Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The impasse of Aeneas

Recently I had the pleasure of listening to Professor Elizabeth Vandiver's lectures on the Aeneid -- a most rewarding six hours -- and it prompted me to consider how such an imposing accomplishment, the epic of Rome given the imprimatur of Augustus himself, might change the game for Ovid.

The closing books of the Metamorphoses have much to do with Aeneas in the new land of Italy, so naturally this is where Ovid's poem most pointedly engages Virgil's epic.

Large accomplishments have a way of taking all the poetic oxygen out of the room. For 800 years or more, the Iliad had stood without a worthy epic successor. When Virgil came along, he was able to draw upon the untapped history and legends of another people, a "humble" tribe that was busy fashioning an empire.

Ovid could have chosen another historic theme, or written love lyrics, but Catullus and Propertius had that pretty well sewn up. Horace's mastery of the urbane poetry of comment, satire, and of the ode was incontestable.

What's a talented and ambitious latecomer to do?

Ovid was ambitious. His Heroides show unabashed delight in taking a range of characters from Homer and the tragedies, and breathing richly complex, recognizably human souls into them. Metamorphoses is a display of intricate art, poetic invention, psychological insight and masterful storytelling, yet it chooses to do without a single overarching epic narrative to give it an obvious thematic and imperial unity.

To appreciate the strangeness of Ovid's choice for his masterwork, it might help to consider it in relation to the Aeneid. For Virgil, to sing the saga of the translation of a people from Troy to Rome was to become the architect of his people's destiny. He poured his consummate study of Homer, Hesiod, the Greek tragedians, and the philosophers into a song that moves from the fires of Troy to Dido's Carthaginian pyre to the gloomy underworld of death and rebirth before immersing itself in a series of Iliadic battles that climax in the slaying of Turnus.

As Vandiver notes, the controversial end of the poem has split readers and scholars into symmetrically opposed interpretive camps: there are those who say Aeneas's killing Turnus was justified -- he is fulfilling a larger destiny, a mandate of Fate. Others believe that Virgil is portraying the pius father of Rome as overwhelmed by tragic, vengeful furor (his feelings for Pallas, whom Turnus had killed). The arguments on either side grow quite complex, as Vandiver explicates in her final lecture.

Aeneas kills Turnus

What does it mean that the song of Rome ends not, as does the Iliad, in a profound moment of tragic understanding, wonderment, and suspended bloodshed, but in a brutal act of violence?

Calibrating his epic to come to rest on a final act that lies open to two symmetrically opposed judgments is no playful ambiguity on Virgil's part. The ending presents the reader with the crucial need to decide whether to approve or condemn the hero whose poem the reader has just now "finished." If that necessary decision proves undecidable, then in a sense the reading of the song of "arms and the man" lingers in the air, never to be completed.

Virgil's epic arrives at an impasse borne of the enigmatic legacy of Greece: we inhabit a world in which our knowledge is partial, our will is hedged round with limits difficult to ascertain, our public and private loyalties are in conflict, and our loves are roiled by unmastered forces beyond both our consciousness and our powers.

At this point, a reader of Virgil might ask, "how did we get here?" What are the roots of this understanding of the world, this vision of the human? A return to origins, to the sources of the legacy of Greece and the history of Rome, might be just the thing. Research into how we became what we are, a quest for what we yet might become, seems called for: an inquiry into the nature of the new that is sufficiently provocative and searching to conceive nature anew.

Etruscan shoes and early Roman Kings

The question came up about the mode of succession of the early Roman kings. These seven kings held enormous civil and religious powers, as this Wikipedia article makes clear. Interestingly, the office of rex apparently was not hereditary:
The kings after Romulus were not known to be dynasts and no reference is made to the hereditary principle until after the fifth king Tarquinius Priscus. Consequently, some have assumed that the Tarquins and their attempt to institute a hereditary monarchy over this conjectured earlier elective monarchy resulted in the formation of the republic.. . . 
. . . Whenever a Roman king died, Rome entered a period of interregnum (literally: between kings). Supreme power in the state would devolve to the Senate, which had the task of finding a new king. The Senate would assemble and appoint one of its own members as the interrex to serve for a period of five days with the sole purpose of nominating the next king of Rome. After the five-day period, the interrex would appoint (with the Senate's consent) another Senator for another five-day term. This process would continue until the election of a new king. Once the interrex found a suitable nominee for the kingship, he would bring the nominee before the Senate and the Senate would review him.[citation needed] If the Senate passed the nominee, the interrex would convene the Curiate Assembly and preside as its president during the election of the King. 
Once a candidate was proposed to the Curiate Assembly, the people of Rome could either accept or reject the candidate-king.

The insignia of the king was twelve lictors wielding the fasces, a throne of a Curule chair, the purple Toga Picta, red shoes, and a white diadem around the head. Only the king could wear a purple toga.

About those shoes - there's an Etruscan link: Why the Pope Wears Red Shoes. from the New York Review of Books:

A few more odds and ends:

A review of Robert Knapp's Invisible Romans (thanks, Jutta!).

The first eight chapters of Peter D'Epiro's Sprezzatura: Fifty Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World offer a range of views of Roman life and culture.

The first chapter of D'Epiro's The Book of Firsts: 150 World-Changing People and Events from Caesar Augustus to the Internet is about Augustus Caesar. The second is about Ovid's Metamorphoses.

(Disclaimer: I have essays in the two latter books but all cited here are by Peter D'Epiro).

Finally, on his latest album, Bob Dylan sings of the early Roman kings.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Metamorphic juices

Another motif flowing through Metamorphoses 14 is juice, which appears seven times. Ovid's word is sucus, which has the primary sense of the juice of a fruit, or sap of a tree.

From that literal sense it passes to the energy, spirit, especially of a discourse, the vitality of a speech, the power of language -- something we know Ovid is always concerned with:

II. [select] Trop., strength, vigor, energy, spirit: “sucus ac sanguis (civitatis),” Cic. Att. 4, 16, 10: ingenii, Quint. prooem. § 24. —

2. [select] Esp., of the vigor of a discourse, spirit, life: “ornatur oratio ... suco suo,” Cic. de Or. 3, 25, 96.

Below are the seven places where sucus is used. In each, juice drives a metamorphosis, but with differences. Circe's magic potions produce and reverse the transformation of men into boars. Her juices differ from that of the wild olive whose tree imprisons the Apulian shepherd, removing his power of speech. And both of these are different from the natural juices in the trunk of a tree that circulate through the inserted branch that Pomona grafts upon it.

Circe, Glaucus and Scylla
Offended at his rejection of her passion, she at once ground noxious herbs with foul juices, and joined the spells of Hecate to their grinding. (43)

Circe and Odysseus's Men
‘When she saw us, and words of welcome had been received, she smiled at us, and seemed to give a blessing to our desires. Without delay she ordered a drink to be blended, of malted barley, honey, strong wine, and curdled milk, to which she secretly added juices, that its sweetness would hide. We took the cup offered by her sacred hand. As soon as we had drained it, thirstily, with parched lips, the dread goddess touched the top of our hair with her wand, and then (I am ashamed, but I will tell you) I began to bristle with hair, unable to speak now, giving out hoarse grunts instead of words, and to fall forward, completely facing the ground. (275)

Circe reverses charm for Odysseus
‘We were sprinkled with the more virtuous juices of unknown herbs, our heads were stroked with the wand reversed, and the words, she had said, were pronounced, with the words said backwards. The more words she spoke, the more we stood erect, lifted from the ground. Our bristles fell away, our cloven hoofs lost their cleft, our shoulders reappeared, and below them were our upper and lower arms. Weeping we embraced him, as he wept himself, and clung to our leader’s neck, and nothing was said until we had testified to our gratitude. (299)

Circe and Picus's people
She sprinkled them with harmful drugs and poisonous juices, summoning Night and the gods of Night, from Erebus and Chaos, and calling on Hecate with long wailing cries. (402)

The Apulian Shepherd
Nor was his mouth silent till tree-bark imprisoned his throat: he is indeed a tree: you may know its character, by the taste of its fruit that bears the mark of his speech in the wild olives’ bitterness. The sharpness of his words has entered them. (524)
She carried a curved pruning knife, not a javelin, with which she cut back the luxuriant growth, and lopped the branches spreading out here and there, now splitting the bark and inserting a graft, providing sap from a different stock for the nursling. (631) 
But he does not desire now the fruit of your trees, or the sweet juice of your herbs: he desires nothing but you. (690)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Venus Prospiciens

The story of Vertumnus and Pomona, which frames the chilling tale of Iphis and Anaxarete (as told by Vertumnus-as-elder-woman) comes near the end of Book 14, and stands in a key, cumulative position in the Metamorphoses. It richly resonates with many tales told earlier in the poem. 

The relationship of the two tales is worth close attention -- once again, as we've seen with Circe and Pomona, we have the opposition of two women, one a wealthy lady of Cyprus, the other an Italian goddess of the orchard - as well as the curious pairing of Iphis, who hangs himself at Anaxarete's door, with Vertumnus, master of disguises -- figuras or formas -- who is telling the story of Iphis to Pomona.

The stories offer an abundance of polar oppositions: vertical/horizontal, city/nature, stone/trees, death/life, love rejected/love requited, social stratification/social equality, exclusion/inclusion, Cyprus/Italy, irrigation/dessication, theatricality/literality, etc. (Many more interrelations on the linguistic level.)

There are some suggestive thoughts on the Iphis tale and especially on the Venus Prospiciens in Maurizio Bettini's The Portrait of the Lover, in his chapter entitled The Gaze. In his discussion, he makes the point that statues only look forward, into the distance, prospiciens. A piece of statuary, no matter how lifelike, cannot return a gaze, or look back at the eyes that gaze upon it -- respiciens -- unless of course that statue were fashioned by Pygmalion.

Nec tibi fama mei ventura est nuntia leti:
ipse egone dubitesadero praesensque videbor,
corpore ut exanimi crudelia lumina pascas.
No mere rumour will come to you to announce my death: have no doubt, I myself will be there, visibly present, so you can feast your savage eyes on my lifeless corpse. 

Iphis and Anaxarete
miserere ardentis et ipsum,
quod petitore meo praesentem crede precari 691-2 ff 
Take pity on his ardour, and believe that he, who seeks you, is begging you, in person, through my mouth. 
Vertumnus and Pomona
mota tamen "videamus" ait "miserabile funus"
et patulis iniit tectum sublime fenestris
vixque bene inpositum lecto prospexerat Iphin:
deriguere oculi, calidusque e corpore sanguis
inducto pallore fugit, conataque retro                      755
ferre pedes haesit, conata avertere vultus
hoc quoque non potuit, paulatimque occupat artus,
quod fuit in duro iam pridem pectore, saxum. 
Still, she was roused, and said: “Let us see this miserable funeral” and went to a rooftop room with open windows. She had barely looked at Iphis, lying on the bier, when her eyes grew fixed, and the warm blood left her pallid body. Trying to step backwards she was rooted: trying to turn her face away, also, she could not.

Anaxarete glimpsing Iphis

Monday, March 11, 2013

Circe and Pomona, Greece and Rome

Book 14 of the Metamorphoses offers the suggestive juxtaposition of Circe and Pomona, so different in their modes of work, and in their relationship to desire. Circe seems to find certain men sexually irresistible. If they reject her passion, her speedy exercise of dark powers compels their understanding that amor does not necessarily consort with iustitia.

Pomona, on the other hand, appears uninterested in the opposite sex, and is one of numerous figures in the later books (Galatea, Glaucus, the Cumaean Sybil, Picus, Anaxarete) to reject would-be suitors, who are characterized as agrestis -- coarse, rude, uncivil, not unlike the Apulian shepherd.

The two female figures are worth pondering with respect to desire, knowledge, and power.

Circe is queenly, full of knowledge of the powers of nature and the techniques to abstract them. Here's Macareus describing her coven of pharmacists:


pulchro sedet illa recessu
sollemni solio pallamque induta nitentem
insuper aurato circumvelatur amictu.
Nereides nymphaeque simul, quae vellera motis
nulla trahunt digitis nec fila sequentia ducunt:                 265
gramina disponunt sparsosque sine ordine flores
secernunt calathis variasque coloribus herbas;
ipsa, quod hae faciunt, opus exigit, ipsa, quis usus
quove sit in folio, quae sit concordia mixtis,
novit et advertens pensas examinat herbas.
‘She sat in a lovely inner room on her sacred throne, wearing a shining robe, covered over with a gold-embroidered veil. Nereids and nymphs were with her, who do not work wool with nimble fingers, nor, then, spin the thread: they arrange herbs, scattered without order, separating flowers and grasses of various colours, into baskets. She herself directs the work they do: she herself knows the use of each leaf, which kinds mix in harmony, examines them, and pays attention to the weighings of the herbs.'
Circe comes across here as a kind of Faustian queen bee capable of combining materials gathered by drone labor with arcane techniques to produce unnatural results. We might here see one aspect of Ovid's critique of the legacy of Greece.

Pomona on the other hand holds herself aloof, but is all activity. She does not speak, but this doesn't necessarily place her in the line of mute, victimized female figures in literature, as some have suggested. She prohibits access, she shuns men - this virgin in the orchard is no weak sister.

For that matter, it would be somewhat diminishing to regard her strictly as a human female (as it would to regard Perseus or Vertumnus as mere males). Her powers come from attention to living things, from amor and studium:

                                         nulla Latinas
inter hamadryadas coluit sollertius hortos
nec fuit arborei studiosior altera fetus;                       625
unde tenet nomen: non silvas illa nec amnes,
rus amat et ramos felicia poma ferentes;
nec iaculo gravis est, sed adunca dextera falce,
qua modo luxuriem premit et spatiantia passim
bracchia conpescit, fisso modo cortice virgam             630
inserit et sucos alieno praestat alumno;
nec sentire sitim patitur bibulaeque recurvas
radicis fibras labentibus inrigat undis.
hic amor, hoc studium, Veneris quoque nulla cupido est;
vim tamen agrestum metuens pomaria claudit               635
intus et accessus prohibet refugitque viriles.
No other hamadryad of the wood nymphs of Latium tended the gardens more skilfully or was more devoted to the orchards’ care, hence her name. She loved the fields and the branches loaded with ripe apples, not the woods and rivers. She carried a curved pruning knife, not a javelin, with which she cut back the luxuriant growth, and lopped the branches spreading out here and there, now splitting the bark and inserting a graft, providing sap from a different stock for the nursling. She would not allow them to suffer from being parched, watering, in trickling streams, the twining tendrils of thirsty root. This was her love, and her passion, and she had no longing for desire. Still fearing boorish aggression, she enclosed herself in an orchard (pomaria), and denied an entrance, and shunned men.
Neither a boss nor a hunter, Pomona is a nurturing semi-divine spirit that enhances growth and variety through natural means. Ignoring vim agrestum -- rude sexual force -- she embodies the "art that nature makes," as Perdita puts it in The Winter's Tale. This is Ovid's version of the warm, Italic integration of amor and studium, nature and art.

Pomona at Plaza Hotel

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Oleaster's bitter taste

In Metamorphoses 14:514 ff, Turnus's ally Venulus, after his disappointing visit to Diomedes, comes across a cave where nymphs had been mocked by a rustic:
The shepherd mocked them, leaping wildly in imitation, and adding foul language, with coarse abuse. Nor was his mouth silent till tree-bark imprisoned his throat: he is indeed a tree: you may know its character, by the taste of its fruit that bears the mark of his speech in the wild olives’ bitterness.The sharpness of his words has entered them.
Improbat has pastor, saltuque imitatus agresti 
addidit obscenis convicia rustica dictis
nec prius os tacuit, quam guttura condidit arbor
arbore enim est, sucoque licet cognoscere mores
quippe notam linguae bacis oleaster amaris 
exhibet: asperitas verborum cessit in illas.
The passage is enigmatic, one of many in the poem that seem to gratuitously present something that has no obvious relationship to its context. Of course we'd seen a depiction of Athena's gift of the domestic olive in book 6 -- on the image the goddess weaves in competition with Arachne. And we'll soon meet Pomona, gifted in the art of grafting.

The wild olive -- Nature's olea oleaster, not Ovid's -- did receive commentary:

In the fourth century BCE Theophrastus, the most prominent pupil of Aristotle, wrote an Enquiry into Plants that stands at the head of the literary tradition of botany.
Theophrastus noted the kinship of wild-olive with the cultivated olive, but his correspondents informed him that no amount of pruning and transplanting could transform kotinos into olea. Through lack of cultivation, he knew, some cultivated forms of olive, pear or fig might run wild, but in the "rare" case where wild-olive was spontaneously transformed to a fruit-bearing one, it was to be classed among portents.