Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Metamorphosis and the Aesthetics of Loss: I. Mourning Daphne -the Apollo and Daphne Paintings of Nicolas Poussin

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Metamorphosis and the Aesthetics of Loss: I. Mourning Daphne -the Apollo and Daphne Paintings of Nicolas Poussin

Article excerpt

The myth of Apollo and Daphne, as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses, is viewed through the self-referential eye of the seicento painter, Nicolas Poussin. Collectively, the tree-metaphoric myths are argued to metaphorically represent, mourn, and negate unbearable realities, including the developmental challenges of adolescence and adulthood - in particular, loss. Examined in the context of their aesthetic precedents and a close reading of Ovid 's text, the two Apollo and Daphne paintings that bracket Poussin's oeuvre are interpreted as conveying the conflict and ambiguity inherent to Ovid, as well as connotations more personal to the artist. The poetic and aesthetic reworking of the regressive, magical experience of metamorphosis restores it to the symbolic world of metaphor: for reparation, remembrance, and return.

Keywords: Apollo and Daphne, applied psychoanalysis, fetish, Metamorphoses, metamorphosis, metaphor, mourning, myth, Nicolas Poussin, Ovid

And so, in myth, mourning becomes electrum;

the sisters' tears are, now and forever, amber

(Ovid, The Heliades) 1

The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher, by so much more am I an artist ... this green shoot springing up from the roots of the old felled trunk

(Van Gogh, 1959, p. 620)2

Metaphor and metamorphosis

In the middle of the epic poem, Metamorphoses, after telling many tales of transformation - including those of Daphne, the Heliades, Baucis and Philemon, and Dryope: all, turned into trees - Ovid, unexpectedly, digresses:

There was a hill and on this hill there was

an open space, a level area

made green by all the grasses growing there.

The place lacked shade, until that poet born

of heaven came to be in residence,

and plucking his resounding lyre strings,

he summoned many shade trees to his presence:

the oak tree sacred to great Jupiter,

a grove of poplars (once Heliades)

and the Italian oak, with deep green leaves:

soft linden, beech and laurel (still unwed)

with the tender hazel and the useful ash

(providing us with spears and javelins);

pine without knots, the acorn-laden ilex,

the genial plane tree and the maple too,

(unrivaled in the brilliance of its hue);

and river-dwelling willows, lotus trees,

thin tamarisk and boxwood evergreen,

and myrtle with its berries green and black,

viburnum with its berries gray and blue,

and you as well, O twining ivy, came,

along with tendriled vines and the vine-clad elm,

the mountain ash, the spruce, the arbutus

(encumbered with its fruit of brilliant red)

and victory's reward, the supple palm,

and the pine tree, bare to near its shaggy top,

so pleasing to Cybele, Mother of the Gods,

since her beloved Attis put aside

his manhood for that trunk in which he stiffened.

(X, 123-51, emphasis in original)

Mentioning only the Heliades and Attis by name, Ovid merely alludes to Baucis and Philemon (the oak and the 'soft linden'); Daphne (the laurel, 'still unwed'); and Dryope (the lotus tree). The poet ''born of heaven'' with the lyre is of course the god Apollo, both participant and precipitant in each story. Ovid's extraordinary 'catalogue of trees' is itself transformative, turning these tales of metamorphosis - each, a wrenching story of love's cost, loss - into a pastoral of earthly delight in which, if not for Apollo, there would be no shade, no fruit, no beauty. Yet in the middle of this ecstatic list, Ovid casually reminds us that the trees loved by ''the poet born of heaven'' can also be (trans)formed into agents of destruction, phallic spears and javelins. At the close of the catalogue we are abruptly brought back to the brutality of metamorphosis by reference to Attis, who in legend, having been driven mad by his jealous mother, Cybele, castrates himself at the base of a pine tree; after dying there, his transformation into a pine tree symbolically restores his life and his manhood. …

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