Saturday, June 29, 2013

Elements of a symphony

Doubtless every reader of the Metamorphoses will come up with his/her own sampling of parts -- themes, motifs, structuring elements, poetic devices, salient features -- that work in concert to produce, if not wholes, at least larger parts.

Below are some that have captured our attention as we've threaded the labyrinth of the poem -- obviously incomplete, overlapping, ongoing:

1. Amor, quest, pursuit, chase, desire, possession, incorporation, motion, seeking. Eros and the stirring of the mind to know, to grasp. Apollo - Daphne, Pan - Syrinx, Atalanta - Hippomenes, Polyphemus - Galatea, Jupiter -> many.

2. Knowledge and Power, saying and doing, word and act, action and understanding, aiming and erring, science and magic. Minos and Daedalus, Ajax and Ulysses, Heracles and Pythagoras, Romulus and Numa, Glaucus and Circe.

3. Nature and Art, Convention and nature, speech and writing, cultivation vs. wildness, symbol and usus. Io, Orpheus, Arachne, Muses, Pierides, Pygmalion, Byblis vs. Iphis.

4. Order and Chaos, Love and War, Marriage and Alliance. Jupiter and Juno, Apollo and Coronis, Mars and Venus, Perseus and Andromeda, Pirithoos and Hippolyta, Minos and Pasiphae.

5. Dreams, visions, prophecies. Ceyx and Alcyone, Morpheus, Myscellus, Aesculapius, Tages and Cipus, Caesar's omens.

Assassination of Caesar

6. Paired tales, framed tales. Jupiter and Io, Pan and Syrinx; Philemon and Baucis, Erysichthon; Pomona and Vertumnus, Anaxarete and Iphis; Byblis and Caenis, Iphis and Ianthe.

7. Greece and Rome. Odysseus and Aeneas, Pomona and Anaxarete, Apollo and Aesculapius; Cadmus and Romulus; Phaethon and Augustus, Hippolytus.

8. Structure: Circle, Ring, Linear, Spiral, Rhizome. Cadmus, Theseus, Aeneas, Apollo and Aesculapius, Augustus.

9. Death and the new: Creation; mutation; magic; nova corpora, mutatas formas, terra nova. Persephone and Hades, Achelous and Perimele, Earth and Serpent, Orpheus, Arethusa, Quirinus, Virbius.

10. Ovid as meta-poet. Genres deformed, modes of irony, parody, tropes, modes of myth, epic, history, legend, defamiliarization, wit. The wedding of Perseus, battle of Lapiths and Centaurs, tales of Minyas, Trojan War.

11. Images of speech as system, potentially confusing, echoic world of sound. Gossip, chatter, redundancies, poetics. Fama, Morpheus, Apollo, Corvus and Coronis.

12. Eros and Polis, personal and political, desire and the human order. Io and Juno, Phaethon, Scylla and Minos, Pasiphae and Minos, Acoetes and Pentheus; Medea; Meleager, Atalanta and Althea.

13. Reading: determination and overdetermination, author and mimic; semantic drift, puns, homonyms, enigmas, wonders, and interpretive systems. Etruscan haruspicy, Cephalus and Procris, Corvus and Coronis.

14. Minding the gap: Unspoken relations between seemingly incongruous tales; discontinuity, allegory, irony.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The chase

It was in February of 2011 that our small group began reading Ovid's Metamorphoses. In the time since then, we've encountered more than 200 characters in some 250 mythic tales rendered by a variety of translators, tales told told by a poet who knew a good story when he heard one. It's a natural human impulse to want to sum it up, put it all together, master the whole ball of wax with pith and brevity.

Yet as Stephen Michael Wheeler says in his Narrative Dynamics in Ovid's Metamorphoses, "from hindsight, the vastness of the Metamorphoses is difficult to grasp in overview." Reading a bit of Wheeler suggests that we are far from alone in finding the text rich in intricate pattern and elusive in unifying structure:

In our final meeting, we'll explore some of the recurrent themes, motifs, structures, and gestures of Ovid's work. It would not surprise to find that our poet foretells this very problem of mastery. As with Apollo's straining for Daphne, as with Augustus' grappling with the synthesis of empire, grasping the poem as a totality in which form embodies meaning, and meaning is produced and rendered intelligible through richly integrated form, is no easy pursuit.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Living after life: Aesculapius and other remnants

With the tale of Aesculapius and his relocation to Rome from Epidaurus in Metamorphoses 15, it might help to bear in mind that after nearly being killed by his father Apollo, in some versions of his life he was "killed" by Zeus:
According to Roman era mythography,[14] the figure represents the healer Asclepius, who learned the secrets of keeping death at bay after observing one serpent bringing another healing herbs. To prevent the entire human race from becoming immortal under Asclepius' care, Zeus killed him with a bolt of lightning, but later placed his image in the heavens to honor his good works.
In Metamorphoses 2, Ovid has Ocyrhoe, the daughter of Chiron, blurt out the end of Aesculapius, changing into a horse as she speaks:
‘Grow and thrive, child, healer of all the world! Human beings will often be in your debt, and you will have the right to restore the dead. But if ever it is done regardless of the god’s displeasure you will be stopped, by the flame of your grandfather’s lightning bolt, from doing so again. From a god you will turn to a bloodless corpse, and then to a god who was a corpse, and so twice renew your fate.'
The act of healing that brought death and godhead to Aesculapius is usually considered to be his restoration of Hippolytus.

Rome's welcome of Aesculapius clearly echoes the paean of Athenians upon recognizing their strange visitor to be Aegeus's long-hidden son and the city's future king, Theseus. In the Olympian mode, Theseus occasioned the end of both his father and his son.

The juxtaposition of the death of Hippolytus with the transfer of Aesculapius to Rome suggests, once again, that the turn of the poem, and of the world, from Greece to Rome is linked both to an alteration of identity and to something like a metamorphosis of death. Italy emerges in book 15 as an after-living -- a wooded land in which the Trojan people, Pythagorean thought, the son of Theseus, and the son of Apollo do not die. Rather, having suffered a Glaucus-like sea-change, they appear new and strange. The power is there, but estranged from itself. The welcoming throngs don't re-cognize Aesculapius, he's new.

This life after life seems less an overcoming Hades and the Olympians than a distancing, a flowing away from them, an attenuation and a concealment. As forecast by Saturn's flight to Italy, who too lives on, in Latium.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A brief break

The blog is taking a break this week as we are on a brief trip.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Wonders and signs in Metamorphoses 15

The three short tales inserted between Hippolytus and the voyage of Aesculapius in Metamorphoses 15 pose interpretive challenges that have scholars such as Raymond Marks working to unlock their riddles. Here we just have time for a few comments.

The three tales -- two of them in anecdotal form -- form a cascade of similes having to do with wonder.

This strange event [the transformation of the mourning Egeria into aeternas undas] amazed the nymphs, and the Amazon’s son was no less astounded, than the Tyrrhenian ploughman when he saw a fateful clod of earth in the middle of his fields, first move by itself with no one touching it, then assume the form of a man, losing its earthy nature, and open its newly acquired mouth, to utter things to come. The native people called him Tages, he who first taught the Etruscan race to reveal future events.  No less astounded than Romulus, when he saw his spear, that had once grown on the Palatine Hill, suddenly put out leaves, and stand there, not with its point driven in, but with fresh roots: now not a weapon but a tough willow-tree, giving unexpected shade to those who wondered at it.
    No less astounded than Cipus, the praetor, when he saw his horns in the river’s water . .  .

The story of Tages packs a wondrous occurrence into a few lines -- a clod of earth autonomously gains a mouth and teaches the Etruscans how to read future events in signs. Barely is that noted than the spear of Romulus returns to its "roots" as well as sprouting leaves and branches. Then horns appear on the temples of Cipus, and an Etruscan priest finds huge import in them for both him and the Romans -- but Cipus deflects it through an alternate "interpretation" that frees both him and the city from the burden of kingship.

All three tales are concerned with self-instantiating signs that initiate, rather than reflect, an event. Instead of being the bearers of some definite meaning that precedes them, they suddenly put themselves there. If they seem to demand that meaning come, it only comes after they posit themselves. Their very status as "sign" depends on their working as wonders. Ovid, the poet of the new and strange, is thinking about the link between signs and wonders.

In the case of Tages, the notion of an autochthonous language -- arising from a ploughed field -- is at least consistent with what little we know of Etruscan today -- apparently an "isolate," it's unrelated to Indo-European, not part of our common linguistic ground. How does a unique language of signs occur? When a language self-originates how does anyone understand it? How does language, a shared thing, come to be?

Etruscan figures

Tages' power of speech is immediately reduced to a system of signs (the Etruscans were said to have recorded his teachings in secret books) that must be interpreted, as they speak not of the past or the present, but of the future. Meaning is to come, but the sign is here, and to make it speak, one must be versed in the sign system and in the methods of its decoding:
Observatio was the interpretation of signs according to the tradition of the "Etruscan discipline," or as preserved in books such as the libri augurales. A haruspex interpreted fulgura (thunder and lightning) and exta (entrails) by observatio. The word has three closely related meanings in augury: the observing of signs by an augur or other diviner; the process of observing, recording, and establishing the meaning of signs over time; and the codified body of knowledge accumulated by systematic observation, that is, "unbending rules" regarded as objective, or external to an individual's observation on a given occasion. Impetrative signs, or those sought by standard augural procedure, were interpreted according to observatio; the observer had little or no latitude in how they might be interpreted. Observatio might also be applicable to many oblative or unexpected signs. Observatio was considered a kind of scientia, or "scientific" knowledge, in contrast to coniectura, a more speculative "art" or "method" (ars) as required by novel signs.[356]
Even this brief glimpse of ostenta gives us a sense that the field of semiotics, the study of signs, did not begin with Pierce or de Saussure. The Etruscans were semioticians avant la lettre. Priests, poets, and seers have made the nuanced description, tabulation, and interpretation a matter of study and practice for millennia, much as the Greeks analyzed the large and various tropes and devices of rhetoric, and their role in cognition and persuasion, with keen and supple attention.

Cipus engages in an elaborate interpretive duel with the priest and his people to ward off the potential doom -- again, the question of kingship and succession -- hatched upon the dilemma of his horns. Karl Popper wrote two long volumes to work out a theory of knowledge whose political dimension is a not dissimilar struggle to oppose absolutism. Where signs demand elucidation, expect a contest of readings -- not just readings, but theories of reading. In the end, Cipus's Roman reading takes on the trappings of demagoguery to overcome the Etruscan seer's interpretation. The dilemma turns out to revolve around the portas, the gates of the city -- whether they shall be open and he shall enter like a victorious general, or closed to him, and implicitly, all future generals. Caesar and Ianus are not far off.

After Pythagoras's musings and the transformation of Hippolytus, which frame and wind around the life and death of King Numa, Ovid chooses to put the riddle of language -- of the sign -- before us. For the poet, signs are the materials of his craft -- for the vates, the seer, they carry the future, but only if they can be read:
Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot.
As we near the final tales of the Metamorphoses, stories of gods and Caesar, the succession of Augustus and the fate of Rome, it is small wonder to find Ovid foregrounding the interplay of signs, power, and the act of reading.

Monday, June 3, 2013

New Heroines

As one of our schemes is to work Ovid's Heroides into our upcoming reading of Euripides, we could say Fate has intervened to offer a new translation of the work by British poet Clare Pollard:

From the Amazon blurb:
For a long time it was Ovid's most influential work, loved by Chaucer, Dante, Marlowe, Shakespeare and Donne, and translated by Dryden and Pope. Clare Pollard's new translation rediscovers Ovid's Heroines for the 21st century, with a cast of women who are brave, bitchy, sexy, suicidal, horrifying, heartbreaking and surprisingly modern.