Thursday, April 28, 2011

Labyrinth of prattle

As one becomes more familiar with the gossips of Metamorphoses 2 -- the Raven (corvus), the Crow (cornix), and the subjects of their tales, Coronis and the daughter of King Coroneus -- the pile-up of stories -- the Raven interrupted by the Crow, the doubling of birds and names, the curiously similar tales nested within tales -- all these effects tend to foreground the phenomenon of doubling, iteration. The roots of the names -- Corvus/Cornix/Coronis/Coroneus -- begin to sound like the caw-caw of crows chattering. At Bk. 2.531, we have a white raven who's about to be black gossiping to a black crow who used to be white. He's dishing the lover's secret that he's about to tell Apollo.

Crow interrupts to tell his own cautionary story of how he was turned black for snitching on Aglauros, who looked into something she was forbidden to look into (the casket of Erichthonius).

Crow foretells that Raven's words will not gain him any benefits from his master, Apollo. His prophecy becomes true when Apollo banishes Raven from white birds forever.

What's going on here? Here's how Raven's story is introduced:

He was once a bird with silver-white plumage, equal to the spotless doves, not inferior to the geese, those saviours of the Capitol with their watchful cries, or the swan, the lover of rivers. His speech condemned him. Because of his ready speech he, who was once snow white, was now white’s opposite.
The raven once was white and now is, not "black," but contrarius albo - "the opposite of white," which can only mean black, but Ovid chooses the periphrasis.

How did the bird go from white to the opposite of white?

Lingua fuit damno, says the narrator. His tongue got him in trouble, and the word is repeated, a doubling that we can add to all the other doubles in the text: lingua faciente loquaci

This chattering, prattling tongue is placed in clear contrast with the silvery snowy geese who saved Rome, thanks to their vigili voce, their "watchful voice."

The Capitoline geese, which the Romans, though besieged, had not eaten because they were sacred, saved the Capitol by crying out as the Gauls mounted a midnight attack, awakening Manlius and the other guards. Clearly the geese used their tongues properly -- they cackled to indicate a threat. This is a legitimate, lawful use of language to name a clear and present danger. The referential, indicative linguistic mode succeeds, Rome was saved.

When the tongue is not properly used - when the speech is in excess of what is warranted, or slides away from what is intended, unanticipated consequences ensue. In the case of the Raven, he turned the complete opposite of what he had been. As did the Crow. What these chatterers are demonstrating is that certain kinds of saying, uses of the tongue, can set in motion unintended consequences -- turn black into white, or a prophetess (Ocyroe) into a horse, or a hayseed (Battus) to stone.

Ovid's birds are not telling us or his contemporaries something unheard of -- indeed, the power of rhetoric, of the art of speaking and persuading, was the potent art of the sophists whom Socrates kept dueling with in the Agora. The seductive capabilities of the tongue -- which we saw Mercury use to overpower Argos in Book 1 -- lie in its power to lie, charm, delude, transform, i.e., to produce metamorphoses.

Why does this theme emerge so prominently in Book 2? I want to briefly sketch one possible line of interpretation.

Book 1 of Metamorphoses gave us the beginnings of things - the faceless chaos, a falling into an order of elements, the mixing of elements to produce finite things, properties, and life. The life we see emerging, at least for the gods, is a play of amor and pudor, desire and shame, urgent motive, calculated restraint, and imaginative subterfuge. Apollo used all his power only to end in changing a fleeting girl, daughter of a flowing river, into a living tree. Jove tried to hide his own escapade with Io, only to come to a sober reckoning with Juno.

Book 2 opens with the derangement of the sun - an event triggered, once again, by an act of speech, the rash promise of Helios, backed by the oath upon the Styx. If the sun can go awry, anything can, and, Ovid suggests, will go astray.

Let's experimentally take the series of tales beginning with the two black birds, and look at causation.

If the Raven had not blabbed what he'd seen to the crow, perhaps he'd not have been turned black by Apollo. But his tale of Coronis' infidelity (which we have only the Raven's word for) leads directly to the Raven turning black, to Apollo's killing Coronis, to Aesclepius being untimely ripped from her womb and handed over to Chiron. The sight of Aesclepius triggers the vatic fury of Ocyroe, who for her prophecies is turned into a horse, vividly silencing her voice. We might note that Ocyroe's prophetic utterances revealed how her father, Chiron, and Aesclepius would die. Like the birth of Aesclepius, and unlike the Capitoline geese, her speech is premature, and indeed it is triggered by the appearance of the premature demi-god.

Ocyroe's story suggests that prescience is not for humans. It is also aberrant in that it speaks of what is not yet - the opposite of what is - a property shared with the act of lying.

Does the chain of causation end there? The next tale is of Mercury and Battus. We get to it by learning that Apollo was not around when Chiron sought his help to restore Ocyroe to human form. Apollo was not there because he was off pursuing erotic adventures in Elis, the narrator tells us. It's fair to at least ask: would Apollo have been seeking new loves in Elis if he'd not killed his beloved Coronis thanks to a chattering Raven?

So it's at least arguable that Apollo is away, and not minding his cattle, because he was heartsick, or seeking another lover. And it's because he's away that Mercury eyes the opportunity to steal his herd, a theft detected solely by one rustic, Battus. I'll take up Battus in another post -- it's a clever tale with verbal echoes that bring us back to the Raven.

Let's just note that if we accept the causal "plot" here, we have a chain of consequences. of metamorphoses, generated by acts of speech, running continuously from the Raven's twittering to the petrifying of Aglauros.

In each case, I think it can be argued that an effort to simply indicate in the proper manner of the geese goes awry. In a world of deceptive and dissimulating doubles, the power of naming can drift into dangerous waters. We try to indicate, but our prattle makes what is not there.

Lingua fuit damno.

Were Ovid here, he might say: "there's more to tweets than meet the eye."


  1. I believe this Ovidian myth was the source of Chaucer's "The Manciple's Tale."