Sunday, December 29, 2013

Very unlike a Squalodon: The Messenger's tale, Part II.

Euripides' Hippolytus presents a vivid sequence of events that persuade us that a great dynasty can be undone in a single day without war, natural disaster, or enemy action. That is, it argues that Eros pervades the world, driving all creatures to move, desire, act, and cause to fall.
Not fire nor stars have stronger bolts than those of Aphrodite sent by the hand of Eros, Zeus's child.
οὔτε γὰρ πυρὸς οὔτ᾽ ἄστρων ὑπέρτερον βέλος,οἷον τὸ τᾶς Ἀφροδίτας ἵησιν ἐκ χερῶνἜρως  Διὸς παῖς. (530-33)
Among the consistent lessons the text yields is how difficult it can be to rightly interpret signs, witnesses, evidence. Reading is less simple than it appears, if Theseus's reading of Phaedra's letter is any indication.

Another way of putting it: Euripides is interested both in the unfolding of actions or events and in how we think about their unfolding. Phaedra makes a lethal decision based on incomplete information. Her overhearing of Hippolytus's exchange with the Nurse is a dramatic exercise in basing an inference upon what one hears, what one doesn't hear, which in turn is yoked to what one previously knew and didn't know. Introducing garbled, or incomplete understanding into the speeches and actions of the characters reminds us - or should remind us - that the human figures here have limitations, yet they can be depended upon to arrive at judgments and conclusions by not thinking critically enough about what they have not seen, heard, verified.

This is not as simple as to say that Phaedra should have been less precipitate. Devoured by love and threatened by plausible fear of exposure, her solution disposes of both by disposing of her life and of Hippolytus' honor. Her solution is lethal yet elegant - like a mathematical proof that solves for all variables with ingenious simplicity.

Hippolytus asks, when confronted with Theseus's judgment that he shall be alien to his own house:
Will you not examine my oath and sworn testimony or the words of seers?
Will you banish me without a trial?
οὐδ᾽ ὅρκον οὐδὲ πίστιν οὐδὲ μάντεων φήμας ἐλέγξας ἄκριτον ἐκβαλεῖς με γῆς; (1055-56)

The verb ἐλέγχω names the act of examining or testing, and is linked to the idea of putting to shame. To successfully refute a proposition or allegation is to shame it as unworthy of being true. To decide truth without testing is to be ἄ-κριτον --  to lack κρίνω, the root of our word "critical," the discerning separation of something into its proper parts in the act of judgment. Theseus is not thinking critically, according to Hippolytus, and has not exposed his supposition's shame.

Given the play's dramatization of profoundly wrong judgments made by Phaedra and Theseus, we as readers/audience might sense admonishment. We might tread more carefully before deciding too quickly "what to make of" the events leading up to the end.

Take the events reported by the Messenger that reinforce Theseus's sense that he is right, that his father, the sea god, is on his side, and that they both have administered true justice by breaking Hippolytus on the rocks by the sea.

We have looked at the account he gives of the wave that stood still. As the narrative continues, it has a number of interesting elements -- the descriptions of sound, the actions of the bull, the vivid detail of how Hippolytus was "woven" into the reins, causing him to be tangled inextricably in the crash. We'll return to these, but for the purposes of this argument, take the narrative as a whole. It's yet another witnessed event, and Theseus accepts it as the fulfillment of his father's promise, confirming everything he believes about his father, his son, and himself. We know things Theseus doesn't know, but with regard to the Messenger's tale we have only the same story that Theseus himself hears. So should we agree entirely with Theseus's "reading" of the event, or not?

First, it's clear from multiple statements from two goddesses and others in the play that Poseidon had indeed given Theseus three prayers or wishes, and all agree that Theseus exercised his option and got his wish -- the death of Hippolytus. What's less clear is why this action unfolded just the way it did -- the wave, the bull, the chariot, the reins, the rocks, the rumbling roar. Couldn't Poseidon have just sent drowned the boy with a wave? Why send a bull instead of, say, a zeuglodon (a form of squalodon), a plesiosaur, or just a prosaic giant squid such as might have threatened Andromeda and killed Laocoon?


If we step back from the performance of the wish to regard how the wish is performed, we find plenty of elements that seem unnecessary to execute the deed. What do we do with this surplus of story? We can ignore it by supposing that somehow all this would either provide ornamental delight or make sense to those involved, or we can ask whether by introducing these dreamlike ingredients into his performance of the wish fulfillment, the god might have had his reasons. Given that the play appears to dramatize difficulties in understanding, a bit of critical thinking about the Messenger's tale might be in order.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Poseidon's gift, Theseus's curse

Several characters in the Hippolytus, including two goddesses, refer to the gift of three wishes/prayers/curses [ἀρά] promised to Theseus by Poseidon. This list is relevant to the next post.

the young man who wars against me shall be killed by his father with the curses the sea-lord [45] Poseidon granted as a gift to Theseus: three times may Theseus pray to the god and have his prayer fulfilled.



But, father Poseidon, with one of the three curses you once promised me kill my son, and may he not live out [890] this day, if indeed you have granted me curses I may rely on.


Who killed him? Did someone have a quarrel with him [1165] whose wife he ravished as he did his father's?

His own chariot destroyed him, and the curses of your mouth which you uttered against your son to your father, lord of the sea.

stretching out his arms, palm upwards, in prayer
Merciful gods! So you were after all truly my father, Poseidon, [1170] since you have heard my prayer. How did he perish? Tell me, how did Zeus's cudgel strike him for dishonoring me?


All was confounded: the wheels' naves [1235] and the axle-pins were leaping into the air, and the poor man himself, entangled in the reins, bound in a bond not easy to untie, was dragged along, smashing his head against the rocks and rending his flesh and uttering things dreadful to hear: [1240] ‘Stay, horses my mangers have nourished, do not blot me out! O wretched curse of my father! Who wishes to stand by the best of men and save his life?’



[1265] Bring him so that I may look him in the face, the man who denies he violated my bed, and with my words and with the misfortunes sent by the gods give him the lie.



Do you know that you possess three reliable (or clear)

curses from your father? One of these you took, base man, to use against your son when you could have used it against an enemy. Your father, the sea-lord, kindly disposed as he was towards you, granted what he had to grant seeing that he had made this promise. [1320] 


O pain, o pain! Wretched man that I am, how mutilated I am by the unjust words of an unjust father! [1350] 


O wretched curse of my father! [1378]



Poseidon your father's gifts, what woe they brought! [1411]

Would they had never come into my mouth!


But you, child of old Aegeus, take your son in your arms and embrace him. For you were not responsible for killing him, and when the gods so send, it is understandable that men make fatal errors. [1435]

Saturday, December 14, 2013

ὡς εἰπεῖν ἔπος: The mousetrap of words

This exchange occurs at the beginning of Scene 6 of Hippolytus:
I bring you news that deserves your concern and that of the citizens who dwell in Athens and in the land of Trozen.
[1160] What is it? Has some fresh disaster seized the two neighboring cities?
Hippolytus is dead, as good as dead; though he still sees the light of day, yet it will not take much to incline the balance the other way.
Who killed him? Did someone have a quarrel with him [1165] whose wife he ravished as he did his father's?
His own chariot destroyed him, and the curses of your mouth which you uttered against your son to your father, lord of the sea.
stretching out his arms, palm upwards, in prayer
Merciful gods! So you were after all truly my father, Poseidon, [1170] since you have heard my prayer. How did he perish? Tell me, how did Zeus's cudgel strike him for dishonoring me?

Just a couple of notes. First, the messenger is not merely informing a father of the loss of his son. He frames it as news that will matter to Theseus and to the citizens of Athens and Troezen. The frame is large and public as well as intimate and personal. It concerns even Athens.

Theseus's first thought is that the news concerns some large natural disaster, or war, but no, it's that
Hippolytus is dead, as good as dead
Ἱππόλυτος οὐκέτ᾽ ἔστινὡς εἰπεῖν ἔπος:
More precisely, the messenger says: "Hippolytus no longer is -- as the saying says."

ὡς εἰπεῖν ἔπος repeats the word for "word" or "speech" - it was apparently a commonplace expression much like our "as the saying goes," or, "as they say." But here it's rather odd. The messenger begins by saying Hippolytus is no more, then qualifies it as if in some way his being no more is not so much a literal fact as a linguistic one. If we put ourselves in Theseus' place, we might wonder at a messenger who can't just say someone is alive or dead without tossing the actual state of affairs into suspense via a trivial figure of speech.

Or perhaps not so trivial. Theseus asks for details, and the messenger states that it was Theseus's words that have caused Hippolytus to be near death:
ἀραί τε τοῦ σοῦ στόματος - the prayers/curses of your mouth
At the very moment we are trying to decide if Hippolytus is alive or dead, the power of a father's language to destroy his son is made evident.

Theseus's response to this is also notable: it's gratitude to the gods, as well as confirmation of what seems to have been uncertainty surrounding his own parentage. The fact that his words killed his son confirms the truth of the story that Poseidon is Theseus's father. As speech acts go, this is pretty potent stuff.

And we as the audience can at least ask ourselves: given that Theseus is entirely wrong in believing that Hippolytus raped Phaedra, what shall we make of this apparently gratifying confirmation that (a) his son deserved the curse that destroyed him and (b) his claim to be the son of Poseidon has achieved legitimacy.

However we decide this, we at least have to give close attention to the tale of the messenger that follows, since Theseus is making inferences that his curse was fulfilled before even hearing the tale. Will the tale bear out his belief that Poseidon did what he was asked to do?

That will be the burden of a close look at the entirety of the messenger's tale. But there's one other point that we can note here. Theseus asks a question that launches the messenger's tale:
Tell me, how did Zeus's cudgel strike him for dishonoring me?
εἰπέτῷ τρόπῳ Δίκηςἔπαισεν αὐτὸν ῥόπτρον αἰσχύναντ᾽ ἐμέ;
A more literal rendering might be:

Tell me, in what way (by what turn, manner, twist) did Justice's
wooden trap [ῥόπτρον] strike him who tainted (dishonored, shamed, disfigured) me?

At the moment Theseus enjoys confirmation of his divine genesis and of Justice avenging him for his son's horrific acts, he happens to use the word ῥόπτρον

ῥόπτρον has as its primary meaning:
-- the wood in a trap which falls when touched and catches the mouse
What more perfect metaphor for the predicament, not of Hippolytus, but of Theseus, who is about to find out that everything he "knows" is wrong, despite appearances of divine confirmation.

ῥόπτρον has two further meanings:
 -- musical instrument of the Corybantestambourine or kettle-drum
-- knocker on a door
What translation can do "justice" to the poetry of this, these overtones? At the moment Theseus stands most empowered by the ineluctable force of his own curses, the word he chooses to describe the execution of Justice far more accurately depicts his own situation. He who earlier scoffed at seers and bird signs is about to have an unexpected visitor. Her words, with blinding force, will spring the trap he has helped make. A musician scoring the play could do much with a single drumbeat.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Eerie confusion in the chorus

Forgive this long, pedestrian entry.

The choral ode at the end of Hippolytus scene 5 has a lot of work to do. At the very least, it purports to bring us the civic response to the banishment of Hippolytus by his father, Theseus. The reaction can be construed as dual -- male companions singing strophes, female attendants of the dead queen singing the antistrophes.

But the ode, with lyric timelessness, also serves to mark a sense of time passing, and prepares us for the scene of high action that is about to come, the tale of the messenger. This dramatic anticipation seems in part the burden of the third and fourth strophes. If we try to chart the "logic" of the ode, it might go something like this:

If the first strophe raised the "thesis" of whether ordered powers exist in the world or whether all is randomness void of divine intention, the antistrophe then offers, as "antithesis," some practical sense of how to "survive" in the absence of meaning.

If we are now expecting synthesis, it does not appear to arrive. The third stanza, sung by Hippolytus's friends, reaches not some happy fusion of existential angst and "go along to get along," but something more on the order of darkness at noon:
οὐκέτι γὰρ καθαρὰν φρέν᾽ ἔχω 
no longer am I clear . . . 
καθαρὰνspotless, clear, untroubled, clean, free of debts, pure
φρέν᾽: seat of the passions; heart; mind.
The loss of clarity is linked to the banishment of the φανερώτατον ἀστέρ᾽ -- the most visible star -- of "Hellenic Athens." Given that the central ode had linked the story of Hippolytus with that of Phaethon and Helios (and the amber-weeping Heliades), then this "star" carries the force of the sun for the friends and attendants of Hippolytus, a palpable loss of clarity indeed.

 Within that darkness, bewilderment, loss of bearings, the chorus twice repeats εἴδομεν -- "I see":
εἴδομεν εἴδομεν ἐκ πατρὸς ὀργᾶς1125 
ἄλλαν ἐπ᾽ αἶαν ἱέμενον 
I see, I see out of his father's wrath
towards another land he hastens.
But, instead of a vision of that other land, the chorus turns back to address the old land from which Hippolytus is being expelled. The address -- an apostrophe -- breaks from narrating what the chorus "sees" to addressing what is lost -- the sands (not just beach, but sands of the city's shore) and mountain haunts in which the brightest star hunted, raced, exhibited his excellence and devotion to Artemis:
 ψάμαθοι πολιήτιδος ἀκτᾶς, δρυμὸς ὄρεοςὅθι κυνῶνὠκυπόδων μέτα θῆρας ἔναιρεν1130 
Δίκτυνναν ἀμφὶ σεμνάν. 
O sands of our city's shore, o mountain thickets where with his swift hounds he slew the wild beasts [1130] in company with holy Dictynna!

The name "Dictynna" evokes a tale from Crete that involves eros (Minos's) and flight that we can only point to en passant.

Here the mention of sands and shore anticipates the next scene with Hippolytus on the sandy shore. But the mountain thickets also echo the wild words of Phaedra in her first scene, when she enters, raving, disheveled,
Phaedra sung [215] Take me to the mountain: I mean to go to the wood, to the pine-wood, where hounds that kill wild beasts tread, running close after the dappled deer! By the gods, how I want to shout to the hounds [220] and to let fly past my golden hair a javelin of Thessaly, to hold in my hand the sharp-pointed weapon!
The chorus asks (141) whether she is possessed by the frenzy (ἔνθεος)  of Pan - ἔνθεος: god within - enthusiasm. To be en-theosed is not a state of mind one associates with sophrosyne.

In the next strophe, the chorus (presumably of women) addresses the absent Hippolytus, and echoes of Phaedra become more pronounced. As Hippolytus steps into his chariot to begin his fatal journey, the chorus evokes his horse-handling prowess:
No more shall you mount behind a pair of Enetic horses and take the Limnaean race-course with the feet of your trained steeds. [1135]
οὐκέτι συζυγίαν πώλων Ἐνετᾶν ἐπιβάσῃτὸν ἀμφὶ Λίμνας τρόχον κατέχων ποδὶ γυμνάδος ἵππου:
In Phaedra's first entrance, her mind has lost its self-mastery, and she raves of taming "Enetic horses":
Mistress of the Limnaean Salt Lake, Artemis, mistress of the coursing-ground for horses, [230] oh that I might find myself on your ground taming Enetic horses
δέσποιν᾽ ἁλίας Ἄρτεμι Λίμνας καὶ γυμνασίων τῶν ἱπποκρότων,230εἴθε γενοίμαν ἐν σοῖς δαπέδοις,πώλους Ἐνέτας δαμαλιζομένα.
The love-struck queen's erotic fantasy (of Artemis!) interweaves with the choral vision of the chaste pursuits of Hippolytus, producing a chiastic (ABBA) pattern:

Enter Phaedra : Horse taming :: Horsemanship of Hippolytus : Exit Hippolytus.

The loss of pure clarity of the choral singers brings a confusion of Phaedra and Hippolytus, or an interfusion of the two characters -- "alike" in both being victims of Aphrodite's anger. There is a sense of duality, of two who are in some sense, through a "twist" of fate, as one.

The epode brings the chorus from reflection to action -- to what it will do:

ἐγὼ δὲ σᾷ δυστυχίᾳ
δάκρυσι διοίσω πότμον
ἄποτμον τάλαινα μᾶ-
1145τερἔτεκες ἀνόναταφεῦ:
μανίω θεοῖσιν.
ἰὼ ἰώ:
συζύγιαι Χάριτεςτί τὸν τάλαν᾽ ἐκ πατρίας γᾶς
οὐδὲν ἄτας αἴτιον
1150πέμπετε τῶνδ᾽ ἀπ᾽ οἴκων;
But I for my part will spread abroad your unhappy fate with tears at your misfortune. O unhappy mother, [1145] it was to no purpose that you bore him. Oh, I am angry with the gods! Ye Graces that dance your round, why do you not accompany this man from this house? He has been ruined by his father's wrath [1150] but is guiltless of no mad deed.
No comforting sense of closure here, only a sense of injustice that extends from the king to the Graces (how ungraceful of them!) and the gods.

A few notes, briefly, as this is already too long:

1. "Enetic" horses relates to the Veneti, early settlers of the region around Venice, Italy. Legend had it they were remnants from Troy (like Aeneas). Later on, these tribes chose to side with the Romans, but in the 5th century they were a people known for their fast horses and amber.

2. Let's remember, Hippolytus is the great-great-grandson of Pelops (father of Pittheus), the horseman who claimed Hippodamia -- by bribing her brutal father Oenomaus's charioteer to replace a metal axle with one of wax, leading to the king's death.  Some say this occurred near where Hippolytus has his mutilating collision in his chariot. The lethal trickery of Pelops -- a favorite of Poseidon -- lies behind this tale of Thesesus and Hippolytus

3. The mad words of Phaedra curiously echo "Hippodamia," which means "horse-tamer":

ἱπποκρότων,230εἴθε γενοίμαν ἐν σοῖς δαπέδοις,πώλους Ἐνέτας δαμαλιζομένα.

The technical term for a linguistic phenomenon in which the beginning and ending of a word is split by other inserted words is tmesis, from the Greek word for "cut". Tmesis occurs several times in the play. Note the eerie effect: uncanny echoes of the past bleed through the words the confused chorus sings just before the play turns to the wondrous death of Hippolytus.