CHWP B.3 McCarty, "Implicit Patterns in Ovid's Metamorphoses"

2. The Metamorphoses

In many ways, Ovid's Metamorphoses is ideal as a test case for the application of TACT to literary studies. The length of the text -- approximately 12,000 lines of Latin hexameters in 15 books -- is sufficient to make the whole of it difficult for most scholars to remember in any detail. Memory is further taxed by the intricate organization of its contiguous, interlocked, and often intercalated stories of widely varying length and indeterminate number.[3] Although its complexity has been the subject of much scholarly attention, there is no general agreement as to whether the work is, as Ovid declares, a perpetuum carmen ('continuous poem', Met. 1.4), and if it is, exactly what makes it so, and how.

What is the Metamorphoses? Simply, it is a compendium of stories that define a culture, in many ways the classical equivalent of the Bible, though without canonical authority. Its influence on subsequent ages, including our own, is enormous, perhaps more than any of us realise. Like the Bible, it begins at the creation of the world, ends in a kind of apocalypse, and in between charts movement through time and space from primeval beginnings to a city and story with lasting significance -- however ironically and playfully intended. It sums up and shapes the lore of its culture, remaining close to the welter of conflicting tales available to the poet, from which he selected and, to a certain extent, which he apparently supplemented by invention. Significantly, and not unlike the authors of the Bible, Ovid has paid much less regard to smooth, logical transition between stories than to complex repetition of themes and images, even to extensive wordplay. As critics have noted, Ovid seems deliberately to spoof the whole idea of narrative transition -- in order, I would argue, to point us elsewhere for the principle by which numerous stories become something like a single story -- a perpetuum carmen.

What is that principle? The objectives of this paper exclude the possibility of an argument,[4] but let me offer a suggestion: that our investigations begin by gathering together related images and themes in order to discover what patterns they make. These patterns in turn allow us to see how various pieces of the literary puzzle fit together. Such collecting of patterns across the poem has been in progress for some time.[5] Nevertheless, many remain unexplored, perhaps even undiscovered; despite growing interest, the work towards a comprehensive view of the poem remains far from complete because it demands so much of us.

Before computers, the explorer's basic instrument was the concordance. As an evolutionary development of the concordance generator, TACT gives us several ways to circumvent the limitations of a concordance or other device for simple word searches. Chiefly, it gives us perfect recall of multiple kinds of detail and the ability to experiment with various models of organization. Its abstract powers are only the beginning, however. Like the ancient suppliant, praying to god do ut des ('I give that you may give'), the modern user of TACT, and even more the editor of an electronic edition, must know that great benefits are obtained only in return for a considerable investment of time and effort. TACT is a means of getting in deeper, for longer, potentially with better results. It is not a labour-saving device.

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[3] The number of stories is indeterminable in principle because the distinction between a story as such and a reference to a story is arbitrary. We cannot even be certain of recognizing references when they occur. When, for example, should we regard a place-name derived from an eponymous founder as a reference to that figure and to any story the author may have intended him to evoke? Since these intentions are unknowable, and since our knowledge of background material is incomplete, no definite answer seems possible.

[4] I make that argument in a forthcoming book, Narcissus and his Relations in the Metamorphoses of Ovid, towards the completion of which the electronic edition described here is an aid.

[5] E.g. by Charles P. Segal in Landscape in Ovid's Metamorphoses: A Study in the Transformations of a Literary Symbol, Hermes Einzelschriften, 23 (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1969), where a reasonably obvious pattern is explored.