Vivid Ovid. His humanizing tales of metamorphosis (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the literally alien context of the interaction of gods and people have drawn the eyes and admiration of readers for eons. How often I longed to trace with my own tongue the temptations and graces of such tales! Who wouldn’t want to be master of a matter so fantastical, so outlandish—and yet still be able to draw homey homilies from the consequences of such fables? Daphne praying to be turned into a laurel tree rather than endure a rape in the god-clutches of a “divinely maddened” Apollo; or the unfaithful Jupiter stashing his part-time squeeze, the ravishing beauty Io, not in some kept-woman’s studio apartment, but in another living form by transforming her…into a cow—albeit a beautiful cow. And Ovid’s touch of detail that makes both god and man acknowledge their wayward foibles, their vulnerability to desire. Such is our condition: half angel, half satyr. What, ultimately, could be more compelling than this poetic recognition of our limitedness adrift in the infinity of our desire?
Always it is against chaotic Nature that human success in the arts in measured. Versailles with its to-the-millimeter immaculate gardens, Jesus with his cracking of Lazarus’ catacomb—leading the experienceless child within each of us on to eternal life, the absence of Death. But Ovid’s fables transmute nature to nature, violating the continuity of life within life as it proceeds from the womb to tomb—rather than through some transvaluation of all values via a post-death resurrection, or the living-death deletion of meaning that narcissistic nihilism provides. Ovid’s metaphor is metaphor emphatic, metaphor literally embodied (were such transformations to actually occur anyplace beyond the agile chambers of the mind). This makes him a prankster in some respects, a comedian of life’s myriad deceptions and switcheroos, slips and oopses. Instead of the authority of Justice (or the inevitability of the furious Eumenides) appearing at the end of a tragedy, enforcing cosmic meaning by the rending apart of life’s tender fabric, we have instead the inescapable acknowledgement of a rueful chuckle forced from the aghast reader at the transformation’s literal unreality and too-intimate horror. To be moved at all by the pageant Ovid presents is to acknowledge our own culpability in the lusts and greeds he lampoons. Yes, I, too, would so covet, so fail of my ideals, so mangle my heavenly morality with my mortal mischief. There, lacking the grace of God, go I; every I that I can imagine being or becoming, in all my rhymes of form and story.
Existentialism is one moral response to the nothingness modern man confronts now that we’ve blown the Holy Ghost from the churches—the stained glass left colorless and drained of ecstasy. The bareness, the thisness, of place, of Everyman in every place, replaced the altar that had once signaled the savior’s triumph over the reality of Death. The very sepulcher became the resonant cross, embossed with neither promise nor stoic resignation, but instead enriched with the simple elaboration of emptiness itself. Ever more intricate become our minuets above the void. As Mallarme noted: “The beautiful, gratuitous, turns into the ornamental, repudiated.” Mallarme’s For Anatole’s Tomb is a restful counterpoint to our innate desire’s torturous wish for the infinite, desire’s tensile beauty making every moment its own gravesite, its own elaboration of the endless dust and nothingness we face. I like the moral stance emblemized in the Pagan torch-passing of praise and memory a bit better myself: an endless relay of meaning lit to life by the burn of magnificent poetry. Such a contingent arrangement must strike modern artists as too hopeful, too communal an enterprise after the wick of self-conscious Romanticism was ignited. But, don’t bet on it! Romanticism itself is a response to the stocks and manacles of Kant’s “no you can’t,” the vivisecting separation of object and subject—a spastic cast of empirical dice—and nothing more than that.
Is it any wonder that Shakespeare took up Ovid as a foil for his first funning with verse? Titus Andronicus pushes the dry coracle of black humor into the slick swamp of tragedy in an ever-modern mash-up going nowhere. Existential titters accompany the gruesome and aghast pies stuffed with human flesh as they are served up piping hot and tucked into with an ignorant will. Who does not eat of Life with the same ignorance as the rapists Shakespeare depicted at the table, pinkies up and kerchiefs to chins? I, too, like the wily Bard, love Ovid in all his miracle and mayhem. So much mayhem!
Our current crop of graphic novels and grim heroes are of Ovid’s mold. Think of today’s Batman, the caped crusader, the Dark Knight, transformed by a desire for justice into a nightwinged bat, who turns his midnight vengeance into a secular grail tipping over with blood. Catwoan, Aquaman, Doc Oc—all half-breeds wandering bewildered in landscapes of existential angst. I, too, had wanted to honor with the sweat of inspiration and the grace of rhyme of one of Ovid’s raving fables, but as I toured the crazed slop-house of the Greek gods, the Roman gnomes, as Ovid had carved and enlarged them, I was struck by the fiery violence his tales told of—and, I admit, I was afraid to retail such gory goods in my modest mall of art.
I turned the prized pages of my Ovid over once again. Even the fable of fey Salmacis, I noticed, with her “weak, enfeebling streams,” ends in a dual-sex hermaphroditic unity that is still illegal in many countries. The lovers’ tentative rapprochement has some of Absurdio’s hesitant desire in its outlines—an expression of being’s ignorant need to be, and therefore be loved. So twined together is our self and our sex. Salmacis and Hermaphroditus was almost the tale I re-told. What if Absurdio met a wet, eight-armed Venusian princess in her tidal pool of green chlorine? The denouement was still too horror-genre for me to proceed with that story, but the delicacy of Salmacis and Hemaphroditus’ meeting was a model for Absurdio’s first grope toward hope—the challenge and comfort that concupiscence provides:
The boy knew nought of love, and, touched with shame, He strove, and blushed, but still the blush became; In rising blushes still fresh beauties rose; The sunny side of fruit such blushes shows, And such the moon, when all her silver white Turns in eclipses to a ruddy light. The Nymph still begs, if not a nobler bliss, A cold salute at least, a sister’s kiss; And now prepares to take the lovely boy Between her arms. He, innocently coy, Replies, "Oh leave me to myself alone, You rude, uncivil nymph, or I’ll begone." —J. A.
I settled, perhaps a touch too reflexively, upon the pageantry of Pygmalion’s tale. After all, the story had been exampled brilliantly by Shaw, and there’s even a musical modeled from its bones—though fleshed with sexism and an elitist tone of triumphalism (to which I am not, confessedly, adverse). This story has no goopy, blood-bludgeoned ending, no comeuppance, no disastrous consequence where Nature regains the reins of Justice and executes the feckless nabob who knew well enough into whose guarded garden he had trespassed. No, here Venus stoops to conquer, and extends a merciful pity on her inspired subject. It is the love story of the artist and his object, his sculpted creation, a female mate conjured from pure desire and art’s millimeter-mania for perfection. Yes, a fine tautology to lead me down the garden path. What post-modern word-whittler could resist the inevitable levels of self-reference, the circumference of innuendo bound to grow Falstaff-fat? And, with luck and cunning, perhaps my Absurdio could be as happy a sinning creation as my fellow Ovid-fan Shakepere had managed? To what Mediterraneanesque setting would my gods and goddesses descend? What glamorous goods would press against my alluring shop window?
The main item in the inventory of Venus and Vesuvius, as you will soon plainly see, is an adolescent male I have dubbed Sir Absurdio. Absurdio is left alone on the planet Venus where he was born, the only son of two intrepid scientists appointed to explore our over-heated solar neighbor. Why he has been left so tragically alone, and at such a crucial age, our tale will unfold. I myself was so ill as a teen with an ulcerative onset conjured by the psychic injuries of my parent’s divorce, that I missed the last two years of my American high school experience. I grok some aspects of Absurdio’s puzzling solitude. No friends from our 3,000-strong clan of Marlboro Mustangs possessed the fortitude to visit a lonely, pimple-ridden writer-to-be in the forested enclosure of his one-boy farm-forest prison. The only friends who favored me with their presence were Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, Phillip K. Dick, J. R. R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Stephen R. Donaldson, and other luminaries of the imagination’s intergalactic parsecs. They are the reason I placed my Ovidian vale in outer space.
Now, if you’ll strap on your muse-provided jet-packs, let’s zoom to the moon—and beyond!
Gregg Glory, August 2013.