Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Ambiguous equation: What we don't know in the Philoctetes

We've looked at the lonely anguish of the abandoned Philoctetes, and how even the chorus was moved by the wounded man's condition:
Here, he alone was his own neighbor, 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.
Indeed, it's the almost involuntary compassion evinced by the sailors that enables us to understand and be persuaded that Neoptolemus too, after taking on the role that Odysseus had assigned him of seeming to be Philoctetes' friend, actually becomes that friend, vowing to take him home to Oeta.

The relationship of Neoptolemus and Philoctetes is complex. At first, the younger man is clearly playing the role assigned him - getting Philoctetes to hand him the bow while he falls into a deep sleep after suffering excruciating pain that then subsides. When Neoptolemus reveals that he is in fact conspiring with Odysseus to bring Philoctetes to Troy for a good cause, Philoctetes is stunned, and confronts the truth: that he has been fooled, tricked into giving up the weapons of Heracles, and now faces an inevitable death alone on Lemnos.
Philoctetes Hollow in the caverned rock, now hot, now frosty, how true it seems, then, that I was sadly fated never to leave you! [1085] No, you will witness my death, too. Ah, ah, me! Sad dwelling, so long filled with the pain welling from my flesh, what will be my daily portion hereafter? [1090] Where, from what provision, shall I, unhappy, find any hope of sustenance? Above my head the tremulous doves will go on their way through the whistling wind. I can stop their flight no more.
Let's look at this from Odysseus's point of view. With Neoptolemus's help, he's succeeded in obtaining the weapon, but Philoctetes is choosing to starve to death rather than rejoin the Greek cause, so great is his detestation of the Atreidai and Odysseus, and his disappointment in the treachery of Neoptolemus.

Odysseus and Neoptolemus then leave Philoctetes with the chorus while they go to the ships. The chorus, which had been deeply sympathetic, now expresses a more calculated judgment:
[1095] It was you, you, I say, doomed one, that chose this fate; and this fortune to which you are captive comes from no other source, nor from a stronger man's compulsion. For when in fact it was in your power to show sense, [1100] you chose to reject the better fate, and to accept the worse.
The lengthy scene allows Philoctetes to explore every nuance of his plight, and to reaffirm that nothing will persuade him to give in and willingly return to Troy. In a moment of severe pain, he cries:
Never, never—of that be certain! Not even if the lord of the fiery lightning comes to wrap me in the blaze of his thunderbolts! [1200] Ilium be damned, and as many of the men before its walls as dared reject this foot of mine! But oh, friends, grant me one wish!
The wish turns out to be that they give him a weapon with which he can dismember himself -- this is a man who has lost everything except his indomitable will.

At this point a normal emissary would concede that this man is beyond persuasion.

Odysseus and Neoptolemus now return. They are arguing, because, Neoptolemus says, he's had a change of heart, is sorry for his part in the deceit, and intends to give the bow back. They nearly come to blows, but Odysseus backs off and leaves. Neoptolemus then attempts to recapture the good graces of Philoctetes, but the wounded man refuses to believe his words:
Take heart and listen to my words.

I am afraid. Beautiful words did me evil once before, when I believed [πεισθεὶς] your promises.
[1270] Is there no room, then, for change of heart [μεταγνῶναι]?
You spoke just like this, when you were seeking to steal my bow—a "trusted" [πιστός] friend, with my destruction in his treacherous heart.
I assure you, I am not so now. I merely wish to know whether you have resolved to stay here and endure, or to sail with us.
[1275] Stop, not another word! Whatever you may say will be said in vain.
No words will persuade Philoctetes, but Neoptolemus now goes beyond words. Quietly he extends his hand, holding the sacred bow, to Philoctetes. The reaction is immediate:
Am I being tricked a second time?
πῶς εἶπαςἆρα δεύτερον δολούμεθα;
Philoctetes is beyond the reach of any words, but being offered his bow, along with an oath to Zeus that this act of Neoptolemus is genuine, changes his mind. He is persuaded that the young man is on his side.

Of course, it's at this moment that Odysseus springs from his concealment and confronts them.
But I forbid it, as the gods are my witnesses, in the name of the Atreids and the entire army!
Interestingly Odysseus doesn't use the usual word for "witness"; rather, he uses ξυνίστορεςwhich carries more the sense of "one who is in on, privy to" some secret plot.

The word is doubly, or perhaps trebly suggestive at this crucial moment, which requires us to ask -- who is in on this scheme here? Has Odysseus lost, thanks to Neoptolemus' change of heart? Or is it more complicated than that?

Anyone familiar with the wiliness of Odysseus might wish to consider three possibilities:
1. Odysseus has indeed lost the game. Neoptolemus is helping Philoctetes.
2. Odysseus's ploy is working, thanks to the ongoing collusion of Neoptolemus, whom he coached when they left the stage.
3. Odysseus's ploy is working without any collusion on the part of Neoptolemus, whom he knew would have a change of heart -- in fact, he counted on it.
Let's remember: Odysseus swore to the army to bring back Philoctetes and his bow, and to persuade him with "winning words" -- without force. He was confident enough to say they could separate his head from neck if he failed. He has never shown the slightest doubt that he'll succeed. But here he's running for his life from the deadly poison arrows. Yet he keeps affirming that his task is ordered not just by the generals, but by Zeus.

A fair reading ought to consider these options. To do so enriches the play immeasurably, because it truly pits the broken heart, mind, and body of Philoctetes, along with his unbroken will, against Odysseus's limitless cleverness and considerable powers of illusion.

If we try on the notion that Neoptolemus is furthering Odysseus's scheme - knowingly or unknowingly - we see that Odysseus still has a card or two to play. Indeed, in the next scene we find that while Neoptolemus has completely won over Philoctetes' trust, he has not completely gone over to his side. Rather the boy offers some rather profound insight into the soul of Philoctetes,
It is true that men are compelled to bear the fortunes given by the gods; but when they cling to self-inflicted miseries, as you do, [1320] no one can justly excuse or pity them. You have become savage [σὺ δ᾽ ἠγρίωσαι]: you welcome no counselor, and if someone admonishes you, even if he speaks in all good will, you detest him and consider him an enemy who wishes you ill.
and adds for good measure a large-scale interpretation of the working out of the dark forces of divine intent:
you suffer this plague's affliction in accordance with god-sent fate, because you came near to Chryse's guardian, the serpent who secretly watches over her home and guards her roofless sanctuary. Know also that you will never gain relief from this grave sickness, [1330] as long as the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, until of your own free will you come to the plains of Troy, find there the sons of Asclepius, our comrades, be relieved of this infection, and, with this bow's [1335] aid and mine, be hailed as the sacker of Troy's towers.
Neoptolemus is showing penetrating insight into human motives and an interpretive confidence worthy of Odysseus -- quite possibly because he's been listening to him. The snakebite was not random, but fully part of a sacred plan. He reveals in great detail the prophecies forced out of Helenus by Odysseus, which include all the enticements that any sane man could ask for.

Whether Neoptolemus's transformation is real or feigned, he is still on script -- Odysseus's script (we noted here how this uncertainty is built into the structure of the play).

It is not unreasonable to believe that Odysseus here is playing his last card, having Neoptolemus bring out every argument. They are powerful arguments -- restored health, heroic work, glory, obedience to Zeus -- which, in this renewed moment of trust, might persuade Philoctetes to undergo his own change of heart [μεταγιγνώσκω].

If we read this scene this way, it in fact conforms to an extended uncertainty that runs spinelike throughout the play, which has everything to do with whether something is actual, or simply represented, pretended, feigned. It's present when the chorus sings the tale of Ixion, itself a story of doubles and redoubled trickery:
I have heard a rumor, but never seen with my eyes [λόγῳ μὲν ἐξήκουσ᾽ὄπωπα δ᾽ οὐ μάλα,], 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 [οἶδα κλύων οὐδ᾽ ἐσιδὼν], that has encountered a doom so repugnant as this of Philoctetes.
Here and in other lines, Sophocles makes it clear that he is taking up a large epistemological problem -- how we know what we know, and whether it is indeed something we truly experience via our sovereign senses, or whether, on the contrary, we "know" a thing simply because someone has repeated an account of it to us. And this problem is relevant for the basic reason that it goes to the root of the event of persuasion.

Philoctetes has suffered enough not to trust men's words, especially after he's found Neoptolemus to have deceived him. Yet he rebounds because he cannot dispute deeds, and Neoptolemus has given him back his bow. But then Neoptolemus both prevents him from killing Odysseus, and pours on the full-court press of reasons for rejoining the Greeks -- more words!
How can I not be persuaded [ἀπιστήσω] by this man's words, when he exhorts me with good will?
πῶς ἀπιστήσω λόγοις τοῖς τοῦδ᾽ὃς εὔνους ὢν ἐμοὶ παρῄνεσεν
The play grapples richly and in nuanced fashion with the cognitive problems bound up with seeming and knowing, with words and deeds, and, as evinced by Philoctetes here, a widening rift of uncertainty about what to believe, and why, and how. It would be unfortunate to reduce our reading to simply one side of the ambiguous equation. It's far more interesting to open up our "witness" to the possibility that there are more layers to this plot, more possible readings here, stemming from more calculated lies or useful truths, than first appeared.

With this in mind, another question beckons. Has Odysseus now played his last card?

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