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.

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