Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Styling the hunt for Amor

The moment Ovid's praeceptor of Love takes the podium, he's selling something -- starting with himself. The poet of the Ars Amatoria promises to dispense knowledge gained through long experience -- usus -- of love, to those seeking the guidance of a Chiron of Amor.

The cautious reader will be on guard. Who is this Tiphys et Automedon Amoris? What's he selling, and what's his angle?

The poet will keep us wondering. Sooner or later, it dawns on us that the lesson here is not "how to pick up girls," or various technical aides to "out-Hercules Hercules." Something else, very much other than the ostensible subject matter, is in play.

To enter this relationship with the praeceptor is not unlike entering a relationship with a lover -- at least, with one of those common types he depicts -- a creature of empty words, signs written in spilled wine on a messy dinner table, or composed in invisible ink - or, milk. Or the promise might be encrypted on his face through silent expressions. After all, he's a promise-making animal.

Motifs of writing, promising, hunting and gaming run through the Ars, next to, but not necessarily comporting with, another thread: the series of myths related to Minos, four of which -- Pasiphae, Ariadne, Daedalus/Icarus, and Procris -- receive expansive treatment. The shifts in tone between these moments of Euripidean solemnity and the wiseguy world of contemporary (in either sense) Rome make for a dislocating experience.

I'll teach you to hunt, says the Tutor:
The hunter knows where to spread nets for the stag,
     he knows what valleys hide the angry boar:
He's reticent on how, in this pursuit, one can swiftly go from hunter to prey.

The Tutor's pupil is advised to roam through the boulevards and valleys of Rome, amid an abundance of candidates for love. No single object of affection actually swims into view, nor is any particular relationship mapped. No specific human relationship gets to develop from initial acquaintance to happy (or otherwise) consummation and contentment. Ovid's praeceptor guides us as if we were armed with a metal detector. Moving rapidly over the terrain, we scan this one at the theater, then rub shoulders, thighs or feet with that one at the races.

The Tutor's charge moves through the crowded Roman spectacles. For him, the reason for being at the Circus or theater has nothing to do with devotion to sport or to Melpomene. And this is basic to the Tutor's lesson: When dealing with Amor, one is usually not interested in the ostensible subject that has drawn the crowd. One is not there for the play, unless it's the interplay with the lady who catches one's eye.

On the stage, one beholds those seized, nay, cursed -- like Phaedra -- with uncontrollable, fated desire. But in the audience, one plays the field: the object of desire glances from lady to lady, rapidly aroused by others' desire:
Sed cur fallariscum sit nova grata voluptas      
Et capiant animos plus aliena suis
But why should you be disappointed, when a new pleasure's most fun,
   and the heart craves someone else's things more than its own?  I.346-7
Moments before, the Tutor's song had risen to dramatic apostrophe, intoning the names of tragic lovers:
Cui non defleta est Ephyraeae flamma Creüsae,
     Et nece natorum sanguinolenta parens?
Flevit Amyntorides per inania lumina Phoenix:
     Hippolytum pavidi diripuistis equi.
Who hasn't wept at the burning of Ephyrean Creusa
    and the mother drenched in the blood of her murdered sons?
Phoenix, son of Amyntor, wept from blinded eyes;
    maddened horses, you tore apart Hippolytus!  I.335-38
But now, amid the many ladies in the amphitheater, the displacing power cannot rest on any one, because there is always an other - a nova. Desire runs through the crowd, not coming to rest with the mad horses of Hippolytus, but looking out upon prosaic country sights: big, bovine numbers:
Fertilior seges est alienis semper in agris
     Vicinumque pecus grandius uber habet.
The grass is always greener in someone else's field,
     and the neighbor's cattle have got the fatter udders. 1.349-50
What prompts the hunt? Why do we love?

According to the Tutor, at its extremes, Amor is excessive obsession with a single, immutable target that destroys lives and dynasties; and, or: desire displaces any possible target to infinity. What's our goal here? Some one, some thing, to have and to hold and put finis to the hunt? Or are we perpetually trapped, needing the hunt in order to experience desire?

To ask whether we desire love, or love desire, is to grapple with the Tutor's lesson. With Amor, there is always the sense that our interests might be other than they appear (we're attending Phaedra, but we're here for the chicks). Lovers -- including the praeceptor -- are not what they, we, seem, thanks to love.

It's compounded in the negotiation of the hunt and courtship, as both parties face this difficulty. How to know what -- or whom -- the other actually desires?

To the extent that the Ars is about knowing whom to trust (hence whom to love), it's about reading. The lesson throughout this ever-changing poem involves making sense of its signals. Put another way, the "content" (logos) of the poem -- i.e., the ostensible subject matter of the "art" of Love -- is pretext. If you wish to win that lover who is right for you, attend not to what I say (logos), but to how I say it (lexis, modus).
Nec tibi conveniet cunctos modus unus ad annos:     
     Longius insidias cerva videbit anus.
Si doctus videare rudi, petulansve pudenti,     
    Diffidet miserae protinus illa sibi.
Inde fit, ut quae se timuit committere honesto,     
    Vilis ad amplexus inferioris eat.
 A single style won't work for you for every age;
    the seasoned doe will spot a trap further away.
If you seem learned to the simple, or aggressive to the chaste,
    she'll lose confidence in herself at once, poor thing.
Thus it happens that one who's afraid to entrust herself to
    a decent man goes cheap to a worse one's embrace. 1.765-770.

English translations are from J.D. Hejduk's The Offense of Love.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Love for sale: Ovid's love doctor

Aeacidae Chironego sum praeceptor Amoris 
As Chiron to that son of Aeacus, I am the tutor of Love* (AA 1.17)

From the start, the Tutor of the Ars Amatoria has used car salesman written all over him. This praeceptor - not to be confused with Ovid -- declares his mastery, promises the reader success in the ways of love, then proceeds to deliver "wisdom" so tenuous, trivial, inconsistent and derelict that even the dullest of pupils would have second thoughts about further lessons.

Book 1 ends with the praeceptor pulling into port:
Pars superat coeptipars est exhausta laboris.     Hic teneat nostras ancora iacta rates. 
Part of the task I've undertaken is done, part remains;
here let the anchor be cast and hold my ship.
Our Chiron wannabe, who began by claiming expertise in the arts of Love on a par with Tithys' command of the Argo, here drops anchor. While translators tend to translate rates as "boat" or "ship," it might be closer to "raft." The Tutor's epic persona, and all his appointments, are looking a bit shopworn and degraded at this point.

Part of the joy of reading Ovid is in getting a feeling for what he's up to. In the Ars, his persona proudly vaunts his ability to dare verba. 
Pauperibus vates ego sumquia pauper amavi;     Cum dare non possem muneraverba dabam. 
I'm a prophet for paupers, because I loved as a pauper;     since I wasn't able to give gifts, I gave words.
As translator Julia Dyson Hejduk notes, dare verba was an idiom signifying "to trick." In the service of Love, all is fair, and all moves from, and with, the magical dazzle of empty words, signifiers, promises, cheap talk.

What is Ovid on about here, dabbling in the nature of love and language, faith and folly, myth and streetsmarts mingling in the Tutor's endless gab? Indeed one work that seems most like the Ars is Erasmus's Praise of Folly. In both, the inspiring divinity is both all powerful and all silly, all the time.

There's also the roaming eye of the flaneur, prowling and probing the high and hidden places of the city; there's the gaze of the social order, the ploys of the hunter, the threadbare experience -- usus -- of the one who spills the secrets of Amor and Roma with a saucy air.

There's nothing for it but to dive into the Tutor's wordstream -- to play the reader -- and target -- of his ploys.

*Translations are from The Offense of Love, Julia Dyson Hejduk, whose fidelity to the texts of the Ars, the Remedia Amoris, and Tristia is virtually line by line, and whose notes are invaluable for us grateful modern clods.