The voice of history, of course, is composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard. Some louder than others, naturally…thus shall I abide by the conventions of history. I shall respect the laws of evidence. Of truth, whatever that may be. But truth is tied to word, to print, to the testimony of the page. Moments shower away; the days of our lives vanish utterly, more insubstantial than if they had been invented. Fiction can seem more enduring than reality. Pierre on the field of battle, the Bennet girls at their sewing, Tess on the threshing machine – all these are nailed down for ever, on the page and in a million heads…And when you and I talk about history we don’t mean what actually happened, do we? The cosmic chaos of everywhere, all time? We mean the tidying up of this into books, the concentration of the benign historical eye upon years and places and persons. History unravels; circumstances, following their natural inclination, prefer to remain ravelled. Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively
Ancient voices still ring down, to be poured over, analyzed to the nth degree. But we lean on happenstance.
Cicero, influential upon contemporaries and historical figures alike, augmented by the sheer number of letters, speeches and philosophies to remain, barely tarnished by time, folly, or persecution.
Pliny the Younger, AD79, Vesuvius. The right place, the right time, and the inclination to capture the details.
How lucky are we? Best to look on what we have than on the lost.
But endurance goes further than physical remains, it lies in the ability to remain relevant.
So then, is Ovid set to outlast Tacitus and Suetonius?
Metamorphosis. Very apt. The Pygmalion myth especially; the sculptor reshapes the ivory to create the perfect woman, just as the myth itself has been reshaped since.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave her, the statue, a name in 1762, ‘Galatea’.
George Bernard Shaw probably springs to the modern mind. No stone, but certainly the myth. The shifting priorities of western readership; no longer logical for a writer to create a passive female part, lacking an identity.
Stone-like similes and metaphors for Carol Ann Duffy’s Pygmalion’s Bride though, who is “like ivory” and has “stone-cool lips”. Worked in are now common phrases, “stone-deaf”, reflecting the Ovidian myth. Yet, like Bernard Shaw, no literal statue, but a live body with stone-like qualities, “my marbled eyes”. The implication, that this is a reaction to her Pygmalion; she “played statue”.
Duffy, a modern feminist, is the antithesis of Ovid, a misogynist by way of ancient attitudes. Whereas the caressing of Pygmalion generates life within Ovid’s statue “beneath his touch”, in Duffy’s poem it is the very fact that “he squeezed, he pressed” which revolts her into rigidity.
The metamorphosis of Ovid’s themes by Duffy is a testament to the myth’s capability for endurance. Its literary legacy lies not in the fine details, but in its adaptive capacity. Ovid’s statue has no name, speaks no words, but this enigma has allowed others to explore their own versions of the myth; it has prevented the myth from dying and enabled it to grow.