BMCR 2022.06.43

The search for the self in Statius’ ‘Thebaid’: identity, intertext and the sublime

, The search for the self in Statius' 'Thebaid': identity, intertext and the sublime. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 116. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. xlv, 275. ISBN 9783110717785 $149.99.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This monograph, developed from Jean-Michel Hulls’ doctoral thesis, aims to ‘provide a sustained analysis of the concept of ‘self’ in Statius’ Thebaid’. Hulls adopts an ambitious methodological framework which applies ancient and modern theories of the self to Statius’ epic, and unpacks negotiations of identity by poet and poem alike by examining the Thebaid’s intertextual relationships to its literary predecessors and metaliterary comments on its position within wider literary traditions. Throughout this undertaking, Hulls strikes a delicate balance between close detailed reading of Statius’ epic and consideration of a vast intellectual landscape spanning from Homer and Pindar to Dante, Hegel, and Žižek.

The Introduction opens with an overview of the Thebaid’s fundamental concern with identity: the identity of its creator and the complexities of identity experienced within the epic itself. After surveying some of the Greek historiographical intertexts that contribute to a dense and diverse network of intertextual affiliation and allow the text to ‘run in directions contrary to the readers’ initial expectations’ (p. xix), Hulls considers Statius’ authorial self-presentation and the Thebaid’s reception in Statius’ own Silvae. He suggests that the Thebaid constantly reassesses its own identity on a generic level (p. xvii) and that the comparison between the Thebaid and Virgil’s Culex reveals a ‘deep-seated anxiety about the poem’s own status’ (p. xxix). Hulls’s ‘tentative attempt at defining subject and terminology’ (p. xxix) then surveys critical discussions on the self (from Stoic and Epicurean thought to Žižek’s theorisation of the Hegelian subject) and the sublime (from Pseudo-Longinus’ Peri Hupsos to Burkian and Kantian conceptions of the topic and Lagiere’s definition of poetic sublimity in her study of the Statian sublime). This is a challenging section, but Hulls presents complex concepts in an accessible manner. Block quotations of key passages, accompanied by Hulls’s unpretentious analysis and evaluation, allow the uninitiated to gain a grasp of major critical developments in these subjects, and we are frequently reminded of the core relevance of these theoretical surveys to our understanding of the Thebaid and first century AD conceptions of the self (pp. xxxviii–xxxix, xlii–xliii)

Chapter 1 constructs a ‘test case’ for Statius’ dominant interest in identity by tracing the narrative journey of Polynices, who experiences a two-fold process of subjectivisation, whereby his identity is built by external force alongside his own (unsuccessful) attempts at identity construction. Hulls reads the storm which Polynices encounters on the way to Argos—a distinctly sublime event—as a significant symbolic force in establishing the twin’s identity, which is previously conflated and elided with that of Eteocles (e.g. at Stat. Theb. 1.123–30, 173–96). Hulls then considers Polynices’ failure to establish an identity independent of his brother after his marriage to Argia, following Tydeus’ failed embassy to Thebes, and during the chariot race following Opheltes’ funeral, and highlights how Polynices’ inherent instability continues during his reunion with Jocasta, his grief following Tydeus’ death, and the fatal fraternal duel. The chapter’s final section interprets the sublime poetics of the brothers’ cremation in Book 12 as a mirror of the ‘stormy “creation” scene’ in Book 1 and as an ‘attempt to assert a combinatory identity upon the brothers’ (p. 46). For Hulls, the absence of identity throughout the poem casts light on the nature of politics in the epic: just as Polynices fails to complete his journey through the abstract negativity of violence and conflict, so too Statius’ Thebes fails to attain the ‘proper conclusion of the stable and rational political state’ (p. 46).

In this ‘test case’ for Statius’ interest in identity, Hulls leads the reader by the hand through the intricacies of approaching an ancient text using a composite critical lens, and this chapter alone more than demonstrates the validity and efficacy of Hulls’s multi-faceted methodology outlined in the Introduction. Perhaps the analysis of the language of mixing (p. 41–42) could have been expanded slightly to incorporate broader associates of these images and words with specifically civilconflicts by Statius’ day. Also, given the scope of Chapter 3, the significance of Theseus within these discussions might have been signposted a little more clearly in anticipation of this later evaluation.

In Chapter 2, Hulls analyses the tyrant’s role within the Thebaid through the figures of Eteocles, Jupiter, and Creon. After an overview of the role of exempla in constructing tyrannical characters, the rhetorical tyrant’s evolution, and the Thebaid’s broad engagement with this tradition, the first half of the chapter illustrates how the epic’s tyrants lack a ‘proper sense of individuation’ and appear as ‘caricatures of the rhetorical stereotype of the tyrant’ (p. 83). Eteocles ‘adopts an empty tyrannical persona so completely that there is nothing behind the mask’ (p. 65) with a tyranny characterised by an emptiness or absence akin to the ‘radical sense of negativity at the core of his brother’s being’ (p. 64). Jupiter, despite his roots in the tyrannical Jupiter of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and his appropriation of aspects of Lucanian and Virgilian epic, fails to command the other gods effectively and harbours uncharacteristically limited ambitions, and so ‘might be charged with a measure of incompetence’ (p. 70–71). Creon’s ascent to tyranny represents ‘an identical process of transformation to his nephew’ (p. 77) which lacks only the influence of Tisiphone, but he also disrupts the model of the rhetorical tyrant through his respect for the divine.

The latter half of the chapter considers the relationship of tyranny and tyrants as depicted within the Thebaid to their conception within the epic’s wider world. Hulls reminds us that negotiations of within the Thebaid—namely the fact that ‘honest responses to tyrannical dissimulation provide the best outcomes’ (p. 90)—contradict the realities of imperial Rome. In a similar vein, Hulls examines Statius’ presentation of suicide as a futile and ineffective endeavour in the context of the ‘cult of suicide’ which emerged during the early empire (p. 91) and conflicting views of ‘publicly performed, politically-motivated suicide’ (p. 94–95). The subsequent discussion of the Thebaid’s eroticisation of the tyrant’s desire for power shows not only how Statius transforms the paradigm he inherited, but also how this element illustrates the ‘constant dialogue’ (p. 112) between epic and elegy more widely throughout the epic—a dialogue illuminated in the disease imagery which taints the warring brothers. The chapter closes with a return to the ‘real’ Roman world, and the possibility that the erotic aspects of the epic’s tyrants contribute to the possibility of reading the Thebaid as a didactic poem offering broad examples from which contemporary readers may learn.

This is by far the longest chapter in the book. Given the richness and, more importantly, the intensity of its analyses, I do wonder whether it might perhaps have been divided somehow into two smaller chapters to allow the reader a chance to come up for air. This minor quibble aside, Hulls presents a thorough assessment of tyrants and tyranny within the Thebaid, which is crucial to any students or readers of the epic, and his examination of the eroticisation of the tyrant’s desire for power is an especially welcome contribution to wider studies of the stock figure of the rhetorical tyrant.

Chapter 3 focusses on Oedipus and Theseus, who struggle to establish a stable construction of selfhood and long-term political solution respectively. Hulls argues that Oedipus, the ‘quintessential divided character’ (p. 121), experiences a ‘superfluity of identity’ (p. 128) rather than the absence of identity which plagues Polynices, and constructs a ‘complex and highly literary identity for himself’ (p. 129). Hulls then examines Statius’ conception of the Furies alongside Virgilian and Ovidian models and the relationship of his ekphrastic depiction of Tisiphone to broader literary and artistic trends, before analysing the function of Tantalus as a further model for Statius’ Tisiphone through a detailed comparison with Seneca’s Thyestes. This in turn invites us to reconsider Oedipus through the lens of Hegel’s ‘night of the world’ and Žižek’s discussions of the subject’s passage through madness. The final part of the chapter looks beyond Oedipus’ family and Creon’s defeat to questions around Theseus’ identity and status as a political alternative in Thebes. Hulls reads Theseus as an ambivalent figure, and by examining him according to the models of identity-formation found in Oedipus and Polynices shows the Athenian king to have a destabilising impact on his societal surroundings, despite achieving a semi-stable identity focalised through those who surround him. This chapter is very well-argued, and Hulls’s pragmatic resistance to the temptation to read Theseus in a wholly positive light on the basis of his successful identity formation alone (p. 162) reminds us (in case we had somehow forgotten!) of the complexities surrounding questions of identity within the Thebaid.

Chapter 4 picks up the Introduction’s overview of authorial self-presentation within and beyond the epic and turns to consider Statius himself. After exploring the parallels between Statius and the poet-figure Hypsipyle in Thebaid Book 5, Hulls presents detailed metapoetic readings of the funeral pyres in Book 6 and the waters of Langia in Book 4—passages which, for Hulls, constitute ‘metapoetic twins’ (p. 179)—as indicators of Statius’ ‘aggressive’ interactions with his literary predecessors to produce ‘poetics of the most powerfully nihilistic kind’ (p. 177). However, this perceived aggression is not the whole picture: Hulls reads Statius’ discussions of the vatic Amphion as a way in to consider the Thebaid’s debts to Propertian elegy and Statius’ deferential attitude to his poetic task. Hulls takes this analysis, which ‘constructs a Statius who embodies some powerful self-contradictions’ (p. 196), further by highlighting Statius’ own moments of sublime identity formation in Book 1, moments which suggest that ‘Statius is operating in the same type of space in which we find his two Thebans’ (p. 201). Hulls draws the chapter to a close with a discussion of the sphragis in Book 12 and its intertextual links to Virgil’s Eclogues, as well as its contribution to the poem’s wider process of subjectivisation, and its status as a moment of individualization. I was particularly struck by Hulls’s suggestion that the Thebaid imitates Theseus where Statius himself imitates Oedipus (p. 212-13), and wonder whether this might have been unpacked a little further, perhaps with closer reference to the detailed discussions of Theseus in the previous chapter.

Chapter 5 explores ‘the possibilities of revivifying the author alongside his text’ (p. 214) by examining Dante’s reception and re-writing of Statian identity within his wider use of Flavian poetics to enrich his own self-presentation (p. xlv). Hulls considers Statius’ depiction and his relationship with Virgil in Dante’s Purgatorio and highlights the ‘Statian reminiscences’ which colour Dante’s construction of poetic lineages and hierarchies’ (p. 227). He demonstrates how Dante employs Statius as a model for his own poetics (p. 236) and replaces the ‘nihilism of Statius’ identity as it was presented to us in the Thebaid’ with ‘an astonishing literary optimism’ (p. 237). If we neglected to read the table of contents, we might be forgiven for expecting to find the end-matter after turning the final page of Chapter 4, which had closed with a resounding verdict on the Thebaid’s brutal journey to achieve a sense of self (p. 213). But this chapter ultimately functions well as an ‘Afterword’, offering some light and hope to balance the sublime darkness we have just navigated, as well as a snapshot of the literary tradition continuing as Statius—once himself the successor—becomes the predecessor and example to follow.

Hulls set out to ‘provide a sustained analysis of the concept of “self” in Statius’ Thebaid’, and this book undoubtedly achieves this aim, striking a good balance between thorough close readings of Statius’ epic and the incorporation of theoretical and philosophical approaches. As such, this book represents not only a significant contribution to scholarship on the Thebaid, but also a valuable addition to the study of ancient aesthetics and an inspiring model for future theoretically-informed studies of ancient literature.  This is an academic work which is also a pleasure to read, and it will appeal to specialists and students alike.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix
Introduction xi
1. Vagus exul: Polynices and the Search for the Self 1
1.1 The Absent Self: Polynices 1
1.2 Theorising the Self: Reflexivity and the Search for Difference 17
1.3 Polynices and the Search for the Self 22
1.4 Mirroring the Self: Polynices at Thebes 31
1.5 Destroying the Self: The Construction of Identity 35
1.6 ecce iterum fratres: On Burying Polynices 44
2. Identity Politics: Exploring Tyranny in the Thebaid 47
2.1. Exemplarity, persona, and Identity 47
2.2. The Rhetorical Tyrant 51
2.3. Repetitive Tyranny: Problems with Being Evil 58
2.4. Dissimulation, Dissent and the Disarming of Tyranny 85
2.5. More Dissenting Voices: Suicide as Political Opposition or Erasure of Identity? 91
2.6. Elegiac Enervation and the Love-Sick Tyrant 110
2.7. Reading Statius’ Tyrants in the Roman World 117
3. Nil ego: Oedipus, Theseus and Poetic Identity 121
3.1. An Excessive Identity: Oedipus as Over-Determined Hero 123
3.2. Appearances Matter: Fury as ecphrasis 131
3.3. Role Reversal and Literary History: Oedipus and Tantalus 141
3.4. Emerging from the Darkness 146
3.5. Emicuit per mille foramina sanguis impius: Theseus as Political Alternative 151
4. Unde iubetis ire, deae? Statius and Poetic Identity 164
4.1. Dead Wood: Encoding Authorial Identity 171
4.2. Muddying the Waters: Identity and persona in and around Thebes 179
4.3. Amphion’s Walls: Constructing the Poet 183
4.4. A Confused House: Oedipal Models in the Proem 196
4.5. Meriti post me referentur honores: Poet and Poem in the sphragis 203
5. Afterword? Per te poeta fui: Dante’s Silius and the Re-Writing of Literary History 214
5.1. Climbing the Mountain again: Statius in Purgatory 215
5.2. Conosco i segni: Statius the Poet in Dante’s Commedia 218
5.3. The Road to Emmaus: Different Patterns of Following 230
5.4. Vernacular and Latin Traditions and the Notion of Renaissance Succession 234
5.5. Vestigia semper adora: Reading Statius Reading Virgil through Reading Dante 236
Bibliography 239
Index Rerum et Nominum 255
Index of Sources 261