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-^Illness and Exile: Sophocles' Philoctetes Drew Leder Sophocles' play Philoctetes is set on the desolate island of Lemnos. The protagonist has lived there alone for ten years, devoid of companionship and the comforts of home. It is illness that has brought him to such a state. Bitten by the snake that guarded the sanctuary of Chryse, Philoctetes has sustained a foul-smelling, suppurating, agonizing footwound . His companions, on the way to battle, are unable to bear his groans and abandon him on Lemnos. The play begins with the arrival there of Odysseus and Neoptolemus, Achilles' young son. But they come only under compulsion; the Greeks have learned by prophecy that they need Philoctetes and his bow to conquer Troy. Through a causal chain of events, illness has thus given rise to an exile. But the play, for this reader, suggests something more; it suggests that illness is an exile, a banishment from the customary world. Such a metaphoric equation may have been far from Sophocles' intent. But his text provides us with a rich set of images for constructing a phenomenology of illness. The wild and isolated Lemnos evokes the distant country of the sick, which we all may one day come to inhabit. Boy, let me tell you of this island. No sailor by his choice comes near it. There is no anchorage, nor anywhere that one can land, sell goods, be entertained. Sensible men make no voyages here. Yet now and then someone puts in.1 (lines 300-305) To speak of illness is not the same as to speak of disease.2 The latter term refers to an entity defined by means of medical categories. Were a contemporary physician present, Philoctetes' problem might be diagnosed as a chronic localized fungal infection, perhaps actinomycosis, extending into the bone.3 As disease, the condition is objectified, identified with an Literature and Mediane 9 (1990) 1-11 © 1990 by The Johns Hopkins University Press ILLNESS AND EXILE anatomical lesion or disordered physiology. Implicit reference is made to etiological agents, epidemiological distributions, predictions of outcome, diagnostic and therapeutic techniques. But there are no physicians on Lemnos, and hence no diseases. On this island we find illness in the raw. The term illness here refers to suffering and disability as experienced by the sick. To fall ill is not simply to undergo a physiological transformation , but a transformation of one's experiential world. Space is constricted , time slows to a stop, the future grows uncertain, habitual roles are abandoned.4 Concerns that once were paramount now seem trivial, and vice versa. It is incumbent upon physicians to be aware of the experienced illness that lurks behind the disease; it is the illness after all, for which the patient seeks relief. Yet, on the nature of illness, the New England Journal of Medicine has little to say and Sophocles much. In Philoctetes , we witness a threefold exile that characterizes the world of the sick: an exile from the cosmos, the body, and the social world. I will discuss each of these points in turn. Philoctetes' illness first involves a falling out with the cosmos, the universe at large. He has violated the divine order by coming too near Chryse's shrine; inflicted by a guardian-snake, the "sickness is of God's sending" (line 1326). Throughout history, sickness has been associated with divine punishment, from the Black Plague of the fourteenth century to the AIDS epidemic of today.5 The very word pain arises from poinë, the Greek word for "punishment." This association, pernicious as it may be, has roots deep within the illness-experience. The person who develops a serious disease often feels he or she must have done things to deserve it. Pain is the very immediate, bodily sense of something bad or wrong. It is natural, then, to look for its origins in something bad or wrong about the sufferer. This is not restricted to the religious enthusiast concerned with sin. The cancer patient, surveying her smoking history or "cancerprone " personality, may feel the same sense of sickness-as-retribution. To be ill is to feel oneself out of joint with the cosmos, an exile from the harmonious totality of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 1-11
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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