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Calvino on Ovid’s Metamorphoses

21 Aug

This technique of metamorphosis has been studied by Sceglov in an extremely lucid and persuasive essay. ‘All these transformations’, saysSceglov, ‘concern the distinctive physical and spatial characteristics which Ovid usually highlights even in elements not subject to metamorphosis(“hard rock”, “long body”, “curved back”) . . . Thanks to his knowledge of the properties of things, the poet provides the shortest route for themetamorphosis, because he knows in advance what man has in common with dolphins, as well as what he lacks compared to them, and what theylack compared to him. The essential point is that since he portrays the whole world as a system made up of elementary components, the process of transformation — this most unlikely and fantastic phenomenon — is reduced to a sequence of quite simple processes. The event is no longer represented as a fairytale but rather as a collection of everyday, realistic facts (growing, diminishing, hardening, softening, curving, straightening, joining, separating etc.).’

Ovid’s writing, as described by Sceglov, appears to contain within itself the model, or at least the programme, for Robbe-Grillet at his most coldand rigorous. Of course such a description does not exhaust everything we can find in Ovid. But the important point is that this way of portraying(animate and inanimate) objects objectively, ‘as different combinations of a relatively small number of basic, very simple elements’ sums up exacdythe only incontrovertible philosophy in the poem, namely ‘that of the unity and inter-connectedness of everything that exists in the world, both thingsand living creatures’.

Setting out his cosmogony in the first book and his profession of faith in Pythagoras in the last, Ovid clearly wanted to provide this naturalphilosophy with a theoretical basis, perhaps to rival the by now remote Lucretius. There has been considerable discussion as to the weight oneshould attach to these professions of faith, but probably the only thing thatmatters is the poetic consistency of the manner in which Ovid portrays and narrates his world: namely this swarming and intertwining of events thatare often similar but are always different, in which the continuity and mobility of everything is celebrated.

Before he has even finished the chapter on the origins of the world and its early catastrophes, Ovid is already embarking on the series of loveaffairs that the gods have with nymphs or mortal girls. There are several constants in the love stories (which mostly occupy the liveliest part of thepoem, the first eleven books): as Bernardini has shown they involve love at first sight, overwhelming desire, no psychological complications, and demand an immediate resolution. And since the desired creature usually refuses and flees, the motif of the chase through the woods constandyrecurs; metamorphosis can occur at different times, either before (the seducer’s disguise), during (the pursued maiden’s escape), or afterwards(punishment inflicted by another jealous deity on the seduced girl).

Compared with the constant pressure of male desire, the instances of female initiative in love are rather rare; but to compensate, these are usuallymore complex desires, not sudden whims but real passions, which involve greater psychological richness (Venus in love with Adonis), often containa more morbid erotic element (the nymph Salmacis who when she sexually embraces Hermaphroditus blends into a bisexual creature), and insome cases are totally illicit, incestuous passions (such as the tragic characters Myrrha and Byblis: the way in which the latter realises her desirefor her brother, through a revelatory but upsetting dream, is one of the finest psychological passages in Ovid), or tales of homosexual love (Iphys), or of wicked jealousy (Medea). The stories of Jason and Medea open up right at the centre of the poem (Book 7) a space for a genuine romance tale,involving a mixture of adventure, brooding passion, and the ‘black’ grotesque scene of the magic philtres, which will resurface almost identically in Macbeth.

The move from one story to the next without any interval is underlined by the fact that – as Wilkinson points out – ‘the end of a story rarely coincideswith the end of a book. He will even begin a new one within the last few lines. This is partly the time-honoured device of the serial writer to whet thereader’s appetite for the next instalment; but it is also an indication of the continuity of the work, which should not have been divided into books atall, were it not that its length necessitated a number of rolls. Thisthen gives us the impression of a real and consistent world in which events which are usually considered in isolation interact with each other.
The stories are often similar, never the same. It is not by chance that the most heart-rending tale is that of the unlucky love of Echo (Book 3),doomed to repeat sounds, for the young Narcissus, who in turn is condemned to contemplate his own repeated image in the reflecting waters. Ovidruns across this forest of love stories which are all the same and all different, pursued by the voice of Echo resounding from the rocks ‘Coeamus!’‘Coèamus!’ ‘Coëamus!’ [1979]
Italo Calvino

Why Read theCLASSICS?
Translated from the Italian byMARTIN MCLAUGHLINTranslation copyright © 1999 by Jonathan Cape

pp. 34-35.

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