Changed by Ovid

Neptune seizing Caenis
Artist unknown

(Sexual violence and rape are mentioned in this post.)

There once was an eccentric English professor at Cleveland State, a kind of eminence-grise (at least in his own mind), who taught obscure languages and literature. I had never met him but had heard a lot about him. Everyone had a story. I finally met him, and this is my story.

I was minding my own business in my office when a tall elderly gentlemen, the aforementioned  eccentric professor, appeared at my door and introduced himself. I invited him in. Gracious and almost elaborately polite, he sat down and we engaged in a little small talk. At last, he noted that he had seen my Ovid course in the upcoming CSU schedule. I nodded. “Why Ovid?” he asked. “He’s a lightweight.”’

I sputtered a little and then politely disagreed. It seemed rude to argue very vehemently. Mostly I wondered about his intentions. Did he think I would cancel the class based on his objection? It didn’t seem so. It seemed instead that he had traveled down two floors to share his opinion of the Roman poet Ovid and his work with a lowly and ill-informed junior colleague. After a few minutes of advocating for Ovid’s older contemporary Vergil, a weightier and less scandalous choice, he politely made his exit. That was our sole encounter. He has since retired and passed away.

When my students, over many years, would tell me how much they enjoyed reading Ovid, I always shared this story, because I think it’s funny and because critical opinion about Ovid has definitely waxed and waned. To my imposing visitor, he was not sufficiently serious. He wrote about love affairs, he made fun of the gods, and he was satiric. He could be light-hearted. He could be grotesque.

If I’d thought that he cared, I would have told Dr. Ponderous my own story. In high school, I muddled through the first two-plus years of Latin study. I slogged through Julius Caesar during my sophomore year, and I could barely stand Cicero during the first half of my junior year. The only thing I enjoyed about these guys was parsing out the grammar. (And this is not nothing. I like grammar.)

In January of my junior year, we began translating stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and my life changed. I had an epiphany. I saw that translating Latin was not just about identifying the ablative case and recognizing subjunctive verbs. I saw that it was reading, which I loved. I saw that reading Ovid was like reading James and the Giant Peach and the Weekly Reader books I loved. The Metamorphoses was full of stories that were fun to read.

I don’t suppose “fun to read” would have carried much weight with my self-serious visitor.

In a fourth year of Latin, I enjoyed Vergil just as much, but in a different way. I took some Latin classes in grad school and taught high-school Latin for a while. Fortunately for me, I ended up teaching Latin at CSU. All because of Ovid.

This reflection is inspired by “Sexual Violence in Ovid’s Metamorphoses” by Daniel Mendelsohn in this week’s New Yorker. Mendelsohn wrote, among other books, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, a delightful account of his irascible father joining Mendelsohn’s class reading Homer’s Odyssey. Mendelsohn is reviewing a new Ovid translation by Stephanie McCarter. As his essay title intimates, Ovid is once again problematic in our time: there are a lot of rapes in The Metamorphoses. When Pluto snatched the maiden Caenis off the beach (pictured above), for example, he did not ask for her consent.

McCarter contends with this issue in her translation and her notes, and so does Mendelsohn. Read the article, if you get a chance.

But I’m going to spoil Mendelsohn’s ending here. He points out that Ovid asserts “Vivam” at the beginning of his epic poem, meaning “I will live.” Ovid believed his poetry would outlive him, as it indeed has.  Mendelsohn writes:

McCarter ends her introduction with a list of her poet’s themes: the fragility of the human body; the way power works, the traumatic effects of loss of agency; the dark force of the objectifying gaze; the sometimes surprising interplay among desire, gender, and the body; gender fluidity and asexuality; the human will to self-expression. If you didn’t know she was writing about the concerns of someone who died twenty centuries ago, you’d think her subject was still alive. As indeed he knew he would be. ‘Vivam.

This entry was posted in Books, Weekend Editions and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Changed by Ovid

  1. Kathy says:

    Thanks, Jewel. Read his book An Odyssey if you haven’t.

  2. Kathy says:

    Yes, one J.C. is not like the other! We studied expurgated versions of Ovid in our high-school texts, for sure. I remember the Narcissus story, Daedalus and Icarus, and Arachne, I think. But Arachne weaves a scandalous tapestry, showing the gods in flagrante, in her attempt to defeat Minerva in their weaving contest. We must have had some intimation of that?

    How could your New Yorkers arrive late when you live in New York??

    Have you read Mendelsohn’s book An Odyssey? It’s very good, very funny, very touching.

  3. Jewel Moulthrop says:

    Love this post, Kathy! And I will read the Mendelssohn piece.

  4. Roger Talbott says:

    Had the same experiences with J.C. (Julius, not that other guy), Cicero, who I didn’t hate, and Ovid. I did like Ovid. Although we never read the racy stuff that I was told was in there somewhere. Then did Greek in college and Hebrew in seminary. I went pretty far for someone who never got the hang of any language’s grammar but my own. It kept me from becoming like your colleague (I hope). I still feel stupid when I try to read the Bible. Looking forward to reading Mendelssohn’s review. My New Yorker always seems to come a week late.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *