BMCR 2012.02.54

Response: Whitmarsh on Martzavou on Whitmarsh, Narrative and Identity in the Ancient Greek Novel

Response to 2012.02.20

Response by

I am immensely grateful to Paraskevi Martzavou for her insightful and learned review of my book Narrative and identity in the ancient Greek novel: returning romance. Her reflections, which focus on the parts of the book that have to do with my ‘historicism’, prompt some further thoughts on the complex relationship between historical and literary studies.

As Martzavou quickly detects, I was at pains in the book to avoid slotting the romance into any kind of prefabricated historical ‘context’. The history of scholarship on the Greek novel, particularly since the publication of Rohde’s great Der griechische Roman und seine Vorläufer (1876), has been bedevilled by such clumsy contextualization. The ‘second sophistic’, the ‘decline of the polis ’, the ‘care of the self’: literary classicists, with their characteristic philological-positivist bent, have reached far too quickly for the comfort blanket of historical categories. The problem with these has always been the same: not only do they tend to posit a spurious ontological certainty (thus e.g. the awful phrase ‘ in the second sophistic …’, as if to be born within a certain date range implies automatic subscription to a particular ideological or aesthetic credo), but also one always needs to pare away so much from a literary text to get it to ‘fit’.

My aim in the book was to move away from such ‘historical-determinist’ readings of the romances – predicated on the view that there is an a priori relationship between history and text, that meaningful signification only occurs within the text when it resonates against (what we have decreed to be) history – and towards a more nuanced historicism. Of course literary works allude in all sorts of ways to contemporary structures and events, but as a rule they do so in opaque, multifarious, and sometimes self-contradictory ways. If we are to give a historicist account of such works, we have to do more than simply join the dots between features internal to the text and external reference points; we need, rather, to grasp (as best we can; this, I concede, is also an elusive quest) the nature of the particular form of textuality in question, and ask what kind of (phantasmatic, or kaleidoscopic) ‘history’ is being projected. This was why I gave so much attention in the book to trying to understand the narrative dynamics of the romance as genre, and how they shift over time.

In other words, the ‘historicist’ reading of the Greek romance I was enjoining was not really intended to be a traditionally ‘historical’ one, locating features of the romance by affinity to other forms of cultural production in the imperial period. This strikes me, certainly, as an exciting possibility: various starts have been made on for example linking the romance to the archaeology of Aphrodisias and to epigraphic bio-narratives (which Martzavou mentions), but much more remains to be done. I do, however, retain certain anxieties over this kind of approach: when commit in our procedure so heavily to the observation of resemblance, what do we do with those intractable features (of both media) that do refuse to correspond?

Martzavou is undoubtedly right that historical context has more to teach us about the contexts of production and reception of the romances. The difficult question is how – in practice – to model such contexts. I agree entirely with her observation that the romance seems to express not a generalized Greek cultural identity but a very specific variant of it, predicated on a sense of ‘decenteredness’ (I hope this specificity comes through in the book, e.g. on p. 255). She is right that the romances tend to steer clear of mainland Greece, and focus instead upon the edges of the Greek world. Famously, Chariton’s Theron overrules his crew when they want to put in at Athens (1.11.6), and in Heliodorus Cnemon’s flashback tale of Athenian life is one of sordid depravity (1.9-18). Talk of a ‘diasporic’ Greek identity, however, seems to me to raise the false expectation of analogies with modern experiences. Whereas diaspora communities today often define themselves through a powerful experience of umbilical connection to an originating homeland, there is no reason, as far as I can see, to assume that a figure like (Alexandrian) Achilles Tatius or (Emesan) Heliodorus would have felt a comparable deracination from mainland Greece. I do not believe, moreover, that the romances simply project a unitary, coherent identity. What I would propose, rather, is primarily a tension between the twin centripetal forces represented by Roman imperialism and traditional Greek culture, on the one hand, and a sense of marginality and the epichoric, on the other. In other words, I see the romances as playing out, in their different ways, an ultimately unresolved and irresoluble conflict between such centripetal (the ‘homing instinct’) and centrifugal forces (the spirit of adventure, deferral and delay).

Let me reemphasize, finally, that the specificity of the romance’s projection of identity is shaped also in large measure by aesthetic and generic factors. It is because of the particular habits and instincts of this literary form that identity is configured in the way it is. To put the point slightly differently, with an example: Heliodorus’ extraordinary and celebrated romance, with its unmasking of a beautiful ‘Greek’ girl as an albino daughter of the Ethiopian royal family, would have been unthinkable without Chariton, Xenophon and Achilles Tatius (and no doubt other now lost works). It is not simply a reflex expression of one historical agent’s sense of self at one particular juncture, but a creative response to an entire history of return narratives, stretching ultimately back to the Odyssey. It is for this reason that literary historicism needs – I think – to begin with and found itself in literary criticism.