BMCR 2010.03.08

On Coming After: Studies in Post-classical Greek Literature and its Reception (2 vols.). Trends in Classics – Supplementary Volumes; 3

, On Coming After: Studies in Post-classical Greek Literature and its Reception (2 vols.). Trends in Classics - Supplementary Volumes; 3. Berlin/New York: Walter De Gruyter, 2008. 908. ISBN 9783110204414. $184.00.

These two volumes collect forty-seven articles by Richard Hunter (plus his inaugural lecture upon becoming Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge), composed over a period of thirty years. The articles are unrevised (save for an occasional bibliographical update), preserving even the varied spelling conventions of the original publication; they have, however, been freshly scanned, and the volumes thus have a pleasing typographical uniformity, and do not resemble the photocopied chapters of old.

In the preface, Hunter modestly suggests that such a collection might well need an apology, but none is required. Hunter is a towering figure in the study of Hellenistic and later Greek literature, and scholars will be grateful to have his learned and thoughtful articles easily available in one place. More than that, however, Hunter’s assembled papers reveal an approach to interpretation that is very much his own, and which gives these volumes a special coherence. Unlike some scholars, Hunter is not given to lengthy methodological reflections in his published work, and it is thus especially interesting to see how he tackles a series of texts.

It is not feasible to survey each and every chapter, nor have I listed the titles at the end of the review (there is not yet a table of contents available at the Library of Congress website, to which I would otherwise have included a link). The reader may find it useful to know that the first volume includes seven chapters on Apollonius’ Argonautica (including one on his relation to Virgil), eleven on Callimachus (one on his influence on Catullus 65), six on bucolic poetry, a couple on Herodas, and a few papers on various topics; the second volume contains seven papers on Hellenistic and Roman Comedy, three on Imperial Greek poetry (one on the Orphic Argonautica, two on the Periegesis of Dionysius), and seven on prose fiction.

What I shall do instead is attempt to eke out a description of Hunter’s method, and what it can teach us about the ways to understand Hellenistic and Imperial Greek literature. I shall thus be selecting from articles here and there, on different subjects. I begin with Apollonius’ Medea, and the apparently inconsistent representation of her deeds and character. Hunter notes: “when the poet tells us that Medea and her aunt [that is, Circe] speak in Colchian (731), this is not merely a playful recognition of the unreal linguistic assumptions of the plot” — that is, the relatively rare acknowledgment in high poetry that not everyone in the world speaks Greek. Hunter explains: “The one action, Medea’s flight, is variously interpreted by Jason, Circe and Medea herself according to the partial knowledge which each has, as well as to the changing course of events” (56). Circe represents the Colchian view, and the detail about the language in which she converses with Medea takes on a larger meaning in the poem, as it hints at different cultural perspectives. Or this on Jason: “The doubts and even despair to which Jason seems prone have close parallels in the Homeric epics. This obvious fact has been too often forgotten” (63); indeed, it has, and has a bearing on our reading of the text, even if we conclude, as Hunter does, that Apollonius varies the characterization of his hero, because he is less interested in psychology than in experimenting with the epic form (84).

In a subtle discussion of Callimachus’ Hymn to Athena, Hunter compares Teiresias to Herodotus’ Gyges and Euripides’ Pentheus (140-41), as figures who see forbidden things, and this is plausible. I would note only that the rule about not seeing divinities naked seems to apply both to gods and goddesses, and if there is a political reference, it may well be to the Ptolemies, on whom it was dangerous to intrude unannounced. And yet, divine though they were, the Hellenistic kings did have a Greek conscience (as Callimachus would have understood it), and Athena’s gift of prophecy to Teiresias may be a sign of Callimachus’ own ideal of royal fairness. With Herodas, Hunter argues that his mimes are “poised between ‘reading’ and ‘performance,'” and that they “acknowledge and exploit the problem of their own ‘performance status'” (199). As always, this observation is supported by a close reading of the texts; I for one had not previously realized that each of the mimes “contains a vocative address in either the first or the second verse” (200), which signals their dramatic character, as opposed to texts meant for readers. The poet’s self-consciousness is a hallmark of Hunter’s approach. Thus, in Theocritus 15, “both the form and the language of the poem illustrate its concern with the tension between the ‘artificial’ and the ‘real'”; Theocritus thus “highlights the mimetic artifice of a poetic form which claims on the surface to offer an unmediated representation of ‘reality'” (243). Idyll 25 (whether or not it is by Theocritus) exhibits a deliberate play with genres, as it exploits “possibilities of scenic organisation which are a fundamental property of drama rather than epic” (304). So too, “Callimachus has written the ‘generic history’ of his own iambi, by tracing a descent from Hipponax to Attic comedy and on to his own poetry” (323). Even the Orphic Argonautica is granted this degree of “generic consciousness,” even though, as Hunter wryly remarks, many scholars “have wondered whether its author was conscious at all” (681). Style itself encapsulates a kind of history: “The Theocritean corpus makes clear that various thematic and stylistic developments that are usually treated separately [for example, repetition, internal rhymes, plain diction juxtaposed with elevated poeticisms, geographical references] are in fact interlinked in ways that shed light on the gradual, often imperceptible, changes in Greek culture that came with the ever deepening assimilation of literacy” (452). Even the device of epanalepsis, carried to extremes by Dionysius in his Periegesis, can be seen as “an acknowledgement of generic debt” (716), which Hunter reads as “Hellenistic mannerisms” rather than as stylistic blemishes.

Narrative itself is composite in Hellenistic poetry, and it is not only Callimachus who experiments with elisions and discontinuities. Apollonius can tell a story in the continuous fashion, as in the aition of Drepane, “but the ironic acknowledgement of the impossibility of ‘completeness,’ the awareness that all narration is a process of selectivity, undermines the apparent assurance of the archaic category” (363). The Hellenistic poets were also especially interested in the kind of audience they might reach, or rather construct. Hunter observes, in reference to the theology of Callimachus’ Hymns: “Of primary importance is not how widely familiar and practised such a cult as the Delian tree-biting ( h 4.316-24) ‘really’ was…. Rather, what matters is that the poems construct an audience interest in rites practised by others” (409). Comedy too constructed its own ideal public, and in the case of Menander and his contemporaries (and their Roman imitators), the ideal was a literary élite, represented even in the gestures that the actors permitted themselves: “Menander had been fully appropriated into the élite literary culture: drama had become literature” (649).

Hellenistic poetry has, above all, depth, due to the allusive play with prior texts. Posidippus’ last epigram in the lithika reads Homer’s Cyclops episode by way of Theocritus’ idylls on Polyphemus, and goes it one better, since “Poseidippos’ Polyphemos ‘often went diving with Galatea'” (466), whereas Theocritus’ poor monster couldn’t swim. The catalogue is another device that Hellenistic poets adapted from archaic literature, in this case Hesiod, above all. Hunter brings to light the more elusive influence of the Catalogue of Women, which, he explains, “opens up a whole network of heroic poetry which sometimes can seem like a giant system of cross-referencing to archaic epic…. A later poet could, as it were, write in the narratives which the Catalogue‘s genealogical focus had suppressed” (485).

Hunter’s treatment of comedy again exhibits a deep awareness of generic conventions and patterns. He argues, for example, that Plautus’ Trinummus may have anticipated “Terence’s fondness for the expository dialogue” (606) over the formal prologue; and he deduces that the original to Plautus’ Aulularia may have featured a temple on stage, on the basis of analogous “borrowing scenes” in the Dyscolus and the Rudens (624).

When it comes to authors of prose fiction, Hunter is interested in “the literary self-consciousness of their narrative voice” (748). So too, Petronius’ Satyrica“replays the (social and literary) past of epic and tragedy, while at the same time overturning almost every moral and literary assumption on which those genres were based” (802). But Hunter goes further: he observes that Thisbe and Chariclea, in Heliodorus’ novel, “belong to different fictional worlds” (824), and deduces from this and other such fissures in the text that “real ‘closure’ — how a novel is finally to be ‘read’ — is always an act of interpretation, and interpretation is a profoundly political act” (827); although Hunter does not elaborate, I take it that texts always harbor ideological tensions which they paper over with the collusion of the reader, who creates or connives at the never achieved closure. Indeed, Hunter has brought to light the significance of one of Heliodorus’ earliest readers, the so-called Philip the Philosopher, whose allegorical exposition of the novel survives in one of the manuscripts of the Aethiopica : Philip intervenes in a conversation among young men who smugly ridicule the novel, and explains its deeper meaning in a sublime gesture of restorative intepretation.

I could, of course, go on illustrating the thematic coherence of Hunter’s many papers, but I should like to mention, in conclusion, another (and not unrelated) aspect of his papers: this is their essayistic character. Essays have, as the word suggests, a kind of tentative or exploratory nature: they are trials, or soundings, and they tend also to wander over a wide territory, bringing in varied materials almost by a process of association, or so it seems until one suddenly perceives their larger relevance. Plutarch was a master of the technique, as was Emerson at a later time. Dip into almost any chapter in these two volumes, and you will find that the title gives only the barest hint of what is to be found in them. Is Apollonius of Rhodes the object of investigation? At least as many pages in the essay will be devoted to Callimachus, or to Homer, or to Virgil. Is it Callimachus? You will find discussions of Pindar, Hesiod, tragedy. Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, turn up; the chapter on “Philip the Philosopher” starts out with a discussion of Porphyry’s “Letter to Anatolius,” with which he begins his Homeric Questions. This is no accident, of course: the self-consciousness of Hellenistic writers, in respect to genre, style, antecedents, variations on conventional topoi, and even the construction of the audience, require a like sophistication and self-awareness on the part of the critic. Hunter is equally adept at showing both the fidelity of later writers to their archaic and classical predecessors — where scholars have sometimes, a shade rashly, found innovation — and their subtle departures from tradition. Hunter’s conclusions rarely read like a Q.E.D.; rather, they tend to sum up a way of looking at this or that work of literature, and to open up approaches rather than put an end to further investigation. “I hope,” Hunter writes toward the end of one essay, “that this paper has suggested some of the paths that still beckon” (151). Like so many of the other chapters, it does.