Reading Ovid – The Swinging Door

{Second in a Series}

My copy of The Love Books of Ovid is from 1937, the second printing of a 1932 edition. It has that delightful smell and feel of old books. I do not recall how I got it. Probably I inherited it. I mention this because it is filled with illustrations which manage to be quaint and lurid at the same time – full of naked bodies, yet somehow short of pornography. Or perhaps the standard for this was low in the Code Days.

In general Ovid avoids pornography image through his artfulness; the ironic distance he keeps between himself and his subject. This remains true even when, as he so grandly protests, he is full of passion. He serves up his pathos as pathetic, and invites you to laugh. He’s the high-class version of the Satyricon (which reads like an Adam Sandler comedy).

Now, you might wonder, where I get this interpretation. Assuming irony, especially in an ancient author, can be a presumptive proposition. And let me cop to the fact that I am making assumptions about the man’s intent. This is an intepretation, and can be wrong. But here is my argument:

Elegy II, largely a retread of the themes of Elegy I, announces the general victory of Cupid in sonorous tones, imagining his Triumph in the Colloseum:

Caresses shall by thy escort, and Illusion and Madness, a troop that ever follows in thy train. With these fighting on thy side, nor men nor gods shall stand against thee; but if their aid be lacking, naked shalt thou be.

Ovid, “Elegy II”

Even if you posit that the tone of this, with its inversion of the normal order, is intended without irony, Ovid plays the slave standing behind triumphant god saying “remember: thou art not all powerful”. It’s a betrayal of the triumph, of an entirely Roman kind: the conqueror must be limited for the good of all.

Elegy III, a long proclamation of his virtues as a lover to his mistress, seems to be played straight, and for all I know, probably has some sincerity to it. He promises that she and she alone will be beloved of him, and he will make her immortal in song. Which is all fine, and in Elegy IV he spends an evening at a dinner party begging his mistress to use a pre-coded signal to demonstrate her love. Inevitably, this doesn’t satisfy:

Ay, me! These behests can serve but for an hour or two. The imperious night is at hand that severs me from my mistress. Her husband will have her in keep and hold till the day cometh, and I, weeping sad tears, can but follow her to that cruel door.

Ovid, “Elegy IV”

Womp womp, as the kids say. Better luck next time, sport. And lo and behold, the next Elegy is Better Luck, a vivid description of an afternoon delight. Corinna comes half-naked to him, and “consents to be conquered”. Huzzah, callou callay, as the kids don’t say.

Yet Elegy VI is right back to that “cruel door”. Ovid’s mind begs the porter to open the door at night so he can see his mistress. He knows he can’t; he howls about it anyway. It’s like dealing with a toddler.

Is it thy slowness, is it sleep that is no friend to Love, that makes the heedless of my prayers and flings them to the winds? Yet, if my memory deceive me not, when once, on a time, I sought to evade thee, I found the astir in the middle of the night. Peradventure at this moment thine own belovèd is reposing at thy side. If this be so, how preferable is thy lot to mine. If it be so, pass on to me, ye cruel chains! The night speeds on; slide back the bolts.

Ovid, “Elegy VI”

And he goes on like that, every paragraph/stanza with the refrain “the night speeds on; slide back the bolts.” It’s a wild swing from the joy of the previous elegy, which was another wild swing from the one before. The excess has a comic effect on the reader; even if the passion is sincere, the distance between reader and object induces knowing smirks and head-shakes. We’ve been there, or something similar, and thus is it truthful, but we aren’t there now, and thus is it hilarious to observe him suffer so loudly. The door just keeps swinging, but never in the same direction twice, so no contentment or surety can be known.

{Chapter the First: The Lover is Not a Fighter}