Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.02.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.02.38

Jonas Grethlein, Aesthetic Experiences and Classical Antiquity: The Significance of Form in Narratives and Pictures.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. xiv, 301.  ISBN 9781107192652.  £75.00.  

Reviewed by Tomás Fernández, UBA-Conicet (



Together with Irene de Jong, Jonas Grethlein is perhaps the classicist best known to modern narratologists. In particular, his 2015 article against current assumptions in cognitive narratology caused a stir and fuelled an ongoing debate.1 Grethlein argued that certain cognitive narratologists neglected premodern narratives, which do not abound in representations of inner states. Had they taken classical authors into account, he contended, their theory would look different. In a less polemical way, Aesthetic Experiences and Classical Antiquity also attempts to bring classical studies to the attention of a broad public. It “discusses narratives and pictures, combines close reading with theoretical reflections and ... engages with [ancient material] and modern art” (p. XIII). Grethlein is happy to state that such an approach “will surely call into action the police patrolling disciplinary boundaries” (XIII). This also applies to his overall production, whose variedness is astounding.

In particular, “the central goal of this book [is] to capture the difference between the narrative ‘as-if’ and the pictorial ‘as-if’” (14). What is this “as-if”? Grethlein equates it with “aesthetic distance” (24), with the “tension between absorption and reflection” (26), with the “oscillation between absorption and reflection” (24, n. 24) and with the combination of “absorption and distance” (26). This tension between immersion and distance can be exemplified: when they see a movie or listen to a story, “[c]hildren may scream and run away, but they do not actually believe they are facing a bear” (25). This is, in short, the “as-if”: believing in something and at the same time knowing it is not true.

Grethlein aims to re-assess, in a more positive light than is usual to date, the experiential aspect of narratives and pictures. He underscores the immersion of the recipient while reading (or hearing) and seeing. This immersion, however, is ever in tension with aesthetic distance and reflectivity: even while under the charm, the recipient remains aware that she is “only” reading/seeing a work of art, and never loses sight of the difference between her reality and the reality of the represented world. In Grethlein’s words, “the crucial aspect of aesthetic illusion [is] the ‘as-if’ in the response to representations” (128).

Although he rejects mimetic approaches, Grethlein seems to take art as less “real”, at least in an experiential sense, than external “reality”. He consistently takes artistic representation to be similar, but less, than actual reality (e.g. “even if enthralled, [we] remain aware that we merely concentrate on a representation”, 36). Grethlein would certainly refuse the label of Platonic, but his underscoring of art being “merely” a representation suggests that it is second to the truth (if not third, as in Plato’s τρίτον ἀπὸ τῆς ἀληθείας). In this context, a more thorough critique of representation, the meaning of “truth” or “reality” and the problem of referentiality would have been welcome.

Whereas aesthetic experiences are determined by this “as-if” both in narratives and in pictures, they operate variously according to the medium. Taking his cue from Lessing, Grethlein argues that “in narrative the structure of ‘as-if’ is applied to time”, whereas “in pictorial is spatial” (162; see also 35 and passim). According to Lessing, “painting deploys figures and colours in space…, whereas poetry [deploys] articulated sounds in time” (30); in the former, objects appear nebeneinander (next to each other) in the latter nacheinander (one after the other). Lessing’s famous opposition of Poesie and Malerei is reformulated by Grethlein as a dichotomy between narrative and picture (34). Yet the essential distinction remains: “the ‘as-if’ on which our reception of narrative is predicated is temporal, and ... the ‘as-if’ involved in our reception to paintings is essentially spatial” (35).

The analogy, however, can only take us so far. In Grethlein’s view, narrative allows the reader to reconfigure time (53), “provoke[s] particular experiences of time” (55) and ultimately “permits the reader to reflect on time” and even, by “exposing us to time...liberates us from its force” (59). No such thing happens with pictures and space: “[t]here is ... no neat symmetry between narrative and time, on the one hand, and picture and space, on the other .... I am hesitant to ascribe pictures a reflection on space which would mirror the narrative reflection on time” (168). His conclusion is, consequently, less forceful: pictures merely “let us reflect on vision” (190).2


The initial framework (1–38) is followed by the longest and most substantial part of the book. It is divided into two structurally symmetrical sections: the first one on narratives (39–145), the second one on pictures (147–262). Both start with a short theoretical account of their respective aesthetic modes and are followed by a long chapter on a relevant classical (or post-classical) example: Aethiopica for the first one, ancient vases for the second one. Lastly, Grethlein highlights their similarities and differences with a modern analogous representation. Aethiopica is compared to a film by F. Ozon (Dans la maison, 2012) in the first section, ancient vases to R. Mroué’s multi-media installation in Documenta 13 (2012) in the second one.

When dealing with Heliodorus, Grethlein utilizes the well-known approach of Meir Sternberg,3 according to whom narrativity is the interplay of suspense/curiosity/surprise (57); surprise is “based on a missing antecedent of which the reader was not aware” (57), “curiosity is the reader’s response to missing information in the prehistory” (58). Both curiosity and surprise “depend on temporal displacements” (58), while suspense does not need any break in sequentiality. Heliodorus’ novel is “divided into two parts: whilst the first triggers the reader’s curiosity, the second champions suspense” (80). Grethlein elaborates on these points on pp. 81–88 and 88–92, respectively. As regards suspense, he adds a very useful classification, borrowed from R. Baroni4: the difference between “suspense simple”, “suspense par anticipation” (with an ambiguous prolepsis), “suspense moyen” (we know the ending but not how it will come about), “suspense par contradiction” (with a discrepancy between the reader’s desire and her knowledge about what will happen) and “rappel” (where repetition of the well-known “makes the reception delightful”, by providing stability to it), 90–91. The plot of the second half of Aethiopica is predominantly ruled by “suspense moyen”.

Despite the dominance of temporality, there are elements in narrative that spatialize it. How? By “letting the reader transcend its sequential dimension” (92). These elements are tackled in the sub-chapter “Spatial form”, where even achronies are included. Grethlein states, for instance, that “a spatial effect can be found in analepses summarizing events that the main narrative or embedded narratives have already covered at more length” (p. 97). Is this really spatial? Achronies do break sequentiality, but it is doubtful whether non–sequentiality is spatial per se. Or is temporality synonymous with sequentiality and spatiality with non- sequentiality? The potential confusion of the reader might be enhanced by the fact that, shortly before, curiosity (as previously defined by Grethlein when tackling the first half of Aethiopica) hinges, precisely, on achronies: indeed, it is generated by a temporal displacement, yet Grethlein does not seem to tackle it as an example, however indirect, of spatial form.

If temporality is analogous to sequentiality, can it be stated that a novel made up of discontinuous excerpts such as Handke’s Die Hornissen is temporal in the same way as Great Expectations by Dickens? In the same vein, the reader may wonder that, while Heliodorus and Ozon compose works where temporality is predominant, the same might not be true of Eumathios Makrembolites (12th c.), S. Beckett in his trilogie or N. Sarraute’s Tropismes; at the very least, they might be temporal in a different way. Grethlein’s approach perhaps lays too great a stress on plot; as we have seen, its non–sequential elements are viewed as part of a spatial form. Yet plot need not be the most crucial aspect of a narrative to the detriment of other, non-sequential elements.

Finally, in a chapter where temporality in the ancient novel looms so large, the reader would expect a more developed set of remarks on it, beyond Bakhtin’s well-known notions (75). There is precious little information on temporality proper; short references to Morgan and Branham in a footnote (75, n. 4) do not seem to be enough.


In the chapter on Greek vases (191–248), Grethlein underscores the point that immersion was prominent in ancient visual culture, and at the same time that vase-painting “encapsulates intricate reflections on the pictorial ‘as-if’” (p. 192). His main examples are the blinding of Polyphemus and the beheading of Gorgo. In the latter, the pivotal point of his interpretation is the “contrast between Perseus and the beholder: whereas Perseus shuns the view of Medusa, the beholder looks frontally at her” (226). This highlights the pictorial “as-if”: “what would be lethal to see, is a harmless object to ‘see-in’” (227).

The following, short chapter on the Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué (249–262) focuses on “the intricate reflection on seeing inherent in Mroué’s installation” (255); as is the case with Dans la maison, Grethlein has chosen “an artwork that seems to have little in common with [his] ancient samples” (249).

A short Epilogue (263–270), a Bibliography (271–292), a General Index (293–298) and an Index Locorum (299–301) close the book.


Despite its complexity, this book makes a fascinating reading. I have often found myself scribbling on its margins and wondering at some fresh ideas of the author. At the same time, it arguably contains an excessive number of unsubstantiated claims, e.g. the notion that narrative, by “exposing us to time, ... liberates us from its force” (quoted above). Possibly not every scholar has felt time as an oppressive force, let alone that narratives are the best way to escape it. Some ideas are repeated verbatim time and again. That the first half of the Aethiopica is driven by curiosity, the second one by suspense, is stated a dozen times; that the “as-if” of narratives is temporal, the “as-if” of picture spatial, possibly twenty or thirty. I also felt puzzled by the extension of the summaries of books and movies, which seriously disrupt the course of the argument. Finally, inverted commas can be intractable, e.g.: “[t]he beholder ‘sees in’ pictorial signs and religious images as well as ‘in’ art pictures; but, I wish to add, the latter reinforce the ‘as-if’ of ‘seeing–in’” (183). These quibbles aside, this book is a significant contribution to an as-yet scarcely explored field of enquiry. It is to be hoped that more classicists will write sophisticated books that can be read and enjoyed not only by their peers, but also by specialists in other fields, and foster a dialogue that can expand the boundaries of our discipline.


1.   J. Grethlein, “Is Narrative ‘The Description of Fictional Mental Functioning’? Heliodorus Against Palmer, Zunshine & Co”, Style 49 (2015), 257–284. See also p. 45 of the book under review.
2.   Grethlein is always perceptive about the lack of symmetry between time and space. He stated once: “the analogy between ‘fabula-space’ vs. ‘story-space’ and ‘fabula-time’ vs. ‘story-time,’ which de Jong adopts from Chatman, is flawed. An analogy would require that the relation between the duration of the events in the ‘fabula’ and ‘the time it takes to peruse the discourse’ correspond to the relation between the space of the action and the physical space that the story occupies, e.g. the format of a book or, in the case of theatre, the stage” (BMCR 2012.09.18).
3.   M. Sternberg, “Telling in Time (II): Chronology, Teleology, Narrativity”, Poetics Today 13/3 (1992), 463–561.
4.   R. Baroni, La tension narrative. Suspense, curiosité et surprise, Paris, 2009.

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