Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Romance, autobiography and history in Metamorphoses 13

Glaucus and Scylla - J.M.W. Turner

It's intriguing to find the artist of water and light offering this meditation on the tale of Glaucus and Scylla, the final tale of Metamorphoses 13.

According to at least one analysis, the tale's entire love triangle is depicted here -- Circe, daughter of Helios, is imaged in the sun seeing and lighting the scene from just above the horizon. She's staring at Glaucus, who's staring at Scylla, who's turning away from this strange new sea creature.

Ovid says,
she ran, and, with the swiftness of fear, came to the top of a mountain standing near the shore. It faced the wide sea, rising to a single peak, its wooded summit leaning far out over the water. Here she stopped, and from a place of safety, marvelled at his colour; the hair that hid his shoulders and covered his back; and his groin below that merged into a winding fish’s tail; she not knowing whether he was god or monster. (monstrumne deusne ille sitignorans)
Glaucus and Scylla gaze at each other, as the sun gazes on them. The eyes of the girl and the sea-god are locked -- what Ovid calls admiror -- 'to regard with wonder' -- but they are experiencing symmetrically opposed erotic reactions.

Glaucus will try telling her his autobiography to assuage her fears and attract her love, hardly an original ploy. Is there any woman alive who has not had to listen to too many hubristic males rehearsing their resumes and life stories?

This turn to autobiography is a prominent feature of book 13, so let's have a look at it.

The book carries us from the fractious Greeks on the shores of Troy to Sicilian tales of love, jealousy and repulsion, and new gods spawned in Trinacrian waters. What principle, or theme, unites the clash of Aias and Ulysses at the beginning with the marvels of its latter tales? To what if anything do these elements "add up"?

We can at least point to the recurrence of scenes in which certain characters seek to persuade others of their merit. Both Ulysses and Aias wish to possess the shield of Achilles, and each makes the best case he can for himself, listing his qualifications and achievements, and to some extent disparaging the other.

Polyphemus does much the same in his poetic bid for Galatea, while Glaucus tells the tale of his transformation in an effort to calm the skittish Scylla. In each case we find the common structure of the love triangle: the one desiring the beloved (whether shield or girl) is in competition with a third. Sicily is the triangular land of love triangles.

Also: what links the two halves of book 13 is Aeneas. He himself is a remnant of the Trojan world, living on beyond its fall. His flight brings us with him to Sicily, where we encounter the youthful Scylla and Polyphemus. Ovid here goes back in time to the earlier lives, or selves, of Homer's creatures, and in so doing, endows those static monsters with a temporal, biographical dimension. Instead of viewing them as objects in space, we see them through the prism of time, the pathology of romance, the dictates of desire. Instead of regarding them as static scary creatures who are merely there (as Odysseus saw them), we look into them as selves capable of transforming through time, yet still continuous, conscious beings.

We also begin to see how they became misshapen or transformed versions of their younger selves. Before Freud got around to it, Ovid is opening Homeric myth to developmental psychology.

This shift to temporal narrative comes as Ovid's poem turns away from Greece and Troy and toward the beginnings of Rome. Given that Ovid is always thinking about genres and modes of poetry, it's quite likely he's considering a difference between the literary modes of the Greeks and those of Rome. Romans will speak of lives developing in time, rather than captured in space as they are on the eternally recurrent field of Achilles' shield. As Ovid's Heroides show, characters from Greek myth and epic can be transformed, romantically coming alive from the inside, speaking in the first person ever so intimately, with subtle and seductive charm. Epic is on the cusp of turning to romance.

From third person to first

To use the first person, to become the narrator of your own story, requires the ability to see yourself. The extent to which the speaker has accomplished the Delphic oracle's directive, γνῶθι σεαυτόν, is the extent to which his or her account of themselves can be held to be authoritative.

We could endlessly discuss whether either Aias or Ulysses knows himself better than the other, if either in fact does, but book 13 helpfully provides a much clearer moment of self reflection. It comes when Polyphemus is telling Galatea of his qualifications for being accepted as her lover. He's had the experience of gazing upon himself:
Lately, I examined myself, it’s true, and looked at my reflection in the clear water, and, seeing my self, it pleased me. Look how large I am: Jupiter, in the sky, since you are accustomed to saying some Jove or other rules there, has no bigger a body. Luxuriant hair hangs over my face, and shades my shoulders like a grove. And do not consider it ugly for my whole body to be bristling with thick prickly hair. A tree is ugly without its leaves: a horse is ugly unless a golden mane covers its neck: feathers hide the birds: their wool becomes the sheep: a beard and shaggy hair befits a man’s body.
Then he comes to gaze, through his sole eye, into his eye:
I only have one eye in the middle of my forehead, but it is as big as a large shield. Well? Does great Sol not see all this from the sky? Yet Sol’s orb is unique.
unum est in media lumen mihi fronte, sed instar ingentis clipei. quid? non haec omnia magnus Sol videt e caelo? Soli tamen unicus orbis.
At this critical moment of self regard, a moment when Polyphemus might come to "know himself" in lucid, undistorted truth, he could not be more blind, as far as Galatea is concerned. Remember it's she -- unimpressed Echo to his delusional Narcissus -- who is actually telling this story. The first-person "self-expression" of the monster is nested within a third-person narrative that's being recounted by the very person it was addressed to (in the second-person) to seduce!

Galatea shares with Scylla her horror at being wooed by a monster, but even she cannot fully appreciate the irony: In the mirroring pool he sees a shield, and an all-seeing power like the Sun's. As we know, far from proving to be his defense, his eye turned out to be his weakest point, vulnerable both to Galatea, and to the violence of the Greek who won Achilles' shield.

Polyphemus's "lumen" is the farthest thing from a privileged, sun-like consciousness poised on high to see and tell the journey of mind and soul from beginning to end. The passage is flooded with ironic light as potent as Turner's sun.

Novissima pisce, or, fish out of water

In the last tale of the book, we find a character who can and does take charge of telling his own story. Kevin Brownlee notes that Glaucus is one of very few characters in the Metamorphoses who narrates his own metamorphosis from a vantage point beyond it. He doesn't lose his voice as a result of some new form (as Actaeon did, for example). Rather, he acquires the immortal perspective of a god along with his strange new shape. It's that shape he's trying to explain to Scylla:
. . . suddenly I felt my heart trembling inside me, my breast seized with yearning for that other nature. Unable to hold out for long, crying out: “Land I will never return to, goodbye!” I immersed my body in the sea.
cum subito trepidare intus praecordia sensi
alteriusque rapi naturae pectus amore;
nec potui restare diu "repetenda" que "numquam
terra, vale!" dixi corpusque sub aequora mersi.
The fate of Glaucus's attempt to woo Scylla is related in book 14, but the poignant failure of his autobiography to win her is never in doubt. He is indeed unusual in offering a first-person account of his own metamorphosis, and he does experience a moment of truth about his new self:
Then I saw, for the first time, this dark green beard, my hair that sweeps the wide sea, these giant shoulders and dusky arms, these legs that curve below into a fish’s fins.
hanc ego tum primum viridem ferrugine barbam caesariemque meam, quam longa per aequora verro, ingentesque umeros et caerula bracchia vidicruraque pinnigero curvata novissima pisce.
Autobiographical truth, alas, brings Glaucus no fulfillment, no conquest. In fact, it is useless:
Yet what use is this shape, or that I was pleasing to the ocean gods? What use is it to be a god, if these things do not move you?’
As the god spoke these words, looking to say more, Scylla abandoned him.
quid tamen haec species, quid dis placuisse marinis,
quid iuvat esse deum, si tu non tangeris istis?'
talia dicentem, dicturum plura, reliquit
Scylla deum;
River gods like Achelous and Acis are strong, but we've seen heroes like Heracles and Achilles defeat them. A god of the sea is more powerful, like Phorcys who taps the vast swells of oceanic depths. Glaucus, who can speak of having moved from land to sea, only manages to move Scylla to clamber up the heights for safety.

In bringing the genre of autobiography to the fore in book 13, Ovid might be signaling that a larger sea change is underway. As Aeneas leaves Troy for new lands, his story is in motion. His personal tale will seduce Dido, but is that the point? He has a much larger tale than his own personal history to fulfill. If any autobiography is relevant, it's that of Rome herself. That's the story on the shield which Aeneas's mother, the goddess of love, will give him: a story he cannot hope to fully understand. But his descendants will, especially the poets, who seem to know a thing or two about romance, self-knowledge, and the reality of empire.


  1. This is fascinating and I am going to print it out so I can read it at leisure. Then I will go back to college. My college taught Ovid but in much less detail.......Thanks for such...Pat

  2. And so these tales don't exist in their fullness, at least as Ovid conceives them, until they are embedded in their wider context as central to the imaginative creative life of the cultures that first embraced them, namely Greece and Rome.
    They and you certainly invite our energies to get to work to know the stories intimately enough to find threads of continuity and meaning that help to define these ancient worlds in a special way from a collection of tales.
    If memory can prevail over forgetfulness this is a lot of fun!

  3. Thank you for this - you describe very much how it seems to me.