Friday, April 03, 2015

Tough sell: The agon of rhetoric in the Philoctetes

One reason that the Philoctetes is an extraordinary work -- a classic -- is that it takes on one of the most difficult confrontations imaginable, between the isolated, socially and physically wounded Philoctetes, and Odysseus, the fully networked lieutenant and executor of the will of the generals, and of the general will.

These characters move through an intense and fascinating duel -- Odysseus's task is to convince Philoctetes to return willingly to the Trojan War. Odysseus has a tantalizing story of restoration of honor, health, and eventually the prize of glory -- everything a Greek Prince could ask for. But a man who's been abandoned for nine and a half years no longer dreams. Philoctetes's dearest wish is to kill Odysseus with the bow of Heracles, which never misses, and is always lethal. It's going to be a tough sell.

Sophocles has designed the play to amplify the profound dichotomy between the two older characters, with Neoptolemos serving as a kind of bridge between them. If we look more closely at the features of both the archer and the captain, we'll see why Odysseus has his work cut out for him.

In his singular isolation, Philoctetes has been nearly reduced to an inhuman creature -- not unlike the Cyclops Polyphemus whose episode the play richly echoes (see νήπιος: Philoctetes and Polyphemus). He speaks out of a neglected, asocial existence with such lyric power that he might well be the archetypal voice of the outcast, the existential loner, the underground man, the forlorn self persuaded by Nietzsche's potent argument that "God is dead."

In part, Philoctetes can lay claim to being an outcast as his lameness and abandonment so closely replicate that of the first outcast on Lemnos, the fire god Hephaestus.

O Lemnos, and you all-conquering flame kindled by Hephaestus, will you indeed endure it that this man should take me from your domain by force?

While there are no women in the play, a consciousness of the absence of womanly nature is pervasive. Hephaestus was sent away, or thrown down, from Olympus to land on Lemnos because he displeased Hera, his mother. Unlike the other gods, he was ugly, comical, lame. The cruelty of the mother here, seconded through the play's allusions to Cybele, underscore the pathos of a child experiencing a harsh nature, a world without a mother's tenderness.

Philoctetes speaks with a heart-driven immediacy -- his world is this small rocky place where his pain and hunger drive him to use the bow of a hero to eke out a life:

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.

 κοίλας πέτρας γύαλον 
θερμὸν καὶ παγετῶδεςὥς σ᾽ οὐκ ἔμελλον ἄρ᾽ τάλας
λείψειν οὐδέποτ᾽ἀλλά μοι καὶ θνῄσκοντι συνείσει
ὤμοι μοί μοι
 πληρέστατον αὔλιον 
λύπας τᾶς ἀπ᾽ ἐμοῦ τάλαν
τίπτ᾽ αὖ μοι τὸ κατ᾽ ἆμαρ 
1090ἔσταιτοῦ ποτε τεύξομαι 
σιτονόμου μέλεος πόθεν ἐλπίδος
πέλειαι δ᾽ ἄνω 
πτωκάδες ὀξυτόνου διὰ πνεύματος 
ἐλῶσινοὐκέτ᾽ ἴσχω.

No one else in the play speaks with such poetic power. When Philoctetes addresses nature, he speaks out of a profound loss of human companionship and of hope of any divine succor. He has formed bonds with birds, rocks and waves akin to those of an child, or an animal. His speech is highly figural, rhythmical, sonorous, and emotively addresses Being as "you," as he does at the close:

Farewell, chamber that shared my watches. Farewell, [1455] nymphs of stream and meadow, and you, strong pounding of the sea-lashed cape, where often in the cavern's inmost recess my head was wetted by the south wind's blasts, and where many times the Hermaean mount sent an echo [1460] to my sad groans in the gale of my sorrow! But now, clear springs and Lycian fount, I am leaving you, leaving you at last, though such a hope had never buoyed me! Farewell, sea-wrapped Lemnos, [1465] and send me off with sailing fair to my heart's content . . .

No Greek character could be farther from this mode of speaking than the hero of the Odyssey. Here he's describing himself after Philoctetes has spurned the request to join Odysseus and Neoptolemus who will return to battle:
I could say much in answer to his claims, if time allowed; but now I can say one thing only. 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. 

Never at a loss for words, Odysseus's facility makes him the ideal broker/facilitator. He fluidly goes with whatever role is required of him, rapidly appraises every situation and devises clever solutions to problems most men would find daunting. He continues:

Victory, however, is my inborn desire in every field—save with regard to you. To you, in this case, I will gladly give way. Yes, release him, and lay not another finger upon him. [1055] Let him stay here. We have no further need of you, now that we have these weapons. For Teucer is there among our forces, well-skilled in this craft, as am I, and I believe that I can master this bow in no way worse than you, and point it with no worse a hand. [1060] So what need is there of you? Farewell! Enjoy your strolls on Lemnos! We must be going. And perhaps your onetime prize will bring me the honor which ought to have been your own.

He not only poses as a "winner," but denies the uniqueness of Philoctetes, the actual need of him. If this stubborn man won't do it, we'll find another who can. Of course, he's bluffing -- they do need the actual, one and only Philoctetes. This is the calculating mind of the strategist, pretending that identities are fungible, and individuals matter little as men become pawns on a field of action.

It is entirely in keeping with his plan -- to persuade Philoctetes that he must come back with them -- that Odysseus here speaks with pointed cruelty, but still, it's devastating:
. . . what need is there of you? Farewell! Enjoy your strolls on Lemnos! We must be going. 
No wonder in later times Odysseus was often characterized as heartless and false. But he's about more than mere trickery. Ask him and he'll tell you: His larger task is that of the politician who is trying to hold together a social order that's coming apart at the seams. This too is part of who he is, at a level above that of the strategist and broker.

Let's remember it was Odysseus who captured Helenus and gained the intelligence of how to defeat Troy. For all his machinations, Odysseus is not a traitor to the Greeks as Helenus was to his family and his people. He is tasked with reintegrating the most alienated Greek warrior (more even than Achilles!) for the larger good.

If we put these elements together, we have something like this:

  1. The task of persuading Philoctetes is the action of the play. 
  2. It is complicated by the fact that Odysseus was the perpetrator of the original abandonment of Philoctetes.
  3. Yet Odysseus is the most capable man for the job.
  4. The outcome of the Trojan War, and, possibly, of the Greek world, hangs on whether Philoctetes can be turned around to return and fight for those who threw him away.

In a word, what Sophocles has staged is a duel with everything at stake. If Philoctetes is the immovable object, the power of Odysseus's rhetorical and theatrical skills is the irresistible force. When we look more closely at the play's structure, we'll find the stratagems to persuade Philoctetes are scrupulously explored from every angle.

Over and over, variants of the word for persuasion (πείθω) include power, trust, truth and even obedience. Here's Neoptolemus:

What can I do, then if my pleading lacks power [δυνησόμεσθαto persuade [πείσειν] you of anything that I say? [1395]
τί δῆτ᾽ ἂν ἡμεῖς δρῷμενεἰ σέ γ᾽ ἐν λόγοις  
πείσειν δυνησόμεσθα μηδὲν ὧν λέγω 

Without the use of force, doing and saying are all that Odysseus and Neoptolemus have to work with, aren't they?

The duel of Odysseus and Philoctetes is the agon of truth and lie, of rhetoric and reality. It yields this playwright's mature meditation on the powers and limitations of words, deeds, trust, knowledge and illusion. We'll look at how this plays out in another post.

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