Monday, February 02, 2015

Odysseus's acting and direction in Philoctetes

The opening scene of Philoctetes appears to have two action planes, but really has three.

It begins with Odysseus setting the scene for Neoptolemus:
This is the headland of sea-washed Lemnos, land untrodden by men and desolate. It was here, child bred of the man who was the noblest of the Greeks, Neoptolemus son of Achilles, that I exposed [ἐξέθηκ᾽] long ago the native of Malis, Poeas' son, on the express command of the two chieftains to do so, because his foot was all running with a gnawing disease. Neither libation nor burnt sacrifice could be attempted by us in peace, but with his wild, ill-omened cries [10] he filled the whole camp continually with shrieking, moaning.
A moment later, Odysseus is predicting that Neoptolemus will see the cave where Philoctetes was abandoned more than nine years earlier.
Come, it is your task to serve as my ally in what remains, and to seek where in this region there is a cave with two mouths [δίστομος]. During cold weather it provides two seats facing the sun, while in summer a breeze wafts sleep through the tunneled chamber. [20] And a little below, on the left hand, perhaps, you will see water rising from a spring, if it has not failed. Go there silently, and signal to me whether he still dwells in this same place, or is to be found elsewhere, so that the rest of my plan may be explained by me, heard by you, [25] and sped by the joint effort of us both.
As Odysseus speaks, he halts, directing Neoptolemus to go forward. This is clear from how Neoptolemus begins to describe the cave, because he can see it, while Odysseus, who has it in his mind's eye, cannot:
King Odysseus, the completion of the task that you set me is not far off, for I believe I see a cave like that which you have described.
Above you, or below? I do not see it.
Here, high up—and of footfalls there is not a sound.
[30] See that he is not sheltered there asleep.
I see an empty dwelling, without occupants.
And is there no provision inside for human habitation?
There is—a bed of leaves, as if for some one who makes his lodging here.
The relevant points of attention now are three: Odysseus, Neoptolemus, and the cave. Two mouths -- one far, one "not far off" -- talking about a cave with two mouths, whose absent inhabitant will be the target of a ruse, a trick -- σόφισμα -- which Odysseus intends to use Neoptolemus to play.

It all depends on what comes out of one's mouth, Odysseus tells the young man:

You must cheat the mind of Philoctetes by means of a story told as you converse with him. 
A bit further on, in answer to Neoptolemus's asking why they can't just take Philoctetes by force, Odysseus says he used to have a "doing hand." But now, he adds,

I see that the tongue, not action, is what leads everything among men.

The three planes of action run through the play. Behind the scenes, Odysseus is pulling the strings. Neoptolemus is the shill, Philoctetes the target. Yet a fourth plane subsumes the others: the war at Troy. Odysseus will always maintain that the Atreidae direct him - he's merely carrying out their orders. What is going on here, on this little island, cut off from every civil society, is deeply connected to what is going on there. Far and near are frightfully close, here.

This interplay of planes makes it sometimes difficult to tell whether what one is seeing (or hearing) is action, or acted -- part of the biography of Philoctetes, or of the fiction woven to entrap him. Odysseus keeps telling Achilles' young son that he needs to become "clever," sophos (σοφός). With a master of chicanery like Odysseus (great-grandson of Hermes) one never has the clarifying comfort of knowing the real from the ruse. A real three-card monte of wagging tongues. As we watch Odysseus act and direct, we'll have to ask: What part of Neoptolemus's change of heart does Odysseus not anticipate? What part of Philoctetes' implacable hatred does the Ithacan lord not know precisely how to use to his own ends?

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