Sunday, December 30, 2012

Wanderings of Aeneas

The last we see of Troy is the weeping of those who witness Hecuba turned into a feral dog, and the tears of Aurora for Memnon, which return each day as dew. 

The very next scene has Aeneas, who apparently was present at the transformation of Hecuba, setting out on his own odyssey:
Yet the fates did not allow Troy’s destiny, also, to be overthrown with her walls. Aeneas, Venus’s heroic son, carried away on his shoulders her sacred icons, and bore his father, another sacred and venerable burden. He dutifully chose that prize from all his riches, and his son Ascanius, and carried over the sea in his exiled fleet, he left Antandros’s harbour, and the sinful thresholds of Thrace, and the soil drenched in Polydorus’s blood, and riding the favourable winds and tides, he came with his company of friends, to the city of Apollo on Delos. Book 13 623-39.
Ovid doesn't treat the journey directly, but we glimpse Aeneas (and Ulysses) from time to time, between the stories of Scylla, Acis and Galatea, Circe, Glaucus Polyphemus et al that take up the foreground.

Here's a map of Aeneas' journey which might be useful:

Monday, December 17, 2012

Myth vs. story: A monster who inhabits both modes

In his celebrated essay entitled The Storyteller, Walter Benjamin tells us that one of the functions of fairy tales was to enable us to deal with myth:
The fairy tale, which to this day is the first tutor of children because it was once the first tutor of mankind, secretly lives on in the story. The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tale had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest. This need was the need created by the myth. The fairy tale tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which the myth had placed upon its chest.
Decamps: Polyphemus attacking sailors in their boat

If myth concerns the unspeakable, the monstrous, then the character that can outwit its forces or see through its fearsome exterior can be said to be "liberated" from myth. Benjamin elaborates this idea:
In the figure of the fool it shows us how mankind ”acts dumb” toward the myth; in the figure of the youngest brother it shows us how one’s chances increase as the mythical primitive times are left behind; in the figure of the man who sets out to learn what fear is it shows us that the things we are afraid of can be seen through; in the figure of the wiseacre it shows us that the questions posed by the myth are simple-minded, like the riddle of the Sphinx; in the shape of the animals which come to the aid of the child in the fairy tale it shows that nature not only is subservient to the myth, but much prefers to be aligned with man. The wisest thing—so the fairy tale taught mankind in olden times, and teaches children to this day—is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and with high spirits. (This is how the fairy tale polarizes Mut, courage, dividing it dialectically into Untermut, that is, cunning, and Ubermut, high spirits.) The liberating which the fairy tale has at its disposal does not bring nature into play in a mythical way, but points to its complicity with liberated man. A mature man feels this complicity only occasionally, that is, when he is happy; but the child first meets it in fairy tales, and it makes him happy.
The contrast is between a mythic power stronger than nature and a mode of story that gives us tools to deal with mythic horror. No time to get into all that here, but for our purposes, Benjamin's thought might suggest another way to view Ulysses in Metamorphoses 13-14. The Greek hero  finds the wits to escape myth's dominion, making his way back to the domestic world after having encountered and eluded a fair sampling of mythic beings, powers, and forces.

One example of those fearsome mythic beings is, of course, the cyclops Polyphemus. Ovid manages to give him two very different appearances in these books -- one as Homeric monster, the other as the violently disappointed lover of Galatea. What is Ovid up to?

Poussin: Landscape with Polyphemus

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bringing back Philoctetes

Sophocles' Philoctotes offers the confrontation of two modes of getting things done - (via Parada's entry on Neoptolemus):

Neoptolemus: It is not in my nature to achieve anything by means of evil cunning ... But I am ready to take the man by force and without treachery.

Odysseus: I, too, in my youth once had a slow tongue and an active hand. But now I see that the tongue, not action, is what masters everything among men... I command you to take Philoctetes by deceit.

Neoptolemus: Then you think it brings no shame to speak what is false?

Odysseus: No, not if the falsehood yields deliverance.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ovid Reading Ulysses

It's difficult to get past Ulysses in Metamorphoses 13 -- for Ovid as for us, he's the consummate Greek -- wily, a man of multiple guises, and one determined to prevail no matter what. His role here seems pivotal -- he's the last major Greek character we have in the poem, which will now move westward. He is the man whose nostos takes 10 years, but he does make it home. Ovid will play off this journey of return against Aeneas's voyage to a new land, and a new life.

This is not an insignificant difference. It plays out in the differences between the two shields -- that of Achilles as described by Homer, and that of Aeneas as envisioned by Virgil. In the former, we see a generic image of the world as it is, with the implication, in its commonplace scenes of civic and martial life, that these recurrent cycles are how things ever are. On the shield of Aeneas, on the contrary, the images all figure forth the destiny of the Roman people. It tells a story, a history, not of the world, but of the Roman world, moving, changing through a linear vector in time.
There the lord with the power of fire, not unversed
in prophecy, and knowledge of the centuries to come,
had fashioned the history of Italy, and Rome’s triumphs: (Aeneid 8.626 ff)
However we interpret Ovid's relation to Ulysses and to the Greek world with which his poem is concerned, we should give some weight to the idea that for him, as much as the myths, the gods, the heroes and epics of Greece were the rich and magnificent matrix from which Rome emerged, Rome is not merely a replica of that world -- Rome carries something new. This might give a new thematic importance to the opening of the Metamorphoses:
In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
My mind bears word of transformations to bodies strange and new . . . 
Compare Lattimore's translation of Achilles' shield with that of Aeneas -- both wrought by the same god, but different in important ways. An interesting commentary on aspects of Homer's shield can be found here, in the third part of the essay.

Ulysses walks off with the shield of Achilles, only to give it to Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. The withering scorn Ulysses displays toward Aias, in Ovid's scene, reveals the faultline between the man of pure force and the man of strategic thought -- in a sense, the debate between the two Greeks articulates the eternal rivalry, in the Greek world, between power and knowledge, action and intelligence, Sparta and Athens:

When Ulysses cruelly derides Aias for being unable to grasp the shield he would grasp, he says:
He understands nothing of the shield’s engraving, Ocean, or earth, or high starry sky; the Pleiades and the Hyades, the Bear that is always clear of the waters, and opposite, beyond the Milky Way, Orion, with his glittering sword. He demands to grasp armour that he does not comprehend!
neque enim clipei caelamina novit,
Oceanum et terras cumque alto sidera caelo
Pleiadasque hyadasque inmunemque aequoris arcton
diversosque orbes nitidumque Orionis ensem:
postulat, ut capiat, quae non intelligit, arma!
Ulysses is echoing Homer's description of Achilles' shield as made (ποιεῖν) by Hephaestus:
There were five folds composing the shield itself, and upon it
he elaborated many things in his skill and craftsmanship.
He made the earth upon it, and the sky, and the sea's water,
and the tireless sun, and the moon waxing into her fullness,
and on it all the constellations that festoon the heavens,
the Pleiades and the Hyades and the strength of Orion
and the Bear, whom men give also the name of the Wagon,
who turns about in a fixed place and looks at Orion
and she alone is never plunged in the wash of the Ocean.
πέντε δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ αὐτοῦ ἔσαν σάκεος πτύχεςαὐτὰρ ἐν αὐτῷποίει δαίδαλα πολλὰ ἰδυίῃσι πραπίδεσσιν.
ἐν μὲν γαῖαν ἔτευξ᾽ἐν δ᾽ οὐρανόνἐν δὲ θάλασσαν,
ἠέλιόν τ᾽ ἀκάμαντα σελήνην τε πλήθουσαν,485ἐν δὲ τὰ τείρεα πάντα
τά τ᾽ οὐρανὸς ἐστεφάνωται,
Πληϊάδας θ᾽ Ὑάδας τε τό τε σθένος Ὠρίωνος 
Ἄρκτόν θ᾽ἣν καὶ Ἄμαξαν ἐπίκλησιν καλέουσιν,
 τ᾽ αὐτοῦ στρέφεται καί τ᾽ Ὠρίωνα δοκεύει,
οἴη δ᾽ ἄμμορός ἐστι λοετρῶν Ὠκεανοῖο. (Iliad 18)

The scene could not be more "literary": Ovid's Ulysses, a character in the Iliad, quotes the Iliad's description of Achilles' shield to argue that he deserves the shield because he, and not Aias, is able to read the text that is both the shield and the Iliad.

Ulysses is truly a man of many tropes, some of which have lethal consequences, and not just for Aias. Aeneas and his journey will be juxtaposed with that of Ulysses, and the differences should reward attention.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Tales linked to Lemnos

After the debate of Ulysses and Ajax and the suicide of the latter in Book 13, Ovid moves to the story of Hecuba and Polymestor. But before he gets there, he runs quickly through a host of stories linked to Lemnos that have a lot to them in their own right. There's a curious thread running through them, having to do in part with women who kill husbands and kings -- they're certainly worth getting some familiarity with.

These include the story of Lemnos, King Thoas and  Hypsipyle; the culmination of the misfortunes of Philoctetes; the curious story of Palamedes, the only man known to outwit Odysseus, and his father, Nauplius, who incites Clytemnestra and other kings' wives to be unfaithful to their husbands:
Nauplius swore revenge against King Agamemnon and the other Greek leaders. According to Apollodorus, when the Greeks were sailing home from Troy after the close of the war, Nauplius lit beacon fires along the perilous coastline of Euboea, and many ships were shipwrecked as a result. Before this point, he also convinced many of the lonely wives of the Greek commanders to be unfaithful to their husbands, and to conspire against them - including Clytemnestra, (Agamemnon's wife) who joined with Aigisthos, and Meda, (wife of Idomeneus) who was unfaithful with Leucos. Leucos killed Meda and her daughter Cleisithyra and drove out Idomeneus out when he had returned from Troy.

Drouais: Philoctetes in Lemnos