One of the real mixed blessings of modern warfare has been that improvements in medical technologies have allowed more wounded soldiers to survive what would have once been fatal injuries- now there are more crippled and less dead soldiers returning from war. Trauma is an expected component of warfare. Still, it’s a uniquely awful situation to be put in- soldiers are expected to and honored for putting their bodies on the line and sustaining serious injuries on the battlefield, but the military has much less use for them after they lose a limb or their mind. One would imagine that there are many veterans who can sympathize with Philoctetes: After sustaining a horrible injury, the great warrior is abandoned by the rest of his fleet who can hardly bear to witness his suffering. Isolated, forsaken and alone, he is then expected to remain loyal to the Greeks.
There’s an element of grand guignol to his wounds: having unknowingly breached Chryse’s sacred precinct, Philoctetes was bitten by a venomous snake, leaving his foot gangrenous, rotten, and reeking terribly; I like to call this play, with its gruesome E.C. Comics details, “The Curse of Stinkfoot”. Unable to bear his agonized cries and stinking foot, the Greeks left him to die on the deserted island of Lemnos. Here, he lives like an animal, remaining in a cave and hunting small pray with the magical bow he was given by the warrior Heracles, son of Zeus, for having the courage to put him on the fire when he was mortally wounded. None of the other Greeks could bear to do so and courage is a major theme of the play. Philoctetes’s courage in caring for Heracles will be mirrored by Neoptolemus’s courage in caring for him. As in life, though, it’s never entirely clear what is the courageous path.
The problem is the Greeks now know they need that bow in order to end the siege of Troy, preferably with Philoctetes firing, although nobody who uses the bow can miss. They have to return to the island and Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, is assigned to convince him, possibly through deceit, to return to the battlefield. It’s a terrible situation, as are most tragedies. Philoctetes wants to die, but Neoptolemus can’t let him do so and has to play the role of his better nature. There is a “Philoctetes Project” that has staged the play for health professionals, and particularly mental health professionals, who one assumes could relate to Neoptolemus’s struggle. In many ways, it would be best to let him die; and yet, in some sense, allowing him to do so is to surrender the war, the Greeks, and to allow death to triumph. By saving Philoctetes, Neoptolemus is saving himself from nihilism.
Philoctetes is a play that confronts us, perhaps more than others, with the alterity of the Greeks and the peculiarity of their values; it is frankly hard for modern audiences to find the conclusion satisfying. In the end, the dead Heracles appears from the other side as a deus ex machina to convince Philoctetes to go to Troy and be both redeemed and healed. We understand that he has to let go of his bitter anger and desire for self-destruction in order to be saved by his submission to the larger social and sacred order. But Heracles’s win one for the gipper speech wraps things up too neatly: it seems pat. I think we also find it a bit propagandistic- a representative of the Divine making a cameo from Mount Olympus in order to voice support for the Greek military adventure, and the sacred order providing muscle for the military order via bow of mass destruction.
A modern audience might expect Philoctetes to “stay true to himself” instead of to the will of the collective. Our Romantic sensibilities would be, perhaps, better served if he pulled a John Rambo, toppling Troy as a lone wolf, refusing to return to the Greek order that has let him down. But this is not a play that reflects our world, nor our mentality.
Ultimately, Philoctetes falls in line. He submits to fate, which demands his obedience. What choice does he have? No man may defy the divine order. His meaning comes by fulfilling his role in the collective- otherwise, he dies alone on a barren rock. But his “glory” comes by the luck of having a bow that likely anyone could use. There’s something chastening about it all. To our post-Romantic minds, there’s little heroic about submission and obedience. We have a hard time associating glory with obedience. But, to the Greeks, who had a profound understanding of human limitations- every tragedy seems, at least to me, to feature characters crashing up against these limitations- glory comes by fulfilling one’s destiny, no matter how personally unfulfilling that destiny might be.