BMCR 2022.04.33

Experience, narrative and criticism in ancient Greece: under the spell of stories

, , , Experience, narrative and criticism in ancient Greece: under the spell of stories. Cognitive Classics. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. xii, 340. ISBN 9780198848295 $99.00.

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[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The volume is the result of the European Research Council (ERC) research group ‘Experience and Teleology in Ancient Narrative’, which applies cognitive narratology to ancient narratives. Its aim is ‘to explore the experiential dimension of ancient Greek narrative’, p. 6, to divert from traditional structuralist narratological theories, and to focus on phenomenal and experiential aspects of reading, listening to, or viewing, narratives.

The volume opens with an introduction. From Odysseus’ tearful response to Demodocus’ song (Od. 8.251-31), it is argued that reading and/or listening to narratives involves an aesthetic experience, by means of which the audience is transported into the narrative. Due to the limited capacity of structuralist narratology to deal with the aesthetic experience of narratives, definitions from cognitive narratology (immersion, perception, and comprehension) are brought forth, for they can better describe the different levels of narrative experientiality.

The first part opens with Rutger J. Allan, who thematises experientiality and immersion, and presents a set of linguistic and narratological criteria pertaining to narrative immersion. Allan focuses on specific passages from the Iliad and Thucydides, and explores elements, such as sensory details, focalisation, subjective-evaluative terms, tenses, spatial and temporal indications, cognitive verbs, which enhance readers’ immersion into the storyworld. He then analyses two Thucydidean passages treating the Athenian defeat on Sicily from a different perspective (7.75.6-7; 7.87.5-6) and regards the former as being mostly experienced by the readers who sympathise with the Athenians’ devastating situation, and the latter as being told by a narrator who presents the events from a distance.

David Fearn is interested in the concept of allure in Greek lyric poetry. The examination of Stesichorus’ fragmentary Sack of Troy and Geryoneis points out the poet’s strategies in affecting the audience’s experience and understanding of the poems by providing tensions between lyric diction, which draws attention to style, and intertextuality, which calls for a particular sense of absorption into the narrative. This kind of Stesichorean lyric narrative is also assumed to influence Bacchylides’ poetry, in which extensive use of epithets for desire and love are contrasted to the Homeric narrative serving as a significant intertextual source. In the second part, Fearn examines poems from Anacreon, and suggests that their brevity and their focus on erotic themes of desire and allure have an impact on the audience’s perception of the poems as short narratives with explicit framings. The last part investigates the opening sections of two epinician poems of Pindar, in which the poet appropriates, apart from the tension between lyric diction and narrativity, a sense of alluring desirability that has major cultural value.

Felix Budelmann and Evert van Emde Boas investigate experientiality in tragedy. Their focus is on tragic messengers’ speeches and the audience’s experience of these speeches on the level of actors, characters, and narratives. By using Allan’s concept of immersion (ch. 1), and by expanding on previous arguments on the subjectivity and authority of messenger speeches, Budelmann and van Emde Boas examine three fourth-century BC vases depicting tragic scenes, arguing that the messengers facilitate the audience’s perception of the news and their experience of the on-stage and offstage events. Subsequently, the authors turn to three messenger speeches in Euripides’ Andromache and Medea, and Sophocles’ Electra, and argue that the audience perceives the messenger as an actor, as a narrator recounting a story, and as a character participating in the story. The above arguments lead to the conclusion that the audience’s awareness of the multidimensional role of messengers shifts the attention from the narrative level to the character level and, eventually, to the actor level, and leads to an interruption in the experientiality of the scene.

Lisa I. Hau explores experientiality in the ‘emotional’ historiography of Late Classical and Hellenistic times. After a comparison between the style of Thucydides and Polybius, she points out that the level of experientiality employed by Diodorus significantly differs from that of the previous historiographers and stands in the middle between Polybius’ dry unemotionality and the intense emotionality of Agatharchides. Diodorus’ moral didacticism and his belief that history can, apart from informing, also educate readers finds a parallelism with modern historiography, in which a more experiential style of writing is often sought.

The first part of the book concludes with Aldo Tagliabue’s investigation of immersion and experientiality in the Shepherd of Hermas, an apocalyptic text of the second century CE. Drawing on previous phenomenological approaches, Tagliabue argues that the personified Church in the narrative is displayed as both manifested and spiritual—manifested because it fulfils an eschatological role, and spiritual because it is regarded as timeless. The essay focuses on the experiential features involved in the double depiction of the Church: Tagliabue concludes that Hermas’ life experiences (such as his encounter with Rhoda and Lady Church or with a beast in Vision 4) comprise multiple qualities that render a sense of narrative immersion to the readers.

The second part of the book explores the relationship between aesthetic experience and ancient criticism, and opens with Jonas Grethlein’s essay on immersion and reflection in Heliodorus’ Aethiopica. Heliodorus does not blur the boundaries between reality and fiction, but clearly marks the limits to readers’ immersion in the story. Readers are placed above characters through the author’s use of prolepses and narrative economy, and are more interested in how the plot will come to an end, rather than what this end will be. Limits to readerly immersion are also highlighted by the distance between words and reality: in multiple passages, Heliodorus deliberately undermines the power of characters’ words to reflect reality accurately. Grethlein thus concludes that Heliodorus successfully combines experience and reflection not in an exclusive, but rather in a harmonious, way.

The harmonious coexistence of experience and reflection is also seen in Ps.-Longinus’ On the Sublime. Casper C. de Jonge attempts to conceptualise ecstasy and its connection with the sublime in Ps.-Longinus by arguing that ecstasy operates on a threefold communication level among authors, readers, and text. Sublime ecstasy, as self-alienation, is seen in authors who momentarily become a different person, or a sublime predecessor of the past, or an intratextual character. Similarly, an ecstatic reader perceives the sublime text as if he/she was the actual author of it, or he/she may even ‘bring’ the text in front of his/her eyes by being addressed by the author in the second-person singular. Finally, an ecstatically sublime text relies on the ‘dislocation or transposition of linguistic elements in the text’, p. 167; that is to say, texts with an inverted order of words (as in hyperbaton) are able to reflect, linguistically, the speaker’s current state of mind. De Jonge concludes that Ps.-Longinus’ concept of ecstasy (and immersion) does not pertain to readers exclusively, as modern theory argues, but also to authors and texts.

Alex Purves suggests that the readerly experience of a text depends on the process of embodiment, that is, readers’ dynamic interaction with the textual environment, as Demetrius’ On Literary Composition proposes. Based on Homeric passages, Demetrius stresses the importance of language in transferring readers into the storyworld, and in affecting their experience of the text. Stylistic techniques (the [re]arrangement of letters and syllables, the selection of suitable words, the use of metaphors, the disposition of metre) can in fact connect readers’ haptic and sensorimotor properties with the text. Thus, for Purves, readers immerse themselves into the storyworld not simply by perceiving what is being narrated, but by feeling it through their senses too.

Readers’ embodied perception of texts is further explored by Luuk Huitink, who proposes a redefinition of enargeia. He maintains that the Stoic concept of enargeia is limited, since it does not consider readers’ embodied responses to texts, and proposes that sensorimotor experiences play a key role in readers’ imagination and visual representation of a text. Drawing on Ps.-Longinus, Homer, Euripides, etc., Huitink suggests that enargeia does not depend primarily on visual representations, but most importantly on an embodied experience that makes readers literally feel what the intratextual characters feel. He concludes that ‘enargeia in the first place brings with it an emotional and experiential grasp of what is going on, as opposed to a higher-order, intellectual understanding’, p. 209.

The next chapter, by Alessandro Vatri, explores the rhetorical figure of asyndeton and its association with immersion. In ancient rhetorical treatises, asyndeton is connected to the mental state of the person speaking, without disturbing the coherence of the discourse. Multiplication, haste, emotion, and vividness, among other effects, can thus be created by the use of asyndeton, as well as by additional rhetorical devices that work with asyndeton to produce certain emotional effects. Vatri also distinguishes between different kinds of asyndeta, and suggests that there are asyndeta whose states of affairs are concomitant and produce the effect of multiplication, and those with non-concomitant states of affairs that generally assist in the progression of the narrative. Finally, asyndeton achieves immersion through the oral performativity it entails, which brings it close to the rhetorical element of hypokrisis.

The third part of the book focuses on the media and context relating to narrative experience. Laura Gianvittorio-Ungar considers the role of dance in tragedy as an embodied experience of verbal narratives. In antiquity, dance formed an integral part of theatrical performance, and was regarded as a type of narration. But what contributed to the experientiality of the play was the combination of dance, music, and language. To illustrate this point, Gianvittorio-Ungar examines Telestes’ dance in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, which she locates in the parodos: the dancer enacted the events of the plot by performing a war dance, rather than a pantomime, in front of the audience. Simultaneously with the chorus, who performed through music and language, Telestes presented, through dance, the events narrated. Although one can only hypothesise about Telestes’ overall performance and staging, Gianvittorio-Ungar, using iconography, suggests that the dancer interacted with the chorus, was dressed in military costume, and carried weapons.

Nikolaus Dietrich’s article broadens the scope of the volume by concentrating on the creation of aesthetic experience in sculpture. Dietrich distinguishes between the presence in the image of a statue (the space and time within the pictorial fiction), and the presence of the image of a statue (‘the actual space and time of the physical image in the situation of viewing’, p. 257), and explains how statues of the Imperial period intensify viewers’ sense of experientiality by providing pictorial narratives through tensions between the presence of, and in, the image. Multiple Imperial-period statues (Pothos/Eros, the hanging Marsyas, the Little Barbarians, Pan-Daphnis) provide a picture that seems to be (without truly being) separated from the rest of the group to which it would normally belong. This ‘incompleteness’ strengthens viewers’ experientiality, for they are called to complete what is supposedly missing. ‘Incompleteness’ is also attested in pantomime, in which a dancer’s representation of a character assumes the covert existence of another character with whom the former forms a pair. Thus in both sculpture and pantomime, viewers are invited to use their phantasia (imagination) to experience fully what is presented.

The third part concludes with the chapter by Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi, which defines aesthetic experience as a lived experience. Opposing traditional philosophical theory, Peponi regards aesthetic experience as an aesthetic symbiosis permeating the inner and outer world of the recipient, being linked to quotidian phenomena (thoughts, sensations, actions, perceptions, etc.), and being long-lasting and highly impactful. To support this point, she uses one passage from Lucretius (4.973-83) and one from Libanius (64.116), in which aesthetic experience is described as having a significant impact on the recipients’ inner and outer world even after the removal of the aesthetic stimulus. Peponi concludes that, whereas Kantian philosophy praises the power of aesthetic experience, it fails to consider that this power is not manifested only once and in specific circumstances, but it can be present for a long time and in everyday phenomena.

Overall, the volume successfully introduces significant concepts of cognitive narratology into classics by covering diverse areas (ancient narratives, rhetorical treatises, sculpture, pottery). It is hoped that this volume in the series ‘Cognitive Classics’ will be the beginning for other, equally stimulating volumes.

Authors and Titles

Jonas Grethlein, Luuk Huitink, and Aldo Tagliabue—Introduction: Narrative and Aesthetic Experience in Ancient Greece, pp. 1-12.
Rutger J. Allan—Narrative Immersion: Some Linguistic and Narratological Aspects, pp. 15-35.
David Fearn—The Allure of Narrative in Greek Lyric Poetry, pp. 36-58.
Felix Budelmann and Evert van Emde Boas—Attending to Tragic Messenger Speeches, pp. 59-80.
Lisa I. Hau—Pathos with a Point: Reflections on ‘Sensationalist’ Narratives of Violence in Hellenistic Historiography in the Light of Twenty-First-Century Historiography, pp. 81-103.
Aldo Tagliabue—Experiencing the Church in the Book of Visions of the Shepherd of Hermas, pp. 104-124.
Jonas Grethlein—World and Words: The Limits to Mimesis and Immersion in Heliodorus’ Ethiopica, pp. 127-147.
Casper C. De Jonge—Ps.-Longinus on Ecstasy: Author, Audience, and Text, pp. 148-171.
Alex Purves—Rough Reading: Tangible Language in Dionysius’ Criticism of Homer, pp. 172-187.
Luuk Huitink—Enargeia and Bodily Mimesis, pp. 188-209.
Alessandro Vatri—Asyndeton, Immersion, and Hypokrisis in Ancient Greek Rhetoric, pp. 210-232.
Laura Gianvittorio-Ungar—Dancing the War Report in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, pp. 235-251.
Nikolaus Dietrich—Narrative, Experience, and the Image: Incomplete Copies in Imperial Age Sculpture, pp. 252-282.
Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi—Lived Aesthetics and the Inner Narrative, pp. 283-298.