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.

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