Friday, July 25, 2008

"Lessons from Ovid" by John Amos

It’s an old story but a good one: a story for our own time, really.

And my guess is, not many people have heard it before. A short version goes something like this.
The man knew what he was doing, but he did it anyway. And then he laughed about it. As he laid the axe to the trunk of the oak, he knew he was wrong, defying the will of the gods. He knew these trees were sacred, but he just kept going. Without a qualm, he hacked down every tree in the grove. Then he looked up and scoffed, as if to say, “What are you going to do about it?”

But the gods will not be mocked.

They visited on him a punishment, tailored to fit his crime. They condemned him to perpetual, infinite, insatiable hunger.

During the day he ate everything within reach but was never satisfied. At night he dreamed of banquets, but the food tasted of nothing. Emptying bowls of heaped food, he craved bigger bowls, heaped higher. Food for a whole city could not satisfy him. Eventually he sold all his property, converting every possession into what he could eat.

At last, mad with hunger, a monster no longer a man, he gnawed his own limbs, and in a final feast, devoured himself.

Listen and learn: The gods will not be mocked.
That story, about a fool named Erisichthon*, comes from the ancient Roman poet, Ovid. His timeless work of mythology, Metamorphoses, contains dozens of such cautionary tales; and though it was written almost 2000 years ago during the reign of Augustus Caesar, it’s more than worth reading today.

Certainly Erisichthon’s story about human arrogance and the desecration of the natural world pertains to our day and time. If we listen, it has much to say about our insatiable appetite for more, our instinctual drive to consume without ever being satisfied. And it has even more to say about a race that’s blithely, casually intent on destroying the planet. Most importantly, it insists that there will be payback for our foolishness.

I recently read this story with a group of high school seniors. They got it. Immediately, intuitively. I didn’t need to preach about the environment or rampant consumerism or the spiritual emptiness of material things.

A good teacher just gets out of the way and lets the poet speak:
“None of it was enough. Whatever he ate
Maddened and tormented his hunger
To angrier, uglier life.”
Here’s a sampling of similar stories you can find in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: King Midas, granted the golden touch, realizes too late that he can’t drink water without it turning to gold in his mouth. Arachne challenges the goddess Athena to a weaving contest, loses and is transformed into a spider. Icarus escapes the Labyrinth on wings attached to his shoulders with wax. When he flies too close to the sun, the wings melt, and he falls into the sea. Narcissus stares into a pool and falls in love with his own reflection.

These stories, with their fairy tale qualities, might seem aimed at children. And in fact, it’s not hard to find beautifully illustrated, tamed-down versions in the children’s sections of bookstores.
But Ovid isn’t for children. He’s for adults. To quote poet Ted Hughes, “Above all, Ovid is interested in passion. Or rather, what passion feels like to the one possessed by it. Not just ordinary passion either, but human passion in the extreme—passion where it combusts…”

“Combustible passion.” Now there’s an idea that accurately describes our time. Terrorists strap bombs to themselves and blow up the innocent. Preachers beat the Bible and then get caught with their pants down. Cities burn as sports fans “celebrate” victory.

Listen. Every murder, rape, and suicide, every ugly out-of-control argument, every tongue-lashing a parent gives a child and every temper tantrum that child throws to get his way, every incident of road-rage, every common adultery, every needle in every vein: behind it all is passion run amok.

I’m telling you, Ovid speaks to our age. People are people: 2000 years ago in Rome or today in the United States. We’re all slaves to passion.

The great Roman poet shows us who and what we really are. Which is precisely why we should continue to read him.

- John Amos
from his column "Every Now and Then"
©2008 by John Amos, reprinted by permission
"Every Now And Then: Occasional Essays"

*My prose retelling of the Erisichthon story borrows phrases from Ted Hughes’ beautiful modern-verse translation, Tales from Ovid. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1997

Day 41 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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