Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried:” Literary Metempsychosis, the Transmigration of Souls, and Imaginative Reincarnation

Ovid has Pythagoras make a case for metempsychosis–the transmigration of souls–in Metamorphoses.  Ovid’s own “soul” is literarily reincarnated in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

Ovid’s astonishing Metamorphoses is often mis-read and often mis-used.  It is mis-read by those who fail to see that it is incredibly serious and reflects a profoundly moral imagination (feeble-minded readers declare it morally bankrupt and medieval nuns bowdlerized it to make it a book of warnings about various moral failings [usually sex]–I think it made the Catholic Church’s Index for many years) and it is mis-used (by me among others) as a sourcebook for mythology and stories and not as a unified work–which it is (a unified work that is, though I’m not explaining that here but may do so next year).  Ovid was probably Shakespeare’s favorite ancient poet–he certainly cribbed from Ovid in Romeo and Juliet, in A Midsummer’s Night Dream and in Titus Andronicus to name only a few. We should think of Tim O’Brien as our Ovid and The Things They Carried as our Metamorphoses.

Tim O’Brien and Ovid resemble each other as story tellers.  Both are interested in violence and what that does to people.  Both are interested in stories and storytelling and so include different story tellers and make use of ekphrases (an ekprhasis is a work of art inside a work of art).  Both refuse to provide morals for their stories but nonetheless are “moral” writers.  Both have stories where civilized people become savage. They are both interested in the “transformation” of people and both take a known but elastic form (for Ovid the epic poem and for O’Brien the novel) and then “problematize” it rendering it alien but familiar–not quite recognizable.

Let’s work our way backwards.  Ovid seems to be writing an epic–he has an invocation to the muse, he uses numerous conventions of the epic (similes, catalogues), he adopts the verse form of the epic.  Still, he does not provide a single hero who embodies the cultural values of a people (well, I’ve argued elsewhere that he does through the narrative voice but certainly it is an “odd” epic compared to Homer and Virgil).  O’Brien may be writing a memoir or autobiography? a collection of short stories?  a history? a novel? TTTC contains in its prefatory remarks, “This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.”  There is also a narrator named Tim O’Brien.  On the publishing page, though we are told “This is a work of fiction.  Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all of the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.”  Wow–where does the fiction begin? Further, do we have a collection of short stories or is this a novel; is it unified or can we carve it up–like Metamorphoses (and isn’t that going to require us–as reading Ovid requires us–to think about form)? 

From Jupiter’s telling of Lycaon’s savagery and subsequent transmogrification into a wolf (remember that Jupiter narrates this as an ekphrasis inside of the narrator’s story), Ovid fills his narrative with those who are “civilized” becoming savages or being revealed as savages (Tereus and Pentheus among numerous others).  So, when Rat Kiley tells the story of Mary Anne Bell moving from civilization to savagery (she wears a necklace of human tongues!) in “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” (remember that it is not Tim-the-narrator telling this except as an outside frame narrator for this ekphrasis) we witness a metamorphosis as complete as any in Ovid.  (I think we also see Curt Lemon drift into savagery as he adopts a gonzo personality that has him go fishing with hand-grenades and go trick-or treating in a village naked but carrying an M-16). It is easy to see Conrad’s great Heart of Darkness behind “Sweetheart” as a literary ancestor just as behind Ovid we so often see Euripides specifically (I’m thinking of the Bacchae), but also Lucretius, and others.  This playing of riffs on other texts is another shared characteristic of Ovid and O’Brien.

Both writers are deeply concerned with storytelling and morality.  In three separate cases Mitchell Sanders tries to discover the “moral’ in various episodes–in “The Things They Carried” he questions the “moral” in the cutting off of the dead soldier’s thumb–he later quizzes Rat Kiley about the form and moral of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” and in his own turn at telling a story–inside of “How to Tell a True War Story,” he tries to discover the “moral” of the story he tells about the men at the listening post who call in the mother of all air strikes.  Don’t you love the ambiguity of that title (“How to Tell a True War Story”)?! This can be rendered as “How to Speak or Say a True War Story” or “How to Find Out or Discover if a War Story is True”–so is the story a set of instructions for lying fiction-makers or an inoculation for wary readers? When Ovid concludes the tremendous story of Tereus, Procne, Philomela, and Itys (Tereus rapes his sister-in-law, cuts out her tongue[!], lies to his wife); Procne rescues her sister (who has revealed the atrocities by means of a tapestry–more acts of reading required) then murders her own son Itys and feeds him to Tereus and taunts Tereus with the severed head.  Holy Lifetime Movie of the Week Batman! Well, the narrative voice has inserted itself to tell us that Procne’s actions “confound completely the issues of right and wrong”–drawing the reader’s attention to the moral dimension and demanding that we consider relative weights of wrong, justice and revenge. 

Ovid and Tim O’Brien are fascinated by the nature of story-telling and they keep calling our attention to the fact that they are telling stories and what that means.  In the story of Diana and Actaeon–changed into a stag and eviscerated by his own hounds for seeing Diana naked–Ovid tells us that people could draw different interpretations from the story–again forcing us to consider whether justice was done or an overreaction took place.  The daughters of Minyas tell stories that we get to over-hear before they are destroyed.  The old man who tells the story of  Baucis and Philemon, Lelex, swears that he got the story from an impeccable source.  O’Brien raises all sorts of questions about the reliability of narrators–himself included–and hearing stories from someone else.  At one point he tells us that Rat Kiley makes up stories and is unreliable–and then forces us to rely on Rat’s insistence that this time it is NOT made up, that he has witnessed it (ah, the experiential narrator! [see the prior blog for an explanation of this]). 

Finally, Ovid concludes that it is his own immortality that he has ensured, “If there be any truth in poets’ prophecies, I shall live to all eternity, immortalized by fame.”  O’Brien concludes with “Lives of the Dead”–discussing those who live in or through stories. “Right here, in the spell of memory and imagination… there are no brain tumors [like those that killed his friend Linda at age 9], and no funeral homes…. I can see Kiowa, too, and Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon [his dead comrades]…. I’ll never die [Ovid!] I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.”  That’s the immortality Ovid thinks he can achieve.  Ovid and O’Brien–separated by two thousand years, but two of the best. Some smart graduate student could keep fleshing this out and make a whole dissertation out of it.  

Next week an explanation of why Horror Movie Monsters are derived from Teaching Styles!


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Filed under books and learning, first person narration, kinds of narration, Metamorphoses, Ovid, popular culture, teaching, Tim O'Brien and The Things They Carried, Uncategorized

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