“And that’s the boarderline that poetry
Operates on too, always in between
What you would like to happen and what will –
Whether you like it or not”
-Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy (a version of Sophocle’s Philoctetes)
A woman that I work for gave me the play The Cure at Troy to read. It is a version of Sophocles’s play Philoctetes written by Seamus Heaney. The story centers around Odysseus’ attempts to get the bow of Hercules away from the ailing Philoctetes.
Whether it is justifiable to use trickery and lies to meet some end demanded of by the commander in chief or the Gods, this play is the ultimate examination of might makes right and the ramifications, on a personal level, of that sort of thinking and obedience, public morals vs. private morals. Even when (or especially when) it goes against the chord of human feeling and truth.
“Do it my way this once,
All right, you’ll be ashamed
but that won’t last.
And once you’re over it, you’ll have the rest of your life
To be good and true and incorruptible.
– Odysseus to Neoptolemus
Odysseus, just plows ahead as usual – the man does not lack for stamina when it comes to just getting it done! Don’t think- do! He is the sort of man that makes me especially weary and suspicious of the concept of “public morals.” Is there really such a thing? Why should not an inner truth satisfy a public need, and if it it does not, what sort of moral is it really. He makes a forceful case to Neoptolemus convincing him of the expediency of duty. Ignore your heart and do what your told – you’ll get over it. And most people do- after all it takes time to rot fully from the inside out.
In this clever play, Philoctetes is visibly rotting (stinky foot and what not) as the symbol of the general molder of personal morals, by which I mean the truth within that there is really no escaping. But I suppose this is the dilemma. Justifications for ignoring a deeper truth within have always been in abundance. Same as it always was apparently.
“With you he does what he is told, with me he did what his nature told him.” –Philoctetes
I suppose the thing I find the most interesting about the plays, histories, and poetry of the ancient world is the consistency of cruelty to ourselves as well as to others. We want to live our lives with our hearts wide open, and the shock of the evident impossibility of that predisposition is one that is very hard to bear. At least for me.
“Suspect too much sweet talk
But never close your mind.
It was a fortunate wind
That blew me here. I leave
Half-ready to believe
That a crippled trust might walk
And the half-truth rhyme is love.”
– the chorus from The Cure at Troy