God qua Impotent Witness: Geoffrey Hill’s “Ovid in the Third Reich”

Anilkumar PV


non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare,
solaque famosam culpa professa facit.
(Amores, III, xiv)

I love my work and my children. God
Is distant, difficult. Things happen.
Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much on the damned. They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.

 Despite or because of the worked out sexism of the first line with the erasure of the woman who is the mother of “my children,” which is unavoidable the why of which will be evident from the following exposition. The first line relates to man’s spiritual existence. This sexism is valid insofar as we believe that the speaker here is Ovid – the canonical figure of Latin poetry – and the place he describes is the Third Reich, Hitler’s Germany. Let us avoid other possibilities and the ensuing complications and stick to the spirituality embodied in first line: one has to accept that a male human’s love of one’s children is an intense spiritual/moral act because, unlike the mother-child relationship whose spiritual/moral bond can be traced back to their natural umbilical connection in the womb, fatherhood has no such support in nature. Father is purely a cultural construct, whose truth can only be established through a cultural process like marriage or DNA test. ovid cupid

Frontispiece with the Bust of Ovid

 In spite of this lack of natural connection or because of it, father’s love of his children has been a profound theme in many cultures, and specifically so in Judaeo-Christian culture (where God is the Father), with the conflict between the two religions being one of the object causes of the poem. Here the sexist erasure of woman in the opening line is perfectly justified because one’s love of one’s woman cannot be neatly divorced from one’s physical need for mating: loving a woman is not like loving one’s child. Loving a woman is not founded on purely spiritual/moral reasons. “Biology,” to use Arundhati Roy’s rather tasteless word, also plays a part in such a love. One can counter argue at this point that nature is spiritual and hence sexuality is spiritual. But the whole poem is about this failure of western society to see things in this way. Sexual desire had already become a sin in Christianity. No wonder, some of the most poignant images “standing in” for the spiritless thingness of the modern world in T. S. Eliot, the self proclaimed Catholic, are sexual images! Sexuality as human nature is already at work when man falls in love with a woman. That is not the case with a man when he loves his child. He does not fall in love with his kid out of his nature; he just loves her because of moral/spiritual reasons.  But this spiritual/moral love appears in the poem only after another love has found its proper place: the love of one’s work. What troubles us is not the cultural artifacted-ness of love – the feeling of love as a socio-cultural production – but its foundation – the intense feeling of possession, emphatically made visible by the repeated use of “my” in the first line – which makes love possible. To love something, I have to experience the object of love as belonging to me. It is through the possession that one establishes that the object cause of love and I are composed of the same spirit. “My work and my children” embody “my” spirit. This possessiveness has damaging consequence for the world. “God” becomes “distant” and “difficult.” That is to say, everything else except I and whom and what I love, becomes devoid of spiritual essence. The water has no spirit; the fire has no spirit; the bird has no spirit; the dog has no spirit, etc: everything else has become “thing.” Remember, Chief Seattle’s powerful speech of 1854 is all about this western arrogance of making everything other than the self things. Also, remember the “Thottam” of Pottan Theyyam, where the “thingness” of the other emphasized by the practice of the Advaita philosopher Adi Sankara, is made problematic by the untouchable Pulayan by subtly hinting at the same spiritual essence of things through powerful metaphors like the tender water of the coconut, the water inside the boat, the flower in his kuppa used in Sankara’s temple for worship, etc. 

 “Things happen” indifferent to our concerns. So callous is the statement that one feels that man’s moral reactions to the happenings around is useless. They will happen in spite of me and my concerns. The gas chambers in Auschwitz; the victims of modern weaponry; the helplessness of an African mother looking at one’s own kid suffering from rabbis; the famine-struck child whose death is awaited by the vulture; the nudity of a girl fleeing the flames of Napalm bombs; the homelessness of the millions of the wretched of the earth; the forced-into-poverty of the silenced and marginalized, the inexpressible experience of the victim of endolsulfan ab/use; the animals and fishes slaughtered for our consumption; everything becomes just “things” with which we can no longer react in a moral way because “innocence is no earthly weapon.” 

 Every moral judgement involves a ground: the ground of innocence. When I see a mother beating her child, I am hurt. I am about to make a pronouncement because I am sure that both the child, the victim, and I, the witness, are innocent of the crime. But here the poet is uncannily original. My moral judgement is not as innocent as it appears. The witness is always already miles and years away from the crime. That is precisely why the witness in the poem has to be Ovid, the Roman poet, the contemporary of Jesus Christ. So when I, the witness, pronounce on the mother’s crime, I am years and miles away from the mother’s world – her frustrations, her sufferings, her hopelessness, her anxieties are foreign to me. My momentary anger toward the mother is in no way different from the mother’s momentary anger toward her kid. There is as much fascism involved in a moral reflection on fascism as it is there in fascism itself. My “innocence” is no longer a “weapon” for moral judgement. Poetry as reflection, as Adorno recognized much before Hill, is “barbaric.”

Now onto the withdrawal in the final stanza. He has learned one thing: never to “look down” on the “damned.” Who are the damned here? The Nazis who ruthlessly hunted the Jews? Or the Jews who were ruthlessly persecuted by the Nazis? We do not know. Only God knows!


This is an excerpt from the author's forthcoming book. Please don't reproduce without permission.


Anilkumar Payyappilly Vijayan is Assistant Professor of English at Government Victoria College, Palakkad, Kerala. He has a PhD in English from Kannur University. His doctoral dissertation titled "Untouchability of the Unconscious: Containment and Disfigurement of Dalit Identity in Malayalam Cinema" makes, with the help of Lacanian psychoanalysis, a methodological inquiry into the logical aspects of the construction of Dalit identity in Malayalam cinema. 

Image Courtesy: The Internet


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