Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Heracles and women

The adventures of Heracles (Hercules) as told by Ovid in Metamorphoses 9 break up what another writer might offer as a chronological narrative of his life into several "slices," each of which tells a key moment in his story. Briefly, they follow this order:
1. Contest with Achelous for the hand of Deianeira
2. Nessus' attempted rape of Deianeira and death by the arrow dipped in the Hydra's blood
3. Rumor (Fama) causes Deianeira to send Nessus' poisoned tunic to Heracles
4. Death and apotheosis of Heracles
5. Protracted birth of the hero.
The famed 12 labors of Heracles occur between parts 2 and 3, and are summarily listed by the hero in his death agony in 4. That is to say, as usual, Ovid pointedly swerves around the epic material (as he did with Jason and Theseus), or distorts it into something grotesque rather than grand (Perseus). For Heracles, who gets more space than these other heroes, the poet spends most of his time on moments that involve certamina (contests that prove something), eros, ambiguous language or gossip (Fama), and vividly agonistic liminal moments.

As was noted in our reading today, the shirt of Nessus is something that is set aside -- a lethal charm that awaits one man, Heracles. Not unlike the purple lock of Nisus' hair, or the log Althea carefully protects until the moment she decides to kill her son, Meleager. (Or for that matter, the figure of Minos that entrances Scylla, or that of Theseus, who captivates Ariadne, or that of Atalanta, or of Deianeira (the name means "husband killer"), who conquers Heracles. Charms of love and death, and the interplay between them, are key elements in these stories.

One motif that links all five segments of Heracles' career in Ovid is cherchez la femme. At every point, the action is driven by his love of a woman, or her love of him, unless the "femme" is Juno -- then it's cherchez la femme furieuse.

When one sees this, then another crucial moment in the tale becomes clear: the moment of his apotheosis coincides with the point at which his maternal part is entirely refined away. To be immortal by Olympian standards is to have the terrestrial, mater-ial, mortal part painfully burned to a crisp -- the laboring ubermensch who is added to the real estate of the constellations then stands in sharp contrast to the labors (laboriferi) of his mother Alcmene. Her account of how she was nearly crushed to death by the mass of the hero's gravitas, as Lucina and Hera strain to keep baby Heracles from entering the world, immediately follows his death.

As the ultimate instance of a certain type of hero, Heracles throughout his life is in tension with the world. He tests known limits -- the bounds of human strength, endurance, courage, patience, cleverness, eros, power. He extends the realm we call "man" by pushing past familiar limits, even as some of those extensions trap him into recurring enslavements. New acts define a new "man." Yet even as he is crossing those limits, he is also raising the question of what an over-the-top figure like this is supposed to do with a woman, a family. The slaughter of his first wife Megara and their children bears witness to the fact that his powers could go horribly off course. The story of Heracles makes us ask: if this is what a man is when he's being all that he can be, what can a woman hope to be? This question is taken up by Sophocles in The Women of Trachis.

I just want to suggest here that for Ovid, the world of Metamorphoses entails, by its very nature, that everything is in play, in motion. The definitions we normally think of as fixed, like "man," "woman," "human," are mobile, subject to morph through time, but not always in ways that are intended. What follows in Book 9 are stories in which the borders between men and women, brothers and sisters, male and female, are being probed, revised and, in a very basic way, made unfamiliar.

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