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Stone into Smoke: Mortality and Materiality in Euripides' Troades

Victoria Wohl

“Ashes … annihilate or threaten to annihilate even the possibility of testifying to annihilation itself.”    (Derrida 2000:183)

This paper analyzes the relation between smoke and stone and between text and matter in Euripides’ Troades. This play stages the destruction of Troy, tracing the city’s transformation from a material place of stone walls and temples into an “invisible name” (onoma … aphanes, 1322). This transformation can be read against the backdrop of an Athenian ideology of dematerialization articulated in Thucydides’ Epitaphios (Arrowsmith 1973, Bassi 2007). Transubstantiating Athens as physical city (and living citizens) into a glorious abstraction, Pericles secures it against the depredations of disease, defeat, and time. But while Pericles (and Thucydides) glorify this immortal outopia, Euripides’ play stages dematerialization as a horrifying degeneration of bodies into objects and objects into ash. This process of dematerialization is closely connected, both in Euripides and in Thucydides, with the linguistic qualities of the text. Whereas Thucydides’ abstract language mirrors his imaginary Athens (Loraux 1986), the language of Euripides’ play is characterized by an exceptional materiality: the polyptoton that piles woe upon woe (596, 605), the antilabe that breaks metrical lines (577-96). Euripides replaces the lost city with a poetic edifice of suffering, capped by a “copice-stone of evils” (489).

My paper reads this interplay between the dematerialized city and the materiality of the text as a case study in “vibrant materialism” (Bennett 2010), examining in particular the ramifications for the human. The play’s material metaphors turn people into objects. Hecuba, as she waits to board the Greek ships, herself becomes a ship rocking back and forth in grief (116-19). Likewise, Astyanax is a “bitter discus” thrown from the walls of Troy (1121). Even as humans become objects, objects take on an uncanny agency. In a famously grotesque image, “murder laughs from from broken bones” of the dead child (1176-77; Barlow 1986 ad loc). This personification suggests the dark reverse-face of vibrant materialism’s implicit optimism: here the agency of the material is malevolent, parasitic upon human vitality. This is clearest in the play’s treatment of Hector’s shield (1194-1225). Apostrophized as a living memorial to the dead hero, the shield does not immortalize but instead supplants its owner: it sweats with his sweat (1197) and shares his death although it does not die (1222-23). The shield is both generative, “mother of many trophies” (1222), and Astyanax’s grave (1136-42), suggesting that its “vibrancy” as an object is gained at the cost of human life. To this extent, it is less vibrant thing than Lacanian Thing, unassimilable remnant of the Real of death.

The play is complicit with this devitalization of the human through the materiality of its language. But it also resists this process in the smoke imagery with which it ends. Troy will perish “like some smoke on a wing of wind” (1298); its dust will rise “like smoke on a wing” (1320). In these desperately mixed metaphors, the animate (bird) and the material (ash, dust) evaporate into a shared immateriality: smoke. What is the ontology of smoke within this play’s transfer of human and material? In place of an inscribed epitaph (1189) or Homer’s kleos aphthiton (511-14), drama can offer only the evanescent memorial of an ephemeral performance. This insubstantial legacy – drama as a trace of lives lived – complicates the text’s claims to materiality and helps us reexamine Pericles’ promise that the onoma of Athens will live on, long after the physical city and its human inhabitants have perished, in the memory of men to come (Thuc. 2.64.3).

Session/Panel Title:

Objects and Affect: The Materialities of Greek Drama

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