A lay-by in Bulgaria
Fifty years ago today I got as close as I’ve ever got to a truly historical event, so it justifies a post. It would count as a reminiscence if I could remember anything about something that happened when I was a bit less than two-months old.
I was with my family, six of us in total, and we were sleeping in an Ace Ambassador caravan in a lay-by in Bulgaria. To understand how we had ended up in this unlikely situation you need to know two things about my father: first, that in his view a holiday was not a holiday unless it involved driving a couple of thousand miles each way (with a caravan attached), and secondly, that he refused point-blank to pay any money for camping sites, toll roads, etc. Apparently this caused less of a problem in the Eastern Bloc than one might imagine, and I can only think that a family of Western caravanners was so spectacularly out of the ordinary anyhow that we could get away with quite a lot.
By the time I was conscious of these holidays, a little after the event I’m talking about here, the destinations had become slightly more mainstream. Greece and Turkey were still a heck of a long way to drive, but didn’t involve crossing the Iron Curtain, unless you count Yugoslavia. Before I was born, though, and for a short time afterwards, my father indulged a fascination for communist Eastern Europe, visiting Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania as well as Bulgaria. He had no political sympathy with communism, though he was a (minor) politician, and that might explain the welcome we got in parts of Romania (which had interesting differences with the rest of the Warsaw Pact), especially. I have only one memory of Eastern-Bloc countries, a plague of beetles covering the car one year on the border between Hungary and Bulgaria.
Most aspects of what I’ve been describing now strike me as pretty insane: the huge distances towing a caravan (we had an average of three punctures per holiday), the massive catering operation undertaken by my mother without any help whatsoever from my father, and of course all the time spent touring around the Eastern Bloc. It seems especially foolhardy to me, though I recognise I may be biased, to take a very small baby to a place where, for example, baby food could be quite hard to find. But the holidays I remember were simply amazing. Until the age of 14 I hadn’t spent a single day of the month of August in the U.K., but I’d visited far more historical sites than I’ve ever seen since, and we saw Turkey, in particular, before its tourist industry took off: Gordion, Side, Goreme, Didyma… Since this was before the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, we were often travelling the same route as long-distance lorry drivers (a nice blog about that culture here), and hippies on the overland route. Again, I can’t imagine how a middle-class family in a 14-foot caravan towed by a Volvo looked to them, but we all seemed to get along swimmingly.
But back to that lay-by in Bulgaria. It was nighttime, and we were sleeping, but our sleep on this occasion was interrupted by a terrific noise from the road, the sound of a huge line of very heavy traffic. My father went out to investigate, I think; at any rate the traffic was quickly identified as a line of military vehicles, and it took most of the night to pass our camping place. We must have assumed that we had stumbled into a military exercise, and the next day we continued on our way, into Yugoslavia and up towards Maribor, now in Slovenia, the border town for the crossing into Austria. It was only here that we discovered what had been rolling past us that night in Bulgaria. The night in question was August 20-21, 1968. The military convoy had been heading for Prague, one component of the massive Warsaw Pact forces converging on Czechoslovakia in a surprise invasion. There in our caravan we were the most unlikely witnesses to the suppression of the Prague Spring.
‘Prague Spring’ was the name given to the period of liberalization introduced by the Czechoslovak leader, Alexander Dubček, which he himself famously described as ‘socialism with a human face’. In April 1968 Dubcek had relaxed restrictions on free speech and movement, and on the press; a greater role for market economics was envisaged, and in the longer term democratic elections. In August the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev sent Warsaw Pact forces in to suppress the “counterrevolution”: what we had seen from our caravan was part of the Bulgarian contribution, a fraction of the 200,000 or so troops and 2,000 tanks that entered the country that night. There was some popular resistance — most tragically, a student named Jan Palach burned himself to death in Wenceslaus Square in Prague in January 1969 — but Dubček’s reforms were reversed, liberals were purged from government, and Czechoslovakia would not experience the same freedom until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In the meantime some 300,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled to the West.
The border between Yugoslavia and Austria presented a dramatic contrast at the best of times, shabby and impoverished towns on the eastern side, prosperous in Austria, like going from black-and-white to colour. But when we reached the border in Maribor in 1968 we encountered something altogether more distressing, a huge gathering of Czechs trying to decide whether to cross into Austria or return to their now occupied country. One effect of the liberalization of Czechoslovakia had been to allow its citizens greater freedom of travel abroad, and Yugoslavia had been a popular destination. Now these tourists were in a state of shock, and faced a terrible quandary. My older sister remembers a woman trying to decide whether to flee to the West or return to her children in Czechoslovakia. My mother felt a compulsion to apologise to the Czechs she met for what she saw as the failure of her country to come to their help twice in one generation, in 1938 and 1968.
In 1989 I visited Prague itself, but missed the moment on that occasion after a stupid argument with my travelling companions about using foreign-currency shops. I left Prague in a huff. The next day, December 10, a government was formed which for the first time contained a majority of non-communist members. A huge, joyful crowd filled Wenceslaus Square; meanwhile I was on a train back to Berlin.
Any blogs from me will be short and sweet this summer, my writing schedule being what it is, and highly likely to be about Ovid for the same reason.
For this one, two assumptions are required: first, that Ovid is so very self-aware a poet that his narrative might at any moment enact his literary principles; and secondly that the metre of poetry in antiquity, and in Rome specifically, was meaningful in its own right.
I’m here concerned with the Metamorphoses, unusual among Ovid’s works for being composed in the dactylic hexameter, stereotypically the metre of epic, the highest form of poetry. The hexameter was known as the herous or ἡρωικός, the “heroic” metre, its very name implying it was intrinsically suited to tell the deeds of great men: I discussed an ancient response to the hexameter and its ethos, the sotadean metre, in another blog here. The Metamorphoses is ostensibly a heroic epic, as its metre and length and cast of heroes imply, but Ovid is throughout this poem superbly disrespectful of the sublime values an epic was supposed to embody.
Ovid’s inappropriate approach to writing epic has been noted, and deplored, ever since he wrote it, and a recurrent theme of the criticism of ancient figures like the Senecas Elder and Younger and Quintilian and more modern critics like John Dryden, as an article of mine argued many moons ago,* was that Ovid’s approach to writing epic, properly the task of a mature and serious sensibility, was mischievous–childish, to use a metaphor regularly found: Seneca the Younger chastises Ovid’s addiction to pueriles ineptiae, “childish silliness”, for example, and Dryden talks of the “boyisms” that mar the dignity of his epic poetry.
The main point of my article was to show, not just that Ovid was perfectly aware how far he was falling short of epic respectability in the Metamorphoses, but that Ovid took poetic self-awareness to an ever higher level, actually anticipating within his poem the criticisms that would be directed at it. At three points in particular, Cupid’s encounter with Apollo in Met. 1, Phaethon’s piloting of the sun chariot in Met. 2, and the famous story of Daedalus and Icarus in Met. 8, I suggested that these accounts could be read as “metaliterary drama”, vignettes programmatically encapsulating the deeper character of the poem. In each case, simply put, a heroic circumstance is disrupted by a child, Apollo transformed from the conqueror of Python into a plaintive lover, the horses of the sun careering out of control and scorching the earth under Phaethon’s inadequate control, and Daedalus’ momentous achievement of flight ruined by Icarus’ boyish refusal to obey instruction. Ovid was staging in his own narrative the childish subversion of epic values he would later himself be told off for.
It’s Icarus’ story that I want to bring back to metre. One metaliterary vignette, I’d suggest, is the scene from Met. 8 where Daedalus is meticulously constructing wings for himself and his son. Icarus does what children do, getting in the way (193-203, with the Miller Loeb translation, slightly adapted).
tum lino medias et ceris alligat imas
atque ita conpositas paruo curuamine flectit,
ut ueras imitetur aues. puer Icarus una 195
stabat et, ignarus sua se tractare pericla,
ore renidenti modo, quas uaga mouerat aura,
captabat plumas, flauam modo pollice ceram
mollibat lusuque suo mirabile patris
impediebat opus. postquam manus ultima coepto 200
inposita est, geminas opifex librauit in alas
ipse suum corpus motaque pependit in aura.
Then Daedalus ties the feathers together with twine and wax at middle and bottom;
and, thus arranged, he bends them with a gentle curve
so that they look like real birds’ wings. His son Icarus
was standing by and, little knowing that he was handling his own peril,
with smiling face now snatched at the feathers
which the shifting breeze had blown about, now moulded the yellow wax
with his thumb, and by his play hindered
his father’s wondrous task. When now the finishing touches
had been put to the work, the maestro himself balanced his body
on two wings and hung poised in the beaten air.
We all know how this story ends. What for me is typical of Ovid about this passage is how he paints a picture which is vividly true to life, the child chasing feathers and moulding the wax into shapes, but which at the same time works perfectly as a metaphor for the Metamorphoses as a whole, a poem that refuses to abide by the rules, a world where things never go for its heroic protagonists as they should. (Denis Feeney once explained to me why he liked Toy Story so much: “It’s just like the Metamorphoses: Buzz Lightyear thinks he’s a superhero, but in fact he’s just a toy.”)
But what about the metre?
Bear in mind that I’m currently thinking too much about Ovid, and I’ve been thinking too hard about metre for years. But just note how the boy Icarus enters and exits this scene, puer Icarus una… in 195 and impediebat opus in 200: in each case Icarus isn’t just disrupting Daedalus’ wondrous task, but interrupting the heroic measure, intervening halfway into the dactylic hexameter, departing halfway through.
Ovid’s intense self-consciousness undoubtedly extends to the metres he uses, we know that from elsewhere. And whether or not there is metrical self-awareness here, it is poetically effective to have Icarus butting in unexpectedly after the line has started. But I suspect that Ovid thinks of the metre of his poem, as much as any other element of it, as a conventional epic feature ripe for his mischievous attention, and wants us to appreciate it as such.
Here, I think, as heroic action is disrupted by this childish impulse, whether we call it Icarus’s or Ovid’s, so is heroic form.
*”Child’s play: Ovid and his critics,” Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003), 66-91.