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You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way

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Dylan has addressed the controversy about the mechanically signed copies of his new book Paul discussed earlier:

That’s because he hadn’t. In what feels like the least Dylan-esque move imaginable, he released a long message on Facebook explaining that he suffered from vertigo throughout the pandemic, which — coupled with coronavirus precautions — made signing so many books a difficult, if not impossible, task. So he used an autopen, a contraption that automatically replicates a person’s signature, to sign all those books.

“I’ve been made aware that there’s some controversy about signatures on some of my recent artwork prints and on a limited-edition of Philosophy Of Modern Song. I’ve hand-signed each and every art print over the years, and there’s never been a problem,” his post read. “However, in 2019 I had a bad case of vertigo and it continued into the pandemic years. It takes a crew of five working in close quarters with me to help enable these signing sessions, and we could not find a safe and workable way to complete what I needed to do while the virus was raging. So, during the pandemic, it was impossible to sign anything and the vertigo didn’t help. With contractual deadlines looming, the idea of using an auto-pen was suggested to me, along with the assurance that this kind of thing is done ‘all the time’ in the art and literary worlds.

“Using a machine was an error in judgment and I want to rectify it immediately. I’m working with Simon & Schuster and my gallery partners to do just that,” he concluded.

This is a fitting iteration of a career that, among other things, has been a lengthy deconstruction of the concept of “authenticity.”

One interesting thing about this to me beyond the particulars is what it means in 2022 for a signature to be “real.” Generally, when I need to sign an important document the “sign” is some form of electronic. The most common request for hand signatures come when retailers or restaurants require you to “sign” receipts, although they’re essentially never checked and I generally just do a quick scrawl with no particular attempt to replicate my signature. It’s so unusual to be asked for a hand signature that actually means anything the DMV had to remind me recently that this one was a real signature requirement. I don’t really know how to adjudicate this specific controversy — the autograph market is one where there remains an expectation of “real” hand signatures, and they charged a lot of money based on this — but the whole concept is in significant measure going, going, gone.

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2 days ago
I haven’t met a middle aged white dude yet who wont take it to the mat over Bob Dylan
America City, America
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New Novel

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Been asked why the Naked Dollar hasn't been posting lately. The reason is I've been busy working on novel #2. (Campusland, incidentally, is being made into a TV series.) 

The new novel will be called All the Lovely People. Here's a sample chapter, if you're interested:

740 Park

There are many wealthy neighborhoods New York City. In recent decades, neighborhoods once unknown and untraveled by the monied classes, neighborhoods like Tribeca and Nolita, were now the province of internet barons and oligarchs alike. Even Brooklyn, its vast neighborhoods once home to New York’s aspiring immigrant classes, was now beyond the financial reach of the vast majority of Americans. 

But still, for a certain sort, the Upper East Side of Manhattan was still the ne plus ultra of discerning domicilia. No, not those soulless canyons of young professionals near the river, but rather stately neighborhoods adjacent to Central Park, the ones home to pre-war cooperatives, their scalloped awnings having protected generations of wealthy from the elements while alighting from their cabs.

The East Side was home to more “dilatory domiciles” than any other—this, of course, being the phrase long used by the Social Register to describe the homes of the “right sort” within its pages.

Fifth Avenue was stunning, certainly, with its views over the park, the apartments of West Side strivers visible in the distance. But nothing quite had the resonance of “Park Avenue,” did it? It was, and is, synonymous with genteel wealth.

It wasn’t always. Prior to the 1870s, the avenue was a filthy place, with the soot-spewing cars of the New York and Harlem Railroad traveling up and down its length. In a stroke of genius, Cornelius Vanderbilt proposed lowing the tracks into a cut, which would then be covered by a park and pedestrian traffic. This new development was an immediate draw for Gilded Age money, which lined the avenue with mansions. Later, room was made for a new invention, the automobile, and a narrower, be-flowered median remained up the center. 

In the Roaring Twenties, the elevator changed urban living, and mansions yielded to apartment buildings. Park Avenue became lined with classical-style apartments, virtually all fifteen stories tall. Period fire codes limited all residential buildings to 150 feet, owning to the difficulty of fighting an elevated blaze. Thus every building was exactly 150 feet, or fifteen stories. 

In 1927, the Municipal Dwelling Act allowed new structures to exceed 150 feet, but only if the higher stories were set back. A few new apartments, designed with graceful setbacks, were built to take advantage of the new law. 

One of these was 740, which, of all the apartment dwellings on Park, surely had the grandest reputation. 740 lay on the avenues west side, stretching from 71st to 72nd streets. One of its first residents was John D. Rockefeller Jr., who lived in a duplex there until his death in 1960. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, nee Bouvier, lived there as a child. More recently, billionaires like David Koch, Woody Johnson, and Ron Perelman have called 740 home. 

None of this history was known to the Sandersons, and nor did they live in 740. They lived at 580, a few blocks south, in a “classic six.” It was more entry-level Park Avenue, something they bought when William first made junior partner. A well-respected building, to be sure, but they’d been pondering an upgrade for several years, and now, with the news of Williams promotion, it seemed all but obligatory. Despite William’s prodigious earnings, 740 was not in reach, even if something had been available. They had an accepted bid on a four bedroom at 895, an excellent address. At $12 million, it was a serious upgrade.  

As an added bonus, 895 was much closer to the Lenox Hill School, the kids’ sixty-thousand dollar a year school. Close enough that the kids could walk.

The Sandersons took a cab. It was only eight blocks, but it was slightly humid out and it wouldn’t do to arrive sweaty. They announced themselves to the doorman who discretely checked a list and then pointed them to an elevator, one of the last in Manhattan that had its own elevator man. 

The apartment that they were heading up to, one where the elevator opened right up into the foyer because it it was the only one on the floor, belonged to Casper Stein, the founder and CEO of Bedrock Capital, the largest money manger in the world. The Sandersons were the guests of honor, because William had just been appointed head of Sustainable Investing, Bedrock’s fastest growing division. Could a spot on the Executive Committee and Board be far behind?

The money at this level was breathtaking. William’s base was now $1.2 million, but that was an afterthought, really. Bonuses and profit sharing would typically be in low the tens of millions in a good year, plus there were options that might be worth a fortune in a few years. Bedrock’s stock price had been on a one-way trajectory for years.

Just before the elevator opened, Edie elbowed William in the ribs. “Yabba dabba do!” she whispered. She liked to kid William about the name of his firm, particularly when he got too self-serious.

“Not now,” he said, under his breath, just as the elevator door opened.

It was the Sandersons first time in the Stein apartment, a vast duplex. They knew better than to to gape at the exquisite furnishings, the art, and, more than anything, at 13,000 square feet, the sheer scale. An understated compliment or two would be all that was expected.

“Here they are!” cried Missy Stein in a sing song voice. She glided down the staircase from the second floor and gave both Sandersons three kisses, alternating cheeks in the European style. “So good of you to come,” she cooed, as if the Sandersons might have done anything else. 

Casper Stein followed his wife and settled for one cheek and then shook William’s hand. Stein had the imposing presence of that anyone seemed to have who was worth $8 billion. Tonight he wore a double-breasted blazer over a Paul Stewart shirt, open at the neck. William always had to force himself not to stare at Casper’s hair, which stood, immovable, on top of his head like a shrub. He knew the junior people at Bedrock would joke about what it might take to move Casper Stein’s hair. An earthquake? A tropical storm? It also had a perfectly uniform color, clearly the result of outside agents. Auburn? No, not quite. Burnt umber, perhaps. It was not, all agreed, a good look, but Missy Stein was the only person on the planet who could conceivably tell him that, and if she had, it hadn’t worked. 

“So good to see you both,” he said. “Come in and meet everybody.”

Casper Stein suggested they all go see their latest art acquisition, a Basquiat. “Bring your drinks,” he said.

“Oh, Casper, I’m sure people don’t care!”

“Well, I’d love to see it,” said Edie.

“You know,” continued Missy, “Casper jokes he’s made more money on his collection than on Wall Street!”

“It just might be true,” said Casper, laughing.

Following the Steins, the group walked through the living room and into a study. It was a darker, masculine room with textured chocolate brown lacquered paint that looked like it had been applied with sponges rather than brushes, a technique, William knew, was time consuming and expensive. The fireplace was stoked and burning, despite the relatively warm fall weather outside. Its flames danced and the wood snapped pleasingly. The bookshelves, stretching high enough to require a ladder, were lined with biographies and historical non-fiction. William removed a random volume and pretended to study it. It was “Understanding the British Empire,” by Ronald Hyam. It looked unread. 

Over the mantle was the Basquiat. It was a face, or perhaps an African mask, rendered abstractly in vivid colors.

“Missy thought the reds and browns picked up the walls of the study, so she said we had to have it,” said Casper.

William knew enough about art to know the painting probably cost in the many tens of millions, but he had to admit, it was striking, if a bit angry looking. Perhaps that was the point.

“You know,” continued Casper, “Basquiat sold his first painting to Deborah Harry—Blondie, remember? Two hundred dollars. If she still has it it’s worth a hundred times whatever she made selling records. They say artists of color are the best investment right now, but I just buy what I like. If it goes down in value, I can still enjoy it on my wall.”

William wondered if Casper Stein had ever bought anything that had gone down in value.

The group moved closer to the prized Basquiat, leaning in and squinting their eyes ever-so-slightly, making sure that the Steins knew their new acquisition was properly appreciated. Casper took the opportunity to touch William by the elbow. “Might I have a quick word in the other room?”

They repaired to an empty bedroom, which William thought was exceedingly odd, and put him on edge. Casper took out two cigars and offered one to William.

“No thanks, Edie would kill me.”

“This is the only room in which Missy allows me to indulge,” said Casper, putting one cigar back in his blazer and and then lighting his own. He puffed a few times to draw the match’s flame, clearly enjoying the ritual. 

“This is a spectacular apartment, Casper,” William said, looking to fill the silence. “And what a building. You must be very happy here.”

“Yes, well, it’s been a good home, but none of the new money wants to live in a co-op anymore. Too many restrictions, no one wants the hassle of going through a board. It’s all LLCs now.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“Believe it. The layouts don’t work for people, either. The sequestered kitchens and maids quarters—it’s just not how people live anymore. They want lofts downtown somewhere, ones with private gums and Pilates trainers.”

The conversation paused as Casper took another long draw on his cigar. William wished he had something to occupy his hands, having left his cocktail glass back in study. He thought about asking for that cigar after all, but finally Casper broke the silence.

“You’re close with Cy Birdwell, aren’t you?” he asked. 

Birdwell was one of Bedrock’s outside board members.

“Yes, very. We went to school together.”


“And boarding school,” William added.

“Ah, I didn’t realize. Good good. But you’re close”

“Yes, Cy’s a great guy. What’s this about, Casper?”

“Well, it’s a bit awkward, and I thought, given your long relationship, you might be able to help with something, something that happens to be very relevant to you.”

“Of course,” replied William, now burning with curiosity.

“As you know,” continued Casper, “we like to think of ourselves as a firm which embraces the right values. That’s why we call them Bedrock Values. We don’t shy away from doing the right thing—ever. Happily for us, doing the right thing also happens to be quite profitable.”

“I came to Bedrock for those values, Casper. I had a lot of options.”

“I know you did, William. You’ve always been one to stand up for what’s right, which is why I need a favor.”

“Of course. Name it.”

“We just got an RFP.” Casper let it hang there.

“We get those all the time.”

 “This one’s from CalPERS. It will be on your desk Monday.”

CalPERS stood for the California Public Employee Retirement System. They managed the retirement money for 1.5 million state employees. With half a trillion in assets, they represented one of the biggest pots of of money in the world. An RFP was a “Request for Proposal,” meaning Bedrock was being invited to compete for some portion of that half trillion.

“It’s a $5 billion ESG mandate,” added Casper.

ESG stood for “Environmental, Social, and Governance.” It was type of investing that weighed societal factors like the climate crisis when making investment decisions. It was something Bedrock fully embraced and fell under William’s new area of responsibility, Sustainable Investing. The mandate would be a huge coup for both the firm and himself.

“As you know,” continued Casper, “CalPERS is one of the few big pension funds that has eluded our grasp. Our institutions are both progressively-minded, so I believe our values are aligned, but we’ve never quite crossed the finish line. I want this.”

“What does this have to do with Cy?” asked William.

“So here’s the thing…the RFP. There are diversity questions.”

“That should be good for us!” said William.

“Yes, normally, one would think,” said Casper.

Indeed, Bedrock had the first Wall Street firm to have a full-time Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion director and had aggressively hired African-Americans and women for years. Their board had four women members, two of whom were black, and one other black male member as well. One of the women came to board meetings in a Kente cloth. They even had a Muslim, who flew in from Qatar once a quarter.

“But this one asks specifically about LGBTQ board members,” said Casper.

It was dawning on William why they were having this clandestine conversation. “This is why you wanted to talk about Cy…” he said.

“Yes. Cy is gay, is he not? I mean, we all just assumed…”

Cy Birdwell was the founder and CEO of Birdwell Apparel, a multi-billion dollar clothing company, and it was widely understood that he was gay. But Cy never talked about it. If he had relationships with other men, it wasn’t public. Nor, thought William, did Cy “act” gay, a thought for which he immediately admonished himself. Of course there was no one way for a gay man to act! Although, he did dress awfully well…

“Honestly,” replied William, “I’m the same as you. I’ve known Cy since sophomore year at Andover, and I’ve never known him to date a woman, but I can’t say I’ve seen him with a man, either. Wonderful guy, though.”

“The best!” agreed Casper. “And a valued member of the board.” Casper drained the last bit of his drink. “So, you see there’s a box we need to check if we’re going to win this mandate.”

“You need to confirm that Cy is gay,” said William.

“Yes, or at least one of those letters. I believe the RFP says LGBTQ plus, so there’s a lot of room in there. Maybe he’s just asexual. That falls under ‘plus,’ doesn’t it?”

“I confess I’m a little hazy on the ‘plus’ part,” said William. “Maybe we could Google it.”

 “Yes, but regardless, since this RFP falls to your group, and since you have a long history with Cy…”

William swallowed. “I need to confirm Cy is gay. Or…plus.”


William paused, considering the implications. “But what if Cy is staying in the closet for a reason? I think some people still do that, don't they?”

Casper took another draw of his cigar. Exhaling, the air filled with purple smoke. “We think you’re Executive Committee material, as you know. After all, you’re now running our fastest growing department.”

Careful not to let his expression change, William let the words flow through him like manna. By we, William knew Casper meant I. Casper was king of all he surveyed at Bedrock. For a brief moment, he allowed himself to wonder what units in 740 might become available in a few years time. To hell with Pilates.

But there had to be some other way to get this done. He was about to say as much when Casper pointed his cigar at William at took a decidedly firmer tone. “But people at that level, they get things done, William. I want that business, and I won’t let some goddamn box we have to check on some goddamn form screw things up. If they want to know who we’re fucking, we’re going to tell them who we’re fucking. Is that understood?”

William was taken aback, and maybe a little upset, but made sure to not let it show. “Yes, of course.”

“Get it done,” said Casper Stein.

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2 days ago
America City, America
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There is absolutely no room in the Republican Party for white supremacists or anti-Semitism. Literally. All the seats are taken, it's standing room only and somebody's going to call the fire marshall.

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There is absolutely no room in the Republican Party for white supremacists or anti-Semitism. Literally. All the seats are taken, it's standing room only and somebody's going to call the fire marshall.

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2 days ago
America City, America
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Metamorphoses by Ovid – 1

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My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies.
Ye Gods (for you it was who changed them) favour my attempts,
And bring my narrative from the very beginning of the world, even to my own times.
(Opening lines of the Metamorphoses in 1851 translation)

My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind. You heavenly powers, since you are responsible for those changes, as for all else, look favourably on my attempts, and spin an unbroken thread of verse, from the earliest beginnings of the world, down to my own times.
(First sentence, in Mary M. Inne’s 1955 prose translation)

I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world’s first origins to my own time.
(A.S. Kline’s 2000 translation)

Ovid’s other books are good but the Metamorphoses stands head and shoulders above them. It is the length of an epic poem but instead of telling one story is a vast compendium of Greek myths and legends, starting at the creation of the universe and continuing all the way through to the deification of Julius Caesar, and all the stories in between are linked by one underlying theme – the physical change and transformation of their protagonists. It brings together myths and legends which describe the transformation of human beings into all kinds of other forms including animals, trees, rocks, birds, constellations, flowers, springs and so on.

Thus in book 1 the mischievous god of love, Cupid, shoots Apollo with a golden dart to inflame him with uncontrollable love for the maiden Daphne, who Cupid shoots with one of his arrows tipped with lead, which have the opposite effect, making the victim shun and flee love. Thus Apollo chases Daphne who does everything to evade him and finally, in pity of her distress, Jupiter transforms her into a laurel tree. In a very moving line Apollo places his hand on the bark of the tree and feels her heart beating through it.

The Metamorphoses consists of 15 books and retells over 250 myths. At 11,995 lines it is significantly longer than the 9,896 lines and twelve books of Virgil’s Aeneid, though not nearly matching the 24 books and 15,693 lines of the Iliad. It is composed in dactylic hexameter, the heroic meter of both the ancient Iliad and Odyssey, and the more contemporary epic Aeneid.

The Metamorphoses are important because, as other sources of information were lost in the Dark Ages, it preserved detailed versions of classic myths in one handy repository. It acted as a sort of handbook of myths and was a huge influence on Western culture as a whole, inspiring writers such as Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare (the story of Venus and Adonis becoming the subject of one of his two long narrative poems, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe burlesqued in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a thousand other references). Numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in  countless works of sculpture, painting, and music.

The poem itself metamorphoses

The text is not only about gods tormented by love and humans changing into animals or objects, the text itself works by changes and transformations. What I mean is the text isn’t as clear and logical as you might expect but one tale leads on to another in a semi-random way, some tales are suspended while others are completed, many take the shape of tales within tales i.e. one story is part-way through being told when a character embarks on telling a completely different story and you have to wait for this second one to finish before you go back to hearing the end of the first one (for example the story within a story about the Muses’ competition in book 5).

Although it’s as long as an epic poem, the Metamorphoses not only has no unity of narrative – hopping all over the place from story to story – it also is very uneven in genre and tone. It handles a range of themes which you might expect to find in numerous ancient genres of literature, from descriptions of fighting you would expect in epic; to passages of profound lament such as you’d find in elegy; to scenes of profound and searing tragedy; and then plenty of scenes which start out as idyllic pastoral. At some points a lengthy speech sounds like the kind of rhetorical argumentation you might find being made in a court of law.

As if reflecting the ever-changing, transforming narrative, which describes endless transformations, the tone and genre of the poem are themselves continually changing as they move among these different genres and ranges.

Three types of metamorphosis

I’d suggest three types of transformation in what follows, using the two vectors of mortal/immortal and temporary/permanent:

  1. a god disguises themself – a god temporarily disguises themselves as someone or something else, remaining essentially the same beneath, male gods generally for the purposes of seduction, female goddesses generally for the purpose of revenge (the story of Philemon and Baucis in book 8 is a rare instance of benevolent, charitable disguising) – it is a temporary change
  2. a god transforms themself – a god transforms themselves into something else completely: Jupiter transforming himself into a bull to abduct Europa or a shower of gold to inseminate Danae, and so on – it is temporary; some lower divinities can also transform themselves, for example Proteus or the river Acheloüs (book 9)
  3. a god transforms a mortal – by far the most numerous category, where a god or the fates or some higher power transforms a mortal (or a lower divinity like a nymph or dryad) permanently, unalterably, often tragically


Book 1

The Creation of the universe by the orderly transformation of chaotic elements into the world we see around us. The evolution of human society through the four Ages of Mankind, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron.

The great flood exterminates most of mankind. Animated beings are produced by heat and moisture out of the resulting mud. Among them is the serpent Python. Phoebus kills the Python and institutes the Pythian games as a memorial.

Survivors of the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, throw stones behind them which, to their amazement, turn into humans to repopulate the earth.

Cupid punishes Apollo for mocking him, by making him fall madly in love with Daphne and pursuing her through the woods till Daphne is turned into a laurel tree. Henceforward, laurels are Apollo’s symbol.

Jupiter seduces Io then hides her from his jealous wife, Juno, by changing her into a cow. Juno admires the white heifer so Jupiter finds himself giving her as a present to Juno. Juno entrusts the cow to the care of Argus, who has a hundred eyes and never sleeps. Io wanders pastures as a cow, miserably unhappy, till she is reunited with her father Peneus who laments her fate, till Argus arrives and drives her on. Jupiter takes pity and has Mercury rescue her. First Mercury tells Argus the story about the transformation of the nymph Syrinx into reeds to lull him to sleep; then chops his head off and rescues Io. Juno takes Argus’s eyes and embeds them in the tail feather of her favourite bird, the peacock. Enraged, Juno sends a Fury to torment Io, who adopts the shape of a gadfly, driving her madly through Europe and into Egypt. Here Jupiter begs Juno to forgive her rival, the latter relents, and Io is finally reverted back to a woman.

A long account of how Phaëton, son of Phoebus god of the sun, persuades his father to let him drive the great chariot of the sun, which he proves unable to control, veering the sun all over the sky and causing catastrophic damage on earth.

Book 2

The story of Phaëton continued, ending with him being zapped with a thunderbolt by Jupiter. His four sisters – Phaethusa, Lampetie plus two unnamed ones – mourn him and are turned into trees. Cygnus, a relative of Phaëton’s, mourns him and is turned into a swan.

Jupiter repairs the walls of heaven, spots Callisto, woos her and when she resists, rapes her. Callisto’s ‘shame’ is revealed when she bathes with Diana and her nymphs. She gives birth to a son, Arcas. Juno tracks her down and attacks her but she turns into a bear. Fifteen years later Arcas has grown into a lusty lad who loves hunting and one day encounters his own mother as a bear and is about to kill her when Jupiter stays his hand. Jupiter whirls both son and mother into the sky and makes them constellations.

How the crow was made, namely she was a beautiful maiden, the god of the sea fell in love and pursued her, she threw up her hands in entreaty to heaven and was turned into crow.

The maid Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus, a king of Lesbos. She flees into the woods in shame, refusing to let herself be seen. The goddess of wisdom, Minerva, takes pity on her and turns her into an owl, the bird which famously only comes out at night and becomes Minerva’s companion and symbol.

The raven had been a sleek, silvery bird but when Phoebus fell in love with the maid Coronis of Larissa, the raven spied her being unfaithful to the god with a young Thessalian mortal. In a moment of fury Phoebus shot Coronis dead with an arrow, then immediately repented his folly as she died in his arms: a) he took revenge on the snitching crow by turning it black b) he took their unborn child, Aesculapius, from Coronis’s womb and entrusted him to the care of Chiron the centaur.

Chiron has a daughter named Ocyrhoe. She starts to prophesy Chiron’s terrible death to him but the fates forestall her and turn her into a mare.

Mercury steals the cattle of Apollo but their location is noticed by the cowherd Battus. Mercury makes Battus swear not to reveal their location but then returns in disguise and offers him a reward for the secret and Battus promptly reveals their location, breaking his promise, and so Mercury turns his heart to hard flint, the kind called ‘touchstone’.

Aglauros had crossed the goddess Minerva by revealing secrets about her. Minerva visits the wretched hovel of the slimy goddess Envy and tells her to poison Aglauros’s heart, which she does, making her tormented with envy that her sister, Herse, has caught the heart of Mercury. When Mercury comes to the sister’s house to visit Herse, Aglauros refuses to budge out the doorway so Mercury turns her into a statue.

Jupiter transforms himself into a bull in order to mingle with the herd of cattle which regularly browse near Sidon. He orders Mercury to gently drive the cattle down to the shore where the beautiful maiden, Europa, daughter of king Agenor, daily plays with her attendants. The maidens play with this new bull (i.e. Jupiter in disguise), garland his horns, he lies down, tempts Europa to climb on his back, and then makes off into the sea, carrying her, terrified, away from the shore and her friends and over the sea to Crete.

Book 3

King Agenor commands his son Cadmus to seek his lost sister Europa. In Boeotia Cadmus slays a dragon (‘the serpent of Mars’) and is told to plant its teeth in the soil which he is then astonished to see sprout and grow into warriors. These tooth warriors then fight each other to the death, leaving just five who become Cadmus’s companions in founding the new city of Thebes.

The young mortal, Actaeon, stumbles across the goddess Diana bathing naked with her nymphs and she punishes him by transforming him into a stag which is then torn to shreds by his own hounds.

Juno discovers Jupiter is sleeping with Semele. She disguises herself as Semele’s old nurse, pops down to see her and they get chatting. Juno plants a seed of doubt in the girl’s mind by saying many a man claims to be a god to bed a girl; she (Semele) should insist to Jupiter, the next time she sees him, that he reveal himself in all his glory. So next time Jupiter calls, Semele makes him promise to give her anything she wants and, when he agrees, says she wants to see his true nature. Jupiter is now constrained to keep his word and so sorrowfully gathers his entire might together and, revealing himself to Semele in his blistering glory, incinerates her to ashes. Sad Jupiter takes the child in her womb and sows it in his own calf for 9 months and, when it is born, hands it over to nymphs for safekeeping. This will be Bacchus who is known as ‘the twice-born’.

Jupiter and Juno argue over who enjoys sex most, men or women. They agree to the arbitration of Tiresias who was born a man but lived 7 years as a woman before being restored to maleness i.e. has experienced sex as a man and a woman. Tiresias confirms that women get more pleasure from sex. Juno is so furious at losing the argument that she strikes him blind. Jupiter gives him the gift of prophecy as compensation.

Narcissus and Echo. The river-god Cephisus ‘ravishes’ Liriope, the Naiad, taking her by force under his waves and impregnating her. She gives birth to a beautiful boy, Narcissus. By age 16 he is a beautiful youth but cares nothing for suitors, male or female. One day the nymph Echo saw him, driving frightened deer into his nets. Juno had already punished Echo: for on many occasions when Jupiter was having sex with this or that nymph, Echo kept Juno chatting interminably to cover for him. When Juno realised this she struck her with two afflictions ) reducing her speech to the minimum b) giving her no power over it but making her merely ‘echo’ what others said to her.

So when Echo sees the beautiful Narcissus she is struck with love and adoration and follows him round everywhere, but can never initiate a conversation, having to wait for him to say something and then feebly echoing the last phrases. When she comes forward to face him she can only echo his words of astonishment and then of repulsion, for Narcissus loves no-one and runs off, abandoning her. Since then Echo haunts caves and dells and lonely places and slowly her body wasted away till she became an invisible voice, wanly repeating what anyone who wanders into places like that happen to say.

Meanwhile Narcissus continues to scorn all lovers, male or female and one of them lifts their hands to the gods, asking for him to suffer the same unrequited passion he causes in others. The goddess Nemesis hears and makes it so. Narcissus comes to a pool and rests and looks into it and falls in love with his own reflection. He is struck by fierce unrequitable love and beats his own chest drawing blood, laments, droops and is turned into a flower, the narcissus, with white petals (his ivory skin) surrounding a yellow heart (his blonde hair) with flecks of red (the blood he drew when he struck his own chest in the agony of love).

Pentheus mocks Bacchus and is torn to pieces by the god’s devotees including his own mother.

Book 4

While the festival of Bacchus goes on outside, the daughters of Minyas high-mindedly refuse to join in but sit inside spinning and telling stories. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe whose parents forbade their love so they made a midnight rendezvous at an old tomb but Thisbe, arriving first, saw a lioness fresh from a kill coming to the pool to drink. She safely hid but the lioness found her veil and tore it to shreds before leaving. Pyramus arriving a little later found the blood-stained veil, concluded his beloved had been killed and dragged away and so stabbed himself with his sword. At which point Thisbe came out of hiding to discover her beloved dying and, in turn, fell on his sword. The gods took pity and turned the berries of the mulberry tree under which the lovers took their lives, the colours of their blood.

Venus is unfaithful to her husband, Vulcan, with Mars. Helios the sun god sees this and tells Vulcan. Vulcan makes a new of metal and catches Venus and Mars in the act, then invites all the gods to come and see them, caught in this humiliating position.

As revenge, Venus makes Helios fall in love with Leucothoe and ignore another young woman, Clyties, who is desperately in love with him. Helios disguises himself as Leucothoe’s mother, Eurynome, to gain entrance to her chambers and reveals himself to Leucothoe, seduces and has sex with her.

But Clytie, consumed with jealousy, reports Leucothoe’s affair to her father Orchamus, who punishes his daughter by burying her alive. Helios sees this and comes to her rescue but Leucothoe is dead before he can save her. Helios sprinkles her body with fragrant nectar and turns her into a frankincense tree.

Clytie meanwhile, scorned by Helios for her involvement in Leucothoe’s death, sat pining away, constantly turning her face to the sun until she turns into the heliotrope, whose flowers follow the sun.

Salmacis falls in love with Hermaphroditus and their bodies are combined.

All these stories have been told by the daughters of Minyas as night fell and they worked their looms, ignoring the festival of Bacchus outside. Now Bacchus takes magic revenge, turns their looms into trees and the three daughters are transformed into gibbering bats.

Juno drives Athamas and Ino mad. Athamas dashes out the brains of his son, Ino jumps into the sea clutching her baby daughter, but they are transformed into gods out of pity. Ino’s attendants on the clifftop hold out their hands in lamentation, but are themselves turned to stone.

Cadmus and his wife flee the city where their children have come to such bad ends, and he is transformed into a snake and she entwines with him. Bacchus triumphs everywhere and is worshiped as a god in India

Cut to the adventures of Perseus. Alongside Cadmus and Bellerophon, Perseus was the greatest Greek hero and slayer of monsters before the days of Heracles. He was the son of Jupiter and the mortal woman Danaë who Jupiter came to as a shower of gold (she had been locked up in a tower by her parents).

The Gorgon was a snake-headed monster and anything that looked at her directly was turned into stone. Perseus kills the Gorgon by fighting the reflection of it he sees in his shield. Then he flies back to Europe. As he passes over Libya, drops of blood fall on the desert and change into snakes, which is why Libya is notoriously infested with snakes.

He encounters Atlas, who holds the whole sky on his shoulders, and asks if he can rest for a bit in his gardens. But Atlas is paranoid about his golden tree with golden leaves and golden fruit so he refuses Perseus rest. They get into an argument, then a fight, which Perseus is starting to lose so he pulls out the Gorgon’s head and Atlas is transformed into the huge Atlas mountain.

Perseus rescues Andromeda who has been chained to a rock by the coast, from a sea monster. Before he fights, Perseus places the Gorgon’s head on a bed of leaves and the head’s stone-making influence spreads into the sea where it creates coral.

Book 5

Perseus is attacked by Andromeda’s fiance and his followers, which turns into an epic fight described in the manner of Homer or Virgil. Perseus turns most of the attackers into stone.

The nine daughters of Pierus challenge the Muses to a singing competition. For their impiety they are turned into chattering magpies, ‘the scandalmongers of the woods’. There follows a story within a story within a story; for (level 1) Ovid tells us that (level 2) one of the Muses relates to Ceres how they engaged in a singing competition with the daughters of Pierus, and (level 3) chose Calliope to sing for them: so what follows are the stories which Calliope sang in that competition:

“In Sicily, the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto, who takes her to his kingdom in the Underworld and makes her his queen. (Her mother, Ceres, searches the earth for her; when a boy taunts her, she changes him into a ladybird.) Ceres goes up to heaven to plead with Jupiter (who is both her father, and had sex with her – incest – to sire Proserpina). Jupiter says Proserpina can return to earth so long as she hasn’t eaten anything. Alas she had eaten seven seeds from a pomegranate, an act witnessed by Ascalaphus who tells Pluto, thus sealing Proserpina’s fate. For this treachery Ceres transforms him into a screech owl.

“The daughters of Achelous, Proserpina’s companions, wanted to search the earth for her, so the gods turn them into birds, but with human faces so they can continue singing sweetly.

“Arethusa was in the retinue of Diana, goddess of the hunt. She stripped off to bathe in a poo, and was promptly assaulted by the river god Alpheus who pursues her over hill and dale till she is changed into a spring which plunges into the earth to resurface on Orygia.

(I wonder if someone somewhere has created a map of where all the incidents in the Metamorphoses took place, all around the Mediterranean and North Africa.)

“Ceres hands her chariot and seeds to Triptolemus, telling him to fly across the land and sow them. He seeks accommodation with king Lyncus of Scythia, who treacherously attacks him in the night but is turned into a lynx.”

Only at this point does the narrative of the Muse to Ceres end.

Book 6

Arachne unwisely takes on Minerva in a weaving competition. The idea of tapestries gives Ovid yet another opportunity to show off his inventiveness and showcase the many different ways he can frame a narrative; in that each of the tapestries the two women weaves themselves display classical stories. Minerva’s tapestry shows permanent transformations of mortals:

  • Haemon and Rhodope transformed into snowy mountains
  • the queen of the Pygmies transformed into a crane
  • Antigone changes into a shining white stork
  • Cinyras’s daughter turned into a temple

For a summary of the incidents depicted on Arachne’s tapestry, see the section on ‘Rape culture’, below.

Furious, Minerva tears Arachne’s tapestry to shreds, the miserable woman tries to hang herself, at which pint Minerva condemns her to permanently dangling and changes her into a spider.

Niobe boasts to everyone in her city how blessed and happy she is, perfect husband, huge palace, 14 perfect children and calls on her people to worship her and not these ‘gods’ who nobody’s ever seen, specifically to drop the foolish worship of the god they all call Leto. She says the most foolish thing anyone can say in the ancient world: ‘ I am beyond the reach of Fortune’s blows’. Leto complains to her twin children, Phoebus Apollo and Diana, and Apollo promptly kills all seven of the sons by bow and arrow. Niobe still boats she has more children than Leto, so Apollo proceeds to kill all seven of her daughters. Niobe’s husband hangs himself form grief and she is turned to stone but which still weeps ceaselessly.

Then the people of Thebes tell among themselves other stories of similar transformations. For example, the peasants of Lycia who refused a drink from their lake for Leto when she was wandering thirsty carrying Phoebus and Diana as suckling babes. As punishment for refusing her water, Leto turned them into bickering, croaking animals condemned to live in their wretched lake i.e. frogs.

A very truncated version of the story of Marsyas who challenged Apollo to a competition playing the reed pipes. For his presumption, Apollo flays the poor man, stripping him of his skin but leaving him alive.

The harrowing story of Tereus king of Thrace, who marries fair Procne and takes her back to his kingdom. After a few years she asks if she can see her sister, Philomela, so Tereus sails back to her kingdom, greets her father, and makes the case for Philomela coming with him to visit Procne. Unfortunately Philomela is stunningly beautiful and the second Tereus sees her, he begins to lust after her. He makes pious promises to her father, Pandion, that he’ll look after the girl and Pandion waves her farewell at the harbour amid many tears. Once the ship docks back in Thrace, Tereus abducts a horrified Philomela and locks her up in a remote keep. Here he rapes her. When she reproaches him, he ties her up and cuts out her tongue. He then goes home and tells Procris her sister died on the trip back and pretends grief. Procris erects an empty tomb to her sister.

Tereus frequently returns to rape Philomela over a one-year period. Finally Philomela makes a tapestry depicting the events, folds it and gets a servant to deliver it to Procris. Reading it Procris is consumed with rage. The festival of Bacchus comes and Procris uses it as a pretext to find out the keep where Philomela is hidden, break into it along with a drunken mob, disguise her sister in reveller’s costume and bring her safe back to the castle.

When she sees her sister’s state and that her tongue has been cut out her rage knows no limits and she and Philomela murder her little son, Itys, cook him and serve him to Tereus at a grand feast. At the climax, after he’s eaten his fill of his own son, Procris tells Tereus what they’ve done and brings in mute Philomela holding Itys’s head. Tereus pushes the table away and goes to attack the women but all three are magically transformed into birds, Tereus became a hoopoe, Procne became the swallow who sings a mourning song for her child and Philomela became the nightingale.

The story of Boreas, the cold north wind, carrying off Orithyia against her will, to become his wife.

Book 7

A tenuous link carries us into the heart of the Jason and the Argonauts story, specifically when they arrive at the court of King Aeëtes of Colchis, and the king’s daughter, Medea, falls passionately in love with Jason. There follows a two-page soliloquy in which Medea argues with herself whether she should betray her father and homeland in order to aid Jason. Does love justify filial betrayal? This is very reminiscent of the closely-argued reasoning which fills Ovid’s early work, the verse letters from legendary figures, known as the Heroides.

It’s an unusually extended passage, for Ovid, which describes her seduction of Jason, then great detail about the magic medicine she creates to restore Jason’s father, Aeson, to youthfulness. Then she tricks the daughters of Jason’s father’s rival, Pelias, into cutting their own father’s throat, the idea being you drain the old blood from the person you intend to rejuvenate and replace it with magic potion: it worked for Aeson because Medea infused his veins with potion, but once his daughters have mercilessly slashed and drained Pelias of his lifeblood, Medea simply leaves them with the father they’ve murdered, flying off in a chariot pulled by dragons (she is a powerful witch).

Her flight over Greece allows Ovid to make quick passing references to half a dozen other stories about strange legendary transformations – Cerambus given wings, the woman of Coa growing horns, Cygnus hanging into a swan, the lamenting of his mother Hyrie who is turned into a pool, the transformation of the king and queen of Calaurea into birds, Cephisus’s grandson changed by Apollo into a seal, the transformation of Eumelus’s son into a bird, Alcyone changed into a bird.

Her arrival in Corinth allows Ovid the brief aside about an ancient legend that mortals were first created from fungi. But the super-striking thing about the Medea passage is that Ovid only refers in a sentence, in quite a cryptic and obscure throwaway, to the central fact about Medea that, after Jason abandoned her for a new bride she a) murdered her own children by Jason b) cast a curse on the new bride. This is thrown away in just half a sentence.

Was this because Ovid had already written one of the Heroides about Medea? Or because she was the subject of his only full-length play (widely praised by ancient critics but now, unhappily, lost)?

Anyway, on to Theseus. The people of Athens sing him a song of praise which allows Ovid to cram in all the hero’s great achievements. The narrative focuses in on King Minos of Crete’s aim to wage war against Athens. Minos sails to Oenopia to recruit the young men of king Aeacus, who refuses, saying he has ancient ties of alliance with Athens.

Then a deputation from Athens arrives and the king tells them about the plague which has devastated his land. Juno sent it because the island was named after one of Jupiter’s many lovers. (She is an awesome agent of destruction, Juno; the entire narrative of the Aeneid is driven by her venomous hatred of the Trojans.)

Ovid describes this at surprising length, evoking memories of the description of the plague in Thucydides, which was copied by Lucretius to end his long poem, De Rerum Natura, and also echoes Virgil’s description of the great cattle plague in Noricum, in the finale to the third Eclogue (3.478–566).

‘Wherever I turned my eyes, bodies lay strewn on the ground, like overripe apples that fall from the trees when the boughs are shaken, or like acorns beneath a storm-tossed oak. (7.580, page 171)

So king Aeacus tells his guests at length about the devastation of the plague but then goes on to describe a strange dream in which he saw a file of ants heading for an old oak said to date from Jupiter’s time, and how they transformed into big strong, dogged men and then he woke and his people came running into his bedchamber to tell him it was true: and this is the origin of the race of men he named Myrmidons. This is a so-called ‘etiological myth’ based on an (incorrect) interpretation of the name, because the name Myrmidon is close to the ancient Greek for ant, murmekes.

One of the envoys from Athens, Cephalus, bears a wooden javelin. He tells its story: Cephalus married Procris, daughter of Erechtheus but is then abducted by Aurora goddess of the dawn. He complains so much that Aurora lets him return to his wife. But he is soured, adopts a disguise, returns to his home in disguise and tries to woo and seduce his sad wife. When she finally hesitates in face of his barrage of offers, he throws his clothes and bitterly accuses her of betrayal. Distraught at his trick, Procris runs off into the hills and becomes a devotee of the huntress god Diana. He pleaded and begged and eventually she returned, bearing a special magic gift, a javelin which never misses its mark.

Part two of the story is Cephalus loved to go a-hunting every day, throwing the javelin which never missed its prey. As the day got hot he’d lie under a tree and ask for a light breeze to refresh him, addressing ‘zephyr’ as the generic name for refreshing breezes. Someone overheard him and snitched back to his wife, accusing him of having taken a nymph or suchlike as a lover. So next day he goes hunting, Procris tailed him. He killed a load of wild animals then lay in the shade, as was his wont, idly calling on a zephyr to cool his brow, but Procris, hidden nearby, overheard, groaned a little and tremored some bushes. Thinking it a wild animal, Cephalus lets fly with the magic javelin which never misses its mark and pierces Procris through. He runs over and cradles her in his arms as she dies, explaining her mistake i.e. there was no nymph Zephyr, it was all a misunderstanding. Too late.

By the time he has finished telling his tale, Cephalus and his listeners are in tears. No transformation, just reinforcement of the ancient Greek tragic view of life.

The psychology of metamorphoses

In two senses:

1. It is a fundamental fact of human nature that we anthropomorphise everything; we attribute agency and intent to all aspects of the world around us, starting, of course, with other people, but often extending it to animals and other life forms (trees and plants and crops), to the weather, to everything. Our language reflects the way our minds place us at the centre of a world of meaning and intention. People routinely think their pets are saying this or that to them, that the weather is against them, that their car won’t start on purpose, that their pen won’t work in order to irritate them, and so on. It takes a high degree of intelligent scepticism to fully, emotionally accept the fact that the universe and all it contains is sublimely indifferent to our lives and moods and opinions. Stuff happens all the time and humans have evolved to attribute it a wild array of meanings when, in fact, it has none.

These marvellous transformation stories in a sense give in to the instinct to humanise nature, dramatises and takes to the max this inborn tendency in all of us. I’ve always felt that trees are people. In an earlier, more poetic iteration, I developed the notion that the trees are talking to us but are speaking veeeeeery veeeeeeeeery slowly, so slowly that we can’t perceive what they are saying. It is terribly important, the message of the trees, but, alas, we are all in too much of a hurry, zooming round in thrall to our petty human concerns, to hear it.

2. Ovid’s sources in ancient literature, and his later, medieval and Renaissance imitators, tend to allegorise the myths they inherited and give them moralising meaning, but Ovid is more sophisticated than that. Rather than draw neat moral lessons from the fates of his protagonists, Ovid is far more interested in putting us directly in the shoes (or claws or hooves) of his poor unfortunate mortals. Again and again, he vividly conveys the distress of people as they are being changed into something else, or the terror or anger which drives them towards the change. Forget moralising or allegory: what makes the poem so memorable is the power with which Ovid makes you feel the experience of changing into a tree or a bird.

‘We took the cup offered by Circe’s sacred hand. As soon as we had drained it, thirstily, with parched lips, the dread goddess touched the top of our hair with her wand, and then (I am ashamed, but I will tell you) I began to bristle with hair, unable to speak now, giving out hoarse grunts instead of words, and to fall forward, completely facing the ground. I felt my mouth stiffening into a long snout, my neck swelling with brawn, and I made tracks on the ground, with the parts that had just now lifted the cup to my mouth.’
(Macareus describing what it feels like to be turned into a pig, book 14)

Storytelling skill

The Metamorphoses are, above all, an awesome feat of storytelling. Some passages of the Penguin prose translation by Mary M. Innes read like a modern children’s book, a modern retelling of these stories; you have to keep reminding yourself that this is not some modern retelling by Alan Garner or Michael Morpurgo but the original version from two thousand years ago. Again and again Ovid comes to a new story and sets the scene with the swift skill of a seasoned storyteller:

There was a valley thickly overgrown with pitchpine and with sharp-needled cypress trees. It was called Gargaphie and was sacred to Diana, the goddess of the hunt. Far in its depths lay a woodland cave which no hand of man had wrought… (Book 3, page 78)

God, I’m hooked! Tell me more! Where Ovid notably differs from a modern storyteller is in (maybe) three distinctive features of ancient literature, namely the length of the speeches, the lists of names and the epic similes.

1. Length of the speeches

I won’t quote one because, by definition, they’re long but the ancients liked to hear people speak and were educated about and so savoured the art of oratory in a way nobody nowadays is capable of. Schools of oratory divided the subject into the ability to find the right topic and then the ability to deploy any number of carefully named and defined rhetorical techniques. This applied to poetry – which in the ancient world was often performed and read aloud to appreciative audiences – as much as to speeches in law courts or political speeches in the Senate or at electoral hustings.

We enjoy the descriptive passages in the poem and the psychological description of the characters’ emotions but we’ve lost the taste for extended speeches showing off rhetorical skills, which were an important part of the literary experience for its original author and audience.

2. Lists of names

In Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne says: ‘There is nothing so lovely as a list’. We have largely lost this taste for lists of exotic names, especially place-names, but the ancients obviously loved them.

As he hesitated his hounds caught sight of him. Melampus and the wise Ichnobates were the first to give tongue, Ichnobates of the Cretan breed and Melampus of the Spartan. Then fhe others rushed to the chase, swifter than the wind, Pamphagus and Dorceus and Oribasus, all Arcadians, and strong Nebrophonus, fierce Theron and Laelaps too. Pteralas, the swift runner, was there, and keen-scented Agre, Hylaeus who had lately been gored by a wild boar, Nape, offspring of a wolf, Poemenis, the shepherd dog, Harpyia with her two pups, Ladon from Sicyon, slender-flanked, and Dromas and Canace, Sticte and Tigris, Alce, white-coated Leucon, and black-haired Asbolus; with them was Lacon, a dog of outstanding strength, Aello the stout runner, Thous and swift Lycisce with her brother Cyprius, Harpalus, who had a white spot in the middle of his black forehead, and Melaneus and shaggy Lachne, Lebros and Agriodus, both cross-bred of a Cretan mother and a Spartan father, shrill-barking Hylactor, and others whom it would take long to name… (p.79)

I suppose the length of this list indicates the wealth or status of Actaeon, but it also indicates a society which has a strong interest in hunting dogs and their pedigree which none of us moderns share. There is something relentless or excessive about these lists, which go on for a reasonable length of time, then a bit too much, then a lot too much, but just keep on going. It adds lustre to any story but in a way alien to our sensibilities. Take this list of the heroes involved in the Great Calydonian Boar Hunt:

At last Meleager and a handpicked group of men gather, longing for glory: Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioscuri, twin sons of Tyndareus and Leda, one son famous for boxing, the other for horsemanship: Jason who built the first ship: Theseus and Pirithoüs, fortunate in friendship: Plexippus and Toxeus, the two sons of Thestius, uncles of Meleager: Lynceus and swift Idas, sons of Aphareus: Caeneus, once a woman: warlike Leucippus: Acastus, famed for his javelin: Hippothoüs: Dryas: Phoenix, Amyntor’s son: Eurytus and Cleatus, the sons of Actor: and Phyleus, sent by Elis. Telamon was there, and Peleus, father of the great Achilles: with Admetus, the son of Pheres, and Iolaüs from Boeotia were Eurytion, energetic in action, and Echion unbeaten at running: and Lelex from Locria, Panopeus, Hyleus, and daring Hippasus: Nestor, still in the prime of life: and those that Hippocoön sent, with Enaesimus, from ancient Amyclae: Laërtes, Penelope’s father-in-law with Ancaeus of Arcady: Mopsus, the shrewd son of Ampyx: and Amphiaraüs, son of Oecleus, not yet betrayed by his wife, Eriphyle. (Book 8)

More than that, maybe this fondness for very long lists indicates a kind of earlier stage of writing when just naming something – a person or place, heroes or hounds – was a kind of magical act which conjured them into existence. First there is nothing, then I say a name and lo! I have conjured up an image and a memory; that the act of naming something evoked a far more powerful psychological effect in the minds of people 2,000 years ago than it possibly can in our over-media-saturated modern minds, an incantatory effect more akin to reciting a religious liturgy or spell.

3. Epic similes

Ovid’s similes are not as long as Homer’s similes, but it’s part of the epic style to use extended similes and Ovid frequently does. Thus the figures of warriors sprouting from the soil where Cadmus sowed them.

Then Pallas…told [Cadmus] to plough up the earth and to sow the serpent’s teeth, as seeds from which his people would spring. He obeyed and, after opening up the furrows with his deep-cutting plough, scattered the teeth on the ground as he had been bidden, seeds to produce men. What followed was beyond belief: the sods began to stir; then, first of all a crop of spearheads pushed up from the furrows, and after them came helmets with plumes nodding on their painted crests. Then shoulders and breasts and arms appeared, weighed down with weapons, and the crop of armoured heroes rose into the air. Even so, when the curtains are pulled up at the end of a show in the theatre, the figures embroidered on them rise into view, drawn smoothly upwards to reveal first their faces, and then the rest of their bodies, bit by bit, till finally they are seen complete and stand with their feet resting on the bottom hem. (3.110, p.77)

Or the insatiable hunger of Erysichthon’:

As the sea receives the rivers from all over the earth and yet has always room for more and drinks up the waters from distant lands, or as greedy flames never refuse nourishment but burn up countless faggots, made hungrier by the very abundance of supplies and requiring more, the more they are given, so the jaws of the scoundrel Erysichthon welcomed all the provisions that were offered and at the same time asked for more. (8.840, page 201)

Love and sex

Ovid is often depicted as mocking the earnest attempts to reform and rebuild Roman society carried out by the first emperor, Augustus – indeed, the immoral tendency of his handbook of seduction, The Art of Love, was cited by Augustus as one reason for the poet’s abrupt exile in 8 AD to the remotest borders of the Roman Empire.

And it’s true that many of the Greek myths turn out to be overwhelmingly about love and sex and Ovid tells them in the same swashbuckling, full-on style we became familiar with in the Amores and Art of Love. The king of the gods, Jupiter, in particular, is portrayed as a shameless philanderer, to the eternal fury of his exasperated wife, Juno, who is destined to endlessly discover more mortal women her husband has had an affair or one-night stand with, condemned to endless acts of furious vengeance.

But Ovid can’t be blamed for any of this; it’s in his source material, it’s intrinsic to the source material. The Greeks were obsessed with the terrible, mad behaviour which love and lust led both gods and mortals into.

Sex is central. Men chase women and want to have sex with them; women resist and don’t want to have sex. Men pursue women, trap them, have sex with them, then dump them, abandoning them to their fates. Human nature doesn’t change, at least not in the blink of an evolutionary eye which is 2,000 years.

Sex is made to mirror, reflect, rhyme or match the metaphor of the hunt. Hunting was a peculiarly aristocratic activity (as it has been through most of history right up to modern fox hunting) and it seemed natural to Ovid, as for generations afterwards, to compare chasing reluctant women for sex with hunting animals. Again and again the same set of hunting similes is deployed.

On the male side, Jupiter is portrayed as an insatiable pursuer of women, a fantastically susceptible male who falls in love with every pretty woman he sees and will go to any lengths to have sex with them, prepared to transform himself into the most outlandish animals or shapes to get his end away – triggering the wrath of his long-suffering wife, Juno, again and again.

However, in story after story it is the relatively innocent mortal woman who falls victim to Jupiter’s attentions who ends up being punished. A classic early example is poor Io who Jupiter transforms into a cow in order to hide her from Juno, but the latter sees through the disguise and relentlessly pursues Io, sending a gadfly to torment her half way across Europe and on into Africa.

In other words, in myth after myth, it’s the victim who gets blamed.

Jupiter’s narrative function

To some extent I realised the ‘character’ of Jupiter is a kind of functional product. Reading about Perseus and the generation of heroes, and how they were followed by Hercules, I realised that if your aim is to maximise the glory of a hero, giving him maximum kudos, then you will, of course, want him to have been fathered by the king of the gods.

If you have a large number of heroes fathered by Jupiter then, by definition, you must have a large number of mortal women who Jupiter inseminated. So the ‘character’ of Jupiter as sex machine is really more of a kind of narrative function of the fact that the Greeks had so many Great Heroes and they all needed to have been fathered by the top god. QED.

Juno’s narrative function

In the same way, reading this narrative led me to think of Juno as a kind of principle of opposition.

At a narrative or manifest level, she is a kind of spirit of revenge, seeking out and punishing the women who’ve had sex with her husband. But at a deeper, structural level, she is a principle of blockage and opposition which, in a sense, enables the narratives.

I hadn’t quite grasped that Juno had a lifelong enmity against Hercules. It was Juno who induced a madness in him that made him kill his wife and children, for which he was ordered to serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, for ten years. It was during this time that he performed the famous 12 labours. So no opposition from Juno, no labours, no myth.

Ditto Aeneas. At a basic level the Aeneid only exists because of Juno’s endless implacable opposition to Aeneas which, as far as I could tell, stemmed purely from anger at the way Paris, prince of Troy, rejected her in favour of Venus during the famous Judgement of the three goddesses to see which was most beautiful. But the motive doesn’t really matter, what matters for the narrative structure of the Aeneid is that every time Aeneas gets close to fulfilling her destiny, Juno throws a spanner in the works. In fact the entire second half of the Aeneid only exists because Juno sends a Fury to stir up Turnus’s anger at the way King Latinus takes his fiancée, Lavinia, away from him and gives her to the newcomer, Aeneas, and to enrage Lavinia’s mother for the same reason – and it is their allied anger which triggers the war which fill the last six books of the poem. No angry resentful Juno, no Aeneid.

Rape culture

Apparently the term ‘rape culture’ was coined as long ago as 1975. My impression is it’s only become reasonably common usage in the last five years or so, especially since the #metoo movement of 2017. Looking it up online, I find this definition:

Rape culture is a culture where sexual violence and abuse is normalised and played down. Where it is accepted, excused, laughed off or not challenged enough by society as a whole. (Rape Crisis)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses without a shadow of a doubt portrays a rape culture, a culture in which the forcible rape of women is a) widespread and b) accepted as the norm. It does not go unremarked; the narrator occasionally laments and disapproves this or that act of rape, as do the relatives of the woman who’s been raped. Rape is judged by most mortals in the poem to be a crime. But there is no denying its widespread presence as the central event in scores of these stories. All you have to do is translate the weasel word ‘ravish’ into ‘rape’ to get a sense of its ubiquity.

One of the Muses, the daughters of Mnemosyne, makes this theme completely explicit:

‘There is no limit to what wicked men may do, and so unprotected women have all manner of cause for fear.’ (5.270, page 123)

Example rape stories i.e. where aggressive men force sex on unwilling women, or try to:

  • Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne
  • Jupiter rapes Callisto
  • Jupiter’s abduction of Europa
  • Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus,
  • Pluto’s abduction of Proserpina
  • Alpheus’s pursuit of Arethusa
  • Dryope is raped by Apollo (book 9)
  • Priapus pursues the nymph Lotis who is changed into a flower (book 9)

In book 6 Arachne weaves a tapestry depicting a rather staggering list of the lengths male gods have gone to in order to abduct and ‘ravish’ mortal women:

  • Jupiter turned into a bull to seduce Europa
  • Jupiter turned into an eagle to abduct Asterie
  • Jupiter turned into a swan in order to seduce Leda
  • Jupiter turned into a satyr to impregnate Antiope
  • Jupiter impersonating Amphitryon in order to have sex with his wife
  • Jupiter turned into a shower of gold to impregnate Danae
  • Jupiter turned into flame in order to seduce Asopus’s daughter
  • Neptune turned into a bull to seduce Aeolus’ daughter
  • Neptune deceiving Bisaltis as a ram
  • Neptune becoming a stallion to seduce Ceres
  • Neptune becoming a dolphin to seduce Melantho
  • Phoebus disguised as a shepherd to seduce Isse
  • Bacchus tricking Erigone in the guise of a bunch of grapes
  • Saturn in the shape of a horse fathering the centaur Chiron on Philyra

Quite a stunning list. You’d be forgiven for concluding that using every trick in the book to finagle women into sex was the main activity of the male Greek gods, leaving the female ones to actually get on with running things, like agriculture, justice, childbirth and rearing, and wisdom.

Rape culture might have been ‘normative’ in the world of the legends themselves, but is not entirely so in the narrative. It’s worth noting that Ovid rounds off this Arachne passage by describing all of these events as ‘crimes’ (bottom of p.137).

‘Crimes’. Ovid is perfectly clear that this is not good or acceptable behaviour and can be criticised. If it is ‘accepted’ it is because it is the way of these myths and legends, it is the often brutal tragic way of the world; but it is not quite ‘normalised’ i.e. passing uncriticised.

Possibly, purely in terms of categorising events and attitudes within the poem, a distinction can be made between a mortal and an immortal rapist: mortal men tend to be criticised for rape, whereas when it comes to gods, the narrator shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘What can you do?’ It is accepted as a fact of life, along with all the other violent injustices that mortal life is prey to.

‘The gods have their own laws: what is the use of trying to relate human conduct to the ways of heaven, when they are governed by different rules?’
(Byblis, book 9)

Tragic worldview

The gross unfairness of the rape culture aspect of the stories merges into the general unfairness of life which runs through the poem. You might start out by criticising or judging some of the characters’ behaviour, but after a while trying to regard the stories from a ‘moral’ point of view comes to feel inadequate. It’s more accurate to say all its protagonists are caught in a tragic world. Terrible, inhuman suffering is described on every page.

Ovid goes out of his way to say it wasn’t Actaeon’s fault that curiosity led him to stumble across the cave where Diana was bathing naked with her attendant nymphs. When she splashes pond water into his face and transforms him into a deer it’s not clear she does this to prompt his terrible fate, but more to silence his human ability to tell tales, to tell anyone else what Diana naked looks like. But this sequence of events then has the horrible outcome that Actaeon is torn to shreds by his own hunting hounds.

It is as if humans, with their petty system of morality, are continually blundering into the higher order of the gods which is (paradoxically) dominated by gross injustice and horrifying violence, a place where there’s no point complaining about Juno or Apollo or Diana’s horrifying violence; that’s just the gods for you.

The healing power of stories

There’s not very much of conventional ‘morality’ about the Actaeon story or most of the other tales but it obviously says a lot about the terror of the world – that our lives are prey, at any moment, to powerful forces way beyond our control which lead to terrible violence and howling injustice. Like a family in Kiev who have led worthy, blameless lives until one of Vladimir Putin’s missiles lands on their house and tears them to shreds. There is no justice. The world is prey to random acts of unspeakable violence. And the purpose of these myths is to shape that anxious apprehension into narratives we can accept and assimilate and which, in the act of being shaped, acquire a terrible kind of beauty and grim consolation. Just about…

This is why the stories, weird and wonderful though they almost all are, at the same time seem to be telling us something important about the world and human existence. To describe a beautiful girl turning into a tree with a beating heart may seem fantastically irrelevant to modern citizens of the UK in 2022. But modern people have strokes, car accidents, catastrophic injuries which put them into comas, render them paraplegic, incapable of movement, wired up to life support. But if you put your hand against their chest, just as Apollo puts his hand against Daphne’s bark, you can still hear the human heart beating within.

After the extreme suffering, terror or anguish of the humans caught in terrible events, the metamorphoses offer a weird kind of redemption or consolation. Nothing redeems Philomela’s terrible ordeal (being kidnapped, having her tongue cut out, and repeatedly raped); but her transformation into a nightingale suggests the remote possibility that in some unfathomable, surreal, barely graspable kind of way, such experiences and, by extension, the miserable human condition, may, just about, be capable of some kind of redemption – a terrible kind of wonder.

Mary Innes’s translation

Innes’s prose translation is clear and plain, eschewing fancy effects and, dating as it does from the 1950s, avoids slang or any modern locutions. It feels clear and effective. However, comparing it to the online translation by A.S. Kline, one very important fact comes out.

Ovid employs circumlocution. Very, very often Ovid does not directly name a character but indicates who they are via their family relationships, most often via their parents. Thus we read about ‘the son of Mars’, ‘Ixion’s son’, ‘the son of great Peleus’ and so on. Or, characters, especially the gods, are referred to by alternative names: for example, I had no idea that Juno could be referred to as ‘Saturnia’. Or they’re referred to by the place of their birth, for example ‘the Idalian god’.

Often an entire story goes by in a welter of periphrases, without the character ever being directly named and this makes it difficult for the modern reader to know what’s going on or who’s being talked about.

Innes reproduces this periphrasis with complete fidelity with the result that it is often very difficult to make out who is being talked about, and this is the one big flaw with her translation. By contrast, Kline does the sensible thing and names names. Instead of saying ‘Ixion’s son’ he comes right out and says ‘Pirithous’. This is ten thousand types of helpful. In addition Kline’s version has a super-useful online glossary, with precisely these kinds of periphrases, secondary names and so on all boldened and hyperlinked to it. So even where he retains a periphrastic phrase, you only have to click to get to a clear and useful explanation of who’s who.

Innes’s translation is readable and definitive but her fidelity to the original on this one point is a big flaw and meant that, to begin with, I kept having to look the stories up on Wikipedia to be completely clear who was who. All it needed was to insert the names of the people so often referred to as ‘son of…’, as Kline does, and the reading experience would have been immeasurably improved. About half way through I abandoned Innes and switched over to reading Kline solely for this reason.


Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

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14 days ago
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DIY Lumber

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Once a week we’ll send out a page from Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities. The tools might be outdated or obsolete, but the possibilities they inspire are new. Sign up here to get Tools for Possibilities a week early in your inbox.

Portable, precise lumber cutter
Alaskan Chainsaw Mill

To cut your own boards from a felled tree, you need either an expensive bandsaw mill, circular saw or a bad-ass chainsaw and a bracket to hold the chainsaw parallel to some reference surface. The Alaskan mill attaches to the saw’s chain bar and keeps the chainsaw in line with a flat surface, allowing you to cut slabs as thin as ½ inch thick. The Alaskan is easy to set up. There is really only one way the saw can fit into the mill. Then, you adjust the two posts on either end to the desired clearance (make sure both posts read the same distance). To make sure your first cut is straight, you use a slabbing bracket; I used the aluminum slabbing rails made by Granberg. Then, you just adjust the clearance to the width of your slab and use the surface of the previous cut to guide the next cut, and the next, and so forth.

After moving into a new house in a wooded area, I realized a dead, 100-foot Red Oak was just 50 feet from the house. Following a few spells of high winds, I knew it was just a matter of time before it might give out, so I hired a local arborist who methodically cut off the upper part of the tree (a 20-ft. section), then worked his way down, cutting more of the tree into 8-ft sections. We had a nice surprise when we finished: the wood looked to be in great shape and seemed like it might make nice flooring. But I soon discovered the professional sawmills near us won’t touch a log less than 9 feet long. Instead of hiring someone with a sawmill to come to my property, I decided to get my own rig.

There are three different kinds of sawmills: circular saw, bandsaw, and chainsaw. I looked at the Lucas Swing blade, several different bandsaw mills and other chainsaw mills. If you have plenty of space and lots of money, Timberking makes some good mills. Most bandsaw mills and circular saws are portable in the sense you can hook them up to your pickup truck and tow them to the site, but they are not portable in the sense you can pick them up and haul them down the hill and through the woods. My number one consideration for the mill was that I should be able to take the saw to the log since I didn’t think I could take the log to the saw. One thing to consider about a chainsaw mill is that it wastes a lot of wood. If you’re going to build a fixed installation, a bandsaw or circular saw is the way to go. As I’ve learned, though, Red Oak is *heavy*, especially when it is wet. Getting the log to the rig wasn’t an option, so I went with a chainsaw mill. I chose the Husqvarna 385XP saw with a 28-inch bar, along with a 30-inch Alaskan mill. That means the mill can be adjusted to fit any bar up to its maximum size, in this case 30 inches. You can install basically any size bar into a chainsaw. I chose 28 inches since it would be big enough to work with any of my logs (my largest log was about 20 inches in diameter).

What’s impressed me about the Alaskan mill is its simplicity, sturdiness and the geometry of the bracket. The bracket on the mill allows the user to keep the mill flat against the log. With other mills, like the more expensive Logosol system for instance, you attach a bracket to either end of the log and use it to index down through the log. This is probably a better system for indexing, but seems like a lot more work; plus the Logosol also supports the chainsaw only from one end. The Alaskan bracket provides support at both ends of the bar, and it comes in a size as short as 24 inches and as big as 56 inches. Granberg also makes a kit with a bar to allow you to attach *two* 385 power heads to the saw. They also offer an oiler kit to increase the amount of oil on the chain, and they manufacture special ripping chains that make cleaner cuts (I used one). I read one guy’s review where he said you needed three sharp chains before starting a days worth of cutting. Maybe that’s about right; I could never last more that one sharp chain worth of work before petering out. Some reviewers have mentioned the effort that goes into sharpening the chains makes a chainsaw mill unacceptable. I didn’t really find it to be onerous. Since the Alaskan mill is basically the same size as the saw, storage isn’t an issue. I just leave the saw mounted in the mill. (NOTE: I learned the hard way, that it is important to store the saw upright. When I stored the saw on its side one time, the next time I used the saw, it took me about 5 hours to get the saw started.)

A few things to remember about chainsaw mills: This is hard work and the going is slow. On my best day, I only managed to finish two logs. Had I been cutting 1- inch boards (instead of 2-inch ones), this would have been much slower. Admittedly, though, my wood was Oak; maybe, just maybe, pine is easier. Also, the saw vibrates a lot. I exchanged my saw’s plastic handle for a foam grip, which helped some. Lastly, while the Alaskan rig makes the saw safer, you can never forget there is a lethal weapon in your hands. Although I’ve given up on the flooring idea, I still have all this good lumber which I’ll certainly use for a woodworking project. – Jack Tomlinson
Locate metal before woodcutting
Lumber Wizard, $149

With the price of lumber going up all the time, I’m recycling wood more than ever. But I ruined a blade on my circular saw after hitting an old nail I’d missed when cleaning the wood (my eyes ain’t what they used to be). The Lumber Wizard is a lot less expensive than those security metal detectors, and it’s saved my new blade a couple times. It takes less than a minute to check a big sheet of ply. If it finds something and I still can’t see it, I use the Little Wizard (when I purchased my Lumber Wizard, this came bundled with it).

I guess you could just use the Little Wizard to scan lumber, but it would take longer since it only covers a few square inches at a time. The bigger Lumber Wizard covers about a 6″ x 6″ area, so sweeping it over a big ply or 2 x 4 goes pretty darn quick (for thicker wood, I usually flip over the lumber and scan both sides just to be sure). The battery life is pretty good, too. I went three months on a single nine-volt battery, using it several times a day, three to four days a week. The Lumber Wizard also has a vibrate setting, which is helpful if other machines are going in the shop, since my hearing ain’t what it used to be. – Robert Palembas
Chainsaw protection
Husqvarna Helmet, $42

I’ve been using chainsaws for many years. Over the decades I have probably owned 5 or 6 different ones. In the 1960s and ‘70sI used chainsaws extensively, cutting up redwood (from the beaches or windfallen trees in the woods) into bolts, and which I then split into shakes for roofs and siding. These days I use a Stihl Woodboss MS270, 24” bar for firewood. Every year I find wind-felled oak on country roads, haul it home, cut it into stove-size lengths, then rent a splitter for a day and stockpile a year’s or more worth of firewood. Point is, I’ve had a lot of chainsaw experience.

The other day I was sawing through a piece of wood on the woodpile and as I finished the cut, the blade hit a log below it and snapped back towards my face. It sent a chill of adrenaline that I somehow felt in my ears. Very scary.

BUT I was wearing my Husqvarna helmet, which combines skull protection, ear guards, and a metal mesh facemask. I’ve only been using the helmet the last few years, prompted by a log rolling down the hill and knocking me down. I felt then I should have had one of these helmets all along. Good thing. This time the blade didn’t reach my face, but if it had, the mask would have blocked it from carving up my flesh.

I urge you chainsaw users: get one of these. $40 or so. Play it safe, please. The more hours you’ve operated chainsaws, the more the chance of a freak accident. Experience doesn’t make you invulnerable. – Lloyd Kahn
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15 days ago
America City, America
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Joe Biden Was Right

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This is an edition of  The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.

Joe Biden took a risk in making the midterms about democracy. I cheered that decision, because I thought it was the right issue—in fact, the only issue. But even I started to lose confidence as the election approached. America’s voters, however, affirmed Biden’s gamble, and our democracy is better for it.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

A Break in the Gloom

It’s been a rough ride for democracy in the United States and around the world. We’ll talk later in the week about the setbacks for authoritarians overseas in Brazil and Russia, but for now the results of the 2022 elections are good news for American democracy. Biden took heat from friends and foes alike for making closing arguments in favor of democracy instead of prosaic “kitchen-table” issues, but the president—a man with half a century of experience in elected politics—knew the voters better than his critics did.

Consider the magnitude of what happened last week. The Republicans went into the midterms as heavy favorites, with advantages that included the patterns of political history, some star power, money from churlish billionaires, and—in theory—Donald Trump. The Democrats had every headwind imaginable, including an unpopular president, a fractious coalition, and an economy beset with high inflation.

The misfit flotilla of Republican election deniers, conspiracy theorists, and other assorted flakes and phonies was poised, it seemed, to board the American ship of state without much resistance. Instead, much of the Republican fleet sank within sight of the shore. A few survivors (such as the reprehensible J. D. Vance) made it to the beach, and the GOP seems likely to control the House by the thinnest of margins. But the Republicans fell short when the voters noticed their extreme positions on almost everything, including January 6, elections, and abortion.

Jim Marchant of Nevada, for example, put together a slate of fellow election-denying secretary-of-state hopefuls under the banner of “America First.” This congerie of conspiracy theorists ran as a bloc that promised to make voting more difficult and hold up election results they didn’t like. The gang included Arizona’s Mark Finchem, an extremist whose bio notes that he is a “Six Sigma practitioner” but leaves aside that he was also a member of the Oath Keepers. Arizonans, who kept some of their other races close, had no trouble rejecting Finchem by more than five points. Marchant and the rest of the deniers lost, except for one candidate in Indiana (not exactly a battleground state).

Pennsylvanians elected Josh Shapiro their governor in a double-digit drubbing of the Christian nationalist Doug Mastriano, and they seem close to flipping the state’s House to the Democrats. In Michigan, Tudor Dixon—another out-of-nowhere candidate endorsed by Trump—lost and took the weird secretary-of-state candidate Kristina Karamo down with her, while Michigan voters placed their state under unified Democratic rule. And in Wisconsin, the Democrat Tony Evers beat Tim Michels—a man who said that if he won, the GOP would never lose another election in Wisconsin—by three points.

The challenge to American democracy is not over, but the 2022 results should give the prodemocracy coalition hope, for many reasons.

  • American voters stepped back from the abyss. (Even if they cut it a little close for my comfort.) As my colleague Anne Applebaum tweeted, “the biggest story” of the midterms is that “the 2024 election is safe, or safer, from another, better organized, MAGA attempt to steal it.” This is not an exaggeration. Imagine if, in 2024, there is a close presidential election, and the governors of Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Wisconsin, buttressed by election-denying secretaries of state, simply decided not to certify any Republican electors. Chaos and even violence would almost certainly have ensued. All of that is unlikely now; whoever wins in 2024 will have to win the old-fashioned way, by getting enough votes in enough states to win the Electoral College.
  • The midterm results suggest that Americans (and American women, especially) made a decision not to separate abortion rights from democracy; I suspect that they viewed the overturning of Roe v. Wade as part of the overall right-wing assault on their liberties. Plenty of voters are in favor of placing limits on abortion—but they do not want the issue decided by theocratic judges. Even more galling, the GOP decided that Herschel Walker’s personal involvement in at least one abortion (and perhaps more) was not disqualifying even as Walker and other Republicans insisted that no one else should have access to abortion ever, under any circumstances. The proper pop-culture reference here is not The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984 but The Shawshank Redemption: Americans got a look at what life would be like not in Gilead or Oceania but under Samuel Norton, the corrupt, sadistic, Bible-toting warden, a Pharisaical hypocrite whose scripture needlepoint hid his wall safe.
  • Three cheers for the American system of government. Frustrated liberals have sometimes wished for a parliamentary system, in which a single election can flush out the ruling party overnight. But under a parliament, we might never have been rid of Trump after 2016: Republicans could have used parliamentary supremacy to ram through changes in important laws and kept power for a long time. Instead, American federalism and the distinct mandates required for both the executive and legislative branch functioned as the Founders intended, ensuring that the GOP majority of 2016 could be broken in 2018 independent of the presidency, and that Democratic gains would have to be revalidated at the ballot box in 2020 and 2022.
  • Perhaps most heartening, the midterms showed that money and gerrymandering and voter suppression can be overcome when people actually show up and vote. Ballots are more powerful than Peter Thiel’s checkbook.

We should not lull ourselves into believing that the fight for democracy is over. The local governments, state houses, and the new Congress will still have plenty of odious characters in them. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

Nonetheless, the gloom and gathering darkness I felt last week has dissipated to a considerable degree. The president and the prodemocracy forces issued a call to the public to defend the American system, and the public responded in force. I regularly criticize the public for a lack of civic virtue; I even wrote a book about it. But I must give credit where it is due: The voters, this time, proved me wrong—and showed that Joe Biden was right.


Today’s News
  1. President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed to restart climate talks at their first face-to-face meeting.
  2. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the city of Kherson after Russia’s withdrawal and declared that Ukraine retaking the city was “the beginning of the end of the war.”
  3. Three students were killed and two wounded in a shooting at the University of Virginia last night. A suspect is in custody.


Evening Read
An illustrated fox drooling at a Thanksgiving table
Bianca Bagnarelli

Dear Therapist: My Brother-in-Law Is a Thanksgiving Freeloader

By Lori Gottlieb

Dear Therapist,

I have a situation with my brother-in-law. My husband and I have been married for 25 years, and his brother has been mostly single until recently. Because their parents are no longer alive, I have always made a point to include my brother-in-law for every holiday and have also included any girlfriend he has had at the time. He has come to my parents’ house out West, our vacation home down South, and our home here in the East. All he has been required to do is show up and take part. He has never had to cook, plan, or prepare anything.

Right before the pandemic, he met a very nice woman who has a son the same age as mine. But he has made no effort to invite us to spend time with them. I just assumed that he was busy with his new family and gave him space. But now I think that we were just a placeholder until he had what he considered a family of his own. I feel very used.

Thanksgiving is coming up, and I am honestly tired of creating great holidays only for him to show up, then leave—and not even consider inviting us or my kids to anything in return.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
James Corden in Mammals
Dignity Productions / Amazon Studio

Read. “Stagger,” an inventively formatted poem by Linda Gregerson.

Watch. Mammals, a new Prime series with James Corden that explores the exquisite pain of monogamous life.

Listen. The season finale of our podcast How to Build a Happy Life, about one of the longest studies of human happiness on record.

Play our daily crossword.


The character of Warden Norton has been on my mind for the reason I mention above, but also because I recently rewatched The Shawshank Redemption. It’s one of the great “guy-cry,” male-friendship movies of all time, and I think I’ve now seen it 4,372 times, give or take. But as majestic a movie as it is, I want to note the portrayal of Norton by the terrific character actor Bob Gunton.

You’ve seen Gunton many times: as the hapless future police chief in Demolition Man (a personal favorite), Cyrus Vance in Argo, and in dozens of other TV and movie roles. But Shawshank was his triumph; he stole every scene he was in. His depiction of Norton is at different times fatherly, stoic, cold, brutal, and, ultimately, terrifying. When Tim Robbins’s innocent Andy Dufresne refuses to cooperate with Norton’s schemes, Gunton threatens to throw Andy back into the general population, where a gang of rapists awaits him. “I will cast you down with the sodomites,” he whispers, in one of the scariest scenes in the movie. Robbins and Morgan Freeman were terrific, but I’ll rewatch that movie, and many others, just to witness Bob Gunton work.


Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.

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15 days ago
Shawshank is 'The Godfather' for the aging gen-x dad
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