Thursday, September 20, 2012

Some Motifs in Metamorphoses 11

Book 11 of Ovid's poem brings us some of the most vivid tales of the Metamorphoses -- from the savage dismemberment of Orpheus, to the twice-told folly of Midas, to the origins of Troy and of Achilles, to the harrowing seawreck of Ceyx and the dream of Alcyone that brings us to the cave of Somnus, before ending with the semi-frustrated suicide of Aesacus.

One would think Ovid is striving to yoke the strangest assortment of irrelevancies. But there are patterning motifs, and it's not a bad thing to notice these, as they can reveal the vestigia of the most careful artistry.

At least, it's best to look closely before assuming that Ovid has indulged in arbitrarily concatenating random tales.

A few examples of these patterns or motifs would include:

1. Audibility and inaudibility.
-- From the outset, we learn that Orpheus's voice could sway even stones. Clearly anyone within the sound of his voice is enchanted, yet the Bacchantes manage to destroy him. Ovid says they were able to drown him out with drums and flutes, breast beatings and howls, such that:
                            tum denique saxa
non exauditi rubuerunt sanguine vatis.
         Then, finally, the stones grew red, with the blood of the poet, to whom they were deaf.
-- Mt. Tmolus, before judging the music contest between Pan and Apollo, brushes away the forests so he may hear:
The aged judge was seated on his mountain-top and shook his ears free of the trees.
-- The ears of Midas, on the other hand, are disfigured when he fails to hear properly (at least by Apollo's lights), preferring Pan's crude melodies to the splendor of Apollo.  
-- As Proteus advises Peleus on how to win Thetis, his novissima verba, his last words, sink with him into the sea. 
-- The voice of the captain of Ceyx's ship is drowned out as he tries to give orders to counter the gale. 
-- All sound is deadened in the muta quies of Somnus' Cimmerian cave. 
-- As Ceyx calls upon Lucifer, Aeolus, and Alcyone, his novissima verba are drowned with him in the stormy seas.

2. Uncontrollable violence:
-- The Bacchantes tear apart not only the birds and creatures, but the farmers' oxen and the poet.
-- The wolf who attacks Peleus's cattle does not kill from hunger, but boundless rage, instilled by Psamathe, the mother of Phocus, Peleus's younger brother. 
-- The storm that destroys Ceyx's ship and all its crew evokes the relentless attack of an army besieging a city.

3. Absence/presence:
-- The tale of Ceyx and Alcyone takes pains to describe a relationship of mutual reciprocity -- the two are in one (duas ut servet in una 387), thanks to the complementary symmetry of their love. Alcyone uses terms of presence and absence throughout her speech. Space and Time are their enemies, leading to paradoxes as when Alcyone rebukes him by saying "Am I dearer to you when absent?" 
-- The tale of Ceyx and Alcyone is bookended by mirroring descriptions of spatial expansion and contraction: We see his ship depart, little-by-little, from Alcyone as she stands on the shore. After the storm and her dream there's a dire reversal: Ceyx's corpse floats back, as she stands on the same shore. From immediacy to remoteness to absence and back again, Ovid is vividly conjuring the gradations of presence and absence. 
- The moment Ceyx is entirely outside the realm of sense perception, Alcyone is racked by the violence of excess imaginings, rushing in to fill the void of his absence.
-- The imaginative abundance in the void left by her missing husband is then rendered in the mode of the fantastic, in the cave of Somnus, an Underworld filled with images of all things. Somnus sleeps amid a synchronic infinity of simulacra.

4. Heads floating/drowning while speaking.
-- Ceyx, of course, calling upon Lucifer, Aeolus, and Alcyone.
-- Proteus, returning to his underwater home, speaking as he sinks under the waves.
-- The head of Orpheus floats down the Hebrus, singing.

5. Aggressors turned to stone
-- The snake that is about to attack the head of Orpheus, turned to stone by Apollo.
-- The wolf attacking Peleus's cattle, turned to marble by Psamathe at Thetis's behest.

6. Shape shifters
-- Thetis and Proteus
-- Hermes and Apollo seducing Chione
-- Autolycus
-- Morpheus, Icelos, Phobetor, Phantasos.

7. Humans turned to birds
-- Daedalion - suicide
-- Ceyx and Alcyone
-- Aesacus - suicide

 8. Bloodguilt
-- Bacchantes for death of Orpheus
-- Peleus for Phocus
-- Aesacus for Hesperie

9. Fateful elements of the Trojan story
-- Laomedon refuses to pay Apollo and Poseidon and calls them liars (flood attacks city)
-- Laomedon refuse to give Heracles the horses of Tros for saving Hesione
-- Peleus and Thetis
-- Phocus is the grandfather of Epeius, builder of the Wooden Horse.
-- Hermes and Chione beget Autolycus.
-- Storm and shipwreck (water as army attacking city: ship of state)
-- Aesacus and the line of Trojan kings.

Note on method:

These motifs are not meant to be an exhaustive survey. They're simply those that came forward during our reading of this book. While suggestive, they are not necessarily the most important or thematically central elements. But they are there, and that's part of what is entailed in close reading, a first step. The next step would move to looking at how they interrelate, what themes resonate, and then, later on, looking at how the patterns of Book 11 relate to the larger tapestry of the total work.

No comments:

Post a Comment