- Ovid and the Moderns
Theodore Ziolkowski, author of an excellent study on Virgil and the Moderns (1993), has now performed the same service for Ovid. A distinguished scholar and critic of German and comparative literature, he has an enviable range in modern European literatures, as well as a good grasp of the ancient texts and scholarship thereon. This dual focus allows him to chart both the conjunctions between the fortunes ofOvid in the two worlds of classical scholarship and creative literature, and, just as interestingly, the disjunctions. Thus the celebrations and associated publications for the 2000th anniversary of Ovid's birth in 1957-8 lent an impetus to a renewed literary interest, as did the greater, and hitherto unstoppable, wave of professional scholarly and critical interest that really took off from the mid-80s on. By contrast, perhaps the most important part of the story told by Ziolkowski, the use made of Ovid by some of the founding heroes of modernism, Pound, Joyce, Eliot, Rilke, in the years immediately after the First World War, didnot correspond to a revival of scholarly interest, although Eliot took a course in Latin poetry at Harvard with E. K. Rand, author of an early proselytizing work, Ovid and his Influence (1925). The truth is perhaps that Ovid has always tended to be a poet's (or writer's) poet, even when academic orthodoxies have dictated a negative judgement: witness Goethe's resistance when Herder attempted to persuade him out of his pleasure in the Metamorphoses. Even in periods when Ovid was out of fashion with the self-appointed arbiters of literary value he continued as a staple in schools, and hence familiar to most of the authors with whom Ziolkowski is concerned. In the introductory chapter on the meanings of Ariadne as a symbol of transformation and exile in de Chirico's The Joys and Enigmas of a Strange Hour and Hofmannsthal's libretto for Ariadne auf Naxos, Ziolkowski stresses that the chief sources were Ovid's accounts of the Ariadne myth, and not Catullus 64. It remains to be seen whether the rapid dwindling of Latin in schools in the last quarter of the twentieth century will finally have the effect of choking off the Ovidian literary reception that produced such riches in the twentieth century. [End Page 261]
In this reception Ovid the love poet, so important for the Middle Ages and Renaissance, has played a small part; the overwhelming response has been to the Metamorphoses and the exile poetry (and even more than to the Tristia and Ex Ponto themselves, to the 'myth' of Ovid's exile). Ziolkowski identifies three dominant strands in the modern and post-modern fascination with Ovid: metamorphosis; the privilegingof words over things, whether through aestheticism or through a scepticism about the ability of words to refer to a reality outside themselves; and exile, both literal physical displacement and the figurative exile of the alienated artist or intellectual. Ziolkowski has no difficulty in showing how successive acceptations of a notion of metamorphosis or change lend continuing relevance to Ovid's book of changes, in a reception itself characterized by a high level of mutability, as Ovid himself foresaw: stages in a twentieth-century history of metamorphosis include the rapidly changing material and social conditions of the world after 1918, postmodernism's belief in a constantly shifting world no longer anchored in rationality, the 'protean self' of the Generation X of the '90s. In order to give shape to his narrative, Ziolkowski likes to impose period labels on successive stages of Ovidian reworkings. We are offered inter alia high modernism; postmodernism (typical productions Calvino's Le città invisibili, Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, Ransmayr's Die letzte Welt); the sceptical generation (exemplified by the improbably named Eckart von Naso's 1958 novel Liebe war sein Schicksal: Roman um Ovid and Jacek Bochen´ski's Shandyean Nazo Poeta, 1969). This tactic of Ziolkowski's is sometimes a straitjacket on a reception characterized as much as anything by its unpredictability.
The exilic works of Ovid have been the...