Tuesday, June 7, 2022
The final metamorphosis of Ovid
In the year 8 of the common era, Augustus ordered that the poet Publius Ovidius Naso, better known to us as Ovid, should be exiled to the remotest outer reaches of the Roman Empire, to the Black Sea port of Tomis, in the thinly settled province of Moesia, for the term of his natural life. Tomis is known today as Constanţa.
We don't know why the emperor imposed this fierce punishment on the poet. Ovid referred to his commission of "a poem and an error". The poem may have been one of his erotic cycles, perhaps the Ars Amatoria, in which he offers laughing but explicit tips to both sexes on how to seduce each other; Augustus frowned on public discussion of such things, and the promiscuous behavior of his own daughter Julia made him very averse to the patrician party scene in which Ovid, when in Rome, appears to have been at home. The "error" may have been the poet's affiliation to a faction within the imperial family opposed to the power of poison queen Livia.
As for what happened to Ovid after he arrived in the land of the Getae, in what is now southeastern Romania, we have the evidence of the poems he sent flying back to Rome like carrier pigeons, the Tristia and the Black Sea letters. In pleading mode, he exaggerates the rigors of the climate and the manners of the "barbarians" among whom he must now live. Reading his poetic epistles describing a frozen waste, you would never know that he was living at what is now a very popular summer resort. Yet we feel the depth of the pain of a wordsmith obliged to live among those who do not speak his own language when he declares: "Writing a poem you can read to no one is like dancing in the dark." 1
If we track the poet's writings from exile across time, we see his attitudes evolving. He is learning the language of the Getae, and even composing poems in a local language, which might be Getic but could be the pidgin Greek of the coast; Tomis was founded by Greek colonists. How Ovid died, and where his body was interred, are historical mysteries.
These are the facts, and the lacunae, which the wonderful Australian novelist and short storywriter David Malouf seized in order to create An Imaginary Life. The novel begins with a dream (perhaps the author's own?) attributed to Ovid. In boyhood, the poet dreams of an encounter with a wild Child who may or may not be a wolf as well as a boy. Nearly 60 years later, the dream is fulfilled, when the exiled poet meets a naked Child (always described like this, with the capital C) who speaks the language of birds and animals but no human tongue, and lives outside the walls of the fort where Ovid's Getic hosts shelter from the wild winters and the wilder Dacian horse-soldiers who come thundering over the frozen Danube.
The poet makes it his project to teach the wolf boy human speech. But the Child is really his teacher, instructing him in the language of the birds, prising open his awareness until he can feel himself streaming with the animate world of nature about him, no longer separate. The mannered Roman poet of love, who recounted myths of gods and shapeshifters in his Metamorphoses with craft yet without conviction, starts to see and sense like a dream shaman.
Malouf's Ovid reflects, early in his Black Sea sojourn,
We have some power in us that knows its own ends. It is this that drives us on to what we must finally become. We have only to conceive of the possibility and somehow the spirit works in us to make it actual. This is the true meaning of transformation. This is the real metamorphosis. Our further selves are contained within us, as the leaves and blossoms are in the tree. We have only to find the spring and release it. 2
I like the way dreaming is developed as a theme in Malouf's novel. There is a fine description of a gathering experience of interactive dreaming in a scene where Ovid and the wild Child are sleeping under the same thatch. They may have been in contact
in our sleep, as we move through this room in the same liquid medium, as if floating together in a pool, some casual meeting of one dream with another, a flowing into his sleep, or his sleep into mine, at some point that the waking mind would not know of. 3
Malouf takes us further into the nature and importance of dreaming. It begins to dawn on his Ovid that the place he most wanted to avoid may be exactly where his soul needs him to be, the place where he will at last become the person he was intended to be. When he asks himself how this began to manifest, he reflects that
It begins at first, perhaps, in our dreams. Some other being that we have kept out of mind, whose thoughts we have never allowed to come to the tip of our tongue, stirs and in its own way begins to act in us. 4
Malouf imagines a scenario for Ovid's final metamorphosis and physical death. The headman who protected Ovid and the Child is dead, and his people think this is the work of a demonic animal that was brought among them by the boy. Now the poet and the boy are fleeing north across a sea of grass. And Ovid is changing. The ever-poised flâneur, rich and noble by inheritance, never short of words or self-importance, is relinquishing his old identity and streaming into something else.
Slowly I begin the final metamorphosis. I must drive out my old self and let the universe in...Then we shall begin to take back into ourselves the lakes, the rivers, the oceans of the earth, its plains, its forested crags with their leaps of snow....The spirit of all things will migrate back into us. Then we shall be whole. 5
Wonderful writing, and a thrilling evocation of the dawning of a cosmic consciousness.
I see us from a great height, two tiny figures parting the grassland with a shadowy crease as we move through it.. From a point far ahead I see us approaching, from a point a whole day's distance behind us, I see us moving away. 6
Now Ovid is coming close to a death he dreamed, long ago.
I never suspended my disbelief that Malouf's narrator is the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso. That may be partly because I know that Ovid - whatever he pretended to folks back home when trying to enlist sympathy - was not quite as remote from Greco-Roman culture as this narrative makes out. Tomis was still in many ways a Greek town, and there was a Roman governor and a Roman garrison, and some handsome buildings and elegant Grecian art, not just the thatched huts and Getic tribesmen of the novel. The people of Tomis treated Ovid with respect, exempting him from local taxes and paying tribute to him as a poet. 7
But David Malouf's intention was not to write an historical novel, still less a biography but rather (as he states in an Afterword), "a fiction with its root in possible event." In this he succeeds brilliantly. As the Italians say, se non è vero, è ben trovato. "If it's not true, it's well found."
1. Epistulae ex Ponto IV 2:33-4. Translated by Peter Green in Ovid, The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) 176.
2. David Malouf, An Imaginary Life (New York: Vintage International, 1996) 64.
3. ibid, 78.
4. ibid, 95.
5. ibid, 96
6. ibid 142
7. Peter Green, Introduction to Ovid, The Poems of Exile, xxxi
Graphic: Bronze statue of Ovid in the square of Constanţa