Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Cryptic Crossroads: Deucalion's Dilemma

Deucalion's speech to Pyrrha is remarkable for several reasons. In it one hears a note that will return at various moments in later centuries. The flood, reaching its maximum, has erased everything -- all life, and all landmarks, except the muddy peak of Parnassus.
when Deucalion saw its emptiness, and the deep silence of the desolate lands, he spoke to Pyrrha,
Ovid's concision here is remarkable -- in a few words, he conveys the isolation and uncertainty of human beings in a vast world which is now not merely empty, but deeply silent and contingent:
And even now there is no certain assurance of our lives; even yet do the clouds terrify my mind.
terrent etiam nunc nubila mentem.
The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread, Pascal will say, echoed a few hundred years later in the "nothingness" of the Existentialists.

What Deucalion does is orient his whole being away from this vast unspeaking solitude and toward the only thing in it that offers the possibility of a familiar reflection, a response -- humanity itself.

It falls to Deucalion in his speech to find in Pyrrha the locus, or symmetric other of his own being:
Wife, cousin, sole surviving woman, joined to me by our shared race, our family origins,
The Latin underscores the symmetry of their yoke:
deinde torus iunxit, nunc ipsa pericula iungunt
then by the marriage bed, and now joined to me in danger,
The touchstones of what is familiar are, for him, this woman bound to him by genes and by marriage, by origins and race, by bed (one thinks of the bed of Odysseus and Penelope) and by shared experience, in this case, of danger. These are the elements of human bonds, the roots of our familiarity to one another. Into them is woven speech, the memory of shared history. It's in this that Deucalion locates, again with elegant parallel clauses, the reason and core of his being:
si te quoque pontus haberet,
te sequerer, coniunx, et me quoque pontus haberet.
if the sea had you,
I would follow you, and the sea would have me too

(Hear a trace of Milton's Adam , who gives up a world for Eve?)

These humans are unlike the animals, or the demi-gods that Zeus worried about when he said, in justifying his decision to exterminate the human race:
Mine are the demigods, the wild spirits, nymphs, fauns and satyrs, and sylvan deities of the hills. Since we have not yet thought them worth a place in heaven let us at least allow them to live in safety in the lands we have given them.
Ovid's polytheistic world is full of varied creatures who seem at home in it. They live, play, don't fall afoul of just laws, and deserve Zeus's protection from violent, godless brutes like Lycaon. Humans born of the blood of the giants failed to find a niche in which they could live in harmony with all else.

Deucalion here is at a fatal ontological crossroads. His father was Prometheus, but he can't "make" men by breathing upon their shapes as his father had done. Nor can he expect to find any giant's blood. He's at a loss how to proceed, but happens to be at the temple of his grandmother, Themis, at Delphi, the omphalos of the world. It's she who'll tell him how to make a new beginning of yet a third skein of humans, from the bones (ossa) of Earth. Strangely, Deucalion and Pyrrha -- so richly intertwined by blood and marriage bed and shared danger, so fully necessary to each other that neither would choose to remain in this vast world without the other -- neither make love nor gestate progeny. They reverently throw stones.

What we must note is, they only throw stones after construing the cryptic speech of the Oracle in a way that doesn't involve the literal bones of their literal mothers -- which would be a desecration. The continuation of the human race here rests upon an act of reading -- close reading -- that metamorphoses from the literally unspeakable into a figural divination of meaning.

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