Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ixion and theatrics in Philoctetes

The sole independent choral ode in the Philoctetes begins with a seemingly remote mythological allusion to Ixion:
Chorus
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 a doom so repugnant as this of Philoctetes. For though he had wronged no one by force or thievery, [685] but conducted himself fairly towards the fair, he was left to perish so undeservedly. I truly marvel how—how in the world—as he listened in solitude to the breakers rushing around him, [690] he kept his hold upon a life so full of grief.

680
685
690


The allusion is richly suggestive. As Jebb points out, Ixion, king of the Lapiths is the archetypal ingrate. He'd refused to give his father-in-law bridal gifts, then invited the man to his home, where he tripped him into a fiery pit. The murder was so heinous that no one would purify him. Some say he went mad, until Zeus took pity and, by purifying him, brought him to his senses.

Ixion's senses then told him to try to rape Hera, and he actually believed he'd succeeded, bragging of the feat. In fact Zeus had created a double resembling Hera, named Nephele ("Cloud"). Nephele gave birth to Centaurus, a bestial savage who mated with horses and begat the race of Centaurs.

For his overachieving, Ixion received the signal honor of being bound to a fiery wheel that spins eternally (it is said to have paused only once, when Orpheus enchanted the Underworld with his song.) Ixion, in short, tops the list of the worst mortals ever, in large measure for betraying a benefactor.

There is far too much in this tale to discuss in this brief comment. Ixion comes to the mind of the chorus as the closest analog to the plight of Philoctetes. The poor marooned man's isolation and constant pain makes him, to their imagination, similar to Ixion. This is baffling, though because Philoctetes
 had wronged no one by force or thievery, [685] but conducted himself fairly towards the fair.
Philoctetes is at once like and totally unlike Ixion. In fact, we've just seen his total joy and gratitude upon being told that he will be going home aboard Neoptolemus's ship. No, if anyone here is betraying a trust, of course it's Neoptolemus at the behest of Odysseus. Philoctetes is being seduced by a beautiful lie, much as Ixion fell for the beguiling shape of Nephele.

Just as Dante put those who defrauded kinsmen and benefactors at the bottom of the Infernal pit, the Greeks saw this kind of fraud as beyond remediation. Essentially someone who has received grace or kindness, some good work and will, is perpetrating a calculated crime towards the benefactor - calculated because it requires the fabrication of a complex, coherent lie, coupled with bottomless ill-will.

The wit of the Ixion story lies in the cleverness (sophos) of how Zeus turned the tables, producing a mock-Hera, a similitude. He defrauds the fraudster (and, some say, enjoyed the embraces of Dia, Ixion's wife) and punishes him by making sure that everyone will see him coming from miles away.

So the tale of Ixion is of doubling down on a double-dealer, a tale of disguise and reverse theatrics in pursuit of the truth. The Philoctetes is also about role reversals, reaching layers where those playing roles might no longer be able to tell when role ends and reality begins.

Ixion is as much about how the gods win as it is about the turpitude of the mortal lout. Their power to play with appearances gives them a strategic edge in any game. Yet the containment of Ixion within his burning wheel doesn't provide closure. His deranged rape of a cloud produced a race of man-beasts that are forever ruining marriages, including that of Heracles.

Consider the long view, i.e. Zeus's: The bow of Heracles that Philoctetes carries has been pointing at Paris forever. It's cradled in the arms of the loneliest cripple on earth. And there is no way that arrow, cocked and loaded, is not going to kill its fated target. The wonder of the story is how; the how lies in wonder.

1 comment:

William Moulton said...

Love the iinsight of the final paragraph!