one hundred essays I don't have time to write*

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22. Ovid

Paula Vogel, who was my teacher, teaches that there are six plot forms, and Aristotelian form, or the linear arc, is only one of them. Aristotelian form progresses through a logical series of cause and effect. One thing happens, so the next thing happens, so the next thing happens, so the climax happens, and so on. Vogel explains that alternatives to Aristotelian forms include: circular form (see Le Ronde), backwards form (see An Artist Descending the Staircase, Betrayal), repetitive form (Le Ronde, Waiting for Godot), associative form (see all of Shakespeare’s work, where the logic of image following image seems to determine one scene following the next, rather than linear cause and effect), and what Vogel calls synthetic fragment, where two different time periods can co-exist, see Angels in America or Top Girls.
 
I would humbly add a seventh form, Ovidian. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he begins: “let me begin to tell of forms changed”. (Various translators translate the line differently—bodies transforming into different shapes, for example.) In any case, his emphasis, in terms of story, is transformation, rather than a scene of conflict or rational cause and effect. Gods become swans, people become trees, people fall in love and die, the supernatural world is permeable. This story structure is more similar to what we know as fairy tale structure. Objects have magical properties, people transform, the natural world is likewise transformative. One thing becomes another becomes another and there is no clear moral or verisimilitude; if there can be said to be verisimilitude, it is the sort that imitates dreams or the unconscious.
 
Perhaps change is all-important in most dramatic forms; in the arc play, change is usually of the moral variety—a lesson learned. But in Ovidian form, there seems to be a pleasure in change itself, as opposed to pleasure in moral improvement.
 
We now live in an age where people crave magic and transformation. We want Harry Potter. (One might argue that we want Harry Potter because of political escapism. That is another matter). Still, I would argue that at the level of the story we crave transformation and understand transformation as much as we crave verisimilitude. But Ovidian form is not taught at universities as a genuine narrative form because it is very hard to teach the art of transformation; it seems easier to attempt to teach the mimetic arts. Aristotle lays out his theories in lecture form, easily accessible, whereas Ovid simply flies, and it is difficult to teach the art of flying. Apparently the Renaissance as an age could not get enough of Ovid, and Shakespeare almost seems to have slept with Ovid under his pillow.
 
I grew up on Shakespeare’s romances, in which people become asses, and this brand of theatrical transformation felt normal to me rather than odd. But in the contemporary literary world, things that are “magic” are cordoned off and labeled “magic realism”. Apparently Marquez himself disdains the term, and said that most of what happened in Love in the time of Cholera actually happened in his village.

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