Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ovid Part II: Ovid and Science

descriptionBook XV is more than the coda to the Metamorphoses. It too is a transformation. Here at the end of Ovid's poem, he turns from fable to the real historical figure of Julius Caesar so that mythology itself metamorphoses into history. In this same Book, Ovid invites Pythagoras into the narrative as spokesman for the new age, offering a vision of the world that seems to be shedding itself of the old mystic fog even as we read. As Simon Singh tells us in his book on the Big Bang (Big Bang, p. 7), Pythagoras helped initiate the "new rationalist movement" that dawned on the world in the 500s B.C.E. And Ovid shows he's quite alert to the transition into modernity which began with the Greek Enlightenment and continued with the Roman one of his own day; such an awareness explains the sophistication with which Ovid re-invented the old fables as realist studies of the intricacies of emotion and behavior.
Not for a moment, of course, would Ovid take water nymphs and miracles for anything but figments of imagination. We have his own word for it that the transformations of his Metamorphoses are not to be believed (Tristia II, 64).... And yet he gave ancient mythology its unexcelled, final, comprehensive expression. Hermann Fränkel, Ovid: A Poet Between Two Worlds, p. 89
The human heart and its world unite in Ovid's scientific mind. Both art and science depict change--art through drama, and science through calculus; art the changes that pertain to people's mental introjections, and science the changes that pertain to the mineral world of humanity's origin and habitation.

Numa, the second king of Rome, we are told in Book XV, wishes to know "what is Nature's general law," or quae sit rerum natura (XV, 6), a phrase that echoes the title of Lucretius's great scientific-minded poem De rerum natura. The poem influenced Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, and we can only read it ourselves because Poggio Bracciolini rescued the last remaining copy of De rerum natura from a decrepit monastery in the 15th century. Similar measures were required for the first edition of my physiology textbook.

The main law of Nature, according to Ovid, is caelum et quodcumque sub illo est, inmutat formas, tellusque et quicquid in illa est (XV, 454-455): "the heavens and whatever is beneath the heavens change their forms, the earth and all that is within it."

Throughout the poem, Ovid proves himself an astute observer and thinker about the changing natural world, an ambassador like Lucretius for the enlightened scientific values of the great Epicurus.

For example, he knew the earth is round (two centuries before Ovid’s birth, Eratosthenes, chief librarian at Alexandria, had already correctly measured the diameter and circumference of the earth, moon, and sun as well as the distances between them, Singh pp. 11-20). Ovid furthermore suggests the earth was shaped into an orb, glomeravit in orbis (I, 35), by a cosmological force--today we'd call that gravity. He knew that waves are caused not by Neptune but by wind (I, 36-37). He says that what look like falling stars are actually something else (II, 321-322). In a simile in Book II, he gives a fairly modern account of cancer: utque malum late solet inmedicabile cancer serpere et inlaesas vitiatis addere partes "And, as an incurable cancer spreads its evil roots ever more widely and involves sound with infected parts...." (II, 825-826) When he writes sanguine defectos cecidit conlapsus in artus (V, 96), or "he fell fainting, his limbs all drained of blood," he gives a modern account of syncope that implies the incumbency of consciousness upon blood pressure. He says, quite rightly, that rainbows are caused by sunlight passing through wet air (VI, 63-64). With an appreciation for embryology, he asserts that "in its mother's body an infant gradually assumes human form," or as he puts it, hominis speciem materna sumit ... infans (VII, 125-126). He describes what sounds like a zoonotic plague in Book VII with a sophistication both epidemiological and epistemological; "Since the cause of the disease is hidden," he writes, "the place itself is held to blame" (VII, 576). Always Ovid considers natural first causes, whether known or unknown: a river swells due to snowmelt (VIII, 556-557); snow in turn forms from rain chilled by cold air (IX, 220-222). Further discussion of the elements reflects Ovid's fairly accurate understanding of density and its importance to the phases of matter. (XV, 237-251)

His metaphors and details frequently draw on fine naturalistic observations: of lunar eclipse (IV, 330-332); of sunrays (IV, 347-349); of translucent glass (IV, 355); of eagles and sea anemones preying, and ivy twining (IV, 362-367); of horticultural practices like grafting (IV, 375-376); of bats (IV, 414-415); of rainbows (VI, 61-67) (his metaphor on rainbows, which he calls upon to describe the fineness of Athena and Arachne's work weaving tapestries, expresses an aesthetic appreciation for detailed imitations of nature); of exposed, palpitating entrails, salientia viscera (VI, 390); the way that prey reverse course to evade a predator (VII, 782-784); the way a boar (in this case, Calydonian) whets its tusks on a tree trunk (VIII, 369-370); storm and wreck at sea (XI, 475-572).

As the poem nears its conclusion, these observations yield a prescient theory of geologic and biologic change that begins to sound like the theory of evolution. He discusses erosion (XV, 262-272) and other changes in the landscape and moves on to the metamorphoses that take place in the animal world (XV, 361-390): carcasses breed maggots; flightless larvae become mature airborne insects; tadpoles become frogs; blobby babies grow into well-formed adults; eggs become birds. Sea creatures at one point (XIII, 936-937) come forth onto land in a passage that seems to contain some intuition about that moment in evolutionary history when lungfish learned to walk on tidal mudflats. Perhaps Ovid was influenced by Horace, who wrote:
When living creatures crawled forth upon primeval earth, dumb, shapeless beasts, they fought for their acorns and lairs with nails and fists, then with clubs, and so on step by step with the weapons which need had later forged, until they found words and names wherewith to give meaning to their cries and feelings. Horace, Satires, I, iii, 99ff
One gets the sense that the Roman intelligentsia had an altogether more sophisticated grasp of the world around them than many of the voters who decide elections two millennia later.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Ovid Part I: A Delicious Fränkelburger

descriptionThe middle of summer -- July -- if you walk west on Montague Street toward the harbor at around 6:30 in the evening, carrying your bag of black plums, the water is a gigantic cauldron of fire that sets upon every head a backlighting halo. It's like something out of On Golden Pond except that it smells like garbage and there's dogshit all over the sidewalk. You see more fire dripping from a top floor air conditioner and exploding on the awning of an Italian restaurant like ore dripping from a smelter. You see girls with bare arms and bare legs. Up, down, and sideways, you see boobs boobs boobs.

Ah, summer! "For there is no hardier time than this," Ovid writes in his Metamorphoses, "none more abounding in rich, warm life." Bk XV, ll. 207-208.

In August you drive to the beach with the windows down and the "where do we go now" part of "Sweet Child o' Mine" breaking down on the car stereo at an almost painful volume, and you have a vanilla ice cream cone in each hand and are driving with your knee (not really, I can't digest milk, but you get the idea), and you're watching the girls with their bikinis and their cover-ups, and you're thinking to yourself, "If Norman Mailer was here, I would karate chop him in the neck" and you don't even pity Slash for being less of a bad-ass than you are. And your boys are in the back seat in their bare feet, without their seatbelts on and you don't even care.

Or maybe you ride a bike and you have no urge to karate chop Norman Mailer. Anyway, I am more bad-ass than Slash because, in addition to sometimes not forcing my shoeless kids into their seatbelts, I read Ovid's Metamorphoses this summer, as well as Hermann Fränkel's magnificent Sather Lectures on Ovid, given at Berkeley 65 or 70 years ago.

Frankel calls Ovid "a poet between two worlds," because in many ways he is the first truly modern writer--a writer with an enlightened, scientific, expressly psychological worldview--even more so than his great predecessor Virgil:
[H]e was leaving behind him Antiquity as we know it and traveling on the path to a new age of mankind.... [H]e candidly voiced his experiences in the same modern spirit in which he lived through them, ignoring established traditions and the code of wary discretion. Fränkel, p. 23.

Ovid's reputation has suffered under the general hailstorm of postmodernism raining down on the classics, but he's suffered much more undervaluation than Homer and Virgil ever have, in part because he's been misconstrued as a mere anthologist of old myths and been outshone by the many artists whose careers he shaped and in the first place made possible. However, he is no Joseph Campbell. On the contrary, Ovid reinvented old myths in a great tapestry of modern art, and his particular artistry and modernity probably have much to do with later artists' fascination with his work. As Fränkel says, "the poet has turned a primitive fiction into a symbol for a substantial truth." (p. 78)

For having done so, the greatest of later poets took Ovid as their master. John Frederick Nims tells us, "Goethe probably knew Ovid better than he knew any other poet. So, we suspect, did Dante.... So too did Shakespeare. One wonders if any other poet can claim so many devoted followers among the great?" (Introduction to the Arthur Golding translation, p. xix) Ovid's "metamorphoses"--transformations that sometimes punish and reflect crimes--provided to Dante the contrapasso method that's the chassis for the Inferno. Ovid not only influenced Shakespeare but invented the inward-looking soliloquy for him. Though he doesn't appear in Henri Ellenberger's comprehensive history of the unconscious and though Freud barely refers to him, Ovid is probably the first and most influential commentator on unconscious ideation. In its psychologically sophisticated fantasy, his work draws closer to modern magical realism than anything else in the ancient world, a fact which may be reflected in Kafka's conspicuously Ovidean title, The Metamorphosis. John Donne's famous poem "The Sun Rising," which Carol Rumens calls "one of the most joyous love poems ever written" is very clearly influenced by Ovid's elegy "The Dawn." Renaissance painters used the Metamorphoses like they did the Bible, and in fact, knowing Ovid through his autobiographical works (like Ex Ponto and Tristia, almost unique in the ancient world) is equivalent to knowing the human authors of the Bible.

My edition of Fränkel's Ovid: A Poet Between Two Worlds is literally stained with summer delight; it has a faint discoloration on its green cloth binding from where a delicious Prime Meats hamburger exploded on it. (I have since sterilized the spot so you can't get E. coli from reading about Ovid.) The book has a stamp on the bottom that says "Niagara University Library" and the card catalog stamps say it was taken out 4 times between 1970 and 1981. Now this particular copy has been taken out for the last time, by me. It is a grand gateway into Ovid, who was arguably the father of modern literature. This is the first of several blogs celebrating Ovid, this life-affirming poet, in this livingest of seasons--summer.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

C Is for Contradiction in Hebron

Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in IsraelCompany C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel by Haim Watzman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Haim Watzman’s memoir of his years in reserve Company C of the Israeli infantry is a fine work of microscopy on the granulomatous sore of our modern-day Hundred Years War—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With prose that’s both poetic and journalistically economical, Watzman chronicles the larger conflict by looking closely at the small patch of it he’s seen up close in his company and on his patrols. He gives the vivid sense of place and physical materials that characterizes the best narrative journalism (and the best accounts of Israel). Yet the book is less a war story than an Augustine-like self-inquiry. Watzman is a man of contradictions: an American emigrant to Israel trying to balance the “western humanism” of his secular background with the orthodox Judaism he adopted; a self-described klutz who’s also a fitness fanatic and rugged soldier; a soldier devoted to his reserve unit’s details in the occupied territories and a citizen opposed to the West Bank settlements.

The “West Bank” is itself a contradiction in terms—being that butterfly wing of land east of Israel proper, but so named for its position west of the Jordan River. There the Tomb of the Patriarchs lies, according to Judaeo-Christian tradition, amidst millions of modern Palestinian Arabs. This contradiction encysted in Israel’s left flank has inflamed a paradox inherent to democracy, which Winston Churchill famously described as the worst form of government except for all the others. It’s probably the sanest, most fair and rational form of government, but it’s also vulnerable to abuse by particularly loud, shrill, or demagogical voices, even when those voices are wayward and irrational minorities without their own respect for democracy. Governments like the old Mubarak regime in Egypt abjured democracy in part to resist such extremist influences. Israel, meanwhile, cannot seem to overrule its loudest and most doctrinaire voices, and history’s bad examples trail behind like buzzards—Periclean Athens, which devolved into the chaos of the Peloponnesian War, and the Roman Republic which devolved into that doomed, annoying empire. The poets fall silent shortly thereafter.

The American democracy feels a bit frayed by demagoguery in much the same way, but the stakes are always higher in Israel, which arose and remains in the mouth of its enemies. Furthermore, Israeli democracy bears the burden of sentiments particular to Jewish history. Lengthy exile as a persecuted minority has called us Jews together like a family. The Holocaust has excited an indwelling fear of extinction beyond any reasonable proportion. When I visited Israel in 1988, just after the first Intifada began, I heard the baying of the wolves outside the family circle and the answering call of my people. I felt the magnetism of Jerusalem’s stones, worn with ancient footsteps and impregnated with the blood and romance of the ages. For a Jew, there is no more romantic place on earth.

Israel’s founding father David ben Gurion told Shimon Peres that Israel was a family—and a family feeling of ‘us and them’ probably animates all patriotism on some level. Yet patriotism is a slippery slope to unsavory modes of civic being, to war with ‘enemies’ without, to oppression of minorities within, to rigid orthodoxies of who and how that directly contravene the core values of democracy. The settlements in the West Bank are absurd by most calculations, but Palestinian terrorism against innocents--and the many cases of unrepentant apologism for it among Palestinians--only inflames the patriotic paranoia and rigidity that sustains the occupation. Thus the Hundred Years War and one of history’s most painful granulomata.

View all my reviews