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Home 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)
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)
~~ Ovid's Metamorphoses ~~
Although the theme of "transformation" is supposedly what gives this epic achievement its thematic unity, at the heart of Metamorphoses is the same fascination that Ovid has elsewhere: a fascination with the psychology, sometimes the pathology, of love: every kind of love. Because metamorphosis plays such a minor role in many of the tales, and in some cases seems perfunctorily tacked on, it seems that the transformation theme is just a peg to hang a hat on, albeit a sturdy peg that serves him well. Each tale does involve a radical transformation, divine or human. But it's clear that Ovid's real interest is elsewhere, whether it be the avenging passions of the gods, or the earthly passions of their human counterparts.
Metamorphoses is one of the last works Ovid completed before being tossed into exile. Maybe it was his reputation for writing "immoral" books, or maybe he did something specific to deserve it—the affair is shrouded in mystery, still—but he was banished by Augustus ostensibly for being a corruptive influence. Although he staunchly maintained his innocence, he died in exile far from the world he loved on the outer edge of civilization, in a town called Tomis on the Black Sea, in what is now Romania.
Ovid's incredible achievement with Metamorphoses can't be banished so easily, though.
Here's a book that uses mythological materials from Greek culture in a new literary way that is not tragedy, not quite epic poetry, and not the typical satire—yet it is something from each of these older forms and more, and less. It's a book, in other words, that's very difficult to classify. It's been called a "mock-epic"—and it does serve us with a roughly chronological "tale," in dactylic hexameter, spanning from creation through the deification of Julius Caesar—but there's no central hero. There are tragic tales, tragic scenarios throughout, but they are routinely stripped of tragic emotion and spiritual content. There's satire, but it's (apparently) "amoral," one ironic wink after another. Ovid appropriates the past only to strip it of its moral certainty, only to fill it with ambiguity and irony. He shapes his tales of antiquity so that they reflect, not their ancient Greek tellers, but their contemporary Roman listeners.
Ovid is a great artist, no mere transcriptionist! By rearranging, re-envisioning, reinterpreting these stories, he vividly reinvents and reawakens an entire cosmic pantheon, revealing not only the nature of divine justice, or injustice, but the tastes and temperament of contemporary Augustan Rome. A close reading of the small sampling of stories in Fantastic Worlds will reveal his unique concerns and achievements.
The Myth of Actaeon
In its original Greek version, Actaeon is one of many cautionary tales dramatizing the overwhelming power of the Gods—in this case Artemis (who becomes Diana in the Roman pantheon). Actaeon's "innocence" is Ovid's invention; in the original tale, stumbling upon her bath in the woods, Actaeon is overcome by Artemis' beauty and so he deliberately hides himself and sneaks a long guilty peek. Unfortunately for him, he's discovered, and the chaste virgin goddess responds with fury at being spied upon. She immediately accomplishes her revenge, turning him into a stag, and he's quickly destroyed by his own dogs.
Obviously, this is all but the same story Ovid tells, yet the differences he introduces are too significant to call it the "same" tale. It's no longer a simple piece of didactic moralism. Instead it becomes a short bit of black comedy that raises more questions than it answers. What kind of a world is it when bad things like this happen to good people? Was the goddess "too cruel"? Are the gods just or unjust? As our narrator cuts away from Actaeon's unfortunate end, we learn that public opinion is divided about this story. Some think yes, the goddess was too cruel, but some think she had every right to defend her honor, and both sides can reasonably justify their positions. That is moral ambiguity writ large, but writ with a wink.
If Ovid repulses our sensitivities and frustrates our moral sense by (1) having an innocent young man meet a gruesome death, and (2) refusing to tell us the meaning of his doing so, it seems to be because he's abandoned simple, single-minded didacticism in favor of literary ambiguity. The shallows are giving way to the depths. The "myth" is transformed into "story." Just because meaning is open-ended and ambiguous doesn't imply the story is vacuous, a piece of lightweight, colorful entertainment—on the contrary, it's ultimately deepened, darkened, heavier.
From its opening lines, which echo the last lines of one of the greatest tragedies ever written, the satiric content is aimed straight at tragedy, straight at the quintessential tragedy, Sophocles' Oedipus. In that play we beheld another "innocent" who was driven to a horrible destiny by "fate." But unlike Sophocles, who explored the labyrinthine relationship between character and fate, Ovid would have us believe that fate alone, quite apart from any "character flaw" or hubris on the part of Actaeon, led him on until he reached the grove where he accidentally glimpsed the goddess. "Calm reflection will show that destiny was to blame for Actaeon's misfortunes, not any guilt on his own part." Reflecting on such injustice is supposed to make us feel calm? Why is destiny so cruel to Actaeon? Does he deserve it? Not that we can see. What's the meaning of Diana's rage? If utter destruction can be the result of an accidental glimpse, then life is a minefield, indeed. When powerful forces, like goddesses (or emperors), can destroy an innocent life at will, to satisfy a desire for revenge, and feel justified in doing so, then the less powerful among us better watch it.
Some readers are perplexed that Actaeon's "misfortune" doesn't seem to arouse Ovid's sympathy. But I would disagree. There are passages where Ovid's fellow feeling finds expression, as when the dogs give him chase and he longs to cry out to them, and later when they do catch him and Actaeon groans; "The ridges he knew so well were filled with his mournful cries." However, sympathy for Actaeon is not the main show, and it doesn't last long. The tale is not tragedy. What we are served by this tale is irony, satire, even a little burlesque, and more irony. And then a little more irony.
It's a dark comedy. Looking for moments? Try:
Why does Ovid make a comedy of this potentially tragic tale? Perhaps he (and his audience) felt it too much of a joke to believe that a woman would guard her "honor" so vigorously when all contemporary evidence seemed to suggest that chastity was a rare thing, as unguarded as the full moon on a cloudless night.
Questions? Contact me.
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