DISCLAIMER: This blog post reflects absolutely no research and is entirely devoid of all academic rigor (for this, check out William Turpin’s essay, a great place to start).There is also no argument, so it should not be used as a model. The only point I wish to make here is that we find some elements of Ovid’s poem in modern pop-culture sensibilities.
Amores 1.5 stands as a unique poem not only in Ovid’s corpus, but even in the entire genre of Latin elegiac for two main reasons. First, it is one of only two poems that describes, as Will Batstone puts it, “a successful sexual encounter.” Whereas the other poem, Propertius 2.15, praises the “night that shines” for the poet, Ovid’s scene resembles a midsummer afternoon’s dream. But the second point, and the real reason for this post, is this: the poem comes closest to modern sensibilities about eroticism by focusing on the physical sensations of love rather than its emotional or psychological effects.
So this got me thinking: can we find any elements of Ovid’s poem in the “modern” world and how do we handle these themes? I want to talk about two here:
1. The Afternoon Delight
Even just mentioning this phrase calls to my mind the 1976 hit by the Starland Vocal Band wherein male and female voices sing about the pleasures of the afternoon tryst. The video opens (more or less) with a man and woman staring lovingly into each others eyes as they sing about their rising libidos.
The song, as well as what it commemorates, has made its way into the pop culture consciousness. It makes a humorous appearance in the buddy flick Anchorman, in which Will Ferrell leads an a capella version of the song. The characters use its playful, physical eroticism both to highlight their virility and to recast that eroticism in light of the male bond. The slipperiness between “buddy movie” and the Rom-Com is a natural part of this scene.
The humor of the “Afternoon Delight” takes an incestuous turn in the short-lived, but soon to be revived, sitcom “Arrested Development.” The song lends its name to a season 2 episode of the series, in which straight man Michael unknowingly performs a karaoke duet of the tune with his niece Maeby. As Michael sings the lyric, “the thought of rubbin’ you is getting so exciting,” he realizes that he’s made a huge mistake. The incest taboo is integral to the Arrested Development bag of tricks, and the “afternoon delight” brings particular comedic power: incest is the sort of thing that happens behind closed doors, not in the “light of day” nor on public display (hence the power of the karaoke scene).
Although we may appreciate the familiarity of the “afternoon delight” scene in Ovid’s poem, modern readers tend to feel discomfort when the poem takes a semi-violent turn. The poet describes Corinna resisting, which he depicts as not-so-serious given that she “fights like one who wouldn’t want to win.” But even still, for us “no means no,” and any deviation from that is certainly a betrayal.
Or is it?
2. No doesn’t always mean no?
It is important that modern readers remember that in the world of Roman erotic poetry, there was a place–whether you agree with it or not–for pretend sexual violence and for slippage over “consent.” Remember that Corinna is playing a role here too: she is scantily clad, her is hair down, and has come to Ovid’s bedroom.
But this, too, isn’t totally foreign to us. Fire, a sultry number originally written by Bruce Springsteen with the hope that Elvis Presley would record it, exhibits the theme of feigned resistance. This Youtube video of one Springsteen performance has attracted over 10 million hits. It features the shouts of young women throughout the song as well as a lively debate in the comments section about whether viewers would rather “be” Springsteen’s guitar, microphone, or tight jeans (I recommend reading the comments as the video plays). Here there is universal recognition, it seems, that the song as well as the sentiments it expresses are as hot as the title. If you still feel uncomfortable with “no doesn’t always mean no,” the Pointer Sisters recorded a version of the track as well. Released in 1979, this version recasts the song from the perspective of the resisting woman. In this version, the female narrator is definitely playing hard to get. And lest you think that the song was a phase in the 70s and 80s, Glee recorded its own version too.
What Ovid really wants in poem 1.5 is uncomplicated sex in the afternoon, Ovid concludes with a wish that he get “more afternoons like this!” In the literary and musical tradition, it seems, he certainly got his wish.