Barbara Pavlock, The Image of the Poet in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2009. Pp. x + 198. ISBN 978-0-299-23140-8. US$55.00.
Department of Ancient Studies, University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa
The idea that Ovid as poet may be read into (or from) his portrayal of certain key characters in the Metamorphoses (notably Arachne and Orpheus) has long been a central tenet of Ovidian criticism. Pavlock elaborates on this assumption in five excursive chapters dealing with these and other figures which she identifies as 'surrogates of the poet' (e.g., pp. 8, 132).
Pavlock’s points are very excursively made: the introduction (pp. 3-13) gives an overview of aspects which will be raised within the body of the work; individual points are first proposed at the beginning of a chapter, then extensively discussed and then restated at the close of individual chapters. A conclusion (pp. 132-36) briefly retraces the major arguments, ending with more detailed discussion of Ovid’s Ulysses as his paramount 'surrogate'.
Arachne’s tapestry, which has received considerable critical attention as representative of the Metamorphoses itself (a loosely- structured portrayal of the dealings of the gods with man- and woman-kind) is touched upon briefly in Pavlock’s introduction. Here Pavlock stresses the importance of 'internal narrators', that is, speakers and tellers of embedded tales within the fabric of the poem, as representative of the poet’s voice. She argues that through use of such alternative voices and by destabilizing traditional epic narrative the poet equips readers with a means to assess the reliability of inherited traditions. For her, even the 'Pythagoras' of Book 15 serves '(to some extent) as a surrogate for the poet', providing a 'quasi-philosophical underpinning for Ovid’s stories of transformation through his doctrine of metampsychosis,' recalling earlier literary precedents (Homer, Lucretius, Vergil). By this means Ovid establishes himself as 'part of the tradition of philosopho-political poetry', within his extensive exploration of the 'association between surrogate and poet' (p.8).
Chapter 1 (pp. 14-37), titled 'Narcissus and Elegy', shows how Narcissus is portrayed as an 'elegiac poet-lover' that focuses on his own image as object of desire. Narcissus’ assumption of the elegiac voice has undertones of various of the Roman love-poets, including Catullus and Propertius (even of Horace and his unattainable Lalage). Echo’s lament evokes the idea of elegy as lament (even the Vergilian conceit of a 'lament for Gallus'). Pavlock argues that elegiac themes may be recognised throughout the work: the monster Polyphemus of Book 13, who 'knows himself' after seeing his reflection in water is an elegiac reminiscence of Narcissus, 'a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the elegiac concept of self- knowledge' (p. 37). Narcissus was subject to the curse that 'self- knowledge' would cause his doom. The chapter ends with the observation that, with the tale of Vertumnus ('turner') and Pomona, 'elegy in the Metamorphoses disappears at the very moment in which the importance of change is in fact accepted' (p. 37).
In Chapter 2, 'The metamorphic Medea' (pp. 38-60), Pavlock argues (p. 38) that 'Medea seems to be referring to all previous manifestations of her in Apollonius and Euripides by her rhetorical usage' in her long monologues. The etymology of her name (Greek medea = Latin dolus) can be seen to 'symbolise Ovid’s own production of clever plots that subvert traditional mores and undermine conventional notions of order on all levels' (p. 60). For Pavlock, the character that is exhibited through Medea’s self-presentation 'anticipates her own future as an aggressive, masculine character in the Greek tragedy and in Ovid’s epistle' (Her.12). Perhaps wisely, Pavlock does not go into the interesting but insoluble question of how Ovid’s portrayal here of the tragic witch differs from his own depiction of her in his lost drama.
Pavlock explains the rather odd fact that the central tale of Medea’s desertion by Jason receives so little attention in the Metamorphoses, whereas her travels and preparation of magic and trickery predominate, by arguing that the extensive 'travelogue,' comprising a large portion Ovid’s portrayal of Medea, reprises many of the themes that engage the poet’s interest elsewhere within the poem. In this way she becomes the poet’s voice. For Pavlock, the 'imaginative travelogue… is a microcosm of his revisionist approach to epic.. impl[ying] the emptiness of the heroic ethic' (p. 59).
More traditionally, Daedalus is next considered as another 'Ovidian surrogate'. Chapter 3, 'Daedalus and the labyrinth of the Metamorphoses' (pp. 61-88) closely argues, with copious examples, that the intricacies of Ovid’s narrative style are visually reprised with his portrayal of not only the labyrinth, but, for instance, also of the windings of the river Archelous (as with the Propertian image of the Maeander (Eleg. 2.34.35f.) as symbol for the 'devious nature of metamorphosis', (p. 62)). Archelous as river-god himself tells the tale of the insatiable Erychsithon who ends by devouring his own limbs. For Pavlock, Archelous as narrator represents a parodic version of the poet who fails to respect poetic limits.
The body of this chapter has a somewhat similar structure to the eighth book of the Metamorphoses that it discusses. Pavlock makes much of the rapid change of narrative registers (in this central book of the poem) as representing a larger view of the complex weaving of narratives throughout the poem. She first considers various aspects of the story of Daedalus and Icarus. Ovid as 'controlling poet' draws Daedalus as a self-absorbed Phoebus- figure that falls short of his own ideals. Repetition (the Perdix-Daedalus subplot reprises the Daedalus-Icarus theme) underscores the idea of obsessive self-absorption, also in the poet. Then follows discussion of Theseus 'caught in the toils of the narrative' as in the labyrinth (p. 72). The burlesque episode of the hunt in which Meleager kills his uncles for insulting Atalanta is subsequently considered. Ovid’s portrayal of intrafamilial strife is essentially comic, alternating with intense drama in Althea’s monologue reflecting her chaotic state, where repetition intensifies Ovid’s portrayal of Althea’s agonised choice.
Next Pavlock returns to more a extensive discussion of Archelous’ tale of Erychsithon. For Pavlock this tale serves as a 'gruesome parody of the metamorphic links within the universal' (p. 82). Archelous tells this revolting story to his dinner-guests, and he tells it in an inflated epic style, with 'misplaced allusions to Vergil'. Archelous is shown up as a 'poor reader of the Aeneid' (p. 86), whereas the poet 'reads' Vergil much more subtly. For Pavlock, Archelous serves as a 'negative model' for Ovid’s own relationship with his own (ideal) readers (p. 88).
Again Chapter 4, 'Orpheus and the internal narrator' (pp. 89-109) subjects a commonplace of Ovidian criticism to detailed new scrutiny. A large part of the chapter is devoted to the tales told by Orpheus. The story of Venus and Adonis embeds the story of Hippomenes and Atalanta: 'The doubling of embedded narrators complicates the concerns and desires reflected in the story' (p. 90). Pavlock considers that Orpheus as 'narrator' is a reflection of his own protagonist Hippomones. For both, lack of self control ('excess of passion') led to the destruction of his beloved; Adonis 'disappears into the wind as anemone, Eurydice disappears as aura' (p. 104).
Pages 108 and 109 are essential to understanding Pavlock’s identification of bard and poet. The boundaries between narrator and surrogate fluctuate, giving a nuanced view of Ovid’s engagement with his own characters. Both the artist Pygmalion and bard Orpheus are oblivious to their own essential narcissism, but both are in a sense stand-ins for Ovid as poet. Conflation of third-person narrator and poet (also in the case of Archelous) displays a certain slippage in the poet’s engagement with Vergil. At the same time he is certain of his own immortality and he shares it with his characters.
Pavlock’s last chapter, 'Ulysses and the arms of Achilles' (pp. 110-31), considers Ovid’s continued engagement with the Odysseus-figure, here the Latin Ulysses, who, as the essential trickster and weaver of wiles, is the most recognisable 'surrogate for Ovid', so Pavlock. Ovid’s Ulysses 'blurs the boundaries between rhetoric and poetry'. Hence he is 'an imaginative and deconstructive rhetorician analogous to the poet' (p. 112), transforming all he tells. Pavlock shows how in Ovid’s retelling of the stories of Troy, Ulysses becomes as 'Roman'; as descendant of Autolycus he is a trickster in the same way that Ovid plays with words. A series of close readings shows how Ovid both conflates and inflates Homer’s heroic narrative, while subtly distorting its thrust. In this, so Pavlock, 'Ulysses is a significant surrogate for Ovid' (p. 130); his fluid use of words shows him aware of the instability and relativity of all he relates.
The conclusion (pp. 132-36) continues the discussion of Ulysses as Ovidian 'surrogate'. Pavlock emphasises that 'self-awareness' is Ulysses’ most distinguishing characteristic. It is this that Ovid encourages his readers to recognise within both the hero and himself as author. This section (and the book) ends rather abruptly with the observation that Ovid’s labyrinthine narrative here serves constructively to bring the hero home.
Over forty pages of notes (pp. 137-82), an eleven-page Bibliography (183-93 and an index (pp. 195-98) round out the volume. The author’s style takes a little getting used to: many sentences benefit by rereading to gain their full meaning, as for example, 'The first [response] evokes Ulysses’ self- restraint in contrast to his men’s inability to withstand the pangs of hunger, for it refers to the death of all of Odysseus’s companions at sea after they ate the cattle of the Sun and the hero’s own rough ten days floating with the wreckage (12.403-50)' (p. 136).