Heroes & Villains

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Of course Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, born 43bc, Sulmona, central Italy) is a hero. Any man who gives us women even the slightest inkling of the workings of the male mind in love has to be a hero. Any man who shows, with such poetic readability, that what is happening between the sexes today was happening two thousand years ago - and that, therefore, the beating out of one's guilt- ridden, female brains is something of a waste of time - has to be a hero. And any man who, in those far-off, dangerous times, should choose to write almost exclusively about heterosexual passion - while all around him seethed with those traditional masculine concerns of war and politics - must be a double, double-dyed hero. A little more about passion for love (heterosexual or otherwise) and a good deal less anguish would there would be in the world. So says Ovid: "One time, I recall, I got started on an inflated epic/About War In Heaven/... But while I was setting up Jove... My mistress staged a lock out. I dropped Jupiter... /That instant, didn't give him another thought."

The joy of Ovid is that he truly loves women and wants them - and himself - to be happy in love. "Ultimately," he tells us women, with no sense of political correctness, "you must please and flatter your man... Each girl should look in her glass." And he gives us a long and caring account of how to dress, use cosmetics, behave to allure. Some of the writings are touchingly naive: "My little tract/On Facial Treatment lists the most effective preparations"; some of them are extremely blunt, daring to dip into the most personal: "I was about to warn you against rank, goatish armpits/And bristling hair on legs."

When Fay Weldon suggests, rightly, that oestrogen is the hormone of conscience, she echoes Ovid's Amores Book 1. The testosterone-driven male, perceiving every place as a battleground, including the bedroom, is not at ease with the "still small voice...". Ovid is quite clear which two virtues go out of the window when Love enters "With Conscience, hands bound behind her, and Modesty, and/all Love's/Other enemies, whipped into line."

Ovid is not concerned with egalitarian principles and can enlighten us confused, modern-day Atalantas if we plunder him. Frank Harris, Henry Miller - even Rousseau - have about them the faint whiff of the Apologist. Not so Ovid. Two thousand years on and we are still expecting our chaps to start communicating what is in their minds to us, as we do for them. Why waste one's energy? The trouble is, as Ovid - after a lengthy lesson on seduction in the Amores - points out, most of what is in a man's mind is unrepeatable, and he can't and won't.

Modern research suggests that the chaps think about sex on average six times an hour. Ovid concurs: "May some fellow-sufferer,/Perusing my Anatomy of Desire,/See his own passion reflected there, cry in amazement:/'Who told this scribbler about my private affairs?'"

"Fellow-sufferer," says Ovid - no change here either, girls. Shere Hite's works on male sexuality (Hite Reports 1972-93) show clearly that men absolutely hate being in love. They hate being "overly emotional". Liken it to mental illness: "To be in love", quoth one modern young man, "is to be uncomfortable because you are out of control." And Ovid? "I hate what I am, yet (try as I may) can't/Not be the thing that revolts me, It's hell/Being stuck with what you can't kick."

I love his honesty. Almost everything that the admirable Shere Hite proved with meticulous research, almost everything that women observe, but hope and fail to change, is illustrated in Ovid's works in a modern, engaging manner. To take a woman by force continues as the number one male bedroom fantasy. There is absolutely no point in railing against this if you want your lover to stay your lover. Just get on with his fantasy; and don't laugh about it afterwards. Ovid is clear about this. "Don't split your sides with endless hilarity." Well, not in the boudoir, anyway.

Like other truths, much of Ovid's writings on the sexes is unpalatable to the modern female ear, largely because it is so palatable to the modern masculine one. But his integrity wins. The Amores is unpatronising in its conception. He will write about impotence, he will write about omnisusceptibility and bonking the au pair to his bitter regret, and he will write of his pain when his mistress secretly has an abortion. As with writing good satire, so with writing on the art of love: the writer must place himself inside the ring, as vulnerable as his readers.

Ovid wrote the Amores in an attempt to demystify the art of love so that both sides could get on with it pleasurably. "Warning to Puritans," he says. "This volume is not for you." He recommends the book for every "far- from-frigid virgin, or the boy in love for the very first time". It is passionate, truthful, and frank; and was taken so seriously in Rome that Ovid was exiled for writing so honestly about the way men "are" (Augustus was "shocked, shocked!"). The Amores is art of the purest kind and - essential for any heroic work - it lacks completely that element so boringly necessary in other spheres of life: balance.

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