Ovid is an excellent travelling companion; he endured, with good humour, my occasional lack of attention, but with wit and ferocity drew my concentration back to the page. His curiosity is a vital component of the sensibility required to compose a long poem without a central hero or even a single topic beyond the idea of metamorphosis.
Truth and illusion are Ovid’s medium. But truth and illusion are ever slippery, especially in a world where the usual laws of nature are suspended. Illusion is always implicated in desire, with the risk of misunderstanding but in that risk there is the possibility of revealing truths.
At school we were required to learn the opening lines of the Second book of The Metamorphoses. I haven’t been able to source the particular translation but it’s likely that time has made different those lines I still recall. It is worth memorizing again those lines in which Ovid depicts the dazzling palace of Sol, the sun god:
“The soaring palace of the Sun, with all
its giant columns, was ablaze with gold
and bronze, as if aflame; its pediments
were crowned on high with polished ivory;
and glowing silver graced the double doors.”
Ivory’s beauty and value is recognised in the earliest Greek texts and mentioned in the Iliad and Odyssey to symbolise royal abundance. Ovid draws out its magical qualities in his highly metaphorical conception of the Pygmalion myth:
“Meanwhile, Pygmalion began to carve
in snow-white ivory, with wondrous art,
a female figure more exquisite than
a woman who was born could ever match.
That done, he falls in love with his own work.”
The Pygmalion story may be the finest Ovid wove in The Metamorphoses, a fable of truth and illusion as implicated in desire. In his story, the sensitive, lonely artist, unable to face the world becomes a recluse and falls in love with his own creation.
“The image seems, in truth, to be a girl;
one could have thought she was alive and keen
to stir, to move her limbs, had she not been
too timid: with his art, he’d hidden art.
He’s enchanted and, within his heart,
the likeness of a body now ignites
How much Ovid portrays within just a few lines. An absolute work of art displays no vestiges of art but is genuine and enchanting in its own right. Once a work of art is completed, its future is independent of its maker. In the alternative universe of The Metamorphoses, Pygmalion gets his girl:
At once, Pygmalion, at home again,
seeks out the image of the girl; he bends
over his couch; he kisses her. And when
it seems her lips are warm, he leans again
to kiss her; and he reaches with his hands
to touch her breasts. The ivory has lost
its hardness; now his fingers problem; grown soft,
the statue yields beneath his sculptors’s touch,
just as Hymettian wax beneath the sun
grows soft and, moulded by the thumb, takes on
so many varied shapes—in fact, becomes
more pliant as one plies it.”
I’m reminded of Ryszard Kapuściński’s Travels with Herodotus in which he writes “People sit around the fire and tell stories.” He continues:
“Later, these will be called legends and myths, but in the instant when they are first being related and heard, the tellers and the listeners believe in them as the holiest of truths, absolute reality.
They listen, the fire burns, someone adds more wood, the flames’ renewed warmth quickens thought, awakens the imagination. The spinning of tales is almost unimaginable without a fire crackling somewhere nearby, or without the darkness of a house illuminated by an oil lamp or a candle. The fire’s light attracts, unites, galvanizes attentions. The flame and community. The flame and history. The flame and memory.”
This is how I read Ovid and I like this drawing back to sit around the camp fire with such a bookish and witty story teller. Book Eleven will be my evening’s reading, no longer travelling but no less in need of such an excellent companion.