Ovid and Universal Contiguity

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Ovid and Universal Contiguity

Preface to an edition of the Metamorphoses of Ovid, 1979.

On high in the sky there is a Way, which one sees when the night is clear. It is called Milky, and it catches the eye because it is so white. Here the gods pass by on their way to the dwelling of the great Thunderer, at the palace. To right and left, with open doors, are the atria of the nobles, forever crowded. The populace lives dispersed in other places. The most powerful and illustrious gods have here established their dwelling, at the front [a fronte potentes/caelicolae clarique suos posuere penates]. If the expression did not seem irreverent, I would dare to say that this place is the Palatine of the great heaven.

Thus, at the beginning of the Metamorphoses, to introduce us to the world of the celestial gods, Ovid starts by making it so similar as to be identical to everyday Rome, with regard to layout, division into social classes, and matters of custom (the throng of clientes, for instance). And religion also: the gods keep their penates in the houses where they dwell, which implies that the sovereigns of heaven and earth also devote a cult to their little household gods.

Comparison does not imply irony or belittling. We are in a universe in which the forms densely pack the allotted space, constantly exchanging qualities and dimensions, and the flux of time is filled with a proliferation of stories and cycles of stories. Terrestrial forms and stories echo celestial forms and stories, but each entwines the other by turns in a double spiral. The contiguity between gods and human beings—related to the gods and the object of their compulsive loves—is one of the dominant themes of the Metamorphoses, but this is no more than a particular instance of the contiguity between all the figures and forms of existing things, anthropomorphic or otherwise. Fauna, flora, mineral kingdom, and firmament embrace within their common substance what we are accustomed to think of as human, in the sense of an aggregate of bodily, psychological, and moral qualities.

The poetry of the Metamorphoses is rooted above all in these indistinct borderlands between diverse worlds, and as early as book II it seizes an extraordinary opportunity in the myth of Phaëthon, who dares to take the reins of the sun chariot. The sky appears in this as absolute space, abstract geometry, and at the same time as the scene of a human adventure rendered with such precision of detail that we do not lose the thread for an instant, as it carries emotional involvement to an agonizing pitch.

This is not merely precision in the most concrete and material facts, such as the motion of the chariot swerving and bumping because of the unusual lightness of the load, or the emotions of the clumsy young charioteer, but in the visualization of idealized patterns, such as the map of the heavens. I should say at once that this is only apparent precision, one of contradictory facts that convey their effect when taken one by one, and even in terms of general narrative impact, but cannot weld together into a coherent vision. For example, the sky is a sphere traversed by roads going up and going down, recognizable by the wheel ruts, but at the same time the sky is whirling in the opposite direction to the sun chariot. It is suspended at a dizzying height above the lands and the oceans that are seen in the background. At one time it appears as an overarching vault in the loftiest part of which the stars are fixed, at another as a bridge that carries the chariot over the void, causing Phaëthon to be equally terrified of going on or turning back: “Quid faciat? Multum caeli post terga relictum / ante oculos plus est. Animo metitur utrumque.” It is an empty wilderness (and therefore not the sky city of book I: “Do you think, perhaps, that there are sacred woods and cities of gods and temples rich with gifts?” asks Phoebus), a wilderness populated by the figures of ferocious beasts that are only simulacra, shapes of constellations, but no less menacing for all that. There one discerns an oblique track, halfway up, that skirts the South Pole and the Bear; but if one swerves off the road and is lost among the precipices, one ends up falling beneath the moon, to scorch the clouds and set fire to the earth.

After the ride through the heavens, suspended in space, which is the most engrossing part of the story, there begins the grandiose description of the earth on fire, of the boiling sea with the bodies of seals floating on it belly up. One of the classic passages of Ovid as a depictor of catastrophe, this is a twin to the flood in book I. All around Alma Tellus, Mother Earth, the waters recede. The shriveled springs attempt to turn back and seek refuge in the maternal womb (“fontes / qui se condiderant in opacae viscera matris”). And the earth, with singed hair and eyes bloodshot from the ashes, implores Jove with what little voice is left in her parched throat, warning him that if the poles catch fire even the palaces of the gods will crumble. (The terrestrial or the celestial poles? It has also been suggested that this means the axis of the earth, which Atlas can no longer hold because it is incandescent. But the poles at that time were an astronomical notion, and besides, the next line clearly states “regia caeli.” Was the sky palace really up there, then? How is it that Phoebus left it out and Phaëthon didn’t come across it? Anyway, such contradictions are found not only in Ovid: in Virgil and the other supreme poets of antiquity, it is also hard to get a clear idea of how the ancients really “saw” the skies.)

The episode culminates in the wrecking of the sun chariot by a thunderbolt from Jove, in an explosion of shattered bits and pieces: “Illic frena iacent, illic temone revulsus / axis, in hac radii fractarum parte rotarum… .” (This is not the only traffic accident in the Metamorphoses: another high-speed skid off the road is that of Hippolytus, in the last book of the poem; the wealth of detail in relating this disaster passes from mechanics to anatomy, with descriptions of the rending of the bowels and severed limbs.)

This interpenetration of gods, men, and nature does not imply an unequivocal hierarchical order, but an intricate system of interrelations in which each level can influence the others, though to differing extents. Myth, in Ovid, is the field of tension in which these forces clash and balance. Everything depends on the spirit in which the myth is related. Sometimes the gods themselves recount the myths in which they are involved, as moral examples intended as warnings to mortals; at other times mortals use the same myths to challenge or argue with the gods, as do the daughters of Pierus or Arachne. Or it may be that there are some myths that the gods love to hear told, and others they prefer to have silenced.

The daughters of Pierus know a version of the Titans’ ascent to Olympus seen from the point of view of the Titans, including the terror of the gods as they are put to flight (book V). They recount it after challenging the Muses in the art of storytelling, and the Muses come back with another series of myths that re-establish the viewpoint of Olympus. Then they punish the mortals by turning them into magpies. A challenge to the gods implies irreverent or blasphemous intentions in the story.

Arachne the weaver challenges Minerva in the art of the loom and makes a tapestry depicting the sins of the libertine gods (book VI). The technical precision with which Ovid describes the working of the looms in this challenge might suggest a possible identification of the poet’s work with the weaving of a tapestry in various shades of purple. But which? That of Athena-Minerva, in which we see the grandiose figures of Olympus with their traditional attributes, while in tiny scenes at the four corners of the web, framed by olive leaves, are depicted four divine punishments inflicted on mortals who have challenged the gods? Or that of Arachne, in which the insidious seductions of Jove, Neptune, and Apollo, which Ovid has already recounted at some length, reappear as sarcastic comments among garlands of flowers and festoons of ivy (not without the addition of some delightful details, such as Europa, carried across the sea on the bull’s back, lifting her feet so as not to get them wet: “… tactumque vereri / adsilientis aquae timidasque reducere plantas”)?

Neither one nor the other. In the vast catalogue of myths that the entire poem in fact is, the myth of Athena and Arachne may in its turn contain two smaller catalogues aimed in opposing ideological directions: one to induce holy terror, the other to incite people to irreverence and moral relativity. Anyone who inferred from this that the poem as a whole should be read in the first manner (since Arachne’s challenge is cruelly punished) or in the second (since the poetic rendering favors the guilty victim) would be making a mistake. The Metamorphoses aim to represent all that is worth telling of what has been passed down by literature, and with all the force of images and meanings that this implies, without deciding between the various keys in which it can be read—in accord with the ambiguity that is proper to myth. Only by giving a place in the poem to all the stories or implied stories that flow in every direction, that push and shove to channel themselves into the well-ordered expanse of his hexameters, can the author of the Metamorphoses be sure of presenting no partial design, but rather a living multiplicity that excludes no god known or unknown.

The case of a new, foreign god, not easy to recognize as such, a scandalous god clashing with each and every model of beauty and virtue, is amply exemplified in the Metamorphoses in the case of Bacchus-Dionysus. It is his orgiastic cult that the devotees of Minerva, the daughters of Minyas, refuse to join, continuing to spin and card wool on the days of the Bacchic festivals and alleviating their long labors by telling stories. Here, then, is another use for storytelling, which in lay terms is justified as pure entertainment (“quod tempora longa videri / non sinat”) or as an aid to productivity (“utile opus manuum vario sermone levemus”), but which is also pleasing to Minerva, melior dea for those industrious girls disgusted by the orgies and dissipation of the cults of Dionysus that were fast spreading through Greece after triumphing in the East.

It is certain that the art of storytelling, so dear to the hearts of weaving women, is linked to the cult of Athena-Minerva. We have seen this in the instance of Arachne, who for scorning the goddess was turned into a spider; but we see it also in the opposite case, that of an excessive cult of Athena which led to the other gods being neglected. In fact, in book IV the daughters of Minyas, also guilty of being too certain of their talents, too exclusive in their worship (“intempestiva Minerva”), are punished horrendously by being changed into bats by the god who knows not labor but drunkenness, who listens not to stories but to impetuous, dark song. To avoid being changed into a bat himself, Ovid was extremely careful to leave all the doors of his poem open to gods past, present, and future, indigenous and foreign; to the East, which exerted pressure on the world of fable from beyond the bounds of Greece, and to the Augustan restoration of the Roman spirit, which weighed upon the contemporary political and intellectual situation. But he was not able to convince the nearest and most “executive” god, Augustus Caesar, who transformed him forever into an exile, an inhabitant of distant places—Ovid, who longed to bring everything together into one close-knit whole.

From the East (“from some ancestor of the Thousand and One Nights,” says L. P. Wilkinson) he got the romantic tale of Pyramus and Thisbe (which one of the daughters of Minyas chooses from a list of tales of the same mysterious origin), with its wall that opens a way for whispered words to pass but not for kisses, with the night flooded with moonlight beneath the bright mulberry tree—a tale destined to cast its reflections as far as the midsummer of the Elizabethan age.

Also from the East, by way of the Alexandrian romance, Ovid obtained the technique of multiplying the space within the poem by means of stories inserted into other stories and thereby increasing the impression of density, of intricacy, of being packed in. An example is the forest in which a wild-boar hunt intrudes into the destinies of illustrious heroes (book VIII), not far from the whirlpools of the Achelous, which halt the survivors of the hunt on their way home. They are welcomed to the dwelling of the river-god, who represents an obstacle as well as a refuge, a pause in the action and an opportunity for reflection and storytelling. Since one of the hunters is Theseus, eager to know the origin of everything he sees, and another is Peirithoüs, insolent and unbelieving (“deorum / spector erat mentisque ferox”), the river feels encouraged to tell some wonderful stories of metamorphosis, and is then emulated by his guests. Thus, in the Metamorphoses, new incrustations of stories are constantly being added, as on shells that might bring forth a pearl. In this case the pearl is the humble idyll of Philemon and Baucis, which embraces a whole minutely delineated world and moves at a totally different pace.

It should be said that Ovid only occasionally makes use of these structural complexities. The passion that dominates his compositional talents is not arrangement but accumulation, along with the varying of perspective and changing of pace. Thus, when Mercury wishes to bring sleep to Argus, whose hundred eyelids never close all at once, and begins to recount the metamorphosis of the nymph Syrinx into a clump of reeds, one part of her story is told in detail, another summed up in a single phrase; the rest is left moot when the god falls silent as soon as he sees that all of Argus’s eyes have yielded to sleep.

The Metamorphoses are above all the poem of rapidity. Everything has to happen at high speed, strike the imagination; every image has to overlap another image, come into focus, and then vanish. This is the principle of the cinema: each line, like each frame, must be full of visual stimuli in motion. The abhorrence of the vacuum dominates both space and time. For page after page all verbs are in the present, so that everything is happening before our eyes; events pursue each other, and anything distant is rejected. When Ovid wishes to change pace, the first thing he does is to change not the tense of the verbs but the person, switching from the third person to the second, which means introducing the character whom he is just going to speak about and addressing him directly as “you”; “Te quoque mutatum torvo, Neptune, invenco… .” The “present” resides not simply in the tense of the verb, but in the very presence of the character who is being called up to the eyes. Even when the verbs are in the past, the vocative suddenly closes the gap. This method is often used when several subjects are performing parallel actions, to avoid the monotony of making lists. If he has spoken of Tityus in the third person, then Tantalus and Sisyphus are summoned with the vocative “You.” Even plants have a right to the second person (“Vos quoque, flexipedes hederae, venistis”), and no wonder, seeing that they are plants that move like human beings, and run toward the sound of the lyre of the widowed Orpheus, crowding together into a dense bed of Mediterranean flora (book IX).

There are also times—and the one I mentioned just now is one of them—when the story has to slow down, change to a calmer gait, render the passage of time as if it were suspended, and depict a vague distance. What does Ovid do in such cases? To make it clear that the story is not in any hurry, he stops to gaze at the most minute details. For example, Philemon and Baucis are welcoming some unknown visitors (the gods) to their humble dwelling. “Mensae sed erat pes tertius impar: / testa parem fecit; quae postquam subdita clivum / sustulit, aequatem mentae tersere virentes… .”: But of the three legs of the table one is too short. A bit of pottery corrects that; slipped underneath, it gets rid of the incline, and the tabletop is then cleaned with leaves of green mint. And on it they put olives of two colors, sacred to chaste Minerva, and autumnal dogberries steeped in liquid juice, and endives and radishes and some curdled milk, and eggs carefully turned on ashes that are not too hot: and all in earthenware dishes” (book VIII).

It is by making his picture ever richer in detail that Ovid achieves an effect of rarefaction, and a pause. For Ovid’s way is always to add, never to remove; to go in for more and more detail, never to become blurred and vague. This method achieves different results according to the intonation. In this case it is quiet and sympathetic to humble things, but elsewhere it is agitated and eager to saturate the wonder of the fable with objective observation of real natural phenomena. For instance, Perseus fights with the sea monster whose back is encrusted with shells, laying Medusa’s head, bristling with snakes, face down on a rock, but only after covering the rock with a layer of seaweed and underwater plants, so that her face does not have to suffer contact with the gritty sand. Seeing the foliage turn to stone on touching Medusa, the nymphs amuse themselves by making other twigs undergo the same transformation. This is the origin of coral, which is soft underwater but petrifies on contact with the air. Thus Ovid concludes this fantastic adventure in an etiological key, in keeping with his taste for the bizarre forms in nature.

A law of the greatest internal economy dominates this poem, which on the surface is devoted to unbridled extravagance. It is the economy proper to metamorphosis, which demands that the new forms should recover the materials of the old ones as far as possible. After the flood, during the transformation of stones into men (book I), “if there was in them a part damp with some moisture, or earthy, this came to serve as the body; what was solid, unable to bend, changed into bone; those that were veins remained, with the same name.” Here the economy extends to the very name: “quae modo vena fuit, sub eodem nomine mansit.” What most catches the attention about Daphne (book I) is her disheveled hair (so much so that Phoebus’s first thought on seeing her is “Think, if she were to comb it!” (“Spectat inomatus collo pendere capillos / et ’Quid, si comantur?’ ait”), so that in the flowing lines of her flight she is already predisposed toward metamorphosis into a plant: “in frondem crines, in ramos bracchia crescunt / pes modo tam velox pigris radicibus haeret… .” Cyané, in book V, merely takes her dissolution into tears to the last degree (“lacrimisque absumitur omnis”), until she turns into the little lake of which she was the nymph. And the Lycian peasants (book VI) who hurled insults at the vagabond Latona (who wanted to quench the thirst of her newborn twins) and fouled the lake waters by stirring up the mud, were already not much different from the frogs into which they were then changed by just retribution. Enough that the neck should disappear, the shoulders join to the head, the back turn green and the belly a dirty white.

This technique of metamorphosis has been studied by Shcheglov in a very clearly stated and convincing essay.

All these transformations are concerned with physio-spatial traits that Ovid was in the habit of isolating even apart from metamorphosis (“hard stone,” “long body,” “curved back”)… . Thanks to his knowledge of the properties of things, the poet makes transformation take the shortest route, for he knows in advance what man has in common with the dolphin, what he lacks, and what he has more of in comparison. The essential thing is that, thanks to the representation of the entire world as a system of elementary properties, the process of transformation—this improbable and fantastic phenomenon—is reduced to a series of comparatively simple processes. The event is no longer represented as a fable, but as a set of habitual and likely facts: growth, diminution, hardening, softening, curving, straightening, compression, rarefaction, etc.

Ovid’s writing, as defined by Shcheglov, would contain the coldest and most rigorous model, or at least program, of Robbe-Grillet. It goes without saying that such a definition does not exhaust all that we can look for in Ovid. But the important thing is that this way of describing objects objectively (whether animate or inanimate), “as different combinations of a relatively small number of basic, utterly simple elements,” corresponds to the one certain philosophy of the Metamorphoses: “that of the unity and kinship of all that exists in the world, things and living beings alike.”

With the cosmogonical account in book I and Pythagoras’s profession of faith in the last book, Ovid attempted to endow this philosophy of nature with a theoretical system, perhaps in competition with his remote predecessor Lucretius. A lot has been argued about what weight to give these pronouncements, but maybe the only thing that counts for us is the poetic coherence of Ovid’s way of expressing his world: this swarm and tangle of events that are often similar yet always different, in which he celebrates the continuity and mobility of all that is.

Ovid has not yet finished the chapter on the origins of the world and the primordial catastrophes when he starts in on the series of love affairs of the gods with nymphs or mortal girls. The love stories (which make up the most vivid part of the poem, the first eleven books) reveal a number of constants. Love here is love at first sight, an impelling demand, without psychological complications, and one that cries out for immediate satisfaction. Since the creature desired usually refuses and flees, the motif of a chase through the woods is recurrent. Metamorphosis can occur at different moments, either as a disguise on the part of the seducer, or as an escape for the trapped girl, or else as a punishment meted out to the victim of seduction by some jealous goddess.

Compared with the continual pressure of male desires, cases of female initiative in love are relatively rare, but in compensation they are more complex, not matters of momentary whim but of the passions, bearing a greater psychological depth (Venus in love with Adonis, for instance). They often involve a morbid erotic element (the nymph Salmacis, who in embracing Hermaphroditus melts into a bisexual creature). In a few cases we have illicit passions, incestuous (like the tragic characters of Myrrha and Byblis; the way in which the latter’s passion for her brother is revealed to her, her dream, her suffering—these make up one of the finest passages of Ovid as a psychologist), or homosexual (Iphis), or criminally jealous (Medea). In the heart of the book the stories of Jason and Medea open up enough space for a genuine novel, with the interweaving of adventure, dark passions, and the “black” grotesque of witches’ potions that will later reappear in Macbeth.

The passage without intervals from one story to the next is underlined, as Wilkinson observes, by the fact that the end of a story rarely coincides with the end of one of the books into which the poem is divided. Ovid may even begin a new story when he has only a few lines left until the end of a book. This is partly the old expedient used by writers of serials, who whet the reader’s appetite for the next installment; but it is also a sign of the contiguity of the work, which would not have been divided into books if its length had not necessitated a certain number of scrolls. We are thus given the impression of a real and coherent world in which there is an interaction between events that are usually considered in isolation.

The stories may resemble one another, but they never repeat one another. Not for nothing is the most heartbreaking story the one (in book III) concerned with the unrequited love of the nymph Echo—condemned to the repetition of sounds—for the youth Narcissus, condemned to gaze upon his own image “repeated” in the watery mirror. Ovid races through this forest of love stories, all similar and all different, pursued by the voice of Echo reverberating among the rocks: “Coeamus! Coeamus! Coeamus!”