Sunday, 29 July 2012

The falsified self


"The wretched wife of Priam, after she had lost every thing else, lost her human form, and filled the air of an alien country with the strange and terrifying sound of her barking." 
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book XIII

The acceptable face of grief
Hecuba, still recognizably human, lamenting 
over the corpses of her last surviving children, Polydorus, washed up on the shore, and her daughter Polyxena. 

Image: detail of Johann Wilhelm Baur's illustration to Ovid's Metamorphoses,
Book XIII, 1709 edition

Unseemly grief: Hecuba in her last act as a human, gauging out the eyes of Polymestor, king of Thrace, in revenge for the murder of her youngest son, and, in the madness of her grief, turned into a growling, snapping bitch, pelted with stones by the local people.

Image: detail of Johann Wilhelm Baur's illustration to Ovid's Metamorphoses,1659 edition


"Hecuba was dumb with grief. Anguish had swallowed her voice." Fired by anger, the only other emotion she can feel, she avenges herself on her son’s murderer by gouging out his eyes. She has lost her humanity along with her human voice. When his supporters attack her, throwing stones, she snaps and growls, when she tries to speak, she barks. For a long time she continues to howl mournfully through the enemy lands. 

The metamorphosis that Ovid describes is not purely metaphorical. He is accurately describing the physiological changes in people under the strain of extreme emotion. The feeling of lost identity, of disconnection from the rest of humanity, of worthlessness and righteous anger, of being swallowed up in your own emotion, of longing to be able to give up normal communication and howl in a return to a primal state is familiar to the bereaved. Shakespeare picks up the dog theme in Lear’s lament over over Cordelia. Howl, howl is often said as an imperative, or as if Lear is describing himself, while it could be interpreted more simply, like a stage direction, that he is articulating his grief by howling, like an animal. There is no more honest way of doing it. It is the sound of the conscious mind surrendering to its agony.

In the earlier retelling of the Hecuba myth by Euripedes in the 4th century BC, her transformation is foretold by her enemy Polymestor: You will become a dog with fiery (or, depending on the translation, “blazing” or “bloodshot”) eyes and is not dramatized. She is a powerful and eloquent but less sympathetic character, depraved and condemned by her lust for revenge.

Ovid, the great poet of the emotions, writing four hundred years later, has more compassion for her; even the Greek gods, who enjoy taking sides in human suffering and retribution, are taken aback by the cruelty of Hecuba’s fate. Even Juno says she does not deserve it; too embroiled in their own interests, none of them help her. She is a wild, homeless, old woman, an obsolete womb, the mother of 19 or 20 children (50 according to Euripedes, adding to her burdens as harshly as the gods) who have predeceased her, an unwanted claimant to pity in a foreign land whose barking irritates everyone. She did not die romantically young and beautiful, her tragic metamorphosis is not sexy and picturesque like Daphne's, and people would prefer to forget about her. 

Idealized grief:

The bereaved mother as people would like to see her, not old, mad and angry, exacting revenge and upsetting the authorities, but sweet and docile as a virgin. There isn't a peep out of her as the mother of the crucified Jesus casts her eyes down on the body of her son supported on her lap, as she used to cradle him as a baby.


Image: detail of Michelangelo's Pietà, 1499.
Marble, Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican. 

Hecuba's sensational cynanthropy, the stuff for CGI, is no use to popular live entertainment where it can only be reported as an off-stage event. Human Hecuba recedes further and further in our consciences to no more than a classical allusion. Dante mentions her on the way to the deepest chasm of hell where people who lost humanity and raged liked beasts on their own kind are punished. By Hamlet's time "the mobled queen" was a wornout byword for fictional grief, an exercise for emoting touring actors. In she-dog form, she was absorbed into witchcraft myths as a familiar of Hecate.

Thirteen hundred years after Ovid's interpretation, Dante, on his humanist and Christian-influenced journey into the soul (Inferno, c.1310) is reminded of the story of Hecuba turned barking mad when he reaches the tenth ditch of the eighth circle of hell, a place he calls Malebolge, translated literally as "evil ditches" or "pouches", where he has to cover his ears from the laments of people falsified by madness.

Detail of illustration of the falsifiers writhing in their pit in Dante's Inferno, Canto XXIX. 
Engraving by Gustave Doré, first published in 1861

This state of self-pity and self-loathing is well-known to the grief stricken, dumbfounded that they are punished for loving. Why have you forsaken me? Grief is ugly. Some recognize those evil pits and ditches, those pouches in the chasm of hell, from their own involuntary imaginings. Don’t ask them today how they feel, because they may want to growl at you, but listen and wait, and one day they will say.
  Such mighty power had grief to wrench her soul

Exquisite mortal anguish: the metamorphosis of the chaste nymph Daphne into a laurel tree is portrayed by both the poet Ovid and the sculptor Bernini as a beautiful sexual process. Ovid emphasizes the languor of her surrender to a consummationon she has wished for, death in human form rather than a life of animal copulation. Bernini interprets the pain and horror of the moment of transition in a masterpiece uniting eroticism and pathos. While Daphne is dying, prettily, in front of us, she is screaming to her leaf-sprouting fingertips. 
Detail of Apollo and Daphne, by Bernini; marble, 1622 - 25. Galleria Borghese, Rome.