Monday, January 18, 2016

The Metamorphoses is Transformed

Today’s post must begin with a short autobiography. I was born on June 16, 1959. Then I heard from various sources (mostly television and peers) that most old literature was boring. (Yeah, I skipped some things. I told you it would be brief.) Fortunately, the makers of children’s books promoted the idea that many nineteenth-century novels weren’t boring at all. So Dickens and Verne and Melville and Hawthorne provided my entry into classic literature and great books, sometimes through children’s abridgements, sometimes through Classics Illustrated comics, but often through the real thing. By the time I hit adulthood, I decided that classic books were definitely my cup of literary tea and that I wanted to give myself the education in classic literature I never received in school. But when I started my first, inchoate reading program back in the early 90s, I still had a nagging fear that when I finally read Sophocles or Homer or Dante or Aristotle, I’d discover that they were boring after all. To my joy and amazement, my fears all proved wrong. Every piece of classic literature I picked up kept my rapt interest, even if, as very infrequently happened, I had to say I didn’t like a particular book because of disagreement with its outlook or philosophy.

Then I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I knew the book’s title gave a giant clue about the ending of every story in the book, but still I started rolling my eyes every time a character turned into a bird or a tree just as the story was getting interesting. I couldn’t find a plot or progression to hold the book together, and I found myself simply counting down the tedious pages as a bored junior-high student counts down the dreary days until summer begins. “This,” I said to myself, “is the book I was afraid I would read when I started this project with the classics.”

Ten years ago, as I wrote up my current ten-year plan, I scheduled Metamorphoses for year 10, thinking that I would give it a second chance, but not committing myself to the torture too soon. But now the book is wonderful (in every sense of that word)! Some twenty years after I first read the book, now I can’t quite figure out why I didn’t like it the first time. The stories still string along aimlessly with ever-shifting means of connecting one to another. Every story still involves at least one metamorphosis. But it all makes sense this time, and I can’t wait to get back to it every morning. Maybe it helps this time that I noticed that those unstable transitions between stories mimic the stories themselves. Maybe it’s that I caught the Heraclitean note of constant change in the creation story at the beginning of the work. Maybe it’s just that I’ve weened myself from dependence on a persistent plot line (a realization I’ve written about here and here). Now that I see that – like the characters in Ovid’s stories, like the stuff of his world, like the narrative thread of his mythological epic – my view of Metamorphoses had metamorphosized, I find myself a part of the book. How can I not like it now?


  1. I just read this post to my 7th grader. He says, "Sweet, thanks, but I think I'll put it off another 30 years or so, or at least until I learn some Greek." Thanks for always inspiring us to learn a little more!

  2. In Greek! Tell your 7th grader to start learning it now. I waited too long to learn Latin and Greek. I did read Caesar's _Gallic Wars_ in Latin, but it took years, and I've used a translation for all the other ancient classics I've read. But thanks for trying, Jen!