Ovid , Homer, and the Art of Self-Dismemberment


Ovid , Homer, and the Art of Self-Dismemberment
 06/23/2017 09:10 AM

Ovid said memorably that ‘what lies hidden is unknown, there exists no desire of the unknown’ (Ars Amatoria 3.397: ‘QUOD LATET IGNOTUM EST; IGNOTI NULLA CUPIDO'). As football managers often say ‘you’ve got to want it more than them’ ‘you’ve got to have the belief’. The desire of that which lies hid constitutes a curiously quasi-religious instinct. No search, focused or unfocused, can guarantee a discovery. One has to trust that exploration will reveal. Meanwhile desire is normally provoked by stimulation of the senses or intellect. Here however the desire must be generated wholly from within. There is no predetermined object of the desire.

The Ovidian line quoted above is more than a gnomic aside. Should we translate it as ‘because it lies hid it is unknown…‘? Or should we venture further with the following: ‘what does not thrust itself on our attention (i.e what has gone to earth), has [already] been excused’? The text now begins to sound a more critical, political note. As voyagers in search of the unknown we would now prefer [our 'cupido' is] to push the boat of Ovid's poetic enterprise into the open ocean where everything is 'immensum' ('huge' but also 'metre-less'). Let’s say we ignore the metre, let's say we observe elisions (and even assume elisions which, it could be argued, were really there all along, lurking below the surface, where until now we had no real yen to go looking for them). And let’s say we also assume the existence of ‘litterae communes’ between words.  A predicative dative now emerges from the text: QUOD LATET IGN[I] O! T[UM]ESTI [I]GNOTI NULLA CUPIDO = QUOD LATET IGNI O! TESTI; IGNOTI NULLA CUPIDO? This means ‘that which evades your notice, alas! It bears witness to fire; (yet) there is no desire to discover the unknown’. So, no smoke without fire but we still can’t stir ourselves to wake up and smell the fumes. And then there is the singular occurrence of the word ‘teste’ in the next line. Hardly a  coincidence. More an omen. A deliberately planted omen even, just in case we were concerned we were seeing things that did not exist.

I shouldn’t have got myself started. It’s a bit like song-writing. One minute there’s nothing, the next minute you’re deep into something. Thus one could also extract the word ‘tigno’ from these ‘bits of wood’, that is, 'the bits of wood' [‘tigna’] that are here constituted by the fragmented ‘literary content’ of the poet’s verse (‘wood’ being in Latin ‘materia’ which is also the word for ‘literary subject matter’). So one could translate as follows: ‘as to what (or as to the meaning that) lies hidden in the broken-apart bit of word[s], is there in that event [on that reading] no desire of the unknown (‘QUOD LATET [T]IGNO, TUM EST IGNOTI NULLA CUPIDO?) The riddle needs putting to bed by answering ‘on the contrary, yes there is, otherwise we would not be where we are’. Word redivision produces 'tigno' in more ways than one. Allegorically the divided word constitutes two or three 'fragments of materia' or 'tigna'. Meanwhile it is by the redivision of this specific text that the word 'tigno' has emerged (latet[t]igno(tum)).

However we are still not out of the woods. Ovid’s only uses ‘tignum’ elsewhere in its meaning of ‘rafter’. But before addressing this aspect of the line,  it’s time for that ‘why-are-you-riding-roughshod-over-the-metre’ objection to be countered. The short answer is that Ovid tells you to ignore the metre in allegorical, or metapoetical, ways. The discrete profanation of the sacrosanctity of the metrical structure is expressed in, for instance, in the 'soft metricality' that allegorically grows throughout and affects the whole of Ovid's Pontus. This 'malleability' of metre is a function of the creative etymologising of the Greek word 'habrotonos' which translates the Latin 'absinthia' or 'wormwood', the only plant that grows in Ovid's Tomis. The etymologies of its prefix and suffix produce the roots 'soft metre'. Allegory is rife.

To rejoin our discussion of ‘tignum’ qua 'rafter', we could do worse than suppose Ovid wants to get across the following notion: ‘as to that which escapes our notice on the rafter/is hidden on the rafter ('a spider'), is it then the case that that we have no desire of the unknown?’ This version of the text focuses on the human situation and seeks to define the criteria for calling ourselves ‘lacking in curiosity’. Should we not be interested in those scarcely visible sharers of our (?) world. We can assume Ovid was an arachnophile on the basis of his admiration for a fellow weaver, but can we not also assume that he asked questions about our shared tenancy of this planet that we might find unexpected.

At the same time of course the spider is a symbol of interwoven poetry and the point must also be that the reader is not interested enough to discover the messages left by the unseen author's matrix of threads. 

Ovid’s line came into my head while I was writing. I never imagined for a minute that it was ripe for redivisioning and reconstruing. It just goes to show me that you cannot treat any of his lines as (for instance) ‘merely gnomic’. Going back to the unknown, in this day and age we the hoi polloi, the great unknown, now have the option of being obtrusive in the rarefied ether of the internet. So obtrude ourselves we will, just in case we know something which should not remain unknown (in the ether or about the ether and its inhabitants).

It is worth making some general observations about the study of Homeric literature. When we turn to elucidating the plot and clarifying the meaning of the epic, it will become clear that not only Odysseus (viz-à-viz the Phaeacians) but also Homer (vis-à-vis his readership) tell the truth about the events they relate in a way that is ever likely to confound the unwary. Meanwhile the path through (and, indeed, back through) the cave-like galleries of the ‘wandering’ text (Od.1.2) is so narrow that there may be only room for the reader to negotiate its crevices and interstices by clutching the single thread offered by the author. The text is a labyrinth constructed by the author. The trick is to find a way in. Once in, and in possession of Ariadne's thread, courage is required in the dark. Meanwhile the relationship between Homer and his audience has been over-defined by scholarship itself. To treat the poet as only the first word in sophistication is to do both ourselves and the author a disservice. The view of Homer as somehow straddling the divide between an oral and a written culture is a direct, and unfortunate, result of taking him at his word. Self-evidently, nothing prevents Homer from perfecting a persona that is guaranteed to persuade the gullible to worship the ground trodden by ‘their rhapsode in writing’. In fact the Homer that is self-portrayed in his epics constitutes the persona to cap all personas. We have been led down the garden path but the way back isn’t as bad as the path up from Virgil’s Avernus.

A last word on Ovid's rafters. The English phrase to have 'bats in the belfry' means to be 'dotty' or 'zany'. The French equivalent is to have 'a spider on the ceiling' ('avoir une arraignee au plafond'). The rafters of ancient buildings provided the sort of angles beloved of spiders who now however enjoy the panoramic angles of our walls and ceiling. We suggest that rafters were the natural habitat of spiders and it is to them that Ovid refers in his highly Arachnean subtext

(c) Barney McCullagh 2017. All rights reserved

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