Friday, August 31, 2012

Silenus' stammering song

The familiar figure of Silenus as a staggering drunk (Ovid's word is titubantem) surrounded by a merry band of satyrs and bacchantes is only part of the story. It is Silenus seen from one angle, but not from another. But for the purposes of this figure, we should keep in mind the peculiarities not so much of metamorphosis as of anamorphosis. He is and is not what he seems.

Alcibiades made much of Socrates as a Silenus in the Symposium, and Virgil gives us a Silenus in the sixth Eclogue who, while sleeping off his wine, is captured by two boys:

The boys Chromis and Mnasyllos
saw Silenus lying asleep in a cave,
his veins swollen as ever with yesterday’s wine:
nearby lay the garlands fallen just now from his head,
and his weighty bowl hung by its well-worn handle.
Attacking him, they tied him with bonds from his own wreaths
(for the old man had often cheated them both of a promised song).
Aegle arrived, and added an ally to the fearful pair,
Aegle, loveliest of the Naiads, and as he opens his eyes
she’s painting his face and brow, with crimson mulberries.
Laughing at the joke, he says: ‘Why fasten me with chains?
Free me, boys: it’s enough your power’s been shown.
Hear the songs you desire: she’ll have another present,
you your songs.’ And at once he begins.

Then you might have seen Fauns and wild creatures dance
to the measure, then the unbending oaks nodded their crowns:
no such delight have the cliffs of Parnassus in their Phoebus,
Rhodope and Ismarus are not so astounded by Orpheus.
For he sang how the seeds of earth and air and sea and liquid fire
were brought together through the great void: how from these first
beginnings all things, even the tender orb of earth took shape:
then began to harden as land, to shut Nereus
in the deep, to gradually take on the form of things:
and then the earth is awed by the new sun shining,
and rain falls from the clouds borne on high:
and woods first begin to rise, and here and there,
creatures roam over the unknown hills.

The shift from outside to inside, from external figure to voice (carmen), morphs into a song that speaks of origins, the source of things. The crude, Pan-like pastoral of the shepherds rises, taking on philosophic scope, numinous tone. If any Roman poem could be said to render Virgil's idea of Silenus' song, it's Metamorphoses.

The juxtaposition of Silenus, Orpheus, Bacchus and Midas in Book 11 is not accidental, nor random, nor trivial. In citing Virgil, Ovid is also "siting," situating, his own poem -- its manner, style, and aspirations. One sense of titubantem is "stammering, hesitating, faltering" -- a demi-god, awakened from his drunken dreams, fully sensual, yet he sings of something high, clothed in rude garb. Silenus may stagger, but as Alcibiades says,
. . .once I caught him when he was open like Silenus' statues, and I had a glimpse of the figures he keeps hidden within: they were so godlike -- so bright and beautiful, so utterly amazing -- that I no longer had a choice: I just had to do whatever he told me.