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.

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