opposed gods.

It would be understandable if the audience were to file out of the theater at this point persuaded that there's no way out of this cycle of creation and destruction. No synthesis can thrive, nothing can combine to progress, allowing for hope for change in the future. As circles tend to demonstrate, there really is nothing new, just the eternal recurrence of a pattern that can be called tragic fate. Even without violence, the correct model of a contented life is to have an end that matches the beginning. As Hippolytus says on the happy morning of his last day, using a buried metaphor of the rounded race course:
τέλος δὲ κάμψαιμ᾽ ὥσπερ ἠρξάμην βίου. 
May I end my life just as I have begun it!
To see whether this iron circle of human life is the only plausible view a reader of the Hippolytus can take away, let's briefly look at a few elements of the final scene. As noted above, the epilogue balances the prologue, but there are some interesting inflections. For example, while Aphrodite appears as herself and then as an immobile statue, Artemis appears, if at all, first as herself, and then to Hippolytus as voice and fragrance. The goddess of love, desire, sexual longing and friendship is associated with the eye while the goddess of independent selfhood is linked to hearing, to music and to smell.

In the final scene, Hippolytus is near death. Artemis explains that she is forbidden to shed tears. and is unable to help Hippolytus avoid the anger of Aphrodite:

Among the gods the custom is this: no god contrives to cross the will of another,but we all stand aside [ἀφεστήξω]
Nor can she stay with her devoted follower to the end. Gods can't abide the dying breath of mortals, she explains.

καὶ χαῖρ᾽ἐμοὶ γὰρ οὐ θέμις φθιτοὺς ὁρᾶν
οὐδ᾽ ὄμμα χραίνειν θανασίμοισιν ἐκπνοαῖς:
ὁρῶ δέ σ᾽ ἤδη τοῦδε πλησίον κακοῦ.

Farewell: it is not lawful for me to look upon the dead or to defile (χραίνειν - touch lightly, taint) my sight with the last breath of the dying. And I see that you are already near that misfortune.
That is the goddess's last word. Her farewell mirrors Hippolytus's distancing himself from the statue of the goddess Aphrodite:
πρόσωθεν αὐτὴν ἁγνὸς ὢν ἀσπάζομαι. 
I greet her from afar, for I am pure. (102)
Artemis leaves as Hippolytus becomes immobile, a statue. We might reflect on the relation of gods to mortals and mortals to statues.

So far, this remains within the echoic symmetry of the play's beginning and ending. But it also sets up the final act of the play, in which Hippolytus frees his father from the blood taint of murder.

Would it not have been more in keeping with a world made of equal and opposite forces for Hippolytus to curse his father with his last breath? While he knows that holding back from vengeance will accord with Artemis's wish, there is nothing he, dying, stands to gain. Immortalizing his name in the pre-nuptial ceremonies of Athenian maidens has already been unconditionally granted by his divine companion.

As Hippolytus turns to his father and releases him from blood curse, he's using a power that could have punished Theseus with exile. Instead, he sustains and extends his life, in full knowledge of what his father has cost him.
 ἐπεί σε τοῦδ᾽ ἐλευθερῶ φόνου 
for of this murder I acquit you
There is no reward here, no reciprocity for Hippolytus. He acts in full knowledge of the seamless solitude that accompanies one who is about to enter Hades. His divine companion has already left:
μακρὰν δὲ λείπεις ῥᾳδίως ὁμιλίαν... 
Yet how easily you leave our long friendship!
The final act of Hippolytus -- a verbal act (ἀφίημι - send away, divorce, excuse, let loose, release) -- exiles taint from his father, who has tainted himself by believing in the taint that Phaedra had cast upon his son. The casting out of taint is a gratuitous gesture that is not eros, but rather a kind of freeing, liberating of the father, an act whose authority and power inheres in its being the last intention of the dying son.

In working toward this moment, the playwright has taken pains to remove every trace of interest, desire, vengeance and reward from Hippolytus's last word. He is staging an unforced act that is ἁγνός, that is, pure, autonomous, good-willed:
 χαῖρε καὶ σύχαῖρε πολλά μοιπάτερ. 
I wish you, father, plenteous joy as well!
We could call it a godlike act, but performed in the moment of imminent death, it is beyond the reach of any Greek god. Instead of gaining immortality for the soul of Hippolytus, it is recognizable as pure by the fact of his human mortality, which in its bare finality stands as guarantor of its authority. The fully self-possessed act arrives in the loss of self...

Such autonomy exists outside the order of necessity and fate. It is purely Greek in the clarity of its refusal to hold out any compensatory reward -- some afterlife*, or diminution of purgation, or prospective sainthood, or a better seat in the paradisal choir -- nothing of the sort is here. Nor is there anything supernatural in what Hippolytus does; no miracle overturns the laws of nature.

In the Greek sense, the audience here are martyrs, witnesses to a gratuitous act that is senseless within the existing moral framework of its occurrence. They witness an autonomy unimaginable in the world of necessity, fate, and divine hatred.

Theseus, the hero of that world of active strength and cleverness, could never dream of anything like this clear-eyed act of Hippolytus. Now, untainted, he witnesses a man -- ἀνδρός -- who fills him with wonder, not unlike the mutual gaze of Achilles and Priam in Iliad 24. Glimpsed in that astonishment is the pure potency of a human act elsewhere not encountered by the much-traveled hero of Athens.

*Though outside this discussion, it's suggestive that Ovid (Meta. 15) tells a tale of Hippolytus gaining a curious second life in Italy under the name Virbius (but this release from Hades also, by some legends, causes the death of Aesclepius).



ane pixestos said...

(I just tried to comment and it seemed to have failed, so please delete this if it is superfluous.)
Just wanted to share what may be an unfounded connection to begin with, from Toelken's Anguish of Snails: stories "almost never comment overtly on the values that shape the fortunes of the characters; instead, the characters act, and the results offer us insight into the value system through nuances of vicarious experience and empathy rather than open lecturing."

Tom Matrullo said...

Thanks - That's very well put. I think you have referred to this book before -- I should get it.

Toelken's notion of the tacit seems to be pointing to the distinction between mimesis and diegesis - would you agree?


ane pixestos said...

A Platonian question! Though I wish I were qualified to answer, I can't resist sharing how I responded to the question: what of the synthesis of imitating by narration (viz. A's Poetics. ...this being one of the reasons why many thinkers pride poetic language as the most refined, the most essential (e.g. in the Snails stories, there are many symbols, another characteristic of poetry).
P.S. The Toelken book is available for download from here: digitalcommons.usu.edu › USU Press › Publications › 14‎

Tom Matrullo said...

Imitating by narration: what has also been called erlebte rede? That is indeed a kind of splendid hybrid - used to great effect by Ovid.

Thanks for yet another good link - it's great to see Universities moving toward open access, though one wishes for a more orderly, universal, open process.

ane pixestos said...

I was thinking in more general terms, such as the reception of Poetics according to which narrative (the verbal element) is used to imitate action, and specifically about character and thought (eg. in VI). My stipulation/reservation was because I appreciate that diegesis may be more narrow than how I understood it.
And in the second part of the comment, I was thinking of IX about poetry as universal (which is also confusing, but in my understanding, now beyond A., narrative can be poetic if it is universal).