Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Ovid as reading teacher

Ovid is not just a great teller of myths, he's also a fine reader of them. To read them as he read them is to be introduced to the classical sensibility of a Roman under Augustus. He is not just presenting an anthology of myth, he's sharing his understanding of them.

A few things Ovid has taught me about reading:

1. No reference is too small, too slight, to ignore. I learned this by blithely ignoring allusions only to later realize how they served as cues, pointers. For example, here's the doors of the Palace of the Sun -- a Helios-eye-view of the world. In some ways they're like the shield of Achilles:
. . . the twin doors radiated light from polished silver. The work of art was finer than the material: on the doors Mulciber had engraved the waters that surround the earth’s centre, the earthly globe, and the overarching sky. The dark blue sea contains the gods, melodious Triton, shifting Proteus, Aegaeon crushing two huge whales together, his arms across their backs, and Doris with her daughters, some seen swimming, some sitting on rocks drying their sea-green hair, some riding the backs of fish. They are neither all alike, nor all different, just as sisters should be. The land shows men and towns, woods and creatures, rivers and nymphs and other rural gods. Above them was an image of the glowing sky, with six signs of the zodiac on the right hand door and the same number on the left. (Kline trans.)
 Most of the figures are familiar, but I hadn't bothered to look up Aegaeon the whale crusher (a curious detail that might catch the eye). It turns out this fellow is either Briareos, or the father of Briareos. We're brought back to the text of the Theogony, where this 100-armed, 50-headed son of Uranus was a key helper in Zeus's overthrow of Cronos. He also appears in Homer:
"The creature of the hundred hands to tall Olympos, that creature the gods name Briareos, but all men Aigaios' (Aegaeus') son, but he is far greater in strength than his father." Iliad 1. 397 ff (trans. Lattimore).
The text offers the name among others as a mere detail of the giant door. We can choose to treat it as a bit of local color, or decoration, or we can ponder how apt that this figure, titanic in every way, is singled out at the moment we are to cross a threshold to view another of the Titans, a father viewed from the perspective of his son. Phaethon is about to challenge his dad and himself -- to see if he's up to snuff as the (alleged) offspring of Helios.

Behind the surface of the scene is a series of subtexts dealing with fathers and sons, the contention and defining power of the relationship, the questions and ambiguities of paternity, authority, origin, filiation. The theme is important, and returns over and over in Metamorphoses. We're about the read the longest story of the poem. The enriching detail brings into view vast stories that have everything to do with this scene and with a key preoccupation of the poem: the nature of Greece as the putative father, author, and guiding light of Rome.

It's easy to point to many other examples of this attention to detail in Ovid -- it tells me he wanted us to repay his with our own careful attention.

To be continued . . . part 2

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