Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.24

Irene J. F. de Jong, René Nünlist, Time in Ancient Greek Literature: Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative, Volume Two.   Leiden:  Brill, 2007.  Pp. xiv, 542.  ISBN 978-90-04-16506-9.  $199.00.  

Reviewed by Denis Feeney, Princeton University (
Word count: 2222 words

Table of Contents

In 2004 the same editors, together with Angus Bowie, produced Volume One of Studies in Ancient Greek Literature, on Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives (reviewed by Ruth Scodel, BMCR 2005.07.48). Now there follows Volume Two, on an equally vital constituent of narrative, Time, with a distinguished list of contributors writing on all the key Greek genres. Readers should be advised that the focus is rigorously narratological, so that the title is somewhat misleading: instead of Time in Ancient Greek Literature we might have had Some Results of Applying Narratological Analysis to Ancient Greek Literature. In their Epilogue the editors justify this particular narratological emphasis and make it perfectly plain that there are other approaches to the vast topic of time in narrative texts, such as the "philosophical-historical approach", or "through linguistics" (522). Their own aim has been to enlist contributors who can analyse a wide range of Greek texts through this particular lens, hoping especially to have a diachronic dimension which will throw variations over time and genre into relief (ix): in fact, the main overall conclusion is that "most narratological categories are not bound by genre: the same devices occur in different genres, and genres are not homogeneous where the use of narrative devices is concerned" (522). The risk remains, however, of seeing narratology as an end in itself. Too many of the papers in this volume end up appearing to have a virtually parochial interest in the categories of narratology per se, in a way that makes it hard to keep an eye on the larger picture that such analysis is meant to be elucidating. I kept thinking of the wonderful scene in the movie Shakespeare in Love when the actors have adjourned to the local pub after rehearsing Romeo and Juliet, and the actor playing the nurse is downing a pint as a friend asks him what this new play is all about: with the perspective of the true actor, he replies, "Well, there's this nurse..."

I do not mean at all to decry the use of the analytical techniques or terminology of narratology, which can produce extraordinary interpretative results. In the case of Gérard Genette, the pater narratologiae, his evolution of terminology in Discours du récit was continually in dialogue with the text of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, and the new forms of analysis he produced kept generating deep insights into the novel's core themes and concerns. Again, the point is simply that narratology is not an end in itself. There is a certain interest and utility in having it demonstrated in the case of all kinds of texts that they can be analysed in terms of analepsis and so on, but this demonstration would ideally be the beginning of criticism, not the end. The chapters in this book that really sing are the ones in which narratology is regarded as a tool instead of a goal; in these cases one suddenly sees how much light can be shed in unexpected places by the careful consideration of technique. Space forbids discussion of all the chapters, although they may all be recommended for anyone working on the authors in question, since they all succeed in demonstrating that narratological time-analysis has traction in each instance; I shall concentrate on some cases where the narratology seems to be more of a goal, and on some cases where it seems to be more of a tool.

A very useful Introduction by de Jong sets out the key narratological time terminology as evolved by Jean Genette and Mieke Bal ("Narratological theory on time", 1-14), and de Jong herself provides the first chapter, on Homer (17-37). Here she moves through the various narratological categories ("order", "prolepses", "analepses", and so on), with examples from both epics. Although properly concerned with being precise in terminology, de Jong is not procrustean: not many readers, after all, will be on the edge of their seats over the question of whether Odyssey 5.276-7 is a "completing internal analepsis" or a "paralipsis" (20-1). She regularly appears to pull back just when genuinely interesting insights on the poems are coming into sight, as in her Conclusion, when we learn that Homer's "external analepses concern the background of characters and objects and hence are heterodiegetic", while "for homodiegetic external analepses and prolepses, which sketch the prehistory and aftermath of the Iliad, we must turn to the characters" (37: if you haven't got the distinction between "heterodiegetic" and "homodiegetic" at your fingertips--whether the narrator is a character in the narrative or not--, you won't be helped by the Glossary or the Index, neither of which includes these words, even under "narrator"). Certainly one may agree that "there is a neat division of labour between narrator and characters" on this score, but I was left waiting for another paragraph to spell out the implications of this surprising division of knowledge and perspective. Why is it that the omniscient narrator does not tell the narratees about the impending Fall of Troy or the wanderings of Odysseus after his return to Ithaca but gives this task instead to his characters Priam and Teiresias? To make progress on this question we would need further exploration of the very interesting issues gestured at in the Chapter's opening section, on "Time awareness" (17-18): why do the characters range forward and backward in their awareness of time while the narrator practically never does, but maintains a virtually relentless focus on the moment at hand and on the chronological parameters of the poem?

The drawbacks of having the narratological tail wag the poetic dog are more evident in the chapter on Hesiod by R. Nünlist (39-52). In his discussion of the Works and Days he concentrates his analysis on "the narrative sections proper...esp. the myths of Pandora and the five races" (48), but one is left wondering how far a discussion of time in this poem takes us if it leaves out what the poem is all about, namely, the progression we all face through the movement of annual time. In concluding his discussion, Nünlist uncomfortably allows for the fact that he has just written on the subject of time in a work called Works and Days without talking about the Days bit (51). Genette's categories may not help very much in analysing the bulk of the poem, but it would have been good to see what kind of formal time analysis would assist readings of the poem's main portion.

Similarly, Nünlist has very interesting things to say about the chronologies of the genealogies in the Theogony, but he splits the Theogony "proper", starting at line 116, from the "Hymn to the Muses" that opens the poem (39, 46-8). Now, it may make some kind of technical narratological sense to begin analysis with the chronographically organized events of the genealogies, but in terms of the poem's all-embracing and self-referential obsession with beginnings and origins it is distinctively counterproductive to bracket off the opening portions. This poem of beginnings has a medley of competing beginning points. The poet "begins" with the Muses in the first line (ἀρχώμεθ') and then recounts their song (11-21), which tracks back in time from Zeus' present to the origins; we then have another beginning moment, from the poet's life, when the Muses "first" (πρώτιστα) addressed him and taught him song (22-35), instructing him to sing them "first and last" (πρῶτόν τε καὶ ὕστατον, 34); after this autobiographical retrogression to an originary moment of a different kind we resume where we began, "beginning" with the Muses (ἀρχώμεθα, 36) as instructed, but this time for a second time, as they sing a second song, one which this time begins at the beginning and moves forward, so that Zeus is now "second" (δεύτερον, 47), not the first name as he had been in their original song (11); after praise of the Muses we finally reach the very belated point where the poet asks them to tell him the matter of the poem "from the beginning" (ἐξ ἀρχῆς, 115), "what first came into being" (ὅτι πρῶτον γένετ̓ αὐτῶν, 115), and the narrative finally begins with Chaos, which came into being "first of all" (πρώτιστα, 116). So what is the primal moment in this poem of primal moments, depending as it does on a specifically situated human agent to sing it, divine agents to inspire it, and evolving primeval divine subject matter to shape it?

The problematic beginning moments of Hesiod's Theogony are indispensable to the poem's constructions of origins and sequence, and cannot be detached from the body of the poem without jeopardising Hesiod's purpose: what counts as "the body of the poem" is a poetological issue in its own right, as we have seen, and this issue resonates with the poem's global interest in how detachable or determinative beginning moments are. These Hesiodic beginning moments echo down the Greek tradition, especially in the opening of Callimachus' Aetia, another poem of origins and demarcation, where we similarly have prolonged programmatic toying with the question of when the poem begins and where the preliminary matter leaves off, together with an autobiographical regression to the originary moment of the poet's youth. Beginning moments in general tend to get underplayed in this book. In discussing Apollonius' Argonautica, J.J.H. Klooster manages to ask the question "Where does the tale of the Argonauts really begin?" (65) without commenting on the fact that the poem's very first word is ἀρχόμενος: the apparently stark moment of demarcation is immediately destabilised as we read on to see that Apollonius means "Beginning from you, Phoebus", using phraseology from the Homeric Hymns that is itself used to signal closural transition, not opening. In Callimachus' Aetia Apollonius' Argonautic story is twisted inside out. The Muse Calliope "begins" to tell of Anaphe, the second-to-last stop of the Argonauts (fr.7.22), by telling the poet to remember Anaphe "first", "beginning from..." --well, beginning from the half-way point, when they left Colchis (fr. 7.24-5). This is Pindaric, for Pindar's Argonautica in Pythian 4 likewise begins at the end, with Medea speaking at Thera, and then resumes the whole tale at line 70 with the self-referentially tongue-in-cheek "What was the beginning of their expedition?"

Now, Nünlist may well say that his brief is to show what Genettian narratological analysis can do, and that he is entitled to bracket off whatever is not susceptible to such analysis, but T. Rood's discussions of the beginnings of Herodotus (116-17) and Polybius (173) are models of how to integrate narratological analysis of opening moments with an enquiry into the thematic concerns at the heart of the text in question. In general, in his superb discussions of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and Polybius, Rood is able to show how it is possible to organise a discussion around narratological topics in a way that is also consistently illuminating as a piece of criticism. Again and again his deployment of the various narratological categories sheds light on the power of the narratives, as he demonstrates, for example, how "frequency" and "analepsis" in Herodotus function to bring out the larger themes of repetition in the work as a whole, with "the same story of imperial ambition and overreach...being told a number of different times" (119), or how Xenophon's distinctive temporal scheme in the Hellenica is "eloquent of his perception of the new texture of Greek history in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War" (162-3).

K.A. Morgan and T. Whitmarsh are other strikingly successful examples of how to use narratology to open texts up in ways that could not be achieved otherwise. Morgan never loses sight of the fact that "[t]he issue of time in Platonic narrative is linked to the issue of the operation of time in mortal life" (367); as a result, she is alert to what Plato's artful management of time in his dialogues is actually trying to teach the reader, and she can elucidate how, for example, the repetitive nature of much of his dialogues acts out the way "the narrative of the Platonic dialogue occupies an uneasy middle ground between the progression that humans demand in a successful narrative and the philosophical urge towards stability" (354). Whitmarsh discusses Philostratus' In Honour of Apollonius of Tyana, and takes as his starting point the transgressive nature of Apollonius ("mortal, divine, heroic"), to which Philostratus responds with a transgressive medley of genres ("sloping from biography into encomium, even hymn"), each of which has its own time strategies, between which the narrator and subject can both slide (413). This analysis is conducted against the rich backdrop of "three different temporal systems at work in Apollonius: the Roman, the Greek, and the mystic-oriental" (417). J.R. Morgan, on the four novels of Chariton, Xenophon of Ephesus, Longus and Heliodorus, is able to deploy the narratological categories in ways which bring to light genuine differences between the novels in terms of their narrative sophistication and power.

An 'Epilogue' by the editors brings some of the threads together (505-22), going over the contributions by category ('Chronology', 'Time awareness', 'Analepsis', etc.). They have produced a book that will certainly prove useful to students of all the texts discussed, and we may be sure that the editors' "sincere hope" will be realised, that "the insights collected in this volume will inspire new and more research that will enlarge, refine or modify the picture presented here" (522).

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