Reading Ovid's Rapes
You are the inspiration for a poet, he seemed to say. If you think you are being spied on, tell your parents. They will think you are silly and hysterical. They will tell you how great art is made.
-- Laurie Colwin, "A Girl Skating" ( 1982)
He gives kisses to the wood; still the wood shrinks from his kisses. To which Apollo said: "But since you will not be able to be my wife, you will surely be my tree."
-- Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.556-58 ( Apollo and Daphne)
I don't particularly want to chop up women but it seems to work.
-- Brian De Palma (quoted in Pally 1984)
A woman reading Ovid faces difficulties. In the tradition of Western literature his influence has been great, yet even in his lifetime critics found his poetry disturbing because of the way he applied his wit to unfunny circumstances. Is his style a virtue or a flaw? Like an audience watching a magician saw a lady in half, they have stared to see how it was done. I would like to draw attention to the lady.
Consider Ovid's Metamorphoses, cast as a mythic history of the world: more than fifty tales of rape in its fifteen books (nineteen told at some length). Compare his Fasti, a verse treatment of the Roman religious calendar: ten tales of rape in six books. These vary in their treatment; some are comic. In general, critics have ignored them, or traced their literary origins, or said they stood for something else or evidenced the poet's sympathy with women.
But we must ask how we are to read texts, like those of Ovid, that take pleasure in violence--a question that challenges not only the canon of Western literature but all representations. If the pornographic is that which converts living beings into objects, such texts are certainly pornographic. Why is it a lady in the magician's box? Why do we watch a pretended evisceration?