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."
535e-536a
“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

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A few versions of Ars Amatoria online and in print

Update: Thanks to Jean, we now have an addition to our list of translations of the Ars: J.D. Hejduk's The Offense of Love - see below among the print selections.

Ars Amatoria is sure to be a distinct pivot away from Dante's Paradiso, where the Sarasota classics group has been lingering, or loitering, for the past two and a half years.

Ovid's poem, completed around 2 A.D., was a sort of instructional manual to the realm of relations between the sexes.
the word ars in the title is not to be translated coldly as 'technique', or as 'art' in the sense of civilized refinement, but as "textbook", the literal and antique definition of the word. (Ars Amatoria)
The text is available in various formats online and in print -- see below. If anyone knows of another that should be added to the list, please let me know, or leave the info in a comment.


Ars Amatoria Online

A.S. Kline

Sacred Texts

J. Lewis May (Wikisource)

Riley - prose translation with notes (Gutenberg)

Perseus - Dual Language
Hyperlinked Latin, English, and notes


Print

Applebaum - Dover edition, English only, no notes

J.D. Hejduk's The Offense of Love looks to be a smart translation of the Ars, the Remedia Amoris, and Tristia. Amazon offers no access to the Ars translations, but offers the texts in print and Kindle formats. However, Google Books presents English text and well done notes:



James Mitchie Dual language, no notes

Rolfe Humphries - English prose, notes


Saturday, April 7, 2018

Circe

Crewman of Odysseus turning into a beast


A new tale of Circe, told from the point of view of the daughter of Helios, is just out. It's by Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles.

The scope of the tale as told by Miller reckons with the reality of status as an immortal. Odysseus's visit to her isle, while memorable, is but a blip:
"In Ms. Miller’s version, Circe’s encounter with Odysseus is only a slice of her story, which unfolds over thousands of years and begins in the palace of her father, the sun god Helios. Her family members, who treat her with cruelty or indifference, become infamous in their own right: Her sister Pasiphae marries King Minos and gives birth to the Minotaur, a bullheaded, man-eating monster; while her brother Aeetes grows up to rule Colchis, the land of the Golden Fleece, and fathers Medea, who later murders her children." NYT
Myths as the ancients told them were galaxies filled with tales, stretching through generations, with cities and kings rising and falling. Miller seems alive  to that scale of things. Her blog, enriched by her Greek and Latin, is titled "Myths."

And, as noted in reading the Metamorphoses, Ovid's wit is urbane and literary. In his telling, the myths are changed, at points with parodic effect. Understandably, Miller doesn't draw upon his version of the enchantress.
deliberately omitting a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses where Circe punishes a king who spurns her advances by turning him into a woodpecker. 

Madeline Miller

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Ovid's exile to the remotest margins of the Roman empire revoked


Rome city council overturns banishment of ‘one of the greatest poets’ more than 2,000 years after Augustus forced him to leave
More than 2,000 years after Augustus banished him to deepest Romania, the poet Ovid has been rehabilitated. 
Rome city council on Thursday unanimously approved a motion tabled by the populist M5S party to “repair the serious wrong” suffered by Ovid, thought of as one of the three canonical poets of Latin literature along with Virgil and Horace. 
Ovid Banished from Rome - Turner
Best known for his 15-book epic narrative poem Metamorphoses and the elegy Ars Amatoria, or the Art of Love, Publius Ovidius Naso was exiled in 8 AD to Tomis, the ancient but remote Black Sea settlement now known as the Romanian port city of Constanța. 
He remained there until his death a decade later. Although ordered directly by the emperor, scholars have long speculated over the motive for Ovid’s exile; the poet himself attributed it to “carmen et error”, a poem and a mistake. 
Experts believe the cause was probably a combination of three factors: that Ovid’s erotic poetry was considered offensive, his attitude to Augustus was too disrespectful, and that he may have been involved in an unspecified plot or scandal. 
La Republicca reported that M5S, which holds a majority of the seats on the council, demanded that “necessary measures” be adopted to revoke the order in what the capital’s deputy mayor, Luca Bergamo, described as an important symbol.

“It is about the fundamental right of artists to express themselves freely in societies in which, around the world, the freedom of artistic expression is increasingly constrained,” Bergamo told councillors.
Ovid was indisputably “one of the greatest poets in the history of humanity,” the deputy mayor said, and moreover the real reasons for his mysterious banishment by the emperor “were never placed on the historical record”. 
Sulmona, the Abruzzo town where the poet was born (then Sulmo), formally acquitted him of any wrongdoing. Dante, the great Renaissance poet, was similarly pardoned in 2008 by Florence – from where he was exiled on pain of death in 1302. 
Ovid’s many poems and letters in exile, collected in Tristia and The Black Sea Letters, have been described by critics as a “clinical presentation” of the condition of exile, “demonstrating its debilitating effect upon a man’s morale, his talents and perhaps his psychology”.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Coally prattling birds

The appearance of the gaggle of pole -- jackdaws, or grey crows (cornacchie grige) - in Paradiso 21 is a strangely unsolemn moment in an otherwise almost forbiddingly sober canto. Jackaws are usually not associated with contemplation - and the variously active groups of birds described in the simile seem busy, but not intent upon higher things:
And as accordant with their natural custom
  The rooks together at the break of day
  Bestir themselves to warm their feathers cold;

Then some of them fly off without return,
  Others come back to where they started from,
  And others, wheeling round, still keep at home; 
Such fashion it appeared to me was there
  Within the sparkling that together came,  (21:34-41)
Robert Hollander notes that these birds have "black wings, silver eyes, and large red beaks encircled by yellow," and adds that according to Benvenuto, they love solitude and choose the desert for their habitation.

Thanks to Dren, we now know our black birds have a holiday tie-in, via Ovid, no less. He shared this piece from the Washington Post that offers a bit of philological archaeology. It turns out that while we all sing "four calling birds," during the Twelve Days of Christmas, the original line involved "coally birds," an adjective derived from, and sounding like, "coal."

The OED finds the word in Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses - the tale of Coronis and the raven who told Apollo of her infidelity.
As thou thou prating Raven white by nature being bred,
Hadst on thy fethers justly late a coly colour spred.
Indeed, we might have Ovid to thank for Golding's bringing the word into print, and giving it the opportunity to be mistaken for "calling birds," thus helping perpetuate the derangement of language which happens to be a prominent theme in the second book of the Metamorphoses. (See, for example, here.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The moment of reading

From the Washington Post:

“Not far from the walls of Enna, there is a deep pool,” begins Ovid’s version of the rape of Persephone. “While [Persephone] was playing in this glade, and gathering violets or radiant lilies, while with girlish fondness she filled the folds of her gown, and her basket, trying to outdo her companions in her picking, [Pluto], almost in a moment, saw her, prized her, took her: so swift as this, is love.” [Metamorphoses 5]
The Greek myth has been recounted for thousands of years in hundreds of languages, scores of countries and countless works of art. It’s considered a cultural touchstone for Western civilization: a parable about power, lust and grief. 
Now, however, it could be getting a treatment it’s never had before: a trigger warning. 
In an op-ed in the student newspaper, four Columbia University undergrads have called on the school to implement trigger warnings — alerts about potentially distressing material — even for classics like Greek mythology or Roman poetry.  More...

Regardless of cultural shifts and chance mutations of public sensibility, it remains necessary to read the text with attention, thought, and contextual awareness. Without this moment, the joys and discomforts of any work of literature might be matters of pleasure or pain, but do they offer human or historical truth or ethical imperatives? Without a reading, can there be "a treatment"?