Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Philoctetes Center

I went to the Philoctetes Center tonight to hear Marie Ponsot talk about Donne. Unfortunately I could only stay for half an hour, but managed to hear her on "Good Morrow." The Center, housed on the third floor of the NY Psychoanalytic Institute, pursues the interdisciplinary study of the imagination (neuroscience, psychology, mathematics, psychoanalysis, humanities and art, philosophy and theology). Besides roundtable discussions, they hold readings and film screenings.

I took the Center's version of the Philoctetes story from its website:

Philoctetes is a mythological character from the Greek tragedy by Sophocles, a warrior who was on his way to the Trojan War when a serpent bit him.

The smell of his wound was so noxious that he was left on the island of Lemnos and ostracized by his countrymen. When the war started, Cassandra, the seer, said that without the bow of Heracles, which is only possessed by Philoctetes and which he inherited from his father, the war could not be won. Many believe that it's the Trojan Horse that is the key to winning the war, but actually it's the bow of Heracles.

So the Argives have to humbly go back to Philoctetes and ask him to rejoin them. At first he says no. From all the pain that you have given me, even if I could regain my glory, I reject you, even if it's at the cost of my own redemption. Even at the cost of reconstituting my own existence. Eventually, there is a deus ex machina that comes in to relieve him of the burden of this decision, and so the Argives regain the bow and eventually go on to win the war.

The Philoctetes myth reappears in a book by Edmund Wilson called The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. Wilson modernizes the story, tying the wound to psychic trauma and the bow to the healing power of insight. And so the creative personality is the one who uses art as a way of transcending trauma. The artist chooses the road of insight over that of pathology.

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