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  • The Latest Word from Echo
  • Anne-Emmanuelle Berger
    Translated by Rachel Gabara (bio)

Where did Ovid hear (of) Echo? Like Narcissus, we still ask ourselves and her where she comes from: “‘Come!’ he cried out”; but “she answered his call with another.” 1 Echo does make a brief appearance in Hesiod’s Theogony and in the Homeric Hymns; she undoubtedly traversed many poems before figuring in Ovid’s. But Ovid’s Echo is not the same as either those who came before her or her namesakes from more recent antiquity: for example, the Echo whose story is told by Longus in Daphnis and Chloe or the Echo of the dionysiac chants from Nonnos and the stanzas of Moschus. For Ovid’s Echo talks, as John Hollander points out in his fine book The Figure of Echo (which studies mentions of echo in poetry as figures of repetition), whereas everywhere else, at least in these ancient times, she sang. 2 Everywhere else, she is associated with Pan. A complex relationship developed between them. Sometimes she is described as a clandestine imitator of his flute, sending the echo of Pan’s music back to him as if from elsewhere. Incapable of identifying the source, Pan seeks her furiously. Sometimes, as in the version told by Daphnis to Chloe, Echo, a sort of feminine Narcissus, “sings with the Muses” and “[flees] all males.” 3 Pan is both jealous of her and in love with her; not succeeding in appropriating either her body or the song that he wants, he brings about her death. Of the inimitable nymph only her musical talent remains, which from then on can only be exercised through imitation. Echo’s death forces her into collusion with Pan, whose music she henceforth replays, but it doesn’t dissipate the equivocal nature of their relationship. Not only does she continue to elude him and he to pursue her, “with no other desire than to know who this student was who was hiding herself” (71), but the tale irrevocably complicates the distribution of roles (as Pan conceives of it) between imitated and imitator, “master” and “student,” origin and derivation, production and reproduction, and so forth. It is easy to understand why this Echo made the lyric poets dream and sing, at least until the death of the great Pan in the last century.

Ovid’s Echo tends to attract rather philosophical poets and philosophers who are a bit poetic. Here is another impossible couple, that which Echo does not manage to form with Narcissus. And yet, not only [End Page 621] does she repeat the words pronounced by Narcissus, pursuing him by following him, but in doing this she changes them, thus introducing not only deferral, but also difference, as if to compromise the (narcissistic) identification of the word with its acoustic image (“imago vocis,” wrote both Virgil and Horace to designate the phenomenon). Examining the literary legacy of Echo’s trick, Hollander writes, in a chapter entitled “Echo Allegorical,” “Ovid’s poetic device in telling her story becomes in later poetry a way of deconstructing words, often of love, into their hidden but operative ultimae” (FE 12; my emphasis). To illustrate the satiric capacity of this deconstructive Echo, Hollander quotes the following excerpt from a poem by Du Bellay: “‘What is it to love and, to complain often [souvent]?’—’Wind [vent]’ . . .” (FE 12).

“Wind,” replies Echo, with a play on the signifier (souvent, vent) which produces an excess and an unexpected straying of meaning. For Ovid, according to Hollander (who, even if he doesn’t refer to it explicitly, had heard of deconstruction at the time he was writing his essay 4 ), Echo is an originary figure of deconstruction, as altering repetition (différance), as a mode of reading immanent to the text which turns reflexively back on itself, as a poetic method of production (of meaning) by reproduction (of sound). From an imitator dependent on an originary word, Echo becomes she by whom the word arrives, returning from sentence to sentence and from one text to another. I would like now to evoke several literary and philosophical metamorphoses of this Ovidian Echo, beginning with the “original.”

The traces of Ovid...

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