Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.60

József Krupp, Distanz und Bedeutung: Ovids Metamorphosen und die Frage der Ironie. Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften, Neue Folge, 2. Reihe, Bd 126.   Heidelberg:  Universitätsverlag Winter, 2009.  Pp. 200.  ISBN 9783825356781.  €40.00.  

Reviewed by R. Alden Smith, Baylor University (

Krupp states near the beginning of his well-written and well-researched book, “Ironie bedeutet entweder, etwas sagen und vorgeben, es nicht zu sagen - oder die Sachen durch anders lautende Worte aussprechen” (14).1 Such saying/not saying and an author’s expressing what he wishes to say in a different and unexpected manner is an aspect of the manipulation of distance that sheds light on how irony functions. Taking Plato’s Socrates as the ancient embodiment of irony, Krupp moves through various postmodern thinkers such as Derrida, Barth, de Man and Schlegel, the last of whom suggests that irony pushes the limits of human communication and is thus opposed to language (20). For Schlegel irony is a kind of “transcendental buffoonery.” To distinguish irony from mere humor, Krupp follows Hegel and Kierkegaard, the latter of whom sees irony as subjectivitatis significatio. Like Frye (Anatomy of Criticism), Krupp sees irony as discrete from satire because satire is a “militant” form of irony with less moral force (30). He also reviews Baudelaire’s consideration of humor and laughter that regards irony as an aspect of caricature. Krupp closes his discussion with the Gadamerian concept of irony as “antitext,” a portion of the text that essentially works “against” the narrative (43).

In his second chapter, Krupp considers individual passages, beginning with that of Lycaon, contrasting its frivolous moments with its epic grandeur, which is undercut by Ovid’s humorous tone. The passage’s irony can be seen in Lycaon being punished at Jupiter’s hands—the same hands that had earlier meted out punishment to rebellious giants. Further, the reference to the setting as palatia caeli increases the irony by contextualizing the punishment in a distinctively Roman setting. Thus, Krupp discusses the concilium deorum of Metamorphoses 1, with which he compares the opening verses of Aeneid 10, balancing the modern reader’s horizon with the Romanization of the text (cf. Barchiesi, ed., Ovidio: Metamorfosi, Volume I, Libri I- II, ad 1.172.). The irony is heightened by Ovid’s dubbing Jupiter princeps, for Jupiter’s speech, rife with inconsistencies and logical fallacies, deconstructs itself (58f.). Years ago Heinze had seen the episode as comical (Ovids elegische Erzählung, 11f.), an aspect of which is the egocentric rhetorical flourish of the god: just as the punishment is too harsh for the crime, so Jupiter’s rhetoric is too self-serving and aggrandizing for a god of his stature. Yet Krupp is careful not to press too closely the association of Jupiter with Augustus or Lycaon with Ovid.

Krupp now moves on to consider selections from Ovid’s Theban cycle. Picking up on an observation of Feldherr (Metamorphosis and Sacrifice, 27-29) about vision in the Ovidian narrative, Krupp notes that the myth of Actaeon, formerly chiefly a tale of transformation, has in Ovid’s hands become a matter of seeing and being seen. When Diana comes into Actaeon’s view, her attendants pour around her (circumfusae) like water and as such cannot cover the goddess’ nakedness. Krupp also considers the irony of the situation in light of the sexual violation of the goddess’ grove. While Krupp perhaps overemphasizes the significance of uisa est as it is used to describe the perception of Diana’s violent nature, his positing of the accidental inuentio of the goddess by Actaeon as the basis for irony is surely correct: Actaeon begins as the spectator and winds up as the spectacle. Krupp also touches on the curious Kreutzung der Gattungen in the passage, which includes a seemingly quixotic reference to Virgil’s seventh Eclogue (Arcades omnes). With that reference, in particular, Ovid contrasts the world of the Metamorphoses and that of Virgilian pastoral (83f.).

Next, Krupp considers Narcissus, whose ironic story is embedded between two other such figures, Pentheus and Tiresias. (Tiresias is ironically both male and female, blind and visionary; Pentheus’ zeal to see thronging females goes too far.) Considering Narcissus’s fate against the backdrop of images in Catullus and Propertius, Krupp sees the tale’s chief paradox as the distortion of the Delphic dictum gnothi seauton. Qua character, Narcissus not only contrasts ironically with Echo, the aural counterpart to his visual equivalent, but also with Pygmalion, who in tactile manner can vivify art. By contrast, Narcissus cannot touch the youth beneath the surface of the water and thus will die—or rather become the flower from Catullus 62. While not entirely original, Krupp’s handling of Ovid’s echo of Catullus’ multi illum pueri, multae optauere puellae (62.42) is skillful, for he nicely expounds how the text reflects the character.

Turning to Echo, Krupp acknowledges the work of Rosati (Narciso e Pigmalione), emphasizing the ironic tone of phrases such as “uisa est uox” (3.349) and “imagine uocis” (3.385). The vignette’s opening words contrast vision and sound (adspicit and uocalis, lines 356f.), thus heightening the irony that is reinforced by Echo’s repetitive speech. Narcissus, who relies on sight, turns only to the “text” of Echo’s words after all possibilities of sight are exhausted. Verbs such as exspectare emphasize vision, and Ovid employs visual adjectives such as eburneus that have erotic overtones indebted to elegiac poetry. (That adjective foreshadows a similar usage in the Pygmalion story, where the word suggests erotic transformation.) A statement of Nietzsche helps Krupp further analyze the Narcissus tale in terms of physical and psychological dimensionality. Krupp’s departure from Elsner’s notion that Narcissus is both ideal artist and ideal viewer is a gentle and welcome correction (Krupp, 105; cf. J. Elsner, Roman Eyes, 133).

As Krupp explains that Ovid’s representation of Narcissus may find its roots in the ontological skepticism of fifth- century thought, his analysis wanders (albeit with interesting observations). Patience on the reader’s part, however, pays off as Krupp, returning to his analysis of the passage, observes that the tears Narcissus sheds physically connect the image to an aquatic source (110). He further notes that Ovid’s address of Narcissus via apostrophe introduces a pathetic tone. Such apostrophes not only offer a commentary on the story as it proceeds but also amount to a parekbasis (Schlegel’s term employed by Rosati in Narciso e Pigmalione to explain dramatic irony). Explaining that parekbasis represents an ironic intrusion into the narrative, Krupp cites and expands on Rosati’s analysis of the vocative adjective unice applied to Narcissus at 3.454 (cf. Rosati, 43). Narcissus’ monologue is regarded as evoking the elegiac tradition represented by Propertius. Ironically, Narcissus is the prototypical spurned elegiac lover (116); when he has Echo and Narcissus part, Ovid transcends the elegiac intertext to invoke the bucolic tone of Virgil’s Eclogues (Krupp, 119; cf. Jeff Wills, Repetition in Latin Poetry, 347).

To begin his fifth chapter, which focuses on the stories of Atalanta and Adonis, Krupp touches on observations by Miller (Ariadne’s Thread) that recast afresh Schlegel’s concept of parekbasis. Specifically, Krupp develops Miller’s idea about irony as a disruption of the text’s linearity (121). Turning to the Adonis story, Krupp adopts Gérard Genette’s terms to develop the theme of irony as transgression (metalepsis, a kind of textual border violation). Such transgression opens the possibility that what goes on “outside the text” (extradiegetic material) must be viewed against what goes on within the text (diegetic material). This analysis is balanced with Krupp’s interpretation of the lack of linearity in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for which Krupp adopts Miller’s analogy of the labyrinth.

Krupp next considers the interplay of the tale of Adonis and Venus in relation to that of Cinyras and Myrrha. Especially nice is Krupp’s comparison of Cupid’s absence from the Venus and Adonis story to Cupid’s denial of helping Myrrha in that tale. Krupp also shows the similarities of the Adonis tale to that of Atalanta. In the Adonis- Venus narrative, Krupp interprets the kissing of the couple as a symbol of metalepsis—a clever observation, given the ironic similarity of Adonis and Cupid (133). In the case of Atalanta, the reader is “consulted” about the relation of Atalanta’s body to her swiftness, which shrinks the boundaries between the reader’s perspective and the narrative voice.

Krupp now turns to the issue of Ovid’s indebtedness to Hellenistic poetry (cf. Knox, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Traditions of Augustan Poetry, 27-47). Following Meyers, Galinsky, et al., Krupp briefly considers the models from Bios to Nikander in terms of complexity and finesse as well as Ovid’s deviation from his Hellenistic forebears (143). Krupp avers Galinsky’s seminal observation that Ovid tends to referre idem aliter, expanding upon that statement by suggesting that Ovid juxtaposes serious and comical themes. Ovid’s synthesis reflects the Hellenistic practice of expecting a learned audience (145). Such oscillation between humor and seriousness is paralleled by the movement between truth and disillusionment (cf. also Hardie, Ovid's Poetics of Illusion, 22).

As he nears his monograph’s conclusion, Krupp turns his attention to the “Little Aeneid” (Met. 13.623-14.605), for which Ovid employs the different semantic fields of irony and parody. Quintilian once called parody a figure of thought, pointing out that its nature is imitative (Inst. 9.2.35). The difference between a parodic allusion’s new and original context, Krupp argues, is comparable to Derrida’s notion of différance (cf. also Garth Tissol, The Face of Nature, 183). Inasmuch as the Aeneid had been, already in Ovid’s lifetime, catapulted to the center of the poetic curriculum (151), both parody and irony function as marks of distinction between the original Virgilian locus and new Ovidian context; thus, there is no such thing as univocality when it comes to these two devices.

As Krupp begins to unpack the text of the “Little Aeneid,” his discussion gains its legs. Having reviewed scholarship relevant to the passage, Krupp calls attention to the fact that Ovid’s account of Aeneas’ katabasis lacks the telos-orientation that one finds in Virgil (158). Thus Krupp observes that Ovid’s account of Aeneas’ mission is one of many tales rather than the narrative’s centerpiece. Nevertheless, that Ovid wanted his “Little Aeneid” to be read in light of his immediate epic predecessor is clear from numerous intertextual references, as Papaiouannou has shown (Krupp, 163f.; Papaioannou, Epic Succession and Dissension, 49f). Krupp shows that Ovid, in following but also deviating from the basic Virgilian plot line, gives his text an ironic tone (168).

Krupp closes his discussion with Achaemenides’ account of the Cyclops. One aspect of this story’s significance is that it breaks up the Aeneas narrative and makes it seem that Virgil’s account of the story is just one of many versions, the latest of which is Ovid’s own, as Ovid reintroduces Homeric material through a new character, whose very presence helps to convey Ovid’s constantly shifting hierarchies (175). Krupp’s four-page conclusion recapitulates the main thrust of the book in establishing irony as a major compositional technique in the Metamorphoses, reminding the reader of how Ovid uses irony to create textual space or distance between the reader and the narrative together with its intertextual models.

Distanz und Bedeutung dovetails nicely with the important recent work of scholars such as Barchiesi, Rosati and Hardie, while also acknowledging the seminal contributions of von Albrecht, Otis, Galinsky and others. Does Krupp’s analysis prove that in the Metamorphoses Ovid is a heavily ironic poet? In a sense, even though he analyzes only select episodes, it does. Krupp does not insist that every episode has an ironic quality. Rather, his point is that when Ovid chooses to employ irony, he can do so with the best of them. Admittedly, some of Krupp’s analyses are stronger than others (e.g., his treatment of Narcissus and Echo is particularly good). His exegesis of theory, if less appealing than his application of it to his many well-thought-out analyses of passages, is nevertheless useful. All in all, Krupp is at his best when he balances theory and text, which he does, for the most part, successfully. By emphasizing Ovid’s ironic qualities, Krupp has neatly carved out a place for Distanz und Bedeutung, which represents an important and welcome contribution to Ovidian scholarship.

Table of Contents

1. Einleitung, 11
2. Die Codes des Textes: Lycaon, 47
3. videre/videri: Actaeon, 67
4. Illusion und Ironie: Narcissus, Echo, 85
5. Ironie und die Aufhebung der Linearität: Adonis, Atalanta, 121
6. Ironie und Parodie: Die Aeneis-Episode, 147
7. Schluss, 175
Literaturverzeichnis 179
Register 193
Stellenregister 193
Namensregister 196
Sachregister 198


1.   I wish to thank Susannah Brister, Kirsten Kappelmann, and Hillary Shellnut for assiduous assistance.

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