Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.12.13

Deborah H. Roberts, Francis M. Dunn and Don Fowler (edd.), Classical Closure: Reading the End in Greek and Latin Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Pp. 311. $39.50. ISBN 0-691-04452-X.

Contributors: Alessandro Barchiesi, Carolyn Dewald, Francis M. Dunn, Don Fowler, Peta Fowler, Massimo Fusillo, Philip Hardie, W.R. Johnson, Sheila Murnaghan, Christopher Pelling, Deborah H.Roberts, and Ian Rutherford.

Reviewed by Marilyn B. Skinner, Department of Classics, University of Arizona,

Word Count: 3,019.

In earlier decades, problems of weak or incongruous closure in Greek and Latin texts were posed as questions of historical fact. Was the extant ending of a given work original, or had additional lines been lost? Had some hypothetical posthumous editor played havoc with the "natural," i.e., consecutive and climactic, sequence of an authorial collection? Given the vagaries of manuscript survival, formulating closural issues in this way appeared perfectly reasonable. However, contemporary literary theory complicates empirical approaches to such difficulties by postulating that notions of closure are themselves subject to interrogation from many perspectives -- cultural, psychological, political and metacritical, to name just four. All of those perspectives are applied to classical material in this rich and thought-provoking volume of critical essays.

In a 1989 article proleptically entitled "First Thoughts on Closure",1 Don Fowler called the attention of classical scholars to the complicated discussions of conclusion and resolution in studies of modern literature and urged his colleagues to attempt similar analyses of endings in ancient texts. As their point of departure, a number of the essays in the present collection take up suggestions for further work broached in that pioneering study. Appropriately, then, Fowler leads off the volume with "Second Thoughts on Closure" generated by revisiting certain of his earlier assumptions.

Although he had previously argued for their simultaneous presence within the text (1989: 79-82), Fowler now considers tendencies toward closure or its opposite, semantic indeterminacy, to be epiphenomena of the reader's response, as informed by personal temperament and ideological bent. This shift in position prompts an insightful critique of current critical discourses: "given a simple choice of being open or closed, it is difficult for a twentieth-century person to choose to be closed" (5). Citing recent debate over the Aristaeus and Orpheus episode in the Georgics as his test case, Fowler proceeds to chide "pessimistic" advocates of uncertainty for their unfair assumption of a self-righteous stance: "the choice between a reading that stresses unresolved ambiguities and one that tries to mediate and subsume them within a higher resolution is not simply one between a good liberal openness and anal-retentive boorishness" (6). A quick examination of conscience on that point will no doubt do all of us progressive classicists good.

Fowler concedes that real linkages between closure and the imposition of power underpin controversies over communal self-examination in Athenian drama and over the epic teleology that plays itself out in the Aeneid and its Silver Age successors. Yet, he adds, the basic binary opposition between the closed and the open is still ripe for deconstruction. Clashes between determinacy and indeterminacy in preexisting constructions of the feminine subvert totalizing impressions of male hegemony over the voices of female figures; even the familiar postmodern contrast between the "fixed" sequential book text and the "openness" of its successors, hypertext and cyberspace, oversimplifies the inherent complexity of both language and the reading experience. The alternative to buying into these "big myths of closure," as Fowler terms them, is an awareness that categories of division are culture-based (13):

The way a culture segments reality will depend on two factors: the types of boundary it recognizes, and above all its beginnings and endings, and what one might term its segmental ontology, what sorts of sort it acknowledges (not to mention, of course, its notions of "boundary" and "sort").

A "cultural poetics of segmentation" will investigate such factors as the hierarchical ranking of Roman social groups and the movement of processions, funereal and triumphal, through time and space as clues to broader and more abstract schemes of articulation.

Fowler concludes with observations on specific aspects of closure as they emerge in recent criticism of classical texts: the "thematization" of beginnings, endings, and middles as self-reflexive commentary; the widespread application of mise-en-abyme as a critical trope, especially in the form of internal narrators and authorial surrogates pronouncing upon the larger narrative; the related perception of textual segments operating as microcosms of the entire text and particularly as closural devices; intertextual allusions at the beginnings of works to the endings of important predecessors (e.g., the glance back to the end of the Argonautica in the proem of Catullus 64); and instances of false or premature closure. This catalogue of current protocols offers an extremely serviceable introduction to the essays that follow his own.

If I've allotted so much space to Fowler's piece, it is not in order to minimize the practical contributions of the chapters that follow, but to underscore, instead, the decisive importance of his ongoing exploration of the literary-critical topos of closure. In the process of interrogating ancient and modern notions of completion, he makes astute observations about numerous literary texts and raises searching questions about the premises underlying currently popular methodological stances. For the discipline as a whole, his is one of the most stimulating and potentially valuable theoretical projects now in progress.

Several of the other essays in the volume classify the closural techniques to be found in ancient genres and works. Rutherford's "Odes and Ends: Closure in Greek Lyric" is (apart from the wretched pun) a commendable example. Surviving lyric endings, though relatively small in number, nevertheless display a wide repertoire of expedients. Five of those are singled out for illustration: final prayers, frames and seals, reception by listeners, gnomic reminders of limitation, and mythical exempla or allusions. Pindar also uses anticipatory closural strategies, including instances of false closure, internally, at the ends of triads; through detailed treatments of O. 13 and N. 7, Rutherford shows the complexity of the artistic effect thus attained. Following in the footsteps of Smith's monumental treatment of closure in English verse,2 his typology, although much briefer, is a crucial first step in identifying and categorizing the characteristic terminal devices of Greek and Roman poetry.

Similar typological surveys are attempted in Fusillo's "How Novels End: Some Patterns of Closure in Ancient Narrative" and in Pelling's "Is Death the End? Closure in Plutarch's Lives." Fusillo makes the vital point that closural problems of fictional prose texts differ from those of poetry and adopts a set of narratological categories taken from Genette as tools of analysis. He notes the illusion of authenticity achieved by the novelist's employment of paratextual devices and demonstrates, through consideration of such issues as prognostic references to the future, length of the closing scene, and the voice and perspective of the final speaker, that the "happy ending" of the ancient novel is by no means either purely consolatory or lacking in ambiguity. Pelling studies examples of Plutarch's biographies that do not terminate with the death of their protagonist in the light of the author's system of pairing and then comparing lives. While the individual biography frequently ends with posthumous material that offers a generous, or at least a long-range, perspective upon moral issues surrounding the subject's actions, the synkrisis or comparison reconsiders the question, often exposing it to closer scrutiny and pronouncing a qualified judgment. Like Rutherford's, these surveys, although more limited in scope because of their focus upon a single genre or author, indicate that manipulating standard closural elements can create unexpected final tension.

Special mention must be made here of Hardie's exemplary study "Closure in Latin Epic." Breaking with the tendency to view epic as a rigidly "closed" genre, he insists upon the uncertainties of its endings, despite (or perhaps because of?) its implication in prevailing ideological discourses. The classic instance of ambiguous closure is, of course, the Aeneid, and Hardie establishes that issues left unresolved there are taken up again in the ostensibly "rounded-off" conclusions of the Thebaid and the Punica. The outcome of Aeneas' struggle to found Rome, he argues, is displaced from its proper narrative position at the end of the poem and only foreshadowed, in passages such as the portrayal of Octavian's triumph on Aeneas' shield. Structurally and thematically the last event depicted, the killing of Turnus, does make meaningful sense of the whole, but it also "inverts the expected sequence of violence followed by ritual" found in its Homeric paradigms (144). Subsequently both Statius and Silius Italicus explore the possibilities of "reopening stories that seem to have reached a conclusion" (158) by reworking Vergilian matter. Hardie has put his finger squarely upon the most disquieting closural element of the Aeneid, the stark absence of ritual as a channel of mediation between slaughter on the battlefield and the daily life of the community; and his readings of the Thebiad and the Punica imply that its omission cast a disturbing shadow over all post-Augustan epic.

No study of closure would be complete without mention of Ovid's Fasti, the most notoriously incomplete of all classical texts. Barchiesi makes an intriguing case for considering the break-off at 30 June a premeditated gesture: withholding from circulation the last six books of the Fasti, with their unavoidable focus upon imperial anniversaries, would, he argues, epitomize the rupture in the poet's own life caused by exile and metaphorically replicate the damage inflicted upon a poetic masterpiece originally consecrated to the Princeps himself (et tibi sacratum sors mea rupit opus, Tr. 2.552). Although more covert than the "overdetermined," all but parodic, closural strategies of the Metamorphoses, the presence of terminal signs in the last forty lines of Fasti 6 raises the possibility that "[i]n two great projects, the Fasti and the Metamorphoses, the act of ending offers the reader a political analogy" (207). Similar explanations for the missing second half of the Fasti have been proposed before, of course, and even the perception of closural foreshadowings at, e.g., 6.771-74 isn't entirely new. Still, Barchiesi assembles the impressive (if not quite decisive) evidence for deliberate authorial suppression into an elegant package.

Peta Fowler's "Lucretian Conclusions" demonstrates that awareness of closural conventions can shed light on yet other long-standing philological questions. By identifying signals of closure (particularly the epiphonema or concluding gnome) in lines 1247-51 of DRN 6, she offers a new argument for Bockemueller's claim that this section ought to be transposed to the very end of the poem. Endings of other Lucretian books, similar conclusions in didactic poetry, epic, and tragedy, and putative echoes in later works are also cited in support of this hypothesis. To meet the objection that such a closing would be bleak and un-Epicurean, she contends that the poem enacts both its "birth," by assimilating itself to the creative principle in Book 1, and its subsequent "death" and decomposition, thereby encapsulating its own vision of corporeal existence. As it refuses to draw a firm moralizing conclusion, it sets a final test for its internal reader, the Epicurean convert. Fowler's belief that an ostensibly incomplete ending serves to lay the burden of resolution upon the reader employs a set of assumptions much favored by fellow contributors.

Dewald's treatment of the concluding chapters of Herodotos' Histories is probably the most suggestive use of the latter strategy. Having noted that one dominant theme of the Histories is the limits of genuine knowledge, which is "portrayed as hard to come by," and that "very few individuals in the narrative apply it usefully to their own circumstances" (80), she proposes that these discrete episodes look beyond the present to emerging patterns of history, barely apparent to the author and his contemporaries and intelligible only to subsequent generations. Similarly, Dunn unpacks the several premature "false closures" of Euripides' Heracles to arrive at a last moment of dubious indeterminacy in which the former champion must comfort himself with ordinary human friendship and the spectators are left with no narrative formulas and no divine, heroic, or civic values to help them make sense of the catastrophe. Lastly, Murnaghan's somber study of the Iliad shows how the narrative constantly defers both the restoration of Achilles' lost honor and, for the armies as collective bodies, an end to the murderous struggle for elusive glory. The ransoming of Hector does not produce a moment of clarifying transcendence, because Achilles, in her view, remains invested in the fallacy of individual distinction. Hence "[t]he truce that is constructed by Achilles and Priam is, like the other truces recorded in the Iliad, a temporary pause that facilitates the continuation of the war -- the final manifestation of the pattern of incomplete closure that pervades the poem" (39). Murnaghan's powerful reading reopens a scene and a plot whose implications are perhaps too often presented as neatly, if tragically, settled.

Propertius' fourth book, which begins with a promise to sing of patriotic themes -- immediately thereafter recanted -- and ends with a lofty speech of self-justification by Cornelia, the dead wife of Paullus Aemelius Lepidus (censor in 22 B.C.E.), poses an array of challenges for scholars attempting to fix the poet's exact location on an "Augustan vs. anti-Augustan" grid.3 In order to disprove the "sincerity" (his word) of the opening palinode and the other poems in Book 4, W. R. Johnson attempts to uncover thoroughgoing irony in the last elegy. By hinting at buried anxieties, he argues, Cornelia's mythic allusions find cracks in her ideological convictions, while mention of the emperor's presence at her funeral in the company of her mother Scribonia stirs up embarrassing old scandals about Octavian's divorce of Scribonia and overhasty remarriage to Livia. While Johnson's wit and ingenuity are always delightful, here, I'm afraid, he doesn't make his case for a degree of irony sufficient to invalidate all that has gone before. The closural aspects of the elegy seem to infuse it with absolute determinacy: Cornelia takes her leave of Paullus convinced of her future fame, proud of having met a demanding standard of excellence, and speaking with the unimpeachable moral authority of the aristocratic Roman mother.4 So, analogously, Propertius may be taking leave of his reader. To be sure, the latter account also oversimplifies, for the intertextual layering of Cornelia's last words upon those of Cynthia in 4.7 is provocative, to say the least. Yet, given a basic groundnote of finality, establishing the presence of unremitting bathos and ridicule in this text appears particularly difficult. Nevertheless, by asking what light the semantic operations of 4.11 as a closing poem shed on the rest of the volume, Johnson has clearly launched an absorbing new line of inquiry.

Many of these interpretations look to the "aftermath" in order to open up the concluded text. Drawing the volume to a close, Roberts points out the frequency of aftermaths in both modern and ancient narratives, attributing them to desire for the full, complete stop afforded by the character's death. Classical narratives, whose plots are drawn from a continuous and familiar body of myth, may, at a point of apparent termination, prophesy events still to come, obscurely hint at them, or even frankly refuse to speak of them. Do these strategies defer the outcome or emphasize its inevitability? Roberts proposes that such "double endings" not only force audiences to view the text in two different ways but also underscore the uncertainty of human happiness, a major concern of most ancient myths.

While an essay collection of this kind admittedly cannot pursue in depth any of the large metacritical and epistemological issues implicated in the study of closure, it can and does illustrate the great complexity of ancient closural techniques and the variety of traditional philological and historical problems upon which consideration of closure may shed light. Further assistance to the novice scholar is provided in a short annotated bibliography of earlier theoretical and practical research on the subject, involving both modern and classical literature. I hope that Princeton will soon issue this collection in paperback. It belongs on the reading list of any graduate proseminar presuming to address the application of contemporary theory to classical studies.

A postscript would seem to be in order. As a critical approach, closure is most frequently invoked by this group of contributors to destabilize a supposedly firm conclusion rather than to tie up a loose one. (Barchiesi is an obvious exception.) Don Fowler is probably right in his assertion that trained readers nowadays prefer the weak or indecisive ending. Smith's breakthrough study assumes, however, that final integration and stability, however artificially achieved, are the rule, irresolution and anti-closure the marks of purposeful departure from the norm (see especially the section "Closure and Anti-Closure in Modern Poetry," pp. 234-60). One wonders, then, about the long-term outcomes of pursuing aperture for its own sake. Are we happily prying open fissures so that a later generation of scholars can have the satisfaction of nailing them shut again?


1. "First Thoughts on Closure: Problems and Prospects," MD 22 (1989): 75-122.  

2. B. H. Smith, Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1968.  

3. E.g., H.-P. Stahl, Propertius: "Love" and "War." Individual and State under Augustus. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1985: 248-305. For difficulties inherent in the "grid" itself, see D. F. Kennedy's critique of Stahl in The Arts of Love, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993: 35-37.  

4. And possibly not just any Roman mother, but the speaker's namesake, the sainted Cornelia mater Gracchorum. In a paper currently in progress, J. Hallett enumerates stylistic and thematic parallels between Propertius' text and two fragments of a letter ascribed to the earlier Cornelia preserved in manuscripts of Cornelius Nepos. These fragments are, in any case, the most proper comparanda for Propertius 4.11. Even if they are forgeries, they nonetheless reflect the attitudes, values, and comportment considered appropriate for such a cultural icon.