When the fragments of an ancient text are unearthed from the sands of Egypt, or a forgotten manuscript containing precious glimpses of an otherwise unknown author is discovered in the dusty archives of a library, the happy event is greeted with excitement and joy that are more powerful, at least in the moment, than the underlying feeling of nostalgic separation from a lost, phantasmic “whole.” Fragments, it is true, lay bare that sense of an unrecoverable lack, which is inherent in any experience of the past—including, of course, ostensibly non-mutilated, non-fragmentary ancient texts; they force us to confront multiple missing or incomplete levels of contextual knowledge. And yet these precious discoveries are experienced by many of us more as additions than as gaps.
Douglas Olson’s latest Herculean labor is the final volume of a characteristically ambitious project1—a full-scale commentary on the extant fragments of Eupolis, whom the Alexandrians placed in the canonical triad of Athenian Old Comedy, together with Aristophanes and Cratinus. A project of this sort has potential to spotlight the relatively abundant corpus of a little-known author who was highly influential in antiquity. The volume, a painstaking collection of data, displays impressive erudition—what, indeed, many users look for in a commentary: linguistic explanations, verbal parallels, historical contextualizations, prosopography, a strong attention to realia. A substantial portion of this material is new and therefore welcome.
Yet the affect this commentary projects is not one of joy or excitement but rather of an anxious search for singular “economical” truths, existing in re, as it were. Textual fragments expose the openness, plurality, and provisionality of interpretation, precisely what Olson occludes while steadily barring as “guesses” or “speculation” basically any attempts to capture the imaginative texture of poetry. Though his reaction against fanciful plot reconstructions in traditional scholarship on fragmentary dramatic literature—the tendency to generate an illusory context— could have yielded a sensible methodological corrective, he ends up using the missing context as a justification for not interpreting what is there, as an excuse for not reading. Olson’s generally non- or anti-interpretive approach distances his work, for example, from the commentaries of Wilamowitz and Fraenkel, the major representatives of the philological tradition that the German subtitle of the book (perhaps a self-authorizing gesture?) implicitly evokes. While Wilamowitz and Fraenkel were not afraid to take risks, to offer what might be called “speculative” suggestions, Olson seems determined to shut down meaning. I hope that in considering the several representative examples I offer below, the reader will forgive my selection of cases in which Olson disagrees with me specifically.
In his discussion of Aiges (“Goats”), Olson takes issue with my reading, in fr. 20 K–A, of aigipurros, a compound whose second element means “ruddy complexion.” From the testimonia, it is clear that Eupolis used the word to mock Hipponicus, the father of Callias, the famous aristocratic bon vivant whose house is the setting of Plato’s Protagoras. This adjective is also a pun on aigipuros, a red plant apparently loved by goats. In 2006 I made the suggestion that one of the points of the joke may have been that Hipponicus was “devoured” (that is, reduced to bankruptcy) by his son, comically characterized as a notorious, goat-like libertine.2 For Olson, this “is far too elaborate and tentative a thesis to carry any conviction.” How a reading of a one-word fragment, an attempt to suggest one possibility of reading within the limits of the evidence, can avoid being “tentative” is unclear. As for “elaborate,” another favored epithet, Olson’s use of the term presupposes that what he would call “truth” (something that in his view, presumably, corresponds to authorial intention) is “plain” and “uncomplicated” (the antonyms of “elaborate” in the Merriam–Webster dictionary). From an intentionalist viewpoint, the tendency to reject readings on the basis of their being “elaborate” suggests a low opinion of ancient authors, as though they were incapable of, or uninterested in, complexity—or, alternatively, would have done better to strip it down wherever it cropped up. In the final sentence of his slim introduction, Olson disparages a somewhat complex image in the parabasis of Clouds “as a desperate attempt to tear down a rival,” which “ought not necessarily to be treated as much more than that.” In like manner, he postulates that ancient authors who cited Eupolis knew his work only minimally, through the mediation of rhetorical manuals. To use Olson’s discursive framing, how can one “prove” this? And, more importantly, what do we gain from this negative assumption? From my non- but not anti-intentionalist point of view, meaning resides in possibilities or effects of reading, what a text, especially a comic one, conjures even beyond what we can heuristically posit as an author’s intention. (It is surprising that, some 70 years after New Criticism’s critique of the intentional fallacy, this still needs to be said.) Furthermore, who decides what “carries conviction”? With a presumption of scientific objectivity, Olson deploys his personal judgment to police meaning and silence other scholars.
In the case of Demes, which, thanks to its frequent citation in antiquity, is the best-preserved fragmentary play of Old Comedy, Olson rejects, on nearly every page, the suggestions I put forward in my 2007 commentary. He contests, for example, the ascription to Demes of fr. 101 KA (transmitted by P. Oxy. 863)—a comic fragment about a politically charged return from the Underworld—although, as we know from several testimonia, the play was centered precisely on this theme. This skepticism, voiced by others before him, is well taken, but, if the fragment “would better have been treated as an adespoton,” why does he include it in this edition? Olson dismisses my textual supplements as “mere speculation” and my syntactical interpretation with the categorical “None of this is true.”3 When I made those suggestions, I did not, of course, aspire to reconstruct what Eupolis—or, in any case, the author of this fragment—wrote, but only to indicate a possible line of interpretation, one viable train of thought. Should papyrologists and textual critics stop suggesting textual supplements, a practice that is, by definition, founded on “speculation”? As I see it, textual criticism can be a valid intellectual exercise if it acknowledges its own epistemological limitations, if it is sustained by an underlying recognition of its own provisionality. Strikingly, in a commentary that presents itself as the embodiment of traditional philology, not a single textual suggestion—emendation or supplement—is put forward. There seems to be a kind of epistemological neurosis, a quest for certainty and interpretive safety, that makes Olson shy away from offering a literary commentary—that is, from supplying suggestions for reading. Given that there is no way to “prove” that fr. 101 belongs to Demes, what should a commentator do? Olson’s answer is radical lemmatization, by which each lemma is turned into little more than a dictionary or encyclopedia entry. This approach, which has the effect of aggravating decontextualization, makes it hard to recognize what is being commented on as a literary text. The question arises, why even bother? Since Olson decides to include the fragment in the book after all, a better service to the reader would probably have been a more sustained engagement with the text, based on the working hypothesis that it might have been part of Demes (something that cannot, in fact, be disproven).
Similar issues emerge in the treatment of fr. 106 KA, the only comic citation in the treatise of ps.-Longinus On the Sublime. When a character declares, “none among them, by my battle at Marathon, will rejoice while making my heart suffer,” he patently appropriates the famous words of Euripides’ Medea when the seed of revenge starts germinating in her mind (“by the mistress whom I revere…Hecate…none among them will rejoice while making my heart suffer” 395, 397, 398). Pseudo-Longinus presents this comic citation as written by Eupolis, but all interpreters starting with Elmsley have attributed it specifically to Demes on the basis of the speaker’s reference to the battle of Marathon as his property (“my battle”), for the central action of the plot was the return from the Underworld to Athens of four major figures of the political past, including Miltiades, “one of the Athenian generals at Marathon,” as Olson does not fail to note. (The others revenants were Solon, Aristides, and Pericles.) In discussing this well-established attribution, whose merit he acknowledges, Olson can’t help observing that “one can also imagine a character representing the Athenian people generally…using the same language.” Such hyperskepticism—in itself a form of “speculation”—in turn shapes Olson’s (non-) response to the intertextuality of these extraordinary lines, where, indisputably, the voice of Medea is borrowed by a male character and used for a comically political message. Elsewhere, Olson judges intertextual reading as “extravagant.” In this case he finds that “the significance of the echo is… substantially overread by Telò.” Yet what constitutes “overreading” for Olson is here a rather unremarkable effort to interrogate possibilities of ideology and gender politics in an intertext in which Miltiades appropriates Medea’s appropriation of an Achilles- or Ajax-like heroic code. Who, after all, establishes the significance of an echo? And isn’t it at least arguably significant that this fragment, in which Medea is cited, is the only comic citation in On the Sublime? Doesn’t this fact potentially tell us something about the reception of Euripides’ Medea in antiquity and the ancient aesthetic perception of Eupolis? And doesn’t dismissing the echo as insignificant implicitly diminish the persistence and influence of Medea’s voice as such? Olson refers to the opinion of a like-minded scholar of Old Comedy, who observes that “the appropriateness of the sentiments, combined with the incongruity of giving expression to them in tragic language…is an entirely sufficient explanation” for the line. Sufficient for what or whom? All that Olson is able to offer under the label of “interpretation” (fastidiously isolated, in the structure of the commentary, from “citation context”) is the conclusion that “if there is a point to the oath, it ought to be that [the speaker’s enemies] potentially threaten the legacy Marathon represents.” But why would there not be a point to the oath? For Olson, it seems, to venture beyond banal literalism would be unbearable “overreading.”
While a full-scale commentary, even of fragments, can serve not only to broaden the horizons of those in the field but also to make works accessible to a wider scholarly audience, Olson’s treatment—his negative positivism and not-so-subtle anti-intellectualism—does not do much to make Eupolis mainstream or interesting, to inspire fresh approaches to his theatrical output, or to convince the non-specialist that his corpus is even worthy of attention. His historical contextualization of Demes in 412—in line with the communis opinio that he pugnaciously defends—could have had some rewarding interpretive ramifications if it had been integrated into the analysis of the fragments. But context and text never seem to come together here, and the absence of the former generates a fundamental contempt for the latter. In what is supposed to be a general introduction to the series of commentaries, the sections on “Themes and Motifs” and “Eupolis and Other Comic Poets” each occupy roughly the same space (three to four pages) as the one on “Metrics.” It is emblematic that in a 500-page volume Olson does not dedicate more space to a discursive synthesis for the benefit of the non-specialist reader. What he offers instead is cursory and not “sufficient” to render a scholarly service. The message this minimal allocation of space conveys—that the study of fragmentary literature cannot go beyond technical matters—is not uplifting for the field. Nor is the book’s generally disrespectful tone—for example, a gratuitous passing reference to a scholar’s “confused treatment” of a word (p. 363 n. 229).
Olson’s imperious verdicts, his declarations that a particular reading “is to be rejected,” could have the effect of transmitting his own fear of interpretation to others, of making them skittish about overstepping the obvious lest they suffer chastisement at the hands of Old Comedy’s stern guardians. One hopes that this work and so many others like it will, despite themselves, inspire people to do better, to push the boundaries with new ideas and new approaches, to take risks.
1. Though released last, the commentary under review is volume 1; volumes 2 and 3 were published in 2016 and 2014, respectively.
2. Olson’s objection to my reading appears unrelated to his misconstrual of it with respect to who is eating whom.
3. At another point in the commentary, Olson refers to work on Demes as “speculative, some of it aggressively so.” Given the language he uses against other scholars throughout the book, “aggressively” seems like projection.