Ovid’s Time and Ours; Reflecting on an Extraordinary Seminar Week…

Recently returned from the exhilarating experience of a weeklong seminar in Monterey, studying and critically reading Ovid’s two-thousand year-old Metamorphoses with the University of Redlands’ (Johnston Center’s) fantastic Professor William McDonald and a roomful of truly impressive scholars and academics — with whom I can barely keep pace, truth be told — I am just now beginning to feel that I have both feet firmly planted in my normal life and routines.

While working on a small art project commissioned by that seminar group, I’ve caught up on the DemocracyNow! and Daily Show/Colbert Report episodes I missed while I was away.  I’ve also been steadily moseying through a week’s worth of missed newspaper articles (and snagging some new ones, of course) trying to get a handle on: the SCOTUS’ healthcare ruling, the LIBOR scandal, the Euro crisis, the Syria situation, Pakistan-U.S. relations, Mexico’s and Egypt’s respective elections, Iraq’s uptick in violence, et cetera, et cetera…

And while I feel I have some perspective to offer on a number of the above-listed topics, I’ve been wondering if I can do so in a way that reflects my learning about Ovid’s epic poem and honors the extraordinary seminar experience that concluded my 2012 June.  But here’s the unfortunate (and, to me, surprising) answer: I can’t… or at least I’ve failed to do so, thus far.

So here, instead, is my best attempt at explaining this failure, which in the process will hopefully elucidate some of Ovid’s world and ours…

First, some background: For those who are unfamiliar (or think you are) with Ovid’s most seminal work, it may surprise you to learn that this Roman citizen’s epic poem (Metamorphoses, completed around 8 C.E.) has been referenced in other art more often than any other work in history, with the sole exception of the Bible.  The Metamorphoses has inspired poets from Dante to Shakespeare to Walt Whitman, and artists from Botticelli to Caravaggio to Waterhouse, as well as music composers and opera librettists, and now, Hollywood filmmakers, borrowing from/ripping off his creative genius (without which we wouldn’t have those “Crap of the Titans” movies — but schlock isn’t all that Ovid inspired; far from it — please refer back to the mention of Shakespeare and Dante, etc.).

If you’re familiar with names like Hercules, Juno/Hera, Theseus, Persephone, Medea, Perseus, and Venus/Aphrodite, there’s a good chance that your ideas about these mythological figures are deeply informed by Ovid’s unique treatment of them.  As his poem tracks the movement of the gods and stories from Greece to Rome, Ovid develops (concurrently) a few other narrative arcs and expounds on themes from War’s folly to Love’s power, with a surprising privileging of women’s voices.  By the time he’s finished, the reader/audience (for his poems were primarily written to be read aloud and performed before audiences) has taken an epic journey from the beginning of the world — Chaos reordered by Nature/God — to the founding of Rome and apotheosis of Caesar and Octavian… and of the poet himself, who self-deifies at the poem’s conclusion (Ovid’s testimony to the transformational/transcendent power of ART).

So what accounts for my difficulties relating Ovid to our modern world (in the context of this blog entry)?  It’s tough to say.  The poem is definitely concerned with matters that are timeless and universal (death, love, war, change, sex, mystery…).  Also, the poet arrives late in the Roman empire — roughly three-quarters of the way through — so he’s actually a bit of a post-modernist, deconstructing and building on (and riffing on) the works of the great poets who preceded him, especially the stodgy, heroic Virgil.  Ovid is highly educated and brilliant, humorous, bawdy, subversive, and in many ways modern.

So what’s my problem relating this sophisticated poem to my own post-modern milieu?  What’s the primary obstacle that’s been hindering my progress?

At last, I think I’ve boiled it down to one thing: Ovid was writing from the perspective of a WINNER, flourishing in his career (after three decades at the top of his highly esteemed profession) and living in Rome, the capital of the world, for all intents and purposes: WINNER-LAND (all-conquering Rome… with all foes already all-conquered).  Ovid is living in a land without any serious existential challenges and clearly expects his Rome to endure well into the future.

And that’s the principle area where we differ, Ovid and I. Unlike Ovid, I am writing during the time of the COLLAPSE of the empire founded by my homeland, without a single realistic hope for the future of that empire (not that I’m particularly attached to it in anything resembling its current form, mind you):

- Where Ovid saw the preeminence of Roman civic life and culture (which he valued) stretching out as far into time as he could imagine, I am witnessing the hollowing out of my homeland — with our infrastructure and population suffering from decades of neglect — and the withering of America’s power in the world, as Americans relinquish virtually all that we once cherished (starting with our Constitution and professed moral values in the years following the 9/11 attacks);

- Where Ovid valued Roman culture and civic virtues, I recognize that the culture and civic values of my homeland have been seriously degraded, to the extent that the entire nation has been intellectually and spiritually stunted and our institutions have been corrupted almost beyond recognition;

- Where Ovid clearly felt secure enough to poke fun at the leaders of his time and skewer more than a few “sacred cows,” I know that I’m living in a precarious and possibly more oppressive time (with more human beings enslaved than any previous period in history), where the government monitors essentially all communications and the vast majority of commercially successful artists are those who either self-censor or simply have nothing to say (or rather nothing to say that doesn’t celebrate power, banality, violence, sadism, and empty triumphalism); and finally,

- Where Ovid felt that his nation, people, and culture would endure indefinitely and flourish, I am unfortunate enough to know that the world in which I’m living may not exist in a mere century or two, once Earth’s climate goes from crisis to catastrophe (an outcome predicted by virtually all of the existing climate science, yet which is practically ignored by the world’s powerful leaders and institutions).

So, there you have it: I can’t quite fit an Ovidian lens over my eyes and see my world as strongly analogous to the poet’s for one simple, inescapable reason: Publius Ovidius Naso was certain that his nation and world had a future, whereas I am not.

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One Response to Ovid’s Time and Ours; Reflecting on an Extraordinary Seminar Week…

  1. Matt Gray says:

    James! Awesome post and conversation about our seminar, our “nation,” and making sense of the two as an artist. I’d recommend reading “The Last World,” (if you didn’t already prior to our seminar). I’m half way through and I’m thinking that one of Christoph’s takes on Ovid as an artist, is actually you’re take on your position as an artist in America . . . that Ovid was in fact writing about the impermanence of his Rome, that he was a voice for a rebellious faction of citizens disgusted and distraught with the current state of their 8 b.c.e. Roman world. Not sure though . . .

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