Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The spectacle of hamartia

"Hamartia cannot be sharply defined or have an exact meaning assigned to it." WP
The audience knows before he opens his mouth that the first words Theseus speaks to Hippolytus will redound with unforgiving irony upon his own judgment:
O foolish mankind, so often missing the mark (ἁμαρτάνοντες), why do you teach crafts (τέχνας) numberless and contrive and invent all things when there is one thing you do not understand and have not hunted after, [920] how to teach the senseless to be sensible! (φρονεῖν διδάσκειν οἷσιν οὐκ ἔνεστι νοῦς;)
A formidable expert (σοφιστὴν) this, who is able to force (ἀναγκάσαιinsensate fools to show sense. But since these fine-spun disputations of yours, father, are unseasonable, I fear that your misfortunes have caused your tongue to run amok (ὑπερβάλλῃ).
[925] Ah, but there ought to be for mortals some reliable test (τεκμήριον σαφές) for friends, some way to know their minds (διάγνωσιν φρενῶν), which of them is a true friend and which is not, and each man ought to have two voices (δισσάς τε φωνὰς), the one a voice of justice, the other whatever he chanced to have, [930] so that the voice that thinks unjust thoughts would be convicted of falsehood by the just voice. And in this way we should never be deceived.
But has one of my kin been slandering (διαβαλὼν) me in your ear and are my fortunes diseased though I have done nothing amiss? I am astonished. (ἐκπλήσσουσί) [935] Your words, cast adrift  from all sense, (λόγοι παραλλάσσοντες ἔξεδροι φρενῶν) astonish me.

Theseus has read Phaedra's letter and already pronounced judgment upon his son before Hippolytus joins him at the scene in his bedroom. But it takes a while for this to be made clear to Hippolytus. It's noteworthy how much this first exchange between father and son concerns itself with language, with the use and abuse of words, of λόγοι.

In this world, to speak Greek is both an intentional act and an athletic one. You throw words, and they either hit or miss their mark. The first thing Theseus says to Hippolytus is a general comment that the general run of mankind is always missing the mark: hamartia: 

O foolish mankind, so often missing the mark (ἁμαρτάνοντες)
Hippolytus responds that Theseus's words go wide of the mark, they are ὑπερβάλλῃ, thrown too far, hyperbolic. Theseus retorts with a generic wish that inventive mankind would discover a tool, basically a bullshit detector. Men would from that point on have two voices, one that is audibly just, a second that is whatever chance provides. Theseus is proposing that someone invent a means of making hamartia visible, or at least audible. Never in his life could he put such a device to better use than now, as he is about to turn every spontaneous expression of surprise, every protest of innocence, every sign of felt care offered by his son into the charade of a hypocrite, an actor, a charlatan.

Hippolytus offers the hypothesis that some friend of his has slandered him. His word is diaballein, a rich word, yet another ballistic variant. The speaker is intentionally throwing lies. It's not entirely surprising that the Greek word took a diabolical turn, becoming the root of "devil," the father of lies. It's only by some such misrepresentation that Theseus's words could be so far from home, says Hippolytus:
Your words, cast adrift  from all sense, λόγοι παραλλάσσοντες ἔξεδροι φρενῶν
Words that are παραλλάσσοντες deviate from one another. One image used in defining this word is to visualize two tunnels being dug toward each other, but missing, failing to hit the mark. To be parallel, in this case, is to never meet. Words that are doomed to never meet the mark are ἔξεδροιaway from home.

Hippolytus, who has yet to learn he has been sentenced to exile, finds his father's words to be strange, extravagant, far from home. When their encounter ends, he'll ask, "will you throw me out" (ἐκβαλεῖς): 
ἄκριτον ἐκβαλεῖς με γῆς;
Will you banish me without a trial?
The encounter between father and son takes the form of argument and counterargument, fueled with all the rhetorical arts of the very best lawyers. If we ask why Euripides chooses to frame this act of judgment as a trial, it helps to see how the play addresses both the private and public realms of oikos -- the familial home and the Royal House -- at once.

Implicit in this superposition of House and home is a syllogism: If a father can so misjudge his own son, despite every opportunity to interrogate the accused, what sort of bullshit detectors will help the state? If humans are subject to radical uncertainty in judging their nearest kin, with what level of confidence can we rely on the state to "get to the bottom of things" and administer justice? If the most momentous acts of judgment hang upon what is sense-less -- what cannot be sensed with the clarity of Theseus's reliable test, his τεκμήριον σαφές, or any concrete, empirical, sensory datum of proof, then we might want to revisit our understanding of how Euripides understood "tragedy." 

In the Hippolytus at least, the spectacle of hamartia is not about some character who happens to be "tragically flawed." The "of" turns out to be genitive: tragedy is not a representation of -- i.e. a story about -- this or that flaw or error. Rather the spectacle is error's own child --that imitation of an action we call life:


men's life is a shifting thing, ever unstable.
shifting, wandering forever.


ane pixestos said...

I have bookmarked this post to come back to for the ways in which it demonstrates the problems inherent in communication.
The etymology connected to διαβαλὼν is most useful, thank you. I was listening to an old recording of Harold Bloom last night in which (citing his book) he says that talk of values without addressing whether something is good or evil is a terrible problem. From this, we might take the idea that without directly addressing the idea that there are lies in communication, we cannot effectively address meta communication. This post shows so well what goes wrong when words serve not the purpose of the co- that is shared by all, but private and so blinded.
It also brought to mind Heraclitus - fragment one, about the truth being one but inexperienced men make trials of words and deeds. And fragment 49, that philosophers must be learned in many different things.

Tom Matrullo said...

"Private" and "blinded" are entirely relevant here. Thrown by Theseus at Hipp., they turn and attack him in turn.

Fragment 1 I think I see, but fragment 49?


ane pixestos said...

re., 49, that man's life is "a shifting thing" is what calls the philosopher to be learned in many different things (not to be caught by circumstance but to see the ultimate meaning that may be found behind that which looks unstable). And erratum: I wrote Harold when I meant Allan.