They’re outraged, the students at Columbia University—outraged that their professors would dare to put Ovid on mandatory reading lists, outraged that the ancient Roman author doesn’t share their sensitivities, outraged that a modern education would include something so . . . so . . . so unmodern, dammit. Something so vile, so visceral, so triggering of all the thoughts we must not think in these days of the new morality.
Which is an irony, of a kind, since the university’s description of the core-curriculum text insists that Ovid is “a particularly modern poet”—by which the school means an older sense of the word modern: mocking, genre-busting, and suspicious of received pieties. Nevertheless, in an op-ed this spring in the school newspaper, several students on Columbia’s “Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board” denounced Ovid’s Metamorphoses because its depictions of the rapes of Persephone and Daphne are too much for college women to bear. One young woman in particular “described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape” and related how offended she was by her professor’s focus on “the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery.”
Ovid’s Metamorphoses may be “a fixture” on the college reading list, the students conclude, “but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom.” And so out he must go.
Fortunately, there may be a way to save poor Ovid—the beauty of his language, the splendor of his imagery. Ours is not the first society to be in this position, after all, caught between one cultural impulse that praises the artistry of a text and another cultural impulse that feels offense at the explicitness of its sexual descriptions. The feminist phrasings of the current indictment of Ovid hide their return to the old, old revulsion of the Victorians at the grossness of this world—a return to a spiritualizing and moralizing of the body.
Or, at least, a spiritualizing and moralizing of women’s bodies. This isn’t feminism but a priggishness that has seized feminism as a handy club with which to beat the culture into submission. Mrs. Grundy has returned as Ms. Grundy, revenant and ready to take offense.
Even the vocabulary of rape on America’s campuses hides the reality that prissiness is making a return. Perhaps some activists have deliberately tried to expand the meaning of the word rape because the word is so fraught, so immediately identifying of the horrible and indefensible. But for many, the word has grown in meaning simply because they have no other moral vocabulary. The only wrongness they know for sex is rape, and so every wrongness about a sexual encounter—every violation of their newly moralized sense of the body—must end up being called rape. And then, when they read something like the divine rapes in Ovid’s mythological accounts, all the possible wrongnesses of sex are brought to mind. Triggered, as they say.
But, as I noted, there may be a solution to our current dilemma of Ovid’s place on America’s campuses. Why reinvent the wheel? If we’re going to be the new Victorians, then let’s be new Victorians. They were, after all, a people who possessed a kind of wonderfully hardheaded practicality, which they would apply even to the problems caused by their soft-headed sentimentalism.
Faced with the difficulty of obscenities in classic Roman texts, for example, Victorian translations would often leave the offensive passages untranslated. When you were reading along in an English translation and you suddenly got a few lines of Latin, you knew that something scandalous had just been described, even if your Latin wasn’t good enough to tell quite what.
The notion was, of course, that if you were educated enough to read the somewhat technical Latin description of sexual intercourse, then you were also presumably a person of sufficient sophistication and self-control not to be pruriently swayed by the indecent passages. The translator’s task was complete: No liberties were taken with Ovid, no bowdlerizings were imposed on the text. But the fair cheeks of maiden readers were spared a blush, and the imaginations of pure-minded boys were left unstained.
And isn’t that what those outraged students want? A remoralizing, a respiritualizing, a re-Grundying of the world? What would solve all of Columbia’s problems is a new English translation of the Metamorphoses that leaves the offensive passages in Latin. That way, Ovid can stay in the canon, and no triggers need be pulled in the reading of his work.
It worked for the old Victorians, so why not for the new ones?
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.