Fixity, Form, Flow

Updated - Greek librarian, poet, scholar, and critic Callimachus describes the reception of the unusually short epics he wrote: "The Telchines, who are ignorant and no friends of the Muse, grumble at my poetry, because I did not accomplish one continuous poem of many thousands of lines on . . . kings or . . . heroes, but like a child I roll forth a short tale, though the decades of my years are not few." The first translation of this fragment translated Τελχῖνες as "malignant gnomes." It is amazing how vastly some of these translations differ.
Today, that short style is described by the word epyllion, meaning a short narrative poem (mini epic). The word was apparently used once in antiquity to describe a short work by Homer. The word became a genre in the 19th century and is used to classify Ovid's Metamorphoses, also a collection of ἐπύλλια. Another genre created in modern times for what was also categorised as epic in antiquity is the 'didactic poem' of which Lucretius' Nature is one.
Sometimes I wonder at the large proportion of doctoral theses that mention Nietzsche in one way or another and question whether one day, he will be assigned to a genre that we have not classified. His work even now has been described as an attempt to bring Orphic poetry to thought or as the dialectics of provocation: the genre may be provocative poetics. Wherein the poetic is the power of language when it is refined, when it does what Gadamer expected of philosophy and art: to transform our self-understanding. According to which we see, as if for the first time.
To see in that way seems the goal of all original thinkers: to compose a random list, one may include Stanislavsky, Cobbett, O'Connor, Callimachus: "When I first placed a tablet on my knees, Lycian Apollo said to me: '...poet, feed the victim to be as fat as possible but, my friend, keep the Muse slender. This too I bid you; tread a path which carriages do not trample; do not drive your chariot upon the common tracks of others, nor along a wide road, but on unworn paths, though your course be more narrow. For we sing among those who love the shrill voice of the cicada and not the noise of the ... asses.'" Emphasis added. The path less travelled: that which is not engraved on the dumbly reproducible cliché.
Gadamer's mimesis is not an endless repetition but a reinterpretation and reworking that allow a work to become more fully what it is, always, in that way, marked by the first time. Just as Ovid's metamorphoses are a reworking of Nicander's Heteroeumena, meaning transformations. These myths, in turn, appear elsewhere.

J. B. Solodow notes that the form of Ovid's retelling of the Aeneid in Metamorphoses "implies an extreme relativity; it teaches us to be suspicious of a neatly unified story and of an ordinary narration." I have wondered if the same may be said of the other retellings in the work: this post explains its non-linear features as an answer to what history looks like.
Bakhtin has written about centripetal and centrifugal trends in literature: times when one or the other applies, and I wonder if we are still in or finishing with the centrifugal trends of which our own version of the epyllia may be a sign. Characteristic of this genre is also its mundane style and quotidian themes. One could therefore possibly assign Adler's Speedboat to this category. I would also include in it Kristeva's Étrangers. For characteristic of the epyllion is also the less well known aspects of myth. The foreigner has always been the less well known feature of myth...
But are we to leave ourselves with these narrative fragments, a philosophical bard whose mad singing was sometimes disturbed, or are we supposed to understand that in such contexts, the speaking is not to be taken literally. To look at the direction, not the pointing finger.
Gadamer, at the beginning of The Beginning of Philosophy questions beginnings, questions time, as did Aristotle. What is the point of creating linear, narrative progressions - they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Gadamer writes, "beginning and end are thus bound up with one another and cannot be separated. From where something shows itself to be a beginning and what direction it will take both depend on the goal." Many writers in the ancient world seems to have known this. S. M. Wheeler has observed that the phrases ἔτι νῦν and ἄχρι νῦν meaning 'even now' were frequently used in aetiological works. Nicander connected metamorphosis stories with the origin of religious rites, landmarks, in order to connect the past with the present. The then and now merges the fiction being told with the present fact; it is clear that there is room for recreation through retelling.

Not like today's literal narratives in which history is dead, and Vico's prediction of following Cartesian maths to the social plane would cause us to go mad with all those lines. Or is that the case. In the mean time, mad poetry has broken form; even though it seems to speak from the lines of margins, it is very real for many people. I read that people have written letters of thanks to the Nietzsche institute, explaining how much his works meant to them.
And yet I wonder about something. It is argued that the narrative fragments making up Metamorphoses may be taken to center around love. An example is the Alcyone and Ceyx story in which marital love transcends death itself. From change to transcendence. Not the haughty and sad overman of Nietzsche, all alone.
Maybe this is why to argue for a unity of thought and language, λόγος and ἔργον, as did Gadamer, one must return to the past, because such unity is hard to find before the eyes.
I am reminded of Rilke's voyage to Russia where he went to get outside of his own culture and to see afresh, behind the appearance of things, how he wrote this about things on his return, and later writing Sonnets to Orpheus (leaving aside the fact that Rilke may be seen as the crown achievement of Goethe's weltliteratur). That is a nod to the past at least in the point of departure in the title, and some themes : "the clock's steps only mime/ the ticking of a truer time"; "Mirrors: to this day, no expertise can explain the key to what you truly are" (emphasis added); his appeal in 2. 12, "Aspire to transform" together with mention of Daphne in mutation. In this poem, there is both fixity and change. All of the shorter-than-epyllia; all of the fragment poems, poems made of lines that are fragments, is resolved in the paradox of the last verse: "And though you fade from earthly sight, declare to the silent earth: I flow. To the rushing water say: I am."
Fixity and flow, just like in his 1908 poem "Archaic Torso" with the fixity of that statue that flows, "from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life."
Today, one rarely turns on the box without being accosted by the sight of someone trying on different clothes. What if narrative was once that fitting room, what if we have become too literal in our costuming.We have been asked by fragments (because the loudest unities are sometimes false) to look again, to change.


  1. Merely a hazard of associations spurred by this:

    ". . . to argue for a unity of thought and language, λόγος and ἔργον, as did Gadamer, one must return to the past, because such unity is hard to find before the eyes."

    Before the eyes is such a suggestive phrase. To be past, something must be finished, dead, done. Only then can it be re-presented, re-cognized. The knowing comes in this finality, or after it. To have cognition and action united "before the eyes," so that it can be re-presented, it must be unable to be any longer present. The doing, the working, came before, and then, once complete, can come before the eyes, as representation, knowledge. The dream of fusing knowledge and action is never farther from becoming true than when it is before the eyes.

  2. The comment cited from Solodow is fascinating. Ovid's re-tellings are never just re-, he is always deforming, posing alternatives, warping, offering mindless parody, something, anything, other than the re-. He is doing things to other people's words, with words. The fragmentary elements of the Aeneid present in his poem do seem to unsettle the monumental epic form of Virgil's poem. But they also at moments offer a critique of the Odyssey. Different values are in play in Ovid, neither Homer's, nor altogether the homage of Homer found in Virgil's form. Ovid is always taking us to the shock of the new.

  3. So I wonder if your first comment is about the intervening period of assimilation? Or is it about the cacophony of the present, what with its voices and sniffs of the air and glances at the Trend Machine (to paraphrase Strunk and White) - and the time necessary to learn about discernment? Or, how it takes the period of youth or longer to know that the principles are to be tested according to experience first and only then may other books of opinion be consulted?
    Re. comment two - I had wanted to link to your OM blog here, if you have any particular post suggestions, I'd love to update this post with a link.

    1. Let me hold off on addressing your first question. For the second, the most directly related Ovid post, though not about the Aeneid, is this one, regarding Perseus's wedding feast -

      Alas, the post that would have been most germane is one I've not yet written (never dreamed anyone would ask) about Ovid's handling of the figure of Achaemenides (

      Some suggestions of the form it would take might be here: The deformation of Ovid's impact upon other texts or genres is not merely critique - it's also an openness to other ways of seeing, valuing.

    2. That list is wonderful - I will link to the third post, thank you!

    3. Thank you for linking to my piece. While one can't do justice to your first question above in this space, there's a sentence that speaks to it in there:

      "History in the act of becoming is not visible, tellable, or understandable. But from the (future) point at which it can be seen as a great tapestry that is past, those things that actually "made history" begin to emerge from the welter of foreground events." And the last graf, perhaps, as well...

  4. Just read this (how fitting): “history should not be read as the backward projection of our current discontents, or of our grievances” via (the post links to the article-source of the quote).


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