Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The seeker and the sought

Ovid's great work, The Metamorphoses, like Lucretius's poem, begins by addressing the gods:
My soul would sing of metamorphoses.
But since, o gods, you were the source of these
bodies becoming other bodies, breathe
your breath into my book of changes; may
the song I sing be seamless as its way
weaves from the world's beginning to our day.
Like Lucretius, Ovid bites off the whole shebang, the universe and its history. But whereas Lucretius is focused on unchanging verities -- the elementary particles and laws of nature sought by modern physicists -- Ovid is interested in change itself. It is not what stays constant that obsesses Ovid, but the flux and flow of particulars. He might agree with Heraclitus: You cannot step in the same river twice.

No wonder Ovid is a more popular read than Lucretius. Lucretius talks about love and sex, for example, but only to convince us that it is all a matter of invisible "seeds." The darts of Cupid? The wiles of Venus? Forget it. "A pleasant person to be living with./ That's about all it takes," writes Lucretius, "and love depends/ On habit quite as much as the wild ways/ Of passion." Ho hum.

Ovid, on the other hand, is all about love and passion; Cupid's darts fly about his verses. His poem is a sprawling, rollicking compendium of passions, legitimate and forbidden. All it takes is a glance at some nubile maid or handsome lad to set in motion the churning wheels of the universe. Ovid's universe has hardly begun when he sends Apollo chasing the reluctant Daphne -- ""the wind laid bare her limbs; against the nymph/ it blew; her dress was fluttering; her hair/ streamed in the breeze; in flight she was more fair" -- and who then cares about eternal atoms. The only law of Ovid's Nature is desire.

Here we have it again: the general and the particular. Lucretius and Ovid. Science and art. The one a bit of a bore, perhaps, but essential for understanding how the world works, and for making possible the development of scientific medicine and technology. The other full of hot-blooded voluptuosity, a heart that is never still, passions that run unchecked. One reads Lucretius in repose, as a meditation on the still substrate of creation. One reads Ovid because we are sensual, ephemeral creatures, determined to suck dry the beauties and exhilarations of life during our four-score spins around the sun.

(My Ovid is Allen Mandelbaum's translation.)