BMCR 2021.06.43

Gegen/Gewalt/Schreiben: De-Konstruktionen von Geschlechts- und Rollenbildern in der Ovid-Rezeption

, Gegen/Gewalt/Schreiben: De-Konstruktionen von Geschlechts- und Rollenbildern in der Ovid-Rezeption. Philologus. Supplemente, Band 13. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. vii, 187. ISBN 9783110702965 $103.99.

[Authors and chapter titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In response to the debates about reading Ovid in the #MeToo era, Melanie Möller’s edited volume sets out to rehabilitate the Augustan enfant terrible. The eight contributions were originally presented in the 2017 bimillenary Ovid lecture series Ovid & Women at the Freie Universität Berlin. In her introduction, Möller states that the volume aims to re-examine gender and sexuality in Ovid once more, with the question of literature’s potential to remedy and oppose violence and oppression serving as a guiding principle (p. 5). Thus, in line with previous studies of rape and resistance in Ovid,[1] the  essays assembled place a strong focus on the literary reception of the many Ovidian passages that have recently been met with criticism and ‘cancelling’ demands, as they feature male-gazey and potentially triggering accounts of seduction, rape, and violence against women.[2]

Ovidian reception studies being a wide field, any selection of topics can only be exemplary. The selection presented here includes German Ovid-translations, German literature from the Middle Ages, German Romanticism, French Realism, French Symbolism, and a wide range of Latin-American literature (17th to 20th century). If this thematic spectrum appears diverse, the ways in which gender, women, and sexuality are treated are even more so: Some contributions deal with Ovidian female characters in later reconceptualizations (Eickmeyer, Vinken, Kasper, Zepp), some use theories and methods from gender and women studies (Eming, Pauly, Vinken, Kasper), three discuss authors who twist the Ovidian gender structures (Eming, Kasper, Pauly), one article focuses on Ovidian reception in female writers (Zepp), and one analyzes the intricacies of translating gender and sex (Holzberg). Appropriately for the book’s feminist agenda, six of the eight contributions are written by female scholars. I will summarize each contribution very briefly before I try to connect the various strands.

Jutta Eming analyzes Narcissus’ ambiguous sexual identity in Ovid and in the Middle High German adaptation by Henry of Morungen, who turns Narcissus’ reflection into a woman, thus not only re-embodying Echo, but also adding a new dynamic of duality to a myth that is most commonly associated with autoeroticism. Judith Kasper likewise discusses the addition of a gendered being to an Ovidian setting: In his L’après-midi d’un faune, Stéphane Mallarmé presents not one, but two nymphs, one of whom is chaste and shy, like any of Ovid’s nymphs, whereas the other is sexually conscious and curious (“chaude”)—a doubling with tremendous inter- and metatextual implications, as Kasper brilliantly demonstrates in her Ahl-inspired close reading. Barbara Vinken takes the weaver Arachne as a starting point for an investigation of female resistance against misogynistic authorities (represented by Minerva) and taboo-breaking bluntness where sexual violence is concerned in the Metamorphoses and in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Yvonne Pauly engages with a broader concept of Ovidianism in her analysis of Clemens von Brentano’s self-fashioning as an Arachne-like weaver of texts and his playful approach towards grammatical gender, biological sex, and social gender identity. Jost Eickmeyer examines several German versions of Ovid’s Heroides from different periods, with emphasis on early modern Christian adaptations (male authors ventriloquizing female nuns writing love letters to Jesus Christ) and brief forays into 20thcentury German literature. Susanne Zepp offers an overview of South American female writers who repeatedly refer to Ovidian myths and motifs. Niklas Holzberg’s comparison of German Ovid-translations demonstrates the difficulties of striking the right note when transferring elegiac concepts (puella, domina) or sexually explicit vocabulary—into German—and into prudish literary traditions. If Ovid’s Corinna turns into a Mägdelein (a decent handmaid), readers without knowledge of Latin are unlikely to think of her as the self-conscious libertine Ovid might have had in mind. Female empowerment and sexual liberation begin, we learn, with language.

The essays vary in style and quality. The contributions of Eming, Pauly, Vinken, and especially Kasper, are truly original, intriguing, and compelling in their argumentation. Eickmeyer and Zepp, by contrast, rather present informative go-to pieces for readers interested in the German Heroides reception or in Ovid in Latin-American literature than in daring textual interpretations. Holzberg’s ironic-saucy tone might irritate some and amuse others, but his case for non-euphemistic, sex-positive Ovid-translations is convincing.

Most classicists will agree with the volume’s editor Melanie Möller on many points: Ovidian studies in the 21st century must engage with uncomfortable topics such as rape, violence, and misogynism. Downplaying and euphemizing are not options. Banning Ovid from curricula is not a desirable alternative either—after all, we find a plurality of voices and perspectives in Ovid’s oeuvre that includes empathetic portrayals of rape victims and emancipated heroines just as prominently as chauvinist dating recommendations and voyeuristic depictions of sexual violence. The volume wants to draw attention to Ovidian moments that advocate for female empowerment and a subversion of restrictive gender norms. If we understand meaning as being constituted by the reader, it is perfectly logical to tackle these questions from a reception perspective, as this volume does. Yet, there are aspects that unfortunately obstruct the book’s highly supportable goals: for instance, the use of masculine generics (“Ovid-Kenner”, “Leser”) throughout, the unquestioned employment of arguably patriarchal concepts (“the literary canon”, author’s intentions), the negative attitude towards content trigger warnings, or the preponderance of male, European authors working with Ovid’s texts over female or non-binary writers with various ethnic backgrounds. Here, I see room for improvement. Separately taken, however, some essays definitely add inspiring ideas to the field, and there is hope that this volume will inspire more projects of its kind, thus contributing to an open dialogue about the still highly relevant questions of gender roles, sexual norms, equality, female agency, empowerment, subversion and resistance in Ovid, literature, and beyond.

Authors and Chapter Titles

Melanie Möller: Einführung
Niklas Holzberg: “Hast du die Orte erspürt, wo Betastung dem Mägdelein wohltut …”. Frauen bei Ovid in deutschen Übersetzungen
Jutta Eming: Melancholie im Minnesang. Zu Morungens ‘Narzisslied’
Jost Eickmeyer: Domini iure venire iube! Das Modell der Ovidischen Heroides in der deutschen Literatur
Yvonne Pauly: Gespinste. Brentano mit Ovid gelesen
Barbara Vinken: Arachne: Eros fatal. Ovid, Flaubert
Judith Kasper: Mallarmés favnetisches Spiel mit Pan und Syrinx
Susanne Zepp: Lateinamerikanische Metamorphosen. Über die Ovid-Rezeption bei Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Claudia Lars, Clarice Lispector und Alicia Kozameh


[1] L. C. Curran’s article “Rape and Rape Victims in the Metamorphoses” (1978), A. Richlin’s “Reading Ovid’s Rapes” (1992; reprinted with updates 2014), G. Liveley’s “Reading Resistance in Ovid’s Metamorphoses” (1999), and S. L. James’ “Rape and Repetition in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Myth, History, Structure, Rome” (2016) might be representative of anglophone scholarship on sexual violence in Ovid. F. Harzer’s “Alles nur Machismo? Zum Kampf der Geschlechter in der Mythologie” (2001) and B. Feichtinger’s “Gewaltvolles Begehren. Eros und Macht in Ovids Metamorphosen” (2013) might be added for the German-speaking Classics community.

[2] M. Kahn’s book Why Are We Reading Ovid’s Handbook on Rape? (2005) describes the objections many woke students have today when being confronted with Ovid’s Metamorphoses extensively. D. Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men (2018) expands on Ovid’s problematic, misogynistic aspects, while H. Morales’ Antigone Rising (2020) argues for subversive, empowering readings against the grain.