Monday, May 20, 2013

Wondrous conjecture: Marvels in Metamorphoses 15

What returns more than once in Metamorphoses 15 is the theme of wonder, of things that stupify or capture our attention because of their power to shock, surprise, amaze. In a lovely passage, Pythagoras finds in what we normally conceive of as the natural process of birth an instance of how Natura uses her powers as artifex, Daedalian artificer, to escape the trap, the womb, that holds the seed and the hope therein:

There was a time when we were hidden in our first mother’s womb, only the seed and promise of a human being: nature applied her artificer's hands, and, unwilling for our bodies to be buried, cramped in our mother’s swollen belly, expelled us from our home, into the empty air. 

Born into the light, the infant lay there, powerless: but soon it scrambled on all fours like a wild creature, then, gradually, helped by a supporting harness, it stood, uncertainly, on shaky legs. From that point, it grew strong and swift, and passed through its span of youth.
The wonder of Pythagoras will be re-instantiated in the sudden appearance of Hippolytus, in the transformation of Egeria, which is in turn likened to a series of wonders involving Etruscan Tages, Romulus' spear, and the strange reflection of Cipus, before the text turns to Epidaurus for yet another wonder, the translation of Aesculapius.

The tales of Metamorphoses 15 push at the bounds of nature and of art, even as they situate the future momentum of Italy and Rome vis a vis the past of Greece, Phrygia, Crete, Assyria and Egypt. The possibility of a future different from the past -- the promise and seed of something new -- is bound to this motif of wonder, which itself, according to at least one thoughtful mind, is at the root of the love of wisdom:
Human beings philosophize, according to Aristotle, because they find aspects of their experience puzzling. The sorts of puzzles we encounter in thinking about the universe and our place within it—aporiai, in Aristotle's terminology—tax our understanding and induce us to philosophize.

“Human beings began to do philosophy,” he says, “even as they do now, because of wonder, at first because they wondered about the strange things right in front of them, and then later, advancing little by little, because they came to find greater things puzzling” (Met. 982b12). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosphy
Aristotle's term aporia (ἀπορɛία) signifies "lack of resources; puzzlement; doubt; confusion," but its root sense is from a + poros: without passage: impasse.

The mind, confronting its own puzzlement at something it encounters and doesn't understand, is induced to philosophize -- understanding comes when an obstruction is overcome, the mind is no longer trapped. The root is thauma: wonder -- the labors of the mind's native desire to overcome the impasse of ignorance.

We are not far from Pythagoras's understanding of birth. Nature produces the seed, the hope, and the womb, and reaches an impasse. Nature uses her artifices manus to extricate seed and hope from her own trap, hurling them into the "empty air." At the root of "conjecture" is iacere, the word Ovid uses to describe Nature's expulsion of the infant from its hiding place. The poem offers a performative dimension, if you wish, enacting the birth of philosophy in Pythagoras's description of the act of birth.

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