BMCR 2001.10.39

Ovid’s Amores. Poetik in der Erotik. (Classica Monacensia. Münchener Studien zur Klassischen Philologie 22.)

, Ovids Amores : Poetik in der Erotik. Classica Monacensia, Bd. 22. Tübingen: G. Narr, 2001. 310 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 3823348817 DM 96.00.

This book offers what its author describes as ‘einen bunten Strauss von Aspekten und keine strenge Thesendiskussion’ (9). These ‘aspects’ are, pace this disclaimer, strung on a single thread, the thesis that the Amores is an exercise in making a poetological point in poetry—or, to put it in my crude reductionist way, that the ‘affair’ or ‘affairs’ which these poems purport to chronicle are with poetry, not with women. This is not exactly a novel view; what Bretzigheimer contributes is a very densely argued and documented demonstration of this reading.

Her book consists of six chapters focussing on single poems or groups of poems as they illuminate this or that aspect of Ovid’s poetic strategy, and two Appendices. Many rewarding insights are embedded in these discussions, but the reader must work hard to come at them. There is much paraphrase of the text, and the accumulation of detail at times impedes the thrust of the argument. Ex uno disce omnes; I will take as an example one of the shorter chapters, no. 4, ‘ verisimile (am. 3.12)—die Elegie, eine imitatio naturae‘ (165-82). The poet complains that his girl has other lovers, and it is all his fault because his praise of her beauty has attracted these rivals: ingenio prostitit illa meo (3.12.8). His real purpose, however, is poetological: ‘Den eigentlichen Zweck … sehe ich in einem poetologischen Beitrag zur Rezeption elegischer Dichtung, einer Anleitung zum richtigen Lesen, einer Reflexion über das Verhaltnis von Dichtung und Wahrheit und einer Klassifizierung der elegischen Gattung’ (165). The ostensible motivation of the poem was not new: Dioscorides and Plato had been there before him. Whether Propertius had too is less certain. B. quotes Prop. 2.34.1 as cur quisquam faciem dominae iam credat amico? (165 n. 2), but Amori is probably what he wrote; see Shackleton Bailey, Propertiana 130, citing Tib. 1.6.51, where cf. Murgatroyd’s note. (Apropos of matters textual, an odd lapse at 159 n. 21, Am. 1.10.30 cited with locanda.) The ‘rivals’ are a poetic fiction; what the poem is really about is how poetry can be misunderstood, Catull. 16 being perhaps another case in point (166). The familiar utilitas -motif ( Nützlichkeitstopik) has undergone a reductio ad absurdum (as indeed has the whole genre; see below): the poet’s successful ‘selling’ of his book has sold his mistress along with it— liber and puella are alike uendibiles. His plaintive words quae modo dicta mea est echo those of Propertius (3.12.5 = 2.8.6), but where Propertius had complained of losing his girl, Ovid now has to share his, which is worse (168). In fact all this is his way of asserting his claim to poetical distinction: ‘Der poeta will mit Hilfe der spezifischen persona“Rivalen” verdeutlichen, welchen künstlerischen Anspruch er sich gestellt hat und verwirklicht sieht, will sein Selbstlob differnziert gestalten’ (169). The illusion of reality communicated to his readers has caused them to take ‘Corinna’ for a creature of flesh and blood, a counterpart on the literary plane to the response to naturalism in the visual arts predicated by ancient critical theory and practice (170). The reaction of these ‘rivals’ to Ovid’s poems is like that of the man who fell in love with Praxiteles’ Aphrodite: ‘sie sind Zeugen für die Perfektion der descriptio pulchritudinis‘ (171). (I cannot help being reminded of Marina in Pericles and the Spaniard who ‘went to bed at her very description’ (4.2.99-101).) It would extend this notice unconscionably to pursue this analysis on the same scale. The nub of B.’s argument is that Am. 3.12, developing hints already dropped in the earlier programmatic poems 2.1 and 3.1, is a lesson on how to read the Amores, one which implicitly arraigns his public for their lack of critical sophistication: they have failed to grasp what mimesis is all about (174). Corinna is a fictional construct, falso laudata, i.e. ficta (176-7). The puella is, literally, the poet’s materies (181), a point I shall recur to below.

The first of the two Appendices is on the Somnium ( Am. 3 .5), which B. believes to be Ovid’s. Having, I suppose, been largely instrumental in relaunching a controversy which shows no sign of dying away, I will not reenter it: suaue mari magno… The second argues, cogently and to me persuasively, that Am. 2.18.19 quod licet, aut artes teneri profitemur Amoris refers to the Amores, not the Ars.

The implications of B.’s argument might, I think, be pressed. What emerges from her discussion is that Ovid is milking his chosen genre for all the poetic mileage that it is capable of yielding, so that, having exploited it à outrance he can pass on to higher things, leaving any potential successor contemplating a vista of scorched earth. From the Epigramma onwards we are confronted with a poet who is in charge, visibly imposing his will on his material and manipulating with almost insolent assurance his medium and his public. I will illustrate what I mean from a poem which is relevant to what was said above about the mistress as materies, 1.7. B. rightly characterizes it as ‘a comic interlude’ (238), and her discussion, complementing that of Barbara Boyd ( Ovid’s literary loves 122-30), brings out well the ironic effect of the catalogue of heroic exempla and in particular the poetological implications of the comparison of the poet to a swollen river (43). What commentators fail to seize on are the equally significant implications of the description of the terrified weeping girl (51-8). This is a word-picture of a work of art, created by the artist who now describes it. The lines depict a living statue; like Perseus, the beholder/reader

nisi quod leuis aura capillos mouerat et tepido manabant lumina fletu, marmoreum ratus esset opus. ( Met. 4.673-5)

Ovid does more than merely ‘recall […] women sculpted, as it were in stone (Boyd 128, concluding an excellent discussion of the literary antecedents of the image); he presents on his page a verbal embodiment of such a work of art, his own creation. Bretzigheimer’s suggestion that ‘Die Merkmale des Schreckens machen aus dem Mädchen beinahe eine Tote’ (244) I think misses the point. Ovid’s contract with his newly-acquired mistress had invited her to provide him with his subject-matter in her own person: “tu mihi materiem felicem in carmina praebe” ( Am. 1.3.19).

She could hardly have reckoned with so literal, so brutal a realization of what he had in mind. (Or could she?) In the final couplet of the poem Ovid in effect assumes her complicity in his design. Now that he has achieved a satisfactory likeness she can come down from the model’s throne, tidy herself up, and join him in admiring the result of their joint efforts, and enjoy the share of réclame that she had been promised (1.3.25-6). The matter-of-fact tone of the couplet and the brisk tempo of the transition from tears to tranquillity suggest role-playing by both parties. As Barsby noted, after Akbar Khan, ‘Ovid is simply treating a stock situation with his usual detached irony’, as he does throughout the Amores, taking every clichéd motif of the genre and giving it the kiss of death, turning the reductio ad absurdum into a lethal weapon. That the treatment worked is a matter of history: ‘Lygdamus’ did no more than elicit a galvanic twitch from the corpse.

Books of this sort induce mixed feelings. There is here much to stimulate and amuse; need it have been such hard work to get at it? This is a doctoral thesis, closely argued and densely documented as required by the lex operis. Adding together the bibliographies in Boyd’s and Bretzigheimer’s books (published only four years apart), and allowing for overlap, I find that the next enquirer who sets out to tackle the Amores will be confronted in these two sources alone (others meanwhile will not have been idle) with some six hundred-odd items of (presumably) relevant secondary literature. (Anxious author to candid friend: ‘Does my bibliography look big in this?’ (c. Mrs. G.A. Kenney).) And these bibliographies are after all themselves selective. Boyd was rapped over the knuckles by Holzberg ( CR 49 (1999) 59) for neglecting recent work not written in English, and I dare say one could point to lacunae in Bretzigheimer’s coverage. So long as the current pressure to publish and the opportunities for doing so continue to grow ( si monumentum requiritis, Annum Philologicum respicite), the problem will get worse, and we must each come to terms with it in our own way. In this case it is the genre to which this book belongs, the published thesis, which invites consideration: could it not have been, as Sir Geoffrey Elton used to put it, ‘de-PhD’d’? It is an uncomfortable paradox that a book which was written to communicate the author’s pleasure in the Amores (7) should be such heavy going. Nevertheless, B.’s demonstration that Ovid’s pellucid Latin is just as susceptible to subtle and nuanced interpretation as Propertius’ strained and elusive idiom is welcome and important, and no one who is seriously concerned to teach or comment on these poems can afford to neglect it. A book, though, to sip, not gulp.