The middle of summer — July — if you walk west on Montague Street toward the harbor at around 6:30 in the evening, carrying your bag of black plums, the water is a gigantic cauldron of fire that sets upon every head a backlighting halo. It’s like something out of On Golden Pond except that it smells like garbage and there’s dogshit all over the sidewalk. You see more fire dripping from a top floor air conditioner and exploding on the awning of an Italian restaurant like ore dripping from a smelter. You see girls with bare arms and bare legs. Up, down, and sideways, you see boobs boobs boobs. Ah, summer! “For there is no hardier time than this,” Ovid writes in his Metamorphoses, “none more abounding in rich, warm life.” Bk XV, ll. 207-208. In August you drive to the beach with the windows down and the “where do we go now” part of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” breaking down on the car stereo at an almost painful volume, and you have a vanilla ice cream cone in each hand and are driving with your knee (not really, I can’t digest milk, but you get the idea), and you’re watching the girls with their bikinis and their cover-ups, and you’re thinking to yourself, “If Norman Mailer was here, I would karate chop him in the neck” and you don’t even pity Slash for being less of a bad-ass than you are. And your boys are in the back seat in their bare feet, without their seatbelts on and you don’t even care. Or maybe you ride a bike and you have no urge to karate chop Norman Mailer. Anyway, I am more bad-ass than Slash because, in addition to sometimes not forcing my shoeless kids into their seatbelts, I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses this summer, as well as Hermann Fränkel’s magnificent Sather Lectures on Ovid, given at Berkeley 65 or 70 years ago. Frankel calls Ovid “a poet between two worlds,” because in many ways he is the first truly modern writer–a writer with an enlightened, scientific, expressly psychological worldview–even more so than his great predecessor Virgil:
[H]e was leaving behind him Antiquity as we know it and traveling on the path to a new age of mankind…. [H]e candidly voiced his experiences in the same modern spirit in which he lived through them, ignoring established traditions and the code of wary discretion. Fränkel, p. 23.
Ovid’s reputation has suffered under the general hailstorm of postmodernism raining down on the classics, but he’s suffered much more undervaluation than Homer and Virgil ever have, in part because he’s been misconstrued as a mere anthologist of old myths and been outshone by the many artists whose careers he shaped and in the first place made possible. However, he is no Joseph Campbell. On the contrary, Ovid reinvented old myths in a great tapestry of modern art, and his particular artistry and modernity probably have much to do with later artists’ fascination with his work. As Fränkel says, “the poet has turned a primitive fiction into a symbol for a substantial truth.” (p. 78) For having done so, the greatest of later poets took Ovid as their master. John Frederick Nims tells us, “Goethe probably knew Ovid better than he knew any other poet. So, we suspect, did Dante…. So too did Shakespeare. One wonders if any other poet can claim so many devoted followers among the great?” (Introduction to the Arthur Golding translation, p. xix) Ovid’s “metamorphoses”–transformations that sometimes punish and reflect crimes–provided to Dante the contrapasso method that’s the chassis for the Inferno. Ovid not only influenced Shakespeare but invented the inward-looking soliloquy for him. Though he doesn’t appear in Henri Ellenberger’s comprehensive history of the unconscious and though Freud barely refers to him, Ovid is probably the first and most influential commentator on unconscious ideation. In its psychologically sophisticated fantasy, his work draws closer to modern magical realism than anything else in the ancient world, a fact which may be reflected in Kafka’s conspicuously Ovidean title, The Metamorphosis. John Donne’s famous poem “The Sun Rising,” which Carol Rumens calls “one of the most joyous love poems ever written” is very clearly influenced by Ovid’s elegy “The Dawn.” Renaissance painters used the Metamorphoses like they did the Bible, and in fact, knowing Ovid through his autobiographical works (like Ex Ponto and Tristia, almost unique in the ancient world) is equivalent to knowing the human authors of the Bible. My edition of Fränkel’s Ovid: A Poet Between Two Worlds is literally stained with summer delight; it has a faint discoloration on its green cloth binding from where a delicious Prime Meats hamburger exploded on it. (I have since sterilized the spot so you can’t get E. coli from reading about Ovid.) The book has a stamp on the bottom that says “Niagara University Library” and the card catalog stamps say it was taken out 4 times between 1970 and 1981. Now this particular copy has been taken out for the last time, by me. It is a grand gateway into Ovid, who was arguably the father of modern literature. This is the first of several blogs celebrating Ovid, this life-affirming poet, in this livingest of seasons–summer.