Posted by: mmkelly | September 8, 2009

Ovid, Metamorphoses

Change is the constant theme of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but it is  an ambiguous one. On the most superficial level, most of the stories presented in the book revolve or at least resolve around the anthropomorphism of the characters–gods change to humans, humans change to animals, and backwards and forwards and on and on. What is disconcerting about this constant literary trope is that there is no discernible pattern. Some characters are punished for their specific transgressions, while others manage to escape the mandates of justice; some characters are foully mistreated because of the jealousies of the God, while others receive divine favor; and some characters are simply doomed to a torturous fate. At a deeper level, there exists an underlying ambiguity about what is valuable in this world. Seemingly desirable attributes morph rapidly into curses: Arachne’s ability to weave so beautifully draws unwelcome attention from Athena; Midas’ golden touch, a gift of his own wishing, leads only to his misery; and Daedulus’ architectural genius leads to his own imprisonment in Crete and his ingenuity leads to his son’s death. Furthermore, the tone of the book constantly shifts–sometimes speaking in a overtly didactic and moralistic voice then, moments later, telling a tale with a fatalistic mentality that confounds any hope for a good and moral world.

The structure of the book lends to this sense of constant movement and flux. The Metamorphoses are only in the most abstract sense logically and chronologically oriented. The actions starts with the beginning of time when only Chaos reigns and ends with the “Apotheosis of Julius Caesar.” Indeed, Ovid himself in his prologue proclaims his desire to tell the history of the world “in one continuous song from nature’s first beginnings to our modern times.” Yet, though the book does indeed follow this plan of attack, lurching forward along some vaguely present timeline, this statement in itself seems disingenuous. Ovid’s work is only superficially “one continuous song” in that it moves smoothly from story; in its actually composition, however, books and stories are told by different narrators for different reasons in a turgid, roiling plotline that flippantly crosses intellectual boundaries: jumping from heaven to hell to earth, intertwining corporeal human history with the trivialities of divine politics, synthesizing Greek, Roman, and possibly even Hebrew (the creation of the world in Ovid’s eyes deeply resembles the Old Testament version) mythologies, and crossing all geographic borders.

So what is one to make of this exhilarating muddle?

I think a good place to start would be to examine the significance of Ovid’s title, looking specifically at is relation to the entire arc of the book and to its implications for the individual story. Metamorphosis, change, forms the common link in a book that seems to bound between contradictory narratives and an astoundingly diverse array of subjects. Understanding the meaning of metamorphosis, therefore, is the point of the book. The abstract significance of metamorphosis, perhaps, is the most accessible way of understanding the underlying intellectual framework of the poem. This is partly because, near the end of the book, Ovid becomes increasingly philosophical in describing how he views the world. Instead of presenting a series of seemingly unrelated and contradictory narratives, Ovid provides the reader, through the voice of Pythagoras with a coherent procedure of organizing the infinite idiosyncrasies of the world:

…In all creation/Nothing endures, all is in endless flux,/Each wandering shape a pilgrim passing by./And time itself glides on in ceaseless flow,/A rolling stream–and streams can never stay,/Nor lightfoot hours. As wave is driven by wave/And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,/So time flies on and follows, flies and follows./Always, for ever new. What was before/Is left behind; what never was is now;/

Ovid, or at least someones guess at Ovid

Ovid, or at least someone's guess at Ovid

And every passing moment is renewed.

This essential framework of belief, that all is cyclical and changing, everything transient and momentary, informs the whole of Ovid’s work. Every story, at its essence, speaks to the passing of time, the changing of nature, the blunting of ambitions that is inevitable in life. In the broadest view, in the metaphysical perspective, nothing is ever the same and everything rushes on. This is especially significant for humans because the ephemeral nature of life provides the omnipresent anxiety of the mortal mind.

In the context of this overarching preoccupation with change, the individual stories of the Metamorphoses all retain a central characteristic: they all contain at their heart, the human aspiration to be above the constant flux of the world, to exist beyond the swirling winds of history that will surely wipe away any remembrance of their existence. In this sense then, even the characters who are unsuccessful in the temporal world–say Icarus, who flies to close to the sun, or Phaethon who fails in his attempt to pull the sun across the sky–succeed in their immortal designs. Their desire was not necessarily to be virtuous or courageous or rich, but merely famous enough to be remembered. In this manner, virtue, courage, and wealth only serve as tools to a higher dream; after all, virtue is only in the eye of the beholder, courage lasts only till you die in battle, and wealth like all earthly possessions is subject to the flux of the world. Only fame remains eternal.

This ultimately is the key to unlocking the mystery of the metamorphoses. Everything is constantly changing, but some changes stand out; that is, challenging the gods might result in significant changes in your life just as simply growing old will result in changes in your life, but it is the quality of these changes that distinguish them. You can’t help growing old. It is an inescapable flux of life. Similarly, you can’t escape death because it is the ultimate flux of life. What you can try to achieve, however, is the everlasting immortality of a place in mortal history. This is a choice and it is a choice, that at least to Ovid, distinguishes between the great humans and the detritus of humanity.

It is to this ultimate permanence that Ovid ultimately applies and it is for this type of undying recognition that he writes his poetry. In his epilogue, he specifically states,

Now stands my task accomplished, such a work/as not the wrath of Jove, nor fire nor sword/ nor the devouring ages can destroy…I’ll be borne,/ the finer part of me, above the stars,/Immortal, and my name shall never die./My fame shall live to all eternity.

So much for flux. This is, of course, the ultimate metamorphosis: the transformation into something that lasts unchanging.

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Responses

  1. Could you let me know what edition/translator of Ovid you used as a source for below:
    In all creation/Nothing endures, all is in endless flux,/Each wandering shape a pilgrim passing by./And time itself glides on in ceaseless flow,/A rolling stream–and streams can never stay,/Nor lightfoot hours. As wave is driven by wave/And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,/So time flies on and follows, flies and follows./Always, for ever new. What was before/Is left behind; what never was is now;/
    Thank you for your time,
    Kurt.


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