Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.60
Evina Sistakou, The Aesthetics of Darkness: A Study of Hellenistic Romanticism in Apollonius, Lycophron and Nicander. Hellenistica Groningana 17. Leuven; Paris; Walpole, MA: Peeters Publishers, 2012. Pp. xii, 299. ISBN 9789042926547. €58.00.
Reviewed by Mark Payne, The University of Chicago (email@example.com)
Evina Sistakou has made outstanding contributions to the study of Hellenistic poetry over the last two decades. Her work is perhaps less well known in the English-speaking world that it could be because her first three books were published in modern Greek, and one can only hope that the excellence of this new book will spur an English translation of her monograph, The Geography of Callimachus and Hellenistic Avant-Garde Poetry (Athens, 2004). Hopes for the future aside, however, The Aesthetics of Darkness is an innovative exploration of what nineteenth-century Romanticism might tell us about Hellenistic poetry, or, more precisely, why the question of their resemblance is worth revisiting.
For Sistakou is not the first scholar to discern analogies between Romanticism —and, especially, late Romanticism — and Hellenistic poetry. From Pfeiffer’s protest against the then fashionable idea of an Alexandrian Ivory Tower in the History of Classical Scholarship (Oxford, 1968), to Bonelli’s equation of Alexandrianism and the fin-de-siècle in Decadentismo antico e moderno (Turin, 1979), late Romanticism has made fitful, but continuous, appearances in classical scholarship as a doppelgänger of the new kind of poetry that began to appear in Alexandria in the early third century BCE.
The explanatory power of this modern double has been challenged as well as embraced, and Sistakou wisely eschews big picture attempts to identify a common history behind the two poetries. Other than a brief nod to E. R. Dodds and Romantic irrationalism in the “Afterword,” socio-political parallels are not part of the project, nor is she interested in matching the development of Hellenistic poetry to the evolution (or devolution) of nineteenth-century Romanticism. The goal envisaged in the introductory chapter, “Charting Darkness,” is not to explain why either poetry is the way it is, but rather to show how the one can help us read the other. The dark Romanticism described by Mario Praz in The Romantic Agony (Florence, 1930, Engl. Transl. Oxford, 1933) provides a thematic criterion for the selection of Hellenistic poets in this book, but the readings themselves are inspired by the full panoply of Romantic modes, from the Gothic novel, to Romanticism proper, to Decadence.
What this method yields is a central triptych of chapters devoted to three major figures of Hellenistic poetry — Apollonius, Lycophron, and Nicander —, each of whom offers a generic variant of dark Romanticism: dark epic, dark tragedy, and dark didactic. The first chapter, on Apollonius’ Argonautica, would justify the rubric of dark Romanticism on its own. Sistakou synthesizes Medea as Gothic heroine with the poem’s landscapes of terror, sublimity, and the uncanny to produce a thorough reassessment of the poem’s claim to literary innovation. Her reading adds greatly to the characterological analysis of Medea by considering the kinds of Gothic predicament she embodies (sexual rebellion against tyrannical father; flight from the castle; etc.), as well as delineating the poem’s progress (or decadence) from a poetics of character and action to a poetics of mood (her approach bears comparison with Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s fine-grained appreciations of literary atmosphere in Atmosphere, Mood, Stimmung: On a Hidden Potential of Literature, Munich, 2011, English translation Stanford, 2012).
The second chapter, on Lycophron’s Alexandra, is also superb. Sistakou draws on the closet plays of Romanticism — Shelley’s “lyrical drama” and Byron’s “mental theater,” as these reach a kind of fruition in Browning’s dramatic monologues — to analyze the speech of Lycophron’s Cassandra as a kind of Gothic “tomb discourse”: what Antigone might have sounded like, for example, if she had a play all to herself. This chapter’s epigraph is especially well chosen — Wordsworth’s vision of druid sacrifice from the 1850 Prelude —, for what Sistakou gives us is a Cassandra who is at once a pure consciousness haunted by history, and a Gothic maiden imprisoned by her virginity, obsessed with the figure of the male anti-hero who would deprive her of it. Apart from its intrinsic merits as an analysis of Lycophron’s poem, Sistakou’s reading may bring us as close as we are likely to get to understanding what the pleasures of the lost Pleiad of Hellenistic tragedians might have felt like.
The third chapter, on Nicander’s Theriaca and Alexipharmaca, approaches the works of Nicander that survive in their entirety through a comparison with Romantic science and the poetics of sensation. This is the only chapter in which the focus on dark Romanticism perhaps obscures as much as it reveals. Sistakou’s readings are attentive and well informed, and her alignment with critics who have seen Nicander’s attitude to suffering as voyeuristic anti-humanism is understandable. Her exemplary account of Nicander’s sinister Nature could even have been augmented by a comparison with the “dark ecology” that Timothy Morton, in Ecology Without Nature (Cambridge Mass., 2007), has identified in the poetry of John Clare and other Romantic poets: a more useful comparative framework, perhaps, than Erasmus Darwin and William Bartram.
Indeed, what I missed in this chapter was an account of the troubled history of the didactic poem at the cusp of Romanticism itself, from the pronouncement of its redundancy by Schiller, in “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” to Schelling’s heralding, in The Philosophy of Art, of a didactic poetry to come, in which the genre would shed its subjectivity, and merge with philosophy as an instantiation of knowledge as such. For while it is certainly true, as Sistakou points out, that the Romantic poets’ engagement with science is now a vibrant topic of scholarly interest, this engagement for the most part took place in forms other than the studiously discrete vignettes of the didactic poem that Nicander employs so masterfully, and more attention to the form of Nicander’s work would have been welcome here.
One interesting outcome of Sistakou’s focus on dark Romanticism is that it reveals Callimachus as marginal in many respects to the aesthetics of Hellenistic poetry. All eras have their significant others, of course, who bring characteristic trends into sharper relief through contrasts in theory and practice (one might think of Walter Savage Landor’s long-sustained classicism on the margins of English Romanticism), but it is uncanny to think of Callimachus as the Other of an era whose poetics have often borne his name (Sistakou’s Callimachus is not the Roman Callimachus either). The book raises interesting questions about the relationship of dark and light Romanticism in Hellenistic poetry, not just the eschewal by Callimachus of the grisly themes and florid tone that Apollonius, Lycophron, and Nicander relish, but the cheerful otherworldliness of Theocritus’ bucolic Idylls as well.
Evina Sistakou’s book promises a dark new future for the reading of Hellenistic poetry. Quibbles about the third chapter aside, The Aesthetics of Darkness makes the poems of Apollonius, Lycophron, and Nicander available as objects of transhistorical literary pleasure in a way that few studies have succeeded in doing. The high standards and rich rewards of the book’s comparative method deserve to set a new agenda for the study of Hellenistic poetry alongside the intertextual philology that has traditionally dominated the field, and the historicist approach to courtly setting that has complemented it in recent years. The book is well presented and very largely error free, as is typical of the Hellenistica Groningana series.