Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.03.31

Micaela Janan, Reflections in a Serpent’s Eye: Thebes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009.  Pp. viii, 276.  ISBN 9780199556922.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Ingo Gildenhard and Andrew Zissos, Durham University and University of California, Irvine ( and

For modern Classicists the sustained impetus to psychoanalytical thought provided by ancient myth has been one of the most intriguing intellectual trends of the last century, as well as -- let us not fail to acknowledge -- an important source of ongoing disciplinary vitality. Freud and his successors breathed new life into a number of classical myths by making them the exemplary core of an ever-evolving body of psychoanalytical theory. This progressive, revisionist mining of particular mythic tales is perhaps best seen in the Freudian and Lacanian excavations of the story of Narcissus. With regard to individual myths, of course, Freud and Lacan had the freedom to be selective in their choice of versions and details. And, as a rule, psychoanalytical theorists, in their quest for myths distilled to their essential (psychological) features, have preferred more ‘pure’ or ‘primitive’ accounts than the playful, erudite and self-conscious literary concoctions found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

In offering what amounts to an extended Lacanian reading of Ovid’s Theban history, then, Micaela Janan’s monograph is a bolder undertaking than it might at first appear. Even the central position of Narcissus, both in the chosen narrative sequence and in Janan’s analysis, does not prompt an unthinking lapse into received dogma because Janan is resolved not only to tackle the complex versions of the individual myths of Ovid’s ‘Thebaid’, but also to argue for their meaningful collocation in the larger narrative frame. On her reading, the pathologies of Ovid’s Theban history turn out to illustrate, and, conversely, are illuminated by, Lacanian and other modern doctrines (some would call them ‘insights’ or, indeed, ‘truths’) about the subject and the self, language and intersubjectivity, sex, gender, and (sacrificial) violence, as well as the dialectic of anarchy and order (and order as anarchy) within human civilization. This is a fully committed reading, uncompromising in its conception, and admirable for its intellectual ambition. If it ultimately fails to convince, this may be attributed to a variety of causes -- perhaps most fundamentally, the often tenuous contact maintained between Janan’s analysis and Ovid’s text.

Janan begins with a lengthy Introduction (doubling as Chapter 1) on issues of method, sounding the call for a shift in critical paradigms. She delivers an interesting broadside against a prominent cadre of scholars, including Gian Biagio Conte, Alessandro Barchiesi, and Stephen Hinds, whose work on intertextuality over the last few decades has been responsible for broadening the critical horizons within which students of Latin literature perceive their texts to relate to one another. These critics, Janan asserts, while flirting with the more radical conception of intertextuality advocated by, above all, Julia Kristeva, have remained committed, in both theory and exegetical practice, to key (and in her opinion limited and limiting) assumptions as to how ‘allusions’ are to be understood. The dynamic of expansion and re-entrenchment their work tends to enact is neatly, and with supreme elegance and economy, encapsulated in the opening paragraph of Stephen Hinds’ Allusion and Intertext (Cambridge, 1998): it, as it were, begins by wooing Kristeva and ends by wedding her to Giorgio Pasquali. The offspring of this union is a Cartesian Hermaphrodite, that (one could argue) possesses by its very nature unprecedented heuristic subtlety, combining the boundless possibilities of the mother with the intentionalist discipline and historicist sense of the father. Janan’s Chapter 1 features a similar argumentative dynamic. She, too, begins by citing chapter and verse of the Kristevan gospel, though in a rather more laborious and prolix fashion than Hinds: ‘A poetic text’, she reminds us once more, ‘assumes meaning in relation to the myriad other instances of enunciation that are the literary tradition. The corollary inference is that such a text will richly repay intensified inquiry into the wider penumbra of passages it can be seen to reread. But it also means that context is theoretically limitless, circumscribed neither by “what the author meant” nor by “what the contemporary audience could have understood”’ (11). And Janan practices what she preaches: apart from Kristeva, the guiding stars in her readings of Ovid are Kant and Hegel, Marx and Jameson, and, above all, Lacan and Zizek. The results of this enrichment of intertextuality with psychoanalysis are again hybrid, but certainly not Cartesian.

Chapter 2, entitled ‘In Nomine Patris: Ovid’s Theban Law’, argues that a law of ‘unwitting transgression and inexorable punishment’ (75) is in operation at Thebes. Here Janan points to the initial paradox underwriting Agenor’s pronouncement of exile for his son Cadmus, should the latter fail to locate his sister Europa following her abduction by Jupiter: this declaration is said by Ovid simultaneously to exhibit both pietas and scelus (3.5). According to Janan, Agenor thereby ‘embodies the sadistic, senseless underside of the law’, occupying ‘one end of the spectrum of the Lacanian Father’s possibility’ -- the other end being represented by the unbiased ‘magisterially aloof Symbolic Father’ (personified by Cicero’s ideal statesman). Diana, too, in her punishment of Actaeon, enforces the savage and senseless legal order in place not only in mythical Thebes (83-6): the chapter includes excursions into the historical context, notably Augustus’ policy of punishment (65-7).

Chapter 3 (‘“Th’ Unconquerable Will, and Study of Revenge”: Juno in Thebes’) explores the figure of Juno, identifying sexual jealousy as the driving force behind the acts of retributive vengeance she inflicts upon the victims of Jupiter’s sexual attention. The pattern of ever-escalating violence, which already features large in the opening books of the poem, culminates in Thebes, first with Semele, then with the destruction of Ino and Athamas and their offspring. Juno then fades from view for the rest of the epic. Janan explains this pattern of pathological violence and disappearance as negotiating issues in sexual identity as articulated in the theories of Freud, Lacan, and Zizek.

Chapters 4 and 5 (respectively entitled ‘Narcissus and Echo: The Arrows of Love’s Errors’ and ‘“Through a Glass, Darkly”: Narcissus as Oedipus’) continue the psychoanalytical approach to Man and Woman, gender and desire, but move from the divine plane down to the level of nymph and human. Janan begins by developing a remark by Alison Keith to offer some excellent observations on Narcissus and Echo as reenacting the first love story of the poem, Apollo and Daphne, on a lower rung of the ontological ladder (118-19). Against the tendency of earlier scholarship to see in Echo and Narcissus cautionary tales of what is best eschewed ‘in human life and love’, Janan proposes to explore these characters as (admittedly extreme) paradigms of what are intrinsic features of human intersubjectivity (and its failures), both in the context of relations between the sexes (and how it plays itself out in language and knowledge) and with regard to the broader civic community -- not least via Ovid’s intertextual mirror, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.

Chapter 6 (‘Pentheus Monsters Thebes’) examines Ovid’s satiric representation of Pentheus’ hypermasculinity, which manifests itself not least in how he turns the dragon of Mars that provided the seeds of Theban citizenry into ‘an icon of macho patriotism’. This, it is argued, ‘stages an epistemological upset of received ontology’. The manner in which the dialectic ‘ruthlessly pursues reality in the shifting logical sequelae of contradiction’, Janan asserts with a nod to Hegel, ‘conjures a world forever in process’ (197). As a result, the distinction between ‘good violence’ and ‘bad violence’ (and the notion of the latter justifying the former) stands revealed as an ideological construct. Janan proceeds to link the serpent at Thebes to the she-wolf of Rome, a move that enables her to read the Pentheus episode not only as a prototypical meditation on ‘political quilting’ in the constitution of the subject as defined by Lacan and Zizek, but also as a searching commentary on Augustan ideology and its apparent commitment to law and order. Rome’s patriotism is thereby exposed as ‘the darkest of conspiracies’ (223).

Chapter 7 (‘Ovid and the Epic Tradition: The Post-Augustans’), finally, broadens the scope by arguing for Ovid, just as much as Virgil, as an important point of reference for the epic poets of the early empire. The chapter opens with a polemical broadside against the ‘Vergilocentric’ scholarship of recent decades. Janan, by contrast, advocates the view that Lucan, Statius, Valerius Flaccus and Silius are just as much the successors of Ovid as of Virgil, not least in their attentive engagement with Ovid’s ‘analysis of conflict between citizens and the sexes’ (228).

As mentioned earlier, a fundamental difficulty with Janan’s analysis is its often tenuous contact with Ovid’s text. Whereas the volume has frequent recourse to extended surveys of modern theory, quotations of the Metamorphoses itself are few and far between. This is not a problem per se, but becomes so because of a tendency to misrepresent essential details of Ovid’s account. In such instances it is hard not to wonder whether, as the critical adage goes, the theory is driving the evidence rather than the other way round. Two illustrations will suffice.

In her discussion of Ovid’s initial divine assembly, and Jupiter’s resolution therein to eradicate the entire human race in response to Lycaon’s wickedness, Janan poses the question: ‘Why do the Olympians greet such clotted, sadistic reasoning with enthusiastic approval, and what is the logical consequence of calling that approval pietas?’ (64). But the picture Ovid paints is rather more subtle. The pietas manifested by the other gods does not involve support of Jupiter’s ‘clotted, sadistic reasoning’ -- rather they react with pious indignation to the offences of Lycaon against Jupiter (1.199-200 confremuere omnes studiisque ardentibus ausum / talia deposcunt, where ausum refers to Lycaon alone, followed by the characterization of this collective divine response as pietas at 204). When it comes to the supreme god’s plan to eradicate the human race, the assembled deities clearly have deep and unanimous reservations: est tamen humani generis iactura dolori / omnibus (1.246-7).

In the analysis of early episodes featuring Jupiter’s extra-marital affairs, Juno’s thinking and motivation are likewise not always reliably presented. In one instance the goddess is made guilty of ‘monocausality’ for deducing -- correctly, as Janan concedes -- from the appearance of a suspicious-looking cloud that her husband is cheating on her. Janan remarks on ‘the oddity of her leap of logic in its uncompromising resort to causal determinism’. She represents Juno’s thought process thus: ‘“Hmm, the sky is overcast; ergo, my husband must be cheating on me”’ (99). But a glance at the text suffices to disconfirm this representation. The sky is not overcast, but clear (nitido ... die); an odd cloud has appeared beneath an otherwise cloudless sky. Juno first eliminates two natural possibilities: (i) that the cloud is mist from a river; (ii) that it is a vaporous emanation from the earth (1.603-4). Her suspicion aroused by a meteorological phenomenon that defies natural explanation, she surveys Olympus for her husband, and upon registering his absence, concludes (logically and correctly) that her husband is concealed underneath the odd cloud. This, in other words, is no ‘leap of logic’ but a rational chain of reasoning, one that is, moreover, based on past experience (1.605-6) and perhaps, given the playful complexities of Ovidian poetics, exhibits a kind of metaliterary competence on Juno’s part (the implied reader is surely meant to think of Iliad 14, where Zeus ‘the Cloud Gatherer’ gave fresh meaning to his epithet, treated here as a kind of epic topos).

We conclude with some more general observations. The opening chapter on method merits attention for its endeavor to map out a critical paradigm for the reading of classical literature more generally, in polemical engagement with current orthodoxy. And the chapters that follow impress by Janan’s willingness to tackle questions that have hitherto not found satisfactory answers. The attempt to stage a mutually illuminating dialogue between Ovid’s text and contemporary critical theory produces readings that are not always easy to classify. At times Janan clearly operates within a historicist paradigm and Ovid’s Metamorphoses emerges as a poetic meditation on the realities of Augustan Rome; for the most part, though, her interpretations consist in the systematic mapping of perceived features of the text onto contemporary theories (or, as the case may be, ‘truths’) about humanity’s terms of existence, especially with regard to sex and gender. This approach has intriguing affinities with the allegorical practices of reading Ovid that were in vogue during the Middle Ages. If (say) the anonymous author of the Ovide moralisé or Pierre Bersuire in his Ovidius moralizatus set out to demonstrate that each tale of the Metamorphoses illustrates a Christian truth, Janan invites us to appreciate Ovid’s text as (pre-)figuring the gospels of Lacan and a range of other modern thinkers.

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