Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hamartia and reversal in the Hippolytus

The stagecraft of Euripides is charged with tremendous compression. From the first moment Phaedra appears to the audience, she mirrors the dying Hippolytus who will be carried on at the end of the play:
Raise up my body, hold my head erect! My limbs are unstrung. [200] Take my fair arms, servants!

αἴρετέ μου δέμας, ὀρθοῦτε κάρα:
λέλυμαι μελέων σύνδεσμα φίλων.
λάβετ᾽ εὐπήχεις χεῖρας, πρόπολοι. 200
Oh! Oh! I beg you by the gods, servants, handle my wounded flesh gently! [1360] Who is standing on my right at my side? Lift me carefully, draw me with muscles ever tensed, me the wretch, cursed by his father's misdeed.
φεῦ φεῦ: πρὸς θεῶν, ἀτρέμα, δμῶες,
χροὸς ἑλκώδους ἅπτεσθε χεροῖν. 1360
τίς ἐφέστηκεν δεξιὰ πλευροῖς;
πρόσφορά μ᾽ αἴρετε, σύντονα δ᾽ ἕλκετε
τὸν κακοδαίμονα καὶ κατάρατον
πατρὸς ἀμπλακίαις.
In response to Phaedra's condition, the nurse suggests that we are all unhappy lovers of the light we have, without experience of a life we yet seem to intimate:
Anything we might love more than life is hid in a surrounding cloud of darkness, and we are clearly unhappy lovers of whatever light there is that shines on earth [195] because we are ignorant of another life, since the life below is not revealed to us. We are borne along foolishly by mere tales (μύθοις).
ἀλλ᾽ ὅ τι τοῦ ζῆν φίλτερον ἄλλο
σκότος ἀμπίσχων κρύπτει νεφέλαις.
δυσέρωτες (sick in love with) δὴ φαινόμεθ᾽ ὄντες
τοῦδ᾽ ὅ τι τοῦτο στίλβει (glitter, gleam) κατὰ γῆν
195 δι᾽ ἀπειροσύνην (inexperience) ἄλλου βιότου
κοὐκ ἀπόδειξιν τῶν ὑπὸ γαίας,
μύθοις δ᾽ ἄλλως φερόμεσθα.
We cannot know, though we conceive, something greater than life to love. We are adrift in stories. The nurse then turns into a midwife/analyst, interrogating Phaedra's story, probing and prodding until she, the analyst, speaks the name "Hippolytus." That "touches" the queen. The nurse's clinical attitude is clear -- better to loosen up, confess your love, even act upon it, than to die from repressing desire. She takes her direction from this view.

Euripides prepares us for the physical and emotional rawness of this revelation scene in the epode of the first choral ode (the parodos), with the strong emphasis the chorus places on the twisted (δυστρόπῳ ) "harmony" of women in the "unhappy helplessness of birth-pangs":
Women's nature is an uneasy harmony, and with it is wont to dwell the slack unhappy helplessness of birth-pangs and their folly (ἀφροσύνας). [165] Through my womb also has this breath darted.
φιλεῖ δὲ τᾷ δυστρόπῳ γυναικῶν
ἁρμονίᾳ κακὰ δύστανος ἀμηχανία συνοικεῖν
ὠδίνων τε καὶ ἀφροσύνας. 165
δι᾽ ἐμᾶς ᾖξέν ποτε νηδύος ἅδ᾽αὔρα:
The scene between the queen and her nurse, the delivery of the utterance of Phaedra's hidden love is played both as scene of analysis and an act of parturition. Before bringing her secret into the world, Phaedra raves like a woman rendered helpless -- ἀμηχανία -- by the throes of childbirth. Her hysteria centering on Artemis is that of a woman on the edge of madness:
[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!
Her fixation on the goddess is overdetermined. Artemis is of course the special devotion of Hippolytus, bound up with Phaedra's uncontrollable passion for her stepson. But the virgin goddess also alleviates the pangs of childbirth, as the continuation of the choral epode remembers:
But I called on the heavenly easer of travail, Artemis, mistress of arrows, and she is always—the gods be praised—my much-envied visitor. 165 ff
τὰν δ᾽ εὔλοχον οὐρανίαν
τόξων μεδέουσαν ἀύτευν
Ἄρτεμιν, καί μοι πολυζήλωτος αἰεὶ
σὺν θεοῖσι φοιτᾷ.
For the Greek women of the chorus, the course of love begins in Aphrodite's caresses and ends in the easing interventions of Artemis -- the two goddesses turn out to be as inexorably necessary to a child-bearing woman as they are mutually, radically antithetical.

For Phaedra this symmetry has gotten twisted, tied in a knot. She loves a man who adores the antithesis of love. The chaste goddess who could relieve her pain is linked to her erotic desire. Already wounded by Eros, the queen dreams of being a huntress. She turns to the Mistress of Arrows:
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!
When the nurse joins the name "Hippolytus" to the birthright of her children, Phaedra's birth pangs become insupportable:
But know well—and in the face of this be more stubborn [305] than the sea if you like—know that if you die you have betrayed your sons, who shall have no share in their father's house, none:
I tell you in the name of that horse-riding queen of the Amazons who bore a master to rule over your sons, a bastard with thoughts of legitimacy, you know him well, [310] Hippolytus. . .
 ἀλλ᾽ ἴσθι μέντοι — πρὸς τάδ᾽ αὐθαδεστέρα
305 γίγνου θαλάσσης — εἰ θανῇ, προδοῦσα σοὺς
παῖδας, πατρῴων μὴ μεθέξοντας δόμων,
μὰ τὴν ἄνασσαν ἱππίαν Ἀμαζόνα,
ἣ σοῖς τέκνοισι δεσπότην ἐγείνατο
νόθον φρονοῦντα γνήσι᾽, οἶσθά νιν καλῶς,
310 Ἱππόλυτον . . .
Hearing the spoken name, Phaedra emits an involuntary gasp:
With the preternatural sensitivity of one used to the labored signs of repression (the poet H.D. called Freud "midwife to the soul"),  the Nurse pounces:
θιγγάνει σέθεν τόδε; - does this touch you?

What has been growing in her must come out. As it does, her dream of holding the pointed weapon - ἐπίλογχον βέλος - turns around. Like Aktaeon, she's no longer doing the hunting, and the barbed arrows will give her no rest.

After this turn, the only pointed weapon Phaedra's hand will hold is a stylus. It will unerringly find its mark in Hippolytus, who will be carried onstage, helpless, like a woman in labor; broken, like a hunted animal brought to ground.

The closely wrought text of the Hippolytus accomplishes an unthinkable reversal: compressing opposed extremes into one tragic act, a queen nobly denying Aphrodite brings down the devotee of Artemis with an arrow forged by Eros. Does the arrow miss the mark (hamartia), or hit it?

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