Wednesday, September 26, 2012

History and Theater in Metamorphoses 11

(Apologies for length - this sort of got away from what was intended to be a relatively brief comment.)

"Of all the cities that men live under the sun and the starry sky, the nearest to my heart was Troy, with Priam and the people of Priam." (Zeus to Hera. Homer, Iliad 4.45).

If one has little tolerance for non-linear stories, narratives that dawdle, derail, drop threads, or make leaps of little seeming consequence, then Metamorphoses might frustrate. "What's the story?" one can hear certain kinds of readers mutter. Or, "What's it all MEAN?"

Whether it's left brain tilt, or a resistance to certain sorts of complexity, the reader who expects a text to go on a quest of some sort, and via its protagonist to discover some single answer or masterfully unifying solution, thereby satisfying all cravings raised by the peculiarities of the (intentionally mystifying) plot is bound to be frustrated by narratives that abound in multiple elements that do not seem consequential.

Apparently one of the elements found in nonlinear systems is chaos, which might explain why some readers, craving order in an upset world, might offer some resistance to a text like Ovid's. Some turn to books to escape from disorder, rather than to experience it textually.

Aeneas, Sibyl at the Gates

If we're looking for a quest or question in Ovid, we'll find them there, though not under the auspices of some watchful author. Yet somehow questions occur. This needs some explaining.

Book 11 offers a specific case to look at. As we've seen, the narrative scatters characters, antecedents, initial moments in the epic tale of Troy. That story in itself is a highly significant one for Ovid's audience, who were living in the wake of Virgil's Aeneid. Virgil's epic placed Augustus's nascent empire within a coherent, linear account of a difficult, but god-sanctioned quest from Troy to Rome.

Troy was a sacred city (not unlike Thebes) -- founded and even constructed by blessed men and the gods that blessed them, a family with children so favored that one of them, Ganymede, was rapt by Zeus himself. Yet for all its strength and divine backing, Troy did fall, thanks to a complex series of events that fulfilled a highly unlikely set of fatal conditions, noted in prior posts here.

Now Book 11 seems virtually unconscious of all this, meandering as it does from Orpheus getting dismembered (speaking of chaos) to Midas, then a bit of Laomedon before stumbling off to Proteus and Peleus, Ceyx and Alcyone, to shipwreck and the sleepy thespians Morpheus, Icelos and Phantasos.

Yet within this seemingly random, loopily dissociative path, bits and pieces of the fate of Troy can be found. We learn of heroes who sired several key destroyers of Troy: Telamon, father of Telamonian Ajax (wall of the Acheans) and of Teucros; Peleus and Thetis, parents of Achilles, who had the most glorious wedding ever; Phocus, grandfather of Epeius, (builder of the Trojan Horse) -- each of these fathers happens to be a son of Aeacus, son of Zeus, strong ally of Athens, and opponent of Minos, as we saw in Book 7.

Wedding of Peleus and Thetis

Peleus's visit to Ceyx allows Ovid to speak of Chione, the beautiful but proud daughter of Daedalion, who bears Autolycus to Hermes (as well as Philammon, father of Eumolpus, to Apollo).

In brief, seedlings of forebears of some of the key contrivers of the fall of Troy -- Ajax, Teucros, Achilles, Epeius, and Odysseus -- are disseminated among the disparate tales of Book 11.

Ovid, then, is not offering a linear genealogy of the architects of the fall of Troy. But he is offering a series of stories about other people and their fates, seemingly unrelated to Troy, within which these seeds are sown. For the casual reader of Metamorphoses, the might seem random events. From the "later" vantage point of the Iliad and the Aeneid, these apparently happenstance intersections of parental units take on an ominous dimension. (If anyone is in doubt that Troy is looming, see the opening scene of Book 12 -- Aulis.)

One one level, this gives the Metamorphoses a temporal, figural dimension (not unlike how the Old Testament was read -- later -- as the prefiguration of the New Testament). On another, it suggests a kind of sideways unfolding of history -- events in the foreground often are the least significant, while little noticed births or decisions take on great importance seen from a retrospective light. History in the act of becoming is not visible, tellable, or understandable. But from the (future) point at which it can be seen as a great tapestry that is past, those things that actually "made history" begin to emerge from the welter of foreground events.

A couple of sidelong speculations on Ovid's technique:

Emergence: Telling a series of tales that don't seem to interrelate, but nonetheless offer unaccented lineaments of a story that is not utterable now, but will come to be told, is not unlike what is described by the concept of emergence -- a non-linear process by which a multiplicity of simple interactions give rise to complex wholes, or systems. In our case, a series of seemingly random interactions gives rise to just the right agents in the next generation, who are required by Fate to destroy the city beloved of the gods.

Anamorphic perspective: The light, or position, from which something is seen is a recurrent element of Ovid's narrative. Recall the wolf that bursts with inexplicable violence upon Peleus's cattle:
. . . there is a swamp, choked with dense willows, which the salt flood has turned into marshland. From it, a wolf, a huge beast, terrifies the places round about with its heavy crashing noises. It came out of the marsh reeds, its deadly jaws smeared with foam and clots of blood, and its eyes filled with red flame. It was savage with rage and hunger, more with rage; since though hungry it did not bother with the dead cattle, or with satisfying its deadly appetite, but wounded the whole herd, slaughtering them all in its hostility.
Seen from one angle, a wolf is a wolf (as the Calydonian boar in Book 8 is "just a boar"). But in Ovid, there is always another perspective:
There was a high tower; a beacon (focus) on top of the citadel; a welcome sight for labouring vessels. They climbed up, and looked out, with murmuring sighs, at the cattle lying on the shore, seeing their rampaging killer with bloody jaws, its shaggy pelt dripping gore. There, stretching his hands out towards the shores of the open sea, Peleus prayed to sea-born Psamathe to forget her anger, and to aid him. (Kline)
Seen from the high tower upon which a fire (focus) is blazing, the same wolf comes to signify the wrath of Psamathe, the mother of PhocusOvid is using his lively acoustic imagination to turn the crux of the story into a good pun (two things in one sound). By the light of the tower, the unfolding events make a different kind of sense. We can call this an anamorphic narrative.

Given that the eventually discernible history of Troy is emerging from Ovid's tales about other matters, one is then tempted to ferret out underlying reasons. Why for example did the gods give Thetis to Peleus, when they so favored the family of Dardanus and Tros? The question doesn't come up in the narrative, nor does Ovid address it thematically. The fact that Ovid neither asks nor answers the question, however, doesn't mean it's not posed by the text.

If one is to follow the story of the fall of Troy, one needs to ask whether there is a discernible design behind apparent accidents of history. Peleus was instructed in how to "win" Thetis, and his brother Telemon won Hesione, at least in part because they were (relatively) blameless sons of an honorable son of Zeus. Let's not forget that Aeacus built the third side of Troy. In seeking to scam Apollo and Poseidon (dressed as mortals), Laomedon unwittingly set a trap that would spring -- later. Neither he nor anyone else saw it coming. By promising to purchase the labor of the gods and the heroism of Heracles, and  by reneging on both debts, and by calling the gods liars in the bargain, the king in fact was devising his people's doom. His speaking triggered his and his people's fate. As we've noted previously, Ovid includes speech acts among the forces that shape history.

Heracles saves Hesione
The contractual language of commerce in Laomedon's bargains gathers even more significance when we learn how his sole surviving son, Podarces, gained the name by which history knows him. It seems Heracles was willing to save Hesione, who was being sacrificed to save the city from enraged Poseidon's flood, if Laomedon would give him the horses which Zeus had given him as compensation for the rape of Ganymede. But, after a terrific struggle with a sea monster in which Heracles was swallowed for three days, lost all his hair yet saved the girl, Laomedon reneged on the deal.

That provoked Heracles to sack Troy and to kill Laomedon and his whole family, except for one son:
. . . when he had taken the city and shot down Laomedon and his sons, except Podarces, he assigned Laomedon's daughter Hesione as a prize to Telamon and allowed her to take with her whomsoever of the captives she would. When she chose her brother Podarces, Hercules said that he must first be a slave and then be ransomed by her. So when he was being sold she took the veil from her head and gave it as a ransom; hence Podarces was called Priam - from priamai, "to buy." 183  (Apollodorus, Library).
For Ovid, a pun is not only wittily telling, it's a pregnant naming.

To make an end:

Book 11 lurches from the death of Apollo's poet to an avaricious king who repents only to gain asses' ears. From the vivid pathos of Ceyx's perishing amid the sublime and terrible forces of  nature, it veers into a vast storehouse of sleeping dreams. If this is history, why is it stumbling about like a drunken satyr? If it's mere fable (i.e., "literary"), why is it inwoven with important characters, sacred gods, and events of Roman history?

I think a question that Ovid's text does not directly ask, but always is posing, is, "What does history look like?" To this question, which is asked at every moment of this text, Ovid brings all his art of storytelling: the tricks of temporality, the shadings of emotion, the echoic sounds and mirroring images, the machinations of language articulating the world. Even as the story of Troy emerges from the welter, it's seen from other angles, lit by other lights. If history is institched to the tapestry of the Metamorphoses, it emerges bi-focally, via horn and ivory gates. Theatricality is its impresario at every turn.

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