Sunday, September 4, 2011

Divorcing the source: Perseus' unharmonious wedding feast

Ovid's swift-moving account of the bloodshed at Perseus and Andromeda's wedding celebration in Metamorphoses 5 makes no effort to build suspense or the sense of a real contest. Perseus is so clearly going to win this rigged game that all the attention turns to how the losers die. The poet deftly offers us a variety of such losers. Here's 16-year-old Athis:
. . . of outstanding beauty, his sixteen years unimpaired, enhanced by his rich robes, wearing his military cloak of Tyrian purple, fringed with gold. A gold collar ornamented his neck, and a curved coronet his myrrh-drenched hair. He was skilled at piercing anything with the javelins he launched, however distant, but was even more skilled at shooting with the bow. While he was bending the pliant tips in his hands, Perseus struck him, with a log that had been smouldering in the middle of the altar, and shattered his face to splintered bone. (All translations from Kline).
There's Idas, who is killed while trying to remain neutral, and aged Emathion:
One very old man, Emathion, was there who upheld justice, and feared the gods. He stepped forward, and since his age prevented him fighting, he warred in words, cursing their sinful weapons. Chromis decapitated him with his sword, as he clung to the altar with trembling hands, and the head fell straight on to the hearth, and there the half living tongue still uttered imprecations, and its life expired in the midst of the flames.
The narrative spotlights others who have no business fighting. Like Emathion, Lampetides the lute player is one who thrives in times of peace, as does Ampycus, the priest of Ceres.

If nothing else, the spectacle of Perseus's single-handed slaughter of these innocents puts the emphasis on the harsh violence of the work of war. The gruesome vignettes of those killed leave us with a jangled sense of epic gone haywire, grotesque in some places, bordering on farce in others (Calliope meets Angry Birds):
Pelates, from the banks of Cinyps, tried to take the bar from the left door, and, while attempting to do so, his right hand was transfixed by the spear of Corythus, from Marmarica, and pinned to the wood. Abas pierced him in the side as he was fastened there, and he did not fall, but hung there, dying, from the post to which his hand was nailed.
The honorable heroics of Odysseus reclaiming his home and family from predators -- the epic subtext of this scene -- serves as a foil to highlight this narrative's obsessive interest in novel ways of depicting slaughter -- the sort of gremlin delight associated with the special effects departments of B movie studios.

This is not to suggest that Ovid's metamorphic shredding of the Perseus myth is without serious artistic purpose. First, he chooses to focus on the hero whose exploits and legacy led to the epics of Homer. Second, he introduces the theme of contested modes of legitimation: Who has the right to Andromeda -- the hero whose sword saved her from death, or the uncle who was affianced to her by ties of family, of tradition, and cultural norms?

Under normal circumstances, Phineus's right to marry his niece would be above challenge. But at the moment of crisis, when, thanks to Cassiopeia's boast about her beauty, the daughter of Cephus is completely defenseless and in radical peril; only the power of technologically-blessed Perseus can save her from a horrible fate. After he saves her from Neptune's sea monster, the question of who has the superior claim is not easily decided. Two different kinds of legitimacy are in conflict, and whether superior force should always prevail is surely not a conclusion anyone troubled by the ensuing violence is likely to find comforting.

Cutting to the chase: The gruesome, ugly, comic-violent-tacky tale of the wedding feast offers a discordant variation upon (or root critique of) Homeric epic. Ovid wants us neither to merely celebrate epic valor or simply condemn it -- he'd prefer we think about it. He is a poet, not a moralist setting out to write a discursive screed, so what he's doing is writing a kind of poetry that both is about poetry and transformative of it -- a metamorphic metapoetry that foregrounds a strikingly modern dissonance from its source, the Homeric song it recasts (not unlike, for example, Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida).

Instead of offering us a sober thesis that "war is hell," followed by a serious war movie (Saving Private Ryan, All Quiet on the Western Front), Ovid does something less direct. From the vantage of the theme, the necessity of heroic uses of power is never in dispute, but the horror of deadly force deprived of rational, just administration is on full display. What remains at the end of the scene is a blood-soaked banquet in which (1) innocent men of culture and erudition have died horrifically, (2) Phineus and 200 of his foolish supporters have frozen into monuments to their own mortal folly, and (3) the chosen scion of Zeus and favorite of Athena and Hermes has the means to return to Seriphos and confront the king who threatens his mother, Danae.

Eventually Perseus and Andromeda (along with Cepheus and Pegasus) will join the constellations, but while on Earth, they go on to propagate future generations of warriors whose exploits will live in immortal poems -- poetry in which graceless notes of questionable taste, violent injustice, and sheer amoral power will be suitably subjugated to the poetic requirements of soaring Homeric epic song.

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