Reflections in a Serpent's Eye: Thebes in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Book

© Micaela Janan 2009. All rights reserved. Ovid's extraordinary story of Thebes' founding and bloody unravelling spans Books 2 and 3 of his epic poem, the Metamorphoses. His bizarre refractions of the well-ordered community mirror Ovid's own Rome and the mythohistory of its origins, most particularly as framed in Vergil's Aeneid. The Aeneid has regularly been read as, demonstrating how and why Rome will stride forward into history and an 'empire without end'. This book uses the psychoanalytic theory of Freud and Lacan to argue that The Metamorphoses' strangely fantastical surface reflects what is already inherently perverse in that master-narrative and discloses its internal contradictions. Ovid's Thebes features supernatural transformations, perverse fascinations, and violent end: Actaeon turned deer and the victim of his own hounds, Narcissus fatally captivated by his own image, Pentheus ripped apart by his mother and aunt. Ovid's reflections on how and why Thebes comes together-and how it comes unstuck-sceptically interrogate not only the existing (Roman) political order, claimed asiasting truth, but also the very possibility of organizing any polity into a harmonious, organically unified, lasting institution. Ovid thus poses doubts and questions crucial to the whole epic genre and its stress on collective identity as a function of a particular city-state. His Metamorphoses probes the logical principles of the ordered human community-its cohesion, identity, and governance-revealing a hidden bond between the epic Doomed City (Troy, Thebes, Carthage) and the City of Manifest Destiny (Rome). In Ovid's 'tale of two cities' each logically defines and suppors the other. By asking, 'What does it mean to be a polity? a citizen of a polity?', Ovid poses questions centred upon the concept of identity. His Theban cycle thus asks even more radically, 'What is identity? What shapes it? What changes it?' To explicate Ovid's critique of epic nationalism and identity, a series of close readings of episodes from Books 3 and 4 draws upon psychoanalysis as a body of thought devoted to unfolding just how an unconscious constantly subverts notions of individual and collective selfhood. Psychoanalysis offers the conceptual basis for seeing the questions Ovid's Thebes inspires as facets of one problematic, revealing the singularity of Ovid's foundation-tale as more rich and complex than previously appreciated.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Janan, M

Published Date

  • February 1, 2010

Start / End Page

  • 1 - 288

International Standard Book Number 13 (ISBN-13)

  • 9780191721021

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199556922.001.0001

Citation Source

  • Scopus