Friday, December 16, 2011

Allusion, Magic and Catachresis in the flight of Medea

(Note: This post is solely for the confirmed Ovidophile, and even he or she might hesitate. I keep finding Ovid to resonate with curious relationships of words and things, of poetry and poetics, the making and interweaving of sound and meaning. He does so in ways that draw many of his choices of character, theme, motif and story together in powerfully suggestive configurations. At least that is the argument here. It is long. You have been warned.)
allude Look up allude at Dictionary.com1530s, "mock," from M.Fr. alluder or directly from L. alludere "to play, sport, joke, jest," from ad- "to" (see ad-) + ludere "to play" (see ludicrous). Meaning "make an indirect reference, point in passing" is from 1570s. Related: Alludedalluding.

After Medea dupes the daughters of Pelias into carving up their father, she absconds. We then get a 53-line passage that has her flying zigzaggedly among places where metamorphoses are said to have occurred. William S. Anderson suggests that Ovid did not wish to compete with Euripides in telling what next transpired in Corinth (the confrontation with Jason and the murders there), so he invents this mini-tour that allows his erudition to be displayed. It's Book 7, 350-403.

So the tour is a tissue of more than a dozen allusions, mostly to very obscure tales. (Riley's edition of Metamorphoses is helpful with some of the more obscure references in the passage.) Medea's dragons are wandering amid vague, or entirely unknown, poetic territory here. Let's look at some of these references.

Medea begins her flight near Pelion, home of Chiron, and Mt. Othrys, the Thessalian mountain from which the Titans staged their ten-year Titanomachy with the Olympians.

The mention of Othrys brings up Cerambus, a famed poet credited with inventing the sherpherd's pipes, the lyre, and great songs. Thanks only to Ovid, we know him to have survived Deucalion's flood. Honored by the nymphs of Mt. Othrys, Cerambus became arrogant, singing unflattering tales about them. Yet, says Ovid:
By the Nymphae's aid wings bore him through the air, and when the earth's great mass was whelmed beneath Deucalion’s flood, he escaped unflooded by the sweeping sea.
We'll come back to this special poet.

Medea next flies near Phrygian Mt. Ida, sacred to Cybele, and we hear more stories, some known solely from Ovid, including one in which Bacchus preempts his son from being charged with theft of a calf by changing it into a stag. Another involves women from Cos, now cows, without explanation. Paris is also alluded to -- it was on Ida that he first saw the three goddesses who demanded his judgment, and it was here, says Ovid, that he isn't buried, but merely sprinkled with sand.

As Medea flies over Rhodes we are told of the Telchines. Ovid is not the source for this strange group with their blighting eyes -- there are other tales and tellers. But it's to him we owe the story about their magic becoming so malevolent that they were drowned by Zeus.

Medea's chariot proceeds to skirt Ceos in the Cyclades, then back over Anatolia. Anderson notes that this is not a purposeful course taking her by the shortest route to Corinth. She is wandering, erring, among places barely remembered or known.

Each is associated with a transformation of a human into a creature: Over Ceos, we have an allusion to the transformation of Alcidamas's daughter into a dove. Over the lake near Pleuron we learn of the conceited boy, Cycnus, turning into a swan as he leaps from a cliff, while his mother, Hyrie, melts into a pool. Immediately then we have Combe, escaping her sons's murderous intentions by turning into a bird. At Calaurea, a king and his wife, unnamed, are turned to birds -- another tale otherwise unknown. Further on, the river Cephesos bewails a grandson turned into a seal, and Eumelos laments his son, now a bird, who "dwelt in air."

Two observations: First, there's a density here of flight -- Medea flies, somewhat aimlessly, it seems, but along the way she comes within sight of some dozen metamorphoses, quite a few resulting in birds. When she arrives in Athens, three more figures are recalled, all now birds.

Second, as we trail behind Medea we seem adrift in a series of allusions to tales of magic and metamorphoses that either refer to nearly forgotten stories, or to ones entirely invented by Ovid. At this point in the story -- Medea has just used her magic not to rejuvenate an old man, but to trick his daughters into killing him -- we might wonder why we're treated to this learned but seemingly pointless compendium of allusions, some made up out of whole cloth.

Consider the oddity of this series of gradations moving from actual myths with known sources to highly attenuated myths, some apparently sourced solely in these very lines of Ovid. What sort of "allusion" is it when the thing to which it alludes is known solely from the allusion? Is this allusion or illusion? If there is no referent of an allusion in actual myth, then it is positing the very thing to which it alludes. It is then no longer possible to distinguish between alluding and positing. Lacking grounding in any known source, these quasi-illusory allusions quite literally "dwell in air."

It's entirely consistent with the story Ovid tells of Medea that in this passage under discussion, language ceases to point to some reality outside itself, and instead makes it up as it goes. Verbal magic. Throughout this book, Medea has been using spells to make things happen. Ovid's word for incantation is carmen, which can mean song, tune, air, poem, incantation, and more. In begging Medea to make his old man new, Jason says:
 si tamen hoc possunt (quid enim non carmina possunt?)
let your incantations, if they can (what indeed can they not do?)
Note that the verb possunt, i.e., ("able to do, can do") appears twice in this line, with carmina as its subject. At the end of Book 6 we saw Boreas speak of his power (vis), his motive force, which he used when his attentions to Oreithyia were rejected by Athens. Book 7 picks up on the far side of that divide between justice and force, knowledge and power -- this is sounded by the famous words Medea speaks in her soliloquy:
Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor
This is a highly conscious statement of a rift, a deranging asymmetry, among knowledge, judgment and will. It not only occasions the first sustained introspective dramatic monologue of the Metamorphoses, but is associated with a character who uses the power of carmina to perform acts. (Jason, who has no idea how literally Medea binds words to acts, will suffer the unimaginable consequences of violating his oath to her.)

What is lurking behind these language events -- illusory allusions, remarkable inventions, wordspells that do rather than simply say? Ancient rhetoricians called this sort of creation ex nihilo of things or acts from words catachresis, which in Greek literally meant "abuse." The abuse occurred when an old word was wrenched to mean something new. An oft-cited example is the leg of a table. Since we have no other word for this thing, we force the word "leg" from its usual literal meaning into carrying a new literal meaning. The old is made new, while still retaining its former appearance. (See the expression: "New wine in old skins.")

catachresis Look up catachresis at Dictionary.com1580s, from L. catachresis, from Gk. katakhresis "misuse" (of a word), from katakhresthai "to misuse," from kata- "down" (here with a sense of "perversion") + khresthai "to use."

To press a bit further, we recall that a key motif of book 7 is rejuvenation, the old becoming new. Think of Medea, gathering the ingredients of her elixir of youth -- the witch's brew is so potent that its mere scent causes the dragons to shed their skins:
cum rediit; neque erant tacti nisi odore dracones, et tamen annosae pellem posuere senectae. (236-37)
Think of Aeson, rising from his death bed, new blood steeped in magic herbs in his old skin, young again. To rejuvenate is to make something old again new, which is in fact what it was before it became old. Anderson notes that Ovid often uses the word nova, "new," to convey the moment of transformation (as he does in line 362, novo latratu, "strange barking" to tell us that Maera has become a dog).

As we'll soon see, Medea's career of abuse ends the instant Theseus's identity is recognized in Athens. She disappears into a mist. Not a natural mist, of course, but one produced by another of her carmina.

To sum up this careering analysis:

The moment we encounter Medea, we know we're dealing with a complex being, rich in interiority, aware of her paradoxical duality, a tension between that which she knows to be right and good, and that which, though understood to be gravely wrong, she strangely finds herself pursuing. This duality extends to her language, which, like a poet's carmen, has the power to charm, to act upon the world, to create something new instead of merely imitating or pointing to what already exists. Anything -- the unnatural -- is possible.

Medea turns out to be a deformed version of Athena, donor of the olive. But her creations serve her own dark purposes, with dire consequences for everyone she is close to. If anyone is still reading this (I know it's long), consider that once again, as he did in Book 6 with Arachne and Marsyas and Niobe, and in Book 5 with the Pierides, Ovid is drawing a meaningful difference between an Athenian artist (e.g., himself), and, in Medea's case, an artist who serves other, darker gods, dabbling in wayward powers of incantatory speech.

Looked at this way, the eccentric flight of Medea grows in interest. First, it's more like a ramble than a hurried escape. And remember, she's eventually heading back to Corinth, to even more heinous carnage. Beginning with the titanic mountains, her voyage immediately invokes another renowned abuser of language, our friend Cerambus. Not only did Cerambus disrespect the nymphs of Othrys, but they paid him back, turning him into a wood-gnawing beetle, the cerambyx, that kills trees by boring into them. If we re-read Ovid's passage on him now:
By the Nymphae's aid wings bore him through the air when the earth's great mass was whelmed beneath Deucalion’s flood, he escaped unflooded by the sweeping sea.
we encounter a revisionary interpretive decision: Was Cerambus elevated above the waters by adoring nymphs, or is that a misreading of their "aid"? His wings might well have been the hard wings of his new, catachretic insect form, complete with "lyre" as described by Antoninus Liberalis:
He can be seen on trunks and has hook-teeth, ever moving his jaws together. He is black, long and has hard wings like a great dung beetle. He is called the ox that eats wood and, among the Thessalians, kerambyx. Boys use him as a toy, cutting off his head, to wear as a pendant. The head looks like the horns of a lyre made from a tortoiseshell. 
If nothing else, this exposure to the bewitching light of catachresis should make us as readers more aware of the potential duplicities and vagaries of language, complicating the task of reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment