Dead Letters II: If I write, am I heard? If I’m dead, am I read?

[Dead Letters II is a repost of my reblogged blog! My apologies for the confusion and inconvenience. Our ability to discuss the blog has been hindered by the format which it was introduced. Hopefully this will correct the issue.]

Ovid’s Heroides, is full of all the passion and modern day drama one might find on a reality TV show. The human element is captured and repeated throughout, revealing the possible stories of the women who lost everything: their loves, families, pride, passion and their lives! We can relate to these passions having experienced, or by even knowing someone close to us, who has gone through similar experiences in the loss of love. Ovid captures the heartache and gives a voice to these women whose stories have not been told. Their love and they themselves have received a voice and a medium in which their pain is echoed and related to, two-thousand years later.

These women are all about to die at their own hands for the sake of lost love. They are desperately reaching to grasp the one thing that will keep them alive, their love’s return. Death becomes the preferred option, but not before one last message is sent. Through their letters they are preserving their hopes in something potentially more lasting than just their voice and breath, something they are willing to cut short themselves. They have set the stage an ultimatum has been thrown down, “come back or I will kill myself!” Its the Pleasure Principle versus the Reality Principle and its not looking good for reality. We are allowed to connect with these women and can feel their pain, through their words.

And yet its not their words. They are Ovid’s. They have survived! They still speak of passion and allow us to relate with the ancients in a way which connects us as humans. Its commonality that binds us still.

Freud and Derrida connect with us from afar as well. We can analyze Ovid’s characters through their lens’. The power of the PP in its quest has overridden the PR and its will to survive. Analyze it all you want, the power here is in what Ovid has created. The appeal to human drama of is what made his writing successful in his time. That same drama survives today and continues to be successful in the different mediums in which it’s marketed.

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5 thoughts on “Dead Letters II: If I write, am I heard? If I’m dead, am I read?

  1. Thanks, Art, for reposting this here. A lot of great comments have been left already regarding Ovid assuming womens’ voices and the diary-like nature of these verse epistles. I want to connect these insights to Derrida’s comments about Freud in “Notices (Warnings).”

    It strikes me that the very un-sendable or un-receivable nature of these letters is precisely Derrida’s point about Freud’s attempt to move “beyond” the Pleasure Principle. Derrida makes the point that Freud can only make his claims about anything “beyond” by assuming the reality of the PP in the first place. In other words – and this is one of the central tenets of deconstruction – Freud’s findings can only exist within the discourse of the PP that he has created. In this sense, he is writing, as Derrida says “[t]o himself, as if someone were sending himself a message informing himself by certified letter, on an official document, of the attested existence of a theoretical history to which he himself – such is the content of the message – gave the send-off” (274). We could apply this logic to Ovid’s Heroides, which are letters that articulate a history of these “writers” (and yes, they are often revisionist histories) that gain purchase primarily within the worlds they describe. Yes, there is a large mythological background, but in some sense they exist “beside” (as Derrida would have it) other accounts, such as Virgil’s Aeneid. Therefore, they are “dead” letters in the sense that they cannot be responded to beyond the limits of Ovidian discourse.

    My questions then is how do we read the “exchange” letters, or the last ones (e.g. Helen and Paris) that establish a fictive dialogue? Do they follow this same “dead letter” logic?

  2. Dear All,
    With both the Derrida reading from last week, and the issue of “authorship” (that is, why Ovid takes on the voices of these heroines and why the epistolary form), in mind I am trying to make some connections between the two.

    Let me digress here for a minute so you all can follow me… While I was thinking about what makes Ovid’s “Heroides” epistolary, I thought it might help to do a little research on what it actually means to be epistolary. My research led me to an essay in the Cambridge Companion to Ovid, called “Epistolarity: the Heroides” by Duncan F. Kennedy. The most substantial explanation of what “epistolarity” is appears on page 220 of the Cambridge Companion, “letter writing can suggest a mode, epistolarity, not reducible to formal elements of style or generic category…” “epistolarity as an analytic term can be applied not only to works that formally identify themselves as letters but also to those which have some of the characteristics of letters…” Here is where the light bulb turned on.

    By considering the “Heroides” to be epistolary, we are acknowledging the fact that these letters are in fact letters, written by someone who then sends it to an addressee. There is a problem with that (which many of you have already observed) it is not Penelope writing to Ulysses here, it is Ovid creating an epistle from Penelope to Ulysses, and so on. Then if Ovid is the writer of the letters and his audience are the recipients, can we consider the “Heroides” to be epistolary? Instead, let us consider the “Heroides” to be poems written as formally identified letters, but only actually possessing the characteristics of letters. Let us acknowledge the epistolarity of the “Heroides,” as Kennedy makes a pretty convincing argument. I think this may solve the issues of “authorship” and help us understand what purpose the letters actually serve.

    That purpose I believe is the filling of a void. The void being a number of things, the voice (identity) of these heroines, the absence of their husbands/lovers, and also the passing of time. Ovid’s creating the letters fills the void of time that has passed from when these love stories were written, to now in the present. The epistolarity of the “Heroides” makes Ovid relevant here in the now by bringing us these stories, but he brings us the stories in a mode in which we all can relate, an epistolary mode. The heroines are separated from their husbands/lovers but their letters fill that void, just as we are separated from Ovid and the world in which he lived. Derrida writes, “This has separated us, infinitely separated us, but in order “to live” (if you can call it living) this separation and in order to love a secret based on it, based on what holds us together without relation, the one addressed to the other, the one backed by the other, yes both” (96). It takes the writer of the letter and the reader (the addressee, the audience, the recipient) to fill the void of separation, whether it be spacial or temporal, through the exchange of written correspondence. The epistolarity in the “Heroides” does that for us.

    Okay, signing off now… the bulb is out.

    Cheers, (Sorry Penelope)
    Samantha

  3. Your statement: “And yet its not their words. They are Ovid’s. They have survived! They still speak of passion and allow us to relate with the ancients in a way which connects us as humans. Its commonality that binds us still” brings up something that’s been haunting me with literature for a while now. Forgive me if the ensuing sounds tangential; I swear I’ll bring it around at the end.
    Some exposition: I’ve been a tutor for composition and literature for a good while, and one of the most frequently recurring questions I get from students inexperienced in critical analysis interrogates the logic behind writing their essays in the present tense. I explain to them that we write literary analysis in the present tense much for the same reason we write historical analysis in the past: history is completely relegated to the past, whereas the fictional world continuously happens in the indefinite present. The drama within a book unfolds constantly, repeatedly in the moment of absorption, unfolding as a play on the mind’s stage. Although Macbeth is set in medieval Scotland, the eponymous protagonist kills Duncan (and Banquo, and etc.) anew, each time the play is performed. So it is, as well, with written stories.
    If this is the case, that characters in a story have lives that are measured, not in years, but pages, then I’m not sure I can share your enthusiasm for Ovid’s letter writers. If all we are given of these characters from Ovid is what’s in his Heroides, then that is their world. There’s a phrase that pops up in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century, describing hell as repetition, and I feel that that gets closer to the mark than anything. There characters survive through Ovid’s words, yes, but are trapped in the constant present, frozen like the figures on Keat’s Grecian urn. Ovid’s Penelope here is one who will never see her Odysseus, Briseis will forever be uncertain of which unfavorable fate is hers, Hypsipyle will forever be charged with abandoned despair.
    If you find this outlook morose, I agree, but I can’t find a way around it.
    -Jerimiah

    • please replace the word ‘enthusiasm’ above with ‘optimism.’ I really liked Heroides, it just made me really sad.

    • I think you have a good, if wildly depressing, point there — who’s to say that Ariadne or Phyllis would *want* their pain preserved and related-to for two thousand years?

      Sappho might, I think (surely in another time someone will remember us, or however you choose to translate the fragment… and I just thought, isn’t it interesting that we’re talking about love and literary immortality as it relates to scorned/lovesick heroines, when so often the conjunction of those two things are the provenance of the traditionally male love poet in courting). And where Sappho might, Dido certainly would, or at least Ovid’s Dido: “You will be well-known as the cause of my fate […] in the marble of my tomb, carve: ‘From Aeneas came a knife and the cause of death, from Dido herself came the blow that left her dead.'”

      I suppose we should feel bad especially for Ariadne and Penelope if the women are all frozen in the moment of their letters (are there others who get happy endings after all, “canonically”?) — but, then, if as if on the Twitter conversation we’re proposing Ovid as a fanfiction writer, then we’re thinking too about characters who exist in traditions preceding and beyond the Heroides, so are they literarily frozen?

      And regardless, I find it hard to be melancholic about Hypsipyle.

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