Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Storied light in the Hippolytus

Artemis addresses her first words to Theseus, whom she calls the "well-fathered [εὐπατρίδην] son of Aegeus":
Nobly-born son of Aegeus! Listen, I order you! [1285] It is I, Artemis, Leto's daughter, who address you. Why, unhappy man, do you take joy in these things? You have godlessly killed your son, persuaded of things unseen by the false words of your wife. But all too clearly seen is the ruin you have won for yourself! [1290] Why do you not hide yourself beneath the earth's depths in shame or change your life for that of a bird above and take yourself out of this pain? For among good men [1295] you possess no share in life.
It is not that Artemis rejects Theseus's claim to be the son of Poseidon, but here she chooses to underscore, with a kind of built-in irony, his human lineage. She is stating nothing out of the ordinary, but in calling him the child of Aegeus, she is reminding Theseus of his human origin at the very moment his all-too-humanness is coming to light.

Artemis potnia theron
The goddess's language is compressed, but not opaque: Theseus's error is to have been persuaded (πεισθεὶς), by his wife's lying tale, of something unseen, obliterated -- ἀφανῆ -- which in turn makes visible -- φανερὰν -- his ἄτην.
"By lying stories of your wife you were persuaded of the unseen; seen is your blinding."
The well-fathered Theseus here intersects with the common man, who is, according to the Nurse, always semi-blinded, and always borne along by stories.

Recall the Nurse's words coming at the end of her first speech in the play, at the opening of Scene 2:
μύθοις δ᾽ ἄλλως φερόμεσθα.  (197)
We are borne along foolishly by mere tales (μύθοις)
The lying stories of Phaedra are ψευδέσι μύθοις. A longer piece of the passage is worth citing:
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 in vain by mere tales.
The Nurse's words lack lucidity -- and any paraphrase should be true to that -- here's one effort:
Any other thing more dear to us is held back, hidden in cloudy gloom. Yet our inexperience of that other life we do not see makes us unhappy lovers of the light we have. Neither knowing nor not knowing, we are borne by stories.
The Nurse's speech repeatedly interweaves forms of the word ἄλλος -- "other." Some opacity (making us unable to see other than what we see) makes us unhappy lovers of light.  We know there is something we do not see, because seeing some thing -- anything -- is also not-seeing some other. To see is to be blinded to an otherness the seen thing's opacity prevents us from seeing. If the damned light would only get out of the way, we'd see . . .

If the Nurse has grasped the plight of human seeing, then we are all caught in this common predicament, even well-born kings. Artemis echoes that in her condensed summation of Theseus's error. We might keep this in mind as we look at the "death" of Hippolytus, and at what death means in a world borne by stories. If it is the cessation of mortal functions, that's one thing. If it is the obliteration of a name in story, that's another.

{Update} The term used by Artemis to address Theseus, εὐπατρίδην, has a storied past of its own that goes to the origin of Athenian classes:

Eupatridae (literally "good fathered", i.e. "offspring of noble fathers" or "the well-born") refers to the ancient nobility of the Greek region of Attica.
Tradition ascribes to Theseus, whom it also regards as the author of the union (synoecism) of Attica round Athens as a political centre, the division of the Attic population into three classes, EupatridaeGeomori and Demiurgi
Theseus is thus implicated in the very structure of Athenian society, in particular with the aristocracy. Clearly this has interesting implications for the political dimension of the Hippolytus.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Enter Artemis

Bridging the last scene and the Epilogue is this final paean to Aphrodite -- it repeats the theme of the power of Cypris and her son from earlier odes, but is relatively brief:

σὺ τὰν θεῶν ἄκαμπτον φρένα καὶ βροτῶν
ἄγειςΚύπρισὺν δ᾽
1270 ποικιλόπτερος ἀμφιβαλὼν
ὠκυτάτῳ πτερῷ.
ποτᾶται δὲ γαῖαν εὐάχητόν θ᾽
ἁλμυρὸν ἐπὶ πόντον,
θέλγει δ᾽ Ἔρως  μαινομένᾳ κραδίᾳ
1275πτανὸς ἐφορμάσῃ χρυσοφαής,
φύσιν ὀρεσκόων σκύμνων πελαγίων θ᾽
ὅσα τε γᾶ τρέφει
τά τ᾽ αἰθόμενος ἅλιος δέρκεται,
1280ἄνδρας τεσυμπάντων βασιληίδα τι-
μάνΚύπριτῶνδε μόνα κρατύνεις.

You carry along the unyielding hearts of the immortals, Aphrodite, and the hearts of men, and with you is he of the many-colored wings, surrounding them with his swift pinions. Eros flies over the earth and over the loud-roaring salt sea and bewitches the one on whose frenzied mind he darts, winged and gold-gleaming, he bewitches the whelps of the mountain and those of the sea, what the earth brings forth and what the blazing sun looks down upon, [1280] and likewise mortal men. Over all these, Aphrodite, you alone hold your honored sway.




Before even discussing what she says, note that Artemis appears precisely as the chorus sings the  final words of its ode to Aphrodite. The seeming totality of 

Alone you rule

is challenged and offset by the entrance of a goddess who seems to embody everything Aphrodite is not. 

The dialectical movement of the action subverts the totalizing worldview of the characters and the chorus, even as the entrance of Artemis structurally balances that of Aphrodite. The opening of the Epilogue reflects the opening of the Prologue, producing a theatrical symmetry that could reflect a world alive with dynamic tension between opposing powers. Whether the vision of the play can be reduced to this duality remains to be explored.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Common sense from the common man

Just prior to the Epilogue, the messenger has just finished his tale of Hippolytus's crash. He then appends his own opinion that the boy was never guilty of what he stood accused of:
I am, I know, a slave of your house, my lord, [1250] but I shall never have the strength to believe that your son was guilty, not even if the whole female sex should hang themselves and fill with writing all the pine-wood that grows upon Mount Ida. For I know that he was good.
Structurally this advice to a lord from a servant echoes the advice in scene 1, when Hippolytus is advised in a curiously Socratic manner to give Aphrodite her due.

Lord [ἄναξ]—for it is as gods that one should address one's masters—would you take a piece of good advice from me?
[90] Most certainly. Else I should not seem wise [σοφοὶ].
The rule observed by mortals—do you know it?
No. What is the law you question me about?
To hate what's haughty [σεμνὸν] and not friend to all.
And rightly. Who that's haughty gives no pain?
[95] And is there charm in affability? [εὐπροσήγορος]
Yes, much, and profit too with little toil.
Do you think the same is true among the gods?
Yes, if we humans follow heavenly usage.

How then no word for a high and mighty [σεμνὴνgoddess?
[100] Which? Careful lest your tongue commit some slip. [σφαλῇ] 
pointing to the statue of Aphrodite
The goddess here, who stands beside your gate.
I greet her from afar, for I am pure [ἁγνὸς].
Yet she's revered [σεμνήand famous among mortals.
I do not like a god worshipped at night.
[107] My son, to honor the gods is only just.
Men have their likes, in gods and men alike.
I wish you fortune—and the good sense [νοῦν] you need!
Hippolytus then gives some commands to his servants and blithely bids Aphrodite goodbye:
As for your Aphrodite, I bid her a very good day!
The servant then turns to the statue and -- this might have occasioned some levity in the audience -- offers the goddess another dollop of his free advice:

χρὴ δὲ συγγνώμην ἔχειν:
εἴ τίς σ᾽ ὑφ᾽ ἥβης σπλάγχνον ἔντονον φέρων
μάταια βάζειμὴ δόκει τούτων κλύειν.
120σοφωτέρους γὰρ χρὴ βροτῶν εἶναι θεούς.
You should be forgiving: if youth makes someone's heart stiff with pride and he utters folly, pretend not to hear him. [120] For gods should be wiser than mortals.
Marvelously, forbearance tiptoes in. The word the servant uses is συγγνώμην -- leniency, allowance, fellow-feelingful judgment, shared mind.  It's the very word Artemis will use when she speaks that crucial line to the crushed Theseus in the Epilogue:

δείν᾽ ἔπραξαςἀλλ᾽ ὅμως
ἔτ᾽ ἔστι καί σοι τῶνδε συγγνώμης τυχεῖν(1326-27)
You have done dreadful deeds, but for all that it is still possible for you to win pardon for these things. 
The Servant and the Messenger speak up, just as the Nurse did -- Euripides clearly wasn't a hard and fast believer in an aristocracy of common sense.

I have another point jumping off from here, but this post is long enough. Another will follow.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Signs of misreading: Theseus, Crete, and hamartia


Twice in Euripides' Hippolytus, Theseus confronts the death of a family member. Both instances involve misreading.

First, barely arrived in Troezen from Delphi, Theseus finds Phaedra has hung herself. In this encounter with inexplicable loss, Theseus feels helpless -- his beloved wife has escaped him through that "headlong leap to Hades." His impotence is equaled only by his ignorance of its cause. His heroic capabilities are useless. Bereft of both actionable recourse and understanding, he speaks of a dim place beneath the earth:
τὸ κατὰ γᾶς θέλωτὸ κατὰ γᾶς κνέφας
μετοικεῖν σκότῳ θανών, 
To the gloom under earth, under earth,
I would change my dwelling and die in darkness
Theseus's life seems riddled with doubleness, from his dual paternity to the two daughters of Minos to his odd mirroring of Heracles. As he speaks these words, the evocation of entering a dark space under the earth might recall the labyrinth and its monster. Thanks to Ariadne, who secretly gave him a knife and thread, he once penetrated Daedalus' maze, alone, killing the Minotaur in his lair.

Phaedra's dead hand holds a key threading the labyrinth of her suicide. If Ariadne enabled Theseus to kill her mother's monstrous bastard child, Phaedra makes Theseus's own bastard son into a monster. How could he doubt Phaedra?

Phaedra's letter is doubly enabling: it sheds light on the cause of her death, and it gives Theseus a task that is quite within his reach -- that he avenge Hippolytus's scandalous act. After reading her letter, his first act is to turn to the sea, addressing the city and his divine progenitor. His prayer to Poseidon loads and activates the lethal weapon of his curse:

τόδε μὲν οὐκέτι στόματος ἐν πύλαις 
καθέξω δυσεκπέρατον ὀλοὸν 
κακόνἰὼ πόλις.885 
Ἱππόλυτος εὐνῆς τῆς ἐμῆς ἔτλη θιγεῖνβίᾳ,  
τὸ σεμνὸν Ζηνὸς ὄμμ᾽ ἀτιμάσας
ἀλλ᾽ πάτερ Πόσειδονἃς ἐμοί ποτε 
ἀρὰς ὑπέσχου τρεῖςμιᾷ κατέργασαι 
τούτων ἐμὸν παῖδ᾽ἡμέραν δὲ μὴ φύγοι890
τήνδ᾽εἴπερ ἡμῖν ὤπασας σαφεῖς ἀράς
ἄναξἀπεύχου ταῦτα πρὸς θεῶν πάλιν,
γνώσῃ γὰρ αὖθις ἀμπλακώνἐμοὶ πιθοῦ
οὐκ ἔστικαὶ πρός γ᾽ ἐξελῶ σφε τῆσδε γῆς,
δυοῖν δὲ μοίραιν θατέρᾳ πεπλήξεται
895 γὰρ Ποσειδῶν αὐτὸν εἰς Ἅιδου δόμου 
ςθανόντα πέμψει τὰς ἐμὰς ἀρὰς σέβων,
 τῆσδε χώρας ἐκπεσὼν ἀλώμενος 
ξένην ἐπ᾽ αἶαν λυπρὸν ἀντλήσει βίον
No more shall I hold this ruinous bane, hard to send forth though it is, within the gates of my mouth!
Ho! City of Athens! Hear me!
(Bystanders enter quickly by Eisodos B and gather around.) 
[885] Hippolytus has dared to put his hand by force to my marriage-bed, dishonoring the holy eye of Zeus.
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. 
Chorus Leader 
My lord, I beg you by the gods, take back your prayer! For you will learn in time that you have made a mistake. Be ruled by me! 
It cannot be. And what is more, I shall banish him from this land, and of two fates one shall strike him: [895] either Poseidon, honoring my curses, will send him dead to the house of Hades or being banished from here he will wander over foreign soil and drain to the dregs a life of misery.
Enter Hippolytus by Eisodos B.

The hero had declared himself dead upon finding Phaedra gone, but suddenly he's filled with new life and purpose. Taking charge, he commands the city, calling upon his divine father to honor his promise. He's the hero of old, gearing up to penetrate another labyrinth. He doesn't pray that Poseidon kill Hippolytus if the boy did the terrible deed; he asks that his son not live another day if the promises of the father were σαφεῖς -- that is, clear, reliable.

It is worth asking whether the very qualities that made the young, heroic Theseus great -- courage, physical strength, alacrity, a high sense of justice -- are coming into play here in ways that send him profoundly into error. Is he trapped in his former self? That self being the fiery young man who dared teach the lordly Minos the virtue of sophrosyne: "ἐρύκεν ὕβριν," he says -- restrain yourself:
war-lord of Knossos, I bid you to restrain your grievous violence; for I would not want to see the lovely immortal light of Dawn if you were to subdue one of these young people against her will. Before that we will show the force of our arms, and what comes after that a god will decide.” So spoke the hero, excellent with the spear; and the sailors were astonished at the man's extraordinary [50] boldness ὑπεράφανον θάρσος(Bacchylides)
If there is irony in the fact that masher Minos is eventually betrayed to Theseus by his virgin daughter Ariadne, there is further irony in Theseus's being led astray by Phaedra. There are two lessons from Crete: (1) Cretans always lie, and (2) no straight path leads to the center.

Phaedra's letter, a written sign, composes a labyrinth and an infamy, yet it offers the illusion of clarity, transparency and literal truth. Theseus' error is to believe there is no error, no deviation, from the straight talk of her simple accusation of Hippolytus. He mistakes a silent deviant image for a window upon living reality.

As such, it is an error of reading.


Cut to the second death in the family -- the messenger's story of Hippolytus' end.

This was a calm day. Surrounded by friends, a young man skilled in horsemanship is moving slowly along a shore -- no warrior enemies, no perilous escarpments, no bad weather.

The messenger's tale is a compact set piece that's rich in sound, vivid imagery, and metaphor. Take the sound -- it begins beneath the earth:
There a great noise in the earth, like Zeus's thunder, roared heavily—it made one shudder to hear it. The horses pricked up their heads and ears to heaven
The sound then moves to the crashing surf, then to the bellowing of the bull that the wave puts forth:
With its bellowing the whole land was filled and gave back unearthly echoes, and as we looked on it the sight was too great for our eyes to bear.
The language literally re-echoes, using the words φθέγματος and ἀντεφθέγγετ᾽ (voice, sound, echo):
οὗ πᾶσα μὲν χθὼν φθέγματος πληρουμένη  
φρικῶδες ἀντεφθέγγετεἰσορῶσι δὲκρεῖσσον θέαμα δεργμάτων ἐφαίνετο.
Just as the wave fixed in the sky blots out the skyline, so the bellowing bull overpowers sight.

The bull then becomes eerily silent:
it drew near and silently accompanied the chariot until it upset and overthrew the chariot,
The last sound we hear is the voice of Hippolytus addressing his horses, his father's curse, and his friends:
 ‘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?’
The Perseus translator catches the sense of erasure in "do not blot me out!" The Greek word is ἐξαλείφωwhich has the sense of plaster over, erase, as when a name is stricken off a roll.

The scene begins with a voice beneath the earth and ends with the cries of a dying man, and of course the entire description comes to us in the voice of the messenger.

Theseus takes the narrative as the fulfillment of his will and as divine legitimation of his judgment. But is it? Yes, Hippolytus is injured and will die. But the narrative contains elements that seem inconsistent with a reading that sees it as a transparent execution of his father's wish.

Does Theseus wonder at the underground roar, or that the horizon is blocked by a portentous fixed wave? (He might remember upon finding his dead wife, how he described himself:
I look upon a main of troubles so great I cannot swim out of them or cross the flood of this sorrow. (825))
Or does he make anything of the bull coming from the sea which clearly frustrates his own decree of banishment by preventing the boy from leaving the city? If the bull comes from the sea, the boy becomes a sailor trying to keep his ship from wreck:
My master, who had lived long with the ways of horses, [1220] seized the reins in his hands and pulled them, letting his body hang backwards from the straps, like a sailor pulling an oar. But they took the fire-wrought bit in their teeth and carried him against his will, paying no heed to their captain's hand...
Static motion, earth and sea exchanging properties, voice overwhelming vision: these strange, dreamlike elements of the messenger's tale fail to attract Theseus' attention. He steadfastly believes that roar, wave and bull form parts of a clear (σαφεῖς) action that reflects entirely and explicitly his wish. But if we attend to the tale, it seems more a kind of dumb-show offering portents that literally cause violent disfiguration and death:
the poor man himself, entangled in the reins, bound in an inextricable knot, was dragged along, smashing his head against the rocks and rending his flesh 


At each of his encounters with death in the play, Theseus makes the same mistake: he takes what he is told as transparent, literal truth, when in fact things are far from transparent. Phaedra's note, since it is writing, is dumb speech that cannot answer, as Socrates tells his young friend:
"Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing."
Yet this voiceless speech leads to the death of Theseus's son at his own behest, relying on the gift of his father. The gift of his father turns out to be a series of wonders that, far from being literal causation, are thick with complication, resonance, portent. The messenger says:
ἵπποι δ᾽ ἔκρυφθεν καὶ τὸ δύστηνον τέρας
ταύρου λεπαίας οὐ κάτοιδ᾽ ὅποι χθονός. 
The horses vanished and so too did the monstrous bull to some place or other in that rocky land.
The "monstrous" bull is in fact τέρας -- either (1) a monster, or (2) a sign or portent. Deciding whether a simple text or tale is just a transparent representation of, say, a monster, or whether it is itself monstrous -- a sign with destructive power so potent as to cause the greatest Athenian hero to destroy his promising child -- is the burden of reading.

In taking the signs of Phaedra as transparently true, Theseus produces a reading that is not only mistaken, but destructive in its consequences. Hearing the messenger's account of those consequences, he reads it as he would a newspaper, ignoring the rebus-like intimations of something of greater import, especially to himself. Instead of viewing this story (or, as we tend to read history) as the shadow of his will, he might discover that it is speaking back to him in a language he refuses to see, or hear. Language that speaks with two tongues, or voices, is known as ἀλληγορία -- allegory.

What has this tale of misreading signs to do with the play's key theme of sophrosyne?

For now, a dumb-show must serve for an answer. The Hippolytus is the story of Athens' greatest hero, a man of action who acts upon interpretations that ignore the perilous complications of signs. Theseus acts with the rashness of his younger self, and kills the living image of that self, his son. It would have been fair game for Hippolytus to repeat to his father the words Theseus said to Minos on that fateful voyage to Crete:
“the spirit you guide in your heart is no longer pious. Hero, restrain your overbearing force. Whatever the all-powerful fate of the gods [25] has granted for us, and however the scale of Justice inclines, we shall fulfill our appointed destiny when it comes."
ὅσιον οὐκέτι τεᾶν
ἔσω κυβερνᾷς φρενῶν
θυμόνἴσχε μεγαλοῦχον ἥρως βίαν.
 τι μὲν ἐκ θεῶν μοῖρα παγκρατὴς
25ἄμμι κατένευσε καὶ Δίκας ῥέπει τά-
αἶσαν ἐκπλήσομενὅταν
Hippolytus doesn't say this, however. What he actually says and does might help bring together the perplex of signs with the theme of self-possession.