Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Avert your eyes, idiot

Diana and Actaeon—Diana Surprised at her Bath, by Camile Corot (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

    "It is no crime," Ovid writes. "To lose your way in a dark wood." 
    Gosh that's familiar. No wonder Dante places Ovid among the quartet of classical poets he encounters soon after getting lost in his own dark wood and blundering into Hell. Homer, Horace and Lucan are the other three. A little nod for just how much he, ah, borrows from Metamorphoses.
     Not to minimize that moment—I feel it's where modern literature begins. The poets welcome Dante—"Hey look, it's Dante!"—and they chat, though Dante turns to the reader and says, in essence, "I'm not going to bore you with what we talked about: poetic stuff."
     I had pulled down "Tales from Ovid"—translated by Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath's husband—because I read, on my friend Didier Thys's Facebook page, that the city council in Rome last Thursday revoked Ovid's exile, in honor of the 2,000th anniversary of his death. 
     Here I thought the Chicago City Council had a monopoly on empty symbolic legislation. The temptation is to conjure up some Italian Ed Burke—Edwardo Burkioni—suitcoat over his shoulders, one hand wrapped around an elbow, the other gesturing with a twist of the wrist as he rises in the assembly to correct the wrong committed against Ovid, punishment for what the Roman poet enigmatically referred to as "a poem and a mistake."
    A little late.
    Still, nobody should complain about anything that nudges us back to the ancients. The "lose your way in dark wood" line was in the opening of Actaeon—I had marked it with a Post-It note during a previous read, for reasons mysterious, probably the Dante echo.
    As so often happens in classical literature, the tale was particularly apt for our moment. Actaeon is a hunter. The day's hunt over, he heads towards his palace, becomes lost, and stumbles into a grove sacred to Diana, goddess of the hunt, who—whoops!—at that very moment is being bathed by her nymphs after her own long day of supervising all hunts everywhere.
    "Steered by pitiless fate" Actaeon comes upon the clearing, the pool, the bathing goddess, and is set upon by her attendants.
Screaming at him in a commotion of water.
And as his eyes adjusted, he saw they were naked,
Beating their breasts they screamed at him.
And he saw they were crowding together
To hide something from him. He stared harder.
Those nymphs could not conceal Diana's whiteness 
The tallest barely reached her navel. Actaeon
Stared at the goddess, who stared at him...
    Let's just say ... spoiler alert! ... that Diana does not take this intrusion well. Her weapons not at hand, the goddess turns Actaeon into a stag. He leaps away, straight into the slavering jaws of his well-trained hunting hounds. 
His own hounds. He tried to cry out:
"I am Actaeon—remember your master,"
But his tongue lolled wordless, while the air
Belabored his ears with hounds' voices... 
        Ironic, huh? Kinda like assorted movie and media moguls being torn apart by the very  24-hour-a-day publicity machine they helped create. Not that their crimes are as innocent as Actaeon's. But then there's a lot of random punishment tossed out in ancient times. Think of Noah's son, Ham, whose progeny gets cursed forever because he happened to notice his father reeling around drunk and naked in his tent.  At least the modern men who get lost in a dark wood and end up getting it in the neck have earned their punishment, to a greater or lesser degree. Progress!
    And the moral of the story is: if you blunder into the wrong glade, avert your eyes, idiot. 


  1. In Italian, Edward is Edoardo. There's probably no translation for Burke, so, Burkioni it is.

  2. What a gift - getting up for another day of pushing the rock up the hill, noting the next outrage on the nation's ideals from you know who - and there is another thoughtful, stimulating bit of writing on everygoddamnday. Neil Steinberg, your commitment to writing something every day is a welcome tonic to what ails us.

  3. I think the moral of the story is that there is no moral to the story. It's hard for us to accept that anyone actually believed in the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. Certainly Ovid didn't. But I think he was willing to portray a world in which the innocent suffer if not from the caprices of goddesses or of fate, then perhaps from pure randomness. Look here, he says, see what happened to this poor sucker Actaeon, a devotee of Diana, who punishes him for stumbling into her bathing area without any intention of sneaking a peek at her delicious naked body. The rain falls on the just and the unjust equally. I'm sure the sexual harassment fervor will capture some fairly innocent soul sooner or later. Better go light a candle.


  4. Her weapons not at hand, the goddess turns Actaeon into a stag.

    As weapons go, the ability to turn someone into an animal is pretty damned good IMO.

  5. Ovid could be accounted a feminist for his time. In the Ars Amatoriay he declared that sexual intercourse should be pleasurable for both parties, not really a consideration for his contemporaries.



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