|Piero di Cosimo, The discovery of honey by Bacchus (1499)|
A Handbook to the Reception of Ovid. Edited by John F. Miller and Carole. E. Newlands. Wiley-Blackwell. 2014. 520pp. £120 (Cloth). £96.99 (ebook)
‘Antiquity is a closed system, providing a canon of texts whose perfection is beyond time: criticism of these texts is an eternal return, the rediscovery of the timeless verities that they contain.’ [....] ‘No one, of course, has ever really believed this nonsense.’ (Fowler, 1994: 231)
This new collection of thirty-one essays explores the ways that Ovid’s works have presented a range of ways of ways of thinking and feeling about desire, love and death; power and aggression; exile and alienation; self-reflexivity and transformation; aesthetic traditions and the artist’s journey. Clearly, the universality of Ovid’s major themes and preoccupations helps to explain his major influence on the arts of the two millennia since his death. As a result, it is not difficult to understand why he has had a such a significant influence on the Western cultural tradition – from literature to opera, and from art to film. The sheer variety and adaptability of Ovid’s writings helped him to become one of the major figures in classical literature. The wonderful transmission of his work suggests that he should be central to what E.D Hirsh has called our ‘cultural literacy.’ This volume shows the canonical range of that literacy, through Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope (and many others) to passing popular cultural references that persist in ‘iconic’ films ranging from Raymond Chandler and Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946) to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The Handbook will send the general reader back to Ovid with eyes wide open, and more alert to the intricacy of the poetry, and to the wonder of the subject matter. While the delightful burden of the past predominates, there are many culturally literate references on the glittering surface of the contemporary fields of gold.
Cultural literacy, far from being tradition for its own sake, shows that Ovid still speaks directly to present interests. In the past we have had romantic Ovids, classical Ovids, moral Ovids, rude and rebellious Ovids; arguably, he is what any reader will make of him in the act of reception, and in the context of a relative distance from the variety of original Ovids, still sparkling at the ‘source.’ The reception of Ovid springs from the relativity of reader’s approaches, and also from the layers of reception that filter and obscure, or enlighten and surprise. They playful ambiguity of Ovid’s poetic textures and phases of development entail multiple readings of the source texts and within the transformative playfulness of transformation. Given the situation outlined in these opening remarks, one the benefits of multiple-author approaches in a critical handbook of this type is that a wide range of receptions can be accommodated rather than an ideological limitation of vision, or an analytical narrowness of critical frame.
As a result of the variety of themes that emerge from the poetry it makes sense to construct different Ovids that can be shaped and adapted in different ways according to the spirit of the age. The reception of the poetry may spring from a discovery of the plenitude of the subject matter, such as the weaving of myths in the Metamorphoses and the varied approaches to love. Others have found inspiration in the imitation of his style and approach to topics; again, the key word is variety. Where one reader finds a pre-figuring of Troubadour, and later romantic or modern sensibilities, another finds gritty and cynical psychological realism. Ovid’s style draws the reader closer to the emotional drama but also pulls back with playful and ironic detachment. This is the logic of seduction and also of exile, recurring themes in Ovid’s work and perhaps inextricably woven into his life story.
In fact, Ovid typically exceeds any of the systems and categorisations that seek to hold him in place for more than a passing moment. He is the most slippery and transformative of poetic creatures. He did not fit in with the official ideology of Augustan society; but the moment we want to run with the rebels we need to be quickly reminded that he poignantly sought and begged to return from the tortures of an enforced exile. Thus it becomes possible to think of Ovid as the exponent of Augustan values and also their most profound critic. These fault lines in the life and times of the poet find many echoes in the after-tremors of his reception. This means that within successive periods it is possible to propose information generalizations then also require various forms of qualification in order to accommodate the underlying variety of Ovid’s poetry. This does not mean that there is not, in a sense, a distinctive voice or mode, that we can call Ovidian. Indeed, he sounds different, and self-consciously wants to be set apart from his predecessors and contemporaries; moreover, this reflection seems to hold no matter how much he draws imitatively and parasitically on their achievements. The Ovidian corpus/opus is as profoundly natural as it is enigmatically artificial.
The Handbook is at its thinnest on the early nineteenth century; the strengths are in the renaissance, restoration and ‘Augustan’ period when the gravitational pull of the Ovidian universe was at its strongest. One of the strengths of these chapters (14 top 25) is that they individual offer the delightful sense of creative cross-fertilizations, critical transformations, and dialogical histories. The open spirit of reception also means that the linear narrative of medieval allegory/ morality, for instance, can be challenged and disrupted, in favour of more nuanced and more inspired readings. The tension between contemporary domestication, proto-feminist liberation, moral censure and aesthetic delight are no where more evident than in various receptions experienced by Ovid throughout the early modern period and the long eighteenth-century.
The fatal triangle of fetishism, voyeurism, and misogyny that presents a challenge to modern readers of ‘enlightened’ writers will inevitably discover those same issues coming up in their reading of the critical literature on Ovid. Classical studies have come a long way since the ‘pioneering’ work of Pomeroy on gender and Foucault on ‘epistemic’ shifts. (See Brooke Holmes, 2012); similarly, the ideological formulations of Ellen Pollak and Laura Brown (on Swift and Pope), perhaps require as much rethinking as the misogynistic simplifications that they were attacking.
The critical problems are present at the source as much as they are in precluded (or prioritised) in the transitions. This collection of essays steers clear of large helpings of theory — whether of the feminist, or post-structuralist approach. That is a potential weakness for the Handbook, in my view, given the attempt to accommodate the solid ground of the early-moderns alongside the shifting sands of the postmodern. I would have liked a chapter on rape and aggression, for instance, considered as both a theme and a narrative, that accommodates both the scholarship and the theories that condemn and that defend Ovid’s approach to such an important issue. My readings of classical scholarship have taught me that the investigation of gender and sexuality by classicists has been both evaded and foregrounded in the last thirty years. The chapter on cinema, at the end of the book, for instance, might have alerted us to the significance of the ‘male gaze’, whether it’s the primary narcissism of culture or the power politics from Lacan to Laura Mulvey. I would also have liked a philosophical chapter on reception that offered a survey of critical issues cropping up in the theoretical field of translation studies; perhaps specifically related to the Ovidian transmission of cultural values. (See Venuti, 2012).
Undoubtedly many readers will, like me, find themselves devouring this volume on the first reading and then coming back for more — perhaps as they did in their younger days, on first discovering the delights of the Metamorphoses. Despite some of my theoretical hankerings this Handbook to the Reception of Ovid is an erudite and magisterial collection of essays that will delight those who already belong to the School of Ovid, and will be a generous introduction and trusted guide for those encountering the great poet’s work for the first time. While readers will also want to consult works by Doody (1985), Hopkins (2010), Oakley-Brown (2006) and Martindale (1988) — among many others, too numerous to list — this new Handbook is highly recommended as a scholarly introduction to the reception of Ovid.
Dr Ian McCormick. Birmingham, UK. 30th October 2014.
Doody, M.A. (1985). The Daring Muse: Augustan Poetry Reconsidered.
Fowler, Don. (1994). ‘Postmodernism, Romantic Irony, and Classical Closure.’ Modern Critical Theory and Classical Literature, edited by Irene J. F. De Jong, J. John Patrick Sullivan. 231-256.
Holmes, Brooke. (2112). Gender: Antiquity and Its Legacy.
Hopkins, D. (2010). Conversing with Antiquity: English Poets and the Classics, from Shakespeare to Pope. (Classical Presences).
Martindale, C. (ed) (1988). Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century.
Mulvey, Laura. (1975). ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.’ Screen 16 (3): 6–18.
Oakley-Brown, L. (2006). Ovid and the Cultural Politics of Translation in Early Modern England. (Studies in European Cultural Transition)
Pomeroy, S. B. (1975). Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity.
Venuti, L. (Ed.). (2012). The Translation Studies Reader.
Dr Ian McCormick. Birmingham, UK. 30th October 2014.