Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.04.12


Ernst A. Schmidt, Ovids Poetische Menschenwelt: Die Metamorphoses als Metapher und Symphonie. Sitzungsbericht der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, Bericht 2. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1991. Pp. 151.


Reviewed by Charles Segal, Harvard University.

This intelligent and lucidly written book reexamines the question of the structure and purpose of Ovid's Metamorphoses. It falls into two main sections, of which the first advocates that the poem's chief concern is "anthropological" rather then historical or moralistic, while the second seeks to consolidate the analyses of the poem's structure (especially by Ludwig and Otis) and to apply the method more flexibly, with less rigidity and less insistence on an all-embracing architectonic scheme. Schmidt argues that Ovid is attempting to depict humanity in a wide and varied range of situations and possibilities. Although he does not deny the chronological movement "from chaos to cosmos," i.e. toward the apotheosis of Augustus, he maintains that this developmental or historical scheme is secondary, and that the primary aim is the creation of the "poetische Menschenwelt," by which he means a poetically depicted world of human behaviors and personalities.

If Ovid intended a strictly historical or chronological organization, Schmidt observes, we would have to assume that the creation at the beginning lacks frogs, nightingales, cormorants, and the other creatures that come into existence as the result of metamorphoses recounted in later books. In like manner, the young Apollo whom we first meet slaying Python in book 1 returns to infancy in book 6, as the baby traveling with his mother, Latona. More important than the chronological ordering, then, is a paradigmatic (or what Schmidt calls a "thematic") pattern. This is visible at the very beginning in the dual creation of man, first from "divine seed" (1.76-78) then from the blood of the overambitious Giants (1.156-62). Ovid thereby not only gives us alternative views of human nature but also lays out its opposite extremes. These latter are then realized in many different forms in the poem, most notably in the first and last of its metamorphoses of human beings, Lycaon turned into a wolf, Julius Caesar and Augustus turned into gods. Ovid's concern, then, is with human nature rather than human origins, and his "treasury of tales about men" constitute an "encyclopedic-narrative science of man," an "anthropology made out of stories" (p. 30).

After setting forth his point of view, Schmidt defends it by attacking some of the alternatives posed by recent critics. He argues cogently against the teleological views of W. Ludwig, E. Zinn, and others (the poem progresses from chaos to Augustan cosmos) by noting that the violence inherent in human nature continues all the way to the story of Julius Caesar's assassination at the end, even though this is compensated by his and Augustus's apotheoses. He rejects H. Fränkel's view that Ovid is concerned with the conflict and fragility of identity, though he is willing to accept Fränkel's recognition that Ovid deals with "the psychology of people in extreme situations" (51). Yet Schmidt seems too dogmatic in rejecting Fränkel's insights (48-55), especially his idea that metamorphosis gave Ovid "ample scope for displaying the phenomena of insecure and fleeting identity, of a self divided in itself or spilling over into another self" (Fränkel, Ovid, 1945, 99). While this theme is not always worked out in terms of an interiorizing psychology of character, it is certainly present in the recurrent narratives and images that show the precariousness of the boundaries of the body.

Schmidt prefers the milder psychologizing suggested by a number of scholars that metamorphosis is often a narrative metaphor for various qualities of human nature (58ff.). Lycaon's transformation, for instance, reveals his innate wolfishness. On the other hand Schmidt sensibly points out that one can hardly apply this metaphorizing to all the stories. Callisto, for instance, shows little in her nature that would suggest the appropriateness of her becoming either bear or star (64). Not every metamorphosis realizes a character type or psychological development in pictorial terms (69). Metamorphosis is often just a more or less gentle equivalent of death (so, e.g., for the elderly Philemon and Baucis, or even for Dryope or the Cerastae).

Yet Schmidt again seems to me to impose too narrow a reading on many episodes. The endings of both the Narcissus and Myrrha episodes, for example, do more than simply mark the conclusion or resolution of the respective tale. Narcissus' wasting away is a figurative continuation of his unresolved self-love (3.486-503). In the case of the endless flow of tears with which we leave Phaethon's sisters, Byblis, or Niobe, Schmidt rightly regards metamorphosis as a fixation of emotional suffering into a form that can go no farther. Even here, however, the suggestive interplay between Niobe's fixity into stone and the ever-flowing, endless tears of grief requires a more nuanced discussion (6.301-12). There seems to be a tension here between the closure of petrification and the continuity of the never-ending flow, a tension that perhaps has something to do with the relation between narrative and image discussed by Solodow and treated all too briefly by Schmidt (p. 69, note 37).

In the case of Myrrha, Schmidt argues that the tears with which her story ends create a mood of resolution in the aetiological wrap-up and the eternal fame that will attend this perfumed gum (10.501f.). He writes, "Auch die Tränen, die Myrrha als Baum weint, sind nicht Zeichen ewigen Schmerzens -- nicht eine Trauende wurde verwandelt --, sondern der Lösung. Myrrha wird von sich befreit, sie wird in eine neue Form erlöst" (69). This episode, however, is a good example of how complex Ovid's ambiguous metamorphic half-closures can be and how carefully we must handle their contradictions. Just before the lines about the glory of the myrrh-tears comes the violent tearing of Myrrha's now arboreal body as she gives birth to Adonis (arbor agit rimas et fissa cortice vivum / reddit onus, vagitque puer, 10.512f.). This graphic, if grotesque, account of childbirth forestalls the calm closure of the story in the aetiology of an exotic and precious perfume. The image, for all its fantasy, conveys the tragedy of a teenage girl whose irresistible incestuous passion has so distorted her physical being and her life. We seem to return to fantasy and myth, however, in the naiads who take up the child from the "soft grass" and in the extraordinary beauty of the boy, rivalling the paintings of Cupids (qualia namque / corpora nudorum tabula pinguntur Amorum, / talis erat, 10.515-17). Yet the first thing that the naiads do with the new-born is to "anoint him with the tears of his parent" (lacrimis unxere parentis, 514). Is this just a pretty detail of a myth about the myrrh-tree metamorphosis? Or do we read this detail in the light of the painful splitting of the mother's body in childbirth just before and so see it as a continuation of Myrrha's silent suffering? Readers will, of course, differ, but the kind of problem that such details raise indicate both the richness of Ovid's narrative and the delicacy that he demands of his interpreters.

The second half of the book is more concerned with form and structure and offers little detailed analysis of specific episodes. Schmidt's main point is that Ovid transforms the Greek aetiologizing mythology into a universalizing anthropology. Ovid's aim is not to explain a specific cult or place-name but to account for human nature in a wide perspective on behavior (74). Thus he combines Callimachus' program of learned aetiology with a continuous, epic-proportioned account of human nature, without, however, insisting on a unified view of human character. Variety and diversity, not unity, is Ovid's hallmark. Hence there is no single hero, only an endless array of typical human situations (76f.). It would be interesting to compare what Schmidt says here of Ovid's universalizing of Hellenistic aetiological narrative with G.B. Conte's discussion of how Virgil relativizes the norms of Roman epic to create his own blend of traditional and new elements and sensibilities in the Aeneid (The Rhetoric of Imitation, Ithaca 1986, chap. 5). In Ovid's case, this transformation of specific aetiologies into manifestations of the universality of human nature depends in part on his heavy use of rhetorical typologies and his constant mixing of literary forms and genres. Unfortunately, Schmidt's own organization of the very complex material creates too sharp a division between formal features of the poem (particularly structure) and stylistic features (humor, wit, allusion, literary genres).

In the remaining third of the book Schmidt discusses the structure of the poem in detail. He owes much to the divisions established by Ludwig and Otis, namely the creation of the world; gods' in love with mortals; divine wrath and punishment; human loves; suffering, mortality, and overcoming death (see 89). He differs radically from Otis and Ludwig, however, in regarding these five categories not as a rigid developmental sequence (despite a general forward movement) but rather as "the great themes" that weave in and out of the narrative. A theme may come to the fore as "dominant" and then retreat into the background for many books. He agrees up to a point with Otis's idea of a "network of related motifs moving in a related direction" (93), but he emphasizes the lack of clear sectional breaks. In place of Otis's elaborate architectural schemes, with its rigid panels, exact symmetries, correspondences, contrasts, and interlocking imbedded sections, he would prefer a musical model of theme and variation or a more fluid spatial analogy like that of a moving stage (94). He insists that no single unifying scheme is adequate to the multiplicity and variety of the poem and, what is perhaps more important, he does not see this situation as a defect.

The elaborate discussion that follows ranges widely over the whole poem and is full of suggestive connections among various episodes. Schmidt is especially interested in the way in which the themes mentioned above are foreshadowed by hints in earlier episodes and then fade in and out of "dominance." The Daphne-Apollo episode, for example, is virtually programmatic for a very large stretch of the poem. Pyramus and Thisbe in book 4 prepare for the tales concerned with relations between man and man, rather than man and god, that come into dominance with the Tereus-Philomela episode in book 6. This is also the point where war and cities first make their appearance as features of the narrative. At the same time, the lack of any sharp division in the narrative at this point (6.401-24) tells against rigid schematization. There are obvious thematic clusters (the loves of gods for reluctant virgins in books 1 and 2, the Theban setting of book 3, the explicitly programmatic love-stories of Orpheus of book 10); but the loves of gods for mortals (for example) continue into the last books of the poem (e.g. Adonis and Chione), and indeed love-stories have a prominent places in books 11-15. The gods' punishment of mortal evil- doers, established as a narrative pattern in the Lycaon story, is dominant in 3-6, but recurs again in 8, 10, 11, 14. Many tales combine several themes (e.g. both love and divine punishment in the Narcissus episode).

Schmidt does not regard the somewhat chaotic theology as negative or immoral, but rather as a reflection of Ovid's realistic view of the range of human nature and the actuality of suffering. If the gods are cruel, petty, and vengeful, they are also often just in punishing the bad (Lycaon, Erysichthon) and rewarding the good (Deucalion and Pyrrha, Philemon and Baucis, Hercules). Beside the gods' cruelty in the Actaeon episode we must set the god's rightful vengeance in stories like that of the Lycian farmers in book 6; and then there are the stories like that of Niobe, where the punishment is just but excessive (119). It is perhaps true, as Schmidt suggests, that the gods' rewarding mortals for virtue seems to increase in the last third of the poem (121). Still, for many readers the cruelty or moral indifference of the gods seems to bulk larger, even in the concluding books, with tales like that of Chione, Ceyx and Halycone, or Scylla and Circe. And there are places where Ovid seems to go out of his way to emphasize the gods' disregard of mortal suffering, as in Philomela's three-fold unanswered plea for divine help in book 6.

Schmidt hedges somewhat on the ending of the poem. He tries to de-emphasize the importance of concluding with the future apotheosis of Augustus by suggesting that we view apotheosis not in isolation but only as a part of the larger theme of overcoming death ("Überwindung des Todes"). On the other hand, he suggests that Ovid has systematically prepared for the "Prinzipatsideologie" of his ending with an elaborate series of contrasts and parallels, extending back to the catasterism of Callisto, Phaethon's failure to reach Olympus, the deifications of Io and Ino, and of course the deification of Hercules, vindex terrae, in 9. There is unquestionably a programmatic movement toward Augustus' deification in the stories of Glaucus, Aeneas, Romulus, Aesculapius, Hippolytus/Virbius in the last books. Yet to claim that stories so unfavorable to the gods as those of Io or Callisto foreshadow this theme seems to me a dubious procedure. It is a danger of Schmidt's approach that the specific tone of the episode sometimes gets overlooked or underemphasized in the concern for its thematic affinities, as is the case, for instance, with the humorous touches in the Aesculapius story. It is forced to claim that Caesar's apotheosis is "thematically connected with the love-theme" (132f.) merely because of Venus' presence. Ovid's witty variations on the epic tradition here make it clear that this episode continues his often outrageous appropriations of the Iliad and Aeneid in the closing books. Schmidt's approach suffers here from placing thematic relations above stylistic criteria like Ovid's mixture of tones and genres and his incorporations and transformations of Homer and Virgil.

Schmidt is eager, understandably, to end his book on an upbeat note. In suggesting Ovid's intertwining of his own immortal fame with the eternity of Rome, he praises the "beautiful humanity" that lives in Ovid's anthropomorphized world (138): "Dieses lateinisches Gedicht ist gross und dauerhaft, weil in seiner Vermenschlichung der Welt schönste Menschlichkeit lebt und wirkt." He thus passes over some of the more troubling features of Ovid's ending. He notes in passing the parallels between the apotheosis of Augustus and the "self-apotheosis" of Ovid at the end (133); but he seems to me to make far too little of the fact that the verbal echoes in these last lines associate Hercules' deification with that of the poet rather than of the emperor (9.269 and 15.875, mentioned in a footnote on p. 133; cf. also 14.604). Taken along with the defiance of Iovis ira and the close proximity to Augustus' future apotheosis, the effect is surprising, if not shocking. Schmidt observes reasonably that Ovid's claim for the "eternity of the Metamorphoses presupposes the eternity of Rome" (138). But one may also look at this relationship the other away around, namely that Ovid speaks only of his poem's eternity, not of Rome's.

These differences of interpretation should not obscure the real value of Schmidt's book, particularly his many fine observations on the thematic interrelations among the poem's dizzyingly varied tales and his balanced and helpful assessment of earlier attempts to define its structure and unity. He has achieved in brief compass a broad, sensitive, and flexible understanding of this very complex work and helped us to envisage fresh and appropriate models for its protean diversity. Combining good sense and imagination, he has provided a rich and detailed reading which, for all its learning, never loses sight of the large human issues that Ovid raises.