Sunday, February 15, 2015

Encountering myth and naturalism in Philoctetes

This is long and in part goes back over lines already discussed, but from a different angle, trying to clarify something. Feel free to ignore.

In his fine essay on the Philoctetes in The Wound and the Bow, Edmund Wilson notes how isolating the three main characters on a lonely island helps Sophocles get away from the "barbarities, anomalies and absurdities" of the old myths.

"The people of the Philoctetes seem to us more familiar than they do in most of the other Greek tragedies," he writes. The thought echoes that of H.D.F. Kitto who found the language of the play more naturalistic, more consonant with the familiar notes of humans suffering rage, hope, pain and despair. (Greek Tragedy.)

The bleak Lemnian setting amplifies our attention to the words spoken, the nuances of the dialogue. Nonetheless it's not as if Sophocles chooses to do away with the old myths -- he's working with the givens of a highly specific story that features prophecies of old, not unlike the ancient tablet Heracles uses to foresee his future in Women of Trachis.

Wilson seems to find that Sophocles' late work exemplifies a movement toward greater realism accompanied by a downplaying of mythic matters -- as if the playwright were moving towards some sort of 20th century stylistic mode. But is that in fact the case? It might be best to begin by simply observing the co-presence of these two very distinct elements: a direct pathos of human emotion on one hand, and elements taken from high story: a fabulous war of heroes, a sacred bow, a fateful set of conditions that must be met in order for the Greeks to conquer Troy, on the other.

Sophocles succeeds in integrating the naturalistic style with these fraught props -- not an easy task. But he did choose to tell this story, and these ingredients, while mostly in the background, are essential to it.


Why this story? For one thing, it offers something very important to the playwright -- a dramatic discrepancy between agent and effect. As we saw in the Antigone, the plot pivots on a surprise triggered by an immense gap between the proximate cause of the central action and its ultimate effect. A handful of dust sprinkled by a young girl upon her brother's corpse leads inexorably to the obliteration of the house of Creon. Similarly Women of Trachis presents us with the strongest man who ever lived, portrayed in his feeblest moment. Yet in that moment he manages to be an agent of major change while orchestrating his own last rites.

The spectacle of frail human means coupled with fiery gumption and impact beyond the individual fascinated Sophocles. In Philoctetes' story he found yet again a tale that put the bow of Heracles - this mythic agency of historical change - in the arms of a sick, abandoned man who is likened to a stumbling child without a nurse. This joining at the hip of the very small and frail with something very big and powerful forms a pattern in the plays of Sophocles, and the pattern requires for its potency the material of "the old myths" just as much as it does the vocal texture and realism of human vulnerability.

The bow of Heracles never misses its intended target, and its arrows, dipped in Hydra bile, always kill. That is, there is nothing contingent or iffy about this bow - it executes with no element of chance - it is pure necessity. Yet the fact that Philoctetes has the bow appears purely a matter of chance, doesn't it? He happened to encounter the hero building his own funeral pyre. This chance encounter is described in the choral ode that begins with Axion's tale, where the chorus goes on to say,
I have heard a rumor, but never seen with my eyes, how the man who once approached the bed of Zeus was bound upon a [680] swift wheel by the almighty son of Cronus. But of no other mortal do I know, either by hearsay or by sight, that has encountered (συντυγχάνω) a doom so repugnant as this of Philoctetes.
Philoctetes happened to meet Heracles and his own repugnant doom at the same moment - the verb συντυγχάνω contains the word τῠ́χη, chance, fortune, personified as Τυχη, or Fortuna. Philoctetes does what Heracles asks - sets the pyre ablaze, and receives the bow that cannot miss its mark. The tension of the story, however, lies in how not just the arrows, but the bow itself went astray, thanks to the misfortune of Chryse's serpent's bite. That seemingly chance encounter puts the bow and repellent Philoctetes so far outside the theater of war, the calculus of any military strategy, as to be nearly obliterated.

The action of displacing or misplacing the bow is what creates the dramatic tension of the story. (Think of the story as a bowstring being pulled back.) When the Greeks are reminded that Philoctetes and his bow are necessary to victory, they go to recover him, fully aware that they have alienated him completely.

The choral ode actually recounts three meetings. The first is that of Philoctetes and Heracles. The second is the fortune of "coming to meet" Neoptolemus -
But now, after those troubles, he will attain happiness and heartiness in the end [720] because of his meeting (ὑπαντήσας) with this son of a noble race,
ὑπαντήσας connotes an intentional encounter - one "comes to meet" another person - the emphasis is on an intentional act, not a chance meeting.

The third encounter is that of Heracles' apparent apotheosis:
in that very land where, above Oeta's heights, the hero of the brazen shield approached [πλάθω approached, drew near] the gods, illuminated by his father's divine fire.
ἵν᾽  χάλκασπις ἀνὴρ θεοῖς πλάθει πατρὸς θείῳ πυρὶ παμφαήςΟἴτας ὑπὲρ ὄχθων.
This encounter, if that's the word, is not framed as complete; it takes place outside human space and time. Heracles "drew near" something that humans may not approach. The passage has been remarked on for the fact that Heracles is described as the man with the brazen shield - not the familiar iconography of the lion's skin, bow and club. Heracles seems a bit more like any soldier, any man, requiring a shield to be safe.

With παμφαής - all-radiant, all-brilliant - we onlookers encounter a dilemma. Are we witnessing through the chorus's words transcendental light, or the quite literal fire set by Philoctetes to consume the agonized flesh of Heracles? Is this the fated, necessary, divine illumination of mythic transcendence (not unlike Ixion's eternal wheel of fire), or the natural searing combustion of Oeta's trees? Hard to tell, since this light, all-brilliant, blinds the human eye.

The three encounters of the ode cover the range of possible ways meetings can occur: one appears random, yet sets up the tale we are watching; one seems intentional, and the third, bathed in light, really doesn't appear - if an encounter with the gods does take place, it occurs beyond our ability to see it for ourselves.

And here might lie a clue as to why we might not be correct in seeing Sophocles' "naturalism" as in some way a retreat, or turning away, from myth. Certainly the play's expressive pathos seems more in line with modernity. But instead of resulting from a diminution or demystification of mythic power, it stands in strong tension to it. The chorus begins:

I have heard a tale, but never saw with my very eyes,
A moment later it repeats the opposition:


But of no other mortal do I know, either by hearing or by sight, a doom . . .

Our eyes can take us to the furthest edge of nature. But all of that "realism" gathers force by being set against what we have heard -- the ancient tales of humanity's encounters with the gods. Whether random, intended, or inscrutable, the aural realm of myth with all its "barbarities, anomalies and absurdities" is what gives the sharply observed style of Sophocles' naturalism its curiously modern force and sense.

2 comments:

William Moulton said...

Good article!

Tom Matrullo said...

Thanks for slogging through!