BMCR 2002.11.20

Ovid’s Poetics of Illusion

, Ovid's poetics of illusion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. viii, 365 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521800870 $65.00.

In a very brief critique from a recent issue of Classical Journal (Vol. 97/No. 2), D. R. Shackleton Bailey, apparently exasperated by recent developments in classical scholarship, posed the following questions: “(a) Do matters of text and verbal interpretation, what classical authors wrote and what they meant, still have a place in classical philology? (b) Are all such questions canonically settled for the rest of time? (c) Does a competent readership still exist for contributions of this nature?” The answers (‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘yes’), I believe, are ably offered by Philip Hardie’s new book, Ovid’s Poetics of Illusion (Cambridge 2002). Hardie, editor of the Cambridge Companion to Ovid and prolific scholar on classical epic, its tradition and reception, has crafted a book of impressive depth, stimulating insight, and persuasive argument. Hardie performs the notable feat of explicating Ovid’s poetry with the critical methodology of current scholarship yet also acknowledging the value of past critical views; the postmodern perspectives of Derrida and Lacan are balanced by a re-evaluation of Fränkel. With a magisterial approach, Hardie reads Ovid as a poet consistently engaged and enamored with verbal ‘conjuring’ (a frequently and appropriately used verb by Hardie) and thus the creating of an illusion of presence in his poetry, whether in the Amores, the Heroides, the Metamorphoses, or the Tristia and Ex Ponto. Through his extensive citations from scholars, both classical and non-classical, and his penetrating intertextual analysis of Ovid’s poetry, Hardie adumbrates Ovid’s relationship to other classical poets and his influence on later writers, from the Renaissance to our own day.

There are ten chapters in the book, clearly organized to guide the reader through a chronological poetic development of Ovid from his initial love elegies to the exilic poems. Hardie offers a helpful summative and orientational expression of subject and purpose at the start of each chapter, echoing the introductory chapter’s focus at the beginning of the book. The thesis of each chapter then unfolds with particular focus on the relevant supporting passages from Ovid, with intertextual emphases, often including an analysis of Ovid through a reading of other Latin poets or through the reception of Ovid by later traditions.

Chapter 1: “Introduction.” The introductory chapter provides a programmatic map of historical and cultural context, as well as the critical theories, from Epicurus to Derrida and Lacan, necessary for the reader to reach Hardie’s intended destination: the shifting landscape of Ovidian poetics. Here Ovid, as ‘vates’, is the master of illusion who speaks “the language of presence and absence” and whose narratives at times seem to conjure up “the presence of a post-modern critic.” Hardie surveys poetics practiced from the Greco-Roman literary tradition to the Renaissance, always underscoring the poet’s ability to evoke “desired presences” and to create and self-consciously to manipulate fictions through the power of words and language, and focusing on the “ontological moment” of Ovidian poetics. Hardie also freely confesses the construction of his own critical illusion, an admittedly subjective reading of Ovid, frequently employing the epideictic voice to reassure his readers, especially fellow post-modern critics, that he, too, is one of them, no better nor worse than the reader. Perhaps to illustrate further his discursive honesty, Hardie pulls back the curtain of his machinations, and in a sort of hypertextual manner he first offers the analeptic and proleptic notes that become a familiar device throughout his book, sending the reader back and forth throughout his narrative to such and such pages where ideas first appear or, more often, later evolve. The final sentence of the introduction may be read as an apology for the entire book: “If future generations judge that readers like myself are in fact in the position of a Narcissus able only to reflect our own contemporary subjectivity in the mirror of the Ovidian text, this too would be a thoroughly Ovidian illusion.”

Chapter 2: “Impossible objects of desire.” Ovid as the poet of love is the inevitable departure point for any critical analysis of his work. In this chapter the elegiac puella is the center of attention. As an object of desire and as a persona inhabiting the erotic elegiac world created by the poet, Ovid’s Corinna is first for analysis. Using Freud and Lacan, Hardie proposes that Ovid’s so-called silly love poems are “signs of a searching engagement with the structure and dynamics of desire.” In the context of Latin love elegy practiced by Catullus and Propertius, Corinna is another absent presence, whether real or imagined, another named projection of the male poet’s desire, but Hardie argues that Ovid’s talent for personification and thus the creation of textual presences permits the poet to do something different. In the Amores, Ovid seduces the reader into desiring Corinna, too, both cognitively and sexually; the reader seeks an ‘epiphany’ of Corinna, but in the half-light of Amores 1.5, “Ovid’s presentation of Corinna in the earthly here and now hovers between scenes on Olympus and in the Underworld.” As both goddess and ghost, and as elegiac puella, Corinna is ultimately unattainable by either poet-lover or reader. Hardie points to the paraclausithyron following Amores 1.5 as a suitable evocation of frustrated desire, and he then reads the Apollo-Daphne episode in the Metamorphoses as paradigmatic of the same “frustration of satisfied desire.” This reading from the Metamorphoses, as Hardie himself point out, runs counter to most others, “allegorising the reader’s experience into the experience of actors in the text, with the result that desiring actors end up as readers or spectators, but not possessors, of their objects of desire.” This chapter ends with a return to Catullus, poems 51 and 50 representing desire mediated by language—the mimesis of Sappho, the word-play with Calvus—and a reading of Amores 2.15 and 2.16—the personification of a ring as lover, the evocation of his beloved by the landscape—as further evidence of “the textuality of desire.”

Chapter 3: “Death, desire and monuments.” Hardie now focuses on the Metamorphoses, noting that the thematic elements of love and grief in the epic (themes also framing Ovid’s poetic career, from the Amores to the Tristia and Ex Ponto) are fundamental to a great number of its stories in which a metamorphosis preserves the presence of a lost object of desire. Making a strong point of a critically recognized weakness in the Metamorphoses, the “narrative monotony” often ascribed to the epic, Hardie analyses the many episodic parallels and argues from a Lacanian perspective that repetition is a necessary condition for “a desire founded on absence and lack,” whether from grief or love; the ‘Song of Orpheus’ beginning with the Apollo-Hyacinthus tale in Book 10 mirrors the erotic tales initiated by the Apollo-Daphne story in Book 1, such parallels elucidating the “commemoration of loss” as a central principle in the Metamorphoses and validating a multiplicity of interpretive models based, however, on a singular focus—desire. The Rime Sparse of Petrarch and, later in the chapter, the Poetaster of Ben Jonson become poetic evidence from the Renaissance for a similar reading and reception of Ovid, especially his constant attempts “to realise the illusion of presence, whether motivated by erotic desire, the desire for fame, or a more ludic delight in illusionism.” It is the conflation of poet and text, Ovid and the Metamorphoses, at the end of the epic that forms the final argument of the chapter. Using funerary monuments, especially cenotaphs, from the Metamorphoses, as well as other literary sources and funerary inscriptions, Hardie posits the ‘Epilogue’ of the Metamorphoses as Ovid’s epitaph, “the poem’s last example of the power of words to conjure up the presence of that which is absent.” This final metamorphosis grants Ovid immortality and the illusion of presence, whenever and however the text is read.

Chapter 4: “The Heroides.” The Heroides, by nature of the epistolary genre, are ideal exemplars of Hardie’s focus on absent presence: text mediating between writer and addressee, the verbal communication of the physically separated lovers creating the illusion of presence for both. Hardie finds Heroides 20-21 (Acontius and Cydippe), Heroides 13 (Laudamia), and Heroides 18-19 (Leander and Hero) to be the most suitable vehicles for his musings on intertextual elegiac and pastoral presences, as well as the power of words and “the struggle of the written word to affect events in the world, a constant theme of the Heroides.” In the letters of Acontius and Cydippe, the golden apple and its inscription signify the performative power of writing and reading in the fulfillment of desire. Hardie supports the argument for these letters and their myth as a template of erotic elegiac conventions, but with bucolic undertones, alluding to both Gallus and Callimachus, analyzing Virgil’s Eclogues as a representation of the tension between pastoral and elegiac genres, between ideals of qualified plenitude and realities of failed presence, and adumbrating the tales of Apollo-Daphne and Pan-Syrinx in the Metamorphoses as respective aetiologies for elegy and pastoral. In the letter of Laudamia, her fear and anxiety create images of Protesilaus—text, dream, and statue—which only serve to emphasize and to foreshadow the ultimate and permanent lack of his presence. Finally, in the letters of Leander and Hero, Hardie notes the paraclausithyron as influential in shaping Leander’s personification of the letter itself and animation of the physical world in his desire to overcome the obstacles of separation from his beloved; only brief attention to Hero’s parallel, feminized plaints ends the chapter. It must be stated, however, that in this final section of the chapter, a reader may be distracted by two clear mistakes: on page 138, Hardie erroneously refers to Hero in the masculine (“Hero recounts his dreams of Leander”); on page 142, Hardie refers to Hero’s conversation with her nurse (19.41-46), but wrongly translates Hero’s questions about Leander’s imagined preparation for his swim as “‘Do you think that Hero is even now preparing for the swim?'”

Chapter 5: “Narcissus: the mirror of the text.” Hardie continues his exploration of elements of the paraclausithyron in Heroides 18 and 19 by connecting Leander’s complaints with the tale of Narcissus from the Metamorphoses, the true focal point of the chapter. The surface of water, the least of barriers, becomes Lacanian mirror and interface between Self and Other, between reality and illusion, as Narcissus, like the reader, confronts an image that can never be real, but only an unfulfilled desire. Explicating the Epicurean model of sense perception and thus sensory illusion in Lucretius, Hardie argues for the story of Narcissus (and Echo) as an Ovidian treatment of the deluding qualities of sight and sound. Narcissus as “Lucretian fool” and “Lucretian lover” falls victim to “simulacral delusions,” again a frustrated elegiac lover counterposed in an amoebaic pastoral landscape of false promise, even after his recognition of the nature of the Other, an empty reflection of the Self. The nature of that ‘anagnorisis’ leads Hardie to discuss the tragic qualities of the story of Narcissus and Ovid’s Theban cycle of tales in Metamorphoses 3 and 4, tracing “the manifestations of a Dionysiac poetics of presence and illusion.” The metamorphic and illusory nature of Bacchus himself, epitomized in the story of Pentheus, permeates Ovid’s Theban history in which masks, boundaries, and narrative perspectives constantly shift, and in which “the product of every metamorphosis is an absent presence.”

Chapter 6: “Pygmalion: art and illusion.” Ecphrasis is the fundamental subject of this, the longest, chapter in the book, and Ovid, noted as “the obsessive visualizer” in the Introduction, is a poet for whom ‘seeing’ seems everything, especially in the Metamorphoses. The departure point for Hardie’s argument in this chapter is the inherent nature of literary ecphrasis as a means both to create the illusion of presence and even to transcend the limitations of immobility and externality imposed on a visual artist’s work. While there are fewer formal ecphrases in the Metamorphoses than in the Aeneid, the relationship between word and image finds constant expression in Ovid, from the gallery of living warriors transformed into statues by Perseus to the animation of a lifeless statue by Pygmalion, as the poet conflates aesthetic and erotic responses within his own narrative art, the ‘vates’ working his Orphic magic. To elaborate on this connection between the erotic and the aesthetic, Hardie turns again to the reception of Ovid by later artists. Ovid’s Pygmalion inspires textual and visual works with similar thematizations: first, Shakespeare and his play, The Winter’s Tale; then, Jean-Leon Gérôme, and his many paintings and sculptures on the subject of Pygmalion. The scene of Leontes and the polychromed statue of Hermione from Act V of the Winter’s Tale validates “Shakespeare’s power as a reader of Ovid,” incorporating allusions to the tales of Orpheus, Proserpina, and Pygmalion and in Ovidian fashion playing upon verbal and visual imagery, the illusions created by desire, as well as intertextuality. In the nineteenth-century academic tradition of painting, Jean-Leon Gérôme finds in Ovid’s Pygmalion a symbol for the representational artist’s desire to conjure presence, and for the ancient origins of illusionist art, resulting in narcissistic paintings of the artist in his studio giving life to statuary, a reflection of the polychromed figures he did sculpt. In this chapter, Hardie supplements his own text with a dozen well-chosen illustrations of both paintings and sculpture, mostly by Gérôme.

Chapter 7: “Absent presences of language.” Moving from the visual back to the textual, Hardie offers an overview of Ovidian linguistic devices and ends the chapter by answering what’s in a name. Metaphor, simile, allegory, syllepsis, and personification, all illustrative of “the power of language to create illusions of presence,” reflect the essential nature of the Metamorphoses, a narrative filled with transformations between the literal and figurative, perhaps best exemplified by Ovid’s treatment of Envy, Hunger, Sleep, and Fama. Throughout his poetry, however, Ovid appears fascinated by the powerful and transcendent nature of nomina acting as signs and signifiers, from the fictive elegiac Corinna to the commemorative landscape of the Metamorphoses; indeed, Hardie underscores the link between bodies and words as a defining element in Ovid’s poetics, whether in the preservation of a name after physical metamorphosis or in the poet’s own identification of self with text. Names, especially those shared and repeated, enable Ovid to expand a word’s meaning through associative allusion and to explore issues of identity formulated by language. Such evocative technique, Hardie notes, even influences Lucan’s characterization of Pompey in the Bellum Civile.

Chapter 8: “Conjugal conjurings.” Here Hardie presents a chapter of “summative quality” in which he gives close readings of two stories from the Metamorphoses : Tereus and Philomela, and Ceyx and Alcyone. As the framing tales to the compositional block once labeled ‘The Pathos of Love’ by Brooks Otis, these stories are rich representations of Hardie’s critical analysis in previous chapters, exemplifying the illusion of presence conjured by the textuality of desire, erotic and funereal, and the metapoetic sensibilities of Ovid. Dissimulation, violence, and transgressions rooted in sexual desire delineate the tragic story of Tereus and Philomela, as Virgilian intertextuality, the absent presence of surrogacy, and retributive mimesis inform Ovid’s narrative. In the tale of the happily married Ceyx and Alcyone, the ending of which is the antithesis of the unhappily wedded Tereus and Procne, Ovid uses familiar elegiac amatory motifs to explore desired presence, but central to Ovid’s telling is Morpheus, as Hardie demonstrates, “one of the great metapoetic figures for the writer of the Metamorphoses.” Like Morpheus, Ovid creates only the appearance of reality in the imagination of the reader.

Chapter 9: “The exile poetry.” The penultimate chapter of the book is a critical discourse on Ovid’s poetry of exile. In this section Hardie examines the reality of Ovid’s epistolary image of himself and of a text purported now to be Ovid’s “unmediated expression of his daily experience.” But Ovid’s fundamental poetics of illusion still operate, as he constructs a literature of his exilic experience from elegiac desire, epistolary presence, and epic alienation. Hardie turns again to Ceyx and Alcyone as paradigmatic for Ovid’s storm ridden journey, separation from his faithful wife, and state of ‘living death’ in remote exile. Now Ovid’s power to conjure presence by voicing the names of his friends, of his wife, of even himself, enables the poet “to bridge the spatial gap between writer and addressees,” whether placing himself in much desired Rome or bringing others to Tomis; suppressing real names, however, also is a necessity for an exile from Augustan Rome, but the associated alienation of author from name may allow Ovid, according to Hardie, “the purest functioning of writer as writer.” Of course, Ovid’s presence in Rome is purely textual, as in the personified Tristia, and ultimately the poet is only a nominal memory for wife, friends, or fellow-poets. Hardie goes on to argue that Ovid conceives of ‘occasional poetry’ as an efficacious method for “eliminating as far as possible the spatial and temporal distance between the poet and the city.” The spectacle of imperial shows, especially triumphal processions, becomes the vehicle for the poet to return to Rome, if only in the imagination; the triumphal apparatus staged by Caesar parallels Ovid’s artistic representations and mimetic poetry, both celebrating images and creating reality. Indeed, Hardie underscores how increasingly similar are imperial and poetic fictions. In Ex Ponto 2.8, images of the imperial family sent by Cotta to Ovid evoke presence and potential epiphany, but they become animated only by Ovid’s own prayerful desire. In Ex Ponto 2.10, however, the poeticized memory of experiences shared with his old friend and fellow-poet Macer becomes Ovid’s proof that “poetry has a power to create personal presence that visual representations do not.”

Chapter 10: “Ovid recalled in the modern novel.” In a brief concluding chapter, Hardie reflects on works by two modern authors intrigued by the historical and textual reality of Ovid and of his exile: An Imaginary Life by David Malouf, and The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr. As Ovid suggested in the Tristia, both authors look to the Metamorphoses as a source for evoking the imagined presence of the poet, a stranger in a strange land. In Malouf’s novel, Ovid himself becomes the narrator, the civilized adult searching for identity in a primitive world of animate Nature. To simplify, Hardie reads An Imaginary Life as a kind of Ovidian experience of the fabulous in life and “the magical power of language to conjure up external reality,” the final words of the novel, “I am there,” corresponding to the final “vivam” of the Metamorphoses. In Ransmayr’s magic realist novel, it is Cotta’s search for Ovid, after hearing rumors of his death in exile that forms the narrative. The fictions of the Metamorphoses are literally embodied in Tomis by the town and its inhabitants. In this novel’s complexity, Hardie reads an Ovidian landscape of shifting realities—artistic, political, social, spatial, and even temporal. Cotta experiences those realities and the revelation that “text is not mere transcription of reality but productive of reality.” But in the real world Cotta ultimately never realizes his desire to be ‘there’ with Ovid in the poet’s landscape.

Philip Hardie deserves much praise for this fine book, and Ovid’s Poetics of Illusions deserves a place on the shelves of every library and of every reader of Ovid. For those familiar with Ovid’s poetry, this book invites a return to the text and a new understanding of Ovid’s artistry of language, his serious play of word and image; for those reading Ovid for the first time, this book validates a reflective approach to what may appear simple or superficial. Hardie has conjured up the presence of the poet, with all the complexities and richness of both his life and art. As the poet promised at the end of the Metamorphoses, in Hardie’s text Ovid indeed does still live.