Friday, June 22, 2018


Gian Biagio Conte, Stealing the Club from Hercules: On Imitation in Latin Poetry. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2017. Pp. 61. ISBN 9783110472202. $69.99.

Reviewed by Giulia Fanti, St. John's College, Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site


Virgil, accused of frequent furta from Homer's poems for the composition of the Aeneid, allegedly replied to his detractors that 'it is easier to steal Jupiter's thunderbolt or Hercules' club than a line from Homer.' If this answer points out Virgil's awareness of his exceptional artistic skills, it also acknowledges his imitation of the model. Conte finds inspiration in this witty reply attributed to Virgil to title his little book, which is presented in the Foreword as a reworked version of some earlier studies on literary theory, first published in 1974 (Memoria dei poeti e sistema letterario: Catullo, Virgilio, Ovidio, Lucano). In this two-chapter volume, Conte returns to his old field of interests not just to amend some of his previous theories, but also to enrich them with fresh ideas. The work presents a well-balanced structure and a clearly defined goal, which would nonetheless benefit from a better clarity of expression.

The first chapter, 'Stealing the club from Hercules', offers an innovative outlook on the theory of imitation. Conte mainly analyses Virgil's working over of Homer's texts. Whilst originally arguing that imitation could blemish the originality of a text, Conte's views appear now to go in a different, yet more persuasive, direction, maintaining that imitation may be the 'actual path to originality' (p.1), the condition that makes a text possible. The necessary pre-condition to this is that the shadows of the original texts remain detectable to the readers: only this allows a full appreciation of 'the talent of the thieving-poet' (p.6). Before delving into Virgil's case, Conte provides a brief critical survey of ancient theories on imitation. Whilst he acknowledges that the debate over the practice of imitation only arose in Greece during the 4th century BC, mentioning Dionysius of Halicarnassus' De Imitatione, the author dismisses the critics' judgements as affected by 'incurable pedantry' (p.8). He rather prefers focusing on the poets' theories on imitation (relevant passages from Horace, Seneca and Quintilian are quoted and discussed), a process that they regarded as fully legitimate, especially when the pre-existing material is artistically reworked with personal taste and ability: this produces a transformation of imitatio into aemulatio, thus competing with the original model, yet without falling under the accusation of plagiarism. The discussion is enriched with cases of imitation such as we read in the Italian authors Petrarch and Boccaccio. These references, although fascinating, do not seem to fully fit into the discussion, but rather to follow the author's personal taste, not adding much to the development of the argument.

The second half of the first chapter focuses on Virgil's imitation of Homer. After pointing out how most of Virgil's detractors were provoked by the fact that his imitation produced results that were surprisingly different from the original ('originality was reached by a detour', p.15), Conte looks closely at Rufius Albinus' judgement on Virgil's imitation, as we read it in Macrobius' Saturnalia (VI.1.2). He takes it as the starting point of the discussion: Virgil's case demonstrates how appropriation has produced a new kind of poetry, where the models are transformed, to such an extent that 'the man who steals Hercules' club ends up becoming stronger than Hercules' (p.15). Virgil imitates Homer (both the original poet and the multiple literary experiments based on the original Greek texts) both through repetition and artistic transformation of the model. These two channels proceed hand in hand, and belong to the same act of composition. This clearly reveals how there is neither originality (as nothing can fully be primal), nor real imitation (because of the new layers of meaning that words take in new contexts), but rather a 'wise polyphony' (p.20), or, to follow Cesare Segre's definition, 'interdiscursivity' (p.20), which causes a productive dialogue amongst different forms and languages. After an abstract, yet persuasive, section, Conte validates his arguments with some examples from ancient texts, which well show how Virgil, despite stealing from the Greek model, stretches and reshapes his prey to his different requirements. The passages on Sarpedon's death are recalled respectively from Iliad 16 and Aeneid 10: Conte convincingly shows how Virgil reworks the original scene, reversing the roles of the characters, especially those of the gods, somehow actualising them. Jupiter is transformed into a rational Stoic mind, to fit into the new ideological system of the Aeneid, while Hera becomes the executor of fate. Such changes do not lessen either the model or the challenger: conversely, they establish a contest with two victors (p.26). A rich catalogue of examples from Homer and Virgil's poems helps the reader understand how Virgil's imitation reshapes the model to his own demands, yet without attempting to hide his thefts, which range from imitation/reinterpretation of scenes and characters to linguistic calques.

The second chapter, 'A critical retrospective: method and its limits' presents the author's assessment of the limitations, both positive and negative, of the method of intertextuality. As Conte rightly argues, it only works if 'the dynamism of a verbal network' (p.2) is recognised and, consequently, its own new real meaning acknowledged. The chapter opens with an explanatory overview of structuralism, which supports the reader's understanding of the fundamental principle that every correction and change introduced by an author in his own text adds to a complex system of contextual relations: 'the equilibrium of the system adjusts itself to accommodate the change and produces each time a new structural arrangement' (p.39). This principle relies on the idea of the text as a system, a decisive approach suggested by Gianfranco Contini, whose words serve as an epigraph to the second chapter. As such, texts are subordinated to the laws that govern a system, among which Conte mentions its functional efficiency, its tendency to equilibrium, and the principle of interaction among its constituent parts. Conte adds a most valuable contribution to his teacher's approach: he extends the definition of 'system' to the entire corpus of the Greco-Roman literary tradition, which offers its contribution, synchronically, when a new text is created. One further innovation that Conte adds to the way in which we may read a text is about the intentionality of the art of allusion. Structuralists denied it, instead regarding the system of the language as responsible for the meaning of a text. Conte, on the other hand, suggests that both the author and the reader play a crucial role in constructing the meaning of a text, being an integral part of it. However – and it is here that Conte sets him at a distance from the 'intentionalists' – it is sometimes risky to set hard and fast rules to determine the predominant models that an author might have in mind when creating an allusion. The best attitude to adopt is an aporetic one, Conte suggests: to 'stick to phenomenological forms of relief' (p.50), and see poetic reminiscences as 'an effect of the text' (p.50), sometimes voluntarily calculated, sometimes involuntarily sought.

Imitation requires convincing proofs (often neglected by scholars) in order to be alleged, as Conte observes in the second half of the second chapter. A catalogue of examples of scholarly ingenuity is masterfully dismissed. Conte reveals their untrustworthiness, offering, for each of them, compelling counter-arguments. When the bond between the objectivity of the text and the autonomy of the language comes untied, then structuralism enters a crisis, which unavoidably reflects on the way we look at and interpret a text and any imitative layers it may have. This is the fault of hermeneuticists and deconstructionists, who have gone so far as to endanger the fundamental principles of structuralism, producing what Conte labels as 'capricious intertextuality' (p.54). In our analysis of a text, signs left by the appropriation of a text, which disclose the previous owner's identity, yet leaving the ground free to possible fresh interpretations, should be our first concern.

The book lacks a final conclusion summing up the innovations that the author has added to his previous studies and, more generally, to the pre-existing bibliography on the field, which is not much taken into account in the discussion. However, the case made by this little book sheds a new light on the author's previous scholarship on the topic, considering the developments in literary theory after the publication of his contribution in 1974. The texts that Conte uses to validate his arguments are carefully selected, and make his case cogent, not least thanks to his unrivalled philological sharpness and analytical skills. Equally, the method that the author espouses is thoroughly explained, and the limitations entailed by the idea of intertextuality persuasively assessed.

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