BMCR 2020.10.63


, Narratology. Classics in theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xi, 287. ISBN 9780199687701 $90.00.


Modern theoreticians of literature and narratologists, although recognizing the influence of the proto-narratological views of Greco-Roman writers on modern narrative theories, have historically excluded ancient authors from their genealogies of narrative poetics, instead beginning their accounts of the origins of narratology in Russian Formalism, the School of Prague, and the German School of narrative theory. Yet this has deprived both classicists of the opportunity to obtain a clear picture of the reception of Greco-Roman narrative theories by narratologists and narratologists themselves of the opportunity to conceive systematically the points of convergence and deviation between their own theories and those found in the ancient world. In this light, Genevieve Liveley’s Narratology is a welcome contribution to the history of narratology, since it offers, for the first time, in a convincing way and with plenty of insightful observations, an in-depth and meticulous placement of ancient narrative theories within the historiography of narratology.

 The book is divided into eleven chapters. In ch. 1 (“Introduction”) Liveley presents a concise overview of various histories of narratology and announces the goal of her study, namely to unravel the thread of narratology’s history from a far more remote point than usual by tracing the origins of modern narrative theories in Plato, Aristotle, Horace, and the ancient scholiasts and commentators. Accordingly, ch. 2-5 are dedicated to the “proto-narratological”, as Liveley defines them, theories of Greco-Roman writers. In ch. 2, Liveley considers narrative theories before Aristotle, focusing specifically on Plato’s views on poetry in the Ion and on Book 3 of the Republic’s discussion of the psychological and ethical effectiveness of storytelling on poets and audience. The main points of Liveley’s argumentation in this chapter are threefold. First, Plato is one of the first thinkers to distinguish between the raw or primordial material of a story (logos or content) and the artistic transformation of this material into a narrative system (lexis or form). Second, Liveley aptly notes that modern narratologists’ tendency to identify the modern binary of showing v. telling with the Platonic terms diegesis and mimesis respectively is flawed, as the term diegesis in Plato’s usage denotes the act of narrating in general, rather than the narrative mode which lacks dialogue (cf. the modern concept “telling”). Third, although issues of narrative ethics are of peripheral importance to Plato, he was nevertheless interested in showing that the imitation of characters, especially immoral ones, is highly dangerous for human society, since it can distract poet, performers, and audience from the desired psychological and ethical unity.

According to Liveley (ch. 3), Aristotle appropriates the Platonic distinction between logos and lexis, but distances himself from Plato in that he treats the emotional effects of narrative on the audience not as something harmful for the human soul but as the desired goal (telos) of all kinds of narrative. Here, Liveley pays particular attention to Aristotle’s interest in the rhetorical dimension of narrative and agrees with the scholarly communis opinio that the criterion by which Aristotle assessed most aspects of a narrative (character portraiture, style, plot structuring) lies in the degree to which storytelling ultimately succeeds in activating the audience’s cognitive mechanisms and eliciting affective responses (fear, pity, and katharsis). This is the basis on which Liveley in the ensuing chapters draws parallels between Aristotle’s narrative theory and modern streams of narratology, such as Russian Formalism, Neo-Aristotelianism, and Pre-Structuralism.

In chs. 4-5, Liveley traces the seeds of narrative poetics in authors after Aristotle. The main argumentative thrust in ch. 4 is that, contrary to the view of many scholars, Horace’s Ars Poetica does not constitute an immediate response to Aristotle’s Poetics. Liveley argues instead that Horace could hardly have read the Poetics and that he was rather influenced by Latin rhetorical treatises, such as the Rhetorica ad Herennium and Cicero’s De inventione with regard to dispositio (structure). Liveley bases her view on the fact that Horace does not touch upon fundamental aspects of the Aristotelian theory of narrative. Liveley discerns Platonic influence on Horace’s special interest in narrative ethics about the ability of poets/narrators and their mandate to teach the audience how to live a morally acceptable life. In ch. 5, Liveley elaborates on various themes and the terminology of narrative poetics in the Greek Homeric scholia and the Latin commentary to Virgil’s works written by the late fourth- or early fifth-century CE grammarian Servius. Here, she offers a number of convincing thoughts, albeit at some points fleetingly, in support of the view that ancient Greek scholiasts were fully aware of the distinction between a primordial “myth-kitty” and its transformation by poets into specific and distinguishable plots. Ancient scholiasts, as Liveley rightly observes, distanced themselves from Platonic and Aristotelian terminology, instead adopting terms which were found in the rhetorical manuals of the first-century BCE rhetoricians Hermagoras of Temnos and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. At the end of the chapter, Liveley reaches the fascinating and appropriate conclusion that Servius’ commentary, under the influence of Plato and Horace, focuses on issues of multiple narrative voices in Virgil’s works, especially the Aeneid.

In ch. 6-11 Liveley traces points of convergence and deviation between modern theories of narratology and the views of Plato and Aristotle. The main thematic axis of ch. 6-7 is the issue of Aristotle’s influence upon the Russian Formalists’ and the Neo-Aristotelians’ focus on the affective and cognitive effectiveness of storytelling on the audience. In ch. 8, Liveley endeavours, occasionally through far-fetched comparisons (especially those involving Henry James and Percy Lubbock), to draw parallels between Aristotle and Plato on the one hand and the Pre-Structuralist agenda of focusing on plot structuring, character delineation, and the famous distinction between telling vs. showing.

In ch. 9, which is arguably one of the most impressive parts of the book, Liveley offers a systematic and convincing sketch of how Structuralists developed aspects of Aristotle’s theory about the different basic types of narrative structure. Barthes discerns two fundamental kinds of narrative unit: the first (‘nuclei’) define the plot development, whereas the second (‘catalyses’) do not affect it even if they change. This dual approach to narrative structures, Liveley aptly observes, originates in Aristotle’s conception of two types of stories, the idion and katholou, which reached Barthes’ system through Russian Formalism and especially through Tomashevsky’s theory of the thematic patterns of a narrative and Propp’s theory about the basic functions of storytelling. In the same chapter, Liveley observes that Todorov focused on the Aristotelian notion that narrative is above all mimesis, while Genette builds his classification of different kinds of narrators (homodiegetic, heterodiegetic, meta-diegetic, etc.) under the inspiration of the Platonic diptych diegesis-mimesisand Aristotle’s views on the mimetic nature of narrative. The book ends with ch. 10-11, in which Liveley touches upon the points in which Post-Structuralists and Post-Classicists distanced themselves from the restrictions of the Structuralists’—and thus Aristotle’s—obsessions with structure, by orienting their interest towards additional factors affecting the function of storytelling, such as the social context in which a story is composed and the gender of its teller.

In the Introduction, Liveley explains that her purpose in bringing together ancient and modern theories of narrative poetics is “to extend the history of narratology beyond … early twentieth-century precursors to ‘classical’ structuralist narratology by going far further still—into the ancient world and to the earliest ‘classical’ origins of narrative theory”. This goal is successfully achieved for reasons which I will consider in the final part of my review. However, I would first like to touch upon what I found to be some weaknesses of Lively’s study. One of them is the superficiality with which Liveley examines certain topics, where an in-depth analysis would have contributed greatly to the quality of the book. To begin with, with regard to ancient narrative theory before Aristotle, Liveley confines her analysis to Plato, leaving aside seeds of narrative theory found in Aristophanes’ Frogs. Furthermore, the issue of terminology in the scholia is treated fleetingly, with frequent references being made to Nünlist’s study, which may occasionally support Liveley’s argumentation but are often of no help for readers in their effort to follow Liveley’s points. The frugality of her analysis in this respect not only harms the arguments of ch. 3 but also some fundamental argumentative axes of the book. Specifically, Liveley brilliantly observes that narratologists confuse today the modern diptych showing vs. telling with the two Platonic terms diegesis and mimesis, which in fact rather belong to the triptych haple diegesis—diegesis through mimesis—a mixed kind of diegesis comprising both previous narrative modes. Although Liveley observes that the Platonic triptych was occasionally replaced by the pair diegesis—mimesis by ancient scholiasts too (p. 82), she never compares the scholiasts with narratologists in this respect. This unfortunately deprives the reader of the opportunity to reflect on the possible influence exercised by the Homeric scholia upon the way modern narratologists read Plato.

Liveley also assesses the validity of Plato’s, Aristotle’s, and Horace’s views on narrative poetics from the perspective of the degree to which these authors followed, as narrators, the rules they set in their agendas. In this respect, Liveley seems justified in noting that Plato’s fierce criticism of the negative impact of dialogue on human morality is incongruent with his choice to compose his Socratic logoi; however, Plato’s use of dialogic discourse by no means indicates that the views expressed about this mode of storytelling in the Ion and Republic are not to be taken as sincere signs of a consolidated theory about different modes of narration. Solid answers to questions about the relationship between Plato’s views on various narrative modes and his own narrative artistry can be ascertained securely only if we meticulously examine the degree to which each specific Platonic dialogue meets the specifications set by Plato himself in Ion and the Republic, and this is not what Liveley does in her study. Equally superficial is the generalizing conclusion that Aristotle followed, as a narrator, his own rules about narrative composition in his lost work On Poets, especially because this conclusion is based on Aristotle’s bios of Homer (fragment 65), which is reconstructed on the basis of Pseudo-Plutarch’s On Homer 1.3-4 and can by no means be taken as safely representing Aristotle’s general compositional strategies. Besides, one wonders why we should look for Aristotle’s narrative strategies in this suspicious relic and not, say, in the Athenian Constitution. Similarly, Liveley’s view that the generic pluralism and structural anomalies of Horace’s Ars Poetica prove that Horace’s views about narrative in this work should not be taken as sincere is hard to follow.

With the exception of these points, Liveley succeeds in offering a convincing and comprehensive history of narratology from antiquity up to the present day. At this point it is worth noting that to discern the common denominators between ancient and modern theories of narrative poetics and to grasp the indiscernible shades of these theories—shades which reveal the extent to which modern theoreticians abandoned, followed or developed the theoretical agendas of ancient authors—is certainly not an easy task to undertake. Liveley’s analysis is successful in this respect, providing us at various points with numerous insights about the topic under examination, such as the parallelism between Aristotle’s narrative categories of idion and katholou and the aforementioned theories of Barthes and others. Equally eye-opening are, among many others, her observations about the impact of Vladimir Appelrot’s translation of the Poetics for Aristotle’s reception by the Russian Formalists.

The book is well written with very few typos. Although her language is not jargon-free, Liveley makes accessible a number of complicated theoretical issues and presents narratological terminology in an intelligible way and in a brilliant style, both of which render this study a useful guide both for classicists and narratologists as well as for non-specialized readers. This is the first systematic study of the reception of ancient narrative poetics by narratologists, and its originality as well as the general quality of its insights make it a landmark in its field.