Sunday, June 19, 2011

The serpent's titanic curse

That there is something profoundly foreign, obscure and disquieting in Greek art which no longer allows one to speak simply of "griechische Heiterkeit", "Greek serenity", according to the classical formula, this is exactly what Nietzsche undertook to show since The Birth of Tragedy, by making apparent, under the beautiful appearance and the measure characterising apollinian civilisation, the barbaric and titanic nature of its dionysiac foundation, and thus bestowing a fundamental importance to this oriental god that is Dionysus for the definition of what constitutes what is proper to the Hellenic [le grec]. -- Francoise Dastur, "Holderlin and the Orientalisation of Greece"

Contemporary scholarship is still wrestling with Dionysus and his enigmatic place in the otherwise stately, ordered pantheon of the Olympians. Masks of Dionysus (Myth and Poetics) collected essays addressing not only the interpretive challenges of the mythical god, but also his place in Greek tragedy, in art, and in ancient cultic rites. Entire books have focused on "the Dionysian" in modern thought, whether Nietzsche's or those influenced by his thinking. One example: The Dionysian Self: C.G. Jung's Reception of Friedrich Nietzsche, by Paul Bishop. Not only is the Dionysian still hot, it's also pricey -- each of these works of scholarship retails new for over $200.

The enigmatic aspects of the god are in full view in Ovid's treatment of the House of Cadmus and Thebes in Metamorphoses 3-4. Here is Cadmus, at the end of his human life, turning back to reflect on all the tragedies, the patterns, the portents and the horrors of his family tree:
Driven to wandering, at length his [Cadmus'] journey carried him and his wife to the borders of Illyria. Now, weighed down by age and sadness, they thought of the original destiny of their house, and in talk reviewed their sufferings. Cadmus said ‘Surely that snake, my spear pierced, must have been sacred, when, fresh from Sidon, I scattered the serpent’s teeth, a strange seed, over the earth? If that is what the gods have been avenging with such sure anger, may I myself stretch out as a long-bellied snake.’ Metamorphoses 4.563ff
Cadmus is looking back upon his experiences at the origin of Thebes, and is thinking he might need to revise his understanding. No longer was this a natural serpent that he had to overcome. Rather, it was sacred -- like Diana, whom Actaeon stumbled upon -- and he recalls the voice that came from nowhere after he'd killed it:
Quid, Agenore nate, peremptum
serpentem spectas? et tu spectabere serpens.” Meta. 3.97-98
Cadmus is testing a new hypothesis -- that he was not a valiant hero, a bringer of civilization, a warrior whom the gods loved:
And, so speaking, he did extend into a long-bellied snake, and felt his skin hardening as scales grew there, while dark green patches checkered his black body. He lay prone on his breast, and gradually his legs fused together thinning out towards a smooth point. Still his arms were left to him, and what was left of his arms he stretched out, and, with tears running down his still human cheeks, he said ‘Come here, wife, come here, most unfortunate one, and while there is still something left of me, touch me, and take my hand, while it is still a hand, while the snake does not yet have all of me.’ (Kline trans.)
His metamorphosis signals confirmation: instead of founding of a city beloved of the gods, Cadmus had set in motion a series of catastrophic events that were saying, if anyone other than Tiresias (separator of knotted serpents) had the wit to hear it, that Thebes and the line of Cadmus were doomed to divine vengeance because they were accursed. His city would perish. This might help us understand why in this story of the founding of Thebes, we never see the city, only the wild mountain that stands between it and Athens.

The exact elements of the transgression are overdetermined. Was it that he forgot about Europa? Or followed the wrong sow? Or killed Mars's serpent? Was it that he misread the oracle? Or sowed the teeth, bringing new beings into the world without going through natural sexual processes? The absence of sex and natural birth (Juno's domain) marks the stories of the spartoi, of Actaeon, Semele, and Narcissus. (Tiresias on the other hand knows more about sex than Zeus).

And Pentheus -- did martial rigor blind him to the story of Acoetes, and to the child-god of the thyrsus and the dance rave? In resisting the new rites of the god, his own half-cousin, was he perpetuating the curse when he harked back to the origin of his people as children of the serpent father, ignoring the fact that these toothy seeds were sown in Earth? Did he forget the lesson of Deucalion and Pyrrha, who regenerated the human race by interpreting the oracle to say that Earth was our general mother?

Pentheus's repression of the Earth and the mother comes back with cruel vengeance when he is pulled to pieces by the Maenads. Did the unnatural "birth" of Thebes have to come to fruition in this unnatural end to its young King, taken for a wild beast by his own mother? And does the brutal dismemberment crown the mortal king's end with an ironic grimace by uncannily mirroring the dismemberment of Dionysus Zagreus, whose birth overcame his own and his mother Semele's total destruction?

Nor do the relevant questions end there. What does Book 3 say about Ovid, who -- instead of singing the epic tale of the founding of Rome or some other saga that would have celebrated the manly imperial triumphs of the Caesars -- chooses this unnatural tale to present as his first epic narrative? He'll follow up in Books 4 and 5 with the story of Perseus as told by Perseus, which, as Prof. William S. Anderson will show in his careful reading, provokes glaring questions for anyone who expects an epic tale of martial triumph. Is Metamorphoses in some sense Ovid's "barbaric and titanic" anti-epic?

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