Saturday, 25 February 2017

Ovid has left the building - Metamorphoses and breaking the Pax Ovidiana

A sunny pre-noon in Las Vegas 2289..AD, you put on your chem- suit and an extra synthetic lung (high grade Kazakh of course) and hover down the strip past Caesars Palace..on the way your attention is caught by the dreamcam ads for a new show at Homerz Bar..’OVID!-THE MUSICAL’ – so of course you slide in and take a seat to see what all the fuss is about. The matinee show is a chaotic psychedelic melange of images, scents and textures designed to evoke the myriad transformations of the gods and heroes of the Graeco-Roman past..turntablist par excellence Tad Hayes takes centre stage amongst a heaving mass of holographic dancers weaving through billows of luminous orange smoke laced with mescaline vapour – the crowd go wild at the centre piece, featuring the apotheosis of the sexually polyvalent and dual-merged character Emperor Augustus/Marsyas as he is flayed alive the skin looping off in long wet crimson strips, festooning the heaving audience, many of whom are rapidly succumbing to the tangerine fumes and being carried out into the fresh air of the foyer by drone-stretcher. Staggering out to avoid the worst of the psychotropic mayhem..the last thing you hear as you fall out of the building iris valve onto the sidewalk is the insane bellowing of the revellers still standing…OVID, OVID OVID! A short sweaty figure scampers out beside you wearing a six armed business leotard..he chirps enquiringly into your sonically hammered eardrum..’That Ovid Guy! He sure knows how to put a show on! Do you know where this guy is based?, I mean I gotta get hold of his agent!!’ For him Ovid has left the building – or has he?
A bizarro vision of the future? But could it also be our present, one in which the works of Ovid rather than the man or his poetical wizardry have been refined out themselves into something altogether different, leaving merely the endearing and compelling accounts of fantastic mythic episodes? In effect a 'Pax Ovidiana' has resulted ;a canon of the poets works, almost a literary credo of what the myths are about and what they tell us through his lens, stained indelibly into the fabric of the English cultural history and beyond in perpetuity.
The Metamorphoses are tales that are viewed through ever increasingly obscured refracting lenses of successive poets eager to make their mark on the English tradition  – Ovid or rather his elegiac-epic is firmly hardwired into our understanding of Greco-Roman myth but has he ‘left the building’? Is it no longer necessary to engage directly with his linguistic pyrotechnics in order to savour and utilise the true essence of his work, as many succeeding poets have done with a superficial at best or at worst no understanding of the original languages in which the masterwork was written? Does it matter anyway when the stories themselves are so popular? How much if any of the original Ovidian DNA remains..and perhaps Nietzsche-like should we be experiencing a Twilight of the Idols moment and try to momentarily tear out the Ovidian co-axial cable and try to come  face to face with the myths themselves through alternative routes or like Ted Hughes attempt to solder some Anglo Saxon into the motherboard and subvert the elite Roman quantum logic from within?
To try to answer these questions we need to return to Ovid’s English literary future, through the prism firstly of the earliest translations into English of the metamorphoses, in particular the puritan versifier Arthur Golding (tr.1567), father of the so-called’ Shakespeare’s Ovid’, passing through Frank Miller’s 1916 Loeb edition in order to try to enter the mind of Ted Hughes who used both texts as galleys during his own re-configuring of Ovid and arrive at some answers not only to the continuing relevance or obstruction of Ovidian myth in the literary landscape..or the legacy literature industry, but possibly even hints as to what translation itself might be, what it can do and how much of the originator’s blood genome is required to prevent full on textual zombification or cloning..a process equally as mercurial and protean as the masterpiece of Ovid himself.
A thought which constantly strikes me as I write is simply never enough to’ like’ or ‘dislike’ is far more pressing an issue for us as readers, interpreters if you will, to locate him and then decide what me might then do about or with him in the context of our ongoing literary canon – iconoclastic as that may seem I deem it not only advisable but a wholly necessary enterprise.
We start then with Golding whose work must be seen in the light of his other translations and his staunchly Christian outlook  and its impossible to overlook the effect on Ovid of his puritan cast of mind- the other works I am particularly thinking of are the those of the sermons of John Calvin which were instrumental in spreading the Protestant doctrines through the English speaking world at the time. Golding was responsible for around 30 translations in all and its interesting to note that he was not as famed at the time for the Ovid translation as his Caesars Commentaries. Shakespeare then seems to have had a hand in promoting him to posterity by using some of his lines in his plays as he referenced and utilised what he admired of the translation. Even on a cursory reading of the opening dedicatory Epistle to 'Robert Earle of Leycester' reveals a moralising and Christianising slant on the Metamorphoses. We are instructed how the various tales might alert us to the ' wicked sinnes' they represent : '

'The piteous tale of Pyramus and Thisbee doth conteine
The headie force of frantick love whose end is wo and payne
The snares of Mars and Venus shew that tyme will bring to lyght
The secret sinnes that folk commit in corners or by nyght'
(l.109-112 Golding - Dedicatory Epistle to Ovid's Metamorphoses)

Every other line of the entire work is laced with puritan 'trigger' words or codes for christian moral instruction or warning to the unwary. To give but a few examples, in the prefatory epistle alone I came across 'filthy pleasures of the flesh', 'heathen', 'repentance', 'wicked sinne', 'wicked lust', 'prodigality', 'flithy whoredome'. You get the idea even from this limited sampling of the opening stanzas.
To be fair to Golding he was trying to convince other Christians ready to cast disdain if not outright damnation upon the evil works of 'paynim' authors, explaining that although produced from a dark age of pagan philosophy, if read prudently (probably with a bible at your side!) it could offer much wisdom and moral instruction. He may not have been totally convincing to his puritan contemporaries who would have preferred to read the Calvinist sermons no doubt, but the curious side effect is that his clear and lucid verse rendering inspired the undoubtedly less religiously minded Shakespeare and his contemporary poets (Marlowe perhaps) to take up Golding's pioneering work and embed it into their own works - ensuring some of the puritan DNA to bleed into the metamorphoses and in the later development of the treatment and use of the tales contained in the Metamorphoses in later plays, poetry and later on operatic works. This has come to colour, albeit faintly, our understanding and reception of Greco-Roman myth in the context of Western European literature.
It might be interesting now to look at how Ted Hughes used Golding's Tudor period translation as well as a later Loeb version by Frank Miller (1916) when working on his 'Tales from Ovid '(Faber and Faber 1997). I think the reason that Ted Hughes used Miller was that it was the easiest available version of a really flat and word for word translation (Loeb at that time was well known for accurate if dull renderings of many of the Greek an Roman authors, poetry in particular) acting for him as a crib from which he could create his own literal translation from the Latin text and then hack and whittle something into shape from the result. Interestingly, Golding's 'Shakespeare's Ovid' as reprinted by the De La More Press, London is listed in the Loeb edition under VII. TRANSLATIONS.
The cross wiring as we can see is deep and extensive!
A helpful insight into Hughes's attitude to the Classics is provided by John Talbot who wrote a review of Ted Hughes , Collected Poems by Paul Keegan, ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2003) which was published in Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, Vol.13, No.3 (Winter 2006) pp. 131-162. In it, Talbot tries to answer the question as to what kind of Classicist Hughes was.
Talbot argues that Hughes was using other intertexts upon which to base his understanding of the classics, not just the originals but other English poems, including his own backlog, resulting in a more complex and nuanced relationship with the Greek and Latin authors works and in turn a more compromised and ambivalent attitude to the legacy of the Mediterranean Roman cultural influence upon English literature - in this way perhaps Ted Hughes has come to mirror our own stance when confronting the Classics - how to understand and accommodate them. Hughes had a strong affinity with Norse and Celtic mythic traditions and is on record of speaking up for trying to push back the Graeco-Roman space a bit to let the older more blood born myths back into the English literary space so as not to do away completely with the classical inheritance but to hack away at the resultant weeds and undergrowth and let the other roots shine through.
Talbot focuses on three areas of Hughes's approach to the classics. Firstly, his relative ignorance of the classical languages, secondly his ambiguous attitude toward Graeco-Roman civilisation, and thirdly his use of English poetry including his own earlier works as source material for his 'translations'. The last of these areas has tended to be ignored by classical scholars looking at Hughes which Talbot maintains is a mistake since it is a area which informs his engagements with ancient authors such as Ovid or Euripides etc. It appears that Hughes had no knowledge of Greek and only enough Latin to pass the then required Latin exam for entrance to Cambridge University and his own accounts of his schooldays Latin felt some resistance to it. This attitude of resistance both informs and defines Hughes engagement with the Classics and as early as his work in The Hawk in the Rain (1957) his ambivalent attitude can be sensed when he imagines himself as the captured 1st Century BC British Chieftain, taken to Rome as part of the triumphal booty in celebration of the subjugation of the northernmost extent of the empire:
In your generous embrace,
As once, in rich Rome,
I mourn.
(from 'Two Phases', 30)
Another approach Hughes adopts is to insert his own mythic elements into the soil of Ovidian myth - a god example of this is the passage dealing with the rape of Hermaphroditus where Salmacis' entanglements of Hermaphroditus are described. Ovid's imagery includes serpents, ivy, squids...but Hughes adds an otter:
'Like a sinewy otter
Hunting some kind of fish
That flees hither and thither inside him'
[Hughes, Tales from Ovid]

The otter as a mythic figure features in earlier poems of Hughes - in Lupercal, the otter:

'Brings the legend of himself
From before wars or burials, in spite of hounds and vermin-poles;
Does not take root like the badger. Wanders, cries;
Gallops along land he no longer belongs to;
Re-enters the water by melting.'  (Lupercal 79)

Its difficult to say exactly what Hughes is up to here. Is he inserting the otter as a invader from his own mythic universe to stake a claim upon the Ovidian soil? Or is he attempting to bring traditional English countryside creatures of northern Europe to add a hint of other mythos, such as the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic inheritance which he felt was overshadowed by the blanket of Mediterranean culture which Ovid represented for him? Perhaps Hughes is engaged in nothing less than a metamorphosis of Ovid himself - bring us to face the question of what translation is anyway - the carrying over from one era to another of part or whole or even merely echoes of a coded message contained in the great writings of the past for the instruction and inspiration of the human future.
The scholarship on these aspects of Hughes relationship to the Classics is in its infancy and much of it has up until now been overlooked. One reason is that it is only relatively recently that Hughes' entire published catalogue has been brought together in an accessible format, Keegan's Collected Poems being a case in point.
Talbot concludes his investigation into Hughes and the classics with a sort of manifesto banner or a thrown gauntlet   with regards to the future translations in English of the Classics:
'We have to get used to a new type of classical poet; one who both needs the classics and needs to fend it off; who does not know Latin or Greek but who can gather the energies of English poetry-his own and others'-in a pitch he could not have done without the classical perspective.'
I would add that there is a obstruction danger of the 'front of shop' classical authors, Ovid especially, who take up a lot of 'advertising space' in the English imagination and this also should be challenged by succeeding poets and translators, both those with a knowledge of the ancient languages and those without. The translators themselves must resist the received wisdom of the preceding cultural elite accretions and avoid the dead-end conclusion that 'everything is simply marvellous and a wonderful masterpiece' without at the very least giving the texts a fierce poke in the ribs with a very sharp stick - and hold them up to more rigorous investigation and evaluation. It might even be time to explore the Greek and Roman myths from other avenues - through other lenses. Where those other paths might lie, Hughes gives us a tentative hint. Its up to us as readers to follow the hints of this and other poet/translators and bring up new gods from the fertile soil of the less travelled lands of the classic texts available to us.

As for Ovid and his continuing reception in Western literature, I leave you with a quotation from the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek:

'The more opera is dead, the more it flourishes'