Tag Archives: Ovid

I Could Not Keep Your Hands in My Own: Two Poems from Osip Mandelstam’s Tristia

The Building of the Trojan Horse. Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. 1760. National Gallery, London

What do Ovid, Dante and Mandelstam all have in common? All three men were exiled from their homes for political reasons and infuse their poetry with the sadness, pain and loneliness of that separation. I was reading Mandelstam’s essay on Dante in the NYRB edition of his Selected Poems when I decided to linger on his Tristia verses which are included in the collection. Tristia is the name that Ovid gives to his collection of writings that are composed Ex Ponto, in the Black Sea region to which place the Emperor Augustus condemned him to live out his remaining years. I have always found it extremely difficult to translate Ovid’s Tristia; gone is the vigorous, lively poet we know of from the Amores and the Metamorphoses and in his place we encounter a melancholy man desperately longing to see his home, his family and his friends once again.

Tristia, literally meaning “sad things, sorrows, lamentations” is a fitting title for Mandelstam’s collection which he wrote in self-imposed exile while in the Crimea in the early 1920’s. The dire and desperate personal consequences of war and revolution drove him to this region of Russia which was more isolated from civil war. His time away from the north inspired him to produce these poems that are filled with images of separation, loss, darkness and exile. It is chilling that the poems also serve as a glimpse into the poet’s future which will include arrest, torture, and forced exiles to the Urals and Voronezh. He must have known, deep down in his soul, that his first, temporary, voluntary exile was a harbinger of tribulations to come in later years.

The first poem I share is numbered 116, and is filled with images of bees and honey. I see allusions to both Vergil and Tolstoy for whom the workings of a beehive are metaphors for the life and activity of humans working as a group. (I’ve written about this in more detail here.) Aeneas (an exile) encounters Dido (also an exile) and her fellow citizens building Carthage—they are as busy and industrious as an active beehive. Lucretius metaphorically uses honey to sweeten the rim of a cup of medicine from which his readers drink in his didactic poetry. And Tolstoy inverts Vergil’s beehive metaphor to describe the dying and deserted Moscow as Napoleon’s troops are marching on the city and destroying it. Mandelstam’s poem, I think, incorporates aspects of both Vergil, Tolstoy and even Lucretius—he reminds us of the energy of a beehive and the sweetness of its honey, but laments the death of such an active, supportive community:

Take from my palms, to sooth your heart,
a little honey, a little sun,
in obedience to Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat that was never moored
nor hear a shadow in its furs,
nor move through thick life without fear.

For us, all that’s left is kisses
tattered as the little bees
that die when they leave the hive.

Deep in the transparent night they’re still humming,
at home in the dark wood on the mountain,
in the mint and lungwort and the past.

But lay to your heart my rough gift,
this lovely dry necklace of dead bees
that once made a sun out of honey.

The line that keeps haunting me is “You can’t untie a boat that was never moored.”

The second poem I wish to share is numbered 119, also from the Tristia selections. I was naturally drawn to it because of the classical references and, in particular, I see allusions to Vergil Aeneid 2 in this poem:

I could not keep your hands in my own,
I failed the salt tender lips
so I must wait now for dawn in the timbered Acropolis.
How I loathe the ageing stockades and their tears.

The Achaeans are constructing the horse in the dark,
hacking out the sides with their dented saws,
Nothing quiets the blood’s dry fever, and for you
there is no designation, no sound , no modelled likeness.

How did I dare to think you might come back?
Why did I tear myself from you before it was time?
The dark has not faded yet, nor the cock crowed,
nor the hot axe bitten wood.

Resin has seeped from the stockade like transparent tears
and the town is conscious of its own wooden ribs,
but blood has rushed to the stairs and started climbing
and in dreams three times men have seen the seductive image.

Where is Troy, the beloved? The royal, the queenly roof.
Priam’s high bird house will be hurled down
while arrows rattle like dry rain
and grow from the ground like shoots of a hazel.

The pin-prick of the last star vanishes without pain,
morning will tap at the shutter, a gray swallow,
and the slow day, like an ox that wakes on straw,
will lumber out from its long sleep to cross the rough haycocks.

The penultimate stanza brings to mind the scenes in Aeneid 2 where Aeneas is making his way through the ruined city of Troy and witnesses the destruction of the palace and the death of King Priam. All this will result in the long exile of Aeneas—dawn and a new day will bring a completely different reality for the hero and his lost city.

This poem is especially reminiscent of Ovid’s first book of his Tristia which touches on his very personal losses suffered because of exile. He grieves over the distances that now separate himself and his friends, family and his wife. In Mandelstam’s poem the personal becomes that hand which he is not able to hold on to, and that haunting question, “How did I dare to think that you might come back?” The poem describes not just exile, but any personal loss—death, separation, estrangement—that results in grief.

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Impatient and Inexperienced with men: More thoughts on Eliot’s Daniel Deronda

Ovid, in Book I of his epic poem the Metamorphoses, tells the story of the wood nymph Daphne whose transformation into a tree is sad and tragic.  Daphne loathes the idea of marriage and desperately clings to her life as a maiden nymph and a devotee of the goddess Diana (L. 478-80—all translations of the Latin are my own).: “Many suitors asked for her hand in marriage, but Daphne, turning away from these pursuers in disgust, not only impatient with men but also lacking any knowledge of men, roams the remote woods, not giving a shit about marriage, love or weddings.”

One of the saddest parts of this narrative, for me, is when Daphne begs her father not to marry her off to one of these suiotrs (L. 486-489): “Let me stay a virgin forever, dearest father.  This same wish was granted to Diana by her own father Zeus.”  But Ovid states that Daphne is too pretty to stay single: “Her father tries to humor her, but her own good looks prevented what she wanted, her very beauty made her wish an impossible one.”  Just as this observation is being made about Daphne’s future, the god Apollo arrives on the scene who is burning with a deep passion to overtake Daphne with his amatory advances.

Apollo, who is normally a god associated with reason and good sense, loses his mind over Daphne after being struck by Cupid’s arrow.  The passages that lead up to Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne are full of piercing, penetrating, arrows.  Cupid, after being teased by Apollo, pulls two arrows from his quiver and takes aim: “The arrow which causes someone to fall in love is golden and gleams with a sharp point, but the arrow which causes someone to reject love is dull and has lead under its shaft.”  Needless to say, Apollo is pierced with the golden arrow and Daphne is hit with the dull one.  An intense chase through the woods immediately ensues; Ovid uses images of the hunt as metaphors to describe the terror of Daphne’s pursuit.  In order to point out delicately the sinister tone of this passage I always ask my students, “What is Apollo’s goal here?  What will he do to Daphne if he captures her?”

As I read more of Gwendolen’s story in Daniel Deronda, I am convinced that George Eliot had Ovid’s Daphne in mind as she was writing her story of a beautiful, naïve young woman who clings to her maidenhood.  Gwendolen says on several occasions that she finds men disgusting and she hates when they make love to her.  Eliot says of her protagonist, “Her observation of matrimony had inclined her to think it rather a dreary state, in which a woman could not do what she liked, had more children than were desirable, was consequently dull, and became irrevocably immersed in humdrum.”  Like Daphne, Gwendolen views marriage as a permanent restraint on her freedom and she is impatient with men and inexperienced with them: “…She objected, with a sort of physical repulsion, to being directly made love to.  With all her imaginative delight in being adored, there was a certain fierceness of maidenhood in her.”  What was that lead arrow that causes her to reject men and love?  We can only speculate (a trauma early in life or a preference for those of the same sex?  Matters for a whole different essay.)

Gwendolen’s uncle, Mr. Gascoigne, the local rector, serves as a surrogate father to her and has more than one talk with her about the importance of marriage and making a good match.  He is convinced that her beauty and charm will attract a good suitor.  And when a local aristocrat and heir to titles and a fortune, a Mr. Grandcourt, shows interest in his niece Mr. Gascoigne makes it clear that the only path for her in life is to submit to a “good marriage”: “‘My dear Gwendolen,’ he said, rising also and speaking with benignant gravity, ‘I trust you will find in marriage a new fountain of duty and affection.  Marriage is the only true and satisfactory sphere of a woman, and if your marriage with Mr. Grandcourt should be happily decided upon, you will have probably an increasing power, both of rank and wealth, which may be used for the benefit of others.  These considerations are something higher than romance.'”  Similar to Daphne’s predicament, Mr. Gascoigne makes it clear to his nieces that marriage is the only option for a woman, especially one who is beautiful; taking vows has nothing to do with what a woman wants or doesn’t want, it is simply a matter of obligation.

The pivotal scenes during which Grandcourt, normally a reasonable and unemotional man, pursues Gwendolen occur at two different archery competitions.  Eliot weaves images of golden arrows, piercing, conquests, the hunter and the hunted throughout these scenes.  I found the description of Gwendolen, as she is about to set off to the archery competition, rather melancholy and foreboding as the comparison with Daphne floated through my mind: “Gwendolen looked lovely and vigorous as a tall, newly-opened lily the next morning; there was a reaction of young energy in her, and yesterday’s self-distrust seemed no more than the transient shiver on the surface of a full stream. The roving archery match in Cardell Chase was a delightful prospect for the sport’s sake: she felt herself beforehand moving about like a wood-nymph under the beeches (in appreciative company), and the imagined scene lent a charm to further advances on the part of Grandcourt…”

As Grandcourt decides that Gwendolen will be his wife, and his possession, his pursuit of her becomes more intense and he remarks to a friend that his new wife will be “brought to kneel down like a horse under training…though she might have an objection to it.”  This image of forcing self upon Gwendolen eerily recalls Apollo’s reason for pursuing Daphne.

In the end, Daphne calls, once again, on her father for help but the result is the destruction of her form and beauty and a transformation from the carefree, happy maiden that she once was.  It is clear from the foreshadowing in Eliot’s tale that Gwendolen’s fate will be something similar to Daphne’s.  Reading Daniel Deronda though the perspective of Ovid’s myth also makes Gwendolen’s pretending to be St. Cecilia that much more fitting and foreboding; as I mentioned in an earlier post , this martyr also rejected marriage and wished to stay a maiden but in the end was destroyed despite her wishes.

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Corpus Erat: The Metamorphosis of Marcus in Brigid Brophy’s Flesh

This was my first experience with a Brophy text and I was pleasantly surprised by her writing even with a rather short novella. I viewed the book as a metamorphosis, much like those described in Ovid’s epic poem, in both a physical and emotional sense. At the beginning of the story Marcus is a timid, skinny, introvert who lingers at the edge of the parties that he forces himself to attend. He is the only boy of a wealthy Jewish family living in London and, as a result of his upbringing, he leads a rather pampered life. He has his own flat in London, for instance, but most nights he goes home for dinner and sleeps at his parent’s home. Since he has no need of a real occupation or a source of income, he spends his time reading and studying art. Being an introvert myself, Brophy’s description of Marcus’s awkwardness at a party made me cringe:

He had got himself hemmed in by other people’s backs and jammed in a corner between a bookcase and a table of food, on either of which was there room for him to set down his glass, which had been empty for half an hour. He picked out one of the books, opening up a black gap on the shelf, and mimed reading. But this solitary pleasure at a party seemed to him as much a solecism and a confession as if he had stood there wiggling a loose tooth in his mouth; and the feeling of being exposed overwhelmed any pleasure the book might have given him.

Marcus meets his future wife, Nancy, at this same party and this interesting woman is immediately drawn to Marcus because of the potential she sees in him. A potential for what, we have no idea at first. But when a very nervous and virginal Marcus is initiated into the pleasure of the flesh during his honeymoon, we are made to understand that she saw in Marcus a man that she could teach to please her in just the ways she needed: “Nancy did have a talent. It was for sexual intercourse.”

What I found most surprising in this small book is that, although much of the narrative is funny and quirky, Brophy also inserts passages with sublime, poetic descriptions of physical intimacy. After Marcus and Nancy consummate their marriage, she writes:

Where she led him was a strange world that was not new to him, since he had always known it existed, subterraneanly: a grotto, with whose confines and geographical dispositions he at once made himself quite familiar, as with the world of inside his own mouth: but a magic grotto, limitless, infinitely receding and enticing, because every sensation he experience there carried on its back an endless multiplication of overtones, with the result that the sensation, though more than complete, was never finished, and every experience conducted him to the next; a world where he pleasurable lost himself in a confusion of the senses not in the least malapropos but as appropriate and precise as poetry—a world where one really did see sounds and hear scents, where doves might well have roared and given suck, where perfectly defined, delightful local tactile sensations dissolved into apperceptions of light or darkness. of colour, of thickness, of temperature…

This marks the turning point in Marcus’s transformation to a more self-confident man. He finds a job that he is good at and really likes, he starts to gain quite a bit of weight, and he continues to delight in the physical aspect of his marriage to Nancy. As Brophy lingered on Marcus’s physical transformation in the second half of the novella, I kept thinking of a line in Ovid’s Metamorphoses when Pygmalion discovers that he statue has come to life: “Corpus erat! “ (It was a body!), he exclaims.

I have one other Brophy, The King of a Rainy Country, sitting on my bookshelf that I am now eager to read. I am about to visit some amazing bookstores on my summer travels, so please let me know in the comments of other Brophy titles I should be on the lookout for.

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Freed from the Block: Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger

I had intended to finish the year reading a stack of German literature that I have acquired, but instead I have fallen down a John Berger rabbit hole.  Bento’s Sketchbook is one of those titles recommended by a friend with the very strong assertion that it is something I “must read.”

We know from different sources that the philosopher Baruch (Benedict or Bento) Spinoza (1632-1677) enjoyed drawing and that he always carried his sketchbooks around with him, none of which seemed to have survived.  When John Berger’s friend gives him a virgin sketchbook, he decides, “This is Bento’s!”  Berger begins to making drawings “prompted by something asking to be drawn.”  He comments about the development of his book, “As time goes by, however, the two of us—Bento and I—become less distinct.  Within the act of looking, the act of questioning with our eyes, we become somewhat interchangeable.  And this happens, I guess, because of a shared awareness about where and to what the practice of drawing can lead.”

For Berger a cluster of irises, a painting in the National Gallery, a friend’s old bicycle all become subjects for drawing and reflection.  The stories and the sketches are simple yet fascinating.  My favorite, one of the more abstract and philosophical pieces, begins:

Around her is a block.  The block is invisible because totally transparent.  Nor does the block restrict her movements.  Is the block what separates Being from Becoming? I don’t know, for this is happening where there are not words.

Normally, we face words frontally and so can read them, speak them or think them.  This was happening somewhere to the side of language.  Any frontal view of language was impossible there.  From the side I could see how language was paper thin, and all its words were foreshortened to become a single vertical stroke—I—like a single post in a vast landscape.

The task was to dismantle the block—to take it apart and lift it off piece by piece.  She allowed this to happen—No. Active and Passive have merged together.  Let us say: She happened this to herself with the utmost ease.  I was with her in what she (we) were doing.

The lovers slowly begin to dismantle the block starting from her head.  The task is tiring, he says, and he needs to take breaks.  But when he is tired he also embraces her and they gain strength from one another.  Finally the block is completely gone and:

She was there whole, looking exactly as she had at the beginning, capable of the same actions and no more, having the same name, the same habits, the same history.  Yet, freed from the block, the relations between her and everything which was not her had changed.  An absolute yet invisible change.  She was now the centre of what surrounded her.  All that was not her made space for her.

This passage of Berger’s pulled my thoughts toward Ovid’s version of the Pygmalion myth.  Although it is oftentimes viewed as a commentary about unattainable standards of beauty, I’ve always seen more in the Latin than this message.  Pygmalion, in his daily solitude, uses the utmost care and love to gently coax a form out of the white block of marble that will become his beloved: “Pygmalion is amazed at his creation and drinks up the with his heart the passionate fires of her simulated body.”  Both stories demonstrate the power that love, kindness, and, most importantly, patience can have on our relationships.

 

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Pain and Pleasure: Some thoughts on And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger

Time and Space are the focus of Berger’s brief yet lovely writings in this impossible-to-classify book.  Part one, entitled “Once” is an attempt to capture  the enigmatic, human experience of time while part two, entitled “Here” explores the concept of space especially in relation to sight and distance.  The text feels like a series of snapshots into Berger’s mind as he uses art, photography, philosophy, poetry and personal anecdotes to grapple with time and space; Hegel, Marx, Dante, Camus, Caravaggio are just a few of the artists and thinkers that are given fleeting attention in his text.

At times Berger addresses his narrative to an unnamed “you” that is his lover.  Time and space have, perhaps, the greatest impact on love, sex, and desire: “The sexual thrust to reproduce and to fill the future is a thrust against the current of time which is flowing ceaselessly towards the past.  The genetic information which assures reproduction works against dissipation.”  And, “Love is a reconstitution in the heart of that holding which is Being.”  Berger’s thoughts to his beloved highlight a painful distance that separates them.  He is writing to her about going to a post office to send her a package or a letter, or he is reminding her of stolen moments spent together or a conversation about art while in bed.  Thoughts on vision and light are mixed with those on distance: “The visible brings the world to us.  But at the same time reminds us ceaselessly that it is a world in which we risk to be lost.  The visible with its space also takes the world away from us. Nothing is more two-faced.”

Berger’s thoughts on the close association between pain and pleasure as they relate to time and space and love were the most interesting for me in this book as it brought to mind other authors who have also delved into this complicated association.  Berger writes, “Pleasure and pain need to be considered together, they are inseparable. Yet the space filled by each is perhaps different.”  And:

It has never been easy to relieve pain.  The productive recourses have usually been lacking—food, adequate medicines, clothing, shelter.  But it has never been difficult to locate the causes of pain: hunger, illness, cold, deprivation…It has always been, in principle, simpler to relieve pain than to give pleasure or make happy.  An area of pain is more easily located.

With one enormous exception—the emotional pain of loss, the pain that has broken a heart.  Such pain fills the space of an entire life.  It may have begun with a single event but the event has produced a surplus of pain.  The sufferer becomes inconsolable.  Yet, what is this pain, if it is not the recognition that what was once given as pleasure or happiness has been irrevocably taken away?

It is no wonder that the Epicureans attempted to follow a philosophy that was constructed around the close experiences of pleasure and pain.  I’ve tried to embrace Epicureanism in particular during this past year, jettisoning things and relationships that bring more pain than pleasure.  It is not an easy philosophy to follow, to say the least, but I have seen some value in it.

Berger brings into his discussion of pain and pleasure the paintings of Caravaggio and the facial expressions he captures in his art.  Berger writes, “I have not seen a dissimilar expression on the face of animals—before mating and before a kill.”  Jean Luc Nancy, who also explores the association between pain and pleasure in his book Coming, uses Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene on the cover of his text.  Nancy argues that pain and pleasure have an intensity in common and in the moments before orgasm the tension that one experiences can be painful: “Sartre says, ‘There is no pleasure that does not know itself as pleasure.’ We could say the same thing the other way around: There is no pain that does not know itself as pain.  Pleasure is a state that seeks out its own perpetuation, while pain seeks out its own cessation, but it’s exactly the same thing in each sense.”  Pain is always present in jouissance, Nancy argues, because its extreme intensity becomes unbearable—it pushes us to our limits.

This connection between pain and pleasure is expressed by Quignard as a constant tension manifested as desire that never achieves jouissanceIn Sex and Terror, a book whose style of prose mixed with poetry and thoughts on art is similar to Berger,  writes:

Something that belonged to happiness is lost in the lovers’ embrace.  There is in the most complete love, in happiness itself, a desire that everything should suddenly tip over into death.  What overflows with violence in sexual climax is overtaken by a sadness that is not psychological.  By a frightening languor.  There are absolute tears that mingle.  In sensual delight, there is something that gives way.

And finally, Berger’s text brought to mind what I think is perhaps one of the greatest poetic renditions of the deep connection between pain and pleasure.  Ovid, in Book IV of the Metamorphoses, describes the death of Pyramus who, because of time and space, is not able to be with his lover.  Ovid’s description of Pyramus’s tragic death becomes infused with the erotic pleasure that he should have experienced with Thisbe (translation is my own):

He draws his own sword and plunges the iron into his guts,
and as he lays dying, without delay, he withdraws the sword
from the hot wound.  And as he lays prone on the earth, blood
spews high in the air, similar to when a pipe is split
because of a weak part in the lead and ejaculates a great
amount of water from its  thin, hissing stream and ruptures
the air with its blows.

The thrusting and withdrawal of the sword (ilia in Latin can mean “guts”, “intestines” as I translated it here but it is also the word for “groin”) and the ejaculating (eiaculator in the Latin) could just as easily have been words used to describe Pyramus’s consummation of his relationship with Thisbe. I will end with a fitting quote from John Berger from And Our Faces, which applies, I think, to Ovid’s description of pain and pleasure: “Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate. This intimacy is the result of the poem’s labor. The result of the bringing-together-into-intimacy of every act and noun and event and perspective to which the poem refers. There is often nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring.”

Pierre Gautherot. Pyramus and Thisbe. 1799.

 

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