In 2015, four Columbia University undergraduates published an op-ed in
their student paper petitioning English professors to affix trigger
warnings to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The poem’s “vivid depictions of rape
and sexual assault,” they wrote, were distressing to survivors, one of
whom “was essentially dismissed . . . her concerns ignored” when she
approached a lecturer after class to complain. The opinion piece sparked
a predictable imbroglio. Less sophisticated critics decried Columbia’s
“self-centered Care Bears”; sharper observers objected to how the
trigger-warning conversation disguised the larger preoccupations of the
text, veiling ethical questions of force and consent in the language of
personal harm. What was clear, even then, was that Ovid had the power to
illuminate disturbing aspects of our contemporary culture. Students
sensed something volatile and dangerous in the poem—something close to
home.

Ovid feels strangely present these days, as if the country is reckoning
under his riotous star.
Daphne,”
the début novel from Will Boast, aims to recast the myth of Daphne and
Apollo, told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from Daphne’s point of view—a
project for the
#MeToo era if there ever were one. In the original poem, Daphne, a water nymph,
resolves to stay a virgin; she runs from the lustful god, he chases, he
grabs and clasps; she pleads to her father, a river deity, for help. At
this point, Ovid writes (in R. Mongan’s translation), “A heavy numbness
seizes her limbs, / her soft breasts are girded by thin bark, / her hair
grows into foliage, her arms into branches, / her foot, just now so
swift, clings by sluggish roots.” Daphne becomes a laurel tree, and
Apollo still can’t take a hint. “He gives the wood kisses,” Ovid
recounts, drily, “and the wood shrinks from the kisses. / The god said
to her, ‘Since you can’t be my bride, at least / you will certainly be
my tree!’ ”

In this
post-Weinstein moment, we are hungry for female-centric narratives of abuse and
resilience, especially ones that flip an existing script. Oddly, though,
Boast’s “Daphne” does not dramatize the source text’s elements of
violence and coercion. This update interprets Daphne’s transformation as
a triumph, her immobility as a kind of post-coital swoon, conjuring the
masochistic surrenders of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Daphne suffers from a
rare condition, cataplexy, that paralyzes her body whenever she
experiences intense emotion. Here is a Daphne who is ravished by her own
feelings, who directs her potent responses to the world inward—against
herself. Until, that is, she meets the right guy, an emo type named
Ollie. Boast’s novel is an amiable exploration of how humans might come
to manage their raucous hearts; nothing about the book, apart from the
characters’ names, feels especially Ovidian. It’s ironic that “Daphne”
is better without the Metamorphoses—a dilatory whiff of sexual assault
would not serve Daphne and Ollie’s relationship—because the #MeToo
epoch is the perfect time to reread the poet. However indirectly, Boast
deserves our gratitude for sending us back to him now.

Before he wrote the Metamorphoses, Ovid wrote a three-book opus
called “Ars Amatoria,” or the “Art of Love”: its first two sections
instruct the modern Roman man in the subtleties of seduction, while its
third winkingly advises the modern Roman woman how to resist the smooth
advances of the modern Roman man. In 8 A.D., six years after “Ars” was
published, Emperor Augustus exiled Ovid to Tomis, on a remote shore of
the Black Sea, for mysterious reasons; Ovid described his offense as
carmen et error”—“a song and a mistake.” (It’s impossible to read
about Aziz Ansari, who, with “Modern
Romance
,”
fashioned himself the scribe of woke courtship and was then
banished from our good graces for sins we can’t quite agree
upon
,
without thinking of his first-century counterpart.)

In the same year that he was exiled, Ovid began the Metamorphoses,
whose teeming chaos evokes the uncertain, shape-shifting mood of a
country—a world—that is reimagining its sexual mores. Ovid’s subject
matter throughout the poem is a seemingly endless stream of rapes and
sexual crimes. Hades abducts Persephone; Zeus impregnates Leda; Apollo
pursues Daphne; Zeus violates Europa. The effect of all these attacks
feels totalizing, as if women exist to be abused. But Ovid’s epic
positions female pain as the beginning or the hinge of the story, not
the end; victims are transfigured, their suffering made new and strange.
Daphne becomes a tree. Leda hatches two eggs. Persephone’s lingering in
the underworld gives rise to undreamed-of seasons. That violence against
women might lead to unexpected outcomes—to a legal-defense fund for
sexual-assault survivors, backed by the most glittering red-carpet
walkers; to the resignations and downfalls of many powerful men; to the
unthinkably moving public recital of more than forty victim-impact
statements in a single
courtroom
—has
been one energizing lesson of the past five months.

Consider the myth of Procne and Philomela, from Book 6 of the
Metamorphoses. A king, Tereus, conceives a passion for his wife’s
sister, Philomela, whom he has agreed to escort from her kingdom to his.
Tereus rapes the maiden on the journey and cuts out her tongue so that
she cannot report his crimes. Philomela weaves her anguish into a
tapestry that her sister, Procne, knows how to decode. Procne takes
revenge by killing the son whom she has with Tereus and serving him to
his father for dinner. It is hard to read this ancient tale without
running into a web of #MeToo-era tropes and preoccupations: how men
silence the women they violate; how women are made to feel complicit in
their own violations and those of their sisters; how female rage can
overflow the banks of just retribution, sweeping patriarchal taboos
aside. (This last anxiety has been fretted about more than realized in
our current moment.) By the end of the story, the voiceless Philomela
has become the most expressive creature of all: a nightingale.

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