CJ Online Review: Goldhill, Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy

posted with permission:

Simon Goldhill, Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy. Onassis Series in Classical Culture. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. 296. $35.00/£22.50. ISBN: 978-0-199-79627-4.

Reviewed by Michael Shaw, University of Kansas

The title of this book, as befits its interest in the slipperiness of words, uses the word “language” in two senses, as “philology” and as “langue.” The first section contains literary studies, while the second part is concerned with theory, German idealism in particular, but also feminist studies and what Goldhill refers to as the new “orthodoxy.” Somewhat confusingly, the first section’s readings all support this new orthodoxy to a degree. In his “coda,” Goldhill reveals that he wavers between rejecting German Idealism outright and using it for his own purposes.

In his opening chapter, “Undoing: Lusis and the Analysis of Irony,” based in part on his 2009 article in TAPA (much of this book consists of reworked earlier essays), Goldhill looks at Sophoclean examples of the Greek word “release,” in all of which he finds a second ironic sense. This irony creates “edgy, flickering uncertainty” (36) that undercuts the audience’s confidence, unlike conventional Sophoclean irony. One example is Electra’s use of λυτήριον in lines 1489–90, where she urges Orestes to kill Aegisthus immediately, “for this is the only release for me.” She means that she will no longer have to endure seeing him, but it is possible (though not all agree) that the audience will realize there is no “release” in this story. The chapter concludes with several examples of other words that possess this flickering irony.

The third chapter, “Line by Line,” is concerned with stichomythia. In the exchange of Creon and Haemon (Antigone, 726–64), Goldhill observes “the twists of reason into extremism” (58–63). This seems to support the new orthodoxy, but Goldhill’s language reveals a complex view of character: “even if Haemon may seem … to have the moral high ground, his position is also veined with a self-destructive and self-defeating extremism” (63).

In his fourth and fifth chapters, “Choreography” and “The Chorus in Action,” Goldhill examines lyric versus iambic lines in specific contexts, and concludes that the chorus is “more complex and nuanced … and far more dramatically involved than many generalizations about the chorus have allowed …” (131). This is convincingly demonstrated by a discussion of several passages in the Philoctetes.

In the book’s second section Goldhill is mainly concerned with German Idealism, which “takes tragedy from the sphere of literary genre and establishes it as a means to comprehend the self as a political, psychological and religious subject” (149). This has led to simplistic views of “tragedy” itself and of the nature of the chorus. The political plays, such as Suppliants and Herakleidai of Euripides, are not “tragic” in their terms and so have been overlooked. (Hegel’s early interest in Eumenides, observed by Steiner, Antigones [1984], esp. 25–8, is ignored here.)

In his seventh chapter, “Generalizing about the Chorus,” Goldhill states that Schlegel first describes the chorus as the “ideal spectator,” and that little is said by idealist philosophers about “any specific chorus.” (179) Nietzsche and Wagner’s view of music is also limiting; it emphasizes the enthusiastic and leaves no room for the use of lyric in deliberation. Goldhill concludes with accounts of performances of Reinhardt and others where the chorus embodies this enthusiasm to the detriment of its dramatic role.

In his eighth chapter, Goldhill shows that in nineteenth-century England there was “a remarkably uniform picture of Sophocles and his Electra” as being pious, which comes from “the German idealism of Schlegel” (216–7). Then he considers the “dark” reading, in which the Sophoclean hero is extreme and self-destructive, which began with Rohde’s Psyche in the 1890s and was popularized by Hoffmannstahl’s insane Electra of 1903. Sheppard in a 1927 article was one of the first scholars to reflect this view. By the 1960s there was no consensus concerning the two readings but “by the end of the twentieth century … the so-called ‘dark’ reading … has become orthodoxy” (225).

In his final chapter, “Coda: Reading with or without Hegel,” Goldhill clarifies his view of his antithesis between German idealism and the new orthodoxy: “I want to keep both trajectories—the trajectory of value and the trajectory of historical self-consciousness, the trajectory of the general and of the specific—in play, not least because I think it represents most accurately the state of contemporary criticism” (261–2). That is, he does not want to refute German Idealism. Rather, he wants to keep idealist views from obscuring other aspects of tragedy, such as uncertainty, complexity, and verbal play.

Goldhill sometimes criticizes Hegel as one of the German Idealists, but at other times approves of him and even seems to be influenced by him. For instance, consider this passage: “the power and subtlety of this self awareness within tragedy” (has been overlooked), “the dynamic between generalization and the messy, specific, self-interested turmoil of human activity.” Goldhill here is talking about the dialectical structure of the real world, a key Hegelian concept. The Hegelian connection reveals itself in Goldhill’s vocabulary: “self awareness,” “dynamic,” and “activity,” and “self-interested.”

Goldhill’s critical discussion of the historical and philosophical origin of several key concepts of Sophoclean tragedy is of great interest. His presentation of the relationship of ethics and tragedy is somewhat thin, however, and it is in ethics that philosophy concerns itself with the conflict of the ideal and the real and with the self in dialogue with itself. He makes no reference to Steiner’s emphasis on the importance of Hegel’s ethics, especially the Phenomenology, or to contemporary literature on ethics and literature, such as Nussbaum’s linking of ethics and tragedy (although Fragility of Goodness [1986] is in his bibliography, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature [1990] is not, nor is Gill’s Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy: The Self in Dialogue [1996]).

First Century Roman Amphora from Vélez-Málaga

… and it has wine in it! From Typically Spanish:

Archaeologists in Vélez-Málaga Town Hall have discovered a Roman Amphora, dating from the first century.

What’s more the experts say it’s still full of wine which they think is in ‘perfect conditions’ because the vessel is hermetically sealed.

The Councillor for Culture and Heritage in Vélez-Málaga, José Antonio Fortes (PP), explain to journalists that the amphora was hermetically ‘sealed with resin and lime, and contains between 25 and 30 litres of a liquid which the municipal technicians think is wine.

Destined to be part of the merchandise going from Hispania to Rome, the Amphora was left forgotten in Vélez-Málaga Town Hall, found in 1960 in the basements of the Beniel Palace, and then forgotten again in the municipal buildings.

The metre-high Amphora will form part of the new museum on Vélez-Málaga History, which will hold Mesopotamian, Greek, Phoenician and Roman items in the old Hospital de San Juan de Dios, which was founded at the end of the 15th century by the Catholic Kings.

The contents are to be analyzed in a few days time, my a specialist laboratory. Seems a bit of a shame, but Cheers!

I’m kind of wondering why they have assumed it must be wine in the amphora … a quick Google search for Vélez-Málaga finds almost everything mentioning the Romans producing garum there, so my money’s on them finding that … As long as we’re at it, maybe I can gripe that we keep reading about shipwrecks with intact cargo (and I’ll probably tell you all about the recently-found one from Genoa tomorrow) but we never seem to read of any analysis of the contents of this intact cargo, other than the brief flurry of excitement from the research of Brendan Foley, which doesn’t seem to have involved ‘intact’ items in many cases (Some Potential Amphora Use Revisionism and Amphora Revisionism Followup). E.g., the shipwreck from Zannone in February … not sure if the ones found off Cape Palinuro were intact in the sense of ‘not broken’ or in the ‘with cargo’ sense.

Cannot Be Unseen: Minerva in Motion

So Diana Spencer was talking about apotheosis of assorted Virgins and emperors on twitter and I was reminded of one of those things which, when it pops into your head, is forever there. Everyone, I’m sure, is familiar with the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius:

wikimedia commons

… so anyway, one day my brain processed the image in a different way and I’m forced to ask: does anyone else see Minerva in a wheelchair (or Roma, if you prefer)?

A Roman Curse Tablet from Kent (and a Phylactery from West Deeping)

This just in from the BBC … the salient bits:

A “curse tablet” made of lead and buried in a Roman farmstead has been unearthed in East Farleigh.

Inscribed in capital letters are the names of 14 people, which experts believe were intended to have bad spells cast upon them.

The tablet is being examined by a specialist from Oxford University.

It was discovered by the Kent Archaeological Society during a dig and has undergone a detailed series of tests.

Measuring 6cm (2.3in) by 10cm (3.9in) and 1mm thick, the tablet is extremely fragile.

Experts believe it would have been used by Romans to cast spells on people accused of theft and other misdeeds.

The tablets, which have been found throughout Europe, were rolled up to conceal their inscriptions, then hidden in places considered to be close to the underworld, such as graves, springs or wells.
‘Suspected of theft’

Dr Roger Tomlin, lecturer in late Roman history at Wolfson College, Oxford, and an authority on Roman inscriptions, spent four days examining the scroll.

He said it is difficult to date the tablet but believes it was made in the third century AD.
Dr Roger Tomlin Dr Roger Tomlin said the tablet is likely to date from the third century AD

“Lists of names are quite often found on lead tablets,” he said. “Sometimes they accompany a complaint of theft addressed to a god, and name persons suspected of the theft.

“In one case, a tablet found in Germany, the names were explicitly those of enemies.”

The tablet’s significance also lies in the fact that Romans were the first inhabitants of Britain who could read or write.

This means the tablet, along with other similar items, are among the earliest written records of British life.
‘Local community’

Only six of the 14 names are legible. The Roman names of Sacratus, Constitutus, Constan and Memorianus can be seen.

There are also two Celtic names – Atrectus and Atidenus – written on the tablet.

Dr Tomlin said the eight other names are incomplete, but further cleaning and testing could lead to them being transcribed.

He added: “If this is a curse tablet, which it seems to be, it is presumably a product of its local community – so it is a reasonable guess that the persons named on it lived there.” […]

There’s a photo that accompanies the original article; it is a bit too small to be useful alas …

FWIW, Roger Tomlin seems to be quite busy … just the other day he was mentioned in bloggish sort of thing reporting on a phylactery from West Deeping that has just on on display: Unique Roman prayer tablet goes on display

Mystery Mosaic

Last night I was lazily pondering the Cleveland Museum’s recent acquisition (and chatting with David Gill on twitter) and decided to poke around the Phoenix Ancient Art site — something I haven’t done in quite a while. While they do have a lot of interesting items that we will probably be mentioning in a later post, I was particularly struck by a couple of mosaic panels … the first is of an athlete:

click for the Phoenix Ancient Art page

Then there’s a theatre mask:

click for the Phoenix Ancient Art page

At the Swiss site of Phoenix Ancient Art one finds this satyr and maenad (although this particular picture comes from Artfinding, since I can’t seem to grab the original; clicking on it takes you to the Phoenix Art page):

via artfinding.com


What these three panels have in common is that they were all acquired from Asfar and Sarkis in the “early 1960s” (which might suggest a Syrian origin), but beyond that, the borders/frames around them all suggest they were all part of the same floor at some point and there are likely more. If so, it’s truly sad that they’ve been broken up and we can only imagine what the ‘program’ of the floor actually was … we have a theater mask and  a satyr and maenad, then someone identified as an athlete. Maybe the athlete is actually an actor? Sadly, when mosaics are broken up like this and we don’t know where they actually came from, we’ll never know …

Drusus and the Cleveland Museum of Art

The Cleveland Museum of Art has reversed the recent trend (it seems) of museums studiously avoiding acquiring antiquities (whether the provenance is secure or not) and recently announced the acquisition of a head of Drusus (and a Maya piece which is outside of this blog’s purview … fwiw, I’ve never seen a ‘bicultural’ acquisition announcement like this before; is the announcement of the acquisition of one piece meant to distract from some missing details of the acquisition of the other?). Here’s the salient bit from their press release:

The Cleveland Museum of Art is a collecting institution and has been acquiring antiquities since it was founded in 1913. These latest acquisitions highlight an ongoing commitment to enhancing the museum’s permanent holdings across the full scope of its collections with outstanding works of art. The museum studies, preserves and displays great works of art from various cultures, periods and genres while fully respecting appropriate collecting practices. Especially in fields where works are challenging to collect, the museum has built its holdings with an overriding emphasis on the quality and significance of individual acquisitions.

“I am pleased we can add these important works of art to the museum’s Classical and Pre-Columbian holdings and continue our collecting of the finest examples of art from across cultures and time periods,” stated David Franklin, the Sarah S. and Alexander M. Cutler Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. “I believe museums play an invaluable role in society as repositories and presenters of the world’s art history, and through responsible collecting, museums make accessible the world’s art objects for the public’s enjoyment and education.”

Portrait Head of Drusus Minor (13 BC–AD 23)
Exquisitely rendered masterpiece from Early Roman Empire becomes a new highlight of renowned antiquities collection

Portrait Head of Drusus Minor (13 BC–AD 23), a large-scale, marble portrait of the son of the Roman Emperor Tiberius that was carved during the early Imperial Period, possibly during the lifetime of Jesus Christ, is one of only approximately 30 large portraits of Drusus Minor to have survived from antiquity. This portrait head stands out among this group, owing to the powerful refinement and sensitivity of its carving, its excellent state of preservation and its monumental scale.

The newly acquired portrait of Drusus Minor was most likely created posthumously. When he died at age 37, the Julio-Claudian prince was next in line to the imperial throne after his father Tiberius. This masterwork was carved during a momentous transitional period in world history, at the intersection of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions.

The head exhibits traces of original paint used to enhance the illusion of a living person, rendered on a monumental scale—well over life-size. Its distinctive facial features and hairstyle, as compared with other large portrait sculptures and coins, identify the subject as Drusus Minor. Ancient sources indicate that Drusus Minor was prone to fits of rage, made worse by heavy drinking. He relished gladiatorial blood sport and other ritualized killings, which shocked the Roman public and alarmed his father. Although not known for his speaking eloquence, in AD 14 he delivered a funeral oration for Augustus from the rostra in the Roman forum; the next year he was appointed to the high office of Consul. After the death of his adopted brother Germanicus, Drusus was the heir apparent, but he died at age 37, allegedly from poison at the hands of his wife.

The ownership history of the Drusus Minor portrait has been traced to the late 19th century, when it was the property of the Bacri family of Algiers, Algeria. Sometime before 1960, Fernand Sintes inherited the work, and in 1960 transferred it from Algiers to France. In 2004, it was sold at auction in France. […]

… and here’s a photo of the piece:

The collecting history for the piece (alas) is not as secure as it appears at first blush; one should definitely read David Gill’s growing series of posts on the matter:

cf. in the New York Times:

Roman Bridge from Sostra?

Another tantalizingly brief one from Bulgaria … this time from the Focus news agency:

“An ancient Roman bridge was found over Osam River by the Sostra stronghold near the town of Troyan”, archeologist Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ivan Hristov, deputy-director of the National Historical Museum said for FOCUS News Agency .

The discovery was made today. The ancient Roman bridge over Osam River connects roadside station of Sostra stronghold with a Thracian sanctuary, which is being currently researched.

“Since one week an expedition of the National Historical Museum and the National Archeological Institute and the Museum of Arts in Troyan has been working on exploration of the Thracian sanctuary of the Thracian Horseman dated from the Roman ages”, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ivan Hristov said.

In the past, we’ve heard of a Gallienus Inscription being found in the area … for a sort of overview of what has been found there over the years, here’s an item which I put in Explorator but strangely not in rogueclassicism: “Sostra” Fortress

Riace Bronzes Back from Vacation Soon

Apparently that video of the Riace Bronzes going on vacation last year (The Riace Bronzes Go On Vacation) was in anticipation of them getting some restoration work (perhaps the earthquake stuff mentioned here). Whatever the case, they’re going to be back on display “later this year’, according to ANSA … an excerpt:

Italy’s iconic Riace Bronzes will return to their home at the Reggio Calabria National Museum later this year after lengthy restoration work.

For almost three years the 2,500-year-old ancient Greek statues representing warriors have been in the Calabrian regional government’s headquarters, undergoing a long-awaited restoration. A host of chemical, laser and electromagnetic tests designed to help experts better understand where the statues came from, and who created them, were also carried out.

So now, it’s almost time for them to return to their permanent home.

According to the superintendent for archaeological and cultural heritage of Calabria, Simonetta Bonomi, restoration work should be completed near the end of the year and the two warriors “will be back home again” in time for Christmas.

The celebrated bronzes were found in August 1972 off the coast of Calabria and quickly captured worldwide attention. They were so highly prized that they are rarely allowed to travel from their home, despite repeated requests.

Even former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi was turned down twice after seeking to borrow the statues for Group of Eight summits.

During the current restoration work, the Riace Bronzes, last let out in 1981 for a triumphant round-Italy tour, have been kept inside a purpose-built area with a glass front allowing visitors to watch the delicate restoration work.

Meanwhile, the Reggio Calabria museum has been undergoing restorations itself while the bronzes have been away. Approximately six million euros have been earmarked for that project, and regional authorities have released the final funds need to complete the work before year end.

The Bronzes were discovered in 1972 by a Roman holidaymaker scuba diving off the Calabrian coast and turned out to be one of Italy’s most important archaeological finds in the last 100 years.

The statues are of two virile men, presumably warriors or gods, who possibly held lances and shields at one time. At around two metres, they are larger than life.

The ‘older’ man, known as Riace B, wears a helmet, while the ‘younger’ Riace A has nothing covering his rippling hair. […]