Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A few questions for Calliope


The second part of book 5 offers Calliope's tale of the subjection of Typhoeus, the rape of Persephone, the liquification of Cyane, the compromised restoration of Persephone, and the tale of Arethusa.

Even without getting overly involved in the Eleusinian Mysteries, it's clear that with this complex tale from the Muse of epic, Ovid is both composing a work of high art and moving to address the question of art -- what it's for, what it needs in order to flourish, and how it is to be interpreted.

Here are some questions that came to me, I'll be interested in yours:

- In contrast to the magpies, the Muse begins with a paean to Ceres, the goddess normally associated with things more basic than fine art -- the culture of the Earth, planting, harvesting, eating This is the mode of the Georgic (ge + ergon, earth + work, energy):
‘“Ceres first turned the soil with curving plough, first ripened the crops and produce of the earth, first gave us laws: all things are Ceres’s gift. My song is of her. If only I could create a song in any way worthy of the goddess! This goddess is truly a worthy subject for my song.
As we noted last week, this is a remarkable place to begin, and we will need to think about why Ceres (Demeter) is here being linked to the origin of laws.

- The key figures in Calliope's tale are all female (except for Dis) - Cyane tells us she was wedded according to custom; Persephone is seized and is, by the way, the only god in the Greek pantheon to suffer a kind of mortality; Arethusa aims to escape being seized and goes underground, away from Greece, to return to Earth in Sicily. What could be some of the reasons the virgin Muses are so concerned with these virgins, even as they celebrate the great Mother?

- What do we make of the role Sicily plays in Calliope's tale? Is Ovid saying something about the relation of Italian culture to that of the Greeks?

- The wrath of Ceres is a potent element of the story, and its appeasement seems to be essential to the possibility of human life. Why is she so angry? What's at stake for her, and for mankind, in her being reconciled to the new condition of her child?

- What do we make of the minor metamorphoses in the tale - of the loutish boy turned by Ceres into stellio, a starry gecko (Askalabos), and the boy who gave away Persephone's eating the pomegranate seeds, who became a screech owl (Askalaphos)? Why does Ovid seed his tale with these seemingly irrelevant moments? Is it happenstance that the boy figures are so similarly named (we've seen this before) that they appear to have gotten merged in at least one version of their stories?

- In his commentary, Prof. William S. Anderson offers a detailed 14-part outline of the song of Calliope, then adds:
This structural scheme indicates that the Muse does not know how to produce an effective narrative; she cannot refrain from getting herself involved in secondary tales of metamorphosis, which distract us from the supposedly main narrative and present unattractive qualities of both Ceres and Proserpina...
- Anderson, ever the alert reader, is leading to a question we all should be asking ourselves: why does Ovid do what he's doing? Is this song a carmine digna, worthy of Ceres? What does it tell us about his view of the Muse, of poetry, and of his place in the line of poets and their Muses?


- Finally, how does all this relate to Book 5 as a whole, to the story of Perseus and Medusa, and for that matter, to the developing "plot" of the Metamorphoses as a whole, at least so far?

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