Thoughts on the Metamorphoses

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It’s time for another post about a book I’m reading! In this case, the book is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s very enjoyable (especially since the translator, A. D. Melville, puts the whole poem into iambic pentameter), and there’s lots to say for someone qualified to speak about the literary value of the work, the implications of the impressive array of allusions Ovid employs, or the broader cultural context in which the Metamorphoses was written. But I’m not qualified in that way, and while a lack of expertise shouldn’t stop any self-respecting blogger from providing an opinion, my current interests lie elsewhere, so I’m not taking this blog post in that direction.

Instead, I have two significantly more tangential directions in which to take this post. I’ll start with the topic of violence in mass media, which, as you will see, actually does relate to the poem. I’ve always been very skeptical of attempts to censor mass media (e.g. videogames or television) in the name of “protecting our children” or “defending our values”, even though it seems pretty obvious(pdf) that both realistic and excessive portrayals of fictional violence do desensitize people to the real thing. There’s a large gap between desensitization and causation (on the wrong side of which, incidentally, the awful new Glenn Beck show falls), and I see little evidence that many people who are desensitized towards violence subsequently act more violent. Instead, I imagine they are just less shocked to encounter it in their lives.[1]

Still, I had bought into the idea that because of mass media and technology our society is uniquely disposed towards this stuff. Evidence can be seen in videogames and action movies, but I think the best example is the sustained stratospheric ratings of CSI and its ever-grislier spin-offs, as well as the popularity of cable news crime shows. I think I can safely say that, decades ago, such graphic depictions of violence would have been met with widespread social condemnation instead of commercial success.

I’ve had a few debates about this idea, but not until reading Ovid did I finally decide to discard it. This poem is a good 2000 years old, and yet some of its depictions of violence are so hilariously gory that I’ve had to re-evaluate my judgment of our own society. Consider the following epic simile, describing the effect of Pyramus stabbing himself underneath a tree:

And as he lay outstretched his blood leaped high,
As when a pipe bursts where the lead is flawed
And water through the narrow hissing hole
Shoots forth long leaping jets that cut the air.
The berries of the tree, spattered with blood,
Assumed a sable hue; the blood-soaked roots
Tinged with a purple dye the hanging fruits.

This passage reminds me of that anime scene from Kill Bill, the goriest part of one of the goriest movies I’ve ever seen.

And then I realized that this is just a part of human nature, albeit an ugly part, and that the Victorian social mores of our recent past were an exception to this rule, and not the baseline. I could also have realized this from the example of the Roman gladiators, but for some reason it took Ovid’s Metamorphoses instead to teach me this lesson.

My other, unrelated, comment is about the overall mood of the poem. Specifically, the world of the Metamorphoses is incredibly unjust. As the title might suggest, people in the poem routinely undergo dramatic changes, achieving immortality in the stars or suffering hideous reversals of fortune, and characters’ ultimate destinies are only very loosely tied to their actions. This, after all, is the poem that contains the famous line “count no man fortunate until he dies” because of all the metamorphoses going on all the time. This unpredictable worldview reminds me of my conception of Taoism, and I actually like it quite a bit. I don’t mean to be melodramatic or belabor the point, but I think it is healthy to stop trying to make life conform into narratives and just accept that things don’t always make sense.

[1] and even if a causal link were to be found, I’d still be leery of censorship, since free speech is such an important societal value

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