Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Writers and storytellers

I wanted to make a few notes while our substantial discussion of the tale of Iphis and Ianthe today was still fresh in mind.

Clearly, Ovid placed this tale next and subsequent to the tale of Byblis and Caunus because he was interested in that juxtaposition. There are a few basic ways in which the two stories are, for all their apparent differences in tone, subject and style, intimately complementary.

The story of Byblis is the tale of a writer possessed by Eros. The tale is the gradual unfolding to consciousness -- first her own, then her brother's -- of her tabooed desire for her twin. The letter, despite elaborate efforts of argument and pathos, fails, and she laments the failure:
She grew pale, hearing that she had been rejected, and her body shook, gripped by an icy chill. But, when consciousness returned, so did the passion, and, she let out these words, her lips scarcely moving: ‘I deserve it! Well, why did I rashly reveal my wound? Why was I in such a hurry to commit things, which were secret, to a hasty letter? I should have tested his mind’s judgment before by ambiguous words. I should have observed how the winds blew; used other lesser sails, in case those breezes were not to be followed; and crossed the sea in safety, not as now, under full canvas, caught by uncertain gusts. So I am carried onto the rocks, swamped, overwhelmed by the whole ocean, and my sails have no means of retreat.’
If we were in doubt about her calling to the republic of letters, this revisionary view, and strategic rethinking of her way of revealing her heart, complete with elaborate Odyssean simile, should lay those doubts to rest. The failure to conquer her brother, her reader, only propels her to a more labored manner of grandiloquence. She now begins to conceive a theatrical encounter in which she would act out before his eyes the plot that failed as narrative. Essentially she's covered the poetic territory from lyric to epic to tragic drama in short order. Byblis of Byblos is nothing if not a producer of biblia.

If Byblis belongs to the upper class (she's the daughter of Miletus and grandaughter of Apollo, after all), a child of the city, heir to educated discourse, to language as a system of rhetorical devices in the employ of desire and to the literary as a world of exempla (to which her own tale is added by Ovid), no one could be more unlike her than Iphis. The Cretan world of Ligdus, Telethusa and their only child seems one of poor, unlettered folk, and their tale has the simplicity of a folktale.

A wonderful essay that probes the differences between the world of the novel and that of folktales is called "The Storyteller," by Walter Benjamin. He sketches out his view early on:
What distinguishes the novel from the story (and from the epic in the narrower sense) is its essential dependence on the book. The dissemination of the novel became possible only with the invention of printing. What can be handed on orally, the wealth of the epic, is of a different kind from what constitutes the stock in trade of the novel. What differentiates the novel from all other forms of prose literature—the fairy tale, the legend, even the novella—is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it. This distinguishes it from storytelling in particular. The storyteller takes what he tells from experience—his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others. To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.
 When Byblis, discovering her love for Caunus, adduces the tale of the children of Aeolus in support of her arguments, she pulls herself up short:
'At non Aeolidae thalamos timuere sororum!
unde sed hos novi? cur haec exempla paravi?
quo feror?
Still, the sons of Aeolus, god of the winds, were not afraid to marry their sisters! Where did I learn that? Why do I have such ready examples? Where is all this reading leading?
With a wink, Ovid is inviting us to enjoy his joke -- where indeed did she learn that, if not from reading a book very much like the one we are reading! But the exemplum goes further with the suggestion that the literary self is a complex being -- a young girl, but also an febrile imagination drenched in the tales of writers of all times, ages, places and sensibilities. Flaubert was not the first to ask, with Bovary, where is this leading? (Dante had suggested a netherly direction with his tale of Paolo and Francesca).

As Benjamin notes, the folktale appears to come from a different tradition. He relates it to oral retelling, involving the living practical social fabric and time and place of the storyteller, as distinct from the "solitary individual" trapped in books.

This post is already longer than I planned to make it. In another I want to explore a bit more of the fascinating interrelationship of these two tales. Clearly Iphis and her mother are part of something that is other, and that lies beyond their "immediate selves." The tale of Iphis is a tale of power, potency, in the most practical way -- a tale of nature being changed to defictionalize a fiction, an event occurring to a young girl in order that she can in fact perform the part of husband.

Paolo and Francesca

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