Garth Tissol, The Face of Nature: Wit, Narrative, and Cosmic Origins in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Pp. xii + 238. ISBN 0-691-01102-8. No price supplied.
Department of Classics, University of Natal, Durban
It was certainly time some-one took Ovidian wit seriously. The strictures of the Senecas, Quintilian, Dryden and a host of more recent critics on the inappropriateness and excesses of his passion for stylistic display are well known.[] Tissol takes Ovid on Ovidian terms: if the mechanics of style delighted the poet so much, they must be more than merely decorative, and are therefore essential to any interpretation of the Metamorphoses.
In Chapter 1, 'Glittering Trifles: Verbal Wit and Physical Transformation' (pp. 11-88), he confronts 'the power [of wit] to provoke and challenge a reader' (p. 12), arguing that what some critics deem inappropriate, excessive or tasteless is in fact integral to the meaning of the narrative. Readings of the stories of Narcissus and Althea illustrate the use of paradox and etymological wordplay to destabilize normally accepted categories and perceptions: by collapsing differences, Ovid's 'transgressive language' embodies Narcissus' inability to act, Althea's moral paralysis. At the other extreme, Echo, who can only communicate by repeating Narcissus' words, appropriates them to express her own contrary views: 'she succeeds in making wordplay into an aggressive act' (p. 16).
Tissol rightly emphasises 'the close connection between metamorphosis and wordplay' (p. 18) in a study of Ovid's use of syllepsis to blur distinctions between the physical and the figurative.[] 'Indecorous and transformative puns' likewise suit the theme of metamorphosis as they 'stretch and burst . . . contextual limits' (pp. 22-24). And so on, through the misunderstandings and irony inherent in wordplay, the accidentally overheard pun which becomes divination, puns that multiply meaning and puns that dissolve meaning, words used in a divided sense and structural emphasis, such as juxtaposition, or a play on the same word in different cases, employed paradoxically to underline separation. Wordplay does not only destabilize through disjunction; it transforms through personification, making a reality of the insubstantial or fantastic. For Tissol, 'the style and content of the Metamorphoses are the same, and every element of the work invites our minds to return to its fundamental themes' (pp. 80f.).
From the detailed intricacy of verbal specifics Tissol moves to a consideration of larger structures in Chapter 2, 'The Ass's Shadow: Narrative Disruption and its Consequences' (pp. 89-130), maintaining that on the larger scale too Ovid destabilises the text and the reader's response to it: 'Disruption itself becomes thematic' (p. 91). Tissol takes issue with modern critics like Galinsky[] who maintain that Ovid seeks to have his reader disengaged from the narrative; Tissol prefers the Jaussian approach, that the reader can experience engagement and participation simultaneously with a 'contemplative "aesthetic distance"' (p. 93).[]
Tissol's reading of Daedalus and Perdix (pp. 97-105) shows how Ovid's subversion of natural, chronological narrative sequence, in postponing the story of Daedalus' killing of his nephew until after the account of the death of Icarus, underlines the opposition Ovid draws between the caring father and the jealous uncle. Tissol rightly maintains that Ovid 'tends to introduce surprise and disruption into any narrative', but his analysis of the Polyphemus story (pp. 105-24) seems to imply that the effects of his jolts and twists work because the reader is dependent on Ovid's version. I would suggest rather that Ovid depends on his readers' external knowledge of a more- or-less canonical version of any narrative in order to startle us into his new perspective on the story. Certainly the allusions in his version of Polyphemus presuppose a memory of Theocritus and Vergil, as Tissol is well aware.
The conclusion which emerges from Tissol's study of Ovid's Polyphemus (and which is both explicit and implicit throughout the book) -- that when the comic and the grisly are combined in Ovid they do not weaken each other, but are both intensified (p. 123) -- brings us back to the many critics in every age who have been outraged by Ovid's violation of moments of pathos by wit, or by the intrusion of gratuitous violence. In 'Some Scandalous Passages' (pp. 124-30), Tissol defends Ovid against charges of insensitivity, arguing that his intention is to expose to his readers 'their susceptibility or willingness to be deceived by comforting and pleasant fictions' (p. 124). He does not accept the contention of Galinsky and others that Ovid's excesses are concessions to popular contemporary taste, but more recent work by Coleman and Richlin, among others, would seem to strengthen Galinsky's case.[] Tissol does not in fact satisfactorily engage with the problem of violence in Ovid, but slides quickly over to a restatement of the impossibility of detachment on the part of the reader confronted by the intrusion of brutality or of unseasonable wit (p.128).
Tissol now turns to Ovid's literary predecessors in Chapter 3, 'Disruptive Traditions' (pp. 131-66). Here Tissol is concerned with allusion, not only in the form of specific reminiscence but also in the general stylistic terms that led Ovid to draw on traditions in which narratives are readily disrupted, with surprise switches of direction, ellipses, compression of events and expansion of circumstantial detail. Detailed comparisons with Callimachus' Aitia and Hecale and Propertius' Tarpeia elegy (4.4) lead to the conclusion that Ovid's literary borrowings, like his indecorous wit and disruptions of narrative style, express his theme of change no less in their form than in their content. After Callimachus and Propertius, the logical next step is that of Chapter 4, 'Deeper Causes: Aetiology and Style' (pp. 167-214). Tissol sees Ovid's cosmological vision as essentially human, with metamorphosed beings retaining the characteristics they had as people. This human focus challenges different world views like those of Lucretius and Vergil, and Tissol shows that Ovid underlines his divergence by allusion, for example in the way he uses etymological wordplay. Unlike Vergil, for whom this figure creates links between Rome's past and present, Ovid uses it to present flux and transformation: thus bilingual puns (for example *fluminis* in *rapidi* ripis enixa vocavit / *Ocyroen*, 'giving birth on the banks of a swift stream, she named her Ocyroe' (tr. Tissol p. 173), Met. 2.637-638) are both acts and images of change.
Mention of Vergil brings us inevitably to 'Ovid's Little Aeneid' (pp. 177-91), which Tissol considers from his standpoint of Ovid's purposeful disruptions of style and structure, as a somewhat provocative 'reaction to the aetiological thrust of the Aeneid'. Here again he takes issue with Galinsky and Solodow, objecting to their implications that Ovid trivialises the Aeneid (pp. 177f.).[] Ovid's re-telling differs from Vergil in making little use of prophecy, despite the fact that the books he chooses to re-work, Books 3 and 6, are rich in prophecy; and in postponing the prophecy to a context (Pythagoras' account of the rise and fall of great cities,Met. 15.426-35) which casts a shadow of implicit future decline over the prediction of the greatness of Rome and of Augustus. Tissol's answer to critics who persist in reading the end of the Metamorphoses as a serious attempt at epic grandeur and praise of Augustus is to reassert his central contention that Ovid's theme is flux, and in that context there can be no permanence for Augustan Rome. Ultimately, Tissol sees Ovid's cosmology as pessimistic, inviting us to 'see behind the outward face of nature an origin in human suffering and passion' (p. 194). Chaos and violence are inevitably, and permanently, part of Ovid's natural order.
From the Aeneid Tissol turns to comparisons between Ovid and earlier aetiological narratives in Homer and Callimachus. He draws a parallel between the Hellenistic Greeks' preoccupation with aetiology to affirm a sense of continuity with the past and the Roman need to reconcile Italian, Greek and Trojan elements in their tradition. Besides Callimachus, Ovid had a number of Roman predecessors in the field, but he consciously diverges from them in producing uncertain or multiple explanations which tend to unsettle, rather than reinforce, cultural identity. Here Tissol profits by recent studies of the Fasti.[] Where stories occur in both the Metamorphoses and Fasti, he maintains, they have different perspectives: 'a story will appear in the Fasti. as a link between the Roman past and the prestigious mythical traditions of Greece, whereas in the Metamorphoses the same story is subsumed into a vaster, more cosmic scheme' (p. 205). As a judgment of the Fasti at least, this is too limited, and having made it Tissol does not spend much time on comparative readings; his critique of the two versions of Ceres and Persephone (pp. 205-8) is highly selective. His argument that the malign cruelty of many of the divine punishments meted out in the Metamorphoses underlines Ovid's bleak cosmology is better served by his analysis of the Circe tales in Book 14 (pp. 209-14). As in his allusive borrowings from Vergil, so too in those from Homer Ovid denies the reader any sense of order and purpose: 'events of the Odyssey appear without its theme of ultimate homecomings, events of the Aeneid without its providential pattern' (p. 214). And so, Tissol concludes (p. 215): '[Ovid] deliberately disrupts the experience of reading by bringing to mind structurally consolatory perspectives, only to thwart their development and the familiar gratifications associated with them'.
As a study of Ovid's narrative style this book has much to offer. It is thorough and detailed without being dense, very readable, with pleasing translations for the Latinless reader. It is also sound on Ovidian scholarship and draws usefully on contemporary literary theory without being swamped by jargon. Its close readings of a great many passages bring the reader back to familiar as well as forgotten or under-valued stories with renewed delight and appreciation. As the abundant footnotes and extensive bibliography indicate, Tissol is seldom on untrodden ground, but the value of his contribution lies in constantly demonstrating that features of Ovidian wit and style are not extraneous decorations but are integral to his themes of metamorphosis and cosmic flux, and that what seems to be 'indecorous' and 'transgressive' in his wit is a formal metaphor; and further, in his appreciation of the ways in which Ovid engages (not to say manipulates) the reader. He makes important points about intellectual seriousness not being necessarily dependent on seriousness of tone, and his attention to context in discussion of style is constructive. But, faced with the fact of Ovid's disruptiveness in narrative and his consequent dark, malign and frightening universe, one is still left asking, 'Why?' Tissol mostly steers clear of the (unanswerable, in this reviewer's opinion) questions of Ovid's attitude towards the political climate of later Augustan Rome, and of explicitly suggesting that the thematic instability and destructiveness of the Metamorphoses embodies his attitude, though this is an inference some would like to make. His brief flirtation with diachronic comparison in the conclusion (pp. 215f.) leads to an interesting suggestion:'It is tempting to suppose that [Ovid] wrote for a time not unlike our own: aesthetically awash in sentimentality and nostalgia, with audiences unwilling or unable to bear the taste of even a little artistic accommodation to contemporary realities; with artists, for their part, frequently at fault for brutalizing their audiences . . .'. But Tissol is not prepared to run with this. 'Ovid most likely did not wish to affect his audiences that way, but he did wish to astonish them and fill them with wonder' (p. 216). And so in the end we run the risk of falling back on judgments like those of Quintilian's much-quoted nimium amator ingenii sui, 'excessively in love with his own ability' (Inst. 10.1.88); judgments which Tissol has been at pains, throughout, to refute by demonstrating their inadequate appreciation of Ovidian wit.[]
[] Tissol quotes from Seneca the Elder, p.5; from Dryden, p.11; cf. p.124 on Dryden and Galinsky. See William S. Andersons, 'First Century Criticism on Ovid: The Senecas and Quintilian', in William S. Anderson(ed), Ovid: The Classical Heritage (New York and London 1995) pp. 1-10, and David Hopkins, 'Dryden and Ovid's "Wit out of Season"', ibid. (pp. 219-52).
[] In addition to a useful definition of syllepsis on pp.18-19 Tissol has three appendices, 'G. J. Vossius on Syllepsis Oratoria' (pp. 217f.), 'Syllepsis and Zeugma' (pp. 219f.) and 'Further examples of syllepsis in Ovid' (pp. 221f.).
[] G.K. Galinsky, Ovid's Metamorphoses: An Introduction to the Basic Aspects (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1975) 35, 37. This is just one of many points on which Tissol is critical of Galinsky.
[] H.R. Jauss (tr. M. Shaw), Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics (Minneapolis 1982, originally published Munich 1977).
[] See e.g. Amy Richlin, 'Reading Ovid's Rapes', in A. Richlin (ed.), Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome (Oxford 1992) pp. 158-79; K.M. Coleman, 'Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments', JRS 80 (1990) 44-73.
[] Galinsky, op. cit. n.3, pp. 219, 238, 239; J. B. Solodow, The World of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Chapel Hill, N.C. 1988) 157.
[] Tissol cites C. Martin, 'A reconsideration of Ovid's Fasti', ICS 10 (1985) 261-274, W. R. Johnson, 'The desolation of the Fasti', CJ 74 (1978) 7-18, id . 'The return of Tutunus', Arethusa 25 (1992) 173-80, A. Barchiesi, Il Poeta e il Principe. Ovidio e il discorso Augusteo (Rome & Bari 1994). This now appears as The Poet and the Prince. Ovid and Augustan Discourse (Berkeley, Los Angeles, & London 1997), D.C. Feeney, 'Si licet et fas est: Ovid's Fasti and the problem of free speech under the principate', in A. Powell (ed), Roman Poetry and Propaganda in the Age of Augustus (London 1992) 1-25, to which must now be added Carole E. Newlands, 'The Ending of Ovid's Fasti', in A.J. Boyle (ed.), Roman Literature and Ideology: Ramus Essays for J.P. Sullivan (Bendigo 1995) 129-43; id. Playing with Time: Ovid and the Fasti (Ithaca, NY 1995).
[] The book is carefully produced, and I noticed only one error, on p. 106: 'Ovid's, like others texts'.