Sunday, October 01, 2017

Mortal brinksmanship: Niobe, Satan, and artistic hubris

What madnesse is it (quoth she) to prefer the heavenly rout
 Of whome ye doe but heare, to such as daily are in sight? 
Or why should Laton honored be with Altars? Never wight
To my most sacred Majestie did offer incense. Yit
My Father was that Tantalus whome only as most fit
The Gods among them at their boordes admitted for to sit.
A sister of the Pleyades is my mother. Finally 
My Graundsire on the mothers side is that same Atlas hie
That on his shoulders beareth up the heavenly Axeltree.
Againe my other Graundfather is Jove, and (as you see)
He also is my Fathrinlawe, wherein I glorie may.
The Realme of Phrygia here at hand doth unto me obay.
In Cadmus pallace I thereof the Ladie doe remaine
And joyntly with my husbande I as peerlesse Princesse reigne
Both over this same towne whose walles my husbands harpe did frame,
And also over all the folke and people in the same.
 ~ Metamorphoses 6.170-79
The speaker is Niobe, queen of Thebes. The prophetess Manto has been urging the women of her country to worship Latona, and they are obeying. Niobe, angered, says the people should be worshiping her own royal self, and offers many reasons - her beauty; her lineage through Tantalus to Zeus; her husband, Amphion, also descended from Zeus. But most of all, her maternal glory. She has 14 children -- Latona has only two.

Arthur Golding's 1567 translation captures something of the haughty Royal tone. But it's hard to beat Ovidian concision. The passage opens:
quis furor, auditosinquitpraeponere visis caelestes?"
"What madness," she said, "incites you to put hearsay Gods before those you see?"
Niobe is not merely contemptuous of Latona. Even as she brags of her relation to Zeus, she rehashes the cliched materialism of the non-believer. Put your faith in what you know from experience, she says. Size matters. Number matters. Being right here matters. Latona couldn't even book a room for her labor, etc.

A recurring motif of the Metamorphoses is precisely this brinksmanship, this willingness of supremely gifted mortals to contend with the divine. Ovid's immediately preceding story told of Arachne's challenge to Athena, and Thebes was still "howling" (fremit) from that news. Another tale of art and hubris, Marsyas's contest with Apollo, follows. Niobe's metamorphosis of the natural honor of motherhood into hollow, virulent pretension elevates her to an elite class of mortals doomed to suffer forever. It's a small group, but it includes, of course, her father.

The dangerous reach of Dante's art is readable as presumption; Niobe is his Medusa.

Niobe's disdain for the goddess is in play here in the Primum Mobile, precisely the threshold separating what one hears about the divinity from what one may experience for oneself. This is the final juncture toward which the poem, and all of creation, are moving. Dante and Beatrice aim beyond time and space with the escape velocity of Seraphic ardor.

To question that something -- the Empyrean, e.g. -- exists beyond this outermost bound of the Primum Mobile is to challenge what one has heard -- through Scripture, family, revealed truth. If modest Latona parallels the Creator, Niobe poses the classical counterweight to Satan. (For a persuasive reading of Satan's fall from a doctrinal perspective, see Alison Cornish, "Planets and Angels in Paradiso XXIX: The First Moment," discussed briefly here. My point is that Dante's use of ancient myth -- here the tales of Latona and Niobe -- adds substance from rich classical sources of philosophy and poetry.)

Apply Ovid's brief introduction to the tale of Satan, which we just touched upon, and the consistency is clear: To prefer what is seen to what is spoken of is, in the language of this canto (l.28), to seize upon a slice of the spectrum, the realm visible through light, at the expense of the totality (the triforme effetto) -- the invisible, or not-yet-visible, all the effect of its maker (suo sire).

Light of course is essential to our sensory reality, but to equate all of reality with what light enables us to see is to center reality within our sensory selves, and to deny the possibility that something more than is currently accessible is yet to come. Our narrow axis of experience lies in us; all else is old wive's tales.

As a story of materialism vs. something more, the tale of Niobe is about substituting oneself as center in place of an other we've only heard tell of. It's Augustine and Beatrice's basic choice: we are arrows of love -- do we aim for the other, or for ourselves?

The highest created being in the Commedia ends spun from the Empyrean, frozen in his tears, as immobile as Ovid's queen of Thebes:
Childless— she crouched beside her slaughtered sons,
her lifeless daughters, and her husband's corpse.
The breeze not even moved her fallen hair,
a chill of marble spread upon her flesh,
beneath her pale, set brows, her eyes moved not,
her bitter tongue turned stiff in her hard jaws,
her lovely veins congealed, and her stiff neck
and rigid hands could neither bend nor move.
her limbs and body, all were changed to stone.
Yet ever would she weep: and as her tears
were falling she was carried from the place,
enveloped in a strong and stormy whirlwind
far to where, in her native land, fixed upon
a mountaintop, a stone turns liquid --
even now marble drips tears.
~ Metamorphoses 6:300-312 (Brookes More, trans. (the last four lines have been modified by me.)

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