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?

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