Andrew Feldherr, Playing Gods: Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Politics of Fiction. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-691- 13814-5. pp. x + 377. US$49.50.
University of Stellenbosch, South Africa
According to the blurb on the dust jacket, this book sets out to demonstrate 'that Ovid uses the problem of fiction in the text to redefine the power of poetry in Augustan Rome.' It further examines 'how [the Metamorphoses] relates to the range of cultural phenomena that defined and projected Augustan authority, including spectacle, theatre, and the visual arts'. In other words, Feldherr sets out to examine how Ovid manipulates readers' awareness of the contemporary political climate by means of his fiction.
By manipulating readers' awareness that the stories in the Metamorphoses are fictional, so the blurb, 'Ovid shows how a poem made up of fictions can and cannot (my emphasis) acquire the authority and presence of other discursive forms'. That is, Ovid's poetry is difficult to pin down as authoritative for it seems to oscillate between reality and fantasy as one reads. In this oscillation lies Ovid's larger political message, according to Feldherr.
From the moment a reader takes up Feldherr's book, (s)he is confronted by the kind of paradox of which the above excerpt is an example. From the ambivalence of Feldherr's title onward, we are challenged to puzzle out everything that the author shows us both 'can and cannot' be so. (I read at least three meanings into the title: 'gods at play', 'people acting like gods' and 'someone cheating the gods' -- there may be more).
To continue with extracts from the blurb: the ambivalence of Ovid's characters is presented in a form of '"double vision" (Feldherr's quotation marks) [that] cast[s] characters as both mythical figures and enduring presences in the physical landscapes of its readers . . . creat[ing] the kinds of tensions that Augustan Romans would have felt when experiencing imperial spectacle and other contemporary cultural forms.' This, then, leads to the construction of a general model 'for political readings of fiction.' Let us briefly examine how this construction is achieved. In his introduction Feldherr acknowledges (p. 6) his debt to the 'new historicism' that seeks to place and interpret an author in and through his political, social, and cultural context. For Feldherr, this involves also reading within the text, in a host of different ways, allusions to Augustus (whether the man, the former Gaius Octavius, or the imperial institution with its concomitant mystique).[]
Beside the introduction (pp. 1-12) and conclusion (pp. 342-50) seven chapters are distributed over three parts: 'Fiction and Empire', 'Spectacle', and 'Ovid and the Visual Arts'. Throughout the author makes use of close readings and discursive analysis of individual stories from the Metamorphoses, as well as wide- ranging theorising. Part One, Chapter 1, 'Metamorphosis and fiction' (pp. 15-59), starts with the tales of Io and Syrinx, but touches on many others in an analysis of the manner in which Ovid elicits our readerly awareness of the fictionality of the tales, while also making us aware of how he (Ovid) manipulated contemporary readers into both accepting and rejecting the 'truth' of what he was telling. Within his tales, incredulous characters that doubt tales told by other characters are often 'chastised or punished for incredulity' (p. 51). Hence credibility would have been an issue for the 'internal audience' as well as for Ovid's readers as 'external audience'.
Chapter 2, 'Wavering identity' (pp. 60- 122), takes its title from Fraenkel's famous description of the pivotal position of our poet between two eras. Feldherr states it as his intention to replace the old picture of Ovid as 'resistant artist' against an 'all-powerful tyrant' with a more nuanced but explicit picture of the 'pressures and constraints' under which an artist could operate under an emperor who 'was already an artist'. As with Ovid, the aim of this latter 'artist', the emperor himself, was the pursuit of immortality (p. 61). Here, again, it is not only our ancient artists who create images that flicker in and out of our perception of reality and representation: our modern author has a subtle and discursive style that often works to present two apparently opposite viewpoints almost simultaneously, as for instance his promise (p. 62) to 'flesh out' his argument with reference to the flaying of Marsyas. Many discussions of episodes from the poem seem to go in two directions at once. A good example is Feldherr's subtle deconstruction in his third chapter of Pythagoras' monologue from Metamorphoses 15.
The second Part of the book starts with Chapter 3, 'Homo Spectator and the Making of Man' (pp. 125- 59). A large part of the discussion here hinges on the way that Ovid transforms the ambiguity inherent in practices like sacrifice(and in those myths that relate to human relationships with the divine) into 'specific phenomena that complicate a reader's response to his own text' (p. 135). In this chapter discussion centres on Ovid's use of the Lycaeon tale as a political allegory that eventually reduces the stature of the new (human) 'Jupiter' by 'diminution of the gods to pale imitations of the imperial Senate' (p. 149). For Feldherr, truth is here found in fiction when Ovid by means of various tales deconstructs the human- divine relationships displayed, as in the tale of Io, or in Pythagoras's monologue. For Feldherr, to take Pythagoras at face value would mean our seeing only 'half of what Ovid's text has to show' (p. 158). Again, we are invited both to believe and disbelieve anything Ovid writes (again I am tempted to add 'as also with our response to Feldherr').
Chapter 4, 'Poets in the Arena' (pp. 160- 98) starts with the concept of Ovid's retention of his prestige as author through 'interweaving of poetry with public ritual and spectacle' (p. 160). The chapter is concerned with the relationship between Ovid's poetry and contemporary depictions of the visual: Tiberius' triumphs, written inscriptions mounted publicly and meant to be read, and Ovidian descriptions of both, coalesce. In sum, a triumph becomes an 'apt shorthand for the landscape of the Metamorphoses' (p. 166).
This Part ends with Chapter 5 (pp. 199- 239) titled 'Philomela Again?'. Its concern is to show how 'the deliberate turning aside of recognizably Roman features within the narrative . . . gives it programmatic importance for understanding the dialogue that Ovid creates between the visual experience of metamorphosis [that] his text offers and the world of civic ritual and spectacular performance' (p. 199) The chapter analyses Ovid's disturbing tale of incest and rape as theatrical spectacle, partly with reference to Accius' Tereus, which drama was produced by Brutus after the murder of Caesar, but also in the manner in which the mechanics of the tale take on theatrical characteristics. Feldherr explains in a masterly analysis of Ovidian punning (pp. 225-27) how Ovid's 'stunning wordplay' is a form of 'verbal metamorphosis ' (e.g. Itys-intus- iterum). Tereus is metamorphosed from tyrant to victim, Philomela's tapestry becomes a model for Ovid's narrative craft. The chapter ends with discussion of the relationship of this tale with the Roman foundation myth and of both with civic ritual. Feldherr's arguments are wide-ranging, intricate and all- encompassing, but leave this reader with a slight feeling of disquiet: argumentum ex silentio can be a dangerous game.
The last two chapters, that comprise Part Three, are Chapter 6, 'Faith in Images' (largely on the tales of Pygmalion and various 'domestic goddesses' (Feldherr's term) and Chapter 7, '"Songs the Greater Image"' (placed by Feldherr in quotation marks), on Niobe and Perseus. This bald catalogue does less than justice to the intricate trains of thought of and wide- ranging analyses by the author, which are almost impossible to epitomise within the compass of such a brief review.
Feldherr admits in his 'Philomela'-chapter (p. 336) that he 'may have jolted [his] own audience's fides' with some of his more far-reaching interpretations. For him, the Tereus-Procne-Philomela myth serves as a 'series of models for reading Ovid's text' (p. 237), and he seems to concede that some readers may think that he has taken his arguments too far. This is a fair comment and is appreciated by this reader who was often left behind by Feldherr's intricate reasoning. It was difficult to imagine Ovid's contemporaries spontaneously discerning the connective line that Feldherr draws between a mythical Perseus' ability to petrify those who looked at him and the celebratory (stone) images and monuments that a real- life Augusts had erected to himself. Analogies pushed too hard can on occasion teeter off into almost mediaeval allegorising.
Unfortunately an equally intricate and discursively wide-ranging writing style often complicates attempts to follow Feldherr's ideas. This book is perhaps the most difficult to read that this reviewer has ever encountered. Recourse to copious note-taking was the only way to trace the author's thread of argument from page to page, not only because of density of thought, but because of the author's elliptical sentence construction. About six re- readings at last revealed the meaning of the following relatively short sentence: 'The nature of this second maker, then, is as ambiguous as the very uncertainty about who did in fact create us renders our own' (p. 128). To cite more examples would be otiose, but there are many.
The conclusion (pp. 342-49) invokes a description from Keith Hopkins of the operation of Roman ritual, which Feldherr cites as his inspiration for the understanding of Ovid's poetry. For Feldherr, 'Ovid's poem can shape how its audience responds to the material spectacles around them' (p. 344). Feldherr asks, with justice, how a poem that for the most part relates to an ancient Greek mythical past could have been recognised by his contemporaries as relating to the present, and what the value of such recognition would have been. The answer to this is a brief epitome of the arguments of the whole book (pp. 344-49), ending with the explanation that in the 'decades' he took to develop his arguments, Feldherr had become increasingly aware of the role of literature as a form of political resistance (also against colonialism) and of the value of Ovid's theoretical contribution in this regard.
The book itself is well produced, with a single typographical error in almost four hundred pages (p. 207: 'The first device to makes us think . . . ') The printer's type is readable and notes are conveniently at the foot of each page. An extensive bibliography (pp. 352-63), copious index of passages cited (pp. 365- 72) and brief general index (pp. 373-77) offer some slight help in the navigation of this intricate work, the result of apparently almost a lifetime of thought by the author on a very complex subject.
[] In this Feldherr is following the example of Ulrich Schmitzer's Zeitgeschichte in Ovids Metamorphosen: Mythologische Dichtung unter politischen Anspruch. Stuttgart, but his approach to conjectured 'Augustan' interludes is totally different.