Monday, July 15, 2013


Stephen Halliwell, Between Ecstasy and Truth. Interpretations of Greek Poetics from Homer to Longinus.. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 419. ISBN 9780199570560. $150.00.

Reviewed by Casper C. de Jonge, Leiden University (

Version at BMCR home site


Stephen Halliwell is one of the world's leading specialists in ancient literary criticism. In this book he offers a series of detailed studies examining Greek views on poetry. Reconsidering a number of familiar passages from Homer, Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, Gorgias, Isocrates, Philodemus and Longinus, Halliwell argues that the tradition of Greek poetics is informed by a continuous dialogue between two competing perspectives, which he summarizes by the notions of "ecstasy" and "truth". "Ecstasy" stands for various ancient ideas that understand the value of poetry in terms of emotional impact, enchantment and psychological transformation. "Truth", on the other hand, covers all those approaches that underline the cognitive benefits of poetry to the audience. While the contrast between truth and ecstasy is relevant to all Greek texts discussed in this book, the relationship between the two notions is presented in many different forms. Some ancient critics develop poetic theories that bridge the gap between ecstasy and truth, whereas other authors perceive an unsolvable conflict between these values.

Chapter 1 ("Setting the Scene: Questions of Poetic Value in Greek Culture") introduces the notions of poetic ecstasy and truth. In his discussion of the latter term Halliwell draws attention to a wide variety of Greek ideas about poetic truth, falsehood and fiction. These ideas are further illuminated through a close reading of well-known passages from Hesiod (Theogony 26-28) and Thucydides (2.41.4), which raise important questions concerning the status of poetry and its relationship to truth and history.

The following six chapters focus on eight Greek authors from Homer to Longinus. Although the chapters deal with a wide variety of texts that span a period of at least eight centuries, they are closely connected, not only by the thematic focus on truth and ecstasy, but also by Halliwell's consistent method. Each chapter sets out to demonstrate that the Greek texts discussed are more "complex" and "ambiguous" than scholars have recognized.

"Is there a Poetics in Homer?" That question is raised in chapter 2. Halliwell emphasizes that it is impossible to reduce all Homeric passages on song and poetry to one coherent list of values. Two passages are discussed in detail: Achilles' song about the "glorious deeds of men" in Iliad 9 and Odysseus' request for Demodocus' third song in Odyssey 8. Halliwell argues that both Achilles and Odysseus are attracted by the emotional experience of song, which is capable of transforming their human suffering into something beautiful. For a good understanding of Homeric song this ecstatic experience is at least as important, he claims, as the notion of truth that many interpreters have emphasized. The role of the Muses in Homer is explained in similar terms: they do not just inform the poet about historical and accurate truth, but they rather "transmute" the distress of human life into enthralling beauty.

Chapter 3 ("Aristophanes' Frogs and the Failure of Criticism") challenges the common interpretation of Aristophanes' Frogs as a work of literary theory. Where many scholars have tried to distil from Frogs a coherent set of poetic theories, Halliwell emphasizes the ambiguous, comical and elusive aspects of the play, arguing that it is impossible to reduce the comedy to anything like a poetics or literary theory. A large part of this instructive chapter concentrates on the figure of Dionysus. The god's unstable and quickly changing attitude towards the poets Aeschylus and Euripides is interpreted as a dramatic staging of the enormous difficulty of judging the quality of poetry. If Aristophanes teaches us anything about tragedy, it is the fact that poetic criticism and evaluation is extremely complex, in many respects absurd, and perhaps even impossible.

Like Aristophanes' comedies, Plato's polyphonic dialogues do not allow themselves to be reduced to a straightforward account or theory. In chapter 4 ("To Banish or Not to Banish? Plato's Unanswered Question about Poetry") Halliwell again contests the interpretations of scholars who have drawn simplified conclusions from passages that on closer inspection turn out to be rather complex. While rejecting the common portrait of Plato as an enemy of poetry, Halliwell argues that Plato's dialogues reveal an ambiguous attitude towards poetry. On the one hand Plato distrusts the ecstatic experience of poetry, which is not open to rational analysis. On the other hand his works show a deep awareness that poetic imagination can be both valuable and attractive. We are reminded that "the most Homeric" of all Greek writers (Longinus 13.3 on Plato) was in many respects a poet himself. Careful readings of the Apology and Ion prepare for a subtle interpretation of Republic book 10. In Halliwell's interpretation, the banishment of mimetic poets is not Plato's definitive solution for the tension between poetic ecstasy and rational truth. Several formulations in book 10 suggest that lovers of poetry might entertain the hope that it may in the end be possible to rescue poetry from its banishment. Far from giving a final verdict, therefore, Plato stimulates his readers to continue thinking about the complex relationship between poetry and philosophy.

Chapter 5 ("Aristotle and the Experience of Tragic Emotion") focuses on the Poetics, to the understanding of which Halliwell has already made several groundbreaking contributions. In this chapter he argues that in Aristotle's model of poetic experience there is a close collaboration between cognition and emotion, which together bring forth a certain "emotional understanding". The first part of Halliwell's analysis involves a helpful interpretation of Poetics chapter 25 as well as an interesting examination of the term ψυχαγωγία. The second part of the chapter focuses on the most notorious problem of the Poetics, i.e. the concept of catharsis. Reconsidering the evidence from Aristotle's Politics book 8, and rejecting the traditional interpretation of catharsis as a "purgation" of emotions, Halliwell defines tragic catharsis as the benefit that results from "the conversion and integration of otherwise painful emotions into the pleasurable experience of mimetic art" (p. 253). A useful appendix to this chapter presents a response to two scholars who have recently argued that the catharsis clause in the Poetics is an interpolation, a claim that Halliwell rejects after careful examination.

Chapter 6 ("Poetry in the Light of Prose: Gorgias, Isocrates, Philodemus") discusses the views of three authors who in different ways explore the boundaries between prose and poetry. Gorgias' Helen is a "prose-poem" that makes statements about poetry while presenting itself as a new kind of poetry. Halliwell observes a paradox in Gorgias' thinking about poetry: the sophist appears to regard both deception and truth as desirable features of poetry, without explaining how the tension between these values could be resolved. The second author in this chapter is Isocrates, who is critical of poets and poetry in various passages of his speeches, although he does acknowledge that poetry can provide exemplary models of moral behavior. It is argued that Isocrates' "failure" (p. 298) to appreciate other values of poetry results from his consistently pragmatic perspective, which prioritizes the usefulness and instructiveness of discourse. For Isocrates, truth does not go hand in hand with ecstasy. The third author discussed in this chapter is Philodemus. His work On Poems is extremely difficult to interpret, and not only because of its fragmentary status. In the extant fragments, Philodemus presents himself as a negative critic who refutes the theories of other critics, but it is hard for us to reconstruct his own positive theory of poetry. Philodemus participates in a debate on poetic value which focuses on two questions. First, is form or content responsible for poetic excellence? Second, should poetry carry some external benefit? While illuminating Philodemus' complex position in this debate, Halliwell emphasizes the difficulties and problems in the critic's claims about poetry. Having criticized other critics who define the value of poetry in terms of either its form or its external benefit, Philodemus himself seems to be unable to offer a satisfactory definition of poetic value. The uncertainties and (seeming) contradictions in his discussions expose a "weakness" in Philodemus' poetics (p. 326).

The final chapter focuses on the author of the work On the Sublime ("The Mind's Infinity: Longinus and the Psychology of the Sublime"). Ecstasy (ἔκστασις) is the term that Longinus (1.4) uses when describing the overwhelming effect of the sublime. But his emphasis on the dislocating effect of the sublime should not overshadow the relevance of "truth": Halliwell argues that the Longinian sublime results from a cooperation of thought and emotion. Far from being a purely irrational experience, sublime ecstasy increases our mental abilities. This interpretation exposes an important difference between Longinus and his modern successors (e.g. Burke, Kant), which is sometimes overlooked: in modern theory, the sublime is supposed to make human beings aware of the limits of their mind, whereas Longinus' sublime reveals the mind's infinity. In the remaining part of the chapter Halliwell examines the complex relationship between sublimity and truth, which plays a crucial role on several levels of Longinus' treatise.

Characteristic of this book is its uncompromising refusal to present simple answers to difficult questions. A few citations can illustrate the level of nuance, cautiousness and intellectual honesty that Halliwell adopts in this book. "Even much of what a majority of scholars suppose to be fundamental components of Homeric poetics (...) is less secure and more complex (...) than appears at first sight" (p. 42). "Eumaeus' case (...) is more complex than is sometimes appreciated" (p. 53). The comical nature of Aristophanes' Frogs "resists confident interpretation" (p. 96). A passage from Plato's Apology "is more enigmatic than often supposed" (p. 159). The dialogue Ion "is more perplexing and aporetic than most scholars suppose" (p. 167). Plato's discussion of mimesis in Republic book 10 "is more provisional, rhetorically edged, and philosophically provocative than most scholars are willing to admit" (p. 181). One aim of the discussion of Philodemus is to demonstrate that "we need to be alert to difficulties in his position which may not be susceptible to definitive solution" (p. 307), for "there is no easy answer" (p. 322) to the questions that Philodemus' fragments raise. The relationship between truth and the sublime in Longinus' treatise is "irreducibly complex" (p. 343).

This consistent refusal to reduce complex theory to simple oppositions or blunt summaries results in a book that is not always easy to read. Halliwell demands his reader to work as hard as he himself does when reading and rereading his Greek authors. We must be grateful, however, that such an astute reader as Halliwell opens our eyes for under-appreciated nuances and ambiguities in the ancient texts, some of which have indeed far-reaching implications. In drawing attention to the continuous interaction between the values of ecstasy and truth, his detailed discussions cast new light on many familiar passages of Greek criticism.

One of the most important achievements of this book is the fact that it corrects the oversimplified interpretations of earlier scholars, replacing them with innovative readings that respect the complexity and richness of the Greek texts. In recent years one can observe a certain tendency in classical scholarship to limit the number of references to earlier publications in the same field. Fortunately, Halliwell does not follow this questionable fashion. One of the merits of this book is that each chapter reviews and discusses the interpretations of many scholars, so that the reader is always able to follow the debate and to form his own opinion. This book is therefore not only an excellent study of Greek poetics, but also an admirable model of uncompromising scholarship.

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