Sunday, February 01, 2015

Noises off: Sound, sense and wildness in Philoctetes

The spare theatrical texture of Sophocles' Philoctetes is the sign of a playwright who has encountered complexity. It teases us into thinking we are "seeing" all there is to see. In contrast to earlier works -- such as Antigone and Women of Trachis -- this late work (produced in 409 BC, when Sophocles was nearing 90) has little of their dazzlingly dense poetry, laden with myth and mystery.

The lines seem more direct, less rifted with ore, yet immense dimensions of story trail behind them. Also, there's a crabbed, echoic, halting rhythm at times that strikes the ear -- places where it's as if the sentences themselves, like the pathetic figure at the center of the play, had a hard time making headway against some ill-defined but crushingly painful resistance. One reaches for analogies - one thinks (perhaps too easily) of Beethoven's last quartets, reaching for musical form beyond any music that had ever reached the human ear.

Some of this is apparent early on, at the first sign of Philoctetes. The Chorus says:

προυφάνη κτύπος
φωτὸς σύντροφος ὡς τειρομένου του
 που τῇδ᾽  τῇδε τόπων
205βάλλει βάλλει μ᾽ ἐτύμα 
φθογγά του στίβον κατ᾽ ἀνάγκαν 
ἕρποντοςοὐδέ με λάθει 
βαρεῖα τηλόθεν αὐδὰ τρυσάνωρδιάσημα γὰρ θρηνεῖ.

I heard a sudden thud, one that might naturally come from a man worn by pain. From there it came, I think—or there. [205] It strikes, strikes hard on my ear, the sure sound of someone creeping along his way as if tortured. I cannot miss that grievous cry of a man hard-pressed, even from afar—its tone is too clear.
The above translation is Jebb's. Here's Torrance:
A cry has arisen
as if from a man worn down by pain -
from there - or over there - it came.
Surely I hear the voice of someone
helplessly creeping along;
I cannot ignore
that grievously wearying voice from afar -
it comes too distinctly.
And here's Grene:
Hush! I hear a footfall
footfall of a man that walks painfully.
Is it here? Is it here?
I hear a voice, now I can hear it clearly,
voice of a man, crawling along the path,
hard put to it to move. It's far away,
but I can hear it; I can hear the sound well,
the voice of a man wounded; it is quite clear now.
The chorus speaks of what it hears, and what it hears is not at first clear. προυφάνη κτύπος is vague - κτύπος means a loud noise, a crash, as of thunder, or horses' hooves. προυφάνη also is decidedly open-ended, suggesting something manifesting towards one.

Each translator has dealt with this auditory fuzziness differently. One hears a human "cry," another, a "footfall." Jebb is closest to the sense of "noise" with "thud," but inserts the subjectivity of the choral speaker with "I heard," when it's more a sense of a loud noise manifesting itself.

This might seem trivial, but Sophocles was certainly capable of having his chorus say "I heard a voice!" if that's what he was after. The passage goes on to underscore the strange non-localized aspect of the noise - Grene gets it best by being entirely uncertain where it's coming from:

is it here? is it here?

The first sign of Philoctetes, then, is a loud, rude sound, indistinct in quality and location. As the chorus continues, we gather that in fact it is speaking about its own experience of sensing, then gathering more information, then translating that initially vague noise into the "heavy sound of a weary man" (βαρεῖα τηλόθεν αὐδὰ τρυσάνωρ), and then into, "a clear wail" (διάσημα γὰρ θρηνεῖ).

We don't find the word for "voice" until φθογγά (206) - and even then, it's voice as something that strikes, repetitively (βάλλει βάλλει ), more like the traces of a hobbled gait (στίβος). What is emphasized is the process of moving from a purely sensory experience (from a random direction) to a more vivid awareness of a sound now apparently "far off" to an even more specific sense of a wail coming through clearly. διάσημα carries the word for "mark" or "sign" (σῆμα διά (through)). A mere noise turns into a sign which then gets read, translated, and grasped as meaningful.

In a much shorter passage than I've managed in this comment, Sophocles dramatizes the act of translation. The chorus quite carefully moves through the stages of an interpretive act from initial sound to apparent signification to a sign it feels it can read, translate, understand. The translator who jumps in too soon with the presumption that one here is hearing a human voice betrays the way in which the speech makes the act of translation itself both its subject and the very thing it performs. Traduttore, tradittore indeed!

Why does this matter? Perhaps because this is but one of several moments in the Philoctetes when something manifests, but leaves substantial doubt about what it is, how it is to be understood and assimilated to consciousness. A few lines further on, Philoctetes will be overjoyed to hear the sound of Greek:

234:  φίλτατον φώνημα: he'll say, upon hearing Neoptolemus's voice.

O cherished sound! 

Less than the meaning of Neoptolemus's words, Philoctetes delights in their sound. Their cadence stands out against the background noise of barbarous, non-Greek, utterance, whether of man, beast, or pounding surf. It manifests by its phonetic texture alone something that is not uncivilized, or barbarous, or monstrous. And this matters. Marooned on Lemnos for nine years, Philoctetes has been surrounded by wildness. It is by no means clear how far from savagery - from a purely wild being - he now is.

Yet it's this figure, human or no, that Odysseus must "persuade" to return to service in the Greek army, to Troy, to a mission that means nothing to the order of wild things -- signals lost in the crash of the pounding surf.


Unknown said...

Great article! Great writing! And great close reading! Wow!

Tom Matrullo said...

Thank you!