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Arethusa 37.1 (2004) 77-87



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Flaying the Other

"Why do you strip me from myself?" cries Marsyas as Apollo begins to punish the satyr he has beaten in a musical contest by flaying him alive. As many commentators have observed, Marsyas may be losing his skin, but his words have lost none of their rhetorical luster.2 The mannered expression, together with such touches as the observation to the audience that "you could count" the organs as the flesh is peeled away,3 have made this scene a crucial test case for investigating the poem's attitude towards its potentially grotesque and disturbing subject matter. Thanks to the readings of Garth Tissol and Charles Segal, we can see now that the text's own glittering surface invites something more than mere "detachment." Rather than indulging an imagined taste on the part of his audience for aestheticized depictions of violence, the poet's account seems to highlight the discontinuities that result from different ways of seeing the tortured satyr.4 If wit focuses attention on the text's rhetorical "skin," it points out as well the poor fit between form and substance that intensifies the effect of both.5 In this [End Page 77] essay, I want to focus on other elements of the narrative: its emphases on the motifs of division and imitation that can help to particularize the "double vision" that Tissol and Segal describe. My goal is to relate Ovid's poetic technique in describing the satyr's death to a larger set of alternatives available for reading the poem as a whole and, ultimately, for understanding Ovid's place in the literary and political culture of his time.6

I want to begin with the obvious, the theme of division. The division of the subject that Marsyas's brief speech emphatically connects with his torture has several analogues in the construction of his narrative. The tale itself has been dismembered. Nothing is said here of Athena's invention of the flute, Marsyas's discovery of it, or the proud challenge to Apollo that inspires the god's vengeance. And a reference to this suppressed material comes in the very lament of the satyr: when Marsyas, with plangent, elegiac a's, declares that the flute is not worth the torture, he echoes the words with which, according to the Ars Amatoria, Minerva cast the instrument away after seeing a reflection of her swollen visage "non es mihi, tibia, tanti" (3.505).7 But the Ars passage suggests another level of division that is important to the story, the division of the speaker's own voice. The point of that passage is how anger renders the face unrecognizable, so that if an angry woman looks in a mirror, she will not know her own visage. This sense of self-alienation, so appropriate, after all, in a scene where the [End Page 78] speaker and his face are literally to be divided, also appears in our inability to identify the speaker. The cry of the satyr comes after the barest narrative introduction, without any proper indication of who is speaking. Since the story is told by an anonymous internal narrator, even after the inquit in line 385 makes us sure that we are dealing with direct speech, it is still not immediately clear whose cry this is, Marsyas's or the intervening narrator's. More importantly, the words that the satyr uses are emphatically not his own. They cast the satyr in the role of the goddess Minerva, an inadvertent borrowing that has the double effect of distancing the audience from the represented character and of reminding us of the intervention of the supreme controller of the narrative, Ovid, who is the author of both speeches. In this sense, the satyr really has lost the capacity for self-representation, and we might be tempted to reinterpret his initial words as: "Why do you strip the 'me' from me?"

The disarticulation of Marsyas as speaker, then, becomes clearest when we hear his speech as an imitation of a previous model, an imitation that potentially deflects our...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6504
Print ISSN
0004-0975
Pages
pp. 77-87
Launched on MUSE
2004-05-14
Open Access
No
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