Friday, June 17, 2005

My Favorite Greek Myth

Of all the Greek myths that have lodged in my memory -- and some of the most striking are fairly obscure ones, such as the story of Niobe and the death of Caeneus -- the one that means the most to me is the story of Philoctetes. I can't say that Sophocles' play (the earliest extant telling, though both Homer and Pindar mention him) is the greatest Greek tragedy, though it's a tremendously good one. But the story (especially as James Blish, of all people, unconsciously revised it) has never lost its power to move me.

Certainly the story of Philoctetes resonates with Modernist sensibilities. Edmund Wilson noted that in "The Wound and the Bow," pointing out that the linking of superlative talent with a crippling disability is a concept that the early twentieth century found very alluring. In the play, of course, these characteristics are not implicit in each other: Philoctetes, who possessed a bow that never misses its target, is bitten by a snake as he approaches a shrine to which the Greeks intend to make a sacrifice, with no connection between the two implied. When James Blish published the first section of his novel The Seedling Stars in 1955, he replicated all the basic elements of Philoctetes (nothing in his letters suggests he was aware of doing this, though he seemed to regard Sophocles as the greatest Greek dramatist). In his story, these two characteristics are facets of the same phenomenon: the condition that renders the protagonist a pariah also causes him to be sought out by those who would use him.

Certainly Sophocles' play makes for great drama, and one cannot read the long scene between Philocretes and Neoptolemus -- in which Philoctetes' ulcerous leg begins to throb, grows worse, recedes before returning, and finally erupts in a fury that causes the absess to burst and leaves Philoctetes insensible -- without wishing to see it staged. (It is this scene, of course, in which the conflicted Neoptolemus wins Philoctetes' trust, just as Odysseus had told him to do.) And yes, all sorts of Modernist poetics catch the light of Sophocles' dramaturgy -- and not just Modernist: the play has been adapted not only by Gide but recently by Seamus Heaney.

But to make a confession: the play probably speaks so forcefully to me because it is about betrayal, and the pressure to make third parties complicit in someone's betrayal: themes that recur repeatedly in my own fiction, whether I invite them to or not. And that is probably why Philoctetes is my favorite myth.

8 Comments:

Anonymous L.N. Hammer said...

It's not my favorite myth (possibly because there's little opporunity for sex farce?) but it is one of my favorite Greek tragedies. What's bothered me has always been exactly how Philoctetes got Heracles's bow -- I know the stories we have, but they seem a bit thin, and I wonder what Iphicles thought of it.

Hmm -- there could be a story in that.

---L.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

I have to say that I think the story of how Philoctetes got Herakles's bow works as well as anything else in Greek mythology. The story is built on dichotomies, or rather binary oppositions: Herakles is in agony, and can be relieved of this only by being burnt to death; the person who does him a boon kills him; Philoctetes will gain as reward for this boon a great gift that will bring terrible consequences -- consequences, in fact, that come in the form of unassuageable and unending pain, thus completing a large circle.

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