Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Where words work: Anne Carson on Greek

A friend in California shared this observation of Anne Carson's (author of Eros the Bittersweet and translator of Sappho):

"I don’t know every language in the world—maybe if I knew Sanskrit and Chinese I would think differently—but there’s something about Greek that seems to go deeper into words than any modern language. So that when you’re reading it, you’re down in the roots of where words work, whereas in English we’re at the top of the tree, in the branches, bouncing around. It was stunning to me, a revelation. And it continues to be stunning, continues to be like a harbor always welcoming. Strange, but welcoming."
It's an excerpt from an interview published in full here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Exchange and Gender in Women of Trachis: Wohl

Before we turn, as Sophocles' Women of Trachis turns, from Deianira to the dying Heracles, here's a discussion of Deianira that raises many of the themes of womanhood, male power, reciprocity and the impossibility of it that run through the play. It's from Victoria Wohl's Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy. See especially the commentary in Chapter Two.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Mirroring Centaurs and inverted medicines: Chiron and Nessus

Here's an odd example of unexpected symmetry in The Women of Trachis -- some might say it's a stretch, but bear in mind, the material of the myth was all one giant text to the Greeks.

Deianira is about to relate her discovery -- her dawning apprehension that Nessus gave her no love charm. She tells how she faithfully followed the dying Centaur's every instruction:
I let fall (παρῆκα) no part of the precepts which the savage Centaur gave me when he was hurting from the bitter barb in his side; they were in my memory, like the graven words which no hand may wash from a tablet of bronze.
ἐγὼ γὰρ ὧν θήρ με Κένταυρος, πονῶν
πλευρὰν πικρᾷ γλωχῖνι, προυδιδάξατο
παρῆκα θεσμῶν οὐδέν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐσῳζόμην
χαλκῆς ὅπως δύσνιπτον ἐκ δέλτου γραφήν.
She is thinking of Nessus as if he were a teacher, not a rapist. She adheres to his formula for making the charm as if it were a medicine she is learning to compound from a learned pharmacist. This of course should remind us of Chiron, the one Centaur who was learned in many arts, including medicine. (Chiron was a giver of the gift of knowledge not unlike Prometheus, only he did not suffer the wrath of Zeus for having stolen sacred fire.)

The irony is that Heracles killed both Nessus and Chiron with the same poisoned weapon -- though in the case of Chiron, it was an accident. At least one well-known tale goes this way:
Chiron had been poisoned with an arrow belonging to Heracles that had been treated with the blood of the Hydra . . . this had taken place during the visit of Heracles to the cave of Pholus on Mount Pelion in Thessaly when he visited his friend during his fourth labour in defeating the Erymanthian Boar. While they were at supper, Heracles asked for some wine to accompany his meal. Pholus, who ate his food raw, was taken aback. He had been given a vessel of sacred wine by Dionysus sometime earlier, to be kept in trust for the rest of the centaurs until the right time for its opening. At Heracles' prompting, Pholus was forced to produce the vessel of sacred wine. The hero, gasping for wine, grabbed it from him and forced it open. Thereupon the vapors of the sacred wine wafted out of the cave and intoxicated the wild centaurs, led by Nessus, who had gathered outside. They attacked the cave with stones and fir trees. Heracles was forced to shoot many arrows (poisoned with the blood of the Hydra) to drive them back. During this assault, Chiron was hit in the thigh by one of the poisoned arrows. (Wikipedia)
The tale continues with Chiron, who was immortal, suffering so greatly that he wished to die. Heracles then brokered an exchange by which the Centaur was permitted to die and Prometheus was freed from his savage punishment.

Heracles, then, killed both the noblest Centaur and the worst of them, and used knowledge gained from Chiron (about the poison) to do it. When Nessus tells Deianira that he can give her a potent charm, he is imitating Chiron's instruction of Heracles. And when he is struck by the Hydra-tainted arrow, he replicates the death of Chiron. Deianira, then, could have been misled by a kind of chiastic mirroring:

Chiron - teacher of Heracles - wounded by Heracles' poisoned arrow:
:Nessus - mortally wounded by Heracles - teacher of Deianira

The similarities are superficial. Upon closer consideration one might realize that if anyone could have used the Hydra's poison to good purpose, it would have been Chiron, but he couldn't. Chiron gave men medicine to preserve life and knowledge to make the best of it. Nessus, the doppelganger, gives a charm that horribly takes life. And the charm takes the form of a shirt, a copy, or replica, of the human form beneath.

Chiron certainly gave Centaurs an aura of primal learning - an air of authority and respectability which even someone as intelligent as Deianira might mistakenly attribute to all Centaurs.

The balanced structure of the myth would surely have fascinated the Greeks: Heracles was brought up and became who he was thanks to the illumination and humane tutelage of Chiron. And then he was brought down thanks to the prescription of a fraudulent beast who resembled him superficially. That doubleness, the real and the mere copy -- is itself underscored by the reality that Chiron and Nessus are "like" each other precisely in being dual creatures, double natures. And the difference between the dual natures lies precisely in the gift of benign culture -- of teaching, paideia.

We are not far from the Phaedrus's lesson in the differences between true knowing and mere writing. And writing is indeed present in Deianira's account of how she faithfully followed Nessus's precepts:
they were in my memory, like the graven words which no hand may wash from a tablet of bronze.
In a coming post we'll look at the charm itself in the Women of Trachis.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Deianira and the brutal charms of Aphrodite

Women of Trachis 458-59:

it is not learning the truth that would pain me.
But to know it, what is terrible in that?

Deianira is trying to wrest the truth from Lichas, after learning from a local source that Lichas, the official herald of Heracles, has not been entirely -- or even remotely -- straightforward about Iole.

The queen here sounds like Oedipus. She wants to "unconceal" what is hidden, in this case the fact that Iole is no mere sexual dalliance, but in reality another queen, another Deianira. It is with this oddness of the doppelgänger in mind that we can hear a richer sense of δεινόν here. It's tending toward the full complexity found in the Ode to Man sung in the Antigone:

Many things are uncanny, none stranger than man.
It was Heidegger who caught the sense of Das Unheimlich (the uncanny) in the Ode to Man -- a sense rife with tension between something wondrous and something strange, to the point of inducing a weird combination of exaltation and terror. The ode from the Antigone crosses into the territory of the sublime.

Deianira is not quite that far from the commonplace, but she's moving in that direction. If anyone ever married a strange, wondrous and terrible man, it was she, and now he's bringing to her another her. She does not know this yet. At this point, she thinks there can be no terror in knowing.

The Oedipal urge to know is, let's be clear, not peculiar to Oedipus, or to kings of Thebes, or to males of the species. In the Women of Trachis, where so much is a matter of waiting (ἀναμένω) and wanting to know, the suspense begins at the play's very beginning:
λόγος μέν ἐστ᾽ ἀρχαῖος ἀνθρώπων φανείςὡς οὐκ ἂν αἰῶν᾽ ἐκμάθοις βροτῶνπρὶν ἂν θάνῃ τιςοὔτ᾽ εἰ χρηστὸς οὔτ᾽ εἴ τῳ κακός:  
(lines 1-3)
There is a saying among men, put forth long ago, that you cannot judge a mortal's life and know whether it is good or bad until he dies.

The space of waiting for the truth to appear is where the Women of Trachis takes place. It is found at every turn, as, for instance, when Deianira tells the chorus that she has applied the "charm" given her by Nessus:

and yet, I cannot know until I am in close quarters [προσωμίλησά] with experience [πείρᾳ]   (590-91)
Deianira here uses πείρᾳ - "experiment, experience" in speaking of how, and when, she will know whether the charm works. πείρᾳ is the root not only of experience, but of "empirical." The queen is in fact articulating a scientific commonplace -- one does not know the truth of an experiment until the result is experienced.

The chorus concurs, using a verb form of the same root:
Chorus Knowledge must come through action. You will never
be sure unless you put it to the test (πειρωμένη).
Deianira says she cannot know until she is προσωμίλησά  -- "until I have come to close quarters with" is a reasonable translation. One might wish not to ignore, however, that προσωμίλησά has another meaning, or a further development of its first meaning, i.e., "to have intercourse with." The Greek sense of knowing through experience reaches a more intimate mode here, one that may or may not be susceptible to the rigorous hygiene of scientific clarity.

Oedipus only comes to "know" who he is when he has grappled so intimately with his origin as to discover he is married to her -- he is both husband and son, Jocasta is mother and wife, and the uncanniness of their coupling is a doubling whose impropriety neither can bear.

For Deianira, the suspense is not who she is, but whose. Her opening speech recounts the terrible memory of how she waited in suspense to learn who'd bear her away -- Achelous the frightening river god, or Heracles. Further on, not long after she says it can't be terrible to know, the choral ode that begins on line 499 evokes that agon even more vividly. It begins:
μέγα τι σθένος  Κύπρις ἐκφέρεται νίκας ἀεί 
Great is the power of the victory Cypris bears away.
It continues:
οἳ τότ᾽ ἀολλεῖς ἴσαν ἐς μέσον ἱέμενοι λεχέων
 δ᾽ εὔλεκτρος ἐν μέσῳ Κύπρις ῥαβδονόμει ξυνοῦσα.
These two then met in a mass, lusting to win a bride, and the Cyprian goddess of nuptial joy joined in as umpire in the middle. (513-15)
Aphrodite here is doubly potent -- not only has she triangulated these hearts -- the god's and the demi-god's -- to Deianira, she's also the umpire. As both motivator of the contest and official who decides its outcome, she has already considerably complicated the "experiment." What appears to be a test or contest of "well-matched rivals" to see who wins the girl could remind us of Aphrodite's appearance at the opening of the Hippolytus, making it clear that she wrote the script and knows its outcome before it begins.

So as Deianira sits far off, her far-beaming eyes viewing the struggle they have caused to occur, she might not quite appreciate how unclear it is whether she's witnessing a fair fight in close quarters, or, quite possibly, one that has been fixed from the start, that is, scripted, like a potion, or charm, worked up in order to bring about a certain preconcerted conclusion. She is doubly suspended -- neither sure of the outcome, nor whether there is any doubt about it to begin with. If it's a fair fight, the empirical method will bear true knowledge. However -- and this is relevant to the action of Nessus' charm -- if the game is rigged beforehand, the outcome will prove nothing. In that case, there is no empirical truth to learn, no knowledge born of experience. The witness might as well be blind.

The choral ode stages the fight as a knock-down, drag-out affair:

τότ᾽ ἦν χερόςἦν δὲ τόξων πάταγος
ταυρείων τ᾽ ἀνάμιγδα κεράτων
520ἦν δ᾽ ἀμφίπλεκτοι κλίμακες
ἦν δὲ μετώπων ὀλόεντα 
πλήγματακαὶ στόνος ἀμφοῖν

 δ᾽ εὐῶπις ἁβρὰ 
τηλαυγεῖ παρ᾽ ὄχθῳ 
525ἧστοτὸν ὃν προσμένουσ᾽ ἀκοίταν

ἀγὼν δὲ μαργᾷ μὲν οἷα φράζω

There was clatter of fists and clang of bow and crash of a bull's horns mixed together; [520] then there were close-locked grapplings and deadly blows from foreheads and loud deep cries from both. 

The delicate beauty with far-beaming eyes sat on the side of a hill, awaiting the husband that would be hers.

So the mad battle rages, as I narrate.

Note the superb glide from the brutal grapplings of head-butts and fists and wrestling holds, and all the clatter and clash of it, to the beautiful eyes, τηλαυγεῖ: "far beaming" of the girl sitting far off on the hill, waiting.

The ode finishes on a note that might be less surprising if we consider that the girl awaiting her fate is in no way able to control it, despite her being both its origin and goal:

τὸ δ᾽ ἀμφινείκητον ὄμμα νύμφας ἐλεινὸν ἀμμένεικἀπὸ ματρὸς ἄφαρ βέβακεν530ὥστε πόρτις ἐρήμα.
But the face of the bride which is the prize of the strife awaits the end in piteous anguish. 
Straightaway she walks from her mother like a solitary calf.
How strange that the play of beauty and brute force ends like this. No festive description of awarding the "prize" to Heracles (the victory belongs to Cypris), no joy lighting up Deianira's face as the bestial fight reaches its decision. The titanic bout for the most beautiful woman on Earth ends with the prize isolated, walking, not towards her man, but away from the only love she has known. Moving not with the pride of one betrothed, but like a calf. Sophocles never does the expected -- if we can be open to his strangeness, he'll teach us something about reading.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Rending through rendering: Deianira's caustic tongue

Ovid's letter from Deianira to Hercules (Heroides #9) recounts the standard list of the hero's mighty deeds:
. . . of enormous serpents, throttled and coiling their lengths about your infant hand; how the Tegeaean boar has his lair on cypress-bearing Erymanthus, and afflicts the ground with his vast weight. You do not omit the skulls nailed up in Thracian homes, nor the mares made fat with the flesh of slain men; nor the triple prodigy, Geryones, rich in Iberian cattle, who was one in three; nor Cerberus, branching from one trunk into a three-fold dog, his hair inwoven with the threatening snake; nor the fertile serpent that sprang forth again from the fruitful wound, grown rich from her own hurt; nor him whose mass hung heavy between your left side and left arm as your hand clutched his throat; nor the equestrian array that put ill trust in their feet and dual form, confounded by you on the ridges of Thessaly. (Showalter translation, 85ff).
Only here, the hero, dressed as a slave girl at the feet of Omphale, is the one speaking them . . .

Deianira goes further than the painter to imagine the Lydian nymph in an exchange of Hercules' famed attire:
These deeds can you recount, gaily arrayed in a Sidonian gown? Does not your dress rob from your tongue all utterance? The nymph-daughter of Jardanus has even tricked herself out in your arms, and won famous triumphs from the vanquished hero. Go now, puff up your spirit and recount your brave deeds done; . . .  O shame, that the rough skin stripped from the flanks of the shaggy lion has covered a woman’s delicate side! You are mistaken, and know it not – that spoil is not from the lion, but from you; you are victor over the beast, but she over you. A woman has borne the darts blackened with the venom of Lerna, a woman scarce strong enough to carry the spindle heavy with wool; a woman has taken in her hand the club that overcame wild beasts, and in the mirror gazed upon the armor of her lord!
The queen's scathing image combines moral force with witheringly vivid reflection. The imagined mirror in which Omphale admires herself is designed to burn Heracles' conscience to the ground.

Before he dons the shirt of Nessus, Heracles is already sizzling. Prior to putting on the blood-smeared texta, Ovid finds the poetic equivalent of the Lernaean Hydra's blood in the caustic sarcasm of Deianira's text:

Friday, November 07, 2014

Deianira to Heracles - Ovid's Heroides

Next time, we'll pause our reading of Sophocles' Women of Trachis to have a look at Deianira's letter to Heracles from Ovid's Heroides. A few sources:

Grant Showerman's translation (used in the Loeb edition).

The Perseus site: English and hyperlinked Latin, as well as notes.

The Latin Library has the Latin text on one page.

Tony Kline's translation, which early on sounds the queen's dismay:

Gratulor Oechaliam titulis accedere nostris,
victorem victae succubuisse queror. 
fama Pelasgiadas subito pervenit in urbes
decolor et factis infitianda tuis,
quem numquam Iuno seriesque inmensa laborum
fregerit, huic Iolen inposuisse iugum.
I give thanks that Oechalia is added to our titles,
I lament that the victor succumbs to his victory.  
A sudden rumour spreads through the Pelasgian cities
tarnishing, and denying, your deeds:
you, whom neither Juno nor her succession of mighty labours
could crush: Iole has placed the yoke on you.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Geometries of desire: Anne Carson, Women of Trachis

A slender volume by a close reader. Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet culls superb lines from the entire corpus of Greek literature on the subject of Eros, and ponders them with the mind of a poet and the knowledge of a teacher of ancient Greek. She speaks of the divided soul, of love as lack, and is particularly suggestive when it comes to staged erotic triangles.

In Sophocles' Women of Trachis, triangles proliferate:

                           Achelous                           Heracles                          Hyllus

                                                  Deianira                             Iole


Monday, October 27, 2014

Night and Sun in the first ode: Women of Trachis

He to whom flickering Night, despoiled of shining armor 
gives birth and lays down to sleep ablaze, 
Sun, Sun, I ask 
that you proclaim this,
where is Alcmena's son, 
where dwells her child? O radiant fiery flash, 
is he in the hollow seas, or does he wander the twin continents? 
Speak, O strongest eye!


The chorus of Women of Trachis begins its first ode at a very high pitch. The compressed scene of the first two lines: Night, stripped of her starry armor like a slain Homeric hero, gives birth to the sun, whose plundering blaze is extinguished within her deep folds. It's the agon of light on Earth. To hear that Night is stripped like the corpse of a Homeric warrior should cause wonder. Who, what, is this mother who births the warrior that despoils her arms, and tucks him in?  

Mothers so despoiled by their children might not be content. Is Night angry with the plunderer? She tucks him in every evening - a mild ministry of love? Or a reassertion of her ineluctable primacy, her beforeness, that no entity, however hot and bright, can displace. Certainly Heracles, whose whereabouts the sun is begged to publicly proclaim after the manner of a herald, has encountered his share of potent angry goddesses. The anger started before he was born, and ended only with his conflagration. Hera's fury.

Enfolding mother and solar son, each taking the other down just when that other appears invincible. The virginal maidens of Trachis might be singing the ode, but its burden is Sophoclean. In this cosmic context, nothing, not even motherhood, is sacred. In the unceasing sacrifice, a making sacred might not be unimaginable -- but it's probably not going to be demonstrable. Yet even Zeus fears to anger Night.