Monday, December 01, 2014

Deianira and the brutal charms of Aphrodite

Women of Trachis 458-59:

it is not learning the truth that would pain me.
But to know it, what is terrible in that?

Deianira is trying to wrest the truth from Lichas, after learning from a local source that Lichas, the official herald of Heracles, has not been entirely -- or even remotely -- straightforward about Iole.

The queen here sounds like Oedipus. She wants to "unconceal" what is hidden, in this case the fact that Iole is no mere sexual dalliance, but in reality another queen, another Deianira. It is with this oddness of the doppelgänger in mind that we can hear a richer sense of δεινόν here. It's tending toward the full complexity found in the Ode to Man sung in the Antigone:

Many things are uncanny, none stranger than man.
It was Heidegger who caught the sense of Das Unheimlich (the uncanny) in the Ode to Man -- a sense rife with tension between something wondrous and something strange, to the point of inducing a weird combination of exaltation and terror. The ode from the Antigone crosses into the territory of the sublime.

Deianira is not quite that far from the commonplace, but she's moving in that direction. If anyone ever married a strange, wondrous and terrible man, it was she, and now he's bringing to her another her. She does not know this yet. At this point, she thinks there can be no terror in knowing.

The Oedipal urge to know is, let's be clear, not peculiar to Oedipus, or to kings of Thebes, or to males of the species. In the Women of Trachis, where so much is a matter of waiting (ἀναμένω) and wanting to know, the suspense begins at the play's very beginning:
λόγος μέν ἐστ᾽ ἀρχαῖος ἀνθρώπων φανείςὡς οὐκ ἂν αἰῶν᾽ ἐκμάθοις βροτῶνπρὶν ἂν θάνῃ τιςοὔτ᾽ εἰ χρηστὸς οὔτ᾽ εἴ τῳ κακός:  
(lines 1-3)
There is a saying among men, put forth long ago, that you cannot judge a mortal's life and know whether it is good or bad until he dies.

The space of waiting for the truth to appear is where the Women of Trachis takes place. It is found at every turn, as, for instance, when Deianira tells the chorus that she has applied the "charm" given her by Nessus:

and yet, I cannot know until I am in close quarters [προσωμίλησά] with experience [πείρᾳ]   (590-91)
Deianira here uses πείρᾳ - "experiment, experience" in speaking of how, and when, she will know whether the charm works. πείρᾳ is the root not only of experience, but of "empirical." The queen is in fact articulating a scientific commonplace -- one does not know the truth of an experiment until the result is experienced.

The chorus concurs, using a verb form of the same root:
Chorus Knowledge must come through action. You will never
be sure unless you put it to the test (πειρωμένη).
Deianira says she cannot know until she is προσωμίλησά  -- "until I have come to close quarters with" is a reasonable translation. One might wish not to ignore, however, that προσωμίλησά has another meaning, or a further development of its first meaning, i.e., "to have intercourse with." The Greek sense of knowing through experience reaches a more intimate mode here, one that may or may not be susceptible to the rigorous hygiene of scientific clarity.

Oedipus only comes to "know" who he is when he has grappled so intimately with his origin as to discover he is married to her -- he is both husband and son, Jocasta is mother and wife, and the uncanniness of their coupling is a doubling whose impropriety neither can bear.

For Deianira, the suspense is not who she is, but whose. Her opening speech recounts the terrible memory of how she waited in suspense to learn who'd bear her away -- Achelous the frightening river god, or Heracles. Further on, not long after she says it can't be terrible to know, the choral ode that begins on line 499 evokes that agon even more vividly. It begins:
μέγα τι σθένος  Κύπρις ἐκφέρεται νίκας ἀεί 
Great is the power of the victory Cypris bears away.
It continues:
οἳ τότ᾽ ἀολλεῖς ἴσαν ἐς μέσον ἱέμενοι λεχέων
 δ᾽ εὔλεκτρος ἐν μέσῳ Κύπρις ῥαβδονόμει ξυνοῦσα.
These two then met in a mass, lusting to win a bride, and the Cyprian goddess of nuptial joy joined in as umpire in the middle. (513-15)
Aphrodite here is doubly potent -- not only has she triangulated these hearts -- the god's and the demi-god's -- to Deianira, she's also the umpire. As both motivator of the contest and official who decides its outcome, she has already considerably complicated the "experiment." What appears to be a test or contest of "well-matched rivals" to see who wins the girl could remind us of Aphrodite's appearance at the opening of the Hippolytus, making it clear that she wrote the script and knows its outcome before it begins.

So as Deianira sits far off, her far-beaming eyes viewing the struggle they have caused to occur, she might not quite appreciate how unclear it is whether she's witnessing a fair fight in close quarters, or, quite possibly, one that has been fixed from the start, that is, scripted, like a potion, or charm, worked up in order to bring about a certain preconcerted conclusion. She is doubly suspended -- neither sure of the outcome, nor whether there is any doubt about it to begin with. If it's a fair fight, the empirical method will bear true knowledge. However -- and this is relevant to the action of Nessus' charm -- if the game is rigged beforehand, the outcome will prove nothing. In that case, there is no empirical truth to learn, no knowledge born of experience. The witness might as well be blind.

The choral ode stages the fight as a knock-down, drag-out affair:

τότ᾽ ἦν χερόςἦν δὲ τόξων πάταγος
ταυρείων τ᾽ ἀνάμιγδα κεράτων
520ἦν δ᾽ ἀμφίπλεκτοι κλίμακες
ἦν δὲ μετώπων ὀλόεντα 
πλήγματακαὶ στόνος ἀμφοῖν

 δ᾽ εὐῶπις ἁβρὰ 
τηλαυγεῖ παρ᾽ ὄχθῳ 
525ἧστοτὸν ὃν προσμένουσ᾽ ἀκοίταν

ἀγὼν δὲ μαργᾷ μὲν οἷα φράζω

There was clatter of fists and clang of bow and crash of a bull's horns mixed together; [520] then there were close-locked grapplings and deadly blows from foreheads and loud deep cries from both. 

The delicate beauty with far-beaming eyes sat on the side of a hill, awaiting the husband that would be hers.

So the mad battle rages, as I narrate.

Note the superb glide from the brutal grapplings of head-butts and fists and wrestling holds, and all the clatter and clash of it, to the beautiful eyes, τηλαυγεῖ: "far beaming" of the girl sitting far off on the hill, waiting.

The ode finishes on a note that might be less surprising if we consider that the girl awaiting her fate is in no way able to control it, despite her being both its origin and goal:

τὸ δ᾽ ἀμφινείκητον ὄμμα νύμφας ἐλεινὸν ἀμμένεικἀπὸ ματρὸς ἄφαρ βέβακεν530ὥστε πόρτις ἐρήμα.
But the face of the bride which is the prize of the strife awaits the end in piteous anguish. 
Straightaway she walks from her mother like a solitary calf.
How strange that the play of beauty and brute force ends like this. No festive description of awarding the "prize" to Heracles (the victory belongs to Cypris), no joy lighting up Deianira's face as the bestial fight reaches its decision. The titanic bout for the most beautiful woman on Earth ends with the prize isolated, walking, not towards her man, but away from the only love she has known. Moving not with the pride of one betrothed, but like a calf. Sophocles never does the expected -- if we can be open to his strangeness, he'll teach us something about reading.

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