Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.26

Stephen M. Wheeler, A Discourse of Wonders: Audience and Performance in Ovid's Metamorphoses.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.  Pp. 272.  ISBN 0-8122-3475-8.  $49.95.  

Reviewed by Peter Bing, Emory University (
Word count: 1503 words

This latest addition to the burgeoning literature on Ovid's Metamorphoses is an important contribution. In the originality of its thesis, its illuminating readings, its knowledgeable and judicious use of critical theory, I would place it beside the most important recent studies.1 Moreover, like the best explicators of Ovid, Wheeler has enough style and wit of his own so as not to diminish his subject; indeed, he is well-matched to it.

W.'s basic orientation comes from the reader-response criticism of Iser and others, with an important admixture of communications theory as developed for literary narrative by Genette, Prince, etc.2 He takes as his point of departure recent interest in internal narrators and audiences in the Metamorphoses, and sets out to explore an area that has received far less attention, namely the status of the external narrator and his audience. He tries to define the implied circumstances of narration (the "narrating instance" in Genette's term), which comprise both how the speaker communicates, and the implied setting of narrator/audience interaction.

According to W., "if ... we consider the primary (external) narrating instance, represented by the poet-narrator and his audience, an obvious but seldom-emphasized fact emerges. The poet-narrator does not represent himself as a writer but as a singer. His presentation of the poem takes place in the context of a public performance ... the narrator addresses himself explicitly to a listening audience that receives the poem aurally" (p.41). "Nowhere in the Metamorphoses," claims W., "does Ovid represent himself explicitly as a writer or his poem as a text" (p.40). In short, Ovid portrays the narrating instance as "a continuous viva-voce performance" (p.87) -- an interpretation that adds new meaning to the "perpetuum carmen" announced in the proem.3

W. does not thereby deny the Metamorphoses its pervasive and artful textuality. That aspect of the poem makes itself felt, however, solely on the level of the implied author and audience, while the narrating persona and his listeners are not conscious of it. There is consequently, says W., an "inherent tension between the implicit orality and explicit literacy of the Metamorphoses" (p.38). It is in this sense "a poem divided between two worlds" (p.92, a suggestive play on the title of Fränkel's book on Ovid).

In a series of illuminating steps W. maps out just how Ovid constructs this notional orality, and how it relates to the more textually-oriented implied author and audience. He shows that, in the few instances in which it occurs in the Metamorphoses, writing is "a 'marked' activity that is distinct from [the narrator's] own utterance" (p.58). For his part, the narrator deploys vocabulary consistent with the performance of song. Second person address, both in primary and embedded narrative, as well as use of the first person plural, refer to a narrator who is speaking (scil. singing), an audience that is listening (this in marked contrast to the Tristia or Fasti). Structurally, too, the author underlines the performative rather than written quality of poem by having his narrator(s) ignore boundaries between scrolls, thus thwarting expectations built upon habits of reading (at the same time, W. suggests that the implied author subtly reminds his audience of the existence of those boundaries, e.g. in his discussion of the transition from Book 1 to 2 in the Phaethon story, pp.88-89). W. plausibly locates the narrator's self-presentation within the social currents of the age: contrary to the more literary conception in the Republic, Augustan poets now "revived the self-image of the 'singer'" (p.63), at times calling themselves vates ("priest" or "prophet"), a throwback to the earliest Roman poetry, so as to project an image of song as it once had been, and was now once more, a communal act performed in the civic arena, with poets as the vehicle of approved social/political values conveyed from on high.

To be sure, the implied author slyly undercuts this socially affirming picture through paradox and irony, and in the course of the poem the primary narrator retreats ever more behind the voices of secondary narrators, thus "open[ing] space for the narratorial audience to disbelieve the stories that it hears" (p.190). Still, W.'s Ovid turns out to be more of a conformist, warier about bucking the official line, than the Ovid we encounter in much recent criticism. W. acutely points out that in the story-world of this poem "skeptics of divine power and metamorphosis invariably come to a bad end" (p.181). The same, according to W., is potentially the case for both the narratorial and implied audience. Disbelief can have political repercussions when, as the narrator implies (1.204), the emperor himself is present in the audience -- an emperor who wields quasi-divine power, and whose adoptive father has become a god. By putting his readers on notice that Big Brother (scil. Augustus) may be listening, "Ovid forces his audience to examine its own skepticism about the myths that are being told and to make a choice... What Ovid represents, in effect, is a model for how dissent is controlled in the early principate: he makes his audience complicit in accepting myths that enshrine the imperatives of a new social order" (p.185).

W.'s reading is cogent and appealing, original and important. If I have a complaint, it is that W. does not fully address the complexity of the viva-voce model for his construction of the implied audience. One of the cornerstones for his premise of narratorial performance is the real-life "revival of public performance in Rome" (p.64). "It is within the Augustan milieu of what might loosely be called a revival of the song culture of ancient Greece, that Ovid presents the Metamorphoses as a form of public performance" (p.65). W. marshals the evidence for the widespread, indeed pervasive, Roman custom of public and private recitation (pp.34-38, 61); he speaks of a "hearing-dominant culture such as Rome" (p.36).

Yet when it comes down to it, he describes the implied audience essentially in terms of a learned readership. W. claims that the reader-response model of audience cognition as a dynamic process in which meaning unfolds and changes in time "has affinities with what we know about the ancient reception of literature" (p.34), both as read from a scroll and as heard in performance. Of his own brilliant and very readerly interpretation of the poem's first four lines -- which takes up the entire twenty six pages of chapter one --, he says "the method of describing the reader's developing response would not be incompatible with the experience of a listener" (p.38). But honestly, could one perform such an analysis on an orally presented text? I don't believe it, though I would love to see him try! While W. very plausibly constructs a doctus lector at the heart of the implied audience, he nowhere elaborates the experience of a doctus auditor or for that matter an indoctus auditor.

For instance, while W. points to the differences in how the narratorial audience and the reader experience the transition between one scroll and another in the Phaethon story, he does not consider how an implied "listener" at a real-life public recital would note that transition as he watches the poet/reciter switch scrolls. Nor does he explore to what extent that listener might or might not apprehend the subtle allegories of closure or beginning (the boundary of the known world at the end of Book 1; the "starting place" of Helius' journey at the beginning of Book 2) with which Ovid invests his narrative. He does not consider, moreover, how the experience of a person listening in private (to a slave, for instance), and able to stop a recitation at will to say "would you read that again?", might differ from that of someone reciting to himself. In other words, although W.'s view of the poem's concurrent textual and oral aspect evokes multiple implied audiences, and potentially quite different experiences of the text, he does not entirely face up to them. A case in point is his interpretation (pp. 37, 85, 100) of the closing prediction, "ore legar populi" ("I will be read by the lips of the people" 15.878): What, one would like to know, does W. make of the fact that the narrator imagines everyone reading his poem aloud, i.e. in myriad individual recitations, rather than at a public event before a large audience? Does it imply that this is the model Ovid privileges as most adequate for appreciating the full range of his art? or is it simply what most people will do?

My comments here should in no way be construed as deprecating W.'s remarkable achievement in this book; they merely reflect how very thought-provoking and worthwhile his approach to the text is. I must also point out that my evaluative summary does not begin to do justice to W.'s sensitivity to language, his numerous and brilliant discussions of individual passages in Ovid, the exemplary clarity with which he guides the reader through a sea of previous scholarship, critical theories, and ultimately his own very considered interpretation. The adjective that comes to mind is "masterful".


1.   E.g. S.E. Hinds, The Metamorphosis of Persephone: Ovid and the Self-conscious Muse (Cambridge 1987); K.S. Myers, Ovid's Causes: Cosmogony and Aetiology in the Metamorphoses (Ann Arbor 1994); G. Tissol, The Face of Nature: Wit, Narrative, and Cosmic Origins in Ovid's Metamorphoses (Princeton 1997).
2.   Indeed, W.'s overview of reader-response theory in Chapter 3, "The Divided Audience", is wonderfully lucid and incisive. I can imagine assigning it to undergraduate Classics students as an introduction to this approach in the context of our field.
3.   On this view, Ovid humorously asks us to envision a narrator with lungs of steel, who can sing a tale 11,995 verses long without pause to an audience of truly epic readiness and patience (W. evokes Odyssean audiences in his epigraph to chapter 1, but the narrator's tale in Metamorphoses is more than five times as long as Odysseus' 2,181 verse marathon in Odyssey 9-12, which at least includes an intermission of 51 verses in Book 11!).

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