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.

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