Monday, February 11, 2013


Jesús Hernández Lobato, Vel Apolline muto: estética y poética de la Antigüedad tardía. Bern: Peter Lang, 2012. Pp. 645. ISBN 9783034306416. $127.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Joop van Waarden, University of Amsterdam (

Version at BMCR home site

This is an intriguing book. The like of it has not been seen for the study of Sidonius Apollinaris – on whom it concentrates to demonstrate its central thesis – and it is anything but middle-of-the-road in the wider field of the critical assessment of late antique aesthetics and poetics. In fact, it pushes some of its tenets to their limits, and recklessly proposes a comprehensive model for a contemporary understanding of late antique art and literature.

In an introductory chapter, Hernández Lobato describes his undertaking as a debt of honour towards Late Antiquity. Over the last decades, classical scholars have laboured hard to rehabilitate the period. At the same time, there has been a massive surge of 'postmodern' theoretical reflection on literature and society. The author declares himself indebted to the entire spectrum of it, including Derrida on deconstruction, Jauss and Iser on reception and on reader-response theory, Bakhtin and Kristeva on intertextuality, and Lacan and Levinas on the O/other and on the encounter, while he lends pride of place to Even-Zohar's polysystem theory. Now the time has come, he says, to combine rigorous philology and methodical awareness in order to formulate an uncompromisingly modern view of Late Antiquity. The present and Late Antiquity are in fact surprisingly similar from a methodological point of view: both are periods of change and uncertainty, which in both cases results in internal crisis, self-reflection and reformulation of ancient certainties. In a sense, Late Antiquity is the postmodernity of Antiquity.

In chapter 2, the author sets about to sketch the life and work of Sidonius, who will be his crown witness for the period, and provides a critical presentation of his poetry. He highlights the careful structure of the collection – undoubtedly masterminded by the poet himself – in modules of eight poems each, and the thematic importance of nos 9, 16 and 24 with their meta-poetical overtones.

Chapter 3 seeks to identify as the two crucial factors in the origin of the late antique Weltanschauung Christianity and the barbarians. What made their impact so decisive was their 'otherness'. Christianity, the author argues, appropriated Tanakh by deliberately misinterpreting it. This act of sustained allegorical re-reading made Late Antiquity into an 'era of interpretation'. Simultaneously, the 'otherness' of the message, as compared to the classical tradition, created a 'bicephalic canon': the Bible and Vergil, that undermined the value system of the empire. For the individual, the outcome was nothing less than the annulment of his historical identity. Here the confrontation with the barbarians comes in. Their existence was the negation of the Roman legacy, and Sidonius transformed this into the negation of the possibility of writing poetry as before. He cloaks his melancholy in the banter of a 'negative poetics', as in Poem 12 about the Burgundians.

Chapter 4 analyses at length Poem 13, Sidonius' plea for Lyon with the new emperor Majorian, and, pointing out that this is only seemingly light verse, interprets it as an attempt to strike a new balance between art and power: the poet and the emperor are mutually dependent when it comes to saving Roman civilization from decline. The next chapter goes on to explore the apparent banality of late antique (occasional) poetry. The author uses Krauss' influential postmodernist essay on the 'expanded field' as a stepping-stone to postulate a 'literature in the expanded field' which overcomes the distinction between literature and life, 'high' and 'low'. Thus, the late antique poet makes literature out of what is, strictly speaking, anti-literary, not least by means of irony and self-deconstruction. To Sidonius, the entire world is one big 'déjà lu'. Reality has become art.

Another aspect of this is discussed in chapter 6: fragment and detail. The account widens to include late imperial visual arts. The monumental spolia, as in the Arch of Constantine and in Constantinople, and the holy fragments of the relics are combined with the literary cento, both pagan and Christian, with experimental figurative poetry and with encyclopaedic prose to demonstrate to which an overriding degree late antique aesthetics had become an 'aesthetics of the fragment'. In a parallel movement, the sustained detailing in late antique art is put side by side with the literary programme of multiplex et varium which denies everything the Horatian simplex et unum stood for. The unity is there, all the same, but it is not to be found on the formal, but on the conceptual level. Then a discussion of the catalogue, the extreme of detailing, takes the reader to Poem 9, which is one long, inconclusive list of what kind of poetry the poet is not going to write. For Hernández Lobato, this poem is Sidonius' essential programmatic statement of the 'poetics of silence', or even of the 'death of poetry'. In an exhaustive philological analysis, he makes a case for the self-destruction of the poem (and of poetry) through the skilful transformation of its hypotext from Martial.

In order to come still closer to the essence of late antique literature, chapter 7 explores the concept of hybridization. Whereas, generally, one thinks first of the 'intrasystemic' hybrid nature of the literature of the period (the mixture of genres in e.g. the Mosella or Sidonius' letter collection), the author argues that intersystemic hybridization is even more important, i.e. the interference between vision and sound, image and text, object and text. He ties this together in a detailed analysis of the poetic ekphrasis of the church of Lyon in Letter 2.10. Along these lines, he finally suggests the ultimate aim of creating a Gesamtkunstwerk in late antique art.

The concluding chapter revolves round the equally programmatic Poem 16, the poem of thanks to Sidonius' Christian mentor Faustus. Hernández Lobato interprets this as a new, Christian poetic programme, which reacts to the late antique crisis of the representativity of language. A labyrinthine intertextual analysis guides us – via Paulinus, Statius, Ausonius and Vergil, and with the help of Baudrillard and others – to the following conclusion: classical 'poetry of representation' had become 'poetry of simulation' in Late Antiquity, and also in Sidonius' oeuvre; the object had disappeared, only the surface remained. Now, Sidonius commits poetical suicide. He exposes the spring of Hippocrene, the fons equinus of pagan poetical inspiration, as the well of Death, the Vergilian fons Avernus. Orpheus dies, Apollo is silent (the title of the book), but Christ is risen on the third day: the number 3 plays an essential role in Poem 16. Sidonius' own contribution to this revolution is a method of reading classical poetry from a contemporary, Christian perspective: poetry as a hermetic, ambiguous labyrinth of infinite allusions. This 'death and resurrection of poetry' leads right up to the Middle Ages.

So far, I have interrupted as little as possible with my own comment because this is a heroic attempt to solve the riddle (to us) of the futility and inappropriateness of (a certain kind of) late antique poetry, by an author who is eloquent, well-read and theoretically informed. Also because, paradoxically, this attempt is more necessary than ever despite – or because of – the revaluation of Late Antiquity. Even now, after weighing everything we have learned over time, a literary critic may well conclude that Sidonius' poetry is a failure.1 Hence, this book is a must-read. It lays out a grand panorama which carries one along and is inspirational in a myriad of details. I welcome the zest of its vision, as it might be the crowning synthesis of much philological labour done by others in the past. However, is it?

I am afraid the book's claim to finality runs into some serious problems. First, its dialogue with current research is often superficial. Some of this – very selectively so – is mentioned in a stray footnote, after which the argument goes on in splendid isolation. Thus, it lacks true footing and does not do complete justice to what others have done before. It does not do justice to the author's own achievement either, which is primarily in the original synthesis of many previous voices.2 In his urge, however, to present something new, the author tends to isolate his work. Characteristically, he even slurs his own former production, as the greater part of Vel Apolline muto is made up of the articles he has published since 2006, which are reproduced literally (down to the occasional typo), but the fact itself remains unnoticed. This is of course a legitimate way of writing a monograph; yet explicit engagement with his own work would not only have eliminated several repetitions, but, above all, have set a standard of internal and external dialogue.

Second, the potentially important contribution of a theoretical background loses some of its effectiveness by the indiscriminate citation of what is probably the complete plethora of philosophers of the past half century. Inevitably, their incorporation is often no more than fleeting and serves only to illustrate the general notion of 'postmodernity'. The atmosphere is often very 'French': broad philosophical strokes and complexity to the point of incomprehensibility. One may like this or not (personally, I do): here is a wide field for important discussion. The discovery of 'otherness', e.g., in Christianity and in the barbarians in chapter 3 cries out for proof, and the use of intertextuality as another form of cabbalism in chapter 8 needs validation. What strikes me above all is Hernández Lobato's central claim that 'postmodernism' is the adequate instrument for a contemporary reading of Late Antiquity because our time and Late Antiquity share the same structural anxieties. A contemporary reading is always justified, and even necessary, but not because of any objective similarities. Whereas it is stimulating to have a 'deconstructionist' view of Sidonius, as the author offers, it is improbable that Sidonius' aim can ever have been any such thing as 'deconstruction', 'apophatic reading', or the 'death of poetry'. Here, anachronism looms large, even though Hernández Lobato constantly tries to avoid it. In the future discussion as I see it, a further element should be the question if 'postmodernism' is still contemporary and adequate, as the 'death of postmodernism' has been widely acclaimed in the past decade.

Third, there is the drawback of the imprecise definition of the question the book sets out to answer. At its most ambitious, it is the question of late antique aesthetics and poetics (Weltanschauung even), as in the title. In practice, this is narrowed down to an inquiry into a specific type of poetry, viz. highbrow occasional verse in Latin. Whereas the importance of this investigation for understanding the likes of Sidonius is evident, it is problematic to make this elite poet from an isolated region into the representative of late antique aesthetics in general. If anywhere, here the 'postmodern' approach could have helped to create a more sophisticated sense of the diversity and the complexity of the subject matter.

This is a book that must be read and discussed, and that will probably be either loved or hated. It deserves to be translated into English (or even better, abridged with added indexes) in order to give it the wider audience it needs to elicit an interdisciplinary discussion of the intriguing issues which it raises. In any case, it is a vital asset for scholarly debate on Sidonius.


1.   Piet Gerbrandy, 'The Failure of Sidonius' Poetry', in Joop van Waarden and Gavin Kelly (eds), New Approaches to Sidonius Apollinaris, Leuven: Peeters, forthcoming.
2.   Some characteristic examples: pp. 57 ff. on the structure of the collection (Daly 2000 mentioned almost in passing, whereas the following argument relies entirely on this; its seminal role for the soteriological interpretation of Poem 16 in chapter 8 is only hinted at on p. 64 in n. 67, and is played down on p. 520 n. 1); pp. 73 ff. on Christianity and the barbarians (all historical research from Goffart 1980 to Cameron 2011 – with quite different results – is ignored); pp. 175 ff. on Poem 13 (Santelia 2005 only mentioned in a footnote to refute a conjecture, not integrated in the overall analysis; a similar dismissive gesture on p. 493 n. 69).

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