Thursday, December 29, 2011

Of wolf-bane and other poisonous substances

Ovid seems never to miss an opportunity to interweave some odd factoid, or bit of legend, into his narrative, introducing these elements seemingly at random. We recall in Book 4, after Perseus had put the head of Medusa on the ground, we are offered a fine description of how it turned living plants into coral, living rock.

In Metamorphoses 7, Ovid takes pains to describe organic modes of development at moments that don't seem to call for them. Here's Jason sowing the dragon's teeth, repeating Cadmus's famous act in Book 3, prior to the founding of Thebes. While Cadmus's warriors rose immediately from his toothy seeds, Ovid gives Jason's a more gradual, organic development:
 Then he took the dragon’s teeth from the bronze helmet, and scattered them over the turned earth. The soil softened the seeds that had been steeped in virulent poison, and they sprouted, and the teeth, freshly sown, produced new bodies. As an embryo takes on human form in the mother’s womb, and is fully developed there in every aspect, not emerging to the living air until it is complete, so when those shapes of men had been made in the bowels of the pregnant earth, they surged from the teeming soil, and, what is even more wonderful, clashed weapons, created with them. 7.123 ff
Later, as Medea arrives in Corinth, we learn in passing that the people of that city derived from rain-soaked mushrooms:
At last, the dragon’s wings brought her to Corinth, the ancient Ephyre, and its Pirenian spring. Here, tradition says, that in earliest times, human bodies sprang from fungi, swollen by rain. 7.391 ff
And when Medea is preparing to poison Theseus to secure the Athenian succession for her own son, we learn the origin of wolf-bane, from the slobber of the hound of hell:
Medea, seeking his destruction, prepared a mixture of poisonous aconite, she had brought with her from the coast of Scythia. This poison is said to have dripped from the teeth of Cerberus, the Echidnean dog. There is a dark cavern with a gaping mouth, and a path into the depths, up which Hercules, hero of Tiryns, dragged the dog, tied with steel chains, resisting and twisting its eyes away from the daylight and the shining rays. Cerberus, provoked to a rabid frenzy, filled all the air with his simultaneous three-headed howling, and spattered the green fields with white flecks of foam. These are supposed to have congealed and found food to multiply, gaining harmful strength from the rich soil. Because they are long-lived, springing from the hard rock, the country people call these shoots, of wolf-bane, ‘soil-less’ aconites. 7.405 ff
 These brief, gratuitous-seeming bits of lore and detail support the very Ovidian notion that underlying all appearances is change, and you neither know what something might turn into, nor can necessarily be sure what it came from. It certainly might come as news to some Corinthians that their ancestors were wet mushrooms. (Mycenae is also said to derive from  "μύκης" (mycēs) = mushroom.)

We might press further, and suggest that these three miniature tales of generation all share asexuality. Mushrooms grow from spores, which are more like bacteria than like seeds, and depend on the richness of surrounding soil to grow. They also do not need light. We might speculate that the same holds true for dragon's teeth and Cerberus' saliva (the description of which sounds awfully bacteriological) -- neither stores food nor needs the sun. Yet things emerge from them.

Are there further nuances? Are we, for example, to think to compare Jason's feat with that of Cadmus? Cadmus's tale is largely a denial of the womb -- after he fails to find his sister Europa, his city springs from males who instantly rise up, without the benefit of slow development (and his tale ends with Pentheus being killed by his mother). Jason's quest for the fleece succeeds in large part due to the mediation of Medea. It's worth noting that Cadmus founded a doomed city, while Jason, after returning with the fleece, went on to found nothing, and to lose his children to the very woman who "made" him what he was. Jason even receives his best-known epitaph from Euripides' witch:

 you, a coward, you will die a coward's death as you deserve,
struck on your head by a remnant of the wreck of the Argo
seeing a bitter end to your marriage to me.
Is there a further contrast between the slow generation of the warriors sown by Jason, and the inorganic use of natural materials drawn from all over the world, in Medea's magic, to do the most unnatural thing of all, to make the aged Aeson again young?

These might seem idle thoughts, but the second half of book 7, which approaches the center of the poem, concerns the marvelous generation of an entire people, thanks to the holy Aeacus (or Aeakos), son of Zeus and Aegina, and grandfather of Achilles. As we have observed, Ovid links his tales in strange ways.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A meditation upon catachresis

Parts Is Parts

Corn has ears
but cannot hear.
Spuds have eyes
but cannot see.
Cups have lips
but cannot kiss.
Chairs have legs
but can't run free.

Combs have teeth
but cannot bite.
Bread has heels
but cannot walk.
Clocks have hands
but cannot clap.
Streams have mouths
but cannot talk.

I wonder why
some things
have names
that people's parts
have too,
when their parts can't
do any
of the things
that ours can do.

Thanks to my son, Sawyer, for introducing me to this poem.

The metamorphosis of Costanza

Jutta shared this story about the great Italian sculptor, his mistress, his rage, and her transformation into the Gorgon, as per the story Perseus tells at the end of Book 4 of the Metamorphoses.

In the 1630s, Bernini began a tempestuous affair with Costanza Bonarelli, the wife of an assistant. Around 1636-38, working for the Borghese family, he portrayed her in a tender, lifelike rendering now in the collection of the Bargello Museum in Florence. 
But their idyll was ruined when Bernini caught his brother Luigi sneaking away from her quarters and exploded with rage. The artist sent his servant to her with orders to slash her face. Thus when Bernini carved "Medusa," he viewed her as the mythical creature, a Gorgon, who had been caught having an affair with Neptune. Medusa is being punished—with her hair transformed into writhing snakes and crying out with anguish.

When I pointed out the story to Peter D'Epiro, he quickly shared an image of Costanza Bonarelli made before the provocation (this copy is from this interesting blog):

Here is the more famous After:

Friday, December 16, 2011

Allusion, Magic and Catachresis in the flight of Medea

(Note: This post is solely for the confirmed Ovidophile, and even he or she might hesitate. I keep finding Ovid to resonate with curious relationships of words and things, of poetry and poetics, the making and interweaving of sound and meaning. He does so in ways that draw many of his choices of character, theme, motif and story together in powerfully suggestive configurations. At least that is the argument here. It is long. You have been warned.)
allude Look up allude at Dictionary.com1530s, "mock," from M.Fr. alluder or directly from L. alludere "to play, sport, joke, jest," from ad- "to" (see ad-) + ludere "to play" (see ludicrous). Meaning "make an indirect reference, point in passing" is from 1570s. Related: Alludedalluding.

After Medea dupes the daughters of Pelias into carving up their father, she absconds. We then get a 53-line passage that has her flying zigzaggedly among places where metamorphoses are said to have occurred. William S. Anderson suggests that Ovid did not wish to compete with Euripides in telling what next transpired in Corinth (the confrontation with Jason and the murders there), so he invents this mini-tour that allows his erudition to be displayed. It's Book 7, 350-403.

So the tour is a tissue of more than a dozen allusions, mostly to very obscure tales. (Riley's edition of Metamorphoses is helpful with some of the more obscure references in the passage.) Medea's dragons are wandering amid vague, or entirely unknown, poetic territory here. Let's look at some of these references.

Medea begins her flight near Pelion, home of Chiron, and Mt. Othrys, the Thessalian mountain from which the Titans staged their ten-year Titanomachy with the Olympians.

The mention of Othrys brings up Cerambus, a famed poet credited with inventing the sherpherd's pipes, the lyre, and great songs. Thanks only to Ovid, we know him to have survived Deucalion's flood. Honored by the nymphs of Mt. Othrys, Cerambus became arrogant, singing unflattering tales about them. Yet, says Ovid:
By the Nymphae's aid wings bore him through the air, and when the earth's great mass was whelmed beneath Deucalion’s flood, he escaped unflooded by the sweeping sea.
We'll come back to this special poet.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Rich Gifts: The Shape of Metamorphoses 7

Book 7 of the Metamorphoses offers recurrent patterns -- there's sorcery, a prophetic dream, rejuvenation, a fulfilled wish, dangerous gifts, and an enchanted spear. As usual, Ovid does not offer to spell out their relationships for us.

The overall narrative can be broken into three major parts and one introductory vignette, as outlined below. Challenging!

Vignette: The sons of Boreas save Phineus the Seer

-- Zetes and Calais rescue Phineus from the Harpies
    (Note: Phineus was married to their sister, Cleopatra.)

I. Medea - Sorcery

-- Jason and Medea - dramatic monologue, plighted troth, Medea as auctor of Jason's feat.
-- Rejuvenation of Aeson - making the old young
-- Medea and Pelias - children kill their father
-- Medea, Aegeus and Theseus - father recognizes son - rejuvenation of Athens

II. Aeacus, Minos and the Myrmidons - Dream

-- Plague, Dream, and Rejuvenation of the kingdom

III. Cephalus and Procris - Gifts of the Gods

-- Gifts of Diana: Laelaps the magical dog and the Teumessian vixen.
-- Love, Mistrust, L'Aura, and an Enchanted Javelin
    (Procris was a daughter of Erechtheus and sister to Orithyia, who was ravished by Boreas)

Eos carries off Cephalus

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Medea: A Pre-Code Hollywood Woman

One of the finest examples of ambitious women can be found in Baby Face, the pre-code Warner Bros. film that starred Barbara Stanwyck. This clip provides a sense of it, and a clue as to why the trailer for the film boldly assured us that "it was fatal to offer her love."

Stanwyck was one of several actresses that took on strong and provocative roles before the Hayes Code clamped down on Hollywood moviemaking in 1934. Others included Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, Claudette Colbert and Joan Blondell. One could argue that the strong female leads and narratives were one of the major provocations that led to the imposition of the code.

A scene with Blondell from Footlight Parade (1933):

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ovid reads the New York Tomis

The idea that “truth” is situational and changing, always best described in quote marks, has emerged in many areas of contemporary thought. Ideas of situationalism, disorder as a natural state, and perpetual change (emphasis mine) are implicit in the thinking of Darwin, Marx and Freud. Quantum physics further undermined the idea that we can know everything with observations like the Uncertainty Principle. Postmodern philosophy and literary theory also questions [sic] the idea of objective reality, in favor of knowledge based on things like political background or sexual orientation. Put another way, when William Butler Yeats wrote “the center cannot hold,” he also stated the anxiety of our age. That was in 1919.
The words in bold highlight certain aspects of Ovid's metamorphic world that our readings have found it necessary to grapple with. We exclaim how "modern" Ovid's work seems. Yet think of him getting the New York Times delivered to him inTomis. As he reads the passage above, what does he make of this stunted fragment of human imagination dropped from 2000 years into the future?

   Delacroix: Ovid among the Scythians

(Thanks to Peter D'Epiro for pointing us to this great painting.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Queen of Night

If your grandfather was the Sun (Helios), and your aunts were Pasiphae and Circe, you might be curious about magic. Such was the immediate family of Medea of Colchis, daughter of Aeetes, whose mother, Eidyia, was identified by some as the goddess of Knowledge.

Behind Medea is the power and tradition of Hecate, who seems once again to be associated with the East, with Anatolia, rather than being an indigenous Greek deity.

In his Theogony, Hesiod had much to say about Hecate, one of the Titans whom Zeus, instead of destroying, honored and revered. Curiously while ascribing to her great powers, the poet doesn't specifically link her to magic, potions or drugs.

Yet she is clearly associated with them, as Parada notes in his entry on Hecate:
A divinity of the Underworld and companion of Persephone, [Hecate] is called the queen of night and goddess of the cross-roads. Her three faces are turned towards as many directions, and her name was shrieked at night at the cross-roads of cities. She is often seen bearing torches, and it is with them that she killed Clytius 6 in the course of the Gigantomachy. Hecate is regarded as supreme, both in Heaven and in the Underworld, and it is said that Zeus calls upon her whenever any man on earth offers sacrifices, and prays for favor.

This power resembles that of sorcery. For Medea, who was a priestess of Hecate, used witchcraft, apparently under the guidance of the goddess, in order to handle magic herbs and poisons with skill, and to be able to stay the course of rivers, or check the paths of the stars and the moon. 
The Caucasian witch also relied on the goddess' help, when she was about to commit a crime in Hellas: "By the goddess I worship most of all, my chosen helper Hecate, who dwells in the inner chamber of my house, none of them shall pain my heart and smile at it! Bitter will I make their marriage, bitter Creon's marriage-alliance, and bitter my banishment from the land!" (Euripides, Medea 400). For Hecate had not left her, although Medea sailed away from Colchis. 
But when the goddess noticed that Medea, by a trick of Hera, would fell in love with Jason and leave the country, she lamented: "Alas! you'll leave our woodland and your maiden bands, unhappy girl, to wander in your own despite to the cities of the Greeks. Yet not unbidden you go, nor, my dear one, will I forsake you. A signal record of your flight shall you leave behind, nor though a captive shall you ever be despised by your false lord, nay, he shall know me for your teacher, and that I grieved with shame that he robbed me of my handmaid." (Hecate. Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 6.497. Note: there are two Argonauticas, this one, and the earlier one by Apollonius Rhodius. Links to both are on the right -->). 
Nevertheless, she helped Medea in Colchis, as did both Hera and Aphrodite; and the reason why the witch succeeded in helping Jason against her own father and brother is that she was supported by these three goddesses, and particularly by Hecate. It was the latter who gave Medea the Caucasian herb of great potency, sprung from the gore that dropped from the liver of Prometheus 1; with it Medea anointed Jason's body and arms, making him practically invulnerable.
One subtext of the tale of Jason and Medea, then, is a contest between Hecate and Athena.

For Ovid, the realm of Amor was ineluctably bound up with the realm of illusion, tricks, sorcery, and cosmetics. One of his earliest works is known as the "Art of Beauty," but the actual title, Medicamina Faciei Femineae, literally means "Drugs for the Female Face," i.e., beauty aids. Scholars have seen that poem as a playful pedagogical Georgic in the line of Hesiod's Works and Days and Virgil's Georgics. In any event, it would not be un-Ovidian to sense a bleeding of the magic of cosmetics into those of kosmos, i.e., order.

"I saved your skin"

I will lighten my grief by reviling you
and you will feel the sting in hearing it.
I will begin at the beginning.

I saved your skin, as all the Greeks know
who boarded the Argo with you,
when you were sent to master the fire-breathing bulls
with yokes and to sow the deadly field;
and the dragon which guarded the golden fleece
and, never sleeping, protected it with its many coils,
I killed it and held up the light of safety for you.

As for me, after betraying my father and my home
I came to Iolcus near Pelion
with you, eager but not prudent.
Then I killed Pelias, in the way that he would die most tragically
at the hands of his own children and I confounded their entire house.

And you, after receiving this from me, you, the vilest man alive,
you have betrayed me, and you have made a new marriage,
though you already have children. If you were still childless
you could be excused for craving another marriage bed.
Gone is the faith of oaths. I cannot understand
whether you believe the old gods are no longer in power
or that new covenants are established for men today,
since you must know that you have not kept your oath to me...

~ Medea to Jason (Medea 472-494)

Medea, the curse of Pelias 1, is the princess, priestess, and witch, whom Jason brought to Hellas on his return from Colchis. Medea has been called daughter of Hecate since she served this goddess as her priestess, but otherwise her mother is said to have been Idyia, one of the OCEANIDS. Her father Aeetes, [son of Helios] who had been king of Ephyraea (Corinth) before he emigrated to Colchis, was brother of Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos 2 of Crete, and of the witch Circe. And whereas the latter lived in the island of Aeaea in the Mediterranean, Aeetes ruled in the city of Aea in Colchis.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Snippets from the Argonautica & Medea

"There is a maiden, nurtured in the halls of Aeetes, whom the goddess Hecate taught to handle magic herbs with exceeding skill …" (Argus 4 to the ARGONAUTS. Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3.528).

"… nothing shall come between our love till the doom of death fold us round." (Jason to Medea. Apollonius Rhodius,Argonautica 3.1128).

A Neopolitan vase depicting the triumph of Jason over the fiery bulls of Aeetes at Colchis. Several other fine images of the Medea story, and much more iconography, can be found at this page, part of the remarkable Greek Mythology link from Carlos Parada and Maicar Forlag.

A complete translation of Euripides Medea  431 BC) with notes by is here. A few snippets (but from another translation):

Medea For in other ways a woman
 Is full of fear, defenseless, dreads the sight of cold
 Steel; but, when once she is wronged in the matter of love,
No other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood. (265)

 Medea Women, though most helpless in doing good deeds,
 Are of every evil the cleverest of contrivers. (409)

 Jason Instead of living among barbarians,
You inhabit a Greek land and understand our ways,
How to live by law instead of the sweet will of force. (537)

The Third Chorus begins on line 824 with praise of the wisdom of the children of Erechtheus. At the end of Metamorphoses 6, we were reading of one of them, Oreithyia (from the Luschnig trans.):

Descendants of Erechtheus, wealthy  of old
and children of the blessed gods,
from a land holy and unconquered, feeding
on most glorious wisdom always
stepping delicately through the brightest air,
there once they say the nine Muses of Pieria
gave birth to Golden Harmony.

They sing the tale that Kypris
drawing water at the streams of fair-flowing Kephisos
breathes gentle sweet-smelling
auras of winds over the land; and always putting
on her hair a fragrant garland of rose blossoms,
she sends the Loves, co-workers with wisdom,
helpers of every sort of excellence.

How then will the city of holy rivers,
the land that gives safe-passage
to friends,
welcome you, child-killer,
not holy with the others?
Picture the blow to the children;
picture the murder you are committing.
Do not, at your knees
in every way we beseech you,
do not kill your children.

Where will you get the boldness
of mind to confer upon your hand or heart,
that terrible daring?
And, how, when you cast your eyes
on the children will you take part
in their murder without weeping? No, you cannot
— when your children fall begging —
wet your hand in their blood
keeping an iron-willed heart

Final Chorus (The chorus files out with these lines):

Of many things Zeus in Olympus is keeper,
many are the things the gods bring about against all reason,
and what is looked for does not happen after all,
yet a god finds a way for the unexpected.
That is how this story has ended.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Vellera radianta: The back story of the golden fleece

 As he did with Perseus, so Ovid will strangely bend the tale of Medea in Book 7, and again he'll seem to shift the emphasis from its major features to others elements that might strike us as less important.

Since he relies on our knowledge of the back-story -- indeed, of Euripides' play as well -- here's the brief version of how the Golden Fleece came to hang in the kingdom of Aeetes:
In Greek mythology, Phrixus or Frixos (Greek: Φρίξος, Phrixos) or Phryxus was the son of Athamas, king of Boiotia, and Nephele (a goddess of clouds). His twin sister Helle and he were hated by their stepmother, Ino. Ino hatched a devious plot to get rid of the twins, roasting all of Boeotia's crop seeds so they would not grow. The local farmers, frightened of famine, asked a nearby oracle for assistance. Ino bribed the men sent to the oracle to lie and tell the others that the oracle required the sacrifice of Phrixus and Helle. Before they were killed, though, Phrixus and Helle were rescued by a flying, or swimming,[1] ram with golden wool sent by Nephele, their natural mother; their starting point is variously recorded as Halos in Thessaly and Orchomenus in Boeotia. During their flight Helle swooned, fell off the ram and drowned in the Dardanelles, renamed the Hellespont (sea of Helle), but Phrixus survived all the way to Colchis, where King Aeëtes, the son of the sun god Helios, took him in and treated him kindly, giving Phrixus his daughter, Chalciope, in marriage. In gratitude, Phrixus sacrificed the ram to Zeus and gave the king the golden fleece of the ram, which Aeëtes hung in a tree in the holy grove of Ares in his kingdom, guarded by a dragon that never slept.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The storytelling animal

Ovid is clearly a poet interested in the power of myth and magic -- and were he alive today, he'd doubtless be curious about video games. Salman Rushdie has written tales about the power of imagination and the limitations of mortality for his children, and talks about them in this charming interview, from the radio show entitled To the Best of our Knowledge.

At one point he suggests that Zeus and other ancient divinities have been relegated to "some kind of retirement home for ex-gods."

"I think it's a mistake to think the real world is devoid of magic," says Rushdie, In the games of his new book, Luka and the Fire of Life, life is cheap and plentiful. In the real world, it is dear and rare. Somehow we inhabit both worlds. Rushdie adds, "Man alone is the storytelling animal."

Salman Rushdie on "Luka and the Fire of Life"
Salman Rushdie's life has been a fantasy, but not necessarily in the way he would have wanted.  The Ayatollah issued a death warrant on him after his book "The Satanic Verses," but it has finally been withdrawn. His new book involves dangers of a more literary kind. He tells Jim Fleming he wrote his new book "Luka and the Fire of Life" at his younger son's request.

The short podcast of the interview is well worth listening to. As we are seeing, he power of stories is very much at the heart of the Metamorphoses as well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A deadly feast for the eyes: Pelops, Tereus and lethal inscriptions

The ivory prosthesis Pelops reveals as he mourns for his sister sets him apart from all men as the son of Tantalos, returned after horrible dismemberment. Here's the brief passage in Book 6 in which Pelops mourns for Niobe, his sister:
even then one man, her brother Pelops, is said to have wept for her and, after taking off his tunic, to have shown the ivory, of his left shoulder (umero). This was of flesh, and the same colour as his right shoulder, at the time of his birth. Later, when he had been cut in pieces, by his father, it is said that the gods fitted his limbs together again. They found the pieces, but one was lost, between the upper arm and the neck. Ivory was used in place of the missing part, and by means of that Pelops was made whole (integer).
The positioning of this Pelops vignette is worth thinking about. It immediately precedes Ovid's tale of Philomela that ends with a father, Tereus, dining on his own son, who has been killed, dismembered and prepared for a "sacred feast" by Procne, the child's mother and Tereus' wife.

The glimpse of Pelops' ivory shoulder "fits" the themes of Book 6 in so far as his restoration is a collective work of art of the gods, bringing back the beloved boy, as Ovid says, integer -- thanks to the prosthetic addition, necessary thanks to Demeter's distraction.

This integrity of the reconstituted Pelops (presented more as a work of restoration than a resurrection) stands in clear contrast to the disintegration that immediately follows -- the Grand-Guignol tale of the Thracian king who violates the trusts of office and family, mutilating and imprisoning Philomela in order to suppress her power to tell the world of his vile rape.

Yet she doesn't remain silent, despite the loss of her tongue. Thanks to ingenium and sollertia -- her inwit and cunning -- the girl creates an artificial thing, an image, that fills the void of her tongue. Supplementary and not dependent on presence, the image is external to her; it can be transported without being seen, yet speaks ventriloquially to the one it is intended for. It's a metamorphic prosthesis of her voice that makes her "whole."

Look at what happens when the image of Philomela's voice reaches the eyes of her sister:
miserabile legitet (mirum potuisse) silet. Dolor ora repressitverbaque quaerenti satis indignantia linguaedefuerunt; nec flere vacat, sed fasque nefasqueconfusura ruit, poenaeque in imagine tota est.
The wife of the savage king unrolls the cloth, and reads her sister’s terrible fate, and by a miracle keeps silent. Grief restrains her lips, her tongue seeking to form words adequate to her indignation, fails. She has no time for tears, but rushes off, in a confusion of right and wrong, her mind filled with thoughts of vengeance.
The "voice" of Philomela is so potent it takes away Procne's power of speech -- it partakes of the unspeakable. Kline's translation says Procne's mind is filled with "thoughts of vengeance," but Ovid chooses to continue the sense of the visual, and says poenaeque in imagine tota -- Procne's mind is consumed and confused by the deranging power of this image, much as is Tereus's mind the first time he beheld Philomela:
Quid quod idem Philomela cupit patriosque lacertis            VI.475 blanda tenens umerosut eat visura sororem, perque suam contraque suam petit ipsa salutem. Spectat eam Tereus praecontrectatque videndo osculaque et collo circumdata bracchia cernens omnia pro stimulis facibusque ciboque furoris accipit;
Moreover Philomela wishes his request granted, and resting her forearms on her father’s shoulders, coaxing him to let her go to visit her sister, she urges it, in her own interest, and against it. Tereus gazes at her, and imagining her as already his, watching her kisses, and her arms encircling her father’s neck, it all spurs him on, food and fuel to his frenzy. (Kline)
With a poet as careful as Ovid, could it be by chance that "shoulders," "neck," and "food" are interwoven here? Inscribed in Tereus' vision of the girl pleading with her dad are key words linked to the sacrilege of Tantalos, the horrific violation of divine proprieties, the curse Tereus is to reenact with his son, Itys. Both Tereus and Procne are driven to frenzy by what they see. Amor -- the fire that sets Tereus ablaze for Philomela -- simultaneously images his doom.

In this, the only tale of Book 6 in which the key players are human, there's no saving grace, no restoration. As each character in turn undergoes a loss of balance, of moral center, in which every human bond vanishes, the void is filled with theatricality (Tereus's pleas, Procne's bacchantes, the feast).

Why does Ovid place this tale of human degeneration next to story of divine regeneration? No divinity is pulling the strings, no Juno or Hermes is causing Tereus, Procne and Philomela to do what they do.

In this tale, humans cannot cast blame upon some supernatural being for their actions, any more than Lykaon could for his heinous crime of inviting Jupiter to dine on a human in Book I. This time, no one can say, "the devil made me do it."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

grande doloris ingenium est

grande doloris
ingenium est, miserisque venit sollertia rebus;

great grief
has sharp wits, and in trouble cunning comes.
~ Metamorphoses 6.574-75

From the point in Book 5 when Athena first speaks with the Muses, the violation of young virgins has been a steady motif -- whether in the tapestry of Arachne, now re-created in the human register of Philomela's web, or in the tale of the Muses threatened by Pyreneus, or in Calliope's story of Persephone, echoed in the tale of Arethusa. Indeed the motif is so fundamental to the warp and woof of the Metamorphoses as to raise the question as to whether we are dealing primarily with the literal question of human sexuality and virginity, or whether this recurrent series of rapes and seizures is infused with more complex themes relating to security, freedom, desire, art, political order, civility, peace and possession (whether by self or other).

For example, here is Nietzsche mulling the strange exhilaration of Greek tragedy, and of the way that subsequent Western understanding of the Greeks has emphasized the bright and Apollonian cheerfulness of their culture -- often in contrast with the darker, more melodramatic colors of, say, the German penchant for sturm und drang. The brilliant Greek visions, Nietzsche says, are like light spots that appear when one looks too deeply into the abyss.

He goes on to say:
Only in this sense may we believe that we properly comprehend the serious and important concept of "Greek cheerfulness." The misunderstanding of this concept as cheerfulness in a state of unendangered comfort is, of course, encountered everywhere today. (Birth of Tragedy, sect. 9.)
It is precisely a state of respite from war -- the "of unendangered comfort" -- that is necessary to the cultivation of Ceres, and to the Muses in order that they may give themselves to their arts. Athena admires the locus amoenus of the Muses on Helicon, which Ovid describes in detail:

Quae mirata diu factas pedis ictibus undas,
265silvarum lucos circumspicit antiquarum
antraque et innumeris distinctas floribus herbas
felicesque vocat pariter studioque locoque

And Pallas, after she had long admired that fountain, flowing where the hoof had struck, turned round to view the groves of ancient trees; the grottoes and the grass bespangled, rich with flowers unnumbered—all so beautiful she deemed the charm of that locality a fair surrounding for the studious days of those Mnemonian Maids.
We note in this description of place the emphasis on study, the contemplative life. The Muses are all too aware of the provisional nature of their happy spot. As they tell Athena about the marvelous spring of Hippocrene struck by Pegasus, they wish this warrior Goddess were one of their regular members:

‘O, Tritonia, who would have been one of our choir, if your virtues had not formed you for greater things, what you say is true, and you rightly approve our arts and our haunts. Our life is happy, if only it were safe. But (nothing is sacred to the wicked), all things frighten virgin minds. Dread Pyreneus’s destruction is in front of my eyes, and my mind has not yet recovered fully. (Meta 5.260 ff)
O, nisi te virtus opera ad maiora tulisset,
270in partem ventura chori Tritonia nostri,
vera refers meritoque probas artesque locumque,
et gratam sortem, tutae modo simus, habemus.
Sed (vetitum est adeo sceleri nihil) omnia terrent
virgineas mentes, dirusque ante ora Pyreneus
275vertitur, et nondum tota me mente recepi.

The suggestion is that Wisdom and the Arts ought to be together, but aren't always able to be. The goddess of craft is also adviser to warriors like Odysseus and to heroes like Perseus -- her opera maiora clearly involve her, at least in part, in the active life, in politics and war. So if the Arts benefit from Wisdom, how do they do so? Is it a matter of having more illuminating content? Or is it the benefit of having the tranquility, the "unendangered comfort," to make good art because Wisdom, a martial Goddess, is there to protect the Muses from those who would try to possess and misuse them?

This question runs through Book 6, beginning with the confrontation of Athena and her obstinate pupil Arachne, and returning in the only tale that directly involves only humans: the tale of Tereus (a son of Ares) and the daughters of Pandion, Procne and Philomela. Each of these characters in turn creates a representation, an image, under the duress of need, desire, great grief and/or great trouble, under conditions lacking all comfort and tranquility. The images, instead of disinterested art, become weapons in a savage web of rape and vengeance.

Is there a relationship of the exceedingly gruesome events of this tale to the themes of imagination, desire, hubris, and representation found in the other tales of Book 6? Is the cunning (sollertia) that springs from the miseris rebus here seen as a different mode of inspiration from that seen in Athena's and the Muses' works?

And finally, Boreas and his rape of Oreithyia serves both as the conclusion of this book and the segue to the tale of the Argonauts in Book 7. Is this rape of this virgin another kettle of fish? And the Boreads -- Zetes and Calais, their twin boys with pubescent wings -- is Ovid just ending with a cute twist? What do we make of the image below?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ovid and Reversibility

One thing we learn from Ovid is that something that seemed immovable, assured, irreversible, can rather suddenly be turned upside down. We noted the other day the swiftness with which the gods act: before Arachne can finish challenging Athena to come and compete in a contest, "venit," says the crone, and the goddess is before her.

The gods waste no time. Apollo, in responding to Leto's plea to chasten, teach, or destroy Niobe, cuts his mother short. Desine, he says - "leave off talking" - and the arrows begin to fly.

Similarly with Breughel's rendering of the boorish Lycian peasants who deny a goddess water -- which, as she notes, is a public resource. Before our gaze can take in Breughel's scene, one of the peasants has already turned into a frog. Sudden, strange metamorphoses veer from the orderly, normative world of realism toward Breughel, Bosch, and Kafka.

Every time in Metamorphoses 6 that a mortal oversteps some boundary, however you wish to characterize it -- human/divine, mortal/immortal, imagination/reality, public/private, copy/original, one/all, student/teacher -- there is a sudden comeuppance, a kind of electric contraction, or syncope; what results is an enigmatic determination of the overreaching character.

The case of Marsyas is a little different -- there was an agreement that either Apollo or the satyr would submit totally to the will of the other. Yet the suddenness with which Ovid tells the story -- moving right to the "innards," as it were, is at one with the speed of the other actions.

What each of these four metamorphoses shares with the others is both this sense of instantaneous finality, and also a clear reversal of the fortune and place of the character undergoing the transformation. Marysas, for example, is literally turned upside-down, the very thing he was unable to do with his tibia in response to Apollo's reversed cithara.

To each of these characters it's revealed that things are, in reality, quite the opposite of how they imagined them to be -- but this discernment (certamen, as we have seen) is not something necessarily conveyed by words, discursively, to the character's understanding. Rather, it's what is experienced and made palpable in the flash of metamorphosis. Arachne, for example, experiences the violence of being pounded with the shuttle, rather than triumphing in her claim of being the more potent spinner. She ends without hands -- a small, nearly sense-less belly that nonetheless makes webs. For Ovid's reader, she becomes a fixed talisman, a legible reminder of her singular truth. Poetic justice.

This quality of the world -- for something, or someone, to suddenly become other to themselves, and to have their entire sense of things reversed -- is germane to what Ovid is telling us in the Metamorphoses. It requires us to entertain the possibility that nothing is fixed, nothing is certain, nothing is what it seems. This is not the same as saying all is random, accident, chaos. There's an order in this world, but it's an order in which error is the comfortable, everyday norm -- to err is human -- while the undoing of error, instead of restoring the errant one to some healing condition of insight, is often worse than error. You might happily live in Lycia, the land of the Chimaera, thinking you're the greatest spinner who ever was. Unless the web you're spinning is a noose, and, like the open door that Kafka's seeker can never enter, it's just for you.

For Ovid, art involves imagination, which morphs into illusion and error; to be disabused of that error by Athena is not necessarily redemptive, though it can leave a painful admonishing residue for others to sift through.

Ovid's direct style strikes us as oddly modern, even contemporary, but so does his world. His 21st century readers live in a moment in which basic certitudes are dissolving before their eyes. Recent reversals in science challenge some of our most cherished truths. We have all heard about the ghostly neutrinos that appear to be moving faster than the formerly fastest thing, light.

But there are other earth-shakers. Here, for example, is the physicist Brian Greene, talking about how the notion of the Multiverse is transforming basic assumptions:

We're all used to that gravity is attractive: You let go of something, it falls to the Earth. Earth pulls things toward it. But there's a kind of gravity that does the reverse. Repulsive gravity pushes outwards. And we believe that in the early, early universe, repulsive gravity was in operation, and that repulsive push is what drove everything apart.
Another physicist, Michael Murphy, relates disturbing findings that constants of nature are turning out to be not quite constant (podcast here). Then there's quantum entanglement.

It seems we no longer live in Newton's, or Einstein's, predictable nature grounded in immovable laws and certitudes. Those thinkers were more like Virgil, who dared to posit a universal plan, and to tell us what it was.

The recent spate of usurpatory thinking is very different from Newtonian physics and Virgil. The inconstant speedy multiverses of today's science might feel more at home in the syncopated world of Ovid's Metamorphoses.