Friday, August 3, 2012
The Metamorphoses is no slim volume, in fifteen books it comprises a virtual encyclopedia of mythology from creation to the apotheosis of Julius Caesar. During this beach trip I was able to put in some marathon reading sessions, and yesterday, as I reached the final words, "I will live," and put the book aside, I felt as if I'd incompletely awoken from a long and vivid afternoon dream. The title is apt because over and over Ovid returns to the story of some transformation or other - men changing into birds, women into trees. Ovid keeps pulling variations on the same stunt: he loves to catch a character in the very midst of transformation: a young girl who tries to scream but realizes the tree bark that is now her skin has grown up over her throat, a man fleeing in terror who realizes he is no longer running but flying because he has turned into a bird, a woman piteously reaches for her husband while she still has arms to reach because her lower body has turned into a coiling snake.
This same device - what we might call the poetic use of transformation - appears in The Odyssey; in a few swift words, Homer accomplished the transformation of men into swine on Circe's Island. We are reading about men at the beginning of a line, and the insertion of one tale-tell word "bristles" gives us a warning, and by the end of the line, the crew are men no longer, but pigs.
Towards the latter books, Ovid takes a break from miraculous changes to gore. Perseus' rescue of Andromeda becomes remarkably bloody, and the battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths goes into excruciating detail of just who hit whom with what and where, and how the eyeballs looked hanging in coagulated blood below the beard. One poor centaur - this passage may be from another scene - is thrown from a cliff and falls into a tree so that his "guts adorn the branches;" I can just imagine someone's kidney impaled on a forked limb like a marshmallow.
In the final book we meet Pythagoras, a character who is at most semi-mythical, signalling a movement of the book from the mythical past to the historic. And here there were parts that were so beautiful they made my ears pound. Pythagoras was the philosopher of change. To him, all things were in flux: babies change into youths and old men. Corpses change into maggots and maggots into flies; caterpillars into butterflies; summer into fall; seeds into trees. Coastlines change and empires and weather. You see, all those disparate metamorphoses, different but always the same: people into flowers, into stone, into echoes - they all came rushing back with new significance. The world is change. And all those stories, as Ovid passed them from his hands into mine, had changed for me as well.
At the very end, after some shameless shameless sucking up to Augustus Caesar, Ovid is permitted to boast of the one thing that will not change. His poem, he says, is immortal, and through it so is the poet, and his last words ring true.
"I will live."