Thursday, August 14, 2014

Coda: Zeugma in Heroides 7

Near the very beginning of her letter to Aeneas, Dido twice uses a familiar trope, commonly known as zeugma. She will use it more times in the course of her letter.
Zeugma: A trope in which one verb governs several words, or clauses, each in a different sense. Example: “He stiffened his drink and his spine.” (A more elaborate description can be found here, and more examples here.)
Certus es ire tamen miseramque relinquere Didon
atque idem venti vela fidemque ferent.
certus es, Aenea, cum foedere solvere naves
quaeque ubi sint nescis, Itala regna sequi.
You are then resolved to depart, and abandon unhappy Dido;
the same winds will bear away your promises and sails.
You are resolved, Aeneas, to weigh your anchor and your vows,
and go in quest of Italy, a land to which you are wholly a stranger.
The repetition of this trope early on is noteworthy -- it is not the case with other of Ovid's letter writers that they exhibit this level of rhetorical facility right off the bat. In addition to two zeugmas, she also uses anaphora -- the repetition of the same opening words, certus es... certus es. Her speech abounds in rhetorical tropes. Let us not forget that Dido asks for only one thing in this letter: that Aeneas read her carmen. She's a born writer!

Dido's initial zeugma features the winds:
the same winds will bear away your promises and sails.
The second concerns the process of setting free:
 You are resolved, Aeneas, to weigh your anchor and your vows.
Let's look a little closer. In the first example, the subject, winds, bears away (ferent) two very different things -- sails and promises. No mystery in wind propelling sails -- it's a completely physical instance of cause and effect -- the force of the wind acts upon sails which in fact are designed for that purpose (teleological cause).

The thought structure of the other grammatical object borne away by the winds -- promises (fidem) -- is more complex. If unfolded, it would run something like: "From your having the wind carry you away, I infer that the promises you made to me in the past are null and void." A promise is a linguistic act oriented toward the future. To bear away promises is to move past the material and physical realm of cause and effect into a symbolic realm of perception, logical inference, and negation -- a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.

(Note: The relation between the physical and the symbolic here is not the same as that found in the example given above of one who stiffens both drink and spine. In that case, the liquid courage of the additional alcohol leads biochemically to the possession of more "courage" -- a natural cause and effect. No such causal relation obtains between winds and promises.)

Similarly in Dido's second zeugma, the weighing of the anchor describes the physical act of lifting it from the ocean floor. The Latin verb Dido uses is solvere, which in fact means "set free," "loose," "dissolve." To loose the ship's anchor again is a purely physical act which, in this case, as with the winds, makes motion possible. But to speak of solvere with vows describes not the production of motion, but the voiding of a contractual bond. The Latin word for vows, foedere, can signify both human bonds of love and affection as well as social, political, and economic alliances between cities, states, and nations. 

In both cases, Dido's use of zeugma stretches the basic meaning of a verb so that it not only has a concrete and literal meaning, but reaches a linguistic meaning in which something that had been posited or promised is annihilated. The trope of zeugma is precisely this linguistic turn, or torque, from the commonplace to something far more elaborately constructed. 

In a sense, zeugma forces verbs like ferent and solvere into double duty. They yoke two very different meanings, wittily shifting, or leaping, from one sphere of sense to another. Zeugma, by the way, means "yoke" in Greek. As close readers, we can unpack the semantic tension at the core of the trope, but we also enjoy the way in which its two senses play against each other, sparking the pleasure of surprise.

By yoking two distinct meanings in one verb, zeugma is arguably the very paradigm of trope, which means "turn." A felicitous zeugma can juggle multiple senses simultaneously, producing completely readable sentences with one subject, one verb, and, in this case, two objects. 

If Dido is linked to zeugma, what might this foregrounding have to do with the themes of giving, taking, and symmetrical reversibility that we looked at earlier?

A single plot point marks the turn in the tale of Dido and Aeneas -- their sexual union in the cave to which they both had run to escape Juno's fertile downpour. Before that union, they were leaders of two nations; after it, to all appearances they were united in an alliance (foedere) that was both personal and political. Or, to put it another way, just as the sexual congress made the two lovers one, so their nations and peoples appeared to be coming together under the apparent coniugium -- marriage -- of the leaders. 

Coniugium comes from iugoyoke or joint. Erotic union is a species of zeugma which in the case of these lovers produces two distinct meanings. The first is the physical fact of lovemaking; the second moves, just like the winds of Dido's zeugma, into the complex symbolic relation of mutual trust, ambiguity, and potential betrayal that is all part of  promise and mutual understanding. 

More simply: There is the moment when these two -- Dido and Aeneas -- become one -- and there is the reading of that moment. For Dido, the literal yoking was a giving that implicated both lovers in a formal marriage and alliance. Initially that might have been Aeneas's reading as well. After Mercury shocked him with Jupiter's message of another destiny, Aeneas could no longer subscribe to that reading.

At this point our zeugma no longer has the look of a witty twist in which two meanings are gracefully at play. Rather, it moves from an erotic yoking to two readings of it that are radically incompatible. In fact, they are mutually destructive. Instead of the pleasure of the trope, one is faced with a dissatisfying nullity. The physical union generates not 1, but 1 + -1.

Perhaps we begin to see why Ovid essentially "assigned" the trope of zeugma to Dido -- its showy flair (perfected by Alexander Pope) is the perfect linguistic parody of her very real historical predicament. (A parody is a doubling, a secondary or parallel work that somehow reduces, deflates, or destroys the original thing it imitates.) Dido takes this power to undo zeugma to its logical limit in her final language act:

Nor let my monument be inscribed "Elissa, wife of Sichæus"; 
May the carmen of this marble tomb be only this : 
“Æneas handed her the cause and instrument of death; 
Dido destroyed herself using her very own hand .”

     Ipsa sua Dido concidit usa manu."

Dido says Aeneas praebuit -- gave, handed over, held forth -- both sword and cause of death. The sword was given, and accepted, as a symbol. The warrior giving his arm, his strength, his protective power to the beloved queen. To read praebuit as a zeugma, one must separate the sword -- Aeneas's most potent symbol of love and commitment -- from the cause of death -- the abandoning turn to Italy.

And one must read it as a zeugma within the context of the story. Aeneas' "giving," here, is dual -- the honest proffered gift of his might, which is how that gift was taken, and his betrayal of that reading. This zeugma is being stretched nearly to its limit.

Then Dido turns the trope back upon itself, "taking" the sword not as symbol of life and love, but as a sharp object. The semantic tension necessary to any successful zeugma collapses as the sword, which as symbol was anything but the cause of death, is now nothing but that cause. The promissory (exchange) value of the sword vanishes leaving only the use of its material (use value). The symbol loses its aura in the shock of use.

At the beginning we noted that Dido was an expert writer and user of zeugma, a trope and literary device that was a standout feature of her style. Tropes have a curious way of going topsy-turvy. From the vantage of a close rhetorical reading of the text it seems equally fair to say "Dido uses zeugma," or, "Zeugma uses Dido," as peculiar as that might sound. The proper name would then be simply a marker this text uses for zeugma -- the double-edged trope inscribed across its tale and telling from beginning to end.

Double-edged, and cutting both ways.

When Dido turns the symbol into a sharp object, she breaks the zeugma, turning it into a parody of itself. Now Dido and Aeneas can be said to be "one," but not via the synthesis of erotic blending and marital pledge. Instead, unhappy Dido lies dead, penetrated by Aeneas' usurped sword on the conjugal bed atop the funeral pyre. Aeneas is not dead, but he's moving rapidly away. Instead of the promising hero, lover, and leader of Carthage, he's Carthage's most wanted killer. The curse of Dido's carmen achieves itself in the self-destructive act that turns the trope of zeugma into a lethal parody of its sirenic charm.