Thursday, August 21, 2014


Michael Paschalis, Stelios Panayotakis (ed.), The Construction of the Real and the Ideal in the Ancient Novel. Ancient narrative supplementum, 17. Groningen: Barkhuis Publishing; Groningen University Library, 2013. Pp. xvi, 312. ISBN 9789491431258. €80.00.

Reviewed by Ellen Finkelpearl, Scripps College (

Version at BMCR home site


This book is a collection of essays based on papers delivered at the annual Rethymnon (Crete) International Conference on the Ancient Novel (RICAN) in May 2009. Each year, the conference is organized around a theme (in the past, e.g. "Space in the Ancient Novel," and this year, "Slaves and Masters in the Ancient Novel"), such that the essays in each volume interconnect suggestively, but do not necessarily offer a comprehensive view of the subject. This is an impressive volume, full of interesting essays that stretch and help define these amorphous concepts of "real" and "ideal."

In fact, the book is about much more than the "real" and "ideal," and might have been more aptly entitled something like "The Construction and Deconstruction of the Real, the Unreal, the Illusionistic and the Ideal," given that a majority of the authors are more interested in the tensions and ambiguities in conceptions of the real and the unreal than in the ideal. The actual title conjures up: (1) the familiar characterization of the Roman novels as "realistic" in Auerbach's or perhaps Bakhtin's terms: freedmen in Petronius uniquely speak a Latin indicative of their low birth; Apuleius' world is populated by robbers, farmers and old crones rather than epic heroes, and (2) the characterization of at least some of the Greek novels as "ideal" because of their impossibly beautiful and chaste protagonists. Such distinctions have long been seen as problematic, and this volume should help us move beyond them. An introduction delineating the common use of the terms and integrating the volume's collective redefinitions would have been useful; as it is, the Introduction by Gareth Schmeling (ix-xvi, available in the link to Google Books) is mainly a summary of each individual essay (along with a complaint that a reviewer of a different volume had objected to such an introduction). Abstracts also appear at the end of the volume, which makes such an introduction a little superfluous, though this is apparently the series norm. Since conferences ideally advance our understanding of these themes, this seems like a missed opportunity.

Several of the essays explicitly address and problematize the question of definitions. Ewen Bowie gives us a standard formula, associating "ideal" with praiseworthy actions and "real" with what might be expected in ordinary everyday life (179), though he goes on to explore Longus' extensive use of literary texts at several removes from reality to present a self-consciously fictional "reality." Michael Paschalis begins his essay on Chariton with a quotation from Tim Whitmarsh advocating a nuancing of the concept of the ideal novel, since the plot of its earliest exemplar is set in motion by the central male character kicking his pregnant wife in the stomach (161). Robert Carver interestingly asserts that for a Platonist (like Apuleius) the "ideal" IS the "real" (243), while Margaret Doody dismisses the division of the ancient novels into "comic" and "ideal" as "a red herring and a stale one at that" (106).

In general, the essays implicitly complicate the relations among the real, the unreal and the ideal. In Selden's essay, the changing historical, political and social realities are negotiated in the fictions of the Egyptian novel. Montiglio shows the ambivalent attitude toward the philosophical ideal of Odyssean heautocratia in the Greek novel, where the importance of demonstrating strong emotion represents a conflicting value system. Dowden shows how the "real" (though fictionalized) brigand life is depicted not only as entertainment but as a way of philosophically contemplating the nature of a civilized or "ideal" life. Rosati asks whether mythological loves of the gods were seen as historical precedents, mythical paradigms or abstract symbols of fictitious events (concluding that they were indeed viewed as fictional and had become a space of fantasy and stimulus of one's own desire). König questions the common characterization of the bodily focus of the Roman novel as "real," pointing out that close attention to bodily detail can have a defamiliarizing effect, rather than contributing to an impression of realism. Zeitlin explores the "rich dialectic between the real and the ideal," where nature imitates art, art triumphs over biology, and frames that separate the painting from the world are broken open. Letoublon and Whitmarsh make somewhat similar claims for the complications of nature and art. In short, the essays in this volume, as a whole, unsettle any binary of real/ideal or real/unreal, but instead focus on the interconnections, blurring and deconstructing of such categories. (Labate does see the unreal as a counterpoint to the real in Petronius, but reality is here something vague and unobtainable by the protagonists.)

I will focus on a few, with apologies to the other worthy essays in the volume. The book begins strikingly with an essay by Daniel Selden ("The Political Economy of Romance in Late Period Egypt") full of Egyptian, Aramaic and other languages unfamiliar to most Classicists, as well as maps and diagrams (a format familiar in other recent Selden essays) which have the effect of emphasizing the reality of lands traditionally romanticized or exoticized in the Greek and Roman novel. Among other texts, Selden introduces us to the Bentresh Stele from the late 4th century BCE. The entire scenario is too involved to reproduce here, but Selden sets out the complex and changing political situation in the Leventine-Mediterranean world, showing the ways the Egyptian romance simultaneously puts Egypt at the center by setting the tale in a more glorious period and demonstrating the efficacy of its god, Khons, but also sets Egypt at the margins geographically. The fantasy marriage-alliance between an Egyptian king and a beautiful princess from (Iranian?) Bakhtan seems symbolic of broad connectivity in the Mediterranean, but nostalgically evokes a different set of political alliances and power-structures while subconsciously including anxiety over the land's contemporary marginalization. It is remarkable that romance should be the medium for such cultural negotiation. As in his other current work, Selden insists on re-orienting our vision of the states that coexisted with Greece and Rome, a provocation to broaden the field and to learn other languages.

In her essay on "Landscapes and Portraits," Froma Zeitlin outdoes herself in unfolding the convoluted complexities of the relationship between art and nature (see above), and incidentally supplies us with an extensive recent bibliography on ekphrasis. Somewhat like Selden, she reminds us that there exist real paintings like those described in the romances, and, looking at Pompeian paintings of Perseus and Andromeda, she notes that Andromeda is persistently white, despite being, like Charikleia, Ethiopian. Zeitlin wonders whether this problem of Andromeda's whiteness might have inspired the puzzle that is Heliodorus' plot. This is a useful addition to the emphasis in Heliodorus scholarship on maternal impression.The essay also explores the paradoxes of paternity when a work of art and a mother's perception are the real parents of the child. There is much more in this essay for those who, like Zeitlin, get a "frisson" from contemplating the unsettling continuities between art and life.

Whitmarsh's essay on gendered aesthetics, bringing Dionysius of Halicarnassus' theories on mimesis into play, is an important contribution to the interpretation of gender in the Greek novel. While some critics have pointed to the novel's objectification of the female through the process of the male gaze dismembering her body, Whitmarsh notes that "the eroticized aestheticized woman is also the blazon of the genre" (276). Dionysius describes mimesis as something both phallic and receptive; the "written" women, then, also embody the creative power of the genre, and reproductive fertility is the best metaphor for creativity (282). "Women are at once alienated from the text, fixed at the other end of the narrative telescope, and figuratively constitutive of it" (278). Whitmarsh's introduction of the power of aesthetics as reproduction is a useful tertium quid since the gender dynamics of the ancient novel are a persistent puzzle because of the contradiction between the clearly androcentric point of view and the obvious power of the female.

I also recommend the essays by Dowden and Montiglio (whose central points are given above), both written in a clear, lively manner, pulling much more out of the topics of brigands and self-control than one might expect. Dowden enjoys contemplating the "roistering" of young men and informs us of an ancient board game called "latrones;" Montiglio makes us think harder about the Odyssey as a model for romance, as well as about the novel's non- philosophical ethos in regard to emotion.

I was struck by specific points in a number of contributions. Margaret Doody's essay on comedy in Heliodorus discusses both humor and the genre of comedy. Some of her examples of humor did not strike me as funny; for example, Doody notes that we don't understand the opening scene of carnage and "the joke is on us" (107). Not funny for me. Convincing, however, is her detailed analysis of Knemon as a generic comic character: e.g. he associates with flute girls, craves a narrative filled with spectacle, and deceives Thermouthis via gastric complaints. We must also applaud her continued fierce championing of the genre of the novel; while "swallowing and digesting" New Comedy, the Novel challenges Tragedy which is always present via allusion and quotation. The Novel provides a true moral and social anagnorisis, not merely a familial reunion, but a discovery and understanding of the Self (124-25).

In his essay, "Landscape and Reality in Apuleius," Jason König shows how the slipperiness of mortal understanding of reality is mirrored in the descriptions of landscape, both because such descriptions are so often highly rhetorical and because landscape can impinge physically on the body in ways which produce suffering and hinder clear perception. The most striking section of this essay is his discussion of the wooden mountain of Book 10 which is swallowed up by the earth after a performance of the Judgment of Paris. "Here the text says goodbye to theatricality, and indeed to theatrical landscapes, sweeping them into oblivion" (236). Landscape is a "stage-set" of the sublunary world of illusion and the way is cleared for new images in the world of Isis. As he himself says, this is one of those simple but obvious points not previously noted.

It was heartwarming to see Robert Carver return to the defense of Fotis first presented at the Dartmouth novel conference in 1989. Here, arguing that Fotis is not the kind of anti-type to Isis that Palaestra would have been, Carver sees potential in her as a sacerdos of love or mediator between mortal and divine. Lucius, however, "proves intractable" (262) and does not wed his (sham?) spirituality with Platonic mysteries as Plutarch recommends in DIO. For Carver, Fotis is "one of the noisy silences of Book 11" (271) whose absence may indicate an insufficiency of photismos in Lucius' conversion. Carver is surely right that Fotis has been much maligned and that she is an instrument of Lucius' enlightenment. Where I would part from him is in the use of Plutarch's philosophical take on Isis to interpret what is (to me) a different kind of spiritual conversion in Apuleius (as I argue elsewhere).

Finally, and randomly, I found very useful, as a teacher of Classical Mythology, Letoublon's pronouncements on the use of myth in Achilles Tatius: "the myths do not explain anything, but instead pose questions. . . . Myths are crucial for the search for meaning, they do not necessarily spell out that meaning" (138)—though she also shows that some myths can be paradigms.

This is a rich volume on a complex theme which should enhance the general appreciation of the ancient novel as anything but "penny-dreadful" and also offers broader contributions to thinking about the concepts of the ideal, the real, and illusion.

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