Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.11.38

Michaela Schmale, Bilderreigen und Erzähllabyrinth. Catulls Carmen 64. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 212.   München/Leipzig:  Saur, 2004.  Pp. 307.  ISBN 3-598-77824-4.  €88.00.  

Reviewed by Christiane Reitz, Heinrich Schliemann-Institut für Altertumswissenschaften der Universität Rostock (
Word count: 2756 words

Michaela Schmale (S.) in her Würzburg dissertation offers a close reading of Catullus' Peleus and Thetis epyllion. This is a learned book which offers the reader many good observations on a difficult text. S. gives the reasons for her monographic approach in her detailed overview of the history of research on the C. 64. (ch. 1, p. 17-44).

In the following chapter "Methodische Vorbemerkungen" (ch. 2, p. 45-52) she explains her theoretical foundations. These are the question of the epic narrator, the imagery in the text and the issue of its intertextuality. In the following chapters S. offers a detailed interpretation of the poem (ch. 3-8, p. 53-281). The chapter on the ecphrasis, the description of the tapestry on the bridal bed, is the longest (ch. 5-6, p. 103-220). A resume (p. 283-290) and a bibliography (p. 291-307) complete the book. I will follow the argument of the book by chapters and ends with a conclusion and some Formalia.

1) S. claims correctly that the poem still needs thorough explaining and interpretation. Older scholarship, she argues, had the tendency to make "Alexandrian learning" the main clue to the poem; recent research has often concentrated on ambiguity as one of its main features -- neither approach is sufficient. By arranging her overview thematically, which is convenient for the reader, S. sometimes cannot avoid the danger of a one-sided judgement. In her survey of research on the ecphrastic approach to c. 64 (1.9, p. 36-39) I miss a reference to the article in Der Neue Pauly by Fantuzzi, to Reitz,1 and to the helpful remarks by P. Toohey on the miniature epic.2

2) S.'s effort to use a modern narratological approach in her interpretation is commendable, though she does not take into consideration that there are marked differences between modern narrative texts in prose and ancient epic texts. For example, the category of "personal narrative" (personales Erzählen), used by Petersen (1993) and by Martinez/Scheffel (2nd ed. 2000) in their introductions into narrative texts, does not or does only in a very loose sense apply to a short epic like c. 64. S. dedicates two and a half pages to the theory of intertextuality -- for the informed reader too much, for the uninformed too little. Whom does a footnote help which runs: "Zu dieser Richtung gehören Literaturwissenschaftler in der Nachfolge Julia Kristevas, wie z.B. Roland Barthes, Michael Riffaterre, Charles Grivel, Vincent B. Leitch oder Harold Bloom" (p. 50, n. 23)? Instead one would have wished for a discussion of whether the results of G. B. Conte's research might apply to Catullus, or those of Irene de Jong's.

3) The third chapter analyses how in vv. 1-30 the poet connects his own story with the myth of the journey of the Argonauts. S. rightly stresses that it is Catullus' strategy to disappoint the reader, who at first might be led into believing that s/he is about to read another Argonautica. On the other hand, I miss a consideration of the question why the common markers for the epic genre (of which the Argonaut story would be a specimen) seem to be lacking; for example, there is no apostrophe of the Muses. The Argonaut myth, so S. on p. 53, is used as a paratext for the whole poem.

Her argument on the difficult question of how the praise of the old heroes (O nimis optato...v. 22ff) fits into the context is convincing: the author by this poetic device makes clear that a whole stock of myths and their variants is available to him as a storyteller, from which he is free to pick one. So S. is able to explain why Catullus obviously does not mind that in the course of the poem he will not fulfil what he had announced in v 24f.

4) The next chapter is an interpretation of those parts of the poem which deal with the marriage of Peleus and Thetis and which form the frame of the central ecphrasis. S. analyses the structure of the three-level narrative (pp. 78f, strangely without using the apt term "digression"). There is nothing new there, but it gives her the opportunity to make one observation from the outset: the narration of the wedding is not fluent, but is several times brought to a standstill by inserted descriptions. The wedding itself is strangely left in the background: the bridal pair does not appear and the consummation of the marriage is never mentioned. The line by line interpretation of the following passages contains good observations. Catullus describes how the rura, left behind by the wedding guests fall into decline. S. rightly interprets this as a pessimistic setting, and at the same time as an instance of making the myth transparent in the face of the reality of the Roman contemporary reader. Besides Vergil's Georgics she might have quoted the famous passage in Lucan 1, 242/9 as another example of intertextual usage of Catullus' description.

Some very fine observations are to be found on the description of the palace, e.g. on v. 49: the whole verse is concerned with describing the purple used for the pulvinar. I missed a note on gaudet in v. 46, a usage which seems still not sufficiently explained (certainly not by the assembly of examples in ThlL 6,2, II 2, 1708). S. plausibly suggests that the wealth and splendour of the palace might be a reflection of Roman contemporary luxury discourse and sees a connection with Roman villae of Catullus' time. When she considers the passage where the gods come as guests to the wedding, S. does make good remarks on Thessaly as a literary landscape, but she misses the irritating point that the description of this landscape in Catullus (vv. 280/4) does not contain any visual details and remains remarkably unconcrete (92). Also one should keep in mind that "Verräumlichung"(p.86), the creation of space within the narrative, is not something special in Catullus but one of the main features of epic in general

5, 6) The long chapter on the tapestry (pp. 131-220) is preceded by an introduction into the concept or ecphrasis in classical literature (pp. 103-129). S. refers to the work of F. Graf and D. Fowler and gives a number of examples for the development of poetic ecphrasis in the literary tradition (Ilias 18, Scutum, Aeschyl. Sept., Eur. Ion, Apoll. Rh. bk. 1 (Jason's cloak), Theocr. id. 1, Herod. 4, Moschos) and a survey of the Aeneid. These examples are of course not treated extensively, but it is a helpful overview anyway. Ecphraseis in S.'s opinion should be seen as an aesthetic and metapoetic encapsulation not only of their literary context but also of the artistic programme of their time (p. 128).

This approach is used in the following interpretation to explain the seemingly disproportionate amount of space allocated to the ecphrastic parts and the narrative parts of the poem. But S. also gives the necessary background concerning the literary and iconographical tradition of the Ariadne-myth (pp. 133-139). She rightly stresses two possible different approaches to the role of Theseus within the myth, the Greek one, which "athetises" Theseus' wrongdoing when he leaves Ariadne, and the Roman one, which rewinds this process.

Some of the interpretations that follow are again very probable: the poet for his part has the possibility to stress or to neglect the material of the work of art he describes. From v. 53 onward Catullus obviously does the latter. S. also observes that by the technique of ecphrasis the reader can be purposely misled by the poet: "unzuverlässiges Beschreiben" (p. 146). These are useful tools to gain insight into the inbuilt unreliability of the description. Neither its truth nor its meaning is ever entirely clear. The same applies to its erotic undertone and to the chronological order. By way of creating a chronological disorder between the first ship ever, the Argo, in the prologue, and Theseus' ship in the ecphrasis, the poet invites the reader to look at both myths as on a "Bilderreigen" -- any myth in any variant is available to its narrator (p. 151).

But on some points I disagree with S. ferox in v. 173 is not a neutral term (cp. OLD s.v 3a) On Ariadne's love at first sight, besides going into Lucretius and the relationship of love and sight, on c. 64,91ff she should have quoted Apollonius of Rhodes 3,275 with the valuable remarks of Natzel.3 Catullus' remarks on Ariadne's family (vv. 117) S. sees as distracting attention from the scandalous reality (mother a sex maniac, brother a monster). I would rather plead for irony on behalf of the poet. But on the whole S. explains convincingly once again how the author is deluding the expectations of the reader and how the text is structured by the narrator's interventions. I also found her discussion of Ariadne's "inner monologue" interesting. S. criticizes my own view of this passage; I feel that she has not wholly understood what I wanted to say in my article (which is not necessarily her fault).4 What she says about the connection of "Ariadne the speaker" and "Ariadne the possible work of art" is very interesting. Catullus makes the reader see Ariadne develop from a saxa effigies to something like the statue made by Pygmalion and coming into life ("gleichsam pygmaliontisch", p. 187, not a very happy expression). When it comes to discussing existing works of art and the strategies used in them to work on the spectator reception S.'s argument becomes a bit nebulous. About the difficult question of what Catullus means us to understand by parte ex alia in v. 251 she does not make a plausible decision. If it is not a picture with two halves, and not a composition around a center, or a composition with three figures, then what is it? I don't believe that we can ever decide. But it is not helpful to reach out as far as Titian's painting or to a work of art as much disputed as the frieze in the Villa dei Misteri. I also think that if in a philological study works of art are quoted and used as parallels (which can be a very rewarding method) then it should be done properly, quoting the material and at least some references, and not just tell us "reichlich bekannt" (e.g. p. 200, n. 232). The relationship between texts and pictures is such a difficult topic that it cannot be handled en passant. The same applies to the relationship between religion and art (S. alludes to Bacchic cults in the late republic by quoting Muth's introduction to ancient religion). I do not claim that a masterly treatment of all these subjects can be the object of a dissertation, but I miss an awareness of the difficulties connected with interdisciplinary approaches.

S. is on her own field again when she considers whether the Ariadne story has a happy ending. There are correspondences with the Medea myth, especially the blending of the desire for revenge in both heroines, Medea and Ariadne, and there are contrasts in the optimistic vs. the pessimistic outlook (pp. 208-20).

7) S.'s interpretation of the song of the Parcae starts promisingly with the observation that the author creates parallel situations for his audience and for the (silent) audience in the poem. I also agree with the hypothesis (mainly based on Effe) that there is a provocative contrast within the narrative between the heroic world and the sphere of private reality. The spinning of the Parcae is described in great technical detail. But the main point of comparison for me seems to be Theocritus id. 2, an obvious model which S. does not consider. The ironic atmosphere of this poem and the uselessness of the spinning charm would have told her how ambiguous the song of the Parcae is from the outset. It is certainly right that the Parcae sing both an Epithalamium and a prophetic song. But first of all they just sing a song with a refrain, and the technique of refrain should have been explored. S. gives an overview of the figure of Achilles in classical literature which of course cannot be exhaustive. I would be careful to take texts where "Achilles" is used as an example for a particular deed or virtue (e.g. by Cicero) at face value. Cicero supposes his readers to be familiar with the philosophical approach concerning something Catullus probably did not have in mind. But still S. comes to interesting results and can show that the song, including the simile of the harvester, sheds some doubt on the picture of the traditional hero, a position which she calls "euripideischer Blickwinkel". But to interpret v. 366-8 (solvere vincla) accordingly as an allusion to the defloration of Polyxena by Achilles (p. 246) is going too far. One should keep in mind that Catullus speaks of Neptunia vincla. That the Parcae by their Trojan allusions remind their audience of the roles of winner and victim respectively, on the other hand, is certainly true (p. 249). Through song and ecphrasis, Catullus opens a further level of mythical narrative and another medium of narration where he is able to tell disagreeable truths, truths within the myth which cannot be altered by the narrator (p. 256).

8) The epilogue is not S.'s favourite part of the poem. She acknowledges that there is a strong link between it and the praise of the heroes at the beginning of the poem, and she thoroughly explores its literary tradition of the song of the ages. But she is not willing to put forward a solution of how to combine the disiecta membra of the poem. For her the epilogue is a pseudo-historical corselet (p. 279) by which Catullus encloses his main topic, the poet and the myth. She observes the breaks and the ways in which the poet covers them, such as the motif of theoxenia, the connection between the ages and the Trojan war. But generally she believes that the opposition between the main part of the poem and the last 25 verses is deliberately created by the poet.

To conclude: S.'s book oscillates between commentary and interpretation. The somewhat flowery style makes reading a bit tiring. Her writing does not always manage to live up to her own theoretical standards. Her terminology is sometimes unclear: terms like "Folie, Reflex, Rückgriff", and terms from film ("filmschnittartig, eingeblendet, mit dem Fernrohr") are used without differentiation. I also sometimes became impatient with her vocabulary: what exactly means: "etwas Hyperbelhaftes haben" (87) or "implizit anzitieren" (98) to quote just two examples. One should also be very careful in the use of "gewissermassen" and "gleichsam". On the other hand there are colloquialisms like "trickreich" (146) and verbal monstrosities like "der Ekphrast" (207) and the definition of a simple nam as "explikative Beziehung zwischen Rahmen und Binnentext" (p. 159, n. 97). A thorough revision could also have eradicated easily patronizing remarks on the ancient poets' craftsmanship. In my opinion, it is not for us to judge whether some verse or other is "meisterhaft" or "gelungen" (e.g. p. 126, 188); showy quotations like the one out of Assman (n. 170 on p. 182) which does, at least in such brevity, nothing for the context are just filling the pages. It is a pity that revision has evidently not taken place. A shorter and more straightforward book, or perhaps even better a line to line commentary would be much easier to handle, and S.'s many interesting theses and observations on Catullus would then be more easily accessible.

There are very few typos, mostly concerning the hyphenation (pp. 164f., 171, 194, 206, 208, 241, 276, 288, 300, 303). The bibliography is very rich. Some more general titles are missing (Conte and de Jong on narratology, the chapter on "short epics" by Peter Toohey in Reading Epic, Artikel 'Ekphrasis' im Neuen Pauly, Seidensticker's works on Mythenkorrektur). I wonder why S. has not profited from the old commentary by Ellis, which still offers helpful observations. I myself would prefer not to quote titles by the date of their reprint only. A last formality concerns the practice of quoting the text of Catullus. This is not handled consistently. Considering the rather limited number of verses, S. as a service to her readers should have always quoted the whole text she discusses at its place. I would have liked clear decisions on questions of the text: S. only mentions the difficulties, see e.g. p. 167, n. 124 (v. 119), 220, n. 233 (v. 254), p. 225 n. 17 (v. 17).5


1.   DNP 3 (1997), 942-950.
2.   P. Toohey, Reading Epic, London 1996, ch. 6, 100ff.
3.   S. Natzel, Klea gynaikon. Frauen in den Argonautika des Apollonios Rhodios, Trier 1992.
4.   Ch. Reitz, "Klagt Ariadne? Überlegungen zur Rede der Ariadne in Catulls carmen 64", Gymnasium 109, (2001), 91-102.
5.   I apologize for the lateness of this review.

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