Friday, February 07, 2014

Eros, sophrosyne, myth and the Hippolytus

This group has completed its collective reading of the Hippolytus, so I'll post a few afterthoughts rather than continue with close readings of specific passages. As we turn to the Antigone of Sophocles, it might be worth a moment to look at the "raw material" of myth seized on by the Greek playwrights for their works.

For one thing, the material is hardly raw. The figures of Oedipus, Antigone, Hippolytus, Orestes, Philoctetes, Heracles, Dionysus, the Olympians and so many more are the legacy of a tradition formed, refined and elaborated over hundreds of years. Their stories involve families, cities, fabulous creatures, gods and nature, and situate themselves within a larger tapestry that could exfoliate into variations and permutations upon the tales already woven. Unlike, say, Old Testament stories that provoked infinite layers of commentary and interpretive creativity, but usually not literary variants or emulations, the Greek myths fueled and informed fresh literary and artistic works by generations of men at diverse historical moments.

Each moment found its form: for Pindar and Bacchylides, it was primarily the ode; for Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, it was tragic drama; for Homer and Virgil, it was the epic; for Ovid, the old myths offered a shared language of figures, literary modes and structures -- a lens for thinking about culture, storytelling, history and literature with sophisticated panache.

Any particular myth came already bound within a much larger given body of tales -- elaborate genealogies of gods, cities, nature and men. Some were complex skeins tracing sacred blessings and curses down through generations of a family.

As we leave (close readers never say "finish") the Hippolytus and begin the Antigone it's noteworthy how the core myths are generative. They pose dense porcupine problems, labyrinthine knots. Unlike the detective tales of Law and Order or Sherlock Holmes, they resist resolving into neat sums through logical agility or dogged scientific lab work. The audience leaves with no sense of mastery, no comfort of closure; instead, if anything, it's experienced a kind of intimate acquaintance with intolerable tensions.

The same antagonisms operative at the opening of Hippolytus are there at the close. Even as the characters turn in agonized perplexity asking why certain destinies have come to them, the audience is spared any such questioning. We get the god's eye view of the matter at the very beginning with Aphrodite's prologue. There's no suspense about what will happen, no mystery as to why it's happening. All the "hooks" and plot devices constitutive of much modern storytelling are tossed aside. What motivates us to stay with such a story? Why go to the theater?

Let's suggest that one way of looking at the Hippolytus is as a struggle between eros and sophrosyne -- an oversimplification for the sake of argument. We might at first think about this rather abstractly, and rather limitedly, as the eternal agon of passion and reason, the power of desire versus the ability of the self to know and govern its realm -- all of which it most certainly is. What the play does, in virtually every line, every turn of plot, every speech and response, is offer deeper, richer, more comprehensive and more granular perspectives upon that inherent conflict. Drawn along by the action, we gather the implications of the mythos, and grapple with its complications.

Perhaps we acquire a more complex sense of the nature of love and the astonishing range of its effects. The shaft that leaps from eros' bow to Phaedra's heart to Theseus's pain and rage to the entangled death of the future hero-king is intensified and enriched through the prism of each character's acts and interactions.

Perhaps we gather a deeper sense of the strategies of self-possession available to us -- from the curious rapture of Hippolytus to the devious authority of Phaedra to the "laid back" approach of the Nurse.  Are these viable solutions or illusory accommodations? Nothing is quite what we would decree as the ideal for our prim and proper world. Turn to the virginal opponent of eros and you find an arrow coming the other way. No simple, clear, coherent solution to the war of eros and sophrosyne stands readily at hand.

The play doesn't ignore the realm of the polis. At the moment he covers his son's face, Theseus says:

 κλείν᾽ Ἀθῆναι Παλλάδος θ᾽ ὁρίσματα,
1460οἵου στερήσεσθ᾽ ἀνδρός.
Glorious Athens, Pallas' realm,
what a man you have been bereft of!
The line grows in power if we remember that this was the father who had seen his son first as a bookish self-indulgent child, then as a fiendishly deceitful rapist, but never as a man -- a man worthy of the admiration of Theseus, the greatest Athenian hero. The scene gains more yet if we happen to catch, only here, the shadow of Athena in the bottomless awareness of the loss to Athens in the untimely, undeserved, incommensurable death of this man.


Shortly before dying, Hippolytus calls on Zeus:

Ζεῦ Ζεῦτάδ᾽ ὁρᾷς;
ὅδ᾽  σεμνὸς ἐγὼ καὶ θεοσέπτωρ,
1365ὅδ᾽  σωφροσύνῃ πάντας ὑπερσχών,
προῦπτον ἐς Ἅιδην στείχωκατ᾽ ἄκρας
ὀλέσας βίοτονμόχθους δ᾽ ἄλλως
τῆς εὐσεβίας
εἰς ἀνθρώπους ἐπόνησα.
Zeus, Zeus, do you mark this? Here am I, the holy and god-revering one, the man who surpassed all men in σωφροσύνῃ [self-control, temperance], seeing plainly ahead my course to Hades. My life is utterly destroyed; useless have been my hard labors of piety towards men.
He calls upon Zeus, but he might as well address us, the audience, we are on the level of the gods even as we see ourselves in the dying hero. The death he now foresees is the death Aphrodite foretold to us at the beginning. Theater as theoria. The strangeness of a day in which the lives of three great ones (μεγάλων) are lost and a nascent civilization careens off course under the serene sky and eye of Zeus doesn't get less enigmatic, but rather more, on closer scrutiny. Deeper insight into the struggle of eros and sophrosyne provides no practical nostrum with which we could build an optimistic program (e.g., the "power of positive thinking") for a better tomorrow.

This mode of myth is unlike what's meant when we say "myth" today --  a story that we think some deluded folks believe, but which others, namely we sage ones, know to be untrue. We have the closure and managerial composure to rest assured we know better.

When a noted historian recently was asked what he thought was the "most damaging myth in America today," his response was, "the idea of American exceptionalism."

Unlike the tale of, say, Thebes, exceptionalism yields little upon reflection; it's an idle phantasm at the farthest remove from myth. Myths don't pretend to solve our problems -- they are our problems, knots torn from the world's heart, made incandescently palpable to a certain ungrasping contemplation.


Unknown said...

I am a regular reader via tweeter. So maybe I havent read ever blog. What did you mean by "This group finished readind Hippolytus? whos the group?

Tom Matrullo said...

We meet bi-weekly, Bill, at the public library - open to anyone with the interest. A bit about it here: