“Pacing the cage of her own clarity”

January 22, 2013

Euripides rewrote the tragedy Hippolytos in response to general outrage over his first Phaidra, and little is known about the original beyond what he says in a short essay on the changes. “I don’t understand, I could never have predicted, your hatred of this woman. It’s true she fell in love with someone wrong for her but half the heroines of your literature do that, Helen, Echo, Io, Agave, all of them.”

An incidental victim entwined in Aphrodite’s schemes against a young man who sets another goddess above her, Phaidra is merely a pawn of convenience, being used to punish the impudence of her own step-son Hippolytos, through her secret infatuation with the boy. She is to be destroyed – not for any crime of her own, but because Aphrodite is pitiless about using Phaidra’s inability to turn away from the force of an unsanctioned love.

In Anne Carson’s translation, the essay on the lost play evokes what has since become a classic Hollywood cliché: “But she cared (was this what you saw?) about the core. Eros itself. She knew that was real. And knew she would fail it.”


“…Here’s the mirror, behind there is a screen…”

Too brash, anarchic in her unmasked emotions, she defied the expectations of the audience in ways too far ahead of her time to keep the stage. “There was shame in her but not the kind you wanted to see, not woman’s modesty. She was ashamed at the core. Ashamed to have veiled Hippolytos in himself. What do we desire when we desire other people? Not them. Something else. Phaidra touched it. You hated her for that.”

We recoil from emotive possession writ large, though we should recognize its diminutive form in our every petty motivation. “Her people feared her. Her own spirit feared her.”

If her death is for a forbidden love that Aphrodite knew she could bank on, this Phaidra is hardly reconciled to it out of piety. “Phaidra’s love was for her stepson, and it excited you badly, maybe not the incest so much as a question of property rights – ditch the old man, marry the son, keep the estate. Truth is often, in some degree, economic.”

Yet the playwright says that her concerns for the estate are all talk, a womanly way of “veiling a truth in a truth.” That she really loves the boy. Euripides describes this mode of self-deception as Phaidra’s “ability to move, hunt, negotiate among them … finessing the terms of the world in which we find ourselves.”

“PUT off that mask of burning gold ..”
“But lest you are my enemy, ..”

This was her undoing, the refusal to be reconciled with her own sincerity. “Too many truths in between and Hippolytos just one of them, the lovely, careless, wry boy.” Shouldn’t a test be possible to fail?

after Rainer Maria Rilke and Paul Celan

Before the lyre forgot romantic love
and moved the world to sleep in perfect peace,
love was lost and mourned in the world above,
a woman so loved lamenting released
her from the underworld. At first the piece
he played for her stirred up the vast unreal:
A whole world of lament arose, wild geese
and mountains, roads past cringing huts that kneeled
beneath disfigured stars. Torment unsealed –

I dwell on the sea, standing at the stove.
What I have written grows hollow, things we’ve
said, sea-green, burn like embers in the cove.
…the sea immortalizes those who leave…
The coffee sputters, bitter now and strong.

Romance is addressed like a plan among sensible women, respecting the laws of logistics. Love sounds as good as a death wish when instead, it moves the soul on impulse with its own momentum. Do women not know how to control it?

After struggling with the rejection of this Phaidra a while, Euripides allows this much: “we all burned our hands on that Phaidra, didn’t we? It was her shame that ate the play. And her shame wasn’t simple. It pullulated and turned on itself and stank at the bottom of the pit of the question of desire – what is the question of desire? I don’t know. Something about its presumption to exist in human forms. Human forms are puny.”

These days the Greek tragedies tend to be quoted in short, and a nightingale only  reminds us how often a woman might claim to feel silenced, in every particular until the last straw, if she can even discern one with words, and choose how to react in her own thoughts.

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is more pessimistic than even that, about women saying what they mean or finding such words. Instead of a twig-fingered daughter using a shuttle to depict her own fate in one picture with thread, a housewife makes protest music out of the only piano piece she even knows, playing the tarantella a bit more expressively than usual, stress-testing a “trammelsome” bird’s cage. (From The Lord of the Rings, “a hutch to trammel some wild thing in” in the text.)

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

from Shakespeare’s sonnet 29

Phaidra abandons hope adrift in the space of longing for another as if she had no way of communicating with him, because she chooses her words without any thought of casting anchor in the intelligible world. Why else would someone in love add discrediting complications to the inconsolable reality of desire?

Look at the missing lines in the sonnet quoted above. There is love lost here, but its loss is definitive. Saying “I love you” to Nyeri did bring her character more fully to life in the acting-Avatar performance moment at the end of this fan video, temporally within the film.

Did bring the actress into character? Moreso than an actress would be able before the performance moment of this kind arises? This is frightening in a real way.

“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
.. The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
.. I have spread my dreams ..”

In her own introduction to the revised version, Anne Carson says: “The Hippolytos is like Venice. A system of reflections, distorted reflections, reflections that go awry. A system of corridors where people follow one another but never meet…”

When you think about it, unconditional love is almost unflattering – it has an air of promiscuity to it.

I HAVE heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.

.. Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,  ..

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche


What we do find precious by way of danger, too difficult to promise each other at need, is what love cannot be moved by circumstances. But that part of each of us that can survive any change in circumstances at soul is faceless when we try to imagine it naked, not the persona we know as our own.

So we find it best to begin with love at first sight, some particular barb in Cupid’s arrow, and if it will not be dislodged, then to deepen our hearts toward the unconditional, if the world allows it.

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