Academic journal article Acta Classica

Word Pictures: Visualising with Ovid

Academic journal article Acta Classica

Word Pictures: Visualising with Ovid

Article excerpt


Videmus natura, spectamus voluntate, intuemur cura, aspicimus ex improviso.

We see naturally, we look voluntarily, we watch something with care, and we inspect something if we have been surprised by it. (Ps.-Fronto, Gramm. 7.520.18 K = Charis. Gramm. P. 388.26)

The four Latin verbs quoted above illustrate the fact that visual perception has various modes, which may be roughly characterised as the differences between the semantic implications of their approximate English equivalents 'seeing', 'looking', 'watching' and 'scrutinising'. The four verbs chosen by Pseudo-Fronto for differentiating various modes of vision may justly be reduced to three (videre, (1) spectare, (2) tueri (3)) for aspicere, 'inspect', 'examine', essentially refers to the same mode of vision as its cognate spectare and may be collapsed into the 'look'-category.' (4) Basically, these three different concepts indicate differences in the intensity of the subject's engagement on a scale starting with mere 'ocular activity' per se, whether fleeting or continuous, purposeful or random ('seeing'), moving next to an implication of intention where the eyes are purposely directed at something ('looking'), and ending with a studied, drawn-out, intense scrutiny that has an external aim ('watching'). Such intensity implies another activity that may be as neutral as purposeful enjoyment (as in 'watching a play'), but may involve prevention by the viewer of another from carrying out an intended action, or facilitation of a following action.

The implications of Pseudo-Fronto's videre, spectare and tueri (translated here, respectively, as 'see', 'look' and 'watch'), (5) are in fact more difficult to arrange on such fixed scale than his adverbial modifications (natura, voluntate, cura, ex improviso) seem to imply. The potential for an interchange of usages of these words, even slippage of meaning, is important in the context of the study of the usage of the full semantic field relating to vision by any particular Latin author: in the case of this paper, by the poet Ovid. (6)

The intensity-scale of Pseudo-Fronto's 'seeing'-words needs some recalibrating when we consider Ovidian 'vision'-verbs. With Ovid, another aspect of visual perception needs stressing. Critics generally agree that Ovid writes 'visually', involving his readers in mentally envisioning what he conjures up verbally. (7) These readers may be 'notional' (Ovid's contemporaries for whom his poems, presumably, were meant) or 'real' (empirical readers of the 21st century, enjoying Ovid's poems today). (8) Beside the 'seeing, looking and watching' by the poet's protagonists, his readers always simultaneously perceive a book or poem in at least two ways: the ancients most often with their ears (whilst attending a recitatio); modern readers with their eyes (whilst reading the words); and both sets of readers, mentally, with their imagination, while they visualise the story as it is presented to them in the poet's words. (9) Feldherr (2010:162) makes the point that'... a text's power to evoke the visual is one of its supreme fictions', enabling its readers '[t]o imagine that one sees what is so evidently not there.' It goes without saying that no appreciation of literature can take place without such envisioning, but the visualisation evoked by our poet's words is supremely and crucially central to readers' enjoyment of Ovid's poetry. He is one of those authors who simplify the process. Masterly descriptions and frequent ecphrases facilitate readers' mental envisaging. (10)

In sum, this paper will examine examples of Ovid's frequent specific references to vision, of the act of seeing by his various protagonists, and of allusions to their eyes as medium of perception. Analysis of the reception of, and readerly participation in, Ovid's portrayal of the visual will follow, that is, analysis of 'natural' versus 'studied' or 'careful' sight will be expanded with consideration of the degree to which his readers become involved in the 'seeing' that Ovid depicts. …

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