Sunday, March 29, 2009

An Imaginary Life: assignment

The class theme is “All that is past possesses the present”. This novel connects to this in many ways. Most obvious is when Ovid begins to recall memories from his childhood, but truer and clearer than he had remembered before. He described it as if “I were being handed a new past, that leads, as I follow it out, to a present in which I appear out of my old body as a new and other self” (95). There are unknowns in his past, and as he stumbles upon things he never knew or never realized he could know, these unknowns come streaming back, and he is conscious of the past he never before conceived to be relevant.

Ovid talks about becoming part of the universe, letting the universe in. The Child is outside himself, his “energy distributed among the beasts and birds whose life he shares, among leaves, water, grasses, clouds, thunder-whose existence he can be at home because they hold, each of them, some particle of his spirit” (pg 96). We are made up of more than we know; we are possessed by more than we are aware of. Ovid realizes this and says when the spirit of all things migrates back into us we will then be whole. He chooses to exist in a world of simplicity and observation. He chooses to become more than himself, and in that pursuit transforms into the truest human he could be.

In this class we read all about transformation. The transformation of stubborn rulers into tragic hero’s, domestic women into radical activists, perfect growing seasons to inhospitable drought and famine, enemies to friends, humans beings into trees and animals and stone. Is it going too far to say that in these transformations our characters are becoming what they were destined to become? Is it a natural part of their fate, as it was for Ovid? We can look for clues, like the prophecies of Tiresias (predicting Creon’s fate, Pentheus’ death), that show us that what has happened was inevitable. And through all these transformations we see much tragedy, and is it still as tragic if it was meant to happen?

Ovid’s story begins as a tragedy and becomes the exact opposite. He goes from being miserably exiled, to not only accepting his fate, but reveling in it as it his “true” fate. It all seems so right, the village, his regression into nature, and finally with the crossing of the Ister he enters into “the final reality”. There is no more time, he stops counting the days, is not thinking of any final destination. All things will continue on, but he will not. His transformation was necessary. His end came naturally.

Isn’t that what we are attempting to discover or become aware of? That is, our existence is in the midst of everything that has ever existed and will ever exist. Ovid exists in every moment in the end “It is summer. It is spring. I am immeasurably happy. I am three years old. I am sixty. I am six. I am there.” (pg152). He is where? He is everywhere—in his past, his present, in the earth. He is whole.

When we read about our past, when we discover that everything that is happening now has already happened and been happening forever, when we find the roots of all our stories and fantasies, when after all that we are still curious, we come ever closer to being whole too.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Summary of Bacchus and Pentheus

Pentheus, King of Thebes, was a disbeliever in the famous prophecies seen by the wise Tiresias. He laughed at the old man, when Tiresisas warned him that he dreamt the king would meet his death by being torn to pieces by unsuspecting fingers, due to the workings of the new god Bacchus. (hilarious right?)

Pentheus steps outside and sees the entire city engaged in a frenzied celebration over the new god (Bacchus), and orders his arrest. Instead of the god though, the guards bring back a man by the name of Acoetes, a priest of the god. He recounts to the king the tale of his voyage where his crew attempted to kidnap the girlish boy (unaware that he was a god) and were turned into dolphins. All except for Acoetes who saw this boy for what he was at the beginning, and was thus rewarded with priesthood.

Pentheus, obviously not enjoying this story, sent Acoetes away to be tortured. But while the torture instruments were being prepared, the shackles binding Acoetes magically combusted and set him free.

Outraged by this, Pentheus marches into the woods to find and arrest this Bacchus himself. He then happens to stumble into a clearing where women Bacchic worshippers were performing rites, and when they saw him, he no longer appeared to them in the form of their king, but as a boar. They attacked at once began to rip him limb from limb, while he cried out to no avail. Finally, it is Pentheus’ mother who wrenches his head from his body, and with a cry of victory, lets his blood rain down on her.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ovid's Statue

Here is a picture of the statue of Ovid that resides in a square in Constanta, Romainia. The inscription on the statue reads:
Here I lie, who played with tender loves,
Naso the poet, killed by my own talent.
O passerby, if you've ever been in love, let it not be too much for you
to say: May the bones of Naso lie gently.


We talked in class about the exile of Ovid to Tomi, where he was to spend the last 10 years of his life, miserable. One consolation was that he wrote poetic letters to absent family and friends. They remain today in a collection titled Tristia. And while they are all on the subject of Ovid’s lamentation, they are actually pretty entertaining! Since Ovid is basically one of the most influential writers you’ve never heard of, I thought it would be interesting to look up some of his other works. Here’s and example, which is the first poem in the collection:

Book TI.I:1-68 The Poet to His Book: Its Nature

Little book, go without me – I don’t begrudge it – to the city.
Ah, alas, that your master’s not allowed to go!
Go, but without ornament, as is fitting for an exile’s:
sad one, wear the clothing of these times.
You’ll not be cloaked, dyed with hyacinthine purple –
that’s no fitting colour to go mourning –
no vermilion title, no cedar-oiled paper,
no white bosses, ‘horns’ to your dark ‘brow’.
Happier books are decorated with these things:
you instead should keep my fate in mind.
No brittle pumice to polish your two edges,
so you’re seen ragged, with straggling hair.
No shame at your blots: he who sees them
will know they were caused by my tears.
Go, book, greet the dear places, with my words:
I’ll walk among them on what ‘feet’ I can.
If, in the crowd, there’s one who’s not forgot me,
if there’s one, perhaps, who asks how I am,
say I’m alive, but deny that I am well:
that I’m even alive is a gift from a god.
Otherwise, be silent – let him who wants more read –
beware of saying by chance what isn’t needed!
The reader, prompted, will soon recall my guilt,
the crowd’s voice make me a common criminal.
Beware of defending me, despite the biting words:
a poor case will prove too much for advocacy.
Find someone who sighs about my exile,
and reads your verses with wet eyes,
and silently wishes, unheard by enemies,
my punishment lightened by a gentler Caesar.
For myself, I wish whomever it is no ill,
who asks the gods to be kind to suffering:
what he wishes, let that be: the Leader’s anger done,
grant me the right to die in my native country.
Though you obey, book, you may still be blamed,
and called inferior to the flower of my genius.
The judge’s duty is to search out time
and circumstance. You’re safe regarding time.
Fine-spun verses come from a tranquil mind:
my days are clouded by sudden miseries.
Verse asks for a writer with leisure and privacy:
I’m tossed by winter gales, the storms, the sea.
Every fear harms verse: I’m lost and always
afraid of a sword slicing at my throat.
Even what I’ve created, will amaze just critics:
they’ll read it, whatever it is, with indulgence.
Set Homer, the Maeonian, in such danger,
his genius would fail among such troubles.
Go then, book, untroubled by fame,
don’t be ashamed to displease the reader.
Fortune’s not so kind to me now
for you to take account of any praise.
Secure, I was touched by desire for fame,
and I burned with ardour to win a name.
Enough now if I don’t hate those studies, verses
that hurt me, so that wit brought me exile.
You go for me, you, who can, gaze at Rome.
If the gods could grant now that I were my book!
And because you’re a foreigner in a mighty city
don’t think you come as a stranger to the crowd.
Though you lack a title, they’ll know the style:
though wishing to deceive, it’s clear you’re mine.
But enter quietly so my verse won’t hurt you,
it’s not as popular as once it was.
If anyone thinks you shouldn’t be read
because you’re mine, and thrusts you away,
say: ‘Look at the title: I’m not love’s master:
that work’s already got what it deserved.’

After reading a more poetic form of Ovid’s writing, I could really see how he would have inspired Shakespeare. The flow, the word choice, the sadness and lamentation imbedded in the dialogue with the book greatly engages our emotions. Switch a couple words around and this could easily be mistaken for one of Shakespeare’s love stories. Ovid could just have easily been talking to one of his children or some lost love, but the fact that it is a book clearly displays the passion with which he wrote and regarded his writing, and only emphasises the total desperation he feels with regards to his exile. It’s like he makes himself his own tragic hero.

Scanning the rest of the poems, although one would think he would run out of things to wail about, he writes about his wife, his journey to exile, his odyssey, being sick of exile, spring in Tomi, etc. Actually a lot of them seem to be quite similar. In any case, I find these poems completely fascinating, and the way they serve as like a memoir or a tragic autobiography, totally genius.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Male centered viewpoints. I was reading a medical article entitled The Medicalization of Impotence: Normalizing Phallocentrism, when I came across this quote:

Taken by itself, the penis is a floppy appendage which rises and falls and is the source of a number of pleasures. The Phallus is more than this. It is the physical organ represented as continually erect; it is the inexhaustibly of male desire; it is a dominant element within our culture. (Bradbury 1985, 134).’

This article talks about the literal and symbolic stifling of women’s sexuality when men become concerned about real or supposed erectile dysfunction, and how it serves to perpetuate male dominance. In Lysistrata there was obviously no problem of erectile dysfunction, but go with me. The author explains that men become so focused on achieving a ‘normal erection’, that they find it unacceptable to experience anything slightly different, even if their wives are still satisfied. I feel like this represents the rigid standard to which male dominated societies hold themselves. In Lysistrata, the women are suggesting they be in charge of things until the men can get themselves and the war under control. On page 29, Lysistrata suggests the women be in charge of management, and the continuation of her conversation with the Councilor onto page 30 is indicative that he thinks such a proposal is preposterous. Sure a woman-driven society could function, but it wouldn’t necessarily satisfy the standards or wishes of the men. It could work, but why should it matter when a male dominated society is obviously so much better. As Leonore Tiefer argues in this article, even though the erection may not be perfect, it may still satisfy a couples’ sexual standards—men just have a hard time accepting that.

Our culture perpetuates gender roles for both men and women; the construction of masculinity holding that men be dominant, protective, insensitive, strong, etc. The expectations to which male dominated societies are held are married to these ideals. Anything any less manly or less dominant are simply unacceptable.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Profanity and such

Profanity, this day in age, is a fascinating topic to consider. On one hand, I think a lot of us like to believe we’ve evolved from the prude-ness of earlier generations. In some respects I think that can be proven true—MTV anyone? We certainly appear to not only accept it more, but to actually generate it, encourage it. Profanity sells, so why not capitalize? Of course, profanity has always existed in our society, and in all societies before us, so it really isn’t anything new. Yet it somehow retains its ability to shock and entertain us all the same.

When beginning my reading of Lysistrata, I was prepared for something, mmm colorful (we’ll put it that way). What I got was a total shock that I wasn’t at all expecting. Not to say that I was offended, just a taken by surprise a little. It was simply the blunt, matter-of-fact the play is written way that left me in awe. Like for some reason, because it was ancient, it is supposed to be all proper and discreet. Ha! What a crock. It is like those kids that walk around the playground when you’re in elementary school and tell you they know a dirty word, and then try and convince you, proudly, that their older brother or sister, or perhaps some drunk uncle of theirs coined it. We have this notion that profanity is a recent thing we bad-ass Americans brought into the world along with our democracy and chicken-fries. Oh how wrong we are. Those people obviously hadn’t read this play.

What really got me thinking were all the different translations we read in class. How some were blatantly more vulgar than others. Translations differ, as is their nature, but I have to wonder how much is the difference is due to linguistic interpretation, and how much has to do with the translator being scared witless to write the word ‘dick’ in their book. The Sarah Ruden translation seemed to me the most contemporary, conversationally. I don’t know maybe someone in the sub is having such a conversation right now. Some were more, not necessarily discreet, but maybe more eloquent than others i.e. “point my slippers at the roof” “Put my legs in the air”. Either way, they all got the point across.

I like to imagine, what if I were the sort of person who would actually be offended by reading this? A. What in particular would offend me B. Would it offend me so much that I would have the courage to walk out of class and humiliate myself and C. I would wonder why this surprised me after having learned all I have about the Greeks in the first place? Of course, this is difficult to imagine because I find it so utterly amusing. But would anyone have the bones to attempt a translation that cut out all profanity? I don’t know maybe someone has tried, maybe we heard that attempt in class. But it brings up the question of censorship.

Like we well know, there is a lot of profanity floating around in our society. And naturally we have developed censorship methods. Music has clean versions for sale, for example. This gets a lot of people because they believe that a song should be heard as it was originally intended, instrumentally and lyrically. They feel that something of the piece is lost in the alteration of the “unsuitable parts”. And I totally think that is true in a lot of cases. After all, profanity is a means of expression, and who’s to draw the line between what is appropriate and what isn’t? It is excruciating to think what would happen to such a classic work of literature like Lysistrata, if it were to be censored. All the meaning would be lost, along with most of the entertainment. Plus reading it is a great indication of our past, and that saying how you’re no more vulgar than the ancient greeks holds so true.