Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.38

Alessandro Barchiesi, Speaking Volumes: Narrative and intertext in Ovid and other Latin poets. Edited and translated by Matt Fox and Simone Marchesi.   London:  Duckworth, 2001.  Pp. 206.  ISBN 0-7156-3027-X.  £14.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Michèle Lowrie, New York University (
Word count: 2084 words

This book is a collection of articles published between 1986 and 1997, largely about Ovid, and all focusing on the related topics of allusion, intertextuality, and narrativity. The articles are presented in the order in which they were written, and consequently map a developing process of thought. While every piece contains a wealth of detailed textual analysis, the trajectory of the whole shows a gradually increasing level of theoretical awareness that is indicative of the way Latin scholarship progressed from the late 80's to the late 90's. This exemplarity, even more than the obvious use of bringing together in English work on related themes, justifies the republication of these pieces. A brief preface introduces the volume, but the substantive statement outlining Barchiesi's understanding of the field of intertextuality in Latin poetry comes near the end (chapter 7, "Some Points on a Map of Shipwrecks"). Although I was at first surprised by the lack of an overarching introduction, it is in fact worth waiting for the more general claims, since they clearly arise from the practice that the previous essays in the book demonstrate. Those who want to cut to the chase should start with chapter 7.

Barchiesi's awareness of and frustration with the conventions of the scholarly discourse on the topic of intertextuality becomes apparent at the beginning of chapter 6, "Tropes of Intertextuality in Roman Epic", when he describes his own critical tradition as one which "has accustomed us to systematic analyses of very narrow contexts that alternate with theoretical detours of wider scope" (129). One of the things that has limited discussions of Latin poetry to a specialist audience is exactly this uneasy fit between theory and practice, perhaps nowhere more acutely than in the area of allusion and intertextuality, which has in recent decades been one of, if not the most dominant approach to criticism in the field. Although the essays in this collection do not as a whole have popularization as their aim, Barchiesi defines a method of reading which comes into view implicitly in the nuts and bolts discussions and explicitly in the places where he searches for alternative methods.

One pervading leitmotif in these essays is the relation of allusion to literary self-consciousness ("not easily detachable entities", 105). Recognition of self-consciousness allows for a definition, in the good rhetorical tradition, of some loci where intertextual self-consciousness occurs. Barchiesi calls these "tropes of intertextuality" (129-30). He does not mean to be comprehensive -- intertextuality and self-consciousness cannot be pinned down to specific places. Rather, the isolation of "fate and fame", "dreams", "prophecy", "images", and "echoes" allows for some basic systematization: places of high poetic self-definition tend to entail contact with similar places in other texts. Although the attractiveness of attributing self-consciousness to texts is indisputable -- it allows us to situate our interpretations within -- there are pitfalls. Should we align allusion with self-consciousness, intertextuality with a literary unconscious? Where does such consciousness, or unconscious reside? If these are interpretive stances the reader projects back onto the author through the text, the price to pay is the acceptance of a certain degree of subjectivity.1

I think what literary self-consciousness offers Barchiesi is a position of distance from within the text regarding itself. Beyond the pleasure of discovery afforded the reader, intertextuality is a means for writing literary history. It divulges not merely how texts situate themselves in relation to others and thereby define traditions into which they inscribe or subtract themselves, but offers a window from which to look toward "the production of the text and the figure of the author" (142). In other words, it allows, from the very heart of a text, for a detour away from its interiority and then back again. From within we glean insight (if not information) about tradition, production, the author -- all of those mysterious externals for which we have maddeningly little authentic, genuinely independent evidence from antiquity. As an added bonus, we do not even have to posit an hors texte as a source for all this evidence of literary activity, if only we could agree on the interpretation of any given allusion.

Barchiesi sets little stake on scholarly agreement. This could only take place if intertextuality were an object, and he sees it rather as an event, "a relation in motion, even a dynamic destabilization" (142). Here, poetic self-consciousness pushes interpretive stability aside: although it is undisputed that the end of the Aeneid looks toward the Homeric duel between Hector and Achilles, it gives rise to conflicting interpretations because the allusion stages a contest between different readings of Homer. The identification of Turnus and Aeneas with the corresponding Homeric hero keeps shifting, and in neither pair does one have unequivocal right on his side. Here too literary self-consciousness offers a position of distance from the text from within the text. Rather than offering a message, the allusion makes visible the code (146-7).

Such tolerance toward the vagaries of interpretation, however, accords perfectly well with positive results. The first discussion in the book convincingly uses Homeric allusion to establish the text of Heroides 3.44 (nec uenit inceptis mollior hora malis against the prior communis opinio, nec uenit inceptis mollior hora meis). Arguments can hold about there being a significant point of contact between texts without a decisive determination of the actual significance. Barchiesi continuously explores the breakage points between certainty and doubt, and his knack for finding and defining the exact place where we stop being able to know for sure makes for exciting reading. In "Allusion and Society: Ovid the Censor", Barchiesi links the phrase sic ego nec sine te nec tecum uiuere possum from Amores 3.11.39 to a similar idea expressed in a speech by Q. Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus in 131 BCE, which Suetonius tells us was read aloud by Augustus to the Senate when he was advancing his marriage legislation. The question is whether Ovid is alluding to this text, given the debate about the dates of the first and second editions of the Amores, and whether an initial non-allusion in the first edition could turn into an allusion after the fact in the second. This would entail politicizing a text usually read as part of the non-political juvenalia. Barchiesi is less interested in cutting the philological knot than in using the conundrum as an opportunity for examining Ovid's own strategies of reading. In Tristia 2 Ovid accuses Tibullus of being a forerunner of his criminal Ars amatoria, that is he politicizes an ostensibly innocent text, an exact replay of the issue at stake in the Amores passage. What follows is a discussion of the political recontextualization of traditional elegiac discourse and a meditation on the programmatic significance of Ovid's statement about the reedition of the Amores.

As one reads this collection, none of these points appears controversial. One of the things that is deceptive about Barchiesi's understated style is that he is in fact engaging fiercely on one side of a polemic that has divided the field. The last of these essays appeared the year before Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry (Cambridge 1998), and Barchiesi had read a draft of this book by then (189 notes 1 and 4). Hinds defines interpretive strategies, sets those he supports against those he does not, and names names -- something Barchiesi is far too polite to do. He had nevertheless already made an important contribution to the disputed issue of locating authorial intention, which lies at the heart of the debate, in "Voices and Narrative 'Instances' in the Metamorphoses" (1989). My favorite sentence in the book reads, "Those who find in the discourse of Pythagoras the 'deep convictions' of the author do not think, obviously, that Ovid was a fanatical vegetarian" (63). The larger point is that we cannot excerpt any narrative expression from its context (77), and this view goes hand in hand with that of intertexuality's revelation of the code rather conveying than a message. Narratological and intertextual approaches lead to the same conclusions: meaning resides in the interaction, not in denotation.

One of Barchiesi's consistent strategies is to turn the questions we pose of literature back on the texts' own presentation of literary problematics. The discussion of the Amores summarized above is a case in point. Another is his analysis of the double epistles between Acontius and Cydippe, Heroides 20 and 21, where Cydippe's problem of referring to the words Acontius wrote on the apple, whose oral reading pledged her to him, replays the problem Ovid faces in reproducing the words of his predecessor Callimachus. "If she pronounces the formula, she will fall in the the trap a second time. If Ovid reproduces his model, he will be an imitator in the trap of repetition, one who swears according to the formula of his model" (122). This sort of reading convinces because of its literalness, its formalism. In "Narrativity and Convention in the Heroides", Barchiesi attributes such literalness to Ovid (39, 40). The metaphor of seruitium amoris, which depends for its effect on the assumption of an elegiac self belonging to a good Roman family, becomes strangely alienating when used in the mouth of Briseis, an actual slave (38). When Ovid gives her a version of Andromache's line to Hector that he is her whole family (Her. 3.52; Il. 6.429-30), which was by now an elegiac topos, he reactivates the original context to draw a literalistic comparison between the two heroines. In the Iliad, Andromache had lost all her family but Hector to war, and Briseis foreshadows concretely the fate of the Trojan woman: her husband as well as the rest of her family have already been killed, and she herself reduced to slavery.

These kinds of readings accord with an assumption Barchiesi reveals as underlying contemporary studies of intertextuality (151), and one could add narrativity as well, namely that the complex is beautiful and therefore valuable (150). Although Barchiesi is a talented formalist reader, he does not stop there. He has a firm commitment to historicism, and thinks that the polemic between formalist and historicist modes of reading is misplaced. I am not quite as sure as he is that this polemic has been exhausted (147), but his point that "the more literature talks about itself, the more it talks about the world" (149) must surely stand.2 The piece in this book that most demonstrates the need to bring these modes of reading together is one that I keep coming back to in my own work, and just now had the pleasure of sharing with a student who has not yet learned Italian, "Teaching Augustus through Allusion".3 This essay reads together the two letters to Augustus in Latin literature, by Horace in Epistles 2.1 and by Ovid in Tristia 2. Let me simply highlight two points that demonstrate the interrelation of formalist and historicist readings. Barchiesi links the current understanding of Augustus as a figure whose multiple roles ("citizen and ruler, man and god, conservative and revolutionary") contributed to his peculiar construction of power, to his shifting roles as addressee in Horace's epistle, where he emerges as "man-god, ruler, consumer of literature, patron for poets, and a potential subject for literary works" (81). Whether the address of Augustus by the poets produces our understanding of his multivalence, or the texts reflect a pre-existing historical reality is a chicken-and-egg problem Barchiesi wisely leaves aside in favor of noting the accord. The press of the historical, however, is a force he well understands: our desire to know the error responsible for Ovid's exile is largely produced by the way his poetry sets this up as a secret. Here, Barchiesi notes that the intertextual link to Eclogues 8 in Ovid's discussion of carmen et error can be read either historically as pointing to "something relating to a mother and daughter together" or to an erotic tradition ostensibly disavowed (101-2). We cannot decide between the allusion as message and the allusion as code, and the impossibility of making the decision itself teaches the didactic addressee Augustus a lesson on the instability of meaning.

Anyone doing serious work on Latin poetry needs to take account of these essays, not just readers of Ovid. I would not recommend this book as a first introduction to the labyrinthine convolutions of the allusion business, but individual readings would be accessible despite their density to undergraduates, and the more generalizing chapters 6 and 7 would provide valuable guidance to graduate students working to get a hold on the issues.


1.   These questions are pursued extensively in Lowell Edmunds, Intertextuality and the Reading of Roman Poetry (Baltimore 2001).
2.   This point accords with Adorno's that lyric poetry's withdrawal from society is a social phenomenon. T. W. Adorno, "On Lyric Poetry and Society", in Notes to Literature, vol. 1, ed. R. Tiedemann (New York 1991), 37-54.
3.   I reviewed this piece for BMCR (6.4 [1995] 328-32) when it first came out in A. Schiesaro, P. Mitsis, J. Strauss Clay (edd.), Mega nepios. Il destinatario nell'epos didascalico. The Addressee in Didactic Epic (MD 31, Pisa 1993) 149-84.

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