Friday, April 26, 2013

Pursuing Pythagoras

The appearance of Pythagoras in Metamorphoses 15 is a remarkable instance of Ovid's poetic risk-taking. This time he quite deliberately blurs the boundaries of poetry and philosophy, even as the long speech of the ancient sage raises more interpretive difficulties than can be addressed here.

What, for example, to make of a voice of wisdom that seems to skate through a curious set of topics as diverse as hyperbolical vegetarianism, metempsychosis, the Eternal Flux, the Four Ages of Man, the elements, geologic changes, physical changes, autogenesis, the Phoenix, transfers of power, and the sanctity of life? The subtopics are even more varied; these are just the headers from Kline's translation.

The voice of the wise man is at times serene, and at other moments heated -- urgent in its call for an understanding of life that would find the eating of animal flesh inhuman. To him, meat-eaters appear to be the moral equivalent of Thyestes or Polyphemus.

Nowhere does this voice sound more enigmatic than when, in introducing his claims of godlike knowledge, Pythgoras assures us that his lips are being moved by the Delphic god:
Et quoniam deus ora movet, sequar ora moventem 
rite deum Delphosque meos ipsumque recludam 
aethera et augustae reserabo oracula mentis
Magna nec ingeniis investigata priorum 
quaeque diu latuere, canam;

‘Now, since a god moves my lips, I will follow, with due rite, the god who moves those lips, and reveal my beloved Delphi and the heavens themselves, and unlock the oracles of that sublime mind. I will speak of mighty matters, not fathomed by earlier greatness, things long hidden.'
It's hard to overstate how strange this statement is.

It is a meta-statement -- that is, it refers to and is about itself, its own production. It insists on using the first person to deny that it is made in the first person. The "I" that masterfully says it will unveil the truth of the sublime mind is by its own admission a slave to the speech of another, or, an Other.

Paraphrases collapse on themselves:

I cannot give you my word -- you have my word on that,

I'm not telling you, I tell you! etc.

We have seen this self-devouring structure before in Ovid. It's the same imponderable logical trap found in Epimenides' paradox:

All Cretans are liars, says the Cretan.

I am not speaking, say I, said Pythagoras.

One way of stating the predicament is to note that language offers a common means for a speaker to say "I" when "I" does not mean the speaker. This happens all the time when we quote someone. To cite, or quote, is to re-cite the words of another exactly as they were said. The complication here is that Pythagoras is quoted (by Ovid) as saying he is quoting the Delphic oracle. So either the oracle is saying that Pythagoras is not speaking, or, if the Oracle's words are fully in quotation, then the Oracle is saying that the Oracle is not speaking, because its own lips are moved by the god. In turn, if the oracle is reciting the words of the god, we are privy to a dizzying infinite regress. Instead of a living, resonant speaking voice, no ultimate "I," no source, or author, ever "stands behind" the words. They echo through time like Pythagoras' waves:
ut unda impellitur unda  
urgeturque eadem veniente urgetque priorem
tempora sic fugiunt pariter pariterque sequuntur 
et nova sunt semper
as wave impels wave, and as the prior wave is chased by the coming wave, and chases the one before, so time flees equally, and, equally, follows, and is always new.
We speak because we mean to say, but here, in this uncanny linguistic circumstance, the act of speaking sunders the guarantee of meaning from the production of that meaning. Not only is it uncertain whether the "I" of citation says what it means, but equally, whether it means what it says. Authorship here only authors the undermining of its own authority. In book 15, which on every level is preoccupied with authority, with kingship, with mastery in all its forms, this is unsettling indeed.

It might shed some light if we look elsewhere in the poem for similar Delphic difficulties. The paradox of Epimenides appears in book 7 of Ovid's poem, in the context of the Delphic oracle who told Oedipus that solving the riddle of the Sphinx would lift the Theban plague. Only, far from resolving things, says Cephalus, Oedipus's solution brought more trouble. The trouble, Cephalus says, was a wild beast (often identified as the Teumessian Fox), fated to never be caught. Cephalus possessed the dog Laelaps, a gift from Procris, who received it from Cynthia (or from Minos, who received it from Europa, who got it from Zeus) -- Laelaps, a dog of unsurpassable speed fated to always capture his prey. The resolution of this infinite, maddening chase was, Zeus turned both dog and fox to marble. Let's note that "dog" in Latin is "canem."

I say that I do not say

We can produce an infinite series of paraphrases of Pythagoras's speech without getting any closer to resolving this quest than Laelaps got to the beast of Teumessos.

Perhaps we need to listen more carefully. Pythagoras actually doesn't say he will "speak" of mighty matters. Canam, he says: "I will sing." The vanishing vates, whose song denies his singing, phonetically recalls Canens, the vanishing voice of book 14, even as the oracle of Delphi is linked both to Pythagoras and to Laelaps, the vanishing canem. Canens, canam, canem -- do these echoing, reverberant phonemes serve meaning -- the way beasts and even trees obeyed the Orphic voice of Canens -- or is this simply random phonetic coincidence that upsets and overthrows any possible sense?

Ovidian wit is compatible both with homophony and with an awareness of language as something more than simply an obedient instrument, a subservient vehicle that we use to produce meaning. As Phaethon discovered, vehicles can go off course. Kings and Meistersingers can become slaves. Hecuba can become a canem.

As Pythagoras' song gets underway, purporting to reveal the secrets of Delphi and the oracles of the sublime mind, we are compelled to wonder whether hidden things are sound sources of truth, or mere sounds (φωνή). Like Pythagoras's wax, forms are tropes, transient figures en route to becoming other figures. To speak is to engage in a contest with trope and language in which the question of what can be said, and by whom, is neither obvious nor, perhaps, decidable. The Delphic predicament of Pythagoras's song is hardly peculiar to Ovid's ancient vatic source of science, number, music, and wisdom. In the encounter of philosophy and poetry, the same perplexity resounds at every turn.

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