Friday, June 18, 2021

The Bavarian Commentary on the Metamorphoses

Medieval and Renaissance art and iconography would be very different had writers and artists of the time not encountered Ovid's work.

And along with that work came the interpretive work that transformed Ovid into Ovide Moralise and many other versions of grappling with the world of myth and poetry he gave us.

Now a scholar has published an edition of the earliest medieval commentary on Ovid's Metamorphoses: The Bavarian Commentary and Ovid: Clm 4610. 

Here's the blurb from Open Book Publishers about the publication of Robin Wahlsten Böckerman's edition:

The Bavarian Commentary and Ovid is the first complete critical edition and translation of the earliest preserved commentary on Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Today, Ovid’s famous work is one of the touchstones of ancient literature, but we have only a handful of scraps and quotations to show how the earliest medieval readers received and discussed the poems—until the Munich Bayerische Staatsbibliothek clm 4610. This commentary, which dates from around the year 1100 is the first systematic study of the Metamorphoses, founding a tradition of scholarly study that extends to the present day.

Despite its significance, this medieval commentary has never before been published or analysed as a whole. Böckerman’s groundbreaking work includes a critical edition of the entire manuscript, together with a lucid English translation and a rigorous and stimulating introduction, which sets the work in its historical, geographical and linguistic contexts with precision and clarity while offering a rigorous analysis of its form and function.


The book is available in hardcover here, and also, with a blessed openness worthy of Open Book Publishers, as a free, downloadable pdf.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Baldwin on Love is not unlike Ovid on Amor

 Part of an excellent post on Popova's Brain Pickings:

James Baldwin on Love, the Illusion of Choice, and the Paradox of Freedom


We, none of us, choose the century we are born in, or the skin we are born in, or the chromosomes we are born with. We don’t choose the incredibly narrow band of homeostasis within which we can be alive at all — in bodies that die when their temperature rises above 40 degrees Celsius or drops below 20, living on a planet that would be the volcanic inferno of Venus or the frigid desert of Mars if it were just a little closer to or farther from its star.

And yet, within these narrow parameters of being, nothing appeals to us more than the notion of freedom — the feeling that we are free, that intoxicating illusion with which we blunt the hard fact that we are not. The more abstract and ideological the realm, the more vehemently we can insist that moral choice in specific situations within narrow parameters proves a totality of freedom. But the closer the question moves to the core of our being, the more clearly and catastrophically the illusion crumbles — nowhere more helplessly than in the most intimate realm of experience: love. Try to will yourself into — or out of — loving someone, try to will someone into loving you, and you collide with the fundamental fact that we do not choose whom we love. We could not choose, because we do not choose who and what we are, and in any love that is truly love, we love with everything we are.

James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) was a young man — young and brilliant and aflame with life, blazing against society’s illusion of stability and control — when he composed his stunning semi-autobiographical novel Giovanni’s Room (public library), making the paradox of freedom its animating theme.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Ovid's Medea

 Our Classics group is currently reading Euripides' Medea, and of course it brought to mind Ovid's fascination with the enchantress. 

Medea rejuvenating Jason's father Aeson

Ovid was drawn to the daughter of Aeetes. His only tragic drama was his lost Medea. A surviving fragment appears to be an ominous warning from Medea to Jason - and it's pure Ovid:

'servare potui; perderean possim rogas?’ 

‘I was able to save you; do you think I cannot destroy you?’

Medea dominates half of book 7 of the Metamorphoses. The character and her story develop into something of a travelogue featuring detailed descriptions of her search for the highly rarefied materials of her sorcery. That book can be found here in Tony Kline's translation.

While Medea puts the Dragon to sleep, Jason,
followed by Orpheus, takes the Golden Fleece

The images of Medea are from Greek Mythology Link, which has a rich "bio" of Medea. The top figure is from a 17th century French translation of the Metamorphoses. The lower one is by William Russell Flint.

This post reproduces what was posted to the Classics in Sarasota blog.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Ovid and his book

From "The Unbearable Lightness of Ovid": Tom Hendrickson offers a careful description of the "books" Ovid, exiled, wrote of in Tristia:
Like many of those who now open the pages of the Tristia, I was looking for something specific rather than reading at my leisure when I stumbled across it in Pisa. I was doing research on ancient books, and the very first poem of the Tristia is addressed to the book itself and provides a lush description of the ancient bookroll as an aesthetic object. Ovid instructs his book to look mournful and unkempt, in keeping with his situation (1.1.5–12):
Nec te purpureo uelent uaccinia fuco — 
non est conueniens luctibus ille color — 
nec titulus minio, nec cedro charta notetur,
candida nec nigra cornua fronte geras…
Nec fragili geminae poliantur pumice frontes,
hirsutus sparsis ut uideare comis.

Let no whortleberry veil you with crimson dye — 
That color is not fit for mourning — 
Let your title-slip be marked by no cinnabar, your papyrus with no cedar,
And may you not carry gleaming horns on your dark forehead…
Let your twin faces be smoothed by no delicate pumice,
So that you seem shaggy, with scraggly hair. (1.1.5–12)
Books in the Roman world were typically papyrus scrolls. They could be utilitarian tools, but they could also be luxury objects, works of art in their own right. The papyrus would be stained with cedar oil (cedro charta notetur), which kept it free from pests and rot, but which also gave it a heavenly color and scent. The edges of the scroll, which could become torn and ragged, would have to be frequently filed with pumice (fragili geminae poliantur pumice frontes), allowing book-owners to indulge in a kind of “care of the book” ritual. A center-rod, which might be made of precious materials, would be used to unroll the scroll. Here the center-rod sticking out of either end of the scroll must be ivory, since Ovid describes it as being like the gleaming horns on a cow’s dark forehead (candida … nigra cornua fronte). Each scroll would have a small title slip attached to the top and naming the author and work, here imagined to be written in scarlet ink (minio). The “crimson dye” (purpureo … fuco) refers to a slip-cover in which the book could be stored and transported in safety.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Some new essays on Ovid

In honor of Ovid's Bimillennium, a group of essays has been posted by In Medias Res, a magazine published by the Paideia Institute. They include readings of the Amores, the Heroides, the Medicamina faciei femineae (his work on make-up), and the Metamorphoses.

An intro with links to them by John Byron Kushner is here.

From Kusher's essay on Metamorphoses:
Ovid seems to be arguing against responsibility, and for sympathy. All of these desires — licit and illicit — come into our lives through our bodies, and it is not clear that we are to be held responsible for our bodies, or that we are our bodies, a theme Ovid plays with continually. Adonis coming into manhood is described as iam se formosior ipso est — more beautiful than himself (10.523). Marriage for Atalanta is described — quite powerfully, knowing how difficult marriage can be for us all — as teque ipsa viva carebis (“you will no longer have yourself, though you will be alive,” 10.566). 
In Latin our lives begin and end with passive verbs: nascimur and morimur (we are born, we die). And much of the in-between fits into the verb patimur, we suffer, which is the main material of the Metamorphoses, in its varied forms . . . 
After a helpful discussion of the long speech of Pythagoras, he notes:
For Ovid, to use E.J. Kenney’s phrase used by Feeney, “the Augustan settlement was not, as it had been for Vergil, the start of a new world, novus ordo saeclorum, but another sandbank in the shifting stream of eternity.”
Of course, Ovid being nothing if not Ovid, one thing will remain, through some unidentified agency, unchanged beyond that shifting stream -- his name:

parte tamen meliore mei super alta perennis
astra ferar, nomenque erit indelebile nostrum

Still in my better part far beyond the lofty stars
I shall be borne immortal; my name will be indelible.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Classicist and the Ovid-citing supremacists

In an interview on "To the Best of Our Knowledge," the editor of the classics journal Eidolon takes on USian white supremacists who cite Ovid's Ars Amatoria as precedent and support for their view of male patriarchal power

Donna Zuckerberg, who also teaches at Stanford, talks about how she encountered threatening pushback for taking on this ham-handed appropriation of ancient authorities by contemporary ideologues, many of whom fetishize Nazism.

In the brief conversation with the program's host, Zuckerberg notes that she loves Ovid and allows that he's neither simple nor direct, in fact he's rather nuanced and complex. This nine-minute conversation, however, which isn't focused on the poet, leads to the categorizing of the book as a pick-up artist's manual -- the very trope the poet is using to expose the hilarious pretensions of matchbook-course experts on Amor.

Reading a passage in which the Praeceptor avers that women love to be taken by force, Zukerberg verges dangerously close to taking the poet at face value in the very way she faults the supremacist readers for doing. Predicting a vein of unimaginative male discourse doesn't qualify one as a prophet, but neither does it convict one of the dastardliness foretold.

Zuckerberg knows Ovid is a complex poetic craftsman. The problem with those who cite his "authority" on male-female relations is that his examination of desire in all its self-contradiction makes it quite clear that both sexes are equally the playthings of Amor, and the games played, the intricate commerce of sexual relations, do not rely on any a priori assumptions about male power and female inferiority. Indeed, there would be nothing to talk about if Amor rested on a fixed hierarchy of the sexes.

Ovid teaches us by putting into lively verse an entire dictionary of memes and cliches about love. What people say -- including Trumpian lockerroom trash about women liking to be forced -- is part of the poet's subject. It doesn't make the poet a one-sided USian white supremacist.

One might argue that Ovid's lucidity about the impossibility of his own pretended enterprise -- that there is such a thing as an "art" of love -- is fundamentally incompatible with the meathead sensibility of one who would extract from his lively and witty text a reading as ponderously dull as that of these wannabe classicizing supremacists.

That sort of fatuity is as far from Ovid as it is from the author of Bouvard et Pecuchet and the Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Whether there is any common ground upon which to discuss the Ars Amatoria with the Bouvards of white USian Nazism is a question best left for another moment.

For her efforts, Zuckerberg earned threats of brutal violence to herself and her family. The gap between the literal and the literary reading of a text can be a perilous one, as this text's own author was to learn.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Plato's Ion and Ovid's usus

When Ovid calls himself vates, he is taking a term that had sacred connotations, but then had "fallen into "contempt," according to Lewis and Short, until Virgil had restored some of the luster of the oracle, the prophet. 

 In the Ars Amatoria, the term can't be so solemnly Virgilian:
Non ego, Phoebe, datas a te mihi mentiar artes,     
Nec nos aëriae voce monemur avis,
Nec mihi sunt visae Clio Cliusque sorores     
Servanti pecudes vallibus, Ascra, tuis:
Usus opus movet hoc: vati parete perito;
     Vera canam: coeptis, mater Amoris, ades!
Phoebus, I won't pretend that you've endowed me with arts,
     nor is my source the voice of high-flying birds,
nor did Clio and Clio's sisters appear to me,
     Ascra, as I tended my flocks in your valleys.
Experience is what inspires this work! Obey the skilled prophet:
     I'll sing truths. Be present, Mother of Love, for my project! 
                                                                         (AA I.25-30)
As suggestive as it might be to ponder this differentiation of human usus - experience - from divine inspiration -- Apollonian on one hand, Hesiodic on another -- we'll stipulate that the source of inspiration is the experience of Amor, and that this is sufficient to qualify the singer as a vates.

For now I simply offer one of Plato's great passages about poetic inspiration, quoted in this excellent post on Sententiae Antiquae:

Plato’s Ion 533d-534e
“ . . . talking well about Homer is not some skill (τέχνη) within you—as I was just saying—but it is a divine power that moves you (θεία δὲ δύναμις ἥ σε κινεῖ), just as in that stone which Euripides calls a ‘Magnet” but which most people call Herakleian. For this stone not only moves iron rings but it also imbues the rings with the same power so that they can do the same thing as the stone in turn—they move other rings and as a result there is a great chain of iron and rings connected to each other. But the power from that stone runs through them all. In this way, the Muse herself makes people inspired, and a linked chain of inspired people extend from her. 
"All the good poets of epic utter those beautiful poems not because of skill but because they are inspired and possessed—the good lyric poets are the same, just as the Korybantes do not dance when they are in their right minds, so too the lyric poets do not compose their fine lines when they are sensible, but when they embark upon their harmony and rhythm, they are in revelry and possessed. They are just like the bacchants who draw honey and milk from rivers when they are possessed, not when they are in their normal state of mind. The soul of the lyric poets does this too, which they themselves admit: for they claim, as I see it, that they bring to us their songs by gathering from the honey-flowing springs from certain gardens and glades of the Muses like bees—and they fly too! 
And they speak the truth. For a poet is an empty thing—winged, and sacred and not capable of composing before it is inspired and out of mind, when thought is no longer inside. Until one has gained this state, every person is incapable of composing or giving oracles. Because they compose not by skill—when they say many fine things about their subjects—but by divine dispensation, as you do about Homer, each is only capable of composing well in the arena where the Musa compels—one person composes dithyramb, one encomia, another dance songs, another epic and another iambic poetry. But each is useless in the other genres."
“Do you understand that the audience is the last of the rings which I was describing as transmitting through one another the power from the Herakleian stone and that you are the middle as the rhapsode and interpreter—that the poet himself is the first ring? The god moves the soul of all of these people wherever he wants, stringing the power from one into another.” 

English translation of Ovid from J.D. Hejduk's The Offense of Love

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Styling the hunt for Amor

The moment Ovid's praeceptor of Love takes the podium, he's selling something -- starting with himself. The poet of the Ars Amatoria promises to dispense knowledge gained through long experience -- usus -- of love, to those seeking the guidance of a Chiron of Amor.

The cautious reader will be on guard. Who is this Tiphys et Automedon Amoris? What's he selling, and what's his angle?

The poet will keep us wondering. Sooner or later, it dawns on us that the lesson here is not "how to pick up girls," or various technical aides to "out-Hercules Hercules." Something else, very much other than the ostensible subject matter, is in play.

To enter this relationship with the praeceptor is not unlike entering a relationship with a lover -- at least, with one of those common types he depicts -- a creature of empty words, signs written in spilled wine on a messy dinner table, or composed in invisible ink - or, milk. Or the promise might be encrypted on his face through silent expressions. After all, he's a promise-making animal.

Motifs of writing, promising, hunting and gaming run through the Ars, next to, but not necessarily comporting with, another thread: the series of myths related to Minos, four of which -- Pasiphae, Ariadne, Daedalus/Icarus, and Procris -- receive expansive treatment. The shifts in tone between these moments of Euripidean solemnity and the wiseguy world of contemporary (in either sense) Rome make for a dislocating experience.

I'll teach you to hunt, says the Tutor:
The hunter knows where to spread nets for the stag,
     he knows what valleys hide the angry boar:
He's reticent on how, in this pursuit, one can swiftly go from hunter to prey.

The Tutor's pupil is advised to roam through the boulevards and valleys of Rome, amid an abundance of candidates for love. No single object of affection actually swims into view, nor is any particular relationship mapped. No specific human relationship gets to develop from initial acquaintance to happy (or otherwise) consummation and contentment. Ovid's praeceptor guides us as if we were armed with a metal detector. Moving rapidly over the terrain, we scan this one at the theater, then rub shoulders, thighs or feet with that one at the races.

The Tutor's charge moves through the crowded Roman spectacles. For him, the reason for being at the Circus or theater has nothing to do with devotion to sport or to Melpomene. And this is basic to the Tutor's lesson: When dealing with Amor, one is usually not interested in the ostensible subject that has drawn the crowd. One is not there for the play, unless it's the interplay with the lady who catches one's eye.

On the stage, one beholds those seized, nay, cursed -- like Phaedra -- with uncontrollable, fated desire. But in the audience, one plays the field: the object of desire glances from lady to lady, rapidly aroused by others' desire:
Sed cur fallariscum sit nova grata voluptas      
Et capiant animos plus aliena suis
But why should you be disappointed, when a new pleasure's most fun,
   and the heart craves someone else's things more than its own?  I.346-7
Moments before, the Tutor's song had risen to dramatic apostrophe, intoning the names of tragic lovers:
Cui non defleta est Ephyraeae flamma Creüsae,
     Et nece natorum sanguinolenta parens?
Flevit Amyntorides per inania lumina Phoenix:
     Hippolytum pavidi diripuistis equi.
Who hasn't wept at the burning of Ephyrean Creusa
    and the mother drenched in the blood of her murdered sons?
Phoenix, son of Amyntor, wept from blinded eyes;
    maddened horses, you tore apart Hippolytus!  I.335-38
But now, amid the many ladies in the amphitheater, the displacing power cannot rest on any one, because there is always an other - a nova. Desire runs through the crowd, not coming to rest with the mad horses of Hippolytus, but looking out upon prosaic country sights: big, bovine numbers:
Fertilior seges est alienis semper in agris
     Vicinumque pecus grandius uber habet.
The grass is always greener in someone else's field,
     and the neighbor's cattle have got the fatter udders. 1.349-50
What prompts the hunt? Why do we love?

According to the Tutor, at its extremes, Amor is excessive obsession with a single, immutable target that destroys lives and dynasties; and, or: desire displaces any possible target to infinity. What's our goal here? Some one, some thing, to have and to hold and put finis to the hunt? Or are we perpetually trapped, needing the hunt in order to experience desire?

To ask whether we desire love, or love desire, is to grapple with the Tutor's lesson. With Amor, there is always the sense that our interests might be other than they appear (we're attending Phaedra, but we're here for the chicks). Lovers -- including the praeceptor -- are not what they, we, seem, thanks to love.

It's compounded in the negotiation of the hunt and courtship, as both parties face this difficulty. How to know what -- or whom -- the other actually desires?

To the extent that the Ars is about knowing whom to trust (hence whom to love), it's about reading. The lesson throughout this ever-changing poem involves making sense of its signals. Put another way, the "content" (logos) of the poem -- i.e., the ostensible subject matter of the "art" of Love -- is pretext. If you wish to win that lover who is right for you, attend not to what I say (logos), but to how I say it (lexis, modus).
Nec tibi conveniet cunctos modus unus ad annos:     
     Longius insidias cerva videbit anus.
Si doctus videare rudi, petulansve pudenti,     
    Diffidet miserae protinus illa sibi.
Inde fit, ut quae se timuit committere honesto,     
    Vilis ad amplexus inferioris eat.
 A single style won't work for you for every age;
    the seasoned doe will spot a trap further away.
If you seem learned to the simple, or aggressive to the chaste,
    she'll lose confidence in herself at once, poor thing.
Thus it happens that one who's afraid to entrust herself to
    a decent man goes cheap to a worse one's embrace. 1.765-770.

English translations are from J.D. Hejduk's The Offense of Love.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Love for sale: Ovid's love doctor

Aeacidae Chironego sum praeceptor Amoris 
As Chiron to that son of Aeacus, I am the tutor of Love* (AA 1.17)

From the start, the Tutor of the Ars Amatoria has used car salesman written all over him. This praeceptor - not to be confused with Ovid -- declares his mastery, promises the reader success in the ways of love, then proceeds to deliver "wisdom" so tenuous, trivial, inconsistent and derelict that even the dullest of pupils would have second thoughts about further lessons.

Book 1 ends with the praeceptor pulling into port:
Pars superat coeptipars est exhausta laboris.     Hic teneat nostras ancora iacta rates. 
Part of the task I've undertaken is done, part remains;
here let the anchor be cast and hold my ship.
Our Chiron wannabe, who began by claiming expertise in the arts of Love on a par with Tithys' command of the Argo, here drops anchor. While translators tend to translate rates as "boat" or "ship," it might be closer to "raft." The Tutor's epic persona, and all his appointments, are looking a bit shopworn and degraded at this point.

Part of the joy of reading Ovid is in getting a feeling for what he's up to. In the Ars, his persona proudly vaunts his ability to dare verba. 
Pauperibus vates ego sumquia pauper amavi;     Cum dare non possem muneraverba dabam. 
I'm a prophet for paupers, because I loved as a pauper;     since I wasn't able to give gifts, I gave words.
As translator Julia Dyson Hejduk notes, dare verba was an idiom signifying "to trick." In the service of Love, all is fair, and all moves from, and with, the magical dazzle of empty words, signifiers, promises, cheap talk.

What is Ovid on about here, dabbling in the nature of love and language, faith and folly, myth and streetsmarts mingling in the Tutor's endless gab? Indeed one work that seems most like the Ars is Erasmus's Praise of Folly. In both, the inspiring divinity is both all powerful and all silly, all the time.

There's also the roaming eye of the flaneur, prowling and probing the high and hidden places of the city; there's the gaze of the social order, the ploys of the hunter, the threadbare experience -- usus -- of the one who spills the secrets of Amor and Roma with a saucy air.

There's nothing for it but to dive into the Tutor's wordstream -- to play the reader -- and target -- of his ploys.

*Translations are from The Offense of Love, Julia Dyson Hejduk, whose fidelity to the texts of the Ars, the Remedia Amoris, and Tristia is virtually line by line, and whose notes are invaluable for us grateful modern clods.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Models of Ancient Rome

When Ovid was writing the Ars Amatoria, the empire was in its infancy. The city grew in magnificence commensurate with its stature. This site offers views of the model of Rome built by the archaeologist and architect Italo Gismondi. Known as Il Plastico, the model is housed in the Museo della Civilta Romana, and offers views from the time of Constantine.

Circus Maximus, Palatine

Here's a virtual tour of the city at its height by Bernard Frischer