Friday, April 27, 2012

Men and women in Trachis

A choral ode from Sophocles' Women of Trachis - the chorus recalls the battle of Achelous and Heracles. The "she" on the hill is Deianeira:

Great is the power of Aphrodite's triumph!
I will not mention                                               500
the gods, nor how she deceived the son of Kronos,
nor Hades the lord of night,
no, nor Poseidon, shaker of earth.
But when this woman was wedded,
what mighty-limbed men came to claim her in marriage?
Who were they who entered the hard-hitting, dust-clouded conflict of battle?

[Antistrophe]One was a violent river in a bull's form,
four-leggèd, high-horned                                     510
Achelóüs from Oeniadae; the other came from
Bacchian Thebes, and his bow
was bent and he wielded the spear and cudgel -
Zeus's son; and they came together
in battle, desiring to win her in wedlock,
while Aphrodite the blesser of marriage sat in the middle and judged them.

[Epode]Then was the clash of fists and arrows
mingled with the clatter of bull's horns;               520
intricate grapplings were joined;
there were deadly blows of the forehead,
and groaning was heard from both.
But she, in tender beauty,
on a far-seen hilltop,
sat and waited for her husband
even as the battle raged.
The bride these men had fought for
piteously remained;
and then she left her mother                                   530
like a lost and helpless calf.
We know how Deianeira felt as she watched their combat, because the play opens with her recollection:


There is an ancient proverb people tell
that none can judge the life of any man
for good or bad until that man is dead;
but I, for my part, though I am still living,
know well that mine is miserable and hard.
Even while I was living with my father
Oeneus in Pleuron I was plagued by fear
of marriage more than any other woman.
My suitor was the river Achelóüs,                                  10
who took three forms to ask me of my father:
a rambling bull once - then a writhing snake
of gleaming colors - then again a man
with ox-like face: and from his beard's dark shadows
stream upon stream of water tumbled down.
Such was my suitor. As I waited there
I prayed my agony might end in death
before I ever shared my bed with him.
But later on, to my great joy, the glorious
child of Alcména, son of Zeus, arrived                             20
and joined in combat with the river god,
and freed me
The helpless girl, at the mercy of who was stronger in combat, has lived years with Heracles, borne his children. She then learns that Iole, who has been sent to her home by the still absent hero, is his new lover. She is no longer helpless. To Lichas the messenger, who has been concealing the actual state of things from her, she says:
Tell me the truth! It is a foul disgrace
for a free man to be known as a liar.
And do not think you will escape detection,
for many heard you speaking, and will tell me.
If you have fears, dismiss them, for to me
the greatest pain is not to learn the truth.
What harm in knowing?

Far from emulating Hera (Juno), Deianeira, in speaking of love, sounds almost like an Enlightenment philosopher, before turning her imperious gaze back upon Lichas:


Whoever stands opposed to Love, with fists
clenched like a boxer, does not understand him;
for he rules over gods as he desires,
and over me. Why not another like me?
So if I blamed my husband for the passion
which has afflicted him, I would be mad -
or this girl either, who has shared with him
what is no shame for them, no wrong to me.
. . .

Has not Heracles                                               460
taken more brides than any other man?
And yet none of them ever was reproached
by me, or slandered. She will not be either,
not even if she melts with passion, for
I pitied her most when I first beheld her
because her beauty has destroyed her life,
and she, against her will, has sacked and ravaged
her native country. But let all this be
cast to the winds: to you I say, deceive
anyone else, but do not lie to me!

Sophocles' Deianeira is a woman in full possession of reason, compassion, and dignity. The thrust of the play is not that she is a "jealous wife"; far from it. When she discovers her error, she ends her life without a word. It is Heracles whose complaints and execrations and howls of pain fill the stage after she has gone:

And pity me, for I 
am pitiful indeed as I lie sobbing
and moaning like a virgin! No one living
has ever seen me act like this before;
for I have never groaned at my misfortunes
till now, when I have proved myself a woman. 

Ovid tells the story somewhat differently in Metamorphoses 9, but the conversation with Alcmena shows that Iole is part of the family -- married to Hyllus, as per Heracles' last order to his son.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

“Any fool can get into an ocean . . .”

“Any fool can get into an ocean . . .”
Jack Spicer

Any fool can get into an ocean
But it takes a Goddess
To get out of one.
What’s true of oceans is true, of course,
Of labyrinths and poems. When you start swimming
Through riptide of rhythms and the metaphor’s seaweed
You need to be a good swimmer or a born Goddess
To get back out of them
Look at the sea otters bobbing wildly
Out in the middle of the poem
They look so eager and peaceful playing out there where the water hardly moves
You might get out through all the waves and rocks
Into the middle of the poem to touch them
But when you’ve tried the blessed water long
Enough to want to start backward
That’s when the fun starts
Unless you’re a poet or an otter or something supernatural
You’ll drown, dear. You’ll drown
Any Greek can get you into a labyrinth
But it takes a hero to get out of one
What’s true of labyrinths is true of course
Of love and memory. When you start remembering.

via wood s lot, one of the oldest, richest blogs there is

Book 8 of the Metamorphoses is the book of labyrinths, elaborate devices to defend against or retard access to or from a hidden core. Here's how Ovid describes the work of Daedalus:
Minos resolved to remove this shame, the Minotaur, from his house, and hide it away in a labyrinth with blind passageways. Daedalus, celebrated for his skill in architecture, laid out the design, and confused the clues to direction, and led the eye into a tortuous maze, by the windings of alternating paths. No differently from the way in which the watery Maeander deludes the sight, flowing backwards and forwards in its changeable course, through the meadows of Phrygia, facing the running waves advancing to meet it, now directing its uncertain waters towards its source, now towards the open sea: so Daedalus made the endless pathways of the maze, and was scarcely able to recover the entrance himself: the building was as deceptive as that.
What can it be for an artist to create a work so devious as to be unable to find his or her way out?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bacchylides: Fragment on Deianeira

... since Ourania on her lovely throne has sent me from Pieria a golden freighter loaded with glorious songs [5] ... by the flowery Hebrus he takes delight in ... , or in a long-necked swan ... delighting his mind ... you come to seek the flowers of paeans, [10] Pythian Apollo, all those which choruses of Delphians loudly sing at your glorious temple. Meanwhile we sing of how the son of Amphitryon, a bold-minded man, left Oechalia devoured by fire, [15] and arrived at the headland with waves all around it; there he was going to sacrifice from his booty nine loud-bellowing bulls for Cenaean Zeus, lord of the wide-spread clouds, and two for the god who rouses the sea and subdues the earth, [20] and a high-horned unyoked ox for the virgin Athena, whose eyes flash with might. Then a god, useless to fight against, wove for Deianeira, to her great sorrow, [25] a clever scheme, when she heard the bitter news that the son of Zeus, fearless in battle, was sending white-armed Iole to his splendid house to be his bride. [30] Poor woman, ill-fated, what a plan she devised! Widely powerful envy destroyed her, and the dark veil which covered what was to come, when on the rosy banks of the Lycormas [35] she received from Nessus the fateful, monstrous gift.  ~ Bacchylides (known as the "Cean nightingale"), Ode 16 (fragment).

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Nova Terra in Metamorphoses 8

Prof. Anderson is very helpful regarding a passage that is usually omitted from book 8 of the Metamorphoses -- it's the moment (roughly lines 600-610) when Achelous describes how, after he raped Perimele and her father threw her off a cliff, the river god intervened, praying to Neptune to try to keep her from drowning. As Anderson notes, the suppressed lines are borderline outrageous.

I've not found an English translation, but the text below comes from this French edition.

si pater Hippodamas, aut si minus impius esset,
debuit illius misereri, ignoscere nobis;}
adfer opem, mersaeque, precor, feritate paterna
da, Neptune, locum, uel sit locus ipsa licebit!"
{Hunc quoque complectar!" Mouit caput aequoreus rex
concussitque suis omnes assensibus undas.   605
Extimuit nymphe, nabat tamen. Ipse natantis
pectora tangebam trepido salientia mota
dumque ea contrecto, totum durescere sensi
corpus et inducta condi praecordia terra.}
dum loquor, amplexa est artus noua terra natantes

si son père eût été plus juste et moins barbare, il se fût laissé fléchir. Moins impie, il eût eu pitié d'elle, il eût pardonné mon amour. Protège cette infortunée, que la fureur d'un père a jetée dans les flots soumis à ta puissance. Daigne lui donner une île pour retraite; oui si tu le veux, qu'elle soit elle-même une île, et que mon onde amoureuse puisse l'embrasser dans son cours". Neptune incline sa tête, et l'humide élément tout entier s'émeut et se soulève. Périmèle frémit; elle nage pourtant; je la soutiens, je presse son sein palpitant. Soudain je sens son corps se durcir et s'étendre. Soudain la terre couvre ses membres flottants.

A rough translation from 606 ff:

The nymph was terrified, but nonetheless kept swimming. While I was holding her up and fondling her breasts, I sensed her body harden and be covered with earth. While I speak, new earth grasps her floating limbs.


"The erotic details of this line and the next," Anderson says in his note on 8.606, "surpass anything else that Ovid is known to have tried in the Metamorphoses. Achelous should hardly fondle the girls breasts in this crisis, when theoretically he is concerned only to save her. Such caresses would decidedly interfere with her swimming."

The word "theoretically" is interesting here. A river god should observe proper decorum when rescuing young nymphs. But do rivers -- natural entities -- observe such niceties? Does a river "understand" theoretical distinctions between rape and love, self-gratification and other-directed care? What grounds our readerly theories?

Nova terra

As Mussy noted the other day, the interconnections between the various tales Ovid tells are virtually innumerable. These missing lines offer, besides a necrophiliac confluence of erotic desire, death, and burial, an interesting link to a tale that will be alluded to in Book 9, from the story of the seven against Thebes.

It seems that Alcmaeon, a son of Amphiarius, one of the original Seven who died at Thebes, had to flee the Erinyes after killing his mother Eriphyle -- he was commanded to do so by his father, whom his mother had doomed, bribed by Polyneices, the son of Oedipus, who gave him the necklace of Harmonia (which we saw, or didn't see, in the tale of Cadmus and Harmonia).

After killing his mother, Alcmaeon
was pursued by the Erinyes and driven mad, fleeing first to Arcadia, where his grandfather Oicles ruled, and then to King Phegeus in Psophis, who purified him and gave him his daughter, Arsinoe in Apollodorus and Alphesiboea in Pausanias, in marriage. Alcmaeon gave her the necklace and robe of Harmonia.[5] According to Apollodorus, Alcmaeon's presence caused the land to be infertile, so he went to Delphi for assistance.[5] In Pausanias, it is his own madness which drove him to do so.[6] 
From there the two accounts generally agree with each other and with Thucydides. Alcmaeon is instructed by the oracle to find a land which did not exist at the time when he was polluted by killing his mother. Accordingly, he goes to a delta of the Achelous river, which was newly formed. There he marries Callirrhoe, the daughter of the river's god. She had heard of the famous necklace and robe of Harmonia, and asks Alcmaeon to get them for her. He complies, returning to Psophis and telling king Phegeus that he required the necklace and robe in order to be purified. Either Phegeus or his sons (Agenor and Pronous) discovers the truth from a servant, and they ambush and kill Alcmaeon.[7][8][9] In Apollodorus, Arsinoe, the daughter of Phegeus, chastises her brothers, who put her into a chest and sell her as a slave.[10] Meanwhile, Callirrhoe prays to Zeus that her sons will grow up instantaneously so that they might take revenge on her husband's murderers. Zeus grants this, and Amphoterus and Acarnan meet the sons of Phegeus at Agapenor's house, when they are on their way to Delphi to dedicate Harmonia's robe and necklace there. After killing them, Amphoterus and Acarnan continue to Psophis and killed king Phegeus and his queen, after which they are forced to flee to Tegea.[11]
The story of Perimele told by Achelous offers us the creation of new land at his delta. The prophecies of Themis at the center of Book 9 interweave several stories from the Theban cycle, including the acceleration of time that happened to the sons of Callirrhoe so that Alcmaeon's murder could be avenged. And including not only the necklace, but also the robe of Harmonia, a garment more fateful than the shirt of Nessus.

How significant is this? Perhaps not hugely so, but it's another instance in which a seemingly gratuitous tale turns out to be related, via back channels, as it were, to another tale, which is nested yet in other tales, making the reader move forward and back as connections, like roots, take hold beneath the surface layer of the narrative.

Another point: by bringing up the acceleration of the lives of Callirrhoe's sons, Themis, goddess of prophecy, underscores a recurrent feature of Book 9 -- as we'll note in more detail ahead, the temporal order is sometimes reversed, sometimes speeded up. Or, effects will occur before causes.

Just as Achelous and Neptune, gods of water, make new land, so the gods can also make new time, or cause time to slow or even disappear, even as the veil of time vanishes to one who, like Themis, sees future things.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Ovid's shifting texture

Ovid's grouping of tales is enormously suggestive, and infinitely elusive. One sees patterns everywhere, but when one tries to tie them up into neat thematic or formal packages, the actual linkages and segues from one tale or set of tales to the next seem designed to defeat any basic order that might fit neatly into a PowerPoint demonstration.

We can say that books 1-5 appear to form a unit, and again, books 6-10 seem a middle group. And taking just the books we've read so far within the latter group, one can see certain thematic concerns:

Book 6 - Matters of Art, mimesis, hubris, human making vs. divine creation. (Arachne, Niobe, Marsyas).
            - Human rape and privation of speech (Tereus, Procne, Philomela); divine rape (Boreas and Orithyia).
Book 7 - Foedera - Bonds of trust and mistrust - how well can one know the other? Bond between men, cities, men and gods, men and women. Tales of rejuvenation. (Medea and Jason, Plague of Aegina, Aeacus and Minos, Cephalus and Procris). 
Book 8 - Love, Defenses and Vulnerability, Randomness vs. Necessity. (Scylla and Nisus, Minos and Daedalus, Daedalus and Icarus, Diana and Oineus, the Boar, Meleager, Atalanta, Althea).
            - Hospitality, Desire, Economics: (Achelous, Philemon and Baucis, Erysichthon and Mestra).

One "pattern" that emerges is that in each of these books, the major narrative thrust seems to break, or shift gears, near the middle. For example, the tales of human artists and the gods they anger in the first half of book 6 give way to the long, bloody account of Tereus and the violent "art" of Philomela and Procne.

In 7, the very long narrative of Medea ends abruptly with the advent of Theseus, and the second half of the book relates to humans grappling with divine gifts.

In book 8, a series of tales involving love and or vengeance penetrating and destroying fortified places is followed by stories of hospitality and its absence.

It would seem that Ovid is going out of his way to disrupt some easy order of coherent narrative units that would coincide with the beginnings and endings of his poem's books. He would much rather introduce new matter in the middle of a book and have it wash over into the beginning of the next, as he does with the figure of the river god Achelous in book 8. The god appears in the middle to divert Theseus from attempting to cross him, and the ensuing symposium lasts until well into book 9, ending with the defeat of Achelous at the hands of Heracles.

Hercules vs. Achelous as bull

In another post I'll examine some of the patterns within a single book that might be worth considering.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A practice of reading

Over the dozen or so years that our "classics group" has been meeting in Sarasota, we've evolved a practice that has worked well for grappling with major works up close.We don't really have a name for it, but it goes something like this:

1. We take turns reading aloud from a text. Often we have different translations. After a section of a text is read, anyone is welcome to comment. Things they notice about the wording, or the action, or the tone, or setting, or rhythm, or characterization. Or how this segment relates to something that has come before. Often the comments tend to focus the group's attention on details that might otherwise have been overlooked. Different perspectives come into play as different readers offer observations, ask questions, or suggest some interpretive approach.

 2. After we feel we've said as much as it occurs to us to say about a particular passage, we go on to the next. In most cases, we go through whatever we're reading from beginning to end without skipping a word. We have found it rewarding to do this.

 3. That sums up our "method." It has worked well, and has led to a few effects:

  • Nearly always, the voice most often heard, the voice that one leaves the room having mostly attended to, is the voice of the poet.
  • By beginning from what we are observing in the readings before us, attention tends to remain focused on the work rather than to be dispersed through association to topics far afield.
  • Even when we do move from the particular to the general, we always find our way back to the text -- it leads the way.
  • What we share, always and foremost, is the text we are reading. Secondary literature, the essays of critics of the text, might come into the discussion, but they neither govern nor shape discussions. The work and our attentive reading of it takes precedence over received ideas or overworked commonplaces of literary tradition.

The upshot has been that time and time again, we've gained a nuanced appreciation for authors whom we thought we "knew," but whom we were happily disabused of thinking we understood. Speaking just for myself, I know I've learned a tremendous amount from the bafflement that confronts me at every turn in texts that have fascinated readers for centuries. This phenomenon of bafflement is well delineated by Paul de Man here. Our literary exercises have left me with a richer sense of the complex talents, interrelationships, and imaginative powers of a wide range of authors.

By getting to know each text in some detail, we've begun to discover the ways in which each might owe a debt to its predecessors, or how one poet can challenge a whole set of authors whom he nonetheless draws upon for inspiration and technique. Consider with what care Dante has situated a vast array of authors in his Commedia, for example. From a slightly more elevated perspective, we've begun to discern the elements and bases of the two mighty trunks of the Western tradition -- the Greco-Roman and the Hebraic -- and have been amazed at the contemporaneity of the poetic voices we've heard, and their capacity to surprise, entertain, and enlighten.

I guess we've gotten used to the idea that the smartest, most interesting, wisest voice in the room almost invariably comes from the book before us, so we've learned something about how to listen, to interpret, and to relate to other voices we've come to know.

Call it close reading, slow reading, reading aloud, or just reading, it's a remarkable thing to have experienced, over and over, for so many years. May it long continue.