Thursday, October 4, 2012

The unheralded visitor: Somnus and Morpheus

There are three major scenes in Metamorphoses 11: the death of Orpheus, the tempest that destroys Ceyx's ship, and the house of Somnus. It is a measure of Ovid's confidence as a storyteller that he feels perfectly comfortable threading narratives so completely different in tone, in affect, in subject and style, even as he's sketching in the background of the Trojan War. (For some preliminary interpretive thoughts on what Ovid is up to, see the preceding post entitled History and Theater in Metamorphoses 11.)

Let's take a quick look at the third of these narratives, in which Iris visits the cave of Sleep:

Iris at the cave of Somnus

When the nymph entered and, with her hands, brushed aside the dreams in her way, the sacred place shone with the light of her robes. The god, hardly able to lift his eyes heavy with sleep, again and again, falling back, striking his nodding chin on his chest, at last shook himself free of his own influence and resting on an elbow asked her (for he knew her) why she had come, and she replied: 
Sleep, all things’ rest: Sleep, gentlest of the gods, the spirit’s peace, care flies from: who soothes the body wearied with toil, and readies it for fresh labours: Sleep, order a likeness, that mirrors his true form, and let it go, the image of King Ceyx, to Alcyone, in Trachin of Hercules, and depict a phantasm of the wreck. This, Juno commands.’ . . . (Kline)
Sleep does not wish to be disturbed; to wake is to undo sleep. Yet Iris's presence does that:
excussit tandem sibi se;
nevertheless he shook himself from himself
Excussit (<excutio) means to shake off, cast off, drive off, or to banish. To be Somnus is to be the negation of consciousness, to be most present when most absent. The moment he wakes, he vanishes, or becomes a kind of meta-somnus.

To this reader, the dependency of Somnus upon the condition of being Somnus is not unlike Alcyone's predicament, her all-consuming love for Ceyx. For Alcyone, the absence of Ceyx (dramatized through the gradual distancing of his ship) is a negation of her proper self. Alone, her untethered imagination is overrun by anxious and fearful images. When she learns, via the performance of Morpheus in her dream, of her husband's death, she at once says, 'nulla est Alcyone, nulla est':
‘Alcyone is nothing, is nothing: she has died together with her Ceyx.
Like Somnus awakening, she is bereft of what made her herself. She is nothing, and yet, like him, comments upon her own undoing.

Somnus returns to himself after waking (excitat: call out, summon forth, wake, arouse) Morpheus to act out the part of Ceyx informing Alcyone that he's actually dead. Morpheus goes beyond that simple role, though, as he strives to assure Alcyone that he really, really is Ceyx:
Non haec tibi nuntiat auctor  
ambiguus, non ista vagis rumoribus audis:
ipse ego fata tibi praesens mea naufragus edo.
No dubious author announces this news to you, nor do you hear it as a vague report: I myself, drowned, as you see me before you, tell my fate.
Attentive readers will note that in describing Ceyx's death, Morpheus copies the death of Orpheus:
My lips, calling helplessly on your name, drank the waves.
And in denying that his words are but vagis rumoribus, he's pretending to be a reliable author, not a murmur from the House of Rumor (Fama), which we'll visit in Book 12.

As often, Ovid's digressive fables turn back upon the poem they form part of. Like the waking Somnus, the fable of Morpheus theatrically performing the role of the veritable Ceyx telling the true story of his own death brings us once again to the questions of authorship and authority, true and false images, dream perceptions and waking visions that Ovid believes are germane to the status of any story, mythological or historical.

Going on the hypothesis that Ovid is concerned with the question "what does history look like?" at least allows us to see why a poem that seems so rich in narrative styles might raise the epistemological complications that come with suspending the border between perception and apperception, dreams and waking visions, unreliable rumors and ambiguous speech. As he notes, no clear boundary can be found between the realm of Somnus and the waking world of brilliant light -- no doors, no watchdogs, no geese, no grating hinges. The threshold can only be crossed when one cannot detect the crossing. One arrives at the couch of Somnus unheralded.
                                There is no noyse at all
Of waking dogge, nor gagling goose more waker than the hound
To hinder sleepe. Of beast ne wyld ne tame there is no sound.
No bowghes are stird with blastes of wynd, no noyse of tatling toong
Of man or woman ever yit within that bower roong.
Dumb quiet dwelleth there. Yit from the Roches foote dooth go
The ryver of forgetfulnesse, which ronneth trickling so
Uppon the little pebble stones which in the channell lye,
That unto sleepe a great deale more it dooth provoke thereby.
Before the entry of the Cave, there growes of Poppye store,
With seeded heades, and other weedes innumerable more,
Out of the milkye jewce of which the night dooth gather sleepes,
And over all the shadowed earth with dankish deawe them dreepes.
Bycause the craking hindges of the doore no noyse should make,
There is no doore in all the house, nor porter at the gate. (
Golding trans.)

John Waterhouse: Sleep and his Half-Brother Death

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