Saturday, March 21, 2015

Persuasive paradigms: Latour and Sophocles' Philoctetes

In some ways, a play like Sophocles' Philoctetes is more than a rendering of a single story evoked from the tapestry of Greek myth. In choosing this story of a duel between, on one hand, a noble Greek reduced almost to a beast through social indifference, and on the other, the cleverest favorite of Athena, polutropos Odysseus, Sophocles set in motion a paradigm of the Greek world. In that world, a theatrical piece could and did think through the forces that formed it, tested it, and threatened to break it apart.

If one wishes, one can find contemporary authors who have similar aspirations -- whether their art succeeds quite as well remains to be seen. One example might be Bruno Latour's recent Gaia Global Circus.

Circus is "a tragicomedy," writes Erik Bordeleau, that “attempts at plunging into the internal drama of science.” The particular agon of the work relates the question of the Earth (Gaia) and climate change -- a global theme indeed.

Latour, a French philosopher deeply concerned with science, is clear about the aim of his drama: “A good scientific experimentation is like a theatrical situation of dramatization,” he wrote. 

Latour has a point: It might very well be that what physicists like to call "thought experiments" are precisely what were taking place in amphitheaters 2,500 years ago.

The Greeks had numerous stories from their bottomless world of myth that spoke to similar giant themes: questions of world order, the place of man in that order, the precarious state of that "terrible wonder" described by the chorus of Antigone:

Many wonders, many terrors, 
But none more wonderful than the human race, 
Or more dangerous 
This creature travels on a winter gale 
Across the silver sea . . . 
(trans. Peter Meineck)

One way to think of a "classic" is as a work that attacks questions so fundamental that it never ceases to interest and concern us. 

There's much to interest us in Sophocles' drama set on Lemnos. The island is not an idle choice of scene -- it's where Hephaistos landed after he was tossed out of Olympus, some say, because his mother Hera found the limping god too ugly to bear. 

The play alludes to that tale in passing - it's the divine paradigm of ejection, or rejection, of an individual by society - ratcheted up by the fact that the "society" here is the mother who brought little Hephaistos into the world. For both men and gods in this world, part of being "social" is being mobile -- the capacity to run, march, dance, hunt, and all the tasks of war and athletics require health and agility. To lack these is to run the risk of alienation; of course there are degrees of outsiderness. For Hephaistos and for Philoctetes, whose smell offends the senses as his cries of pain unsettle the mind, estrangement on Lemnos proved extreme.

Sophocles provides a rich contrast in pitting Odysseus versus Philoctetes. The latter is given large amounts of dramatic and choral time to arouse compassion both in us and in Neoptolemus and his crew -- he is a study in impoverished selfhood and lack, a human being verging on dissolving into the wild. It is not by accident that a key subtext of this play is the tale of Polyphemus from Odyssey 9 -- Philoctetes's body, mind, and soul are disintegrating in this solitary place into something no longer human. Monstrous.

It's necessary to fully apprehend the radical nature of Philoctetes' physical and emotional state -- the pathos and his huge anger at the leaders of the Greeks that erupts late in the play -- in order to appreciate the challenge facing Odysseus. 

Odysseus is the essential man -- everything Philoctetes no longer is. Strong, cunning, sophisticated, connected, capable of taking on any manner or role (polutropos), and intellectually capable both of seeing the big picture and of thinking through every strategic piece of business needed to win. As he himself puts it:
What kind of man the occasion demands, that kind of man am I. [1050] And accordingly, where the judgment at hand is of just and good men, you could find no man more pious than me. Victory, however, is my inborn desire in every field,

What's striking is how confident Odysseus is. Sure, he's worried that if Philoctetes sees him -- the man who so totally abandoned him 10 years before -- he won't survive the ineluctable arrows. But when the Greeks first realized they couldn't win the war without Philoctetes, Odysseus embraced the task with complete confidence, saying they could remove his head if he didn't bring back the wounded man, even though the prophet Helenus specified that Philoctetes must be persuaded and not forced to return to the war.

The full measure of the gageure has to be taken into account -- only so can we see how high are the stakes in this Latourian "thought experiment" of Sophocles. And only so can we enter into the wily fun and strategic gamesmanship of Homer's greatest character. 

In a way, the play works because we give full measure to both antagonists, much as we must to Antigone and Creon. If we reductively "side with" one or the other, the full dimensions of what is at stake never appear, and our experience of the play suffers from our lack of imaginative scope. In many ways Philoctetes is quite similar to the Antigone -- the fiercely antithetical motives, the rift between the State and the individual; the stark contrast of apparent strength and woeful weakness -- and the absolute need to bring them into harmony. 

What's different of course is that the earlier play ended with a tragic lose/lose, where this play -- the next to last produced by the playwright -- ends with a resounding Odyssean "win."

A subsequent post will look at some details of how this plays out.

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