Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.01.26

Garth Tissol, The Face of Nature: Wit, Narrative, and Cosmic Origins in Ovid's Metamorphoses.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1997.  Pp. 238.  ISBN 0-691-01102-8.  $39.50.  

Reviewed by Joseph B. Solodow, Foreign Langs., Southern Connecticut State Univ., New Haven, CT 06515-1305 (
Word count: 2394 words

Stylistic features of the poem's surface enact, or embody, its thematic concerns, especially metamorphosis: that is the unifying thesis of these studies by Garth Tissol. The use of particular stylistic features as a tool for interpreting Ovid is not novel: it is found in such different works as Michael von Albrecht's Die Parenthese in Ovids 'Metamorphosen' und ihre dichterische Funktion (1964) and my own The World of Ovid's Metamorphoses (= WOM, 1988). Nor is such use uncommon. Ovid's vast yet elusive narrative seems to provoke this critical move more than, say, the epics of Virgil or Lucan. But the author's claim is stronger than those made by previous scholars in that, instead of seeing surface features as providing clues that point towards a general interpretation, he sees them as directly representative. The scrutiny of the surface becomes even closer and tighter for one holding such a view, and Tissol carries it out with enlightening and engaging results. His critical stance is reader response, joined with eclectic formalism, as he himself declares (p. 7). Not surprisingly, the interpretation comes ultimately to bear upon the experience of the reader in going through the text.

The first chapter is entitled "Glittering Trifles: Verbal Wit and Physical Transformation." It consists of several studies of word-play seen in relation to the poem's thematic concerns. The paradoxical, self-cancelling phrase impietate pia est (8.477) signals Althea's moral paralysis (pp. 14-15), and in general, paradoxical witticism is the form of expression preferred for the paralyzed; only one other example is cited by Tissol in evidence (6.385, Marsyas), but we can point out others (3.201-202, Actaeon; 8.830-842, Erysichthon; 10.60-61, Eurydice). Elsewhere Polyphemus, addressing his beloved Galatea, threatens to dismember his rival Acis and scatter his limbs across her waters; with the (mild) pun sic se tibi misceat! (13.866) he anticipates Acis's metamorphosis into a stream, or, as Tissol puts it (p. 24), "metamorphosis completes the transformative process already initiated by Polyphemus's words, or rather re-enacts on the level of plot what the pun has already achieved."

He finds metamorphosis connected to word-play through syllepsis: "the easy shift in syllepsis from figurative to literal can be drawn upon to make an easy shift from the conceptual to the physical in metamorphosis" (p. 19). Several examples are adduced, and three appendixes are later devoted to syllepsis. The problem in evaluating a claim like "syllepsis as a stylistic figure becomes directly connected with metamorphosis as a feature of plot" (p. 19) is the vagueness in "connected with." What is the connection? Do we find metamorphosis without syllepsis? In the overwhelming majority of cases, yes. Do we find syllepsis without metamorphosis? Yes, as he himself points out, syllepsis is pervasive in all Ovid's works (p. 3; see also Appendix C).

The author teases out, in lengthy discussion, varying other instances of Ovidian word-play: the word misunderstood (in the case of Cephalus and Procris), the divinatory remark (Mercury and Aglauros), self-persuasion through language (Myrrha), the physicality of words (Byblis), verbal reflexes of the character's separation from self (Marsyas), blurring of the difference between word and thing (the great personifications, like Invidia). The point can be unclear or unpersuasive. The suggestion that Byblis, because she finds erasure to be one of the advantages of writing, is appropriately transformed into a spring, which "embraces both permanence and fluidity" (p. 49), rests on so abstract or obscure a resemblance that it will persuade few of us. The various examinations of word-play sometimes seem to be ruminations rather than arguments. They are loosely strung together, moreover, and bring us to no generalizations.

By citing earlier views, especially Karl Galinsky's and mine, as foils to his own, Tissol makes clear the inadequacy of some of the former. He is right, as I now think, when he objects to describing detachment as the response to Ovidian wit or Ovidian violence (p. 128). I characterized the tone of the Flood passage, and (by implication) of the whole work, as wavering, distancing, blocking the engagement of the reader (WOM, pp. 118-119). Tissol's formulation strikes me as better: as the tone starts in one direction, then veers off in another, the reader senses narrative disruption (p. 93). This view represents more accurately the reader's experience in going through the text; my own now seems to me atemporal and general -- less helpful.

The subject of the second chapter, entitled "The Ass's Shadow: Narrative Disruption and Its Consequences," is the unpredictability of the narrative, its tendency to arouse expectations and then thwart them. The material here is more familiar and is well presented. Many of the expectations that the narrative ultimately defeats are created by the reader's familiarity with earlier literature. Tissol is excellent when dealing with the use of literary allusion: the ability not to treat allusions inertly is vital for interpreters of Hellenistic and Roman literature. In his fine discussion of the Cyclops episode he shows us, better than any one before him, the rich variety of ways in which Ovid drew on Homer, Theocritus, and Virgil. The quality of the text thus brought out is said to be representative; again, themes of the poem are embodied in the experience of reading it. This time "narrative disruption makes flux as much a feature of Ovidian style as of Ovidian perspectives on the nature of things" (p. 97). This too may appear to many of us a rather abstract resemblance.

The remaining two chapters do not cohere as well as the first two. The third analyzes three works of earlier literature that strongly influenced particular parts of Ovid's poem: Callimachus's Hymn to Artemis and Hecale, for which Hollis's edition (1990) is invaluable, and Propertius 4.4, the elegy on Tarpeia. Propertius's poem is reflected in the account of Scylla in Book Eight; the influence of the Alexandrian is more diffuse. In studying Ovid's predecessors in narrative, Tissol's purpose is "to show not so much their influence as his exploitation of them" (p. 131). The intertextual reading of Ovid is first-rate. The commentaries of Haupt-Ehwald, Bömer, and even Lee all inertly record at 1.486 that Ovid is there indebted to Callimachus's hymn. Tissol, with an assist from Doblhofer, goes further and shows how Ovid intensifies both the humor and the irony (p. 137). The chapter in this aspect extends his earlier analyses.

Yet his reading of the particular passages, however excellent, is less valuable than his tracing the origins of Ovid's discontinuous style. He demonstrates clearly and decisively that the chief features of that style -- tenuous transitions, shifting tone, play with genre, indecorous details, strange proportions, oblique narrative -- are already found in Callimachus and Propertius. This may be the single greatest contribution that the book makes. (We are led to wonder whether in those earlier works too narrative disruption is connected to the theme of flux.) The chapter, though presented otherwise, serves as a pendant to the previous one: Chapter Three mainly reveals the history of the characteristics that Chapter Two described. As such, despite its originality and force, it is a digression from the book's line of argument.

The line of argument is most conspicuously disrupted in the final chapter. The subject here is aetiology, and again, as in Chapter One, the several parts are only loosely linked. Aetiological wordplay, by which are meant the etymologies that the text offers for some of the results of metamorphosis (for instance, Aurora from rorare, 13.621-622), is also said to embody a theme of the poem: Ovid "engages his readers in an active appreciation of transformation and flux" (p. 172). Similarly with "bilingual puns" (for instance, fluminis in rapidi ripis enixa vocavit / Ocyroen, 2.637-638, which is not a pun by my reckoning): "the mental process of translation is an experiential symbol of the metamorphosis" (p. 173). Leaving aside the merit of such claims, we may ask what this has to do with aetiology.

The author next examines the Metamorphoses as a reaction to the aetiological thrust of the Aeneid by analyzing Ovid's version of the latter in Books Thirteen and Fourteen. Though saying little that really bears on the announced subject, he notes that Ovid chiefly chooses to rework Books Three and Six, which, as the most heavily prophetic of the Aeneid, link the narrated events to a providential history; Ovid's reworking implicitly denies such a history and emphasizes instead "arbitrary power and unintelligible suffering" (p. 186). The observation on the use made of Virgil's Books Three and Six is important and original.

The last section of the last chapter is meant to be climactic. Tissol here relates aetiology, which he equates with cosmology, to flux. In his view, the aetiologies as recounted by Ovid (the association of the cypress tree with death, the low flight of the partridge, the appearance and aggressiveness of the hoopoe, etc.) reminded contemporary Romans of the original metamorphoses, most of which had been produced by violence or violent emotion. The title of the book is motivated in the statement that "Ovid invites us to ... see behind the outward face of nature an origin in human suffering and passion" (p. 193). Most of this section consists of a partial survey of aetiological poetry, from Homer through Callimachus and Virgil on to the Fasti and then the Metamorphoses. The contrast established between the locally framed aetiologies of the Fasti and the more cosmic and natural aetiologies of the Metamorphoses is telling.

A number of obstacles, however, prevent us from accepting the relation that Tissol posits between aetiology and flux. To prove that metamorphosis transfers into the natural world violent human emotions that have been brought to a peak, he offers only a small handful of examples. Ovid's text in fact does support this claim very handily; we might wish for an abundance of cited examples. Other obstacles are not so easily overcome. It is perverse and unpersuasive to argue that the "lasting effects of metamorphosis are signs of flux" (p. 195). Are they not rather signs of grief, fear, anger, etc.? Ovid himself repeatedly emphasizes the persistence of such characteristics in the products of metamorphosis, but nowhere does he note the continued awareness of the process of metamorphosis. Nor can we readily put credence in the notion of a "constant pursuit of deeper causes" (p. 208), which replaces "whatever was [the metamorphoses'] original thematic character with the inevitably grimmer and more disquieting perspectives of the Metamorphoses" (p. 209). It lies in the nature of mythological tales that they have no "original thematic character," but were always pliable, always being applied to new ends. And, as I showed (WOM, pp. 152-153), Ovid retells at least some of the stories from the Aeneid in versions that are decidedly less grim.

Despite Tissol's book I continue to believe that several fundamental ideas about the poem for which I argued remain valid, or at least unchallenged: that metamorphosis is "a process by which characteristics of a person, essential or incidental, are given physical embodiments and so are rendered visible and manifest" (WOM, p. 174), that the speech of Pythagoras is the foil to all else, that the world of the poem moves away from flux and towards clarity, and that it avoids moral judgments. I do not believe that these or the other conclusions have yet received due consideration, either here or elsewhere. However that may be, I am disappointed with Tissol's far from even-handed treatment of the book. In the first two chapters he often cites it in order to refute or disagree with it; this is as it should be. I do wish, however, that he had acknowledged in the final chapter that others have been there and done some of that before him. On Ovid's debunking of the abstract (p. 181), compare WOM, pp. 108, 156. On his emptying Virgil's Aeneid of Virgilian themes and replacing them with others (pp. 178-186), compare WOM, pp. 136-156; and in the face of Tissol's claim that Galinsky and I miss Virgilian meanings in Ovid, "which they assume to be the only genuine article" (p. 178, n. 34), see WOM, pp. 126-127, 142, 155-156. On Ovid's narrative style as "obstruct[ing] providential interpretation of legend and history" (p. 188), compare WOM, pp. 114-119, 137-142. On the variety of things preserved in metamorphosis (p. 193), compare WOM, pp. 176-183. On Ovid's implicit criticism of fictional structures (p. 215), compare WOM, pp. 26-36, 126-127, 142, 155.

Tissol's book does not read as well as it might. He introduces several distractingly lengthy references to rhetorical writers of the Middle Ages and the early modern period (e. g., pp. 55-56, 89-90, 94-95). While observing and criticizing other scholars' use of metaphor (p. 12), he fastidiously eschews it himself; for this and other reasons his own writing is flat. He tends to express himself in typical contemporary style -- abstract, involuted, hedged about, highly self-conscious. This may be the worst example: "The process of reading the Metamorphoses will most fully gain a transformative nature, and thereby be most richly thematic, if the work can establish an intense reflective engagement on the part of its readers, while simultaneously eluding their grasp, remaining in motion, just out of intellectual reach" (p. 106). The location of the footnotes on the page to which they refer is a welcome boon for us readers, however, and not to be taken for granted even in a day when books are set by computers.

The book reads somewhat like a patchwork, especially in the opening and closing chapters, and indeed it is one to a certain extent. It incorporates two earlier articles and also dissertation work on Callimachus as Ovid's predecessor qua narrative stylist. The movement can be sluggish and circular. The transitions between parts are sometimes obscure and, when explained, not always compelling. The examples, by virtue of their paucity, often fall short of constituting proof.

Garth Tissol is a skillful reader, nevertheless, both open and subtle, equipped with literary knowledge as well as insight. Much of what he says in his book certainly represents a cutting edge of Ovidian criticism. I want to close the review, however, by posing a question about this species of reader-response criticism: is it satisfying to discover that the experiences of reading (the thwarting of expectations, for instance) do not have some reference to human life in one of its larger dimensions, that the experience of reading proves to be about reading itself?

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