Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ovid Part IV: Metamorphose This

descriptionThe speaker of Ovid's "Contrite Lover" elegy in Amores reflects on a quarrel in which he struck his lover. Full of remorse, he asks this of his own hands: "What have I to do with you, servants of murder and crime?" (Amores I, 7, 27). As Hermann Fränkel puts it, the speaker "feels estranged from his own self of a moment before. His identity is broken up...." (Fränkel, Ovid: A poet Between Two Worlds, pp. 20-21) The great classical scholar considers Ovid's representation of inner conflict a historic literary achievement:
[I]t was an unheard-of novelty for the ancients that a person should no longer feel securely identical with his own self.... There is no sign of a previous emergence of these possibilities; Ovid took them for granted and used them freely in his poetry.... [W]ith the self losing its solid unity and being able half to detach itself from its bearer, a fundamental shift had taken place in the history of the human mind. Frankel, p. 21
Before Ovid came along, Plato and other ancient philosophers had postulated a self divided by competing faculties of passion and reason. But who had ever represented the subjective experience of these internal divisions with Ovid's level of modern realism? Even among later poets, who but Shakespeare has represented our divided consciousness so well as Ovid?

Indeed, in Ovid's representations of mental life, schisms of identity and clashes between wishes and realities precipitate solutions where a troubling aspect of self or world is rejected from consciousness. "Time and again," Fränkel writes of the Amores, "we find Ovid bent on concealing from his own eyes a disagreeable fact; but he also sees to it that the cloak is transparent." (Fränkel, p. 31) In the Heroides, one of Ovid's heroines, Phyllis, attests to the same phenomenon: "one is slow to give credence to that which brings pain.... Often I lied to myself...." (quoted in Fränkel, p. 42)

True, there are antecedents to Ovid's notion of denial, too. Consider his telling of the famous story of Jupiter and Io, first in the Heroides and again in the Metamorphoses. Ovid seems deliberately to echo Sophocles. "What is the reason for your flight?" Ovid writes of the nymph Io in the Heroides. (To hide his affair from Juno, Jupiter has turned Io into a cow and Io goes mad trying to run from her new form when she cannot.) "You will never escape from your own face.... You are the same who both pursues and flees. It is you who lead yourself, and you go where you lead." (quoted in Fränkel p. 79) Whether or not Ovid intended it, the lines certainly call to mind Teiresias's stunning words to Oedipus in Oedipus Rex: "I say you are the murderer of the king whose murderer you seek."

Ovid, however, accomplishes with his fantastic tales what Sophocles did not attempt: he converts the ancient wisdom written on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi--gnothi sauton in the original Greek (nosce te ipsum in Latin, "know thyself" in English)--into psychological realism that not only depicts inner conflict and denial in personal terms, but actually examines what Freud later called defense mechanisms.

That is to say, not all transformation in Metamorphoses is supernatural. In many cases Ovid in fact dispenses with the fantastical metamorphoses and depicts in straight realist terms an emotion being actively revised or altered by another. For example in Book II Phaethon asks his father Apollo whether Clymene (Phaethon's mother) lied when she said Apollo was his father. His exact words are nec falsa Clymene culpam sub imagine celat (Metamorphoses, II, 37), "if Clymene is not hiding her shame beneath an unreal pretence." Here Ovid makes the pattern of pain and emotional flight more intricate, more subtle: the particular pain in this case is shame; the particular means of evasion is hiding.

At times Ovid upstages Freud to the degree that he uses Freudian terms like "repression" and "transference" in connection with pretty much the same phenomena Freud sought to describe.
erebuit Phaethon iramque pudore repressit, "Phaethon blushed and repressed his anger in shame." (I, 755)

Iovis coniunx ... a Tyria collectum paelice transfert in generis socios odium, "the wife of Jove had now transferred her anger from her Tyrian rival to those who shared her blood." (II, 256-259)

The Phaethon episode in Book II, one of the best in the Metamorphoses, tracks Apollo's changing emotions in sequence like a psychoanalyst would. After his son Phaethon's death, Ovid tells us, lucemque odit seque ipse diemque datque animum in luctus et luctibus adicit iram officiumque negat mundo, or "He hates himself and the light of day, gives over his soul to grief, to grief adds rage, and refuses to do service to the world." (Metamorphoses, II, 383-385)

After Jupiter goads Apollo into climbing back into the chariot to light the world, Ovid writes: Phoebus equos stimuloque dolens et verbere saevit (saevit enim) natumque obiectat et inputat illis, "in his grief Phoebus savagely plies the horses with lash and goad (so savagely), reproaching and taxing them with the death of his son." (II, 399-400) It's true that the horses were an instrument in Phaethon's demise, but Apollo knows that they are innocent beasts, that the fault lies most of all with Phaethon himself and with Jupiter, who threw the thunderbolt that killed him--and who, after making a brief apology, had the audacity to threaten Apollo if he didn't resume his duties. Ovid implies quite unambiguously that Apollo whips the horses in Jupiter's place, in Phaethon's place, in his own place.

When Jupiter rapes Callisto, one of Diana's maidens, Ovid writes, huic odio nemus est et conscia silva "She loathed the forest and the woods that knew her secret." (II, 338) She seems to hate the woods in place of Jupiter (again), because Jupiter is too terrible to attack directly. Perhaps Callisto also hates the woods in place of her own guilt. Ovid continues, quam difficile est crimen non prodere vultu! "How hard it is not to betray guilt in the face!" (II, 447) Freud teaches us that guilt is a major, if not the major, stimulus to repression. Guilt causes people to hide emotions from themselves and from others. More often than not, transformation of ideas and affects does the hiding. Shakespeare knew this before Freud. And Ovid evidently knew it before either one of his great intellectual heirs, as transformative defense mechanisms of displacement and identification abound in his Metamorphoses. I found it most interesting that Ovid describes Nyctimene, a woman who slept with her father and was punished by turning into a bird, as being conscia culpae--literally "conscious of her guilt." (II, 593) It implies she might also have been unconscious of it. Ovid would have had little trouble understanding Shak and Freud, and it's obvious that "Ovid's amazing candor" (Fränkel, p. 58) imparted much psychological wisdom to later ages.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ovid Part III: Thought Letters

descriptionOvid was "revered among Elizabethan pedagogues" according to R.W. Maslen (Shakespeare's Ovid, p. 17). It sounds like a terrible fate, to be revered by a pedagogue, let alone a bunch of Elizabethan ones. I don't know for certain what happens if one reveres you, but if one kisses you, I think you get warts. Or am I thinking of frogs? In any case, like many Elizabethans, Shakespeare purportedly encountered Ovid in grammar school. The Roman poet seems to have left an impression on the Stratford boy who lived an age and a half later.

The Metamorphoses in fact figures into Shak's early tragedy Titus Andronicus in an unusual way for a Shakespeare play: "In perhaps the most self-consciously literary moment in all Shakespeare," as Jonathan Bate puts it (Golding trans. frontmatter, p. xliv), a physical copy of Ovid's book appears onstage. Young Lucius is reading it and his aunt Lavinia, who like Philomela in the Metamorphoses has had her tongue cut out, tries to communicate her own story by turning the pages to the story of Philomela and Procne. Philomela had to weave a tapestry to communicate, but Lavinia's attackers had also chopped her hands off, so in place of weaving a tapestry, she uses Ovid's story about the tapestry!!!

Shak famously ate up source material both high and low and incorporated it all into his works, but I find it striking that the Metamorphoses alone (?) turns up in this undigested form--whole, as it were, with its binding still on it like some piece of literary roughage that even Shakespeare's omnivorous guts could not fully break down. Titus Andronicus does not incorporate Ovid so much as embrace him like a peach pit in the belly of a gull, or quartz in the belly of an oyster.

With Ovid in his craw, Shak made quite a few pearls. Ovid provided Shakespeare with source material that turns up in Titus Andronicus, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, and many other plays, and in fact, according to Bate (p. xlii), "[s]cholars have calculated that about ninety percent of Shakespeare's allusions to classical mythology refer to stories included in this epic compendium of tales [Metamorphoses]." More importantly, however, Ovid provided to Shakespeare not only material but some of his most important themes and methods. It looks to me like Ovid (and his Greek and Roman antecedents), not Montaigne or Shakespeare, is more nearly the inventor of the inward-looking soliloquy. First, Ovid brilliantly portrayed the mind talking to itself in his Heroides, using what Hermann Fränkel calls "thought letters." (Ovid: A Poet Between Two Worlds, p. 37) Then he developed that technique into totally "Shakespearean" inner debates in the Metamorphoses. Bate again:
[The Heroides] would have helped the student Shakespeare to take his first steps in the art of dramatic impersonation. John Lyly and Christopher Marlowe, the two dramatists who most influenced him when he began writing plays himself, both made extensive use of the Heroides as models for the art of a character's self-examination at moments of emotional crisis--the art, that is to say, of soliloquy. Bate, pp. xli-xlii

Virgil too narrates characters' thoughts, and even their inner debates, such as when the jilted Dido contemplates suicide; repeatedly gods and mortals in The Aeneid 'turn things over in their breasts' as though the heart could buffet with a convoluted motion like that of the sea. But even when Virgil spies on his characters' thoughts, he seems to do so from a more Olympian height. Ovid brings, I think, an unprecedented focus and worldly detailed comprehension to inner life. He's also got a fairly systematic theory of psychological transformation, the like of which I am not aware of in Virgil or Homer or any place, really, besides Shakespeare, who evidently absorbed Ovid's philosophy and applied it in his own work.

Fränkel notes that Ovid's "thought letters" derive their character in part from the suasoria--the rhetoric of persuasion--he had learned while training to be a lawyer or civil servant (as his father wished him to, of course). But according to Fränkel, Ovid puts suasoria to a use that was fairly new to literature. He has the eponymous heroines of the Heroides draft letters to lovers who cannot or will not reply, so that the letters effectively rehearse conversations or arguments inwardly without enacting them. The stakes in each case are only this: love. Fränkel describes a thought letter as
a special kind of letter, the kind which in actual fact we rarely put down on paper and would hardly ever drop in the mailbox. Nevertheless we did carefully prepare that letter in our own mind, silently arguing out the issue with our remote and unwilling partner, perhaps for hours on end; anticipating his objections and thwarting his evasions; and with each repetition we improved on the clarity of our reasoning and the moral force of our appeal, until eventually we had perfected our unwritten letter so as to render it, on its own merits, irresistibly convincing. Unfortunately, we had no means of communicating with the person we were thus addressing; or, if he were to receive such a letter, he would not be greatly impressed, because he was already prejudiced in the matter; or he would not open it, because he was not interested in anything we had to say; or, perhaps, it was not proper for us to tell him how we felt, for tact and shame forbade it. For one or another of these reasons, our letter never materialized; and yet for our own sake we worked it out mentally.

Fränkel, pp. 36-37

In the Metamorphoses, Ovid takes the thought letter one step further. Characters now argue in their heads not with another but with themselves. In Book X, Ovid writes of a girl, Myrrha (namesake for the myrrh tree and mother of Adonis), whose incestuous love for her father torments her. See how "Shakespearean" is her soliloquy?

She indeed is fully aware of her vile passion and fights against it and says within herself [secum inquit (X, 320)], "To what is my purpose tending? What am I planning? O gods, I pray you, and piety and the sacred rights of parents, keep this sin from me and fight off my crime, if indeed it is a crime. But I am not sure, for piety refuses to condemn such love as this. Other animals mate as they will, nor is it thought base for a heifer to endure her sire, nor for his own offspring to be a horse's mate; the goat goes in among the flocks which he has fathered, and the very birds conceive from those from whom they were conceived. Happy they who have such privilege! Human civilization has made spiteful laws and what nature allows, the jealous laws forbid. And yet they say that there are tribes among whom mother and son, daughter with father mates, and natural love is increased by the double bond. Oh wretched me, that it was not my lot to be born there, and that I am thwarted by the mere accident of place! Why do I dwell on such things? Avaunt, lawless desires! Worthy to be loved is he, but as a father.... It is well to go far away, to leave the borders of my native land, if only I may flee from crime; but an evil passion keeps me from going.... But you, while you have not yet sinned in body, do not conceive sin in your heart, and defile not great nature's law with unlawful longing. Grant that you wish it: facts themselves forbid."

X, 319-355

Of the thought letters, Fränkel writes, "The idea of verse epistles of this sort was new, and Ovid felt justly proud of his originality." (Fränkel, pp. 45-46) Ovid accomplished enough to satisfy his grand ambitions, and he ought not to be overshadowed by his genius pupil Shakespeare. In the final poem in his third book of Odes, Horace boasts that his poetry will outlive any physical monument: Exegi monumentum aere perennius. ("I have made a monument more lasting than bronze.") Ovid makes a similar boast at the end of the Metamorphoses:

Iamque opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira nec ignis
nec poterit ferrum nec edax abolere vetustas.
...perque omnia saecula fama,
siquid habent veri vatum praesagia, vivam.

And now my work is done, which neither the wrath of Jove, nor fire, nor sword, nor the gnawing tooth of time shall ever be able to undo.... And through all ages in fame, if the prophecies of poets have any truth, I shall live.

XV, 871-872, 878-879

Ironically it's the truths in Ovid's poetry, not his prophecy, that made the prophecy come true.