In love with life

It’s the difficult bits that can be both the most frustrating, and the most rewarding. Here the nurse in Euripides’ Hippolytus (surely an ancestor of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet) has been complaining about how hard life is, when suddenly, she waxes woolly and philosophical, as Euripides is wont to do. Barrett, in his commentary, suspects the passage is interpolated, because it is not easy to make good dramatic sense of it. I am not sure he is right. Perhaps it is partly that the attitude expressed shows a somewhat “later” religious sensibility, that smacks of mystery religions, and is a bit fluffy. The bit I like states the other side of that feeling; the passage as a whole falls short of endorsing our fancies about what lies concealed in the clouds. The passage is 189 ff (with the inclusion two lines from the preceding strophe for context); a rough translation follows.

πᾶς δ᾽ ὀδυνηρὸς βίος ἀνθρώπων
  κοὐκ ἔστι πόνων ἀνάπαυσις.
ἀλλ᾽ ὅ τι τοῦ ζῆν φίλτερον ἄλλο
σκότος ἀμπίσχων κρύπτει νεφέλαις.
δυσέρωτες δὴ φαινόμεθ᾽ ὄντες
τοῦδ᾽ ὅ τι τοῦτο στίλβει κατὰ γῆν
δι᾽ ἀπειροσύνην ἄλλου βιότου
κοὐκ ἀπόδειξιν τῶν ὑπὸ γαίας,
  μύθοις δ᾽ ἄλλως φερόμεσθα.

All man’s life is painful, and there is no end to our toils. Whatever other thing [there is] that is dearer than life is concealed with clouds in the surrounding dark. We seem to be in anguished love (δυσέρωτες δὴ φαινόμεθ᾽ ὄντες) with this “this” that shines (τοῦδ᾽ ὅ τι τοῦτο στίλβει: a very strange expression, but I feel I understand it exactly) here on earth; because of lack of experience of another life, and the non-revelation of what lies beneath this world, we are vainly (ἄλλως) carried along by myths (or perhaps better, “tales”).

The word for “shine” (στίλβειν) is used for example by Theocritus of the bare chests of athletes that carry an erotic charge: it’s an earthly radiance, not an ethereal glow, sunlight, perhaps, rather than the moon. But this is no easy delight, as it were of the Mediterranean holidaymaker. δύσερως adds to love the dys- of dysfunctional or dysplasia. Remembering that this passage answers the utterance of a banal pessimism worthy of Ecclesiastes, or the Life of Brian, and also that the play is about Phaedra’s lovesickness unto death for Hippolytus, this love is surely more bitter than sweet, and far indeed from being reasonable or easy. Spring comes, the sap rises, and there may be no true comfort in it, but we cannot help but desire the light.

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