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“You Can’t Cancel Ovid”: Jia Tolentino, Sexual Violence, And The Core Curriculum

New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino and classicist Stephanie McCarter.

Chair of Literature Humanities Joanna Stalnaker moderated a conversation about sexual violence in Ovid’s poetry with New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino and classicist Stephanie McCarter.

Content warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual violence.

This is a precarious moment for the Core Curriculum. In December of 2018, Julian von Abele, a white sophomore at Columbia, was videotaped ranting about the accomplishments of white men to a group of black students in front of Butler Library. Butler Library is, of course, engraved with the names of famous white men. In past years, student activists have climbed to the top of Butler to hang banners with the names of black and female intellectuals in protest. The Core has changed in response to changing social norms and student desires; Toni Morrison was added to the Literature Humanities syllabus in 2015, and the Global Core requirement created in 2008. But many students continue to feel that marginal representation doesn’t sufficiently challenge the core’s perpetuation of Western exceptionalism. 

Von Abele’s rant awakened a new wave of student calls for updates to the Core Curriculum. The Core is still mostly an ode to old white men, improved slightly by additions like Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey. Students like Tommy Song have written explosive op-eds pointing to the stifling core curriculum as a direct cause of bigotry on campus. All of this raises important questions: what are we going to teach our students, and how?

In 2017, the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), a multi-year research project on sexual health and violence at Columbia, found that over a third of undergraduate women will experience sexual assault by senior year. Let’s imagine a Literature Humanities class of 21 students. Let’s say 12 of them are women. Four of them will experience some form of assault before their last year of college. Some of them likely already have. Now, does this change the way Ovid’s Metamorphoses should be taught, a text that includes around fifty different instances of rape, rendered in beautiful dactylic hexameter?

Last night, Sewanee professor of classics Stephanie McCarter, who is set to become the first female translator of the Metamorphoses into English, and New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino were joined by Chair of Literature Humanities Joanna Stalnaker and Columbia classics professor Joseph Howley to discuss this very question. Ovid’s controversial epic poem was reintroduced to the Literature Humanities syllabus for the 2018-2019 school year.

While LitHum was created in the 1930s to introduce Columbia undergrads to “great works of literature”, Ovid’s Metamorphoses was only added in 1972, and lasted until 1979. It was reintroduced in 2009 then removed again in 2015. This removal has often been attributed to the work’s focus on sexual violence and student resistance. In 2015, four members of the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board published an op-ed in the Spectator entitled, “Our identities matter in Core classrooms”. The article criticized the ways the – largely white and male – Core curriculum can “traumatize and silence students”. It highlighted an example of a student survivor who was triggered and disturbed by her professor’s treatment of Ovid. The student wasn’t upset that the text was being taught – she was upset that her professor emphasized the beauty of Ovid’s language at the expense of the moral and political implications of his work. And, moreover, that she was shut down when she brought up her concerns to the professor.

But of course, that nuance was lost. Large media outlets dismissed the op-ed: “Columbia students claim Greek mythology needs a trigger warning” reads one of the more generous headlines. “Classical Mythology Too Triggering for Columbia Students” reads one of the less generous. It was featured everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to Salon, and was recently quoted in Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men. Right-wing news outlets would have us believe that the millenials are delicate snowflakes asking for trigger warnings like candy. But any survivor of sexual violence knows that being triggered is inevitable. The world is not a friendly place for survivors. And as long as sexual violence is a part of life, it’ll be a part of literature.

However, according to Professor Stalnaker, the current Chair of Literature Humanities, the Metamorphoses’ removal had begun long before the op-ed. After all, it’s hardly the only text with sexual violence on the syllabus. It was replaced by other, more PG-13 Ovid: I read Ovid’s Heroides instead, though my professor spoke wistfully of Metamorphoses. Some students, even in our own illustrious publication, called for the controversial text’s return.

Now, in 2019, the Metamorphoses is back, with little fanfare. Professors were prepped this year by Dan-el Padilla-Peralta, a Princeton Classics professor whose presentation focused on the translation of violence in Ovid. Which, as it turns out, is key to the controversy over the Metamorphoses. For Professor McCarter, the disturbing part about teaching Ovid was the conflict between the Latin and the translation. The Latin, she said, is “clearly violent.” It was the translations – mostly by white men – that effaced the violence, rendering rapes consensual.

And professors who rely on dusty readings of the text at the expense of student experiences – like the one featured in the 2015 op-ed – exacerbate the issue. McCarter brought up the importance of questioning default narratives in translations of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. “Translations are inherited”, she offered, and “different experiences illuminate the text.” In her own renditions of the text, for instance, a phrase commonly translated as “he seduces the maid” becomes “he rapes the slave”. Of course, no translation will ever be perfect. “Vis”, a Latin word that translates roughly to power or force, can be used to describe rape but also used to describe say, overthrowing the state. It has no exact English equivalent, but is also central to understanding Ovid. It opens up ambiguity where translators can change the language of force and coercion to seduction and persuasion. McCarter spoke to the importance of maintaining the “force” in vis in her own translation – which allows readers to make connections between the many uses of force and violence, sexual or otherwise, in the text.

The only real subject of the text, Tolentino pointed out, is “power and how power transforms, which is almost the only interesting thing in the world.” Tolentino said that the beauty of Ovid’s poetry is “part of what makes the text so mesmerizing and painful”. Tolentino, whose book of essays Trick Mirror is set to come out in August, read The Metamorphoses for an undergrad art history course: “I would like, get stoned and read it all the time. […] “It felt like the tectonic plates of morality forming.” Tolentino said that the Kavanaugh hearings brought her back to a rethinking of the text she’d first encountered in an art history course. She recalled thinking, “All I wanna do is stand still and turn into something that will never have to move again.” Those recollections eventually led to an essay, How a Woman Turns Into a Lake, about Ovid, Brett Kavanaugh, and art.

There are plenty of parallels between the violence of Ovid and the issues of today. In the Greek-turned-Roman myth of Arachne, a talented mortal weaver threatens the pride of goddess Athena, who challenges her to a weaving contest. Athena weaves the gods in contests with mortals; Arachne weaves depictions of the cruelties of the gods, including scenes of divine rape. When Athena saw Arachne’s tapestry, she was so enraged by both the disrespect to the gods and the beauty of her weaving that she tore the tapestry to pieces and turned the mortal to a spider, doomed to forever “practice / her weaver’s art, as once she fashioned webs”. Arachne, said Tolentino, is like “the classic #MeToo journalist”.

Throughout the night, the speakers returned to the topic of translation. According to McCarter, it’s not just that the text is violent – it’s that translators efface the violence in a way that minimizes the experiences of student survivors. Both Tolentino and McCarter suggested that what is so compelling about the Metamorphoses is the disturbing contrast between the beauty of the language and the horror of the content – a contrast elided by poor translators who turn rape to persuasion. This echoes the erasure felt by many survivors of sexual assault. Tolentino spoke to the importance of recognition: “There’s “something so nauseating about hearing euphemisms, concealment”. She gave examples from her own teaching to demonstrate how students know that these texts are about rape. They see through the fudging of the translations. We “owe it to students to have accurate translations.” McCarter commented that we “owe that validation to the women of Metamorphoses.” McCarter emphasized that Ovid writes a lot of his rapes to be as shocking as possible – like by making virgin women or noblewomen the victims. So, she argued, to be true to the author’s intentions teachers are responsible to highlight, not elide, the cruelty he depicts. An accurate translation of the text should be disturbing. It should also be beautiful.

Tolentino later characterized the epic as about, “What beauty can distract us from and what ends we can put it to.” The beauty of Ovid’s victims is justified as the pretext for their rape. And all of the victims are turned into beautiful objects, forced in death to embody the very quality that attracted the violence. Beauty creates vulnerability in Ovid. Beauty creates danger, maybe even pain. McCarter: “The beauty in Latin poetry was never meant to scan as an end in itself.” It’s trying to “jolt you into thinking about power.”

And in a text so painful and disorienting, what is the role of professors? Professor Howley spoke to the importance of LitHum teachers, while also admitting that “nowhere in grad school was [he] trained to do this.” There’s a clear gap between the expectations of professors – to teach potentially triggering texts at a school where sexual assault is prevalent – and their training. Part of what the 2015 op-ed called for, after all, was a “training program for all professors” to facilitate difficult conversations. Four years later, with Metamorphoses back, maybe it’s time to reconsider that proposal. McCarter also spoke about her own practice of giving students alternate readings, a possibility that might make LitHum a more inclusive experience.

The last question of the afternoon was one that everyone had been waiting for: if there are so many problems with Ovid, why not just stop reading him, a la Woody Allen?  But as Tolentino eloquently pointed out, “You can’t cancel Ovid”. Professor Howley “We are trained as classicists that the author is beyond recovery”, continued “We don’t have to like people or find inherent virtue or aesthetic value in their texts.” Professor Stalnaker pointed out – quite rightly – that if we don’t read these texts, they’re easy for alt-right misogynists to appropriate.

The night ended with a return to the visual. Bernini’s depictions of the Metamorphoses are included in Art Humanities, another place where rape enters the Core. At the age of twenty-three, Bernini rendered in sublime detail the harsh grip of Pluto’s fingers on Proserpina’s thigh, her expression of anguish, her failed attempts to escape. For Tolentino and McCarter, this sculpture illuminated just how awful the attacks Ovid depicts are. But to Professor Howley, it also demonstrated how, “Every visual response is a translation.” Like new translations or readings, visual renditions of poetry illuminate the flexibility of the story. Tolentino confirmed that, “you don’t have to think of the story as static.” It’s unclear now if Metamorphoses is here to stay in the LitHum syllabus. But if it is, McCarter and Tolentino make a compelling case about the ways in which creative, thoughtful, and skeptical readings of the text can bring the classics to life. 

Note: Columbia Sexual Violence Response is open 9 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday in Lerner 700 and Hewitt 105 to assist survivors of sexual assault. SVR also provides support 24/7 via 215-854-4357.

Image via Bwogstaff.

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3 Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Why is SVR only open from 9am to 6pm M-F when sexual assault happens at all hours on all days? #24SEVENCOLUMBIA was onto something.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous I was made to read Martin Luther, Calvin, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, etc. among others all anathema to a Roman Catholic capitalist Somehow I survived who do we admit nowadays.

  • David says:

    @David Thanks for this very thoughtful write-up! Great job bringing together all these strands of thought.

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