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Andrew Feldherr. Playing Gods: Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Politics of Fiction.

Andrew Feldherr. Playing Gods: Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Politics of Fiction. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton up, 2010. x + 377 pp. $49.50.

Ovid's last word in the Metamorphoses--"vivam" (I shall live)--has seldom resonated more powerfully than in the scholarship of the last twenty years. In this period, Ovid has figured resiliently as an ancient poet for our tempora, richly responsive to contemporary literary critical concerns from the narratological to the political, gracefully participatory in a range of theoretical exchanges (for example, reception studies, intertextuality, psychoanalysis, gender studies). This culturally fluent, wisely irreverent, and unabashedly contemporary Ovid is the poet studied from a dizzying--yet compelling--range of conceptual angles in Andrew Feldherr's Playing Gods: Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Politics of Fiction. Feldherr's nuanced, critically sophisticated argument centres on the dynamics of perspective activated in Ovid's Metamorphoses as well as its participation in the forum of vision more generally--concerns pursued both within the text (that is, in embedded artwork and ecphrasis) and in the sphere of physical reality occupied by the Roman reader. Attendant upon this approach is a keen investment in the poem's relationship to contemporary visual art, to civic expression and custom, and to modes of reception as actively imagined (and shaped) by the text. In a challenging argument that traverses unusually wide disciplinary terrain, Feldherr largely succeeds in demonstrating that the Metamorphoses deserves recognition not only as a literary text that thematically explores vision but as a public artifact that stood in creative dialogue (and competition) with other forms of civic expression in shaping how the Roman subject "sees."

Feldherr's premise, centred upon an interpretation of metamorphosis first developed in his chapter on the subject in The Cambridge Companion to Ovid, edited by Philip Hardie (2002), is that radical Ovidian transformation creates a "hermeneutic puzzle" for the reader (26), who must continually reflect on and revise her view of the poem by intentionally adopting one available perspective and refusing others (which remain strategically in play for alternative readings). The choice between perspectives--for example, whether one sees the laurel tree as Apollo sees it or as Daphne experiences it--often involves a contrast between external and internal frames of reference, between detached and sympathetic points of view, and between the priorities of the world (the "real" or "historical") and of the text (the "fictive"). These differing "focalizations" (149), Feldherr contends, function essentially as planes of reception, raising issues of identification and differentiation between fictional roles that also shape social relations. Such competing viewpoints also manifest themselves in contrasting critical interpretations of key aspects of the Metamorphoses, which Feldherr productively shows are encouraged by the poem's cultivation of this aesthetic of double perspective. Feldherr's approach is broadly appealing because it, too, straddles perspectives in the form of disciplinary commitments: balancing intensive close reading, often along loosely deconstructive lines, with an avowedly historicist attention to the public role of fiction, imperial politics, and material culture, Feldherr thoughtfully illuminates what he variously calls the "politics of textualization" (77) and the "political role of literature" (349) exemplified by the Metamorphoses. Laudably, Feldherr accomplishes this delicate balance between the narratological and the sociohistorical without oversimplifying either critical domain; indeed, he incites many a well-studied Ovidian passage to sparkle afresh in poetic terms when considered as an interlocutor in non-literary forms of public expression.

Feldherr's most noteworthy and sustained achievement in Playing Gods is to incorporate the Metamorphoses's own attention to the interpretive variables of perspective with a range of public artistic modes that feature the visual dynamics also active within Ovid's poem. Ovid's text (as it activates a "visual" experience for the reader) is yoked, that is, with artworks and forms of spectacle which also deploy Greek myth to fashion a Roman sense of identity. The relationship between the textual and artistic spheres is not statically formal but actively reciprocal, both being informed by an ethic of spectatorship. As Feldherr puts it, "Ovid generates a dialogue between what his text can make a reader see and other forms of ritual that operate largely through vision" (147). The forms of visual spectacle examined here are those that shaped the public life of Rome in the age of Augustus, and all contain a performative dimension that assumes the interpretive participation of the spectator: imperial monuments, sacrificial ritual, dramatic performance (especially tragedy), triumphal procession, gladiatorial spectacle, visual art in various media, and mnemonic devices employing visual architectonics based in domestic space. Building on recent trends in the field of art history, Feldherr assumes the status of such public artworks as "texts," that is, as hermeneutic objects whose significance is not primarily aesthetic but, instead, powerfully social in their capacity to activate forms of reception that shape each viewer's sense of status and civic identity.

The book consists of seven chapters organized into three overarching parts. Part one, on "Fiction and Empire," first lays the groundwork of the argument concerning metamorphosis and perspective with exemplary readings of the Io and Daphne episodes, enriched with attention to the multiple narrative levels of the Pirithous episode as they evoke friction between the domains of truth-telling and fiction. Then, it provocatively explores how the competing perspectives of poetic representation and historical reality play out in Ovid's engagement with Augustus in the Metamorphoses--a topic that has too readily lent itself to oversimplifications of pro- or anti-Augustan stances as forming the entire spectrum of response available to Ovid. Here, Feldherr identifies a reciprocity, or dialectic, between Ovid's poetic perspective and imperial ideology, resulting not in a simple opposition but a subtle "competition between imperial artist and artistic emperor" (83). The perspective of Augustus's historical reality is thus countered by that of Ovid's poetic world, and both of their claims to authority are destabilized as Ovid reveals that he and the emperor are in effect "authors" of change pursuing immortality yet are also subject to the very forces they attempt to master. Indeed, Feldherr suggests, the poet speaks to an extent as emperor while implying that the emperor likewise acts as poet by authorizing historical discourse under-girded with fiction (for example, in official ideologies of succession that rely on Caesar's apotheosis and in visual monuments that appropriate the language of myth). A lively reading of the Daedalus episode demonstrates how the issues of hierarchy and artistic power raised by Augustus's presence extend to the levels of social difference that can be inhabited by the reader within a single narrative.

Part two, "Spectacle," shifts more fully into the social realm to consider how the participation of Ovid's early readers in a civic sphere replete with representations shaped their perspectival encounter with the Metamorphoses. Arguing that Ovid "construct[s] a civic dimension to the act of reading and provide[s] a new sphere to measure the powers of the poet" (167), Feldherr provides stimulating readings of Lycaon and Pythogoras in the context of sacrificial ritual; of the Theban sequence (particularly the deaths of Actaeon and Pentheus) in relation to gladiatorial spectacle; and of the Philomela story as it resonates with tragedy and issues of ethnic identification linked with the categories of Greek, Roman, and "barbarian." As is occasionally the case in this book, the strengths of the section on Philomela overlap closely with its weaknesses: argumentative density threatens to overwhelm digestibility (to indulge a cannibalistic pun) as the author nuances the episode's evocation of tragic performance with a diverse range of contexts including the Platonic critique of mimesis as involving dangerous forms of identification, the civic dimensions of Greek myth critically reimagined as Roman exemplum, the motion of tragic temporality toward repetition and regression, and the intertextual dialogue between Metamorphoses and Fasti raised by the Philomela myth, particularly as it involves an articulation of civic identity. Despite Feldherr's acknowledgement of the meandering nature of the chapter in an apologia on page 236, the reader is hard pressed to keep the argument in clear view, and some fine points are left struggling for the light.

Part three, "Ovid and the Visual Arts," contends first that Ovid's visual tableau of Europa with the bull serves to "deconstruct ... contemporary ways of viewing" (255), then links Pygmalion's statue, read through the preceding episode of the Proproetides and Cerastae, with rituals of sacrifice that evince "a degree of overlap between aesthetic and religious judgments" (276). A reading of Metamorphoses 2, which takes us from the solar Apollo's house to Invidia's infection of another domestic space, interestingly identifies resonances with the visual dynamic of the "memory palace." Finally, Niobe and Perseus instantiate Ovid's creative exploration of Augustan iconography, as the former summons "ecphrastic ambiguities" (310) appropriate to a mortal turned statue who occupies a position that at once legitimizes and threatens to subvert imperial ideology, and the latter appropriates the rhetoric of spectacle to yoke petrification with monumentalization.

Viewed panoptically, Playing Gods offers an embarrassment of riches to the specialist Ovidian scholar and students of Roman culture more broadly. It is brimming with fresh insights and dexterous connections, many of which will generate further development in their own right (one such is the creative exchange between Metamorphoses and Fasti, which Feldherr persuasively shows to be braided in their textualization of Roman ritual). Viewed microscopically, this book's richness of detail and its commitment to multiple outlooks sometimes obscure its focus, which gets slippery and paratactic at points, replicating perhaps too closely the "inherently prismatic" (346) nature of Feldherr's subject. Overall, Feldherr succeeds admirably in reanimating the multidimensional qualities of Ovid's poem as it participates in, and actively mediates, Roman social consciousness at a time when change was not only a literary but a civic concern.

Jamie C. Fumo

McGill University
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Author:Fumo, Jamie C.
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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