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This article is taken from PN Review 159, Volume 31 Number 1, September - October 2004.

Vivam: Ovid Len Krisak

What a cruel bastard Ovid could be. Mayhem, rape, and a cool aestheticising detachment on the part of the narrator (is he Ovid?) permeate the Metamorphoses. How many children must have their brains knocked out, how many innocents obliterated by an enraged Hercules or by a bloodthirsty Medea before one can arrive at the seemingly irenic pools of Pythagoras's doctrine in Book XV?

Apparently, dozens. I once taught the Metamorphoses to a night class of American students - mostly in their thirties and forties - only to have a particularly earnest-but-sensitive woman break down in sobs and dash from the classroom when the discussion of Philomel, Procne, Tereus, and Itys began. It was Itys got her of course. `How could a mother do that to her own child?' she bawled, before bolting (and leaving me with a serious problem: twenty students impassively yet curiously waiting to see what I would do to follow her act). Bravely, I called for a ten-minute break.

The wit, elegance, and ironising distance so apparent throughout the Metamorphoses (and are not these said to be Ovid's trademark qualities?) can lead to some interesting moral problems, to say the least. Denis Feeney, in his Penguin introduction to David Raeburn's translation, speaks of `insouciance', `panache', and a `zestful relish for dissonance', and I could not agree more. But how is it that the rape of the Sabines in Ovid's erotic poems can elicit the charming observation that women never look more endearing ...


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