Sunday, February 08, 2015

Proleptic Peripety: The surprise of human feeling in Philoctetes

As Kitto and others have long noted, some of the language of the Philoctetes breathes a common air -- the passages evoking the plight of the main character have a simple, observational naturalness combined with a vivid noticing of another's condition and a pathos that is atypical of the regal, even marmoreal, language of the kings and queens that usually dominate the tragic stage. Even as they suffer, Sophocles' Deianira and Euripides' Phaedra speak with royal temper -- they seem more living statues than hulking, crippled human beings in distress.

See how the chorus describes Philoctetes:
Here, he alone was his own neighbor (πρόσουρος), powerless to walk, with no one in the land to be his companion while he suffered—no one to whom he could cry out a lament that would be answered [695] for the plague that gnawed his flesh and drained his blood—no one to lull with healing herbs gathered from the nourishing earth the burning blood which oozed from the ulcers of his [700] envenomed foot, whenever the torment attacked him. Instead he would then creep this way or that, stumbling like a child without his kind nurse, to any place from where his needs [705] might be supplied, whenever the devouring anguish withdrew.
 . . . 
Ah, joyless was his life, who for ten years never knew the delight of wine, [715] but ever directed his path towards any stagnant pool that he could find as he gazed around him.


ἵν᾽ αὐτὸς ἦν πρόσουροςοὐκ ἔχων βάσιν
οὐδέ τιν᾽ ἐγχώρων κακογείτονα
παρ᾽  στόνον ἀντίτυπον βαρυβρῶτ᾽ ἀποκλαύσειεν αἱματηρόν
ὃς τὰν θερμοτάταν αἱμάδα κηκιομέναν ἑλκέων 
ἐνθήρου ποδὸς ἠπίοισι 
φύλλοις κατευνάσειενεἴ τις ἐμπέσοι
700φορβάδος ἐκ γαίας ἑλών
εἷρπε γὰρ ἄλλοτ᾽ ἀλλαχᾷ 
τότ᾽ ἂν εἰλυόμενος 
παῖς ἄτερ ὡς φίλας τιθήνας ὅθεν εὐμάρει᾽ ὑπάρ- 
705χοι πόρουἁνίκ᾽ ἐξανείη δακέθυμος ἄτα:


 μελέα ψυχά
ὃς μηδ᾽ οἰνοχύτου πώματος ἥσθη δεκέτει χρόνῳ
λεύσσων δ᾽ ὅπου γνοίη στατὸν εἰς ὕδωρ
ἀεὶ προσενώμα.

The privation of this man, so completely alone that he is "his own neighbor," is compactly rendered with searing images. He's not just alone, but οὐκ ἔχων βάσιν - he does not "possess walking." The word for walk, or step, is βάσιν, the root of our word "basis," and suggests anything that underlies and supports one's ability to move or even stand upright (this is picked up a moment later by the image of the stumbling child.) To lack basis is to not even be "in" the game - you are immobilized and positionless. Unlike those who are supported when they cannot support themselves, Philoctetes has no "social safety net."

The chorus goes on meditate upon this abandoned, purulent life seeking nourishment from stagnant pools: 10 years without wine!

This group of Skyrian friends of Prince Neoptolemus seems to have seen something here. These men have an aroused sense of the limits of bare human existence from acquaintance with this poor creature. Their tone might not be out of place in a journalistic passage from Arundhati Roy depicting the plight of the Dalit.

But we have to indicate two elements of Sophocles' story that decidedly are not to be found in the work of writers like Roy. The first is contained in the verses we omitted in quoting the passage above:

οὐ φορβὰν ἱερᾶς γᾶς σπόρονοὐκ ἄλλων 
αἴρων τῶν νεμόμεσθ᾽ ἀνέρες ἀλφησταί
710πλὴν ἐξ ὠκυβόλων εἴ ποτε τόξων 
πτανοῖς ἰοῖς ἀνύσειε γαστρὶ φορβάν

For food he did not gather the fruit of holy Earth, nor anything else that we mortals feed on by our labor, [710] except when on occasion he obtained food to ease his hunger by means of feathered shafts from his swift-striking bow.
In contrast to the meagre, powerless, painfully slow modality of the man, here is the lightning speed and inescapable accuracy of the Bow of Heracles. This instrument comes from the world of high myth, and we need to bear in mind its provenance. Heracles used his bow for many accomplishments - to win Iole; to save Deianira from Nessus; to conquer monsters and cities. In "fact," he used it to kill the eagle that nightly fed on Prometheus's liver! The bow has the aura of a sacred relic combined with the lethal potency of a fleet of weaponized drones.

That Sophocles can smoothly go from such raw "life" to the height of numinal aura without missing a beat is remarkable. It's also is worth bearing in mind as we evaluate the rhetorical thrust of the chorus's speech.

Their rhetoric is the second element that complicates the naturalism of the tale: The chorus is complicit in Odysseus's con game. They have been going along with the elaborate fiction that Neoptolemus, because he's noble and shares the poor man's hatred of Odysseus and the Atreidai, will help Philoctetes get back home.

Right before the choral ode, the matter of trust is ratcheted to a new pitch, as Neoptolemus asks to touch the bow and Philoctetes, in gratitude for his help, agrees to let him hold it, because:
You have raised me up above my enemies
When I was under their feet. (Grene)
A key polarity in the play has to do with the opposition of certain features of Odysseus and of Philoctetes. The wounded man is limited in space and time, he knows nothing of the last decade, and is so filled with need that he hasn't the poise or cleverness (sophos) to be capable of a sophisticated reading of what is happening. He is, essentially, locked in the present, and completely sincere. And he's facing the theatrical chicanery of the cleverest living Greek, and a series of complicit performers who know their parts perfectly.

Yet, it is in this scene that we as onlookers might begin to wonder whether Odysseus's theater piece isn't showing signs of strain. As the chorus beholds this prince reduced to a poor wretch -- not only humbly begging for a berth anywhere on their ship, but also expressing the most sincere gratitude when he believes they are giving him one -- they confront the transformative power of their own wonder:
I truly marvel (θαῦμά) how—how in the world (πῶς ποτε πῶς ποτ᾽
—as he listened in solitude to the breakers rushing around him, [690] he kept his hold upon a life so full of grief.
τόδε τοι θαῦμά μ᾽ ἔχει
πῶς ποτε πῶς ποτ᾽ ἀμφιπλάκτων ῥοθίων μόνος κλύων
690πῶς ἄρα πανδάκρυτον οὕτω βιοτὰν κατέσχεν:

And this man is about commit the ultimate act of trust, handing his bow to Achilles' son. As the chorus witnesses this, something happens to them. They seem surprised by something within themselves, a kind of innocent treason. Their plotted guile appears to be undergoing betrayal by the uncontrollable motion of their hearts.

It is nothing if not Sophoclean to hear in this choral ode the beginning of an unexpected reversal (peripeteia). The friends of Neoptolemus were supposed to sound compassionate, not to be transfixed by human empathy. Yet it is difficult during this choral ode (a separate post will look at its opening) not to detect an undertone of something they weren't meant to have: actual fellow-feeling. The lie of their prepared speech becomes truth as they find themselves meaning, for the first time, what they say. The revolution is not yet overt, but the ode looks ahead to the change of mind (metanoia) Neoptolemus will soon express.

If ever was a ray of hope in Greek tragic drama, it might be here -- if what we are witnessing is indeed the baseless, imponderable power of humanity to usurp the calculated fraud of the cleverest Greek strategist.


Unknown said...

You wrote a beaytiful and moving piece here and timely because I am researching this very topic. I have noticed in other plays the empathy the chorus shows for distressed characters onstage. Have you noticed other plays where the chorus has a noble turn of heart?


Tom Matrullo said...

Thanks for the very good question, Bill! - I will give it some thought, but offhand, what seems to be happening here was new to me - no parallels occurred to me. I can think of plays in which the chorus shifts its allegiance or empathy (e.g. Antigone), but none quite like this. I'd be most interested in your observations.