Saturday, July 26, 2014

Heroides 7: Giving and taking (I)

Wherever Odysseus went, the people he visited believed themselves the very center of the world. But all these lands are on the margins of his world. When he does return to Ithaka, it is with tongue in cheek that Athena greets him, pretending to be a young man who, were there an Ithakan Chamber of Commerce, would be its biggest booster.
“A fool art thou, stranger, or art come from far, if indeed thou askest of this land. Surely it is no wise so nameless, but full many know it." More here.
Yet the isle is in fact the center of Odysseus's world.

Ovid invokes the figure of Odysseus and his wanderings in Heroides 7:
I was wafted to an unknown coast; and, having thus escaped from the cruelty of my brother and the dangers of the sea, I purchased the lands which I have made over to you. I built a city, and marked out my walls to such an extent, as to raise the envy of the neighbouring states. 
Wars threaten me, though a helpless woman. I prepare to carry on a war with strangers, and with difficulty fortify my new city, and arm my troops. A thousand rivals make pretensions to my love, who all join in complaining, that they are slighted for the sake of this stranger.
In this brief passage, Dido is both a latter-day Odysseus and Penelope. In her similarity to Odysseus, she is, of course, also a prototype of Aeneas. She has already been Aeneas, and has accomplished what he has yet to begin, and in that moment of what has already been done, she turns into the besieged, waiting wife, fighting off suitors, awaiting (perhaps gratuitiously) the return of her man to maintain control. Dido encompasses the whole of epic wandering and resolution, offering Aeneas the gift of simply accepting the fruits of her labor, the world she has already made.
Facta fugisfacienda petis;
You flee what’s done, you seek what is to do
 This doesn't leave an epic hero much room for action. Dido is, in all, a giver; all she asks of Aeneas is "Accipe."

She runs through a litany of gifts, and of reasons for Aeneas to accept them: the safety of his people, his son, his Penates and an unborn child; the love Dido and he shared; her need for help ruling and building her new kingdom; the elimination of risk at sea and avoidance of future wars in Italy; the promise of a throne shared and raised to eminence and empire by two lovers; the prospect of a long line of descendant kings; the reality of present security versus future uncertainty. In short, she offers him a complete solution, a vast abbreviation of the epic quest, and the love of a queen as well.

As anyone who has dealt with gifts (even when borne by people other than Greeks) knows, a gift often comes with any number of concatenated conditions, provisos, expectations and ultimatums. The finer the gift, the more of these implicated eventualities one can expect to find. In this way, a gift is not so much an outright thing being transferred, like a piece of property. Rather it's more like a species of contract: "I promise to give you this IF you in turn give me that." To accept a gift is not simply a passive fact. It can be less a matter of simply and graciously saying "Thanks," and more a matter of actively entering into an implicit agreement whose fine print is likely to be neither brief nor entirely legible. Giving, in other words, has deep symmetries with taking.

-- to be continued . . .

No comments: