Forma aucta fuga, Ovid’s Metamorphosis
Memory is a funny thing. It can be fiction every bit as much as fact. We sometimes use it to create in ways similar to the creation of the future. In fact, it may be more accurate to say that we participate in the creation and the actualization of each of these phases of our lives, rather than that we actually create them.
In Ovid’s story of Apollo and Daphne, Phoebus (Apollo) kills the great snake Python, and then, filled with pride, speaks dismissively to Cupid, that wanton boy, who possesses only what appears to Apollo as a toy bow, nothing compared to his bow of a true man. As so often happens, the smaller winds up triumphing over the larger, and in the end Cupid shoots his dart of undying love and attraction into the great god, while Daphne he pierces with the arrow of eternal aversion. She then flees Apollo’s advances, running breathless through the wood with the god just behind her in hot pursuit. Forma aucta est fuga – “beauty is enhanced by flight,” Ovid tells us. And who indeed has not experienced that in life? It is the very definition of unrequited love. In the end, the great deity of light manages just to touch the object of his love, but she prays to her father for deliverance and is immediately turned into a laurel tree, ever and forever more the favorite of great, grieving Apollo.
Not only does beauty flee from us, as in the story (our own as well as that of others), no matter how breathlessly we pursue it, but so does the span of our very lives. I have been reminded of this lately, having recently received an invitation to a 50th high school class reunion. How pedestrian and prosaic such an invitation seems, you may say, compared to the great stories of undying mythology! But such stories are themselves the very narratives of our lives, are they not? And a reunion is in essence no more than an opportunity to look back on our own personal life’s chronicle. In youth, for example, we think ourselves to be invincible, or if not invincible, at least we are convinced that the tale of our life is an eternal one. We believe we will be capable of ceaselessly pursuing the object of our attraction, however we define it. And to be sure, that object is never merely one thing, but is instead a constellation of goals, of imagined prizes, that changes continually in accord with the various stages of our lives.
For those still in the youthful stage, the figure of Daphne might well equate to an actual glorious young woman, or to a handsome man, someone whom we think we must possess at all cost. Dream-like, we often find that the figure of this person changes as we ourselves change, and if we are lucky, it will metamorphose from the unattainable into the attainable. We will seize upon it, that is, upon him or her. Having found at last the object of our love, he or she is ours, and if fortune smiles, the attraction and the love will be fully mutual. Even so, no sooner have we attained it than we realize that this, too, is actually no longer enough. I am speaking here not of some never-ending search for a new and “better lover”, although some do get lost in the dizzying round of that endless circle. More often, and more to the point, the new conquest, the new object of our desire is within the world of work, where each of us feels we must make our mark. We have achieved one goal and found it wanting, that is, we have seen that it is not enough only to be a lover, or only to be an object of love. No, we humans are an insatiable lot. Always wanting more, we relentlessly pursue all of our needs and desires. We also wish to be something in the world. To make our life count, as we may think of it. And if we fail at this, often we are faced with a mid-life crisis. No one has written more eloquently, or at greater length, about midlife crises, than Dante Alighieri. The very opening lines of his magnum opus, the Inferno, begin with this declaration:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi retrouvai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
(Mid way on the path of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
The true way having been lost.)
Note in this clumsy translation of my own devising that Dante uses the term in the middle of “OUR life” – nostra vita – not “my life.” He is speaking here not merely of his own journey, but of the one each of us takes in our life. And a journey implies a destination, does it not? In Dante’s case, accompanied by his mentor, Aeneas, he must travel through hell itself before he is capable of climbing the heights and merging with Beatrice, and ultimately with the Beatific Vision Itself. We may quibble (as I do) in regard to some of the “sinners” with whom Dante, with his medieval sense of propriety and morality, populates hell. But still, can any of us conceive of a greater personal voyage?
Not that anyone now, or even 700 years ago when it first appeared, takes the Inferno literally. Of course, we are talking here about a dreamscape, a mythological landscape, a great fiction, which attempts to tell an even greater truth about ourselves. Hell is populated by Dante himself, as well as by all of us. Each of us carries within both our greatest dreams and our greatest failings. Looking back on 50 years of one’s life can be a daunting challenge. Who does not see things he or she might have changed, roads not taken, opportunities passed by, treasures left by the wayside? These are beauties we may still occasionally chase, however much we know that the chase itself only makes them more desirable, and as much as we may never attain them. As in the story of Daphne and Apollo, they metamorphose at the very touch. But neither is life always and only about what might have been. My own life, the life of any of us (again, remember, we are talking about “nostra vita”) is also filled with real events, real people, real accomplishments. For me, there are things I would never change, and for which I can feel only the greatest of gratitude. My life with my partner is fisrt and foremost among these, as is the great gift of friendship with those most cherished by me. Each person, no doubt, similarly cherishes certain things in life, whether it be the choice of a mate, the birth of a child, the selection of a career path that has actually brought us what we hoped we might have achieved. Or it may be something as simple as a move from one place to another, which then opened doors we never even knew were there.
Memory, never iron clad, may help us regulate and modulate the past. But as for regrets, there is no point, as regrets only steal from us the joy of the present. They are the darkened woods of Dante (he goes on later to describe those woods as “selvaggia e aspra e forte,” savage, bitter, and strong), just as they are Apollo’s fleeting dream, which disappears at the very touch. And so, I will attend my reunion as planned in late October, but more to see whom we have all become, whom I have become, than to recall who we were. That was a kind of fiction anyway, a creation of dreams and desires both fulfilled and unfulfilled. Better by far to live in the present, with an occasional nod and a grin to the past, and a wish and a plan for an ever more present present in a future we dream we create for ourselves.