Friday, July 5, 2013

Ovid as reading teacher 2: Sequence

tu face nescio quos esto contentus amores
inritare tua, nec laudes adsere nostras!' 1.461-2

One of the very Italian things about Ovid is his sprezzatura -- his art of concealing art. Every time we blithely skate from one tale to the next as though we were changing channels on TV, we run the risk of missing some degree of pertinence arising from the relation of one tale to the next.

At least we might ask, as we run, say, from the tale of the flood in Metamorphoses 1 to that of Apollo slaying the Python to the vivid pursuit of Daphne, whether there is some connection to be made, some relation worth considering, between these tales. Are they just individual items on a chain, or could they form segments of a larger semantic structure?

Heracles & Hydra: Louvre

To take just a brief passage - from 1.416 - 451 -- it's worth noting that the language of the first part is explanatory, scientific, the linking of cause and effect:
In fact when heat and moisture are mixed they conceive, and from these two things the whole of life originates. And though fire and water fight each other, heat and moisture create everything, and this discordant union is suitable for growth. So when the earth muddied from the recent flood glowed again heated by the deep heaven-sent light of the sun she produced innumerable species, partly remaking previous forms, partly creating new monsters.
This is the voice of science, shining the clear light of Apollonian knowledge on the secrets of how life begins.

The next section, introducing the Python, shifts gears. It shows Apollo himself actively and strenuously intervening in what had been a more or less objective series of observations. He's using his powers to destroy this monstrum that was frightening the new race of men, just produced from Deucalion and Pyrrha's stones. There seems a tension between the huge living forms arising from the discors concordia of heat and humidity and the human forms arising from intentionally thrown rocks. Apollo uses nearly all his arrows to kill the serpent, becoming the first in a line of dragon killers. The poisonous monster dies, but its remains become a feature of Delphi. Instead of dwelling on all this, Ovid moves to Apollo's delight in Fama:
Lest in a dark oblivion time should hide
the fame of this achievement, sacred sports
he instituted, from the Python called
“The Pythian Games.” In these the happy youth
who proved victorious in the chariot race,
running and boxing, with an honoured crown
of oak leaves was enwreathed. (Brookes Moore trans.)
This sets up the segue to Daphne and the laurel, though not without some interesting ambiguities. Is Apollo's killing of the Python an heroico/medical intervention, ridding the earth of a plague, as he and his son will be called upon to do so often later on? Or is there also the spirit of the warrior in play -- the warrior who, after his derring-do, insists upon its being memorialized? Note that Apollo didn't create the oak leaves (aesculus, an interesting homophone with his serpent/son Aesculapius) to memorialize the games. He created the games to memorialize his triumph over the serpent.

Indeed it's the hubristic yawp of triumph that seems to impel Apollo to belittle Cupid:
the Delian god, exulting at his victory over the serpent, had seen him bending his tightly strung bow and said ‘Impudent boy, what are you doing with a man’s weapons? That one is suited to my shoulders, since I can hit wild beasts of a certainty, and wound my enemies, and not long ago destroyed with countless arrows the swollen Python that covered many acres with its plague-ridden belly. You should be intent on stirring the concealed fires of love with your burning brand, not laying claim to my glories!’
Who's childish here? Apollo is so jealous of his laudes that he takes issue, unprovoked, with what seems the toy of a child. And that's what opens the way to the god's fall into love, a new contest in which he fails to conquer and is conquered, and which he again memorializes by appointing the newly created laurel as his symbol of excellence and victory.

What emerges from following the logic of the sequence of moments could suggest some things about Apollo worth keeping in mind: He takes strong objection to things that seem improper, giant venomous (and anomalous) serpents that spring up spontaneously from battling elements, for example. He might be the god of scientific knowledge, but if something unknown and potentially harmful comes along, he moves swiftly from scientific observer to active aggressor, who in turn rapidly becomes inflated, excessively large, with the uncontrolled pride of triumph. It's in his moment of self-glorying that Apollo chooses to incite the spite of Amor. To know, in this Apollonian sense, involves clear perception and judgment, but here the act of judgment bleeds (literally) into active control -- the object, the world over against the mind, is never surely and immaculately free from the subject's kingly ordering power and possessiveness.

Apollo is the god of order, and will use violence to impose it upon a world growing unwieldy. But the victory only acquires meaning in its re-presentation: the Pythian games are games, events, but they are also the constant reminder of his proper glory, of which he's quite jealous. One of the questions a reader of Ovid needs to always bear in mind is, "to what extent is this event an action, a development in history, as opposed to being a sign of something else?" To understand history, we need to be able to distinguish acts from signs. This problem is not peculiar to Ovid, but it certainly is worth noting that it's there.

Apollo, the god of knowledge, of proper limits, of representation, is shown in and through the motives and actions of his character. His own son won't even come into the world without the mother's death by Apollonian arrow. Proper names, the world of knowledge, science, mimesis, celebratory individualism -- all these are Apollo (Nietzsche's principium individuationis, but not necessarily with all the Germanic trappings). To "grasp" Apollo it's necessary to see how he rules, and how he doesn't.

Note that the selection of this segment of Book 1 was fairly arbitrary -- running from the instant of new earthly life after the flood to the metamorphosis of Daphne into a tree. One can always begin before, or end beyond. The unifying motif here is the god. Anyone could ask, though, what about the next story, of Io and Jupiter? This would entail exploring the interrelations of larger segments of the poem. Ovid carefully paired certain stories, framed others, and metamorphosed others. If there's a "part 3" to this series of posts, it will attempt to look at how certain larger elements might relate.

Apollo and Python - Virgil Solis

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