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  • Infection in the Sentence:The Discourse of Disease in Sophocles' Philoctetes
  • Nancy Worman

Infection in the sentence breedsWe may inhale DespairAt distances of CenturiesFrom the Malaria—

Emily Dickinson

A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death . . . I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live.

Julia Kristeva

The Philoctetes is a notoriously elusive drama, much studied but often poorly understood. Sophocles' reputation as a staunch upholder of aristocratic values tends to determine which aspects of the play receive attention: disruptive elements in the Sophoclean hero's character, for example, are often assessed as incidental to his dilemma, rather than as central to his narrative and thus to his character type.1 Penelope Biggs is still virtually [End Page 1] alone in her detailing of how Sophocles employs the imagery of disease to highlight the isolation and inner conflict of such heroes as Ajax, Heracles, and Philoctetes,2 as is David Seale in focusing on the visual impact of these characters.3 I want to emphasize here that, in the case of Philoctetes, the deeply conflicted nature of the Sophoclean hero takes a particularly visceral form. Philoctetes' diseased body, fluctuating emotional states, and tenuous hold on verbal control—which arouse troubled, often ambivalent reactions in Neoptolemus and the chorus—serve to highlight the hero's outsider status with a singular mix of physical deformity and mental distress. The infection from his wounded foot is both the external mark of and the catalyst for his mental disruption and isolation, which, in turn, lend his speech a volatile quality that further sets him apart from his interlocutors. Not merely pitiful and possessed of a heroic virtue that far outstrips that of Odysseus, Philoctetes is also a disturbing and fearsome figure. He is marooned on Lemnos, an island known elsewhere in myth for its evil-smelling, murderous women,4 his wound is repulsive in its dripping stench, and his speech often shudders disturbingly between heroic lament and bestial howls. At certain points in the drama, the hero's voice even seems infected by a verbal leakage from his wound to his words, which then affects attempts by others to describe his affliction.

While I am not arguing that Sophocles' depiction of Philoctetes' character centers only on this disruptive element, I do think that calling attention to it helps rather than harms an understanding of the depth of his heroic isolation. The distance between his perspective and that of the army, as represented by the crafty Odysseus, is such that it cannot be bridged on the human level; only the intervention of Heracles prevents the complete dissolution of Odysseus' plot to bring Philoctetes and his bow back to Troy and thereby assure Greek victory. Philoctetes' physical affliction has led to and then maintained his mental isolation, reinforcing his commitment to a heroic code of values that prohibits any détente with an army that had [End Page 2] rejected him.5 This study focuses on the imagery in Sophocles' drama that links Philoctetes' mental isolation to his physical distress and argues that language constitutes the primary site in which the effects of this isolation are detailed. Two intersecting sets of associations trace the pattern of Philoctetes' affliction: 1) the internal impact on him of the serpent's infection, described by metaphors that relate the voracious, noisy capacity of the bestial mouth to somatic effect; and 2) the ways in which verbal communication is involved in both the eruption of the disease and its control. These topics are most central to the discussion, while other related connections between disease and the environment (both physical and political) fill in some crucial interstices between the body's invasion and the use of language.

As a means of illuminating the symbolic patterns that Sophocles employs in his portrayal of Philoctetes, I draw on the imagery of the semiotician and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva (and to a lesser extent that of Freud). Shoshana Felman and others have argued for a use...


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