Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1.2.9


Bruce Heiden, Tragic Rhetoric: An Interpretation of Sophocles' Trachiniae. Hermeneutic Commentaries, 1. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. Pp. 204. ISBN 0-8204-0951-0.


Reviewed by Gregory W. Dickerson, Bryn Mawr College

In this exhaustively detailed reading of the "rhetoric" of one of Sophocles' most problematic tragic texts, Heiden presents a polished revision of his 1984 Cornell dissertation under the supervision of Pietro Pucci, who also serves as the editor of the new series in which this is the first volume. In the Introduction ("Reading as a Sophist") H. clearly articulates the ideas which will dominate his "rhetorically self-conscious" sequential reading of the play in the following chapters, e.g.: "It cannot ... be safely assumed ... that the characters in Sophoclean tragedy ever mean what they say, or that Sophocles himself was fully committed to any impression of meaning his plays may seem to produce" (pp.8-9); that his type of reading, in recognizing "the ineluctably rhetorical nature of reading itself ... posits an epistemological gap between the text and its audiences, which prevents the audiences from ever definitively knowing either what the text is or what it means" (pp. 10-11); and that "for the Trachiniae there is no knowledge, only interpretation," revealing "a world in which tragedy arises ... in the self-deceptive treatment of interpretation as knowledge and the effort to master an elusive reality through the equally elusive devices of language." (p. 13) H. seeks to legitimize the attribution of such avowedly "deconstructive" purposes to Sophocles by appealing to the deconstructionist relativism espoused by sophists of the fifth century like Protagoras and Gorgias (p.16), though without providing, in the form of recognizably sophistic doctrines explicitly governing the structure of any of Sophocles' other plays, any justification for this radical repositioning of the poet in the intellectual currents of his time.

Six chapters follow, in the course of which each scene of the play is subjected to a close rhetorical analysis designed to reveal this pervasive epistemological uncertainty subverting all claims to accurate representation of fact and all attempts to extrapolate from the past in predicting the future. In Chapter I ("Fear out of Fear"), Deianeira's famous opening monologue is seen to expose the "theatricality" of her character, "her need for an audience and her speech as a theatrical simulation, a calculated illusion," designed to affect both the listeners in the theater and D. herself, as her own audience. (pp.21-2) [Since the identical analysis could be almost formulaically applied to any typical Euripidean prologue monologue, this prelude seems relatively unilluminating as regards this speech, and D., in particular.] In the subsequent analysis of the monologue, H. introduces the rhetorical typologies which will inform all that follows. It represents "remedial discourse," in which the speaker, "exaggerating" her misery (the imperfect tenses used to describe Achelous' wooing suggest that D.'s father was not in fact in a hurry to surrender her, but D. characteristically transforms possibility into certainty, so revealing "her inability to see things as they are" pp. 27-8), derives "pleasure by creating the illusion that the pain, like the speech, is a production under the speaker's control," and so "alleviates her pain by preempting it." (pp. 22-3) [The ease with which H. here, and everywhere, assumes insight into the unvoiced psychological processes experienced by the play's practitioners of rhetoric will trouble those who, like the present reviewer, have not yet found the strength to liberate themselves from anxiety over committing Waldock's "Documentary Fallacy.") Hyllus also is guilty of "exaggerating the extent of his knowledge" when (ll. 67ff.), although beginning as if acknowledging the conditionality (ei) of the need always to believe reports, he fails to voice any further reservations about the reliability of what he has heard, so proving that his ei really means "since," not "if," and thereby illustrating "the insufficiency of grammar to determine the meaning of statements and their consequent openness to interpretation," which is "one of the drama's chief themes," (p.33) [A disquieting theme indeed for those of us whose livelihood depends on our ability to convince students that respect for "grammar" is indispensable to a proper understanding of Greek literature!] The whole scene, in fact, is argued to be replete with various types of "specious rhetoric." At 47 ff., D., in associating Heracles' tablet with pain, succumbs to the "rhetoric of presence," in which the presence of the signifier (the tablet) is allowed to represent metonymically the referent (calamity), which in fact remains absent." Similarly, D. in affirming the perpetual misery of her life (1 ff.) and Hyll. in assuming Her.'s invulnerability (ll. 86-7), are merely indulging in the "rhetoric of the unity of events," the illusion that past experience is a reliable predicator of the future. (p.35) In the parodos we encounter still another self-deceptive strategy, "the rhetoric of vision," (the assumption that what is seen is a reliable basis for deducing reality and truth) in its climactic question (139-40: tis ... eiden;), where the Chorus exploits the unsupported assumption that Zeus is in fact "visible" to mortals. These terms, essential to H.'s argument that "self-conscious" rhetoric is at work everywhere in the play will no doubt prove illuminating for many readers, but others, I suspect, will find them unattractive as alternatives to simpler terms like "metaphor," "empirical reasoning," and the like, i.e., modes of thought and expression which are not necessarily "self-consciously" employed for rhetorical purposes but which rather occur naturally and inevitably in all attempts at meaningful discourse about human experience.

Chapter 2 ("The Report of a Report") reveals D. deploying "the rhetoric of experience" in her effort to persuade the chorus that her own "direct experience gives [her] more reliable knowledge about reality" than whatever words they may have heard about her suffering. She is "acting out a little tragedy" to evoke their pity in another example of "remedial lament" in which her "vicarious concerns for her menfolk" serve as "a rhetorical distraction from her anxieties about sexual lust." (pp 44-5) Her later description of Her.'s gloomy perception of the possibly fatal nature of his most recent mission, contradicted as it is by the optimistic expectations to which Her. himself later testifies (ll. 1169-71), must be seen as an "hallucinatory fabrication" deriving from "her patently overactive imagination ... and her weakness for wishful thinking," a process here urged on by the susceptibility to hysteria of sexually deprived women (note 12, p.172) and an awareness that she, and her children, might reap real benefits from Her.'s death in the form of a returned dowry and distribution of patrimony. (pp. 45-6) Further evidence of her wishful thinking in this direction is found in her skeptical response to the first news of Her.'s safe return (184 ff). [Here one might easily object that expression of initial disbelief in response to stunning news is a *topos* in tragedy. Should we then read a secret wish for their king's failure at Troy in the apistia expressed by Aeschylus' chorus at Ag. 268?] A much more convincing case for purposeful rhetorical manipulation is made in an extensive (pp. 53-64) and fruitful analysis of Lichas' "deceptive" speech to D. (248-90), the epistemological status of which has long been recognized as notoriously nebulous. Here for once the plot provides an immediately obvious motivation for deceptive stratagem, and H.'s position, that L. "gives D. an account that is consistent with the truth as he understands it, but which he expects D. to misinterpret, in effect deceiving herself" (p.53), seems both sensible and persuasive, as does his claim that the speech "illustrates microcosmically Sophocles' complete understanding and mastery" of the kind of self-conscious rhetoric which H. has chosen as his focus. (p.63) [Far less cogent is the claim that the description of Lichas' relationship to the Malians at ll.198-9 (ouch Hekwn, hekousi de / ksunestin) is a "precise allusion" to the description of Odysseus and Kalypso at Od. 5.154-55 (iauesken ... / ... ouk ethelôn ethelous'), showing that "the herald makes love to his audience through speech ... " (p. 50) Happily this sort of capricious intertextual connection is very rarely in evidence elsewhere in the book.] Deianeira's speech in response (ll. 292-313), far from expressing the profound compassion which prior critics have found so moving, instead "brings into play her ambivalence about Heracles, her perception of her own situation, and the self-serving aspect of pity and lamentation (emphasis mine), in a text characterized by suppression and contradiction." Similarly, the speech by which D. finally convinces L. to tell the "truth" (ll. 436ff) is no "passionate outburst," but rather a "carefully constructed oration" based on the familiar kalon vs kakon topos. (p.73) And in fact the speech which this oration succeeds in eliciting from L. does not differ from his first account "as truth from falsity," but rather simply represents an "alternative interpretation" of Her.'s motives at Oechalia, illustrating Protagoras' doctrine that "concerning everything there are two logoi each opposed to the other." (p. 70)

By the end of this second chapter, then, H.'s modus operandi for interpreting the play has become clear. None of its characters can be relied on as a disinterested or reliable source for the truth of what has happened, is happening, or will happen. All have rhetorical agendas of their own, and the motivations required to justify this "self-consciousness," whenever not explicitly voiced in the text itself (Lichas is the one exception), are supplied by speculation about psychological processes implied by the rhetorical strategies. To this reviewer, the logic of the approach appears perilously circular, and the concerted effort to undermine the epistemological credibility of every speaking character seems conducive to episodes of unconvincing hypercriticism, such as the claim (p.49) that when D. specifies 15 months as the duration of Her.'s absence, her ability to reckon time so precisely is "extremely suspect" in view of "the difficulties of ancient time-reckoning" with its confusing intercalary months. For the reader who has followed H. closely so far, the following chapters contain wholly predictable conclusions. Hyllus, in bringing word of his father's apparent demise, delivers a "rhetorically forced" report, in an act of "self-deception closely akin to Deianeira's in confronting intolerable uncertainty." Despite his "extremely strong assertion of his messenger's veracity (742-3) ... , all Hyllus can really be said to know at this point is that something very, very weird has happened to his father." (p. 111) The wand of self-conscious rhetoric is waved over the notorious problem posed by the Nurse's transposition of D.'s exit to follow Hyllus's in her account of D.'s death (ll. 900-1), and the difficulty disappears. The Nurse has simply "rearranged the events, perhaps in order to create a more dramatic impression on the Chorus, whose pity she hopes to arouse." (p. 128) D.'s lamentations just before death are presented as the "same strategy of avoidance" that has been detected in all her prior expressions of pity for herself and others. (P. 130) When Her. finally appears, his exaggeration of the effects of his disease "to enhance the pathos of his downfall" creates "suspicion that the disease may not be as serious as he says." (p. 139) By "remaining silent (about the apotheosis of Her.) at the conclusion of Trach., Sophocles abdicates the role of the archaic poet, simultaneously disclaiming any authority derived from the Muses and granting the right of interpretation to his entire audience," thus raising "the possibility that anybody might question the authority of any myth." (p. 157) In the final lines of the play, the Chorus [in assigning the lines to them H. makes no attempt to resolve the su, parthen' (1275) problem posed by this attribution], instead of losing faith in the possibility of knowledge, in the most desperate and extensive rhetorical forcing in the play ... reassert the unity of all in the name of Zeus." (p. 160) [The Chorus, understandably, given H.'s focus on the rhetorical strategies of the play's individual characters, receives relatively little attention in the book, except for comment on those rhetorical modes which they share with the direct participants in the action. In particular, the richness of the poetic language of the odes receives very limited discussion, with the exception of the imagery of liquidity, which receives thorough, and stimulating, treatment as a controlling metaphor for the instability of language and knowledge. Among the short discussions devoted to each of the songs as it occurs, this reviewer found the analysis of the First Stasimon as "Epinicion deconstructed" (pp. 77-8) the most stimulating.]

H.'s book represents a wholly fresh approach to this difficult play, and its preoccupation with issues of epistemology will be seen by many as clearly justified by the ambiguities and contradictions with which all its interpreters, beginning with T. Wilamowitz, have struggled to come to terms. Some, however, may share this reviewer's sorrow to see Sophocles the humanist replaced by Sophocles the sophist through an analysis which, by revealing all major participants in the tragedy as self-pitying, self-serving, self-dramatizing, self-conscious practitioners of self-deceiving rhetoric, produces a play to which one can no longer respond with the profound pity which seems essential to tragic effect.