Friday, May 4, 2012

The launch of Lichas

In Metamorphoses 9, Ovid pauses in his account of the death of Heracles to tell the fate of Lichas, the messenger who bore the shirt of Nessus from Deianeira:
Ecce Lichan trepidum latitantem rupe cavata
aspicit, utque dolor rabiem conlegerat omnem,
'tune, Licha,' dixit 'feralia dona dedisti?
tune meae necis auctor eris?' tremit ille, pavetque
pallidus, et timide verba excusantia dicit.                       215
dicentem genibusque manus adhibere parantem
corripit Alcides, et terque quaterque rotatum
mittit in Euboicas tormento fortius undas.
ille per aerias pendens induruit auras:
utque ferunt imbres gelidis concrescere ventis,                220
inde nives fieri, nivibus quoque molle rotatis
astringi et spissa glomerari grandine corpus,
sic illum validis iactum per inane lacertis
exsanguemque metu nec quicquam umoris habentem
in rigidos versum silices prior edidit aetas.                      225
nunc quoque in Euboico scopulus brevis eminet alto
gurgite et humanae servat vestigia formae,
quem, quasi sensurum, nautae calcare verentur,
appellantque Lichan.
Then he caught sight of the terrified Lichas, cowering in a hollow of the cliff, and pain concentrated all his fury. ‘Was it not you, Lichas,’ he said, ‘who gave me this fatal gift? Are you not the agent of my death?’ The man trembled, grew pale with fear, and, timidly, made excuses. While he was speaking, and trying to clasp the hero’s knees, Alcides seized him, and, swinging him round three or four times, hurled him, more violently than a catapult bolt, into the Euboean waters. 
Hanging in the air, he hardened with the wind. As rain freezes in the icy blasts and becomes snow; whirling snowflakes bind together in a soft mass; and they, in turn, accumulate as a body of solid hailstones: so he, the ancient tradition says, flung by strong arms through the void, bloodless with fright, and devoid of moisture, turned to hard flint. Now, in the Euboean Gulf, a low rock rises out of the depths, and keeps the semblance of a human shape. This sailors are afraid to set foot on, as though it could sense them, and they call it, Lichas. (Kline)
This passage comes after the onset of Heracles' awareness of the Hydra's poison and before his final agonies. As Prof. Anderson suggests, it offers a bit of "relief" before the apotheosis.

But what sort of relief is this?

While the fate of Lichas carries none of the agonizing pathos of the death of Heracles, it would be awkward to simply call it comic relief. Yet there is something tickling about the shift in the passage from the angry words of Heracles, to the heave-ho that the living Lichas is given, to the carefully objective description of the draining, drying, and hardening of Lichas's body, complete with scientific information regarding the formation of hailstones through the metamorphosis of rain to snow to hail. The meticulous detachment of the simile is not unlike the moment in Book 4 when Perseus rests the head of Medusa on the ground and it triggers the creation of coral, just when the reader is expecting an impassioned embrace of Perseus and the lady he has just rescued from the sea monster.

The passage begins and ends with the name: With Ecce Lichan we behold the poor man as the gaze of Heracles falls upon him. Then, after the throw, the elaborate meteorological simile and the information gleaned from "the ages," (aetas), i.e., a long-ago source of the tale, we see the rocky prominence that sailors now respect and fear, and the last words are, "and they call it, Lichas." Our attention has moved through space and time from legend to haunted material reality, linked solely through a name. Doesn't this resemble what a philologist does when tracking down the mutations of words and their meanings? Beginning in the heat of legend, Ovid sketches a trajectory that brings us down to the cold reality of the present rocky addition to the sea, a novam terram and baleful vestige of its volcanic, frenzied origin (humanae servat vestigia formae).

From the standpoint of poetics, this surely is of interest. Ovid is melding a scene of heightened epic grandeur with the language of sterile scientific observation such as might make it into a dry passage of Pliny the Elder, or Lucretius's De rerum natura. And he's moving with abbreviated swiftness through time and space to say something about the transformations of meanings into forms, of words into things. In the heightened moments of his most ambitious 1st century AD poem, Ovid is not averse to mixing in lower modes of speech, risking bathos where a less venturesome poet would fear to tread. If nothing else, this is a new melange of genre, suited to a poem that begins by saying it is about "forms of the new."

Heracles serving Omphale

Some thematic considerations

If we consider Lichas' launch within the larger context of Book 9, a few things are noteworthy. For one, Heracles is so large a character as to dwarf any straightforward treatment. At the very moment he is magnificent, he also cuts a ridiculous and pitiable figure, whether he's serving Eurystheus (or Omphale in women's garb), killing his entire family, seizing Iphitus, or hurling Lichas into the colder air. What haunts this oversized strongman is an inability to control his oversized anger. When Erysichthon was incensed by the peasant who tried to protect the sacred oak, he took his ax and lopped off the man's head. When fury comes over Heracles, he uses his bare hands. The power of the hand replaces that of speech: A human being hurtling through space no longer can be credibly portrayed from a first person point of view. Rather, Lichas, who moments ago was a cowering subject, is now an object flung through the atmosphere, undergoing refrigeration. From both a poetic and thematic standpoint, this is the trope of reification: turning an animate being into an inanimate thing. But the objectification is double: If Lichas is a projectile, Heracles has become a machine, a catapult. Where Erysichthon remained a man wielding an ax, Heracles furens is no longer recognizably human. The word Ovid uses for catapult is interesting: tormentum,"instrument of torture." (Tormentum, "torment" and "torture" all descend from the same Latin root: torquere, "to twist.")

Perhaps Ovid is telling us something here about anger, power and the moral imagination. It's one thing to argue with someone, man to man. It's another thing to move from the equal standing of intersubjective dialogue to the reduction of your interlocutor to an inert projectile, senseless and subject to the laws of motion. From the realm of the social mode of the exchange of ideas or feelings, there is a sudden, violent dis-placement; nothing here matters except sheer force.

Yet the passage also tickles, perhaps because, as Henri Bergson noted, when someone falls, they undergo something involuntary -- they cease to be authors of their own motion, and assume the rigidity of an object -- a stone, or a machine that hurls one.

The ironies are manifold: not only does the launch of Lichas provide comic ballast, or bathos, in the midst of the operatic death scene of the great hero, but by launching Lichas upward, Heracles has put the messenger on a trajectory that mimes his own future ascent. Yet because this is a parodic diversion, Lichas ends by freezing and falling to earth, while Heracles assumes the fire of potent stars. This dance of symmetric yet different reflections is fundamental in the Metamorphoses.

Thematically the scene can sensitize the reader to other instances of reification -- in a moment we will hear about Dryope turning from a young nursing mother into a hardwood tree, and not even a laurel. And in the previous book, Achelous had told of how Perimele's body had turned into an island, nova terra, despite his caresses. Even as Lichas and Heracles precipitate out into their immortal destinies, forming new lands in sea and sky, one senses a draining of human interest. The poet turns away to tell of creatures still warm with flesh and blood. We eagerly turn with him.

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