Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.12.13

Martin Amann, Komik in den Tristien Ovids. Schweizerische Beiträge zur Altertumswissenschaft 31.   Basel:  Schwabe Verlag, 2006.  Pp. 296.  ISBN 3-7965-2149-5.  €61.50.  

Reviewed by Samuel J. Huskey, University of Oklahoma (
Word count: 1232 words

Those who work on Ovid's exile poetry could use a good laugh, but they will not find it in Martin Amann's solid study of the comic element in the Tristia. That is, Amann's book is a serious work of scholarship that illuminates a facet of Ovid's exile poetry that has not received adequate attention. To be sure, A. points out many places where we might laugh at Ovid's wit in his first collection of exile poetry, but A.'s balanced, organized, and easy-to-follow scholarship is not in the least laughable.

Komik in den Tristien Ovids is a revised version of the author's 2003 dissertation (Universität Zürich), and its intended audience is scholars of Ovid's exile poetry. Although previous scholars have discussed comic elements in Ovid's exile poetry, this is the first work to concentrate specifically on the subject, and it does so admirably. Each chapter is divided into numbered sections that make the book easy to navigate. After the introduction and an investigation into the nature of the comic element in general, A. surveys books 1, 3, 4 and 5 of the Tristia in separate chapters, discussing each poem individually. He explains in the introduction his omission of the single long poem that makes up book 2 (see below). A. concludes with a review of the work and convenient summaries of his findings for each of the poems. Finally, there are twenty-two pages of bibliography up to the year 2002, followed by an index of subjects and an index of passages cited. The only errors that I found in the text occur in the formatting of some of the quotations: in some cases, the pentameter lines of Ovid's elegiac couplets have not been indented (pp. 101, 133, 186, 222-223, 230, 234). There is also a misprint in the formula at the bottom of p. 65, where the last two letters of "Ruhmgleichgültig" overlap each other.

A.'s goal is to demonstrate that the Tristia, despite its title, contains many passages that deserve the attribute "comic" (p. 251), which, we learn (p. 10), is to be defined in this work as meaning "leading to laughter" ("zum Lachen anregend") or "causing amusement" ("Erheiterung verursachend"). The strength of A.'s study lies in his acknowledgement of the subjective nature of his topic. He does not appoint himself the arbiter of the comic element in Ovid's Tristia, but rather demonstrates why some passages can be read as funny, and why some passages are unlikely in any way to cause amusement.

In the introduction, A. surveys the previous scholarship on the subject of humor in the exile poetry, lays out his main thesis, and defines the scope of the project. Here we learn that A. has entirely omitted the second book of the Tristia from his discussion because, as a single long poem, it is so unlike the other four books. Indeed, the second book of the Tristia is not lacking in humor, but A. is right to exclude it from his study, since it deserves its own treatment.

In the next chapter ("Theoretische Betrachtungen zur Komik"), A. establishes the critical method that he will follow. In the first section, he surveys the language of humor, treating the major terms ("Komisch-Komik-das Komische", "Humor", "Lachen", and "Ironie") separately. In the second section, he discusses at length the problematic nature of studying such a subjective topic. This section itself might strike readers as funny, in the sense of "peculiar," since A. attempts to capture the subjective and objective aspects of the comic element in literature with a series of formulae. This approach might sound tedious and artificial, but it is necessary for establishing the working definition of "komik" that A. will use throughout the rest of the work. For that reason, this is the single most important section of the study.

First, he argues that the objective part of the comic element depends on the relationship between three factors: comic contrast (K), anomaly (A) and the norm (N). To illustrate his point, he devises the formula K=A/N. That is, the greater the anomalous element is in relation to the expected norm, the greater the comic contrast will be (p. 21). So as not to dwell on abstractions, A. makes his point with several clever examples and some visual representations in the form of charts and illustrations. Second, he argues further that whether or not someone will find the comic contrast funny depends on the right combination of several other criteria: distance, a mood conducive to humor ("Komikbegünstigende Stimmung"), suddenness ("Plötzlichkeit") and surprise (Überraschung). Third, A. demonstrates through more examples that, these criteria individually may or may not lead to a comic reaction, but certain combinations of the criteria are more likely than others to produce a comic reaction. Several useful visual representations of these combinations accompany this part of the discussion. Finally, after identifying the constituent parts of the comic element, A. addresses the weaknesses of this approach and asserts that it is not intended to be equally applicable to all comic situations. At all times, A. carefully avoids pronouncing anything as definitively comic, but rather suggests why some things are more likely than others to be considered funny. A. ends this theoretical discussion with a brief survey of the views of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero on the nature of comedy. He then argues that, since the same fundamental elements of his definition are present in these ancient views of comedy, his analytical criteria may be reasonably applied to ancient literature such as Ovid's exile poetry.

In the rest of the book, A. devotes a chapter to each book of the Tristia (with the exception of the second), analyzing each poem in sequence. He follows a standard pattern in his analysis: first he summarizes the content of the poem; then, he examines it section by section, pointing out the potentially comic elements as they occur, unless he is speaking of the poems that lack the proper mixture of criteria for being funny. Never does he stray from this pattern, nor does he succumb to the temptation to comment on other aspects of Ovid's poetry. In general, A. approaches the poems with great sensitivity and care, judiciously applying a wide range of theoretical tools in his close reading of each one. In this way, he finds humor lurking in a variety of places: in the distance between the statements of Ovid and the narrative "I," in the use of personification, in the hyperbole of the descriptions of his surroundings, in the intertextual references to Ovid's own poetry and that of his predecessors, in ironic remarks (often in underhanded praise of the emperor), in ambiguous exempla, in the use of understatement, in Ovid's feigned naivete, and in other literary games that will be familiar to readers of Ovid's earlier poetry. Indeed, a major point of A.'s work is to demonstrate that Ovid's poetic technique in the Tristia is no different from his technique in the earlier works.

In conclusion, A. accomplishes his goal of revealing the presence of humor in the Tristia, but his book is equally valuable for its sensitive treatment of Ovid's exile poetry in general. A.'s readers will appreciate his lucid and lively prose and will find much of use in his study. They might not agree with him on all points, but that is the nature of any work on such a subjective topic, as A. freely acknowledges throughout his study.

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