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Delve Seminar Summaries: Ovid’s Metamorphoses

[by Annie Russell]

SEPTEMBER 25: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Books I-III

Wednesday evening was our first meeting, and even the introductions were promising. From classists to theater directors, I’ve joined a well-read and curious group, and Lucas Bernhardt’s always thoughtful guidance has started us on a good road.

We talked at length about major themes and elements that we’d picked up on in our reading and kept cycling back to the distinctive sensibility of the poet. We know that Ovid’s stories are not originals. He was setting down plots that would have been quite familiar to his readership—many of which are familiar even to our 21st century gathering. But this text is hardly a straightforward retelling. There is a peculiar inconsistency in Ovid’s tone that gave several of us pause. Is this an epic or a mock epic? Does Ovid believe what he’s telling? Are we meant to be taking moral lessons? What is held up as valuable and true? It’s difficult to say. So often just as you feel you’re really with the (often heartbreaking) action, there will come a snide or comic line that undercuts what came before, intruding on any straightforward empathy with his characters. There’s a knowingness, a shrugging-off about the dreadful and often arbitrary tragedies in these stories that several readers pinned as oddly modern. Someone said Late Empire and there was a great deal of nodding around the table.

The world Ovid describes is light on justice and heavy on luck. The rules that govern it are stern and not especially concerned with right action or wise judgment. Mostly, it’s a good idea to do as the gods tell you and hope for the best. And within this precarious cosmos, alongside the shrugs and knowingness, there are moments of real human sweetness and passages of strikingly beautiful writing. It’s a fantastic muddle, and I’m already looking forward to next week.


OCTOBER 2: Ovid’s Metamorphoses Books IV-VI

These were some very bloody pages. A veritable piling up of worst outcomes. Even when you’re sure you know what’s coming, that it can’t end well, there is often a surprise: it’s worse than you imagined. The proud queen kneeling over her murdered children continues to brag, and her remaining children are murdered. At a wedding feast turned blood bath, calls for peace are answered with arrows. It seems that in the Metamorphoses you probably can’t make your situation better, but it is very likely that you can make it worse.

Freud came up a few times. We considered the problem of vengefulness and family, the possible virtues of repression. And also the compulsion to repeat. As these stories turn over their violent arcs again and again, as characters fall into similar mistakes and tragedies, we considered that revisiting traumas can feel like a means of controlling them. And we returned to the way these stories might provide a model for bearing up during terrible times.

In the midst of the grisly plots, there has also been piling up of narrators. Again and again, Ovid sets stories inside of stories. His characters have contests, in song and in weaving, and the subjects are always more stories. (Dark ones, natch.) Of course, the telling can be dangerous–mortals enter these contests at their peril and gossip never goes unpunished–but tellers of tales keep cropping up. Perhaps Ovid is merely trying to give us a little variety, to change up his delivery. Once you get to the twentieth, or the fortieth tale in your long poem, you want to find a new way to introduce the scene. But these nested narrators are creating an atmosphere. We are made conscious of the stories as told. And as we draw back a bit from the bloody immediacy of the action, we might begin thinking more about the presence of metaphor and allegory.


OCTOBER 9: Ovid’s Metamorphoses Books VI-IX

The books were a blend of pathos and comedy this week. There were several wrenching soliloquies from characters divided in mind over which desires to act on. It’s not just external transformations we’re looking at here. And whether it was Medea determining to betray her home and follow Jason, or unhappy Byblis attempting to un-sister herself and seduce her brother, none of the anxious internal dialogs yielded happy results. It’s not easy being divided against yourself. You’ll likely end an exile, or possibly a mountain spring.

But it wasn’t all grim conclusions for a change. Several tales were positively light hearted in tone. The hunting of the Calydonian Boar was a collection of heroically inclined pratfalls and mishaps (some bloodier than others), and we had a bit of a debate about whether Ovid might be making a bit of a dig at Homer’s endlessly skilled and successful warriors. Then came Baucis and Philemon, who welcome Jupiter and Mercury (disguised) into their humble house for a meal. We noted that the beautifully detailed description of their preparations–the vegetables from their well-tended garden, the humble furniture (a wobbly table leg propped with a shell), bowls of fruits (remember how apples smell?)–also serves to demonstrate the real effort that makes up this couple’s generosity. It’s a lovely story. There’s a bit of a laugh over the near murder of the family goose, but all ends well.

We’re still working toward reading these stories symbolically. The bulk of us got wound around the plots and characters and hesitated at drawing back to observe the events more allegorically. But with some good encouragement from Lucas, we’ll make another sally next week.


OCTOBER 16: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Books X-XII

This week, we paused for meter. One of the participants, whose Latin has already proved a great resource, obliged us by reading out a passage in the original, demonstrating the sing-song of the poem’s dactylic hexameter, and drawing a clear distinction between Ovid’s formal meter and our translator Humphries’ much looser lines. Ovid didn’t use this meter in his earlier writing, and adopting it for the Metamorphoses links his poem with the great epics of Homer and Virgil that the Metamorphoses emulates and mocks by turns.

We had a bit of both in Books X-XII. Orpheus appears first, and Ovid doesn’t shy away from adopting the voice of this most-skilled of singers, writing out the stone-charming, death-reversing song that most accounts of the story choose to describe or gloss. No careful modesty for Ovid. In fact, looking carefully at all of Orpheus’ tale-telling, which dominates the remainder of Book X, the narrator he seems to resemble most is (surprise) Ovid himself. This flattering similarity is all the clearer when we meet Nestor in Book XII. A long-winded if halting storyteller, Nestor describes the battle with the Centaurs in gruesome and thorough detail, dropping from the epic to the cartoonish, dactylic hexameter notwithstanding.

Orpheus tells the story of Pygmalion, which turned our discussion to the hazards of art making. The story opened out into an allegory of the dedicated and solitary artist, and the dangers of allowing one’s creation to live in the world. (Pygmalion and Galatia’s descendants come to disruptive and sorrowful ends.) Nestor’s efforts, on the other hand, had us marveling at the many ways that brains can be expelled from heads, and wondering how much of this excessiveness was a send-up of Homer’s battle scenes.

In our discussion, and again touring the Ovidian references at the Portland Art Museum, we spent a great deal of time this week considering the stories as a means to an end. Serving the interests and enthusiasms of the artists who take them up. Which is all to the good. Both the brains and the allegorical meditations have their charms. Ovid, happily, was canny enough to include some of each.


OCTOBER 23: Ovid’s Metamorphoses Books XIII-XIV

For an epic poem, there’s sure a lot of meandering about in the narrative. This week’s reading ostensibly follows from the fall of Troy through to the founding of Rome, but the passage is anything but straightforward. There are several long speeches, none of which bring much credit to their speakers–Ajax and Ulysses vying for the armour of Achilles, Polyphemus trying to be an attractive cyclops. We see further evidence that it is never a good idea to suggest that it is impossible to suffer more than one has already suffered. In The Metamorphoses, this is never the case. We witness, again, the dangers of naming one’s beloved. Most especially naming one’s beloved in front of a god or similarly magical figure that happens to be in love with you. We don’t really mind the digressions. Rome is much less interesting than the stories along the way.

One of the characters along the way prompted our longest discussion of the week. Circe, a woman with powers on the order of Medea’s, and just as dangerous. It was pointed out that these two are some of the only women in the poem who are given much agency beyond motherly vengeance or virginal running away. Medea and Circe can make things happen, they command the elements, but they’re pretty monstrous presences. We spent a bit of time regretting that the women of The Metamorphoses are so constrained. Choosing between virgin, mother, or monster is always a bummer.


OCTOBER 30: Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book XV

Here we are at the finish. Its Happily Ever After is an odd one. Our discussion ranged from the vegetarianism of Pythagoras to the state of democracy in Rome under Augustus. We talked about relief following Rome’s long civil war, and about the impossibility of completeness and consistency at the same time. And it was just the one book. Even at the conclusion, doling out reassurances about change in the voice of Pythagoras or extolling the greatness of Augustus, Ovid’s tone shifts from earnest to fooling, and never a breath between them. Any hopes for a key to earlier riddles or any sort of mighty summing up were left mostly unsatisfied. One of our classmates made an apt point: the ballast of this poem is not in its conclusion. The poem, though epic in it’s meter and length, is not built in a grand arc toward a firm conclusion. We do not follow one hero to his victory, but rather many figures through many changes, and the end is not an answer but really just another piece of the same road. Which is not to say it mars the journey.

Looking back over favorite passages, we all marveled again at Ovid’s fantastic descriptive powers. Capturing the figures of Sleep and Envy with such remarkable thoroughness that you didn’t want the passage to be over. Catching the sweetness in the cyclops Polyphemus’ awkward love song. Building hilarity into the heaped up gore of battles. Everyone had a favorite, and everyone’s favorite drew nods of agreement. Really it’s in perfect keeping that we were never able to pin Ovid down. He’s just too good at changes.

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