Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Marie Louise von Glinski, Simile and Identity in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. vi, 173. ISBN 9780521760966. $95.00.

Reviewed by Bob Cowan, University of Sydney (

Version at BMCR home site


Simile is the new metaphor. Such is the argument of this fascinating but flawed book on the figure in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Much of the most interesting research on the poem in the last thirty odd years, notably by Rosati, Barkan, Tissol and Hardie, has explored how Ovid's figured and figurative language (syllepsis, paronomasia, and others, but especially metaphor) is reified in the world of the poem and dynamically explores issues of both identity and expression. Building on this work, Marie Louise von Glinski brings the relatively neglected figure of simile to the fore, arguing that it has a special function in explicitly signalling, dramatizing and exploring the gap between the reality and the comparand, between identity and mimesis. Any quest for the master-key which will solve all the Metamorphoses's hermeneutic puzzles is doomed to at best partial success, since the text's own ludic proteanism wriggles free of unity of interpretation as of all other unities. So it is with von Glinski's similes. The most consistently successful overarching interpretation is that of the relationship between simile and the gods' temporary metamorphoses (ch.2). von Glinski's other chapters, connecting simile with human metamorphosis, generic identity and ideas of fictionality, produce some exquisite interpretations, some which are less persuasive, and others which are convincing in themselves but have only a tenuous link to simile. However, even here von Glinski offers provocative and stimulating ideas about what similes can be and are made to do, which will be of interest and use to students not only of the Metamorphoses but of all texts ancient and modern in which the figure appears. There are some signs of lack of thorough revision which detract a little from the overall effect, but this remains a challenging and insightful book, which will doubtless influence future work on simile in the Metamorphoses and outside it.

Chapter 1 "Metamorphosis and simile" argues that, whereas the well-established analogy between metaphor and metamorphosis enjoins a focus entirely on the final, metamorphosed body (such as Niobe the rock), simile, by forcing the reader to keep in view both original and comparand, tenor and vehicle, their difference as well as their similarity, enables reflection on the process of transformation and the gap between (in most examples) human and animal which metamorphosis (and metaphor) threaten to collapse. This is a subtle and suggestive argument, with potential applicability beyond the Metamorphoses. However, I cannot help feeling that metaphor remains the more potent trope for metamorphosis, as von Glinski virtually acknowledges, but also that it too forces the reader to reflect on the poles of identity quite as much as simile, even if it does so implicitly. Metaphor may say that Anaxarete had a heart of stone and then her limbs followed suit (14.757-8) but the reader knows that it is only by the special rules of metaphor that a heart is stone and that only by the special rules of the world of the Metamorphoses does a girl become stone. The conventions of metaphor and allegory teach us to remember that there is a difference between a cruel heart and a stone, and to reflect on that difference, even if they do so tacitly, without simile's explicit, admonitory "like". Perhaps, despite von Glinski's protest, Aristotle was not so far wrong in seeing simile as metaphor with a little word added. This feeling is rather reinforced by the illustrations which form the bulk of the chapter. Some are very successful and support von Glinski's point, notably the discussion of Actaeon who, as a stag, is compared once more to the human he in some sense still is. Others are less persuasive, while others still are effective in themselves but show a quite different facet of simile. The analysis of the simile attached to Lichas' metamorphosis, with its interplay of pseudo-Lucretian science in the vehicle and myth in the tenor, is a tour de force, but is all about modes of understanding the world, and very little about identity.

By far the most successful chapter is the second, on simile and the gods. Since gods' metamorphoses are temporary and voluntary, their identity is not subsumed by their changed form and, instead of "being" metaphors, they "are like" similes. Even more importantly, since even their anthropomorphic guise is itself merely a likeness, a way of conceptualizing divinity which is comprehensible to mortals, the metamorphoses which transform them and the similes which compare them underline this necessity of using proxies and approximations when talking about the divine. Here von Glinski's case for the unique significance of simile is entirely persuasive and her argument moves beyond the level of the exquisite individual reading to provide an important hermeneutic tool for reading the Metamorphoses as a whole. Unlike in ch.1, the individual readings, in addition to their localized significance, fully support the global interpretation; the discussion of the series of similes applied to Mercury as he flies over Athens in Met. 2 is particularly fine.

The final two chapters move away from the idea of personal identity to consider generic identity (ch.3) and the idea of fictionality (ch.4). In generic terms, simile's primary function is its literary-historical ethos as a quintessentially epic figure. Von Glinski successfully assesses its interplay with rival generic elements in the Ceyx and Daphne episodes. The discussion of tragic and epic in the Hecuba episode is largely successful, but strikes a couple of false notes. The suggestion that "Ovid … recreates in his narrative the dramatic silence of staged tragedy. The outward action is halted while the reader is made to follow the gradual change in Hecuba's emotions, as if watching her onstage" (p.92) smacks more of the cinematic close-up than the verbalized emotions of ancient drama (cf. Eur. Hec. 680-720), though it might be interesting to compare tragic descriptions of (offstage) silent emotional change, such as the Tekmessa of Aias, or the Nurse of Medeia. Equally odd is the suggestion that her indulgence in vocal lamentation, that quintessential female activity, transgresses gender expectations. The comparison of the Ovidian-Euripidean Hecuba with the Iliadic Achilles worked well, but might have been interestingly nuanced by consideration of the Iliadic Hecuba's desire to eat Achilles' liver (24.212-13), echoing as it does the latter's attitude to Hector at 22.346-7.

The final chapter achieves the impossible and says something new and important about Narcissus, by showing how simile parallels the peculiar qualities of reflection, as opposed to other, static mimeseis. The section on the House of Sleep in Met. 11 is less successful: good on imitation and fictionality in general (though adding little to Tissol and Hardie), but it cannot succeed in making the one, minor simile in the whole episode as central as it needs to be. The discussion of Atalanta and Hippomenes addresses anachronistic similes, and their role in exploring the gap between the fictional world of the poem and the "real" one of the reader. This is largely persuasive, but von Glinski tends to posit without argument that the world of the poem is self-evidently fictional, whereas Ovid's ostensible framework is chronological, setting events in the distant past rather than in fairyland. Of course to have the Minyeides anachronistically talking about Roman water-pipes does draw attention to their fictionality, but greater clarity and precision would have improved the argument. The brief conclusion offers some useful reflections on the "protean" nature of simile, which draw strands of the argument nicely together, but might have been even more useful if set out programmatically in an introduction.

Parts of the book show signs of lack of revision. In some sections, mainly in ch.1, the argument is awkwardly structured, as in that of Hyacinthus (pp.26-33), where Ajax and Orpheus are abruptly introduced in mid-discussion, as if they has already been mentioned. A more pervasive problem is the disappointing number of mistranslations.1 aera ... aere repulsa (3.532, p.21) is "bronze clashing with bronze", not air with air, and the strictis ... telis are surely more likely to be drawn swords or readied spears than strung bows; paribus nītens ... alibus (Aen. 4.252, p.48) is not "shining on even wings" but "being supported by" them; armis palearia pendent (Met. 2.854, p.65) is not "dewlap hangs as protection" but "on its shoulders", while pura agrees with gemma not cornua (856); artificem dirae Polymestora caedis (13.351, p.92) is "Polymestor the contriver of the dreadful slaughter", not "the contriver of the dreadful slaughter of Polymestor", and quod nato redderet (353) means not "to give her back her son" but "[gold] to give to her son"; hostes quaeque suos (1.507, p.99) is not "all enemies to each other" but "each [of the animals just named] flees its own enemies".

These errors are particularly unfortunate when von Glinski's argument is based on such close and linguistically- precise readings, like her subtle and sophisticated interpretation of the simile at 2.619-25 (pp.69-71), which turns in large part on her emphasis that the cow watching her calf being sacrificed is in the ablative absolute and hence does not, as is usually assumed, correspond to Apollo in the tenor. It must be stressed, however, that none of her interpretations is based on a mistranslation, though, in a couple of instances, a closer translation would positively support her argument. At 3.705 (p.20) tubicen is "war trumpeter" not "war-trumpet", and the emphasis on a human agent in the simile, as opposed to the impersonal (musical) instrument, reinforces von Glinski's acute reading whereby the horse-simile subtly depicts the ostensibly autonomous Pentheus as actually under someone else's control; von Glinski reasonably posits an implicit rider, but Dionysus could also correspond to the explicit trumpeter. At 1.404-5 (pp. 34-5), naturaque mitior illis / contigit, there is doubtless a suggestion of von Glinski's "their softer nature touched them", but the primary sense is surely "a softer quality fell to their lot", an emphasis on contingency and spontaneity which would chime with von Glinski's case for "the absence of a clear artist figure" and that "[m]etamorphosis just happens miraculously as if it were in the nature of the stone to find human form." Taking si femina fias (10.579, p.146) more precisely as, not "if you were a woman", but "were to become" one, Venus' (false) adumbration of a metamorphosis (as opposed to a counterfactual situation) within the simile fits nicely with von Glinski's argument linking the two phenomena.

Other more minor defects may be the result of conscious authorial or editorial decisions, and may trouble other readers less than they did me. It seems odd, when the other chapters are divided into sections with sub-headings, which is very helpful to the reader in articulating the argument, not to divide ch. 2 in the same way, when it has the same episode-centred structure. von Glinski only translates indented quotations, even though many of those in-line and in footnotes are two, three and even four lines long; this will inevitably reduce the book's accessibility to Latinless readers, who would otherwise find much of use in it. As usual in academic works, no modern-language quotations are translated, on the standard assumption that Classics undergraduates know Italian but not Latin. My final quibble is with the interchangeable use of "simile" and "the simile" (even the chapter titles are divided 50/50 between them). Consistency is desirable, but in addition the latter phrase not only has an old-fashioned, slightly mannered feel, but gives rise to genuine and unhelpful ambiguity. To offer one example from several similar cases, when von Glinski writes "The simile thus stands in for seeing things straight on." (p.81), it is unclear whether she means "simile" (in general) or "the simile comparing Diana's blush to clouds at dawn which is currently under discussion".

In short, this is a sophisticated and ambitious study, unqualifiedly successful when discussing the gods, containing many other elegant readings, and offering a provocative, if not consistently convincing, overall thesis.


1.   Actual typos are very few. I noted only attentuatus for attenuatus (3.489, p.126) and the omission of tenere from Verg. Aen. 6.284 (133).

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