Wednesday, March 11, 2015

νήπιος: Philoctetes and Polyphemus

Sometimes looking at a work from another angle brings a renewed appreciation for something one thought had already been sufficiently savored.

Having recently read Daniel B. Levine's close study of the resonances in Sophocles' Philoctetes of the encounter of Odysseus and the Cyclops in Odyssey 9, I've been thinking about the relation of the play to the epic scene, and while I still think there's more to it than I have fathomed, it's already enriching elements of the play in ways I'd not have imagined.

Take for example the scene (already discussed here) in which Philoctetes makes his first entrance. Before he's even on the stage, the wounded man is rumbling, crashing, making noises, not articulate sounds. If we superimpose this scene upon Homer's, we note that Polyphemus arrives with his own crash:
           φέρε δ᾽ ὄβριμον ἄχθοςὕλης ἀζαλέηςἵνα οἱ ποτιδόρπιον εἴη,ἔντοσθεν δ᾽ ἄντροιο βαλὼν ὀρυμαγδὸν ἔθηκεν:
He bore a mighty weight of dry wood to serve him at supper time, [235] and flung it down with a crash inside the cave.
The only reason Odysseus has stayed in the cave is to see whether the cave's inhabitant was capable of hospitality -- i.e., a civilized being, not a monster -- and now he knows.

Sophocles sets up his scene beautifully to draw us in -- the island setting is just like island settings in the Odyssey where marvels occurred, and we are there. Only here, the crashing sounds of Philoctetes are made by his jagged walking -- he sounds monstrous, and as he approaches the chorus says:

His cries are loud, and terrible. (217)

But when the unknown being appears, he's very much like a man.

The chorus is grappling with the same question Odysseus had: human or inhuman? As the scene unfolds, we get Philoctetes' first view, or actually, his first hearing, of the sailors. And with a beautiful symmetry, Sophocles depicts this creature -- who but a moment before seemed a monster -- to swoon with delight to hear well-spoken Greek:

O cherished sound!

The tongue reveals to him, before anything is even said, that these are men like him, and to them that he is a well-spoken man, a Greek like them. If we think of our underlying Homeric scene, this happy recognition of similars is precisely what is missing in the Cyclops' cave:

“So he spoke, and in our breasts our spirit was broken 
for terror of his deep voice and monstrous self;"

Before Polyphemus establishes that the only place Odysseus and his men will go is down his gullet, his voice, though speaking Greek, makes it clear that he is no man who honors guests, suppliants, and gods:
he straightway made answer with pitiless heart: ‘A fool (νήπιοςart thou, stranger, or art come from afar, seeing that thou biddest me either to fear or to shun the gods. [275] For the Cyclopes reck not of Zeus, who bears the aegis, nor of the blessed gods, since verily we are better far than they. Nor would I, to shun the wrath of Zeus, spare either thee or thy comrades, unless my own heart should bid me.
Only a νήπιος would assume that humanity is everywhere alike. νήπιος in fact means incapable of speech -- exactly like infans in Latin. To be νήπιος is to fail to see difference, unlikeness -- here, it's the failure to see that one is looking at a monster.

Odysseus now has the answer to his question: alas, it's the bone-crunching end to all questing. The mouth of the Cyclops produces no cherished sound, but opens to use his guests with engulfing savage power.

One effect, then, of the parallel with Homer's scene is to highlight a difference that lies, unquestionably, in the mouth. Philoctetes sounds like a monster but delights in hearing the tongue of Greeks. The scene brightens through its difference with that of the Cyclops, but a dark cloud lies within: the potential heartless, godless, monstrous use of a man that lurks through the scenes that follow.

No comments: