Sunday, January 18, 2015

Living end: Heracles' Fate in Women of Trachis

And you, maiden, do not be left at the house. 
You have seen immense, shocking death, 
with sorrows great in number and strange. 
And in all of them there is nothing that is not Zeus.

The entrance of Heracles in Women of Trachis is an image of the supine hero at his most  weak, vulnerable moment. We never see him in his prime. Imagine an American superhero in a film that presents only the moment of his impotent, agonizing death. The sole reason we remember our heroes (or go to the box office) - their immortal deeds and abilities - is absent. Imagine Superman reduced to an unrecognizable hulk, crying out in frustrated, mystified anger. Helpless, then dead.

As his flesh is being eaten away, Heracles evokes his former role, struck by the seemingly intimate absurdity of how he was brought down:
Not spearmen on the battlefield, nor the Giants' earth-born army, nor the might of savage beasts, [1060] not Hellas, nor the land of the barbarian, nor any land which I came to purify has ever done this to me. No, a woman, a weak woman, born not to the strength of man, all alone has brought me down without a stroke of the sword!
His helplessness tempts us to write Heracles off as a has-been, no longer capable of acting, of doing anything worthwhile for or in the world to which he had so long labored to bring vital order.

The word he chooses has more than order in it. He says καθαίρων ἱκόμην - "I came to purify." καθαίρων carries the root sense of "cleanse," but connotes a purging act that carries an ethical, and thus sacred, mode of action. He had a job to do, as the son of Zeus. His career, all of it, was Zeus, and now this unintelligible turn defies understanding -- why does his Father allow this?

It would be very 20th Century of us to adopt the approved smartass attitude. Hyllus speaks with seeming anger of the lack of compassion of the gods. But the story of Heracles deliberately addresses that apparent inference, that glib assumption that the existence of incomprehensible suffering is a sure sign that we humans are essentially alone. (One might ask a confirmed atheist if that conviction requires god to not exist, or simply to not care about us.)

Heracles would of course be a great hero if we only remembered him for his accomplishments of strength and cunning, but he would not be a tragic hero. Sophocles is adding another dimension - one which he clearly feels is necessary for his Athenian audience to understand, ponder, and remember.

Why does he want us to ponder this dimension of the strongest human being's career? Throughout the play we have been hearing (from Deianira, mostly) that one bears an innocence, and ignorance, of the suffering of others until one experiences it for oneself. That would suggest that the gods might not have much understanding of mortal slings and arrows.

Labors of Heracles, 3rd c. CE
But Heracles is that nearly immortal being who, at the last, is consumed by an extraordinary experience of mortality. But why, if the gods do not understand or care about what we suffer, would Zeus have prophesied in advance all that's happening to his beloved son?

Perhaps we need to look past the spectacle of violent pain to examine how Heracles handles it. At first he is loudly complaining and vengeful, seeking to kill Deianira. But he moves on to other tasks, which he makes Hyllus swear to perform before telling him what they are. They are not trivial: Enabling the death of his father, and marrying his father's new chosen queen. It is the allegedly Oedipal desire of all sons that the father here is imposing upon his beloved son.

It would be consistent with the thinking of the hero to make this demand upon Hyllus only if he saw in it a reflection of his own response to his father's imposed word. For he now understands that his fate was foretold by his father; his fate "is" Zeus - and this, as unintelligible as it is, he now sees summoning him to duty.

He has broken the world he was supposed to cleanse:
  • broken his first family with Megara and her children; 
  • broken his marriage to Deianira, and 
  • broken the world of Eurytus, killing his son and raping his daughter. 

The temptation to curse Zeus and die might be quite powerful. Or to order Hyllus to kill Iole and all her people. Or, to seize the throne of Trachis. But this is not what Heracles does. Instead, he makes a last stab at mending things. Hyllus must marry Iole - an unthinkable thing for all - the request causes Hyllus to doubt his father's sanity (which in turn awakens Heracles' torment). Yet in one stroke, it gives both children status as heirs of Heracles, gives legal protected status to those children of the next generation he cares most about, and creates a protective dynastic order. It is an act that might seem baffling or strange to all, but in its effects, it authors a remnant saved from a broken world.

Asking his own son to prepare his pyre and to set it ablaze - this too suggests a duty that is unthinkable. Hyllus agrees to prepare the pyre, but not to light it, and Heracles agrees. That task will fall to Philoctetes. The entire series of commands up to the blaze is like the charm of Nessus, only here, perhaps, a countercharm.

The question of whether Heracles "knows" that his fate is to undergo apotheosis is undecidable - the play offers no indication (other than the negative -- Heracles promises to come back from "below" to curse Hyllus of that possibility, which is no assurance of anything).

Heracles steels his "tough soul" to undergo death. Only the actual experience of death will decide whether Hyllus is a polluting murderer (as the boy himself believes (1028-29)), or a healing physician, as Heracles claims. Death swallows infinite pain, but is this all the healing one can hope for? It is our fate to not know our fate until it has happened to us - as Deianira says at the very beginning of the play:

There is an ancient word people tell

that none can judge the life of any man
for good or bad until that man is dead;

The fate of Heracles demonstrates that ancient word (λόγος) with the deadbolt force of a syllogism. No one knew better than Deianira how powerless we are to know, before our end, our end. Heracles orders his own death believing he is fulfilling a foretold fate, as the son of the highest god, but not knowing what that fate might be. It is left to Hyllus to offer, as the only true thing that can be said, the hypothesis that all these ancient words did not lack sense.

The first word of the play is "λόγος"; the last is "Ζεύς." If the alpha and omega of the Women of Trachis are one, if the play trues its circle, then Heracles and Hyllus are dutiful in believing they are on sacred ground. Are they obeying the cathartic will of Zeus, or collaborating in a primal act of patricide? If the former, the career of Heracles ends with a final heroic purgation. If not, it's the most polluting act of murderous nihilism. Heracles is borne off alive. Until his end, can one say?

There is nothing here that is not Zeus.

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