Thursday, April 23, 2015

Dante discussion Tuesday, April 28th at NYU

Prof. Roseanne Martorella indicates that this presentation at NYU's Casa Italiana will be available via streaming this coming Tuesday. Try this link to find it at the time below.

APRIL 28, 2015
6:30 PM 


(Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014)
Edited and with an introduction by
Conclusion by Teodolinda Barolini
Maria Luisa Ardizzone, New York University
Teodolinda Barolini, Columbia University
Marcia Colish, Yale University
Moderator: Paola Ureni, City University of New York
Dante and Heterodoxy: The Temptations of 13th Century Radical Thought, edited and with an introduction by Maria Luisa Ardizzone, collects several studies devoted to discussing Dante’s work in the light of the intellectual debate that developed in thirteenth century Europe after the entrance of new Aristotelian learning and the diffusion of Greek-Arabic thought, in particular the Latin translations of works by Ibn Rushd (Averroes).

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Segue: Umberto Eco on comedy

From a Paris Review interview with the delightful Umberto Eco:
Compared to beauty and ugliness, comedy is terrifying. I’m not talking about laughter, mind you. No, there is an uncanny sentimentality of the comic, which is so complex that—I cannot quite explain it. And this, alas, is why I didn’t write the book.
. . . 
I think that comedy is the quintessential human reaction to the fear of death.
. . . 
In truth, what really happened with my desire to write a book on comedy was that I wrote The Name of the Rose instead. It was one of those cases in which, when you are unable to construct a theory, you narrate a story. And I believe that in The Name of the Rose, I did, in narrative form, flesh out a certain theory of the comic. The comic as a critical way of undercutting fanaticism. A diabolical shade of suspicion behind every proclamation of truth.

The whole interview is great fun, and offers a modern thoughtful man's perspective on things literary, medieval, and comic -- as we are on our way to Dante.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Two-mouthed play: the duality of the Philoctetes

προσαναγκάζειν τὸν Σωκράτη ὁμολογεῖν αὐτοὺς τοῦ αὐτοῦ ἀνδρὸς εἶναι κωμῳδίαν καὶ τραγῳδίαν ἐπίστασθαι ποιεῖν, καὶ τὸν τέχνῃ τραγῳδοποιὸν ὄντα καὶ κωμῳδοποιὸν εἶναι.
Socrates was compelling them to admit that the same man could have the knowledge required for writing comedy and tragedy—that the fully skilled tragedian could be a comedian as well. Plato, Symposium.

To some it seems impossible that I could still have something left to say about Sophocles' Philoctetes. A friend has delicately suggested that I should make an end. Let's end with the man who wrote it - a man whose work embodies a fusion of thought and feeling. As the late Eduardo Galeano wrote,
My language is a feel-thinking language, feeling and thinking at once, that is why it is a celebration of life, and at once it is a denunciation of everything that is not allowed in life to be real life, its plenitude.
Sophocles was about 88 when his Philoctetes was performed, winning first prize. It's an old man's play, a storehouse of an extraordinary life in 5th century Athens.

It's worth noticing that his abandoned character was neither a woman, a poor man, or someone of less than 100% Greek ethnicity. This is not a tale of racism, sexism or classism. Rather, it's a story about what the best are capable of doing to their peers under the intense pressures of life, war, and duty.

Never in dispute is the fact that Philoctetes was most cruelly used by the Atreides and by Odysseus at their bidding. His resulting suffering and alienation are explored in potent speeches. Nothing hides the sordidness of the case, nothing embellishes. The harsh natural world coupled with the mute neglect and indifference of his peers is voiced with the plenitude Galeano speaks of:
Birds my victims, tribes of bright-eyed wild creatures,
tenants of these hills, you need not flee from me or my house.
No more the strength of my hands, of my bow, is mine.
Come! It is a good time to glut yourselves freely on my discolored flesh . . .
                                                                        (Grene 1148-52)
 πταναὶ θῆραι χαροπῶν τ᾽ ἔθνη θηρῶνοὓς ὅδ᾽ ἔχει χῶρος οὐρεσιβώταςμηκέτ᾽ ἀπ᾽ αὐλίων φυγᾷ 1150πηδᾶτ᾽οὐ γὰρ ἔχω χεροῖν τὰν πρόσθεν βελέων ἀλκάν δύστανος ἐγὼ τανῦνἀλλ᾽ ἀνέδην δὲ χῶρος ἄρ᾽ οὐκέτι φοβητὸς οὐκέθ᾽ ὑμῖν1155ἕρπετενῦν καλὸν ἀντίφονον κορέσαι στόμα πρὸς χάριν ἐμᾶς σαρκὸς αἰόλας
But the thrust and climax of the play is not here. His suffering is rendered with naturalistic power, but this is one moment within a larger mythical encounter. (We noted the co-presence of both naturalism and mythic language early on in our reading of this play.)

Sophocles expands the tragic frame to bring in Odysseus, the man of occasion, the crafty illusionist, the resourceful man of words. Odysseus is comedic through and through; his skills are practical, group-oriented, businesslike. He is an agent sent to do a job -- he is there to ensure through winning words a happy end for all.

We miss part of the strange texture of the play if we do not relish the potential comedy of Odysseus. His self-referential denigration as the false Merchant would be delightful in the hands of the right actor. Twice in the play Odysseus runs offstage to avoid being shot by Philoctetes or pummeled by Neoptolemus. Depending on how this is performed, it can be a dramatic show of cowardly smarts, or a broader "feets-don't-fail-me-now" piece of farce typical of low characters in ancient Comedy.

Odysseus announces at the very start that he has a ruse; he seems confident of its ability to persuade Philoctetes to return to the war. At every point in the play, we are uncertain whether fateful events are unfolding of themselves, or we are audiences to a script authored and directed by Odysseus. The tension is structural: Tragedy's dignity, pathos, and claim to significance are never more at risk than when comedy threatens to puncture the spell.

. . . the fully skilled tragedian could be a comedian as well.
Sophocles appears to have fulfilled the high goal of Socrates: he has shown he knows how to produce both genres -- a double-mouthed play. Poised perfectly, the text turns endlessly around this duality, not unlike one of those ambiguous illusions that seem one moment to be one thing, and suddenly quite another thing altogether.

The heightened relation of the comedic and tragic in the Philoctetes differs from earlier works of this playwright. The text holds both masks in tension.

It might be fanciful to see a resemblance here to the tension Socrates speaks of in the Symposium with regard to Eros, but it's hard to resist. At the feast he tells Diotima's tale of the inevitable attraction of Poros and Penia, Resource (or, Contrivance) and Poverty, whose union produces Eros the archer. Poros and Penia are like figures in the tapestry of the Philoctetes: a man in isolation, lacking all, unloved, encounters an artful speaker seeking his seduction.

As Socrates puts it:
Eros is ever poor, and far from tender or beautiful as most suppose him: [203d] rather is he hard and parched, shoeless and homeless; on the bare ground always he lies with no bedding, and takes his rest on doorsteps and waysides in the open air. . .

Eros is . . .  always weaving some stratagem; desirous and competent of wisdom, throughout life ensuing the truth; a master of jugglery, witchcraft, [203e] and artful speech.
The rhetorical duel of the Philoctetes -- strangely akin to that which Socrates finds within Eros itself -- sets in motion the endgame of the Trojan war and mirrors its beginning. Odysseus woos Philoctetes and takes him off in his ship, much as Paris had seduced Helen. Fortunes are turning. Philoctetes' heel will be made whole, enabling him to wound Paris mortally in the heel. The saddest man on Earth has the Heraclean bow, and he's on his way to Troy.

Farewell, foothold of Lemnos embraced by two seas, [1465] and send me sailing fair to my heart's content there where mighty Fate and the intent of my friends carries me, and the all-taming god who has brought these things to pass.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Some plans for the fall

So we are considering setting Dante's Paradiso as our reading beginning in the fall. It's a formidable text, and anyone who intends to join in really should read, or recently (within a few years) have read both the Inferno and Purgatorio. Many will use Mandelbaum, but other translations will simply make our task more interesting.

Giuseppe Mazzotta
For those wishing to review and/or gather some recent academic views of Dante, there is Yale Prof. Giuseppe Mazzotta's intro to the Commedia online entitled Dante in Translation, free of charge.

The course consists of 24 lectures which can be downloaded in a variety of formats - everything from transcripts to videos. Click on an individual lecture to see the media options.

To help refresh our memory, we will read the first few cantos of the Inferno followed by a few of the Purgatorio.

Peter D'Epiro's excellent translation of Paradiso I which we looked at last time is here.

Dante and Beatrice speak to Piccarda and Constance (Par. 3)

Friday, April 17, 2015

The event of persuasion in Philoctetes

proof (πίστις) is a sort of demonstration (ἀπόδειξίς)

Let Rhetoric be defined as the faculty of discovering in the particular case what are the available means of persuasion.
                                               -- Aristotle, Rhetoric

To see the tension in the Philoctetes as a duel between the title character and Odysseus is to realize that the play is structured as a series of rhetorical performances.

Odysseus knows from the start that all Philoctetes has to do is spot him for a second and he'll be dead. One way to read the play is as a procession of ploys by Odysseus calculated to persuade the person least susceptible to his seductions. First, the hero sends Neoptolemus, then either sends or himself impersonates the false Merchant, and finally we -- and Philoctetes -- confront the apparition of Heracles on the rocks above Philoctetes' cave.

If one is persuaded that the play is about persuasion, then we can see that the master strategist's first few efforts aren't going so well. Neoptolemus has given Philoctetes back his bow but keeps trying to make him see the point of returning to Troy. The young man is quite eloquent in Grene's translation:
It is a glorious heightening of gain,
First, to come into hands that can heal you,
and then be judged pre-eminent among the Greeks,
winning the highest renown among them, taking
Troy that has cost infinity of tears. (1343-37)
 But it's not working:
Hateful life, why should I still be alive and seeing?
Why not be gone to the dark?
. . . 
Eyes of mine, that have seen all, can you endure
to see me living with my murderers,
the sons of Atreus? With cursed Odysseus?
It is not the sting of wrongs past
but what I must look for in wrongs to come. (1348-59)
The tension between the divine mission that Odysseus is trying to execute, the script he claims to derive from Zeus and the Fates on one hand, and the wretched Philoctetes' mortal suffering, pain, alienation and desire to end it all (reminiscent of Heracles' agony in Women of Trachis), has reached a breaking point.

Clearly, as two previous moments in the play, an intervention is necessary to keep the Mission on point. Each time before it's been Odysseus -- either in the guise of the Merchant, or as himself, disrupting Philoctetes' plan to return home with an apparently willing Neoptolemus -- who suddenly appears. So at this moment, we are, in fact, expecting Odysseus to appear. Lo and behold.

We can take a closer look at the speech of the apparition at another time. It certainly bears features of an Odyssean ruse. But to be clear: the argument here is not that the play categorically resolves as a ruse, rather that it is about persuasion. To be persuaded is to be convinced that something is the case, as Aristotle says, early in the Rhetoric:
It is obvious, therefore, that a system arranged according to the rules of art is only concerned with proofs (πίστεις); that proof (πίστις) is a sort of demonstration (ἀπόδειξίς),10 since we are most strongly convinced when we suppose anything to have been demonstrated;
ἐπεὶ δὲ φανερόνἐστιν ὅτι μὲν ἔντεχνος μέθοδος περὶ τὰς πίστεις ἐστίν, δὲ πίστις ἀπόδειξίς τις τότε γὰρ πιστεύομεν μάλιστα ὅταν ἀποδεδεῖχθαι ὑπολάβωμεν)

But the Rhetoric itself walks a fine, vanishing line as it works to make clear how much like scientific proof (Dialectic, ἀπόδειξίς) the art of Rhetoric is, while always immediately asserting that though Rhetoric is like Dialectic, it is not the same. Here's the first thing Aristotle says in his book:

Rhetoric is a counterpart/1 of Dialectic; 
ῥητορική ἐστιν ἀντίστροφος τῇ διαλεκτικῇ:

The word translated as "counterpart" is ἀντίστροφος: "antistrophe." Rhetoric is the antistrophe to Dialectic's strophe, as if they were the symmetrical stanzas of a song or ode.

We can only in passing note that here, at the incipit of a book whose very subject and argumentative validity rests upon distinguishing science from art, truth from rhetorical trope, the author interestingly employs a figure of speech to express this difference. Rhetoric is to Dialectic as the pure stanzaic form of a song is to the form of another exactly symmetrical stanza of that song. At the moment when what's at stake is the ability to distinguish real truth from mere fiction and mimicry, we are told they relate as purely linguistic, literary patterns, which are strictly formal, and identical. This motif gets reiterated variously throughout the text, as when Aristotle says:

Truth and likeness to truth are discerned by one and the same faculty. (Rhetoric 1.1) 
τό τε γὰρ ἀληθὲς καὶ τὸ ὅμοιον τῷ ἀληθεῖ τῆς αὐτῆς ἐστι δυνάμεως ἰδεῖν

The act of appearing to prove and the fact of scientific proof are discerned by one and the same cognitive faculty. The matter of persuasion is, if nothing else, slippery.

We had come to a similar insight in the Philoctetes as we pondered the word σοφίζω, where, we noted, "the clear frame dividing mere crafty speech from truth is not so easy to locate."

For any Greek concerned with teaching and ordering the state, nothing could be more important than distinguishing between what makes one wise and what defrauds.

So here we are, at the final scene of this play about the tension between a persuader and an unwilling audience, a tension that raises questions about the very decidability of the act of discernment. If one can tell that something is true and another thing is false, then we have at least the basis for resolution. But if, as it seems, the text of Rhetoric itself is such that it unsettles borders between art and science, truth and fraud, fact and fiction, then it would suggest, as we noted some time ago, that we are dealing with a play that is on edge, as well as about edges. And here, the crux is whether we and Philoctetes are looking at a god come from above, or an actor -- say, Odysseus -- in Heracles drag. (We might wish to remember here that Hermes was Odysseus's great-grandfather.)

The notion that the deus ex machina in this play -- the only one Sophocles ever employed -- is in fact not a deus but a machina staged by Odysseus has been entertained by certain scholars (e.g. Webster, Roisman). The question posed by the text of Rhetoric -- or by the rhetorical mastermind Odysseus -- is not, however, whether the figure above the cave is a bogus representation or a noumenal presence. Rather, it is whether the event of persuasion allows one to resolve the question at all.

Just as we found it impossible to tell whether Neoptolemus is a willing conspirator or a boy whose honorable instincts are being used by the chess master Odysseus, the entire Philoctetes is poised on a knife's edge of two mutually destructive readings. This balance is classical. It is also the problem we inherited from the Greeks: when form has such fearful symmetry, how do we ease the unbearable tension within?

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Ambiguous equation: What we don't know in the Philoctetes

We've looked at the lonely anguish of the abandoned Philoctetes, and how even the chorus was moved by the wounded man's condition:
Here, he alone was his own neighbor, powerless to walk, with no one in the land to be his companion while he suffered—no one to whom he could cry out a lament that would be answered [695] for the plague that gnawed his flesh and drained his blood—no one to lull with healing herbs gathered from the nourishing earth the burning blood which oozed from the ulcers of his [700] envenomed foot, whenever the torment attacked him. Instead he would then creep this way or that, stumbling like a child without his kind nurse, to any place from where his needs [705] might be supplied, whenever the devouring anguish withdrew.
Indeed, it's the almost involuntary compassion evinced by the sailors that enables us to understand and be persuaded that Neoptolemus too, after taking on the role that Odysseus had assigned him of seeming to be Philoctetes' friend, actually becomes that friend, vowing to take him home to Oeta.

The relationship of Neoptolemus and Philoctetes is complex. At first, the younger man is clearly playing the role assigned him - getting Philoctetes to hand him the bow while he falls into a deep sleep after suffering excruciating pain that then subsides. When Neoptolemus reveals that he is in fact conspiring with Odysseus to bring Philoctetes to Troy for a good cause, Philoctetes is stunned, and confronts the truth: that he has been fooled, tricked into giving up the weapons of Heracles, and now faces an inevitable death alone on Lemnos.
Philoctetes Hollow in the caverned rock, now hot, now frosty, how true it seems, then, that I was sadly fated never to leave you! [1085] No, you will witness my death, too. Ah, ah, me! Sad dwelling, so long filled with the pain welling from my flesh, what will be my daily portion hereafter? [1090] Where, from what provision, shall I, unhappy, find any hope of sustenance? Above my head the tremulous doves will go on their way through the whistling wind. I can stop their flight no more.
Let's look at this from Odysseus's point of view. With Neoptolemus's help, he's succeeded in obtaining the weapon, but Philoctetes is choosing to starve to death rather than rejoin the Greek cause, so great is his detestation of the Atreidai and Odysseus, and his disappointment in the treachery of Neoptolemus.

Odysseus and Neoptolemus then leave Philoctetes with the chorus while they go to the ships. The chorus, which had been deeply sympathetic, now expresses a more calculated judgment:
[1095] It was you, you, I say, doomed one, that chose this fate; and this fortune to which you are captive comes from no other source, nor from a stronger man's compulsion. For when in fact it was in your power to show sense, [1100] you chose to reject the better fate, and to accept the worse.
The lengthy scene allows Philoctetes to explore every nuance of his plight, and to reaffirm that nothing will persuade him to give in and willingly return to Troy. In a moment of severe pain, he cries:
Never, never—of that be certain! Not even if the lord of the fiery lightning comes to wrap me in the blaze of his thunderbolts! [1200] Ilium be damned, and as many of the men before its walls as dared reject this foot of mine! But oh, friends, grant me one wish!
The wish turns out to be that they give him a weapon with which he can dismember himself -- this is a man who has lost everything except his indomitable will.

At this point a normal emissary would concede that this man is beyond persuasion.

Odysseus and Neoptolemus now return. They are arguing, because, Neoptolemus says, he's had a change of heart, is sorry for his part in the deceit, and intends to give the bow back. They nearly come to blows, but Odysseus backs off and leaves. Neoptolemus then attempts to recapture the good graces of Philoctetes, but the wounded man refuses to believe his words:
Take heart and listen to my words.

I am afraid. Beautiful words did me evil once before, when I believed [πεισθεὶς] your promises.
[1270] Is there no room, then, for change of heart [μεταγνῶναι]?
You spoke just like this, when you were seeking to steal my bow—a "trusted" [πιστός] friend, with my destruction in his treacherous heart.
I assure you, I am not so now. I merely wish to know whether you have resolved to stay here and endure, or to sail with us.
[1275] Stop, not another word! Whatever you may say will be said in vain.
No words will persuade Philoctetes, but Neoptolemus now goes beyond words. Quietly he extends his hand, holding the sacred bow, to Philoctetes. The reaction is immediate:
Am I being tricked a second time?
πῶς εἶπαςἆρα δεύτερον δολούμεθα;
Philoctetes is beyond the reach of any words, but being offered his bow, along with an oath to Zeus that this act of Neoptolemus is genuine, changes his mind. He is persuaded that the young man is on his side.

Of course, it's at this moment that Odysseus springs from his concealment and confronts them.
But I forbid it, as the gods are my witnesses, in the name of the Atreids and the entire army!
Interestingly Odysseus doesn't use the usual word for "witness"; rather, he uses ξυνίστορεςwhich carries more the sense of "one who is in on, privy to" some secret plot.

The word is doubly, or perhaps trebly suggestive at this crucial moment, which requires us to ask -- who is in on this scheme here? Has Odysseus lost, thanks to Neoptolemus' change of heart? Or is it more complicated than that?

Anyone familiar with the wiliness of Odysseus might wish to consider three possibilities:
1. Odysseus has indeed lost the game. Neoptolemus is helping Philoctetes.
2. Odysseus's ploy is working, thanks to the ongoing collusion of Neoptolemus, whom he coached when they left the stage.
3. Odysseus's ploy is working without any collusion on the part of Neoptolemus, whom he knew would have a change of heart -- in fact, he counted on it.
Let's remember: Odysseus swore to the army to bring back Philoctetes and his bow, and to persuade him with "winning words" -- without force. He was confident enough to say they could separate his head from neck if he failed. He has never shown the slightest doubt that he'll succeed. But here he's running for his life from the deadly poison arrows. Yet he keeps affirming that his task is ordered not just by the generals, but by Zeus.

A fair reading ought to consider these options. To do so enriches the play immeasurably, because it truly pits the broken heart, mind, and body of Philoctetes, along with his unbroken will, against Odysseus's limitless cleverness and considerable powers of illusion.

If we try on the notion that Neoptolemus is furthering Odysseus's scheme - knowingly or unknowingly - we see that Odysseus still has a card or two to play. Indeed, in the next scene we find that while Neoptolemus has completely won over Philoctetes' trust, he has not completely gone over to his side. Rather the boy offers some rather profound insight into the soul of Philoctetes,
It is true that men are compelled to bear the fortunes given by the gods; but when they cling to self-inflicted miseries, as you do, [1320] no one can justly excuse or pity them. You have become savage [σὺ δ᾽ ἠγρίωσαι]: you welcome no counselor, and if someone admonishes you, even if he speaks in all good will, you detest him and consider him an enemy who wishes you ill.
and adds for good measure a large-scale interpretation of the working out of the dark forces of divine intent:
you suffer this plague's affliction in accordance with god-sent fate, because you came near to Chryse's guardian, the serpent who secretly watches over her home and guards her roofless sanctuary. Know also that you will never gain relief from this grave sickness, [1330] as long as the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, until of your own free will you come to the plains of Troy, find there the sons of Asclepius, our comrades, be relieved of this infection, and, with this bow's [1335] aid and mine, be hailed as the sacker of Troy's towers.
Neoptolemus is showing penetrating insight into human motives and an interpretive confidence worthy of Odysseus -- quite possibly because he's been listening to him. The snakebite was not random, but fully part of a sacred plan. He reveals in great detail the prophecies forced out of Helenus by Odysseus, which include all the enticements that any sane man could ask for.

Whether Neoptolemus's transformation is real or feigned, he is still on script -- Odysseus's script (we noted here how this uncertainty is built into the structure of the play).

It is not unreasonable to believe that Odysseus here is playing his last card, having Neoptolemus bring out every argument. They are powerful arguments -- restored health, heroic work, glory, obedience to Zeus -- which, in this renewed moment of trust, might persuade Philoctetes to undergo his own change of heart [μεταγιγνώσκω].

If we read this scene this way, it in fact conforms to an extended uncertainty that runs spinelike throughout the play, which has everything to do with whether something is actual, or simply represented, pretended, feigned. It's present when the chorus sings the tale of Ixion, itself a story of doubles and redoubled trickery:
I have heard a rumor, but never seen with my eyes [λόγῳ μὲν ἐξήκουσ᾽ὄπωπα δ᾽ οὐ μάλα,], how the man who once approached the bed of Zeus was bound upon a [680] swift wheel by the almighty son of Cronus. But of no other mortal do I know, either by hearsay or by sight [οἶδα κλύων οὐδ᾽ ἐσιδὼν], that has encountered a doom so repugnant as this of Philoctetes.
Here and in other lines, Sophocles makes it clear that he is taking up a large epistemological problem -- how we know what we know, and whether it is indeed something we truly experience via our sovereign senses, or whether, on the contrary, we "know" a thing simply because someone has repeated an account of it to us. And this problem is relevant for the basic reason that it goes to the root of the event of persuasion.

Philoctetes has suffered enough not to trust men's words, especially after he's found Neoptolemus to have deceived him. Yet he rebounds because he cannot dispute deeds, and Neoptolemus has given him back his bow. But then Neoptolemus both prevents him from killing Odysseus, and pours on the full-court press of reasons for rejoining the Greeks -- more words!
How can I not be persuaded [ἀπιστήσω] by this man's words, when he exhorts me with good will?
πῶς ἀπιστήσω λόγοις τοῖς τοῦδ᾽ὃς εὔνους ὢν ἐμοὶ παρῄνεσεν
The play grapples richly and in nuanced fashion with the cognitive problems bound up with seeming and knowing, with words and deeds, and, as evinced by Philoctetes here, a widening rift of uncertainty about what to believe, and why, and how. It would be unfortunate to reduce our reading to simply one side of the ambiguous equation. It's far more interesting to open up our "witness" to the possibility that there are more layers to this plot, more possible readings here, stemming from more calculated lies or useful truths, than first appeared.

With this in mind, another question beckons. Has Odysseus now played his last card?

Friday, April 03, 2015

Tough sell: The agon of rhetoric in the Philoctetes

One reason that the Philoctetes is an extraordinary work -- a classic -- is that it takes on one of the most difficult confrontations imaginable, between the isolated, socially and physically wounded Philoctetes, and Odysseus, the fully networked lieutenant and executor of the will of the generals, and of the general will.

These characters move through an intense and fascinating duel -- Odysseus's task is to convince Philoctetes to return willingly to the Trojan War. Odysseus has a tantalizing story of restoration of honor, health, and eventually the prize of glory -- everything a Greek Prince could ask for. But a man who's been abandoned for nine and a half years no longer dreams. Philoctetes's dearest wish is to kill Odysseus with the bow of Heracles, which never misses, and is always lethal. It's going to be a tough sell.

Sophocles has designed the play to amplify the profound dichotomy between the two older characters, with Neoptolemos serving as a kind of bridge between them. If we look more closely at the features of both the archer and the captain, we'll see why Odysseus has his work cut out for him.

In his singular isolation, Philoctetes has been nearly reduced to an inhuman creature -- not unlike the Cyclops Polyphemus whose episode the play richly echoes (see νήπιος: Philoctetes and Polyphemus). He speaks out of a neglected, asocial existence with such lyric power that he might well be the archetypal voice of the outcast, the existential loner, the underground man, the forlorn self persuaded by Nietzsche's potent argument that "God is dead."

In part, Philoctetes can lay claim to being an outcast as his lameness and abandonment so closely replicate that of the first outcast on Lemnos, the fire god Hephaestus.

O Lemnos, and you all-conquering flame kindled by Hephaestus, will you indeed endure it that this man should take me from your domain by force?

While there are no women in the play, a consciousness of the absence of womanly nature is pervasive. Hephaestus was sent away, or thrown down, from Olympus to land on Lemnos because he displeased Hera, his mother. Unlike the other gods, he was ugly, comical, lame. The cruelty of the mother here, seconded through the play's allusions to Cybele, underscore the pathos of a child experiencing a harsh nature, a world without a mother's tenderness.

Philoctetes speaks with a heart-driven immediacy -- his world is this small rocky place where his pain and hunger drive him to use the bow of a hero to eke out a life:

Hollow in the caverned rock, now hot, now frosty, how true it seems, then, that I was sadly fated never to leave you! [1085] No, you will witness my death, too. Ah, ah, me! Sad dwelling, so long filled with the pain welling from my flesh, what will be my daily portion hereafter? [1090] Where, from what provision, shall I, unhappy, find any hope of sustenance? Above my head the tremulous doves will go on their way through the whistling wind. I can stop their flight no more.

 κοίλας πέτρας γύαλον 
θερμὸν καὶ παγετῶδεςὥς σ᾽ οὐκ ἔμελλον ἄρ᾽ τάλας
λείψειν οὐδέποτ᾽ἀλλά μοι καὶ θνῄσκοντι συνείσει
ὤμοι μοί μοι
 πληρέστατον αὔλιον 
λύπας τᾶς ἀπ᾽ ἐμοῦ τάλαν
τίπτ᾽ αὖ μοι τὸ κατ᾽ ἆμαρ 
1090ἔσταιτοῦ ποτε τεύξομαι 
σιτονόμου μέλεος πόθεν ἐλπίδος
πέλειαι δ᾽ ἄνω 
πτωκάδες ὀξυτόνου διὰ πνεύματος 
ἐλῶσινοὐκέτ᾽ ἴσχω.

No one else in the play speaks with such poetic power. When Philoctetes addresses nature, he speaks out of a profound loss of human companionship and of hope of any divine succor. He has formed bonds with birds, rocks and waves akin to those of an child, or an animal. His speech is highly figural, rhythmical, sonorous, and emotively addresses Being as "you," as he does at the close:

Farewell, chamber that shared my watches. Farewell, [1455] nymphs of stream and meadow, and you, strong pounding of the sea-lashed cape, where often in the cavern's inmost recess my head was wetted by the south wind's blasts, and where many times the Hermaean mount sent an echo [1460] to my sad groans in the gale of my sorrow! But now, clear springs and Lycian fount, I am leaving you, leaving you at last, though such a hope had never buoyed me! Farewell, sea-wrapped Lemnos, [1465] and send me off with sailing fair to my heart's content . . .

No Greek character could be farther from this mode of speaking than the hero of the Odyssey. Here he's describing himself after Philoctetes has spurned the request to join Odysseus and Neoptolemus who will return to battle:
I could say much in answer to his claims, if time allowed; but now I can say one thing only. What kind of man the occasion demands, that kind of man am I. [1050] And accordingly, where the judgment at hand is of just and good men, you could find no man more pious than me. 

Never at a loss for words, Odysseus's facility makes him the ideal broker/facilitator. He fluidly goes with whatever role is required of him, rapidly appraises every situation and devises clever solutions to problems most men would find daunting. He continues:

Victory, however, is my inborn desire in every field—save with regard to you. To you, in this case, I will gladly give way. Yes, release him, and lay not another finger upon him. [1055] Let him stay here. We have no further need of you, now that we have these weapons. For Teucer is there among our forces, well-skilled in this craft, as am I, and I believe that I can master this bow in no way worse than you, and point it with no worse a hand. [1060] So what need is there of you? Farewell! Enjoy your strolls on Lemnos! We must be going. And perhaps your onetime prize will bring me the honor which ought to have been your own.

He not only poses as a "winner," but denies the uniqueness of Philoctetes, the actual need of him. If this stubborn man won't do it, we'll find another who can. Of course, he's bluffing -- they do need the actual, one and only Philoctetes. This is the calculating mind of the strategist, pretending that identities are fungible, and individuals matter little as men become pawns on a field of action.

It is entirely in keeping with his plan -- to persuade Philoctetes that he must come back with them -- that Odysseus here speaks with pointed cruelty, but still, it's devastating:
. . . what need is there of you? Farewell! Enjoy your strolls on Lemnos! We must be going. 
No wonder in later times Odysseus was often characterized as heartless and false. But he's about more than mere trickery. Ask him and he'll tell you: His larger task is that of the politician who is trying to hold together a social order that's coming apart at the seams. This too is part of who he is, at a level above that of the strategist and broker.

Let's remember it was Odysseus who captured Helenus and gained the intelligence of how to defeat Troy. For all his machinations, Odysseus is not a traitor to the Greeks as Helenus was to his family and his people. He is tasked with reintegrating the most alienated Greek warrior (more even than Achilles!) for the larger good.

If we put these elements together, we have something like this:

  1. The task of persuading Philoctetes is the action of the play. 
  2. It is complicated by the fact that Odysseus was the perpetrator of the original abandonment of Philoctetes.
  3. Yet Odysseus is the most capable man for the job.
  4. The outcome of the Trojan War, and, possibly, of the Greek world, hangs on whether Philoctetes can be turned around to return and fight for those who threw him away.

In a word, what Sophocles has staged is a duel with everything at stake. If Philoctetes is the immovable object, the power of Odysseus's rhetorical and theatrical skills is the irresistible force. When we look more closely at the play's structure, we'll find the stratagems to persuade Philoctetes are scrupulously explored from every angle.

Over and over, variants of the word for persuasion (πείθω) include power, trust, truth and even obedience. Here's Neoptolemus:

What can I do, then if my pleading lacks power [δυνησόμεσθαto persuade [πείσειν] you of anything that I say? [1395]
τί δῆτ᾽ ἂν ἡμεῖς δρῷμενεἰ σέ γ᾽ ἐν λόγοις  
πείσειν δυνησόμεσθα μηδὲν ὧν λέγω 

Without the use of force, doing and saying are all that Odysseus and Neoptolemus have to work with, aren't they?

The duel of Odysseus and Philoctetes is the agon of truth and lie, of rhetoric and reality. It yields this playwright's mature meditation on the powers and limitations of words, deeds, trust, knowledge and illusion. We'll look at how this plays out in another post.