Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.08.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.08.17

Richard Fletcher, Johanna Hanink (ed.), Creative Lives in Classical Antiquity: Poets, Artists and Biography. Cambridge Classical Studies.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2016.  Pp. ix, 323.  ISBN 9781107159082.  $99.99.  


Reviewed by Eleanor Winsor Leach, Indiana University, Bloomington (leach@indiana.edu)

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[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The creative lives featured in this multi-authored volume may be understood in a double sense: on the one hand as the lives of artists renowned for their creations; on the other as the lives created around them both by admirers and detractors either contemporaneous, such as Aristophanes’ caricatures in the Frogs, or at centuries’ distance, such as two Renaissance poetic tributes to Vergil. Overall it is a study in receptions, and frequently the reception of receptions as audiences of one period or culture layer impressions upon those of their predecessors. Theoretically its arguments build upon the critical foundation set by Mary Lefkowitz whose landmark Lives of the Poets exposed the largely fictive character of these traditional portraits, but with the updated understanding that the fictionality of the accounts is no cause for dismissal but rather for looking more closely through these windows into the culture or mentalities they represent. Freed from its ill-fitting yokage to “truth,” ancient biography emerges as an art form that transforms lives into art objects. Five categorical headings structure the collection’s fourteen chapters, but thematic continuity unites the subjects and principal figures predictably return. For example, the scandalous legends of Anacreon reappear so often in the volume that they challenge the recurrent presence of Homer for preeminence. With the one exception of Vergil, the writers treated are Hellenic, and except for chapters on epigraphy, sculpture, and Freud, the works discussed are poetry rather than prose.

Beginning their “Orientation” with Tom Stoppard’s dramatic reimagining of an interaction between Housman and Oscar Wilde, the co-editors Hanink and Fletcher link their project with a contemporary surge of interest in life-writing in all forms and of all periods. Whereas scholarly consensus has for many years acknowledged the factual unreliability of purported literary life-stories, these fictive writings possess their own substantial reality, some in collected vitae, others to be gleaned from allusions and anecdotes in diverse literary genres when writers engaging with earlier colleagues reflect on their own sense of identity. “Lives” embodied in such guises have value not only for independent artistry, but also as sources for traditions that, fictionality notwithstanding, have proven influential in literary history. In addition, by offering new perspectives on audience and reception, creative lives present in themselves a rich new store of material for analysis and interpretation.

In this second prefatory paper, Constanze Güthenke supplies a historical background for the scholarship of the volume with the argument that its essential issues of “fictionality, historiography and self-perception” were embryonically present in work of the early 1900s. Momigliano’s 1971 Development of Greek Biography introduces the early 20th century cultivation of biography as a form of interpretation and what it reveals about the relationship of the classical scholar’s role in creative practice. Historically the chapter’s coverage begins with F. Leo’s scholarly study of Alexandrian grammarians and compilers, which showed “a resemblance to his own generation of scholars as workers in the vineyard of positivist history” with a tendency to value the scientific at the expense of the aesthetic. Whereas the pioneering work of F. Wolf entered into the prevailing analytical methods of Classical Philology, subsequent scholarship expanded disciplinary parameters in the direction of individuality with successive reconceptualizations of Bildung by Humboldt, Dilthey, and his son-in-law Misch, who sought a relationship between biography and autobiography. There followed Wilamovitz’s massive biography of Plato, which did pay notice to these predecessors in its analysis of Plato’s unique union of knowledge and individuality.

Explicitly addressing her section head “Reviving Dead Poets,” Barbara Graziosi explores the imaginative effects of absence as energizing a sense of loss and the awareness of the passage of time at varying degrees of distance with the tendency of imaginative life creators to recognize shades of their subjects’ identities in themselves. This tendency emerges with self-conscious deliberateness in Graziosi’s introductory example of Malcolm X’s project of Homeric emulation. Three examples follow. In Theocritus’ epigrams the scandalous Anacreon receives an overall defense not to say sanitization. On the verge of Europe’s rediscovery of Greek, Petrarch’s letters to Homer in the underworld faults the lack of Greek language instruction responsible for his inability to read the original poems or to establish communication across cultures. Centuries later comes the distinguished Salvatore Quasimodo, now-a-days best known, Graziosi proposes, for his Greek poetic translations insistently claiming the mutual Sicilian citizenship of Aeschylus and himself.

As the one Latin inclusion of the collection, Andrew Laird’s multi-layered investigation of Vergilian reception deals with the possibly pseudo-biographical story of how Augustus countermanded the poet’s wish that his manuscript be destroyed. Yet the question of truth or invention is inconsequential in light of the story’s long history of transmission and belief as exemplified by two Renaissance poems – one early, one late – of tribute by Petrarch and the Mexican Rosales, both of whom more than others explicitly recognize the fact of the poet’s being dead. Turning backward into commentary versions of reception, Laird notices how the biographical disposition of Servius highlights the individual identity of the poet over and above literary concerns of characterization or narrative, whereas Donatus dislikes the Aeneid for its propagandistic Augustan affiliations. Seeking Vergil’s own vocal presence Laird finds moments of performative self-representation in the Georgics and in Aeneid 9 that set the narrator’s independent identity apart from the voice of any later reader. Different and even more personal is Horace’s image of a then deceased Vergil as a jovial drinking companion in the springtime Ode 4.12.

Pindar, as Anna Uhlig points out in her chapter on the poet’s incorporation of bioi into his compositions, is the most copiously autobiographical of Greek poets whose many deliberate first person statements tell his personal life story from its Theban beginnings to occasions that commissioned his celebrations, thereby incorporating many metapoetic passages that draw the hearer into the process of creation. Concomitantly he is the most biographical of poets, expanding his concept of authorial identity to include past poets; Uhlig focuses on three of these. To Archilochus he gives a spatial, corporeal reality—even claiming to have seen the long deceased iambist. Hesiod receives brief mention in connection with a victory, but Homer emerges as the lyricist’s true companion, furnishing both a model for his verses and a measure for his poetic status. In several odes the deeds of his epic heroes give him presence but especially Isthmian 8 where Themis’ prophecy of the birth of Achilles entwines the hero, the Muses, and the poet himself in a lyrical semblance of the epic spirit. A significant aspect of this reawakened vision of the past is its complementary facing in the direction of recurrent future performance.

Readers may be surprised by the range and content of Polly Low’s epigraphy chapter, which tracks a chronological alteration in the texts on stone from elliptic compression to verbosity along with a change in their focus from moral abstraction to specific concrete acts. Texts of the Athenian classical period are as conspicuous for their silences as for Aeschylus being remembered as military hero without mention of his dramatic successes. From the fourth century forward, Low identifies an abrupt change in the enlargement of texts to incorporate both the specific benefits provided by and the honors accorded to the deceased. General characteristics of the inscriptions from this time period are a valuation of polis over person and a political rather than a literary emphasis, with the exception of two inscriptions in a heroon on Paros, in which a devotee pays tribute to Archilochus with mention of his poetic inspiration alongside his civic service., which are the most biographical of all the inscribed commemorations here.

Unlike Uhlig’s Pindar with its deliberate self-referential allusions, Joanna Hanink’s “Forgotten Faces of Euripides” unfolds a biographical tradition based almost wholly on inference from moments in the plays. Only Aristotle saw more astutely with his interpretive pronouncement that what’s on “stage stays on stage.” Elsewhere, however, biographical traditions offer two contrasting personae: Aristophanes’ comic denigration and, in opposition, the “new Euripides” created by Lycurgus in support of his cultural program as a model of Athenian ideology and values. Another semi-positive image is that of the poet on Icaria expressing sympathy for members of a family victimized by poisoned mushrooms, a story that the American Journal of Medicine once grafted onto the history of Euripides himself. Given the myriad faces and figures—more than for any other poet—Hanink concludes that they can scarcely be fitted together like mosaic tesserae, but rather that they form a myth open to many and more interpretive narratives.

Returning to her legacy as the influential challenger of “biographical truth,” Mary Lefkowitz explains the externalizing perspectives of biographical story telling as consequent on the general silence of Greek authors on points where insights into the compositional process might have been asked. A reader may ask, is it a form of modesty or avoidance of hubris that creativity must, as Lefkowitz observes, be attributed to external causes rather than to internal energies? But biographers follow poets in honoring the muses as sources of inspiration and in seeing knowledge as descending from their mother Memory. Likewise, the legends in which bees grace the lips of poets with honey serve to attribute this mark of giftedness to others rather than ascribing the gift to the poets themselves. In contrast, one might note in Leonard’s Freudian chapter how the artist himself advertised his childhood dream of a prophetic falcon brushing his mouth. Biographies of Plato treat his brilliance in the same discursive category as that of the poets with Apollo as his particular patron. Bringing philosophy into view, Lefkowitz returns to Güthenke’s historical view to note how Wilamovitz credits Plato’s intellectual development to his own measured educational and intellectual progress, whereas Friedlander followed the lead of his dialogues to credit hearing Socrates as the cause of the philosopher’s conversion from poetry. As he saw it, Plato created his myth of emergence from the cave as an autobiographical allegory of this intellectual awakening. Lefkowitz, however, is skeptical. Two philosophically based chapters by Kurt Lampe and Richard Fletcher have in common their argumentation for the subtleties of humor as a doctrinary palliative that has previously escaped scholarly recognition. As Lampe argues, characterizations that turn on a two-sided opposition of indulgent and disciplined lifestyles as appropriate conduct for a philosopher in the apparently sober epistolary exchanges between Aristippus and Antisthenes in the fictive Socratic Epistles contain more innuendo than is superficially obvious. In the scene where Aristippus seems ready to answer Antisthenes’ exhortations to withdraw from the corruptive atmosphere of Dionysius’ bibulous symposium with a humiliating acceptance of his miserably slavish subjection, Lampe understands an application of Socratic irony by which things mean the opposite of what they appear to. Being thus identified as a component of Aristippus’ artistry, irony can be seen to flip the face of Antisthenes’ criticism to reconstrue his easy-going acceptance of court life under Dionysus of Syracuse as a course of sanity and good counsel.

Richard Fletcher invokes Diogenes Laertius’ use of deadpan humor in defending his actual purpose in poems, such as Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, whose unorthodox version of mourning has attracted almost universal negative press from the likes of Nietzsche. But Fletcher discerns an attitude which he calls both comic and Epicurean, comparing it with Beckett’s “endless living” or “aporia of death”as figured in the famous deadpan of Buster Keaton. Affinity with deadpan is similarly noted by the classically oriented philosopher Simon Critchley who deplores these poems yet betrays some sympathetic Epicurean affinity with Laertius leading finally to Epicurus’ denial of death as an evil. Fletcher concludes the chapter with readings of four notorious “mourning” epigrams whose humor resides in the incongruity of the philosophers’ death legends with the seriousness of their doctrines.

A 2011 imaginary biography by Ann Wroe, Orpheus: The Song of Life, which Pauline Le Ven invokes to open her chapter, adds still another testimony to the lasting iconicity of the figure whose multi-faceted history of varied adventures represents “the relationship between creative life and creator.” In considering the significance of Greek music, contemporary audiences must realize how our prevailing knowledge of music as a tonal science differs from the Greek concept of mousike as a life-value with the verbal/vocal aspects of creativity always intertwined within its broad reach of social engagement. Paradoxically for the hero’s Greek identity our two available narrative sources for his very ancient myth are the Roman poems of Vergil and Ovid, in which we may recognize four areas of aesthetic thinking: the origins of the musician, the power of music in creating harmony with nature, the tension between music and eros, and the symbolic indestructibility of his instrument after death.

In the sole essay devoted to artistry in the graphic sphere, Verity Platt goes where self-representational glimpses are absent in approaching the lives of celebrated sculptors historiographically through various anecdotes attached to their most famous works. Although no less abundant than stories about writers, such anecdotes tend to relate the maker to the work by focusing on specific named artefacts that give voice to images unable to speak for themselves. The most intimate of these anecdotes involve the erotic relationships of sculptors with their models. Pliny is a major source for writings that tend to cluster about the artists and products of the classical period, but Cicero and Quintilian incorporate ekphraseis of paintings into their writings on rhetorical theory. Patterns abstracted from these multiple anecdotes gives us a composite aesthetic that invites reflection on the nature of imitation.

Rome’s early history is the classical bios invoked in Miriam Leonard’s chapter on Freud’s response to Classical Antiquity, yet its presence is disappointingly short-lived within the context of this discussion, which largely occupies itself with childhood memories as the object of Freudian skepticism. Leonard calls up Barthold Niebuhr’s critical exposure of the fictionality of Livy’s early history which, as Richard Armstrong has argued, served Freud as a species of “childhood memory” analogous to the “pseudo-memories of childhood dreams experienced by himself and Leonardo da Vinci as life-haunting visions of maternal terror. Imagistic externalization of these obsessions in the work of both creators is the substance of the essay—a far remove from Romulus and Remus cuddling with their nurturing wolf.

The concluding pages of Henderson’s envoi look back to the introductory previews of the editors’ Orientation chapter with wittily incisive but appreciative reviews of each contributor’s content. One touch of Hendersonian wickedness is his surreptitious introduction of Nepos the Trojan Horse of his own original conference talk deemed insufficiently poetic to breach the wall of publication. Yet this horse is far more constructive than destructive in service of the future history of biography, especially in the items Nepos shares with his sympathetic subject Atticus: their “nailing” of Roman chronology in alignment with history and, more personally, detachment from contemporary conflicts of power. Their mutual morning for the loss of the Republic dresses political history in biographical clothing as a creative conclusion to “Creative Lives.”

Authors and Titles

Part I. Opening Remarks
1 Orientation: what we mean by ‘creative lives’; Johanna Hanink and Richard Fletcher
2 ‘Lives’ as parameter: the privileging of ancient lives as a category of research, c. 1900; Constanze Güthenke
Part II. Reviving dead poets
3 Close encounters with the ancient poets; Barbara Graziosi
4 Recognizing Vergil; Andrew Laird
Part III. Lives in unexpected places
5 A poetic possession: Pindar’s Lives of the poets; Anna Uhlig
6 What’s in a Life? Some forgotten faces of Euripides; Johanna Hanink
7 Lives from stone: epigraphy and biography in Classical and Hellenistic Greece: Hellenistic Greece; Polly Low
Part IV Laughing matters and Lives of the mind
8 On bees, poets and Plato: ancient biographers’ representations of the creative process; Mary Lefkowitz
9 The life of Aristippus in theSocratic Epistles: three interpretations; Kurt Lampe
10 Imagination dead imagine: Diogenes Laertius’ work of mourning; Richard Fletcher
Part V Portraits of the Artist
11 ‘It is Orpheus when there is singing’: the mythical fabric of musical lives; Pauline A. Le Ven
12 The artist as anecdote: creating creator in ancient text and modern art history; Verity Platt
13 Freud and the biography of antiquity; Miriam Leonard
14 Envoi; John Henderson
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