Wednesday, January 7, 2015


Antonia Syson, 'Fama' and Fiction in Vergil's 'Aeneid'. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2013. Pp. viii, 240. ISBN 9780814212349. $66.95.

Reviewed by Bryn Harris, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

This book is an interesting and bold contribution to the study of the Aeneid, taking full advantage of the recent renewed focus on fama and its meanings and encompassing a range of different interpretative approaches. Its main thesis concerning fictionality is that understanding fictional narratives requires a complex and changeable blend of the "fictive knowledge" generated by the text itself and of real-world knowledge from outside the world of the narrative. This thesis is advanced consistently, and on the whole convincingly, but in a manner that I found at times unclear and reductive.

The introductory chapter theorizes across generic and historical boundaries to delineate the concept of what Syson calls the "seams" between fiction and reality found in ancient epic and the nineteenth-century novel alike. In chapter 2 Syson kicks off the book's explorations of Vergilian fama by examining the manifestation that she takes as programmatic for the whole Aeneid—the monstrous goddess of Book 4. After illuminating discussion of some of the cruces of Vergilian fama, including its promise of heroic singularity which is met with the actual reward of anonymity among the masses of the dead, and the consistent promiscuous confusion of the Jovian chronicle of fata and the cacophony of rumours, Syson moves on to chapter 3 and the first of her engagements with anthropologist Mary Douglas' argument that dirt is mere "matter out of place." While pietas demands that the pollution of Misenus' and Palinurus' bodies be expiated by putting them in their proper place and burying them, how do we interpret the deed that their burial enables, Aeneas' descent to the underworld? This journey to consult his father marks him as the very emblem of pietas, yet isn't he also an impious pollutant, "matter out of place" as a living mortal in the land of the dead? "A tidy cosmos requires things to be put in their place" (63) but tidying the cosmos is a job for a hero, whose efforts will almost always exceed and disrupt the categorical norms the tidy cosmos drives towards. And would anyone want to read the epic poem celebrating this cosmos and this hero if all its constituent parts of syntax, metre, and narrative were exactly and predictably in their place? It is an intriguing conundrum.

Chapter 4 tackles Celaeno's table-eating prophecy, arguing that the "dirt" of the foetid harpy's prophecy is "washed away" by its reattribution later in the Aeneid to Anchises, and returns also to the difficulty in categorically distinguishing the divine voice of Jupiter and the demonic voice of Celaeno. In chapter 5, on Nisus and Euryalus in Book 9, Syson argues for a further "category confusion" between pietas and furor, while chapters 6 and 7 contain some of the book's most interesting arguments, investigating first how divine words of command can transform mortal perceptions as well as physical objects (such as the Trojan ships in Book 9) and, in the latter chapter, the difficulties readers sometimes encounter in transforming Vergil's words into conceivable actions or things — we know that Mercury does something at 1.302–4 to make the Carthaginians welcome the Trojans, but it is impossible to convert the brief description into a particular concrete action taking place within the narrative. Finally, using Juturna's misleading omen in Book 12, chapter 8 shows how omens can mislead if they corroborate what lookers-on already want to believe — and in a similar fashion, Syson argues, fictional narratives confound and beguile readers by mixing imperceptibly the world portrayed by the poet (itself a sort of fama for Syson) with the real world that the reader already knows and has opinions about.

It should be noted that despite its title the book says relatively little about fiction. A cyclical structure brings the final chapter back round to fictionality and the novel, where the first chapter had begun, but this welcome return only made this reader wish that these theoretical insights had accompanied earlier discussion of fiction throughout the book — it felt too little, too late.

Indeed Syson's handling of fiction and fictionality is hampered by a vagueness that can be found in many passages of the book. The complexity of the terrain she is negotiating—reality and the notional reality of fictional worlds — requires a much more rigorous approach to terminology and argument.

Take, for instance, the metaphorical conceit advanced early in the book that the "fabrics" or "cloths" of reality and fiction often meet to form "seams" (pp. 10, 18, 65, 91). By immediately resorting to metaphor, without having first tackled head-on and reasoned through the nature of the phenomenon and its ontological nitty-gritty, Syson consigns herself to look at the matter through a glass, darkly.

One is left with the feeling not only that any attempt to get at the heart of the matter has been precluded by the jump to metaphor, but also that the metaphor itself might not be entirely apt: following many philosophers and theorists of fiction, Syson uses the customary exemplar of Napoleon's appearance in Tolstoy's War and Peace to think about the relationship between real-world figures and fictional descriptions (p.10). I am far from convinced we should or even can conceive of this as two "fabrics," with the historical Napoleon and the fictional world of War and Peace joining to create a seam: Tolstoy's Napoleon is not quite of the separate, distinct fabric of the real historical world, as he is a Napoleon who has been made by fictional by Tolstoy's description of him in a novel — it is a Napoleon-under- fictional-description, and whether we would describe this metaphorically as "colouring" or "layering" or "overlap," it is clear that Syson's metaphor of discrete fabrics joining together blankets over the metaphysical complexity of Tolstoy's Napoleon. Labelling real and fictional worlds separate fabrics presupposes to a large degree the ontological discreteness of the two, and in doing so begs the very question we are trying to answer of how the fictional and the real interact and inter-depend on one another.

Nevertheless, whatever the objections over terminology, Syson is absolutely right to highlight these "seams" as a central, knotty problem in thinking about fiction. Indeed the question of how far the statements in fictions extend beyond the narratives that contain them—is Jane Austen's "truth universally acknowledged" stated as true (or ironically true) in the real world or as true only in the world of Pride and Prejudice?—is one that can productively be applied to the Aeneid. When Vergil asks tantaene animis caelestibus irae? (1.11) is he asking about the plausibility of the plot he has just proposed to the reader, or of a vision of the world? A similar ambiguity is found at 9.184-5: 'dine hunc ardorem mentibus addunt, / Euryale, an sua cuique deus fit dira cupido? As at 1.11, the ambiguity goes side by side with the contentiousness of the topic. It is unfortunate that during her extensive treatment of the Nisus and Euryalus episode in chapter 5 Syson does not consider these lines with an eye to the "seams" between fiction and reality. Also unusual is the absence of any discussion of Aeneid 9.79 (prisca fides facto, sed fama perennis)—a gift of a line, surely, to any monograph on fama and fiction.

The seeming reluctance to tackle questions of fictionality leads to other oversights: there is very little discussion of ancient thinking about fiction, despite the rich resources left by philosophers, scholiasts, and grammarians. Eratosthenes' concept of psychagogia could complement very well Syson's ideas about fama, and the notion common in antiquity that poets mix truth and falsehood fits directly with her main thesis but constitutes a missed opportunity (pp.48–9). One wonders too whether the use of J. L. Austin's theories in chapter 6 is complete without at least a mention of his most famous statement on fictional utterances — viz. his dismissal of them as "etiolations of language" that are "parasitic" on normal usage..

One consistent engagement with fictionality in the book is the careful and clear reminder that often things in the Aeneid are true or are known only "in the world of the fiction" (pp. 102–3, 108, 113, 118, 161, 201). Syson uses this to good effect, particularly in uncovering the ironies made possible by the gap in knowledge between the reader and characters. It is legitimate to ask, however, whether this distinction really explains much and gets us any closer to answering the difficult questions about fictional worlds — what properties distinguish the world of the fiction from our real world? If it exists in some different sort of way, then what way — non-existence? mental existence? semantic existence? And what causes it to have these special existential qualities—pure authorial say-so or something more collaborative between author, reader, and community?

This is part of a wider lack of theoretical argument. At the start of the book Syson requires troublingly little argument to reach the sweeping conclusion that "instability" is inherent to narrative. Indeed, throughout there is a tendency to drive towards this conclusion, even if it is sometimes premature. Thus no sooner has Syson explained her concept of "fictive knowledge" than we are told of its "instability and ambiguity" (p.3). Later we are told that "categories like 'narrative' or 'not-narrative', 'fiction' or 'not-fiction' … readily break down" (p.15). In neither case are these assumptions rigorously tested or explored; there is seemingly a blanket assumption that categories and terms are fluid and ambiguous.

This assumption may well be true, though we are presented with few reasons why we ought to agree. The assumption is, however, understandable — ambiguity is grist to the interpretative mill, and it is natural that Syson seeks opportunities to exploit it. What, on a critical reading, comes across as under-definition and vagueness might also more generously be thought of as the foundation of Syson's often bold interpretations. The question the reader must ask herself is whether the creativity and energy of Syson's interpretations justify the frequent imprecision of her argumentative method.

My own impression is that the book contains too many passages loaded with abstract terms, and too few passages defining precisely what is meant by those terms. This is seen particularly in the paragraphs that conclude sections and chapters, where Syson brings together patterned 'networks' of thematic keywords:

"Dido's personal fama, in all its manifestations, fuses with epic fama, which aligns Rome and Carthage's past and present with the fata of the Aeneid" (p.54).

"Another way of looking at this question of agency is to ask how far the poem imagines fate and divine will colluding with fama to become part of the fictive knowledge it conveys" (p.62).

"Pietas here doubly generates epic fama, assisting in its work of remembrance with a fervor that calls for poetic celebration" (p.84).

Capacious abstract terms are described as doing things (fama aligns, the poem imagines, pietas generates) but doing them in mysterious unexplained ways that are elided by the sweeping broadness of Syson's style. This is ironic as some of the book's strongest and most interesting passages, found in chapter 7, concern "elided" workings, specifically of divine power over mortals (as for instance Mercury's mission to the Carthaginians in Aeneid 1).

'Fama' and Fiction in Vergil's 'Aeneid' is an arresting book that will be of interest to Vergilian scholars and to graduate students researching fama and, to a lesser extent, fiction. Many readers will doubtless find attractive its ambitious interpretative forays, while others will be unconvinced that these should come at the expense of the clarity and rigour demanded by the subject matter.

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