I think the best I can do, in summing up Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is offer some of my favorite phrases to appear in his stringing together of Greek-rooted myths and their often profound insight into human foibles and tragedies.
First: In prepping us for the tale of Actaeon, who accidentally stumbled across Diana while she was bathing, and who as a result was unfortunately transformed into a deer who’ll later be torn apart by his own loyal dogs, Ovid lets us know “that destiny was to blame for [his] misfortunes, not any guilt on his part; for there is nothing sinful in losing one’s way.” (1) It’s that last phrase I love, the assertion that “there is nothing sinful in losing one’s way.” It’s reminiscent of something an amateur Christian theologian once suggested to me about how we should rethink at least some of what’s been understood by religions as sin– sexual mess-ups, stupid fights that never should have taken place, periods of drifting and questioning and sometimes estrangement– not things to be afraid of or condemned for, but rather, simply often-painful, often-necessary ways in which, as Nietzsche said, we become who we are.
Next: a somehow-great description of the madness-inducing potion the fury Tisiphone brewed up for Athamas and his wife, which included, among other things, “vague hallucinations, blind forgetfulness, tears, crime and madness, and lust for murder.” (2) It’s that first ingredient, which gets breathed along with the others into their victims’ minds, that struck me; vivid hallucinations might somehow have been so much easier to deal with, so much more easily identifiable as something, even if fantastical, on which to focus all that bad juju. Instead, the pair is afflicted with a definitely present but ungraspable itch, just beyond the horizon of comprehension, a force so real, yet simultaneously so hazy, its inability even to be named drives them crazy in a similar, though far more serious way, as might one bratty kid’s holding a finger a centimeter away from a sibling’s eyeball and truthfully-tauntingly declaring, “I’m not touching you!”
And then: the description of poor doomed Adonis, who as he grew up, “surpass[ed] even himself in handsomeness.” (3) I have to picture Ovid breaking into a satisfied smile after scribbling that one down and feeling that he’d captured some bit of the outsized, futile absurdity that goes along with trying to describe how any given person is beautiful.
Finally, I’ll express my appreciation for the bold final paragraph of Ovid’s tale, in which the Roman author declares that, thanks to his work, “with my better part I shall soar, undying, far above the stars, and my name will be imperishable… people will read my verse. If there be any truth in poets’ prophecies, I shall live to all eternity, immortalized by fame.” (4) Maybe because the writer’s predictions have so far not been entirely inaccurate, people who’d like to achieve this sort of immortality may be less hesitant than they should to put their own names up for consideration for inclusion in this tiny crowd who has managed to obtain it. It’s somehow fitting that, having started out by bringing Nietzsche in to help out with my comments, I’m going to pull him in again to illuminate this particular claim. Never really humble, in his writing, at least, about his own authorial and philosophical powers, young Friedrich made a final definitive statement about how he felt about his work, should anyone be in doubt, with his fantastically audacious chapter headings in Ecce Homo. Rounding out a list that included elucidations about “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” etc., was the gadfly’s answer to the question, “Why I Am a Destiny.” If you’re going to declare, do it boldly. I think both Ovid and Nietzsche would have agreed with that imperative– and that, if there’s a heaven, they’re probably still having some spectacular, maybe boastful, conversations in it right now.
(1) Ovid, Metamorphoses, transl. Mary M. Innes (Baltimore: Penguin, 1971), 78.
(2) ibid., 107.
(3) ibid., 239.
(4) ibid., 357.