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Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
~~ From Myth to Literature: Approaching Ovid’s Tales ~~
What is The Metamorphoses?
A 15-book poem. Because the poems are tales, they have sometimes been set as prose, as they have been in your book. But it’s poetry, and it’s a huge work, a vast compendium of stories, an encyclopedic collection of all of the Greek myths that Ovid could find. Not only does he collect these tales; he shapes them into a kind of story that spans from the creation of the world (there’s a genesis story at the start of Metamorphoses) to his present day when Julius Caesar is transformed into a star and Augustus is Emperor.
We say it’s “a kind” of story, because it’s not really all that sequential at times. In fact, it’s very loosely arranged in many places, and the only thread connecting one story to the next is his theme of “metamorphosis”—that all the characters in every story undergo some form of transformation from one form to another. Early in the book “Nothing” turns into magnificent Creation, the Golden Age, in the Genesis tale; Earth becomes Man in the Prometheus story; near the end, Julius Caesar becomes a Star; and along the way countless mortals and lesser deities are transformed into various plants and animals and various other physical substances or natural phenomena. Actaeon becomes a Stag and is torn to shreds by his dogs; Narcissus becomes a flower drooping over its reflection in a pond; Philomela, Procne, and Tereus become various kinds of birds—Philomela becomes a nightingale and Procne a redbreast; Tereus becomes a hoopoe.
The Theme of “Metamorphosis”
How does the “metamorphosis” theme relate to the Genesis themes we observed in the two tales last week?
Suppose we define “metamorphosis” as “transformation.”
Does transformation imply growth? Why or why not? Can you be transformed and not “grow”? Is there a way to “devolve” instead of “evolve”? Do the characters in the Genesis stories we studied last week evolve or devolve? A little of both? Do the characters in Ovid’s tales evolve or devolve?
Metamorphosis is a prevalent theme, not only in myth but in literature. Literature is all about change and growth and transformation—lateral, vertical, up, down, every which way kinds of transformations. At the heart of any plot is a conflict which brings about some kind of change, some kind of transformation. The character began the story one way and became something else by the end. One of the great lessons of life is that nothing stays the same. We are always changing. Life is always changing. There’s very little that’s permanent. (The things that we think are permanent become a great comfort to us, or a great burden to us, don’t you think?) One of the things that changes us so radically is love. And another is sex. In Ovid these are closely intertwined.
But let’s stay on “metamorphosis.” The Ovid tales are about change, about transformation. Nothing in these tales stays the same. But when you think about transformation and change, you realize there are two kinds of changes, two kinds of metamorphoses:
With which of these is the mythic tale concerned—the invisible and the abstract or the physical and the concrete? It’s really concerned with both, but it always finds a way to represent what’s abstract and invisible, what’s internal and emotional or intellectual, with something concrete and visible.
Well, if change is such a universal, prevalent theme in myth and literature, why doesn’t the change from a caterpillar to a butterfly excite a mythic tale?
• Because it’s not about us? The only truly interesting, compelling stories are the ones about human beings?
• Because there’s no dramatic (i.e., suspenseful, unpredictable, tragic, comic) human conflict? Is it that we humans are the only “conflicted” creatures, the ones with free will and the power to shape our own destinies? The Genesis tales both illustrate that one fundamental truth about us very vividly. In the case of the caterpillar we know that given a few necessary ingredients, the story will turn out exactly the same way every time. Give this “subhuman” creature the right amount of time, healthy genes, and good food, and it will be a butterfly every time. It’s controlled by a determined process from its inception. The caterpillar is hard wired, pre-programmed. Find a caterpillar that’s going to free itself from its destiny of becoming a butterfly and that WILL be a story. In fact it was a best-selling story in the 1970s, when Richard Bach invented a seagull who wanted to be something more than a seagull, who wanted to fly like an eagle. That story, Jonathon Livingston Seagull, became a real cult classic, a familiar kind of pop culture phenomenon that by force of its archetypal characters and conflicts begins to edge itself back into the realm of the mythic. Then again, although Jonathon may be a seagull in the book, he’s actually pretty thoroughly anthropomorphized. The little secret that’s not much of a secret is that this isn’t really a book about seagulls at all. It’s a book about us. (And it’s one of those books that, if you re
ad it in the 70s, you now remember it so nostalgically!) So we’re back to the human?
• Actually, the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into a butterfly does excite a kind of mythic tale by the ancient Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu. However, you’ll probably notice how it is really about humans once again; it’s not really about butterflies at all. In it, Chuang Tzu has a dream that he’s a butterfly. In the dream he flutters about as a butterfly would, with no human consciousness at all (although, wouldn’t it take human consciousness to realize you didn’t have human consciousness?—but never mind!). He is all butterfly. When he awoke from his dream he was a little disoriented; he had to ask himself, what am I? Am I am man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming I’m a man? What should we make out of that tale?
Perhaps you’re thinking, but wait. Are the human and the butterfly really that different? Aren’t we as trapped by our genes as the butterfly? Even the Adam and Eve story seems to imply, for some people at least, that we humans are creatures of an inevitable destiny: the story is taken to mean that we are destined to be sinful; we are born with a certain innate corruption at our innermost core. Others may interpret the story to mean we are destined to grow from children into adults, that we inevitably pass from that world of innocence into this adult world of experience—of adult responsibilities, difficulties, conflicts, appetites. Isn’t that the same thing as the caterpillar turning into the butterfly? So, is it true after all, then, that we have a built-in destiny, like the butterfly?
I guess it’s obvious I think the answer is no. But do you see how debatable the question is?
Those who interpret the story of Adam and Eve as an explanation of original sin tend to believe that by choosing a certain path of action that sin can be removed; the whole idea of choice, of free will, is still possible, and actually very central. Interpreting the story as expressing our inevitable growth from childhood to adulthood likewise implies the free will and choice associated with maturity and adulthood.
The human and the butterfly are completely different creatures, it seems. And to change a human being into a butterfly, or a flower, or a nightingale, though these forms may be wonderful in and of themselves, is not necessarily flattering. In fact, the point may be to emphasize how “inhuman” or “subhuman” or “nonhuman” we can become when we undergo some kinds of (inward, abstract, emotional, intellectual) transformations. In the pressurized environment of extreme passions we metamorphose into something other than ourselves, and whether that change represents an “evolution” or a “devolution” is a matter individual readers can have the pleasure to decide.
One conclusion we might draw is that that the butterfly’s metamorphosis isn’t that compelling except in a purely objective, rational, scientific way (not in a spiritual or emotional way). Human change and transformation, however, are dramatic and emotionally compelling in so far as we understand them to be caused by our own actions, our own choices, our own behavior. And this is the case in Ovid’s tales.
But what about Ovid? Let’s come back to Ovid. Ovid is not a “culture” or a “religion” (though he is a product of a particular culture with a particular religion). He’s suddenly an “author,” the first in your anthology. Having an author, a particular man named Ovid, who wrote at a particular time and place, is quite different from the non-specific “authors” of the oral tales that get circulated culturally until they’re transcribed. An author implies an individual writer with individual literary purposes. There’s a personality there, an artist’s shaping hand, a private vision as opposed to a broad cultural one. Appreciating a work like the Metamorphoses means attempting to understand those purposes, that personality, and that vision—to see how well the author achieved them.
A Little Something about Ovid
You don’t have to know too much about Ovid to know about his purposes in this book, but a little background doesn’t hurt. This is no doubt a very bad analogy, but I think of Ovid as ancient Rome’s representative for the kind of skeptical, irreverent, thoroughly modern and comic irony that would be right at home on The Daily Show beside Jon Stewart (maybe). Even if that is a bad analogy, that reality is that, of the great Roman poets, he’s the entertainer, the poet in the late night slot, a colorful storyteller who knows his audience’s tastes. Ovid intimately understands, and seems to appreciate, even love, the decadence of his times. I’m even tempted to call him antiquity’s first postmodernist (probably someone already has). The difference between Ovid and someone like Jon Stewart (did I really write that?) is that Stewart’s humor often plays upon our sense of right and wrong, there’s a kind of disbelieving moral righteousness in which we laugh to keep from crying, or tearing out our hair frustration. Ovid, on the other hand, is very often accused of being amoral, much less morally righteous. Only close reading will help you decide where you stand on that accusation.
The perspective you get reading Ovid is that of someone who knows the game, knows the power structure, and can play along brilliantly, but with that same brilliance and insight he sees through the paper-thin veil that separates the appearance of piety from the reality of hypocrisy. Augustan propaganda aside, Roman high society may not be so very pious, the Roman character perhaps less than 100% virtuous, and the pantheon of Gods in their heavens may not be all that morally superior to their human counterparts, despite their accidentally acquired supernatural powers.
From Myth to Literature
What Ovid is writing is not myth but literature. What’s the difference? And what kind of literature is he writing? Those are two fundamental questions it’s tough for me to pass over. But lucky for you, you’re reading instead of listening.
To simplify, think of myth as the parent language spawning many children, among them “RELIGION” and “LITERATURE.” These are siblings, perhaps, but not twins. Keeping things simplified, think of myth as a tale which communicates a vision of truth based on revelation, belief, and faith. It communicates a mystical experience of God, of the universal “ground of being”; it brings an experience of the mystical back to us in the form of a story. LITERATURE, on the other hand, at its best, communicates a vision of truth based on a close observation of the human: the human condition, human experience, human emotion, the human heart—which can also be very abstract and difficult to communicate in terms other than “story.” But the two kinds of stories serve different purposes. The mythic tale serves to reveal an understanding of God; and the literary tale serves to reveal an understanding of the human.
So Ovid, as a literary man, has his sights on the human. Don’t let his use of these mythic tales fool you. He is writing about the human condition, not about the Gods. The Gods are characters in these tales, and in many places their behavior is all too human and imperfect. They’re fallible rather than infallible, and, like people, they’re not always heroic or even admirable. The whole Metamorphoses teeters on the edge of amorality. (And though the exact reason for his banishment is still shrouded in mystery, Ovid was sent into lonely exile far from Rome to live out the rest of his life. I’m assuming it was his ironic stabs at the establishment, the seemingly gratuitous sex and often amoral violence, that led Augustus to get rid of him. Ovid’s kind of truth was bad for Rome’s international image, maybe; and no one ever claimed such a thing as free speech in ancient Rome.)
If Ovid does anything offensive (in an official sense), it’s that he inverts the accepted order, elevating human passion instead of elevating the Gods, who often become objects of humor. This is what can happen to narrative once it becomes loosened from its mythical moorings. Story serves art, not religion.
What is the art of the Metamorphoses? It’s often referred to as a “mock epic.” To appreciate that label, you have to know something about the epic. The epic is an ancient form of narrative poetry that about a human hero or group of heroes—they recreate the stories of people and events that are considered by poet and audience to be historically real (although they may be mythological). The hero of an epic faced with a quest and with an adversary blocking his way, maybe even a supernatural adversary, and he must past muster. In the classical Greek and Roman epics, the hero accomplishes what no other human can accomplish; he “dies” (either metaphorically or physically) and visits the underworld, but is “resurrected.” In every case the hero is someone the rest of us look up to and admire; he is the savior, the protector, the founder—the very best that humanity has to offer. But Ovid’s tales are filled with anti-heroes, and his work is called a “mock epic.”
In form and style the Metamorphoses is an epic in imitation of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid by Ovid’s contemporary, Virgil. Yet there’s no central hero (no Achilles, no Hector, no Odysseus, no Aeneas). The tales are loosely chronological, and they are unified by the theme of “transformation” and “change” (not heroic steadfastness). There’s very little, or no attention to the usual epic theme of glory. Instead, the stories all revolve around this theme of change produced by passion. Love is Ovid’s favorite subject, and he’s a very astute psychologist when it comes to the passions of the human heart. It’s a literary treatment, not a religious one.
What makes art different from myth? Myth holds the mirror to the mystical while art holds the mirror to reality. This is Aristotle’s idea: art should imitate life. Art should mirror reality. That is the proper function of art. So where does that leave fantastic literature? Should we think of fantastic literature as a kind of funhouse mirror? Wouldn’t that mean that we’re dealing with distortions and lies? Every artist must worry about his or her audience drawing this kind of conclusion. What’s the answer?
If we say that literature holds a mirror to real life in order to show us a “mirrored” reality, then fantastic literature is doing the same thing, but the “reality” is more akin to dream reality. In dreams even the most bizarre things can feel real because there’s a metaphoric truth behind them, a psychological or sociological reality expressed in symbolic ways. When you read fantastic literature you have to have a sense of this kind of truth or the work becomes uninteresting; it has nothing to tell you. We are willing to suspend our disbelief, willing to entertain the (liberating) “what if” but we still expect a pay off. If that pay off never comes we feel cheated.
I would side with Aristotle when it comes to great art. It holds the mirror to reality. It shows us what we are, what the world is—not from a mystical or spiritual perspective, but from an earthly, worldly one. I would argue that it’s just at that point when art stops mirroring reality and beings shaping our perceptions of reality—when it manipulates rather than reveals—that it becomes something other than art. It becomes propaganda. Or it becomes very weak art, which may, in the end, be the same thing.
Whereas art reveals a vision of truth, propaganda shapes and molds and creates its own truth. Sometimes the distinction can be subtle, and calling a particular work one or the other becomes a matter of interpretation and debate.
So, if I call Ovid an artist in an age of propaganda, now you know what I mean.
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