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Arethusa 37.1 (2004) 88-103

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Marsyas's Musical Body:

The Poetics of Mutilation and Reflection in Ovid's Metamorphic Martyrs23

Introduction: Clearing the Ground

The scholarly consensus has long been that, with Marsyas, Ovid displays a "delight in grotesque cruelty" (Galinsky 1975.138). This response sets Ovid firmly in his social context, pandering to and partaking of a Roman taste for slaughter. The flaying of Marsyas is presented as a literary spectacle—one more fitting or more familiar in the arena and the games. After all, what other reason could there be for Ovid's concentration upon the gory and gruesome flaying of Marsyas in the vignette which follows the story of Latona and the boorish Lycian peasants. He dives straight into the punishment via an unnamed narrator. The surrounding circumstances of the story are taken as read. The Marsyas passage of Book 6 does, in truth, seem a sacrifice of the story to the spectacle. The question is, do the amphitheatrical aspects of such poetic visualisations site Ovid firmly in his sociological milieu, an example of his pantomimic portrayal of human agony: "the barrocchismo of Ovid which may have found favour with Ovid's contemporary readers" (Due 1974.77). Galinsky points out (1975.134) that Ovid was tuning into a current curiosity about the exposure of the body's physical essence, something his society could view regularly in the arena. This is one way of contextualising Ovid's description of Marsyas as skinned and stripped in an obscenely seamless and supernatural way by the god Apollo.24 Piers Rawson goes so far as to call the passage a clinical dissection, and she argues that this aspect of the myth characterises representations of Marsyas [End Page 88] in the Roman imperial period (1987.13). However, the issue of violence as entertainment is not a straightforward one, and a simplistic sociological interpretation of the phenomenon is not necessarily helpful to our reading of Ovid. Andrew Feldherr engages with this issue (above), integrating the key scholarly approaches to Ovidian voyeurism in his introductory section and, in his conclusion, exposing Ovidian strategies that both implicate and distance the poet from the contemporary taste for spectacle. The following remarks function as a set of complementary observations on the "arena moments" in the poem and the way in which the flaying of Marsyas is located both socially and aesthetically within the Roman cultural perspective.

Garth Tissol (1997.128) gives a thoughtful reading of the Marsyas episode: "Ovid's violent descriptions, typically deprived of comforting and comprehensible circumstances, become more painful to read the more detailed and specific they are. There is no reason to assume that merely because Ovidian violence is not tragic it consequently lacks 'true pathos' and has no real power to move its audience." However, this approach does not altogether defend Ovid against charges of going with the flow of the times. We have to recognise a mismatch here, in that the development of critical distance in our discussion of the games per se is in danger of disappearing when we encounter allusions to or metaphors of them in a poetic context. I do not wish to deny those aspects of the spectacle that have been observed in this and other stories of violent dismemberment and death in the Metamorphoses.25 I do believe that we should exercise caution in constructing a cultural norm among Ovid's readership (including Ovid himself) that would conflate a literate and sophisticated audience with an undifferentiated mass attending the games and so assume a straightforwardly shared agenda of visual voyeurism, whatever the medium in question.

In addition, this "Roman" aspect of Ovid sits uneasily in the postclassical ethical and empathetical frameworks we rather like designing for him as if he were a modern, even postmodern, poet in sensibility and psychology. We do not need to "modernize" Ovid in order to defend him against charges of gleeful voyeurism through the medium of poetry. The [End Page 89] Metamorphoses has a fine line in martyrs, and the victims of the...


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