Friday, August 29, 2014

Displaced fire: Heroides 16 in light of myth

"Love is like war: easy to begin but very hard to stop." - H.L. Mencken

One choice Ovid had to make in Heroides 16 and 17 was how to have Paris's immediate challenge -- the seduction of Helen -- resonate within the overarching story in which the lovers play so key a role.

The poet weaves the larger mythical structure within fine details of Paris and Helen's letters. When Paris ponders whether he should speak, he speaks of fire:

     Et plus quam vellem iam meus extat amor?

     Urorhabes animi nuntia verba mei

Shall I then speak out? Or is it unnecessary to point to a flame that betrays itself? Hasn't my love already stood out more than I would wish? I'd prefer it to lie latent till time permits sheer joy unmixed with fear. But I dissemble poorly; for who can conceal a flame betrayed by its own light? If you nonetheless expect that I add voice to acts -- I am burning. You now have the words that herald my heart.
Paris has no choice. To ask whether he should speak, he must speak. In voicing his question and its implications, he gives away the store. Not surprising that eloquar, the root of "eloquence," can be read here as a rhetorical question.

This eliding of the confession of love with the act of loving is consonant with the elisions we looked at earlier, involving space, time, giving, and self. Not all articulation works that way. I can say "I am going to the gas station" many times over, but it doesn't get me there. Saying "I love you," however, does what it says. The delicate relation of speech to action here makes it essential that we explore Paris's statement in relation to the larger mythic structure in which it plays an essential part.

For the author of this letter, passion and love are embodied in flammae. The paradox of fire is that it cannot be concealed, since it produces light, the very thing that enables things to appear. If I burn, you will necessarily see it, he says, even if I wish to keep my love hidden. Paris burning is the thing, the rebus; "I burn" are verba added to the unspoken. To say "I burn" is to "shed light" -- the light of language, of pointing (indice) -- upon light. Saying "I burn" makes patent and explicit what was latent, implicit. Indeed the very word for latent, lateatlies hidden within the word laetitiaethe explicit consummated delight of Paris and Helen. Ovid, like Freud, loved puns.

Fire is of course a key motif that runs throughout the mythic tapestry behind this tale. Pardon the compression here, but it's necessary:

Monday, August 25, 2014

Curious felicity in Heroides 16: Paris to Helen (I)

I, the son of Priam, send Ledaea that pure felicity
which only if imparted by your giving may be mine.

     Quae tribui sola te mihi dante potest.

The lovely opening of Heroides 16 sets a kind of conundrum centered on the act of giving and sending. We are as yet unawares of Paris's exact location -- and this is by design. Only gradually will it dawn on the reader that Paris is not writing from far off Troy, or some other distant land. Although he says "send," mitto, his epistle is in fact being conveyed from one room in Menelaos' palace to another. Paris is already "in the building," as we say, and the echo of Elvis might not be altogether misplaced.

Let's explore the oddity here a bit more. Paris says "I send felicity," (salutem: health, well being, welfare, prosperity...) but the very thing he sends to Helen can only come to him if she gives it to him. Mitto suggests distance, but dante ("giving") seems an act much closer to hand.  Yet the salutem in question -- which Paris does not have but can send -- only exists if both parties give and receive it to and from one another. This violates distance and time, as might be clearer in a paraphrase: I am sending you something I do not have, but I will have it for you if you give it to me.

In effect this is a condition of pure mutuality -- not as in sharing an ice cream cone, but more like a glance, or a kiss - neither can occur unless both parties simultaneously participate in it. This participation seems impossible if one is sending and therefore at a distance from the receiver. Only if both distance and time vanish in the act of giving can felicity occur. This is known as a specular, or mirror, relation, in which one can only see oneself seeing oneself in a mirror (speculum) if one's eyes reflect their mirror image, like Narcissus staring at his visage in the fateful pool.

That is to say, at the very beginning of his letter, Paris suspends polarities such as giving and receiving, distance and closeness, self and other, past and future. It might be worth noting, in this letter filled with allusions to prophecies, that prophetic speech suspends, and at times harshly dissolves, all that separates our usual compartmentalization of time. Seers see a future event in all its particular and imponderable uniqueness as if it were occurring now. We might return to this conjunction of beautiful people and hoary prophecy.

The entire letter elides temporal distinctions. First it seems Paris has not yet left Troy; then he's describing how his ships were built, and decorated; next thing he's getting a tour from Menelaos (even as he only has eyes for Helen), and a moment later he's winking at her at dinner and, from his lonely bed in the palace, writing to invite her company.

Another aspect of Paris's passion elides time just as his narration elides space:
My flames I brought with me; for I did not first find them here. They were the cause of my undertaking so long a voyage; They were the cause of my undertaking so long a voyage: for no threatening storm or wandering (error) drove us hither;
     Hae mihi tam longae causa fuere viae,

Paris's tale is the exact opposite of the sequence experienced by Aeneas (Heroides 7), who first wandered into Carthage (with divine nudging), then saw Dido, then felt passion for her.

Dido confesses in the Aeneid that the embers of her former love (for Sychaeus) are reignited as she gazed on and listened to Aeneas
adnosco veteris vestigia flammae
I recognize the vestiges of the ancient flame 
The reverse is true for Paris:
It is you that I seek, whom golden Venus pledged (pepigit) to my embraces; I desired you before you were known to me. I beheld your face with my soul before I saw you with my eyes, for fame was the first messenger of your beauty to wound me.
     Te prius optaviquam mihi nota fores

     Prima tulit vulnus nuntia fama tui. (35-39)

It's one thing to see a beautiful face and fall in love; another to love someone first, and then to see what they look like. Paris is saying his experience of falling in love with Helen is a reversal of the usual order of cause and effect - which is precisely what's described by the rhetorical figure of prolepsis.
PROLEPSIS: the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished. The representation of a thing as existing before it actually does or did so, as in he was a dead man when he entered.
First he loved her, then he saw her. Paris's love is proleptic, which, according to the above definitions, is not far from prophetic. No love was more steeped in prophecy that that of these two. To represent the future as present is to have a vision of that which is not yet. Unlike Dido, who re-cognizes love, Paris's love is fore-told, and in the telling, becomes real.

Which has everything to do with the question Paris poses right after his opening couplet:

Shall I then speak? 

Paris first seemed to write from afar, but he's right next to us (and to Helen). He speaks of a passion that preceded empirical knowledge, reversing the Dido-Aeneas paradigm. But the question he asks -- that he must ask before he can say anything -- is whether to speak out -- e-loquar -- at all. In Ovid, speaking and loving, logos and eros, are so deeply intertwined as to be close to indistinguishable. Like Narcissus's eye in the speculum, fixed upon his returning gaze. We'll look at this more in another post.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Paris, Helen, Oenone

Our next selection from Ovid's Heroides will be letter 16 - Paris to Helen. I happened across Botticelli's rendering of the Judgment of Paris. One unusual aspect of this work is that the goddesses are clothed. The ancient tale in some versions mentions that the three divinities were so desirous of winning the apple of Eris that they disrobed for the young shepherd.

It will also be interesting to look at Oenone's letter to Paris, Heroides 5. It can be found in Kline's translation, and at Perseus.

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!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Danae rendered by Titian and Sophocles

While we've on hiatus we were fortunate to visit the National Gallery, which happened to have Titian's Danae on loan from Naples. It brought back the potent choral ode from Sophocles' Antigone which we'd looked at a short time ago: