115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Perception and Becoming in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Zachary Borst, University of California, Los Angeles

It is often difficult to tell when a body transforms and becomes something different from itself in Ovid's Metamorphoses. The question of timing in conjunction with aesthetic perception is a central theme to this paper and one that has not been previously explored. Ovid’s depiction of transformation shows how difficult it is to perceive works of art (like Pygmalion’s sculpture or Arachne’s tapestry) because the objects of perception and the embodied subjects reflecting upon them are both unstable and in a constant state of becoming.

Proposal: 

In my paper I examine transformations in Ovid’s Metamorphoses that problematize the perception of transformation, especially scenes that focus on women’s capacity for sensation. It is often difficult to tell when a body transforms and becomes something different from itself because many of the transformations in the Metamorphoses move slowly and are impossible to perceive. In Book 6, for example, Niobe continuously weeps (flet) while she hardens into stone. The question of timing in conjunction with aesthetic perception is a central theme to this paper and one that has not been previously explored in Ovid. The transformations I examine are difficult to perceive precisely because of the incremental changes that occur during the metamorphosis. At what point does Niobe cease to be herself? I argue that these scenes raise interesting questions of identity and that they attribute agency and sensation to women after they have been transformed. Finally, I claim that we can think of his discussion of metamorphosis as a model for theorizing aesthetic reflection.

I focus primarily on the transformations of Arachne, Niobe, and Pygmalion’s sculpture in Books 6 and 10 of the Metamorphoses, and my project demonstrates that Ovid is concerned with questions of identity. Philip Hardie (2002) has focused on the illusory aspects of transformation in the Metamorphoses but has not dealt with the interesting problem of the perception of becoming that transformation poses within the poem. Transformation may be elusive, as Hardie suggests, but I show that Ovid is interested in metamorphosis because it problematizes the possibility of likeness and representation in poetry and visual art and the stability of being itself. Thus, I put Ovid in dialogue with thinkers concerned with the theorization of perception as it relates to change (e.g. the pre-Socratic Anaxagoras as well as Gilles Deleuze).

My paper is also in dialogue with recent work on ancient aesthetics and art. James I. Porter (2010) has focused on the materialism that is fundamental to ancient Greek (and Roman) aesthetic thought. The physicality of sensation and the materiality of aesthetic objects are at stake in Book 10 of the Metamorphoses when Pygmalion’s statue slowly softens as she transforms from an ivory statue to a living woman. While Pygmalion’s sculpture softens, she develops a sense of touch and becomes a sensing agent capable of aesthetic perception (cf. Aristotle on animals and touch in de Anima). But she continuously touches Pygmalion back even as a statue. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes, there is a “noncoincidence” in touch, even when one’s right hand touches the left; touching and being-touched are neither discrete acts nor simultaneous events ([1964] 1968: 147-48). Thus, Ovid’s depiction of transformation shows how difficult it is to perceive works of art like Pygmalion’s sculpture or Arachne’s tapestry in Book 6 because the objects of perception and the embodied subjects reflecting upon them are both unstable and in a constant state of becoming.

Topic Area: