Metamorphoses

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Narcissus admiring himself in a spring, from a manuscript of Roman de la Rose, one of the medieval bestselling books heavily influenced by Ovid (Chantilly, Musée Condé, 482, around 1350 AD)

Most people will have heard of at least one ancient myth captured by the Roman poet Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses, at least by name, if not by narrative. And if not of Daphne who was turned into a laurel tree, or Arachne into a spider, or of Pasiphae and the Minotaur, then surely they will have heard of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection in the water or of Hercules and the Centaurs.

Most figures in Ovid’s poem have become types. There’s a Narcissus on every street, a vengeful Medea in every city, a lyrical Orpheus in every poetry club. Ovid didn’t invent these stories, he collected and downloaded them from the ancient cultural database and gave them a new spin, a new poetic twist. If the stories have proved almost perennial, that’s because of Ovid’s enduring legacy. What keeps the work together, allowing him to tell over 250 stories in fifteen books as if in one breath, is the principle of transformation. The metamorphosis, I’d like to argue, is not just a title, not just a poetic convenience, but also the constitution of the ancient world. It’s the ancient Greco-Roman profession of cultural faith, the creed of an age, the primer for deciphering an alien world.

The metamorphosis is the enemy of essence. When something changes into something else, there are no guarantees. A woman becomes a constellation, a man becomes a fish, a couple become a pair of trees. The natural order is exposed in its fluidity, unnaturalness, the stone becomes clay and the rule the exception, forever resisting permanance and stability. The modern world abhors the idea of metamorphosis, of things that are this way but also that, of necessity in constant risk of falling into contingency. The only modern approximation of metamorphosis is the miracle, itself under attack, but even that feels mineral compared to the porosity and malleability of the ancient metamorphic event.

The ancient world believed in metamorphic transformations because it was itself metamorphic. The classical universe was inhabited by hybrids, by ambiguities, by wonders whose unpredictability was a source of amazement but also fear. The ancient world was a haunted river flowing in all directions, bathing all beings, human, not human and everything in between. It is precisely this space in between that accommodated the spirit of transformation, the power of metamorphosis. Certitude was a risk only a few philosophers were willing to take. For everyone else, the world was a space free for all, a rich paste of ambiguities and equivocations which was impossible to break down into its constituent parts. The Christian Middle Ages inherited this enchanted paste, but forces were afoot for separating the elements, bringing order, banning one ambivalence after another, until the duality of mind and matter, and the vaccuum between them, became the blueprint for another world, closer to us, anticlassical, modern.

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