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

5. Images, Themes, Ideas

Knowing where images, themes, and ideas recur is often central to interpretation of the Metamorphoses. The student may want to know, for example, where the stretching out of arms -- a very common gesture in the poem -- precedes metamorphosis, and what the assembled contexts of this image say about its significance; in what stories the imagery of hunting coincides with that of sexual passion, and what the coincidences tell us about the nature and role of Diana; where the vocabulary of hunger and thirst, or devouring and drinking are associated with acts of violence; and so forth. The answers to such questions imply what I call a thesaurus of semantic categories, for which TACT provides a set of tools and procedures.

In this section I describe the specific steps I have taken towards constructing such a thesaurus for the Metamorphoses.

The first step is to define for each image, theme, or idea a specific group of words and phrases that evoke it: the theme of 'death' for example, by such words as bustum, 'tomb, grave'; caedes, 'murder, massacre'; corpus, 'body, corpse'; and so on. The second step is to test the group against the text, eliminating all irrelevant occurrences, e.g. of corpus that refer to a living rather than a dead body. The third step is to test the resulting TACT "category" against stories which are known to contain the image, theme, or idea in question, resolving discrepancies wherever they occur. (Discrepancies may result from a mistaken reading, but usually they indicate overlooked words or phrases; occasionally they may point to ideas evoked indirectly, through broader associations.[13]) This third step is recursive but not endless, and it certainly refines the editor's understanding of the text.

However carefully built, such a thesaurus has an inherent tendency to binary categorization: for a given category, words and specific occurrences may be either included or excluded, whereas imaginative language depends on evoking (rather than defining) states between the two. Thus the final result of consulting an electronic thesaurus must be a return to the text rather than unqualified acceptance of external proof.

Figure 7 shows the present structure of my thesaurus for Ovid; items marked by an asterisk are relatively well developed, the remainder are merely lists of words awaiting systemization. The categories listed here reflect my interests as a critic, but they are not, I hope, idiosyncratic. They are intended to be sufficiently diverse so as to suggest a paradigm towards further work.

5.1. The Rule File

Figure 8 shows a representative sample from a TACT rule file, the first step in constructing the thesaurus. Words are grouped by broad semantic classes -- 'battle', 'blood', 'death', and so forth -- within which there are subdivisions as required. Observe that each semantic grouping contains three-part entries with the following structure: (1) a headword of two or more segments, the last of which is normally a Latin word; (2) a TACT "rule" consisting of one or more lines that specify the inflected forms of this word in the pattern-description language available within TACT; and (3) one or more lines of commentary to remind the reader of the English equivalents of the word. In a certain number of cases an entry specifies more than one word ("Battle=general=violo", for example), but all words with different roots, and many with the same root, are specified separately to ensure maximum flexibility. Several major entries include a collection of phrases where these are required to capture an idea, e.g. "Battle=siege((phrases))".

5.2. Building Categories

In the second step of thesaurus building, the editor translates rules into TACT categories. First, for each entry in a semantic class (e.g. certo in the class 'battle', fig. 8), he or she calls up the rule, retrieves all occurrences thus defined, and saves them as a corresponding TACT category. Then, once all the categories have been constructed for the individual entries, they are combined to form a meta-category for their semantic class. In fact, any number of meta-categories may be defined on the basis of any mixture of individual categories, including other meta-categories. Thus, for example, questions may conveniently be asked about all 'battle' words less those for the gods of battle; all words involving both 'battle' and 'death'; all words involving 'love' solely as 'desire'; and so forth.

In several cases the words comprising the individual categories are unambiguous -- bellum, for example, always has something to do with warfare or strife -- but in others this is not true, as I suggested earlier for corpus. Note in figure 8 that some of the entries, e.g. "Blood=blush=rubesco", contain the TACT operator "pos". This operator signifies that the editor wishes to examine each occurrence of the defined word or words to decide which are to be retained in the category and which eliminated. (As it happens, rubesco and erubesco can refer simply to the reddening of the dawn rather than the flushing of human skin, although sometimes there may be a connection between the two.) After occurrences have been sorted, those retained are saved as a TACT category.

For a large, complex work such as the Metamorphoses, many hundreds, perhaps even thousands of occurrences must be individually inspected. Doing so provides an excellent though demanding way of studying the work at first hand. The editor's desire to automate this process may be balanced by the suspicion that he or she is likely to get more benefit from constructing the thesaurus than most of its users are likely to realise from consulting it. Of course we hope that this suspicion turns out to be unfounded.

5.3. Distributions

The third step in constructing the thesaurus, testing and refining categories, is not illustrated directly here, but will be mentioned in passing as we consider several TACT distribution graphs (fig. 9, fig. 10, fig. 11, fig. 12, fig. 13, fig. 14). These graphs are based on two relatively well-defined semantic groupings, one for 'battle' and the other 'love'. My chief purpose here is to show how such graphs can be applied to study the patterning and interrelation of ideas.

Two quite different kinds of graphs are illustrated. Figure 9, figure 11, figure 13, and figure 14 show distributions by percentage of the text (here books 1 through 6, each 2% representing about 100 lines of the poem); figure 10 and figure 12 show distributions according to the individual stories, regardless of length. The former is preferable for seeing the rising and falling rhythms of violence and eros, the latter for determining which stories are notable for these qualities. A quick glance at figure 9, for example, shows three major areas of violence as defined by the 'battle' category: at the foundation of the world; at the foundation of the first major city by Cadmus, the inaugurator of the heroic age; and around the appearance of the first non-domestic hero, Perseus. I use the word rhythm advisedly, as the graph invites us to ask if the peaks of violence are both anticipated by what comes before and echoed in what follows them.

Figure 11 shows a peak of erotic activity in the regeneration that follows the foundation of the world, and interestingly one that occurs between the violence of Cadmus and that of Perseus, in the stories about the downfall of Cadmus' house. What makes the latter peak especially interesting is the structural fact that these stories also contain, and in some cases conceal, great violence. Amongst these stories are those told by the daughters of Minyas (from the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe to that of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis), which echo the same structural model: while the frenzy of Bacchus rages all around them, they sit primly inside telling erotic tales in which destructive frenzy seethes just below the surface, then violently erupts.

In the graphs of distribution by story (fig. 10 and fig. 12), distinctions are much sharper. At least in the initial stage of research, one is likely to be surprised by the absence of results for certain stories more than by the peaks, unless of course the poem is unfamiliar -- as it would be to an undergraduate student using the edition as a study aid. In figure 10, for example, the story of Tereus and Philomela shows less violence than one would expect, especially at the beginning, although the reader's impression is likely to be of the potential for terrible violence seething just below the surface (cf. fig. 14). Similarly, in figure 12, the erotically charged tale of Actaeon hardly shows up as erotic at all. Clearly, either the thesaurus is missing some relevant vocabulary or the imagery in question is implied somehow rather than expressed. Again, the next step is to return to the text for closer examination of the vocabulary, then modify the TACT thesaurus as required, and try again.

Whether building a thesaurus or just consulting one, the user's impressions and understanding of the text are put to the test. Any attentive reading is also a test of understanding, of course, but the computer -- again, a perceptual agent -- presents a new perspective. This perspective raises in a new and interesting way the question of where the reader's impressions come from. For a text of any complexity and imaginative appeal, the answer is not likely to be easy.

5.4. Co-occurrence: 'sex' and 'death' in the Metamorphoses

In figure 13 and figure 14, we can observe the overlap or 'co-occurrence' of eros and violence, first by using the proximity operator in TACT, then by superimposing two ordinary distribution graphs.

In figure 13 the significant co-occurrence is of the two semantic groupings we have already examined, 'battle' and 'love', as you can see by comparing the second graph in the top row against the last one at the bottom right. (The co-occurrences of 'love' with the other semantic groupings, introduced in fig. 13 for the first time, hardly make a difference to the overall result.) In the latter graph, I have substituted letters of the alphabet for asterisks so as to show in the important cases which story is involved. The most prominent area of the graph where sex and death overlap marks the stories told, again, by the daughters of Minyas. The other two point to the tale of Apollo and Daphne (in which an initial argument breaks out between Apollo and Cupid as to whose arrows are more effective), and the story of Proserpina's rape by the infernus raptor himself, including his incidental violation of Cyane. (Proserpina's undoing is one of the classical equivalents of the biblical Fall of Man, the archetypal event that forever intermingles sex with death.[14)] The proximity operator has serious limitations, however, since in effect it requires that words or groups of words be relatively close to each other.[15] A story involving the interrelation of two themes may, however, manifest them in words that are quite far apart. In figure 14 I circumvent the difficulty by overprinting the distribution of words in the 'love' category (indicated by horizontal brackets) with those for 'battle' (asterisks). Here a much higher degree of overlap is visible. Note, for example, the story of Pentheus, which quite properly is shown in figure 14 to be very much about the collision of eros and violence.

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[13] Erotic vocabulary makes a particularly interesting case. In The Latin Sexual Vocabulary, for example, J. N. Adams notes that "In a suggestive context almost any object or activity may be interpreted as a sexual image" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1982): 3. The question -- indeed a difficult one to answer systematically -- is how such contexts are established, what words carry the burden of suggestion.

[14] See Willard McCarty, "The Catabatic Structure of Satan's Quest", University of Toronto Quarterly 56 (1986/7): 286.

[15] The problem is with the limit of DOS to the standard 640K memory: requests for co-occurrences of words very far apart (say, 50 lines before and after) overcome available memory and so cause the program to fail. It is hoped that the next full release of TACT, with improved memory management, will overcome the problem in many if not all cases.