Friday, November 4, 2011

Ovid and Reversibility

One thing we learn from Ovid is that something that seemed immovable, assured, irreversible, can rather suddenly be turned upside down. We noted the other day the swiftness with which the gods act: before Arachne can finish challenging Athena to come and compete in a contest, "venit," says the crone, and the goddess is before her.

The gods waste no time. Apollo, in responding to Leto's plea to chasten, teach, or destroy Niobe, cuts his mother short. Desine, he says - "leave off talking" - and the arrows begin to fly.

Similarly with Breughel's rendering of the boorish Lycian peasants who deny a goddess water -- which, as she notes, is a public resource. Before our gaze can take in Breughel's scene, one of the peasants has already turned into a frog. Sudden, strange metamorphoses veer from the orderly, normative world of realism toward Breughel, Bosch, and Kafka.

Every time in Metamorphoses 6 that a mortal oversteps some boundary, however you wish to characterize it -- human/divine, mortal/immortal, imagination/reality, public/private, copy/original, one/all, student/teacher -- there is a sudden comeuppance, a kind of electric contraction, or syncope; what results is an enigmatic determination of the overreaching character.

The case of Marsyas is a little different -- there was an agreement that either Apollo or the satyr would submit totally to the will of the other. Yet the suddenness with which Ovid tells the story -- moving right to the "innards," as it were, is at one with the speed of the other actions.

What each of these four metamorphoses shares with the others is both this sense of instantaneous finality, and also a clear reversal of the fortune and place of the character undergoing the transformation. Marysas, for example, is literally turned upside-down, the very thing he was unable to do with his tibia in response to Apollo's reversed cithara.

To each of these characters it's revealed that things are, in reality, quite the opposite of how they imagined them to be -- but this discernment (certamen, as we have seen) is not something necessarily conveyed by words, discursively, to the character's understanding. Rather, it's what is experienced and made palpable in the flash of metamorphosis. Arachne, for example, experiences the violence of being pounded with the shuttle, rather than triumphing in her claim of being the more potent spinner. She ends without hands -- a small, nearly sense-less belly that nonetheless makes webs. For Ovid's reader, she becomes a fixed talisman, a legible reminder of her singular truth. Poetic justice.

This quality of the world -- for something, or someone, to suddenly become other to themselves, and to have their entire sense of things reversed -- is germane to what Ovid is telling us in the Metamorphoses. It requires us to entertain the possibility that nothing is fixed, nothing is certain, nothing is what it seems. This is not the same as saying all is random, accident, chaos. There's an order in this world, but it's an order in which error is the comfortable, everyday norm -- to err is human -- while the undoing of error, instead of restoring the errant one to some healing condition of insight, is often worse than error. You might happily live in Lycia, the land of the Chimaera, thinking you're the greatest spinner who ever was. Unless the web you're spinning is a noose, and, like the open door that Kafka's seeker can never enter, it's just for you.

For Ovid, art involves imagination, which morphs into illusion and error; to be disabused of that error by Athena is not necessarily redemptive, though it can leave a painful admonishing residue for others to sift through.

Ovid's direct style strikes us as oddly modern, even contemporary, but so does his world. His 21st century readers live in a moment in which basic certitudes are dissolving before their eyes. Recent reversals in science challenge some of our most cherished truths. We have all heard about the ghostly neutrinos that appear to be moving faster than the formerly fastest thing, light.

But there are other earth-shakers. Here, for example, is the physicist Brian Greene, talking about how the notion of the Multiverse is transforming basic assumptions:

We're all used to that gravity is attractive: You let go of something, it falls to the Earth. Earth pulls things toward it. But there's a kind of gravity that does the reverse. Repulsive gravity pushes outwards. And we believe that in the early, early universe, repulsive gravity was in operation, and that repulsive push is what drove everything apart.
Another physicist, Michael Murphy, relates disturbing findings that constants of nature are turning out to be not quite constant (podcast here). Then there's quantum entanglement.

It seems we no longer live in Newton's, or Einstein's, predictable nature grounded in immovable laws and certitudes. Those thinkers were more like Virgil, who dared to posit a universal plan, and to tell us what it was.

The recent spate of usurpatory thinking is very different from Newtonian physics and Virgil. The inconstant speedy multiverses of today's science might feel more at home in the syncopated world of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

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