Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 16.
Sarah Annes Brown, Ovid: Myth and Metamorphosis. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 2005. Pp. 159. ISBN 1-85399-672-6. UK£10.99. Further Details.
St. John's College, Cambridge University
This welcome addition to the Ancients In Action series will not surprise readers of Brown's earlier book on Ovid.[] It inherits not only subject-matter, the Metamorphoses, but also approach, that is, a heavily reception-based perspective aimed at a literary reader but not necessarily a classicist. In fact, it represents a smaller, lighter, and more accessible companion to the earlier book. As such, it will prove very useful for the teaching of the Metamorphoses at degree level, although problems arise for those new to Ovid over both fine detail and the broad sweep. I shall break down the chapters and their positioning within three discourses -- classical scholarship, canonical literary studies, and popular culture -- to illustrate the book's virtues as a popularisation and its quirks as a teaching aid.
First, the criticisms of a pedantic classicist. There are minor gaps in Brown's Latin,[] which scarcely affect the argument but illustrate the problems of teaching literature in translation and may undermine the confidence of undergraduates who are learning the language. By contrast, the presentation of this book is virtually flawless.[] The author's command of English literature brings with it a wealth of literary knowledge and the ability to cross-reference instantaneously across space and time.
The introduction to the book (pp. 1-44) is a brisk, accessible advertisement for reading Ovid that sets the unpretentious yet engaging tone of the book. Some of the most basic (or rather, currently most studied) themes of the poem are surveyed -- genre, boundaries, men, women, structure -- with comparisons drawn with a slew of English literary classics on the one hand, and pop-cultural common currency (the Simpsons, Indiana Jones, Margaret Thatcher, Disney's Hercules) on the other. With a mixture of historical context and references to major episodes, it equips the reader with enough background to enter directly into five specific myths, and words such as 'polyptoton', 'aetiology', and 'didacticism' are explained as they are encountered. Nothing is assumed, except a willingness to read Ovid largely through his reception.
The first chapter, on the Daphne story (pp. 45-66), starts as Brown means to go on. Few quotations are from a close translation of Ovid, as the issue of point-of-view, with rape narratives as a test-case, is explored through later versions of the poem or of the myth. The Actaeon chapter (pp. 67-84) is passing strange. It pursues the theme of female sexuality recurring throughout the book, and therefore loses focus on the original story, concentrating instead on more erotic later interpretations. This trajectory terminates with a reference to Camille Paglia's online advice column, presumably encountered while googling the word 'Actaeon', in which Paglia suggests that Actaeon was punished for witnessing Diana engaging in lesbian frolics with her nymphs.[] Chapter Three, on Philomela (pp. 85-104), is also surprising, and for the same reasons. These two chapters are in fact impressive in identifying connecting thematic threads that link instances of a text's reception, even if they are not firmly anchored in the original text. The silencing of Philomela through sanitisations of the story is an arresting phenomenon. The next chapter, on Arachne (pp. 105-21), gives the story the prominence it has recently secured as a showcase of metapoesis. It features sixteen quotations, only one of them from Ovid himself, which is par for the course, but one of them is twelve lines of a poem by Anne Finch about a piece of tapestry,[] with no connection with the Metamorphoses beyond linking female creativity with weaving. This illustrates a general tendency to be drawn enthusiastically away from reception into comparison, and therefore occasionally to abandon the 'metamorphosis' of the title for mere comparison, which does so short a book no favours. The final myth-chapter, Pygmalion (pp. 123-42), features large samples from Shakespeare and Mary Shelley, and finishes with Blade Runner (Ridley Scott 1982). This perhaps most successfully displays Brown's ability to show what Ovid's text has inspired in a wide range of cultural contexts, and her preoccupation with their changing attitudes to gender and private experience. A final three-page conclusion (pp. 143-45) returns to the interpretative import of cultural and historical context, asking what new angles future readers will bring to the poem. This book uses its five evocative myths to introduce readers to Ovid, but the classical Ovid is only one among many at this crowded event, and others are waiting at the door.
Its critical methodology is the only aspect of this book that challenges assessment. Constraints of space may be the reason why it shines through not as a continuous sheen, but rather the occasional sequin. The influence of Charles Martindale is naturally evident, (on pages 11f., for example, where stress is laid on the importance of 'all the intervening "Ovids" which the last two millennia have thrown up'). There is a tendency to imply that the reader can and should seek the meaning of a story, which is strange to see in a book so devoted to exploring the transformative power of literary reception. For example, in a passing reference to the tale of Red Riding Hood (p. 80), we are told that while it seems to be about the danger of wolves, 'its real message' is probably about the danger of sexual predators. Can't it be about either, or both, and/or something else entirely, depending on the reader? Conversely, we are presented with the speculation that the 'real story' of Actaeon and Diana was a sexual liaison which the virgin goddess wanted to conceal (p. 71), an interpretation clearly generated at the point of reception (certainly not an orthodox one). A parallel case deserves quoting in full: 'I'm sure I would not have detected any hint of homoeroticism in the relationship between Philomela and Procne if I had not already been researching lesbian incest in [a] very different context' (p. 87). But again, closing the chapter, Brown suggests that, in the face of a lack of evidence for any intertextual relationship, the story may instead be linked to the plot of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1946) via Jung-style archetypes inherent to the human mind (p. 104). These examples show that Brown sometimes treats her material as if it has an inherent real meaning of some kind to be decoded, whether it is narrative or psychological, and at other times cheerfully acknowledges the dependence of a text's meaning on the historical and cultural situatedness of its reader. However, while both standpoints are viable and popular, they are difficult to reconcile. As bedfellows they produce a lot of rumpled bedclothes, and the implicit inconsistencies resulting from mentioning both make the label 'introductory work' seem inappropriate. It might have satisfied more readers to have only one theoretical position highlighted, or indeed neither.
While the poetic texts discussed in the introduction go on to form the basis of the rest of the book, the pop-culture allusions also persist, though the book caters more to advanced students of English or Comparative Literature than to those as new to the canon as they are to Ovid. References to twentieth-century texts outside the elite enclaves of poetry and stage drama are prominent in some places more than others, for example in the Pygmalion chapter. The comparison between this myth and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (pp. 140-42, and touted on the back cover) is not very strong on its own, since their respective protagonists have little in common besides falling in love with an artificial woman; Deckard did not create Rachael, he does not even know she is artificial until after he has fallen for her, and the story ends very differently. The comparison arises through the intermediary texts of Mary Shelley and Ted Hughes. Naturally, the problem is that the Metamorphoses is usually only alluded to by the classically educated minority, whereas most modern texts must provide coincidental parallels, for example Chucky of the Child's Play movies (Tom Holland 1988) and the Autons of Doctor Who as examples of the creepiness of living dolls (p. 125).[]
As Brown's previous book showed, a narrative of the reception of the Metamorphoses is most successful as a history, and as such this book does succeed and is very interesting. It is more suitable for a general literature student than a classicist, being about the after-life of five Ovidian stories rather than the Metamorphoses itself. As an introduction to the Roman Ovid it should be supplemented, and preferably preceded, by a reading of the poem in close translation. Those seeking bibliography on the poem for the purpose of teaching it will prefer their students to concentrate on this book's excellent introduction. Those who will most appreciate it as a whole are avid Ovid novices, interested in literature (mainly poetry) of all periods. It will also be a rewarding read for those who have a special interest in one of the five myths covered, or who enjoyed Brown's earlier book on the Metamorphoses.
[] Sarah Annes Brown, The Metamorphosis of Ovid: From Chaucer to Ted Hughes (London 1999), reviewed by Stephen Harrison, Scholia Reviews ns 10 (2001) 28.
[] For example, the pun on the word frons which she proposes (p. 50) is impossible in the Latin, because it occurs in the accusative, frondem, and so cannot also mean 'front' which would be spelt frontem. Likewise, the suggestive similarity between mors and amor is not as strong as a Latinless reader might be led to assume (p. 81), given that the stem of the former is mort-. Again, Brown translates cum blandita as 'coaxingly or flatteringly' (p. 92), evidently mistaking it for cum blanditate, though it actually means something like 'when [Procne], having coaxed'. Finally, the world 'subtle' probably comes via the Latin subtilis not from subtexo as claimed (p. 114), but from tela.
[] However, note 'Iphis does have a reason' for 'Vertumnus does have a reason' (p. 40), and 'aevo' for 'saevo' (p. 99). Also, perhaps, a second em-dash (here indicated by ' -- ') after the word 'apart' in Brown's description of Pentheus' dismemberment as a 'sparagmos -- or ritual tearing apart of a hero' would eliminate the misleading implication that a human victim was typical.
[] http://www.salon.com/feb97/columnists/paglia970218.ht ml
[] Anne Kingsmill Finch, 'A Description of One of the Pieces of Tapistry at Long-Leat, made after the famous Cartons of Raphael' in Anne Winchilsea (Kingsmill) Countess of Finch, Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions (London 1713) 66-72.
[] Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons a television series broadcast by the BBC (for example, in four parts on 02/01/1971, 09/01/1971, 16/01/1971, 23/01/1971).