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  • Invisibility and Recognition: Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Ellison’s Invisible Man
  • Martha C. Nussbaum*

I replied to their question by reading aloud from the President’s address to the artists attending the Festival:

  ”Your art is not a political weapon, yet much of what you do is profoundly political, for you seek out the common pleasures and visions, the terrors and cruelties of man’s day on this planet. And I would hope you would help dissolve the barriers of hatred and ignorance which are the source of so much of our pain and danger . . .”

a statement to which I was sympathetic, both as a foreshortened description and as the expression of a hope.

  —Ralph Ellison, “The Myth of the Flawed White Southerner,” in Going to the Territory 1


On his way to Troy to fight with the Greeks in the Trojan War, Philoctetes stepped by mistake into a sacred shrine. His foot, bitten by the serpent who guards the shrine, began to ooze with an ulcerous sore, and his cries of pain disrupted the army’s religious observances. So the commanders abandoned him on the deserted island of Lemnos, with no companions and no resources but his bow and arrows. We know that Aeschylus’ and Euripides’ versions of the story made Lemnos an inhabited island; the Chorus consisted of local inhabitants. Sophocles has thus remarkably stressed his hero’s isolation from human company and human speech. He is seen and heard, as he himself later tells us, only by the animals who must also become his only food. [End Page 257]

Ten years later, learning that they could not win the war without his magical bow, the commanders return, determined to ensnare him into participating in the war by a series of lies. Odysseus shows no interest in Philoctetes as a person; he speaks of him only as a tool of public ends. Young Neoptolemus, despite some initial reluctance, goes along, eager for glory. The chorus of common soldiers has a different response. Even before they see the man, they imagine what it might be like to be him, and they enter a protest against the callousness of the commanders:

For my part, I have compassion for him. (oiktirô nin egôge) Think how with no human company or care, no sight of a friendly face, wretched, always alone, he wastes away with that savage disease, with no way of meeting his daily needs. How, how in the world, does the poor man survive? 2

They go on to imagine, once again, his isolation: “he lies isolated from all (mounos ap’allôn), with the dappled and shaggy beasts”; they picture his hunger, his physical pain, his outcry of distress, the echo that is its only reply (182–191).

Unlike their leader, then, the men of the Chorus vividly and sympathetically imagine the life of a man whom they have never seen, and whom no human eye has seen for ten years, a man whose very humanity has been rendered invisible by the schemes of the leaders, both earlier and now. They picture his loneliness, his pain, his struggle for survival. In the process, they stand in for, and allude to, the imaginative work of the spectators, who are invited to imagine a type of needy homeless life to which prosperous people rarely direct their attention, and who are explicitly told that this life can become the lot even of the fortunate. The drama as a whole, then, cultivates the type of sympathetic vision of which its characters speak.

The self-referential character of this scene is further dramatized shortly, as Philoctetes approaches. The men of the Chorus hear a cry and immediately they know how to interpret it: it is “the voice of a man crawling with great difficulty along the path, the voice of a man wounded.” In this way their ability to imagine a complex way of life runs ahead of their sensory evidence. And, just before he enters, they say, “He comes not with the sound of a pipe, like a shepherd pasturing his [End Page 258] flock, but with a cry that carries a long way, as though he has stumbled—or perhaps he...

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pp. 257-283
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