Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ovid's ants and Virgil's bees

A book I'm reading has made me more clearly aware of how Ovid seems to be taking on Virgil in his treatment, in Metamorphoses 7, of the plague and the regeneration of the men of Aegina.

Michael O'Loughlin's The Garlands of Repose: The Literary Celebration of Civic and Retired Leisure: The Traditions of Homer and Vergil, Horace and Montaigne is a fascinating study of the changing visions of leisure, otium, from the ancient world to Montaigne. For the ancients, he says, the tranquility of a well-ordered civic world was the norm, priority and end of civilized life. Work, the world of business, of "jobs," was called negotium -- literally the negation, absence of, otium. O'Loughlin finds a pattern in Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Georgics, and in Horace and Montaigne in which work and leisure take on a relationship of means to end.

That is, we labor not in order to use our free time on "vacation" (the void or absence of work), rather through labor we accede to a kind of creative play that is the substance of human freedom -- the unalienated labor that is the fruit of liberty, as understood, for example, in the notion of liberal arts.

O'Loughlin shows how this pattern works itself out in the 3rd and 4th books of Virgil's Georgics. The 3rd book culminates in Virgil's account of a plague, a sacer ignis "fiery curse" that destroys all that lives, growing ever more lurid until Tisiphone herself is seen marshaling the destruction. In the 4th Georgic, we learn how to regenerate a colony of bees. Bees, the makers of "air-borne honey," embody the civic ideal of an ordered realm whose entire telos, aim, is the joyous production of honey from nectar. In this can be seen both a political image of the ordered polis, and a cultural ideal of art as the free labor of sweetness and light, the poet culling new delight from the flowers of rhetoric. It is not by chance that in the course of elaborating this fable, Virgil recites the interwoven quest stories of Aristaeus and of Orpheus.

The achievement of liberal art and culture is, for Virgil, the end of hard work, of destructive war and constructive human power. For Virgil, on his way to singing the pageant of Roman civilization, all leisure is hard-won, takes place in human history, and is always subject to potential loss.

Ovid's tale of Aeacus and the plague takes the impetus for the plague and its remedy nearly entirely out of human hands. A human child reminds Zeus, his father, of his love for his mother, and in honoring both parents, he moves the god to restore his race. The replacements come not in the form of the transformative bee, but through the orderly ant -- a race that lives and thrives through organization and carries "large loads in tiny mouths."

Years ago I had the good fortune to participate in a graduate seminar taught by O'Loughlin and was saddened recently to learn of his passing. He was a great teacher and a fine comparatist, although he remained nominally an "English prof."

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