So, the Metamorphoses. By Ovid.

There are fifteen books in the book (don't start), and the theme can be summarised as moments in classical mythology when a being changes into something else. A book is about 800 lines, so the whole thing is about 12,000, which in terms of readability is a lot less than it sounds, and well within your scope.

The most famous metamorphosis in the book is probably the story of Apollo and Daphne. Apollo is struck by one of Cupid's arrows, and Daphne has the very bad luck to be passing at the time. The river god Peneus saves her from his unwanted attentions by changing her into a laurel tree, this change being the metamorphosis in the title. The myth is famous because of the Apollo and Daphne statue by Giovanni Bernini.

There's lots of this kind of thing, by which I mean people metamorphosising. Animal, vegetable, mineral, they'll change into anything at the drop of a hat. Things must have been more fluid in the olden days. Ovid moves from the creation myth, through Hercules, Theseus and so on, and on to the Iliad and the Odyssey. After that the action moves to Italy, through Aeneas, the mythical survivor of the fall of Troy and ancestor of the Romans.

In the final book, we meet Pythagoras. He makes an eloquent plea for vegetarianism, which striqun would like, before going on to talk about the inevitability of change. Seasons turn, rivers flow (famously, you never step twice on the same piece of water), people age, and so on. And yet within change there is continuity. People die, but the people persist. Summer fades, but always returns. The water in a river Meanders down to the sea, but the river itself is always there.

At this point you realise that the whole book, with its constant repetition of metamorphoses, has been building up to this. People change into laurel trees, dragon's teeth become warriors, the gods capriciously take against you, then (sometimes) relent. But hubris always leads to disaster, love always leads - well, to disaster, apparently, and the gods, representing the implacable forces which govern human lives, go on for ever. A book which appeared to be nothing more than a collection of charming vignettes turns out to have philosophical depth.

But the scheme of it's a bit cock-eyed. It's Pythagoras talking, but the idea is from Heraclitus. And the timeline is askew. Worse, this should have been the climax. Instead, the action moves on into Ovid's own time, and ends up with a calculated grovelling to Augustus.

For Ovid wasn't popular with Augustus, who thought his poetry was too licentious, and lacked patriotism. For us these are the best things about it, but in the political climate of the time Ovid felt it necessary to use the ending to the Metamorphoses to help him get away with the rest of it, and had to accept the artistic damage this did to his verse.

It didn't work. A few years later, he was exiled from his beloved Rome to a remote settlement at Tomi (modern day Constanta, on the Romanian coast), for the rest of his life. Two thousand years before Mick Jagger, Ovid was the original butterfly, broken on the wheel.

So how is all this connected with the argument? Fairly loosely, frankly. I just wanted to write about it. But inasmuch as I have a point beyond just saying Ovid! Go and read some Ovid!, it's in response to striqun's comments on art. For me, it is a cultural category, dominated by class issues, knowledge-as-power, and straightforward careerism and commodification (in its actual practice, and even more so in its critique and collection). From that point of view, I have a personal dislike of art.

That's not art though. That's the bullshit that surrounds art. Art is when you've read fourteen and a bit books of poetry, and suddenly a passage in the fifteenth book rocks you back in your chair as it turns the others upside down. Art is when a sculptor shows the violence in a myth by carving a hand grasping a thigh so firmly you can see the force that's being used in the way it presses down the flesh. Imagine having that kind of skill with solid rock, or for that matter with fluid words.

We all should bow the knee, and I do mean all of us.

Striqun: If we accepted your definition of art, my feeling those things would become an act of cultural imperialism. For you, there seems to be no actual art in art at all.

Art has to share the world, and to that extent it's always compromised. Ovid's art was compromised by political power. Like Shostakovich with Stalin, he had to edit his work to please a cultureless thug with no idea what he was really doing. He might as well have called the book A Roman artist responds to justified criticism.

As well as threats, art is also vulnerable to blandishments. Creative decisions are inevitably influenced by the marketplace, and artists who are willing to trim their sails with the prevailing wind will have longer careers than artists who aren't.

But that isn't a definition of art, any more than Roman Abramovich is the definition of football. It's just the cess you have to wade through to find the pearls.

I haven't addressed your whole argument yet, I know. Next time, I'll talk about photography, which is a subject I know virtually nothing about. Should be fun.