Ovid’s Imaginary Life

October 21, 2007

An Imaginary Life is a fabulist story of Ovid after he’s exiled to live with the barbarians. The novel starts with Ovid unable to communicate his experiences as poet with those he now lives among. He is alienated and adrift without shared language. He lacks the skill that brought his life meaning and purpose. Language was the bridge that connected him to the world around him. Through his encounters with the small wild boy he learns to integrate his life with that of nature and the world around him. Through these interactions, along with his childhood memories of the same boy, he learns to become vital and alive again.

The imagery in this novel is dynamic, like an epic poet would discover if all that was his world was now trapped in his head. The images have power and meaning. Walking one day through the sameness of this new landscape, the poet stumbled across a scarlet poppy. Metaphorically poppies are a tied to forgetfulness and oblivion.

“It is the first color I have seen in months. Or so it seems. Scarlet. A little wild poppy, of a red so sudden it made my blood stop. I kept saying the word over and over to myself, scarlet, as if the word, like the color, had escaped me till now, and just saying it would keep the little windblown flower in sight. Poppy. The magic of saying the word made my skin prickle, the saying almost a greater miracle than the seeing” (31).

The encounter reminds me of the fairytale in which a sister is on a quest seeking her brother who has been taken away. On her journey she discovers a small cottage with a garden filled with every flower imaginable. The girl becomes lulled and complacent in the garden forgetting her task. It takes the realization that something is missing; in this case she discovers there are no roses, which jerks her back to the immediacy of her journey. In this case the scarlet poppy is much like the girl remembering roses. It is the spark that wakes them from their lulled state and reminds them there’s more to their journey. It is the object that links them to the outside life. “Poppy you have saved me, you have recovered the earth for me” (32).

There is also a strong sense of symmetry and mirroring of images in Malouf’s novel. He starts by evoking the symmetry of “our Roman twins, the wolf brothers, the fathers of our state” (48). These twins, already a mirroring as twins, show the story of ferocious humans reared by a fierce she-wolf. They are the state that becomes Rome (one killing the other in the process), but they also mirror the lone wild boy that Ovid encounters. The Roman twins grow into the symbol of civilization, of Rome seat of an empire, while the boy temporarily encountering civilization through Ovid, carries the civilized poet into his wild world. There’s a pronounced symmetry to this exchange.

There is also the strong symmetry between Ovid and the brother who dies. The brother is described as pious and a serious servant to his family and Rome, while Ovid sees himself as frivolous and unconnected to the family estate, and is later exiled from the state of Rome. There is a reverse mirroring between one character’s ideas of the boundary stones that demarcate the limits of the family estate and the other’s. About his brother the Ovid character says:

“We have always been close, though our temperaments are so different; he is serious-minded, and filled with a deep sense of loyalty to things, to my father, to the farm, whose every boundary stone he knows, to the family, which is so closely bound up with the country here, the old tribal lands of Peligni. He is deeply pious, in a way I respect and envy, but having taken on early my role as the frivolous one, I do as I am expected to do, and tease him about it” (86).

In contrast Ovid states:

“I too know all the boundary stones of our land, but to me they mean something different. They are where the world begins. Beyond them lies Rome and all the known world that we Romans have power over. Out there beyond the boundary stones, the mystery begins” (87).

Although they are close, their attitudes are mirror opposites, like Remus and Romulus. The parallel continues with the description of Ovid’s brother’s death. While still a young man the brother becomes ill. He is responsible for performing an annual ritual for renewing the family’s connection to the land and farm. Because of his illness, it becomes Ovid’s responsibility. Ovid performs the task and caught up in the joy and invigoration of it, disrupts the harmony by taking on part of his brother’s persona. “I am about to perform, as he does, I will have replaced him, made him superfluous, since I will be assuring the gods (who do not exist) that I am here to take his place” (87). This borrowing of his brother’s role is a betrayal of who they are supposed to be. It tips the symmetry off balance. Caught up in the invigoration of the task he exclaims, “I have let some grain of belief in all this sprout in my mind, and killed him. My brother is dead” (88). By betraying the symmetry of their roles, Ovid destroys the mirroring and condemns his brother to death, proving that in this book symmetry and balance are not something to be taken lightly. Supremacy comes as a death to the balance.

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