Sunday, July 1, 2012

Orpheus: the poet as unnatural auctor

The more time one spends with the Metamorphoses, the more intriguing it becomes. Unlike books that move with linear, consequential momentum from beginning to middle to end, Ovid's poem, if it moves, does so in a way that seems to call for analogies with mirrors, or perhaps fractals.

It becomes difficult to find a "way in" to the heart of this labyrinthine poem because there seem a nearly unlimited number of entrances, each opening onto a limitless series of paths that open onto -- you get the idea -- a Borgesian library, a book, liber, that's also a maze. But where does it begin? Does it have a center? an end? Where's Ariadne when we need her?

In book 10 we're noticing that Orpheus, who once had sung of "heavy" matters such as the gigantomachy, changes his tune after losing his bride to Hades, twice. The comparisons of the defeated poet to a nameless fellow frightened by Cerberus, and to Olenus, a man who refused to live without his beloved, proud Lethaea, suggest that Ovid might not entirely dissent from the judgment of Phaedrus in Plato's Symposium that Orpheus proved a coward frightened by both death and love.

What happens is that after encountering death, Orpheus's poetry changes:
‘Begin my song with Jupiter, Calliope, O Muse, my mother (all things bow to Jupiter’s might)! I have often sung the power of Jove before: I have sung of the Giants, in an epic strain, and the victorious lightning bolts, hurled at the Phlegraean field. Now there is gentler work for the lyre, and I sing of boys loved by the gods, and girls stricken with forbidden fires, deserving punishment for their lust. (Kline)
For "epic strain," the Latin text has plectro graviore; for "gentler work for the lyre," Ovid has leviore lyra. This is the poet as Orphic musician, the tools of his trade standing for the genre, the kind of song, he will sing. The image picks up the continuous play of lightness and heaviness that we've noted on several occasions.

What's interesting here is that, Orpheus, the famed "father of songs" (ἀοιδᾶν πατὴρ, Pindar calls him), goes backwards, reversing the Virgilian progression that moved inexorably from slender piping pastorals to laborious Georgics to the epic founding of empire.

Is it possible that Ovid is offering, via allegory, some autobiographical datum? Some suggestion that his own poetic career will be different from his mighty predecessor's? Hard to tell.

In turning away from the war of gods, Orpheus also turns away from heterosexual love and marriage, the stable union upon which the web of human life and fortune is built. There will be no children from these aberrant affairs, (unless we consider Paphos and Adonis, and we will have to do just that).

Somehow latent in this turning away, Orpheus also becomes, not a father, but the Thracian auctor of the male love of young boys. Is literary authorship somehow a strange begetting? Does the literary mode in which Ovid works -- this very poem we are reading -- somehow involve the "unnatural"? Is it purely by chance that the term genre derives from the root of gender?
gender (n.) c.1300, "kind, sort, class," from O.Fr. gendre (12c., Mod.Fr. genre), from stem of L. genus (gen. generis) "race, stock, family; kind, rank, order; species," also (male or female) "sex" (see genus) and used to translate Aristotle's Greek grammatical term genos.
Nietzsche famously noted that unnatural acts often accompanied the Greek sense of prophetic wisdom:
This is the recognition I find expressed in the terrible triad of Oedipean fates: the same man who solved the riddle of nature (the ambiguous Sphinx) must also, as murderer of his father and husband of his mother, break the consecrated tables of the natural order. It is as though the myth whispered to us that wisdom, and especially Dionysian wisdom, is an unnatural crime, and that whoever, in pride of knowledge, hurls nature into the abyss of destruction, must himself experience nature's disintegration. "The edge of wisdom is turned against the wise man; wisdom is a crime committed on nature" [see Sophocles' Oedipus the King, 316–17]: such are the terrible words addressed to us by myth. (Birth of Tragedy 9)
In considering Ovid's thinking about authorship and artistic creation, some of this might be worth keeping in mind. Let me offer one quick speculative example of how Ovid's view of the lighter side of literariness might have developed.

Before he wrote Metamorphoses, Ovid's great work was the Heroides, which we've glanced at more than once. These are letters written by literary characters such as Paris to Helen, Deianeira to Heracles, or Ariadne to Theseus. These letters carry arguments of love and passion, and are filled with psychological insight. They offer the verisimilitude of actual lovers in actual situations, and Ovid could certainly have felt pride of authorship in having produced such superb works of art. But Ovid makes these literary figures themselves into authors. Could he call himself their creator? How could he, given that every one of his epistolary "authors" is in fact a character in a poem created by an author other than Ovid? He did not "originate" these characters, yet in bringing them to life, often in greater psychological depth and circumstantial detail than can be found in their original settings, Ovid seems to be mirroring, detailing, or engendering the artistic beings he found in other people's books. (Same often said of Shakespeare).

I defy you to read Paris to Helen and then read Homer's Iliad without finding Paris infused with the character discovered in Paris's letter. It is as if Ovid begets a Paris of his own upon Homer's Paris -- an unnatural birth in which a character sort of begets itself (self-similarity) through the fertile womb of two poets' imaginations. Pygmalion and Myrrha are not far away.

When we think of how often characters in the Metamorphoses -- and in Greek myth in general -- are seeking their true fathers (Phaethon), or act under false assumptions about who bore them (Oedipus), we become more mindful of a key enigma underlying Ovid's world -- the ambiguity of origin. If we don't know where we came from, can we know where we'll end? If the genetic link of father-child, artist-work, cause-effect is missing or undone, then beginnings, endings, and middles are fraught with new difficulties. Where for Yeats "the center cannot hold," for Ovid a more basic question is whether one could ever have held there to have been a center.

Self-similar image

No comments:

Post a Comment