Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.12.31

Gian Biagio Conte, The Poetry of Pathos: Studies in Virgilian Epic. Edited by S.J. Harrison.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007.  Pp. 240.  ISBN 978-0-19-928701-7.  $85.00.  



Reviewed by P.J. Davis, University of Tasmania (Peter.Davis@utas.edu.au)
Word count: 1513 words

Table of Contents

That Gian Biagio Conte is a key figure in contemporary Latin studies is undeniable, for he and his former students have had an enormous impact on the conduct of the scholarly discussion of Latin literature for several decades. In particular, he and his circle have had a major role to play in transforming the futile game of spotting verbal parallels into the study of allusion as a major constituent of a work's meaning. One consequence of this has been a revitalised understanding not only of Virgil but of Virgil's successors, for we no longer talk of them as working under his influence but see them as actively engaged in creative rivalry with their great predecessor. The result has been wonderful work not only in Italian but also in English. Hence it is not surprising that Conte's work is now regularly translated into English and that nowadays some of his work appears in English even before it appears in Italian.

The Poetry of Pathos: Studies in Virgilian Epic translates Virgilio: L'epica del sentimento (Turin, 2002) with the addition of an introduction by Stephen Harrison (Chapter 1) and 'The Strategy of Contradiction: On the Dramatic Form of the Aeneid' (Chapter 5), both published for the first time in this volume. Chapters 2, 4, 7 and 9 have appeared elsewhere in Italian and/or English.

Harrison's review performs the usual task of outlining the content of the chapters to come. But it does more than that, for it provides a valuable set of reflections on the nature of Conte's achievement. As Harrison explains, central to Conte's thinking is the distinction between the 'copy model', the imitation of a particular word or phrase and 'code model', the rules whereby the text is to be interpreted. One consequence of this is that, as Harrison explains, 'allusion . . . must always carry some rhetorical and hermeneutical baggage and can never by simply the evocation of a linguistic parallel' (p. 10). Also distinctive, and contrary to a major trend in recent literary theory, are Conte's emphasis on the importance of the reader's attempt to reconstruct the author's intention (p. 14) and his insistence that 'every literary text is constructed in such a way as to determine the intended manner of its reception' (p. 15). As it happens, I think that Conte's positions on these matters are precisely right.

The second chapter, 'The Virgilian Paradox' is a marvellously sophisticated account of the complexity of the Aeneid. Here Conte develops concepts familiar from Brooks Otis's Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry (Oxford, 1964). Otis distinguished between Homer's 'objective' and Virgil's 'subjective' style, while Conte distinguishes between Virgil's use of 'empathy' (characteristic of the poem's characters, particularly its victims, whose views are always partial) and 'sympathy' (characteristic of the narrator's voice, the voice that knows the whole story). In Conte's view these two must be held in balance, and so it is not surprising that he speaks highly of the 'classic article of R. D. Williams (1967).' But the balance that Conte proposes is not equal, for in the end he favours a 'hierarchy of truth' (p. 51) and considers that 'the meaning of the text rediscovers its objective foundation, entrusted to the direct responsibility of the poet, that is, to his sympatheia' (p. 52). (It should perhaps be noted that the poem's major ideological statements are not 'entrusted to the direct responsibility of the poet', but to characters--Jupiter, Anchises, Vulcan). Anti-Augustan readers may be disappointed, but there is no doubting that there is much to learn from Conte's analysis.

For this reader at least, Chapter 3 offers what is at first sight an unattractive prospect, a 65-page discussion of Virgil's use of enallage. (If you don't know what enallage is, read this chapter!) The discussion, however, is fascinating. Conte begins with a brilliant account of Virgil as a creator of language, focusing on normal poetic devices as impediments to communication which make the reader a collaborator in the construction of meaning. Conte argues that enallage is the Aeneid's characteristic trope (it is not common in Eclogues and Georgics) and associates it with Virgil's construction of a 'sublime style'. A splendid discussion of numerous individual examples follows. But again the conclusion disappoints, because Conte closes by claiming that Virgil aimed to be the poet of an entire community (you might argue that the pervasiveness of enallage suggests the opposite) and that Virgil was a leading creator of Augustan ideology. Neither claim is supported by arguments advanced in the preceding 64 pages.

Chapter 4 deals with the Aristaeus epyllion from Georgics 4 and traverses ground that Conte has covered before. Much of what Conte articulates here is by now common to interpreters of this episode: the need to relate the issues raised by the epyllion to the rest of the poem and the parallels between Aristaeus and Orpheus. Conte is very good on the parallels between Aristaeus and the farmer as represented in Book 1 (though note that Book 2 offers a different perspective). What is distinctive about Conte's approach is his argument that Virgil presents Aristaeus more positively than he does Orpheus. This is achieved at the cost of playing down the nature of Aristaeus' crime: 'Aristaeus is not only unaware of the fault he has committed but is also only involuntarily the cause of Eurydice's death' (pp. 139-140). It is noteworthy that Conte does not quote Proteus' words of accusation (4.453-459) in which it made clear that Aristaeus attempted to rape Eurydice. Aristaeus is only unaware of the fault he has committed in the sense the he does not know that this is the fault for which he is being punished, and, even if we accept that he is 'only involuntarily the cause of Eurydice's death', we can hardly say that the attempted rapist is not culpable.

Chapter 5 brings us back to the Aeneid and 'The Strategy of Contradiction'. Conte argues that critics of the so-called European and Harvard schools ignore pessimistic and optimistic elements in the text and that the Aeneid is intrinsically dualistic. The first two passages he considers are 6.863: parcere subiectis et debellare superbos and 12.930f: ille humilis supplex oculos dextramque precantem / protendens. Conte rightly refers to the double duty contained in Anchises' injunction. There are two principles: the duty of vengeance and the necessity of forgiveness. Aeneas hesitates between the two. He then argues on the basis of immolat that (12.948) that Aeneas is carrying out a religious duty in killing Turnus. But look at Anchises' words again. Is Turnus subiectusor superbus? supplex suggests that he is subiectus; humilismakes it absolutely clear that he is not superbus. It follows then that he should be spared. The examples cited from Greek tragedy for the significance of immolat do not persuade. Are we to believe that because of the word thumasin the Euripidean Medea's children are actually sacrifices to the gods and that their deaths are therefore morally acceptable? Hardly. In Euripides' Electra the death of the hospitable Aegisthus is brutal in the extreme. Sacrificial language might be used to suggest that an act is perverted, not that it is satisfactory. Conte goes on to claim that Aeneas knows the teaching of forgiveness. He does. But when he does actually forgive? (Answer: Never.) Surely that makes Aeneas worse, not better.

But if I do not find Conte's analysis of this passage persuasive, I do agree with his characterisation of the Aeneid's complexity as 'the product of the competition between conflicting claims and ideas', that works by 'multiplying its implications and perspectives' (p. 166). Conte concludes that we should recognise that both the 'European' and 'Harvard' schools can now conclude an honourable peace since each makes a contribution to our understanding of the Aeneid. We might also add that this quarrel has gone on long enough and that new issues need to be explored.

Chapters 6, 7, and 8 focus on the history of Virgilian scholarship. Chapter 6 offers an appreciation of Richard Heinze's Virgil's Epic Technique, placing it in its cultural and scholarly context, while Chapter 7 surveys the tradition of Virgilian commentary, articulating the distinction between the 'copy-model' and the 'code-model' and the importance of intertextuality. While this chapter may not cast much light on Virgil, it does raise important questions about the creation of commentaries, particularly the citation of verbal parallels. Chapter 8 considers issues of textual criticism.

Chapter 9 considers the phenomenon of the 'proem in the middle' of which only the best known (in Latin, anyway) is the invocation of Erato in Aeneid 7.

I began this review by asserting the importance of Conte's work in contemporary Latin scholarship. The manner of my treatment of different chapters makes clear that I find some chapters more engaging than others. It will also be clear that I have sympathy with the 'Harvard' school and find some of Conte's readings too pro-Augustan. But none of my reservations or qualifications should be viewed as suggesting that this is anything other than a very important book which adds much to our understanding of Virgil.

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