Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.20

Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi, Frontiers of Pleasure: Models of Aesthetic Response in Archaic and Classical Greek Thought.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. ix, 205.  ISBN 9780199798322.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Pauline A. LeVen, Yale University (

Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi’s Frontiers of Pleasure: Models of Aesthetic Response in Archaic and Classical Greek Thought fits at the intersection of three fields that are currently attracting much scholarly interest: the culture of mousikē, ancient aesthetics, and the study of the senses.1 Among a set of sophisticated volumes, Peponi’s sleek book distinguishes itself by its lucid approach, engaging style and bold insights.

The book’s seven chapters have the clarity of tone of a well-tuned lyre. Chapter 1 (“Concepts and Terms”) introduces the main topic: Frontiers of Pleasure analyses how the Greeks conceptualized physical and mental responses to the experience of the beauty of music and song in the archaic and classical Greek periods. Poets and philosophers offered important reflections on the beauty of aural artifacts, the reactions they elicit and the judgments associated with their perception – all questions that “can be better understood today as relevant to the area of aesthetics” (p. 1). This claim, as Peponi herself explains, is not unproblematic: the modern term “aesthetics” is a product of eighteenth-century German culture and social thought and carries with it notions of exclusiveness in the judgment of the beauty of the “fine arts.” By contrast mousikē, “the activity of the Muses” central to Greek social, cultural, and religious life, is defined by its inclusiveness. It is this seeming paradox, which has led modern theorists of the arts to neglect early Greek reflections on listeners’ responses to mousikē as imperfect ruminations, that Peponi examines, positing that, despite a lack of correspondence between terms, modern aesthetics and ancient debates on responses to aural beauty share a conceptual core.

The titles of the subsequent chapters (Tranquility, Weeping, Fusion, Eros I and II) provide a roadmap of different models of aesthetic response, organized on a scale of growing emotional turmoil in the listener.

Chapter 2 (“Tranquility”) focuses on a first type of reaction, characterized by a state of contemplative stillness. Starting with the Joycean Stephen Dedalus’ meditations on the radiance of the beautiful, the chapter offers three case studies devoted to the silencing, and stilling, effect of the contemplation of music, first in a passage of Plato’s Republic 3, then in the iconography of symposiasts listening to aulos-music and finally in Penelope’s conceptualization of the suitors’ delight at Phemius’ thelktēria in Odyssey 1. The chapter introduces a question that recurs throughout the book, that of the relationship between ancient Greek reflections on aesthetic response and the Kantian idea that the contemplation of beauty be free of emotion, especially of the kinetic impulse of desire.

Chapter 3 (“Weeping”) focuses on tears as marker of a split response to musical performance. The representation of multiple reactions to the bard’s song shows the epic’s engagement with the problem of aesthetic distance. The dominant figure here is the Odysseus of Odyssey 8: the famous simile comparing him to a woman weeping over the body of her dead husband is, on Peponi’s reading, the locus of a meditation on the articulation of raw material of life, emotions and the beauty of artistic representation. The teary nature of Odysseus’ reaction to Demodocus’ performance is further analyzed in the light of Plato’s Philebus’ notion of mixed pleasure and of Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment. Odysseus becomes a unique and ideal character in his ability to embody two behaviors simultaneously: expressing his pain with tears while taking a connoisseur’s pleasure in listening to a beautiful song, “thoroughly underdistanced while prominently detached” (p. 63).

“Fusion” (chapter 4) examines the problem of the listener as aesthetic subject. Peponi interprets the Odyssean Sirens as liminal creatures providing for the listener an archetype of musical pleasure and seduction (kēlēsis), both sensual and cognitive. Represented as mixing musical genres and lyric tropes in their musical performance, these hybrid creatures create a particular mode of response to auditory beauty: the listener becomes initiated into the performance itself, and even loses his autonomy, becoming a performer in the musical act. This model of intense response is further illustrated in the fascinating passage of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo where the Delian Maidens give listeners the impression that they themselves are speaking. Mental (intellectual and emotional) continuity is created as a form of fusion between audience and performer. The Sirens and the pleasure they bring become the “archetypal locus of song” (p. 94), a place where the delight of the listener can extend to the pleasure of the poet and performer.

The eroticism inherent in the Sirens is brought out further in Eros (I) and (II). Chapter 5 opens with a reading of the Proustian narrator’s description of Swann’s response to the Vinteuil sonata: a mix of ineffable longing to hear the phrase again, and precise cognitive evaluation of the piece’s workings. Comparing Apollo’s reaction to Hermes’ cithara music in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes to Swann’s psychosomatic turmoil, Peponi examines the “scandalous” (p. 97) relationship of this type of response with Kant’s distinction between the beautiful (which relies on utter disinterestedness) and the agreeable (which produces an inclination). One of the most elaborate arguments of the book is developed over the following pages, in the interpretation of the relationship between the pathology of musical audition and that of falling in love, a falling in love that is, under certain circumstances, amēchanos (“intractable”). The adjective encapsulates “two opposite emotional states: on the one hand it signifies a state of unease and concern; on the other hand it carries with it a sense of delightfulness and loving affection. The listener . . . is at the same time pleased and under some strain” (p. 114). The complexity of this position and its mental ramifications provides the material of the remaining pages of the book. Peponi comes back to Plato’s Philebus, which takes as a model for the mix of intense pleasure and underlying pain that felt by the person scratching an itch.

The last chapter continues exploring the connection between eros and mousikē in Platonic passages, focusing on the relationship between music and bodily needs, and mousikē’s effect on the soul’s appetitive principle. The discussion ranges from an analysis of the language of Plato’s condemnation of mimetic poetry personified as a hetaira in Republic 10, and a model of falling in love that corresponds to a surrendering to the pleasure of the senses, to a description of Plato’s own aesthetic model of response in Republic3, best identified as mousikōs eran (“aesthetically desiring”). The chapter concludes with the examination of the intriguing paradox of this Platonic model of response: transforming the lyric model of aesthetic desiring, it transcends the senses while stimulating them.

Frontiers of Pleasure is an impressive book. Peponi navigates ancient “isles of aesthetic cogitation” (p. 89) with control and elegance. The method is powerful throughout: detailed examinations of the texture of the language used to describe musical experiences allows the author to distinguish important semantic networks, patterns of meaning, and cultural associations in ancient poetic and prose texts. The back-and-forth between analysis of modern philosophy and literature, and readings of ancient texts is masterfully executed and each domain gets mutually enriched in this dialogue.

As I find myself, like the bewitched Platonic listener of Republic 3, murmuring back the soft harmoniai of the book, I am still left with a few questions. One concerns the structure of the study. The book climaxes (to employ a term Peponi uses often) with two chapters on eros, mostly featuring readings of Plato’s Republic, and a coda whose final word – “throbs” – is symbolic of the overall concern with the pathology of excited response to music. This rhetoric tips the scales in favor of one prominent model of response: the erotic, or erotic-like. Is this because, as Peponi explains, the material informing us about this type of reaction is most abundant? Or is it because this type of response is actually a dominant model among listeners? I started by believing the former, but rereading the book made me suspect that an argument could be made for the latter. Peponi underlines that, in ancient Greek thought, the pleasure induced by music lies in the harmonious cooperation between different elements that the Kantian model opposes (cognitive appreciation and the senses). Varieties of “mixed pleasure” are indeed a recurrent motif in the book. But at times, it seems like the sensuous and sexual is the model in explicit contrast to which other aesthetic responses get articulated. This seems to be the case especially in the imagery of transfixed symposiasts and in Penelope’s model of response, discussed in chapter 2. Both offer an alternative to the image of Greek listeners as constantly titillated lovers, modulating their arousal while listening to song. Yet both seem precisely to define themselves in reaction toan overly sensual response: the tondo of cups depicting symposiasts absorbed in detached reverie, in particular, would only be revealed when the cups were drained, in the musical, sensuous and eros-filled atmosphere of the symposium. Since erotic-like conceptualizations of responses to music occupy such a large place in the study’s conceptual framework, one could suggest that eros is not one of several models of response, but that it defines an axis around which other reactions get defined. Moreover, in the case of the cup, the ambiguity between the convivial context in which the image would be read and the model of response it depicts brings up the question of the combination of senses in aesthetic responses. Sight and hearing, but also taste, smell and touch would be stimulated together in the reaction to the cup’s embedded visual representation of the detached response to music-making. In that case, the highly sensual context in which the aesthetic response imagined is received is in strong contrast with the model represented.

This raises a second set of questions: what is the relationship between the different models of response themselves? Do they all, in their complexity, exist simultaneously, as options for the listener to choose from, identify with and experience? If there is a spectrum of emotional responses, what is the lowest degree of aesthetic response – and how, if at all, is the absence of response to music conceptualized?2 Finally, are these responses culturally determined, or constructed by the performance or musical piece itself? This question is brought up in particular by the conclusion of chapter 5, that “the Homeric Hymn to Hermes is an early instantiation of a perennial discursive struggle over the mode of response that various types of citharodia elicited throughout antiquity” (p. 127). This historically-oriented statement strikes me as being of a slightly different nature from the rest of the analyses offered in the book. It opens onto a constellation of questions, the most pressing of which, for me, is that of the evolution of the aesthetic subject: did the subjectivity of the listeners themselves, and their possible aesthetic reactions, evolve with changes in mousikē, and were new types of aesthetic responses shaped by new kinds of music, and conceptualized in new types of account?

Answering this question goes beyond the goals of Peponi’s book but it is one stimulating way to continue the exploration of the rich material presented in this important book.


1.   To list the most important titles published in the last decade or so: on mousikē, P. Murray and P. Wilson (eds.) (2004) Music and the Muses: the Culture of ‘Mousikē’ in the Classical Athenian City. Oxford and New York; T. Power (2010) The Culture of Kitharoidia. Washington DC and Cambridge, MA. On ancient aesthetics: S. Halliwell (2002) The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton; J. I. Porter (2010) The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece: Matter, Sensation, and Experience. Cambridge; I. Sluiter and R. Rosen (eds.) (2012) Aesthetic Value in Classical Antiquity. Leiden. On the senses: S. Butler and A. Purves (eds.) (2013) Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses. Durham.
2.   This is a topic addressed in S. Halliwell’s essay on “Amousia: Living without the Muses” (in Sluiter and Rosen 2012, listed above), which opens an interesting dialogue with Peponi’s book.

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