CJ Online Review: Munteanu, Tragic Pathos

posted with permission:

Dana LaCourse Munteanu, Tragic Pathos: Pity and Fear in Greek Philosophy and Tragedy. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xii + 278. Hardcover, £60.00/$99.00 ISBN 978-0-521-76510-7.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Belfiore, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Munteanu’s book demonstrates admirably that new approaches can provide illuminating insights into much-studied topics. As she states in the Introduction: “The novelty of my study lies in recovering various cultural facets of the emotional responses to tragedy through a synthesis of sources, such as philosophical descriptions …, fragments of comic poetry, and dramatic scholia …, reports about the original tragic performances, and emotional expressions of the internal audiences (i.e. characters and chorus witnessing the suffering of others within drama). … In the treatment of each tragedy, most original are the assessments of the relationship between the emotional expressions of internal audiences and the likely and reported reactions of the external spectators” (2).

After a broad survey of issues concerning aesthetic emotions (Introduction), Part I provides some background on Indo-European drama, and studies the views of Gorgias, Plato, and Aristotle, whose ideas about catharsis are wisely relegated to an Appendix: “As the meaning of catharsis is perhaps unattainable, I have tried to turn to a more practical type of analysis of the emotions—which is an Aristotelian thing to do, after all” (250). Part II puts the theoretical ideas presented in Part I to good, practical use, by studying four plays, including one by each of the three major tragedians.

I found two key ideas, presented throughout, to be of particular interest and importance. First, Munteanu’s emphasis on the two audiences—internal and external—helps her to arrive at many original interpretations of entire plays and individual scenes, and insights into the possible responses of the original Athenian audience. She argues, for example, that Aeschylus’s Persians would have aroused in the external audience the kind of fear for the Persian army that the Queen expresses within the play, while descriptions of the army by the Chorus would have aroused fear of the enemy (Chap. 6). Prometheus Bound (Chap. 7) contains numerous appeals to pity, as Prometheus himself invites both audiences to watch and sympathize (169). Nevertheless, many of the internal responses are unlike those discussed by theorists (179–80), and the complicated responses of the internal audiences may have challenged contemporary ethical, political and religious ideas (164). Chap. 8 provides some excellent analyses of metatheatrical elements in Sophocles’ Ajax that arouse pity, and discusses ways in which the play exemplifies Aristotle’s views about tragic pity, while also going beyond Aristotle to suggest that this emotion can have the ethical benefit of sophrosynê (p. 202). I would, however, take issue with her statement that Odysseus’ pity for Ajax does not lead to direct action in this play (232–3). It could be argued that his pity leads him to help Ajax to gain burial after his death. Chap. 9 examines Euripides’ departures from the Aristotelian norm in his Orestes: “The dramatist . . . plays with the convention, suggesting infinitely more possible reactions to tragic events” (225).

Second, Munteanu focuses on the idea of seeing events in the mind’s eye, expressed in Aristotle’s injunction to the poet to bring the events “before the eyes” (Poet. 17, quoted p. 78): “Seeing with the mind’s eye, imagining, in Aristotle’s theory is the essential feature in the formation of pity: the emotion relies on one’s ability to relate to the suffering of another by envisioning a future or past similar misfortune with respect to the self. Aristotle prefers tragic plots that are so well designed that they can be imagined even without being directly seen” (231). She also calls attention throughout to the “frequent verbal references to seeing and sight” in the tragedies (231). Her detailed analyses of many specific examples help the reader to understand Aristotle’s ideas, and the powerful emotional effects of the tragedies. Her study will also enable readers to appreciate similar ideas in modern art forms, from what was called “the theater of the imagination” in the early days of radio, to this statement in Dickens’ David Copperfield (beginning of Chap. 55): “As plainly as I behold what happened, I will try to write it down. I do not recall it, but see it done; for it happens again before me.”

Less convincing is Munteanu’s account of the “proper pleasure” of tragedy, a kind of pleasure that in some way derives from the painful emotions of pity and fear (103ff.). She provides some good correctives to views (including my own) that tend to emphasize cognitive pleasure at the expense of emotion. Her ideas, however, could be better explained and supported. She identifies the “proper pleasure” of tragedy with what Aristotle calls a “supervening completion” (108ff.), but fails to provide adequate discussion of this highly controversial concept. Moreover, her statement that “the ‘proper pleasure’ of tragedy is cognitive” (131) might appear to support the very views she opposes. Finally, although Munteanu gives a good account of the pleasure of mourning as involving memory of the past (117ff.), she neglects passages in ancient sources that could be used to support her own views about the importance of non-cognitive responses. For example, in Homer, mourning often seems to be the satisfaction of desire (eros), like the desire for food or sex (e.g. Il. 24.227), and Plato writes of the tragic poet who “fills up” that part of the soul that “is starved for weeping … being of such a nature as to desire (epithumein) such things” (Rep.10.606a; see my Tragic Pleasures, Princeton, 1991, 228–9).

Finally, I note a few problems and errors.

(1) The argument is sometimes hard to follow, attempting to cover too much in too short a space. Chap. 1, on Indo-European ritual, is not sufficiently detailed to be very useful, and Chap. 3, on Plato, covers too many dialogues and subjects in too little detail. In particular, more careful analysis could have been given to important passages in Rep. 10.

(2) More attention could have been paid to relevant work on narrative theory. For example, Munteanu does not cite Irene de Jong’s important study (Narrative in Drama: The Art of the Euripidean Messenger-Speech, Leiden, 1991), which contains (108–14), good accounts of the reactions to messenger speeches of “internal addressees” and “external addressees.”

(3) There are a number of careless errors. For example, the header on p. 103, “Proper pleasure as a species of mimesis” should read “as a species of the pleasure of mimesis,” as p. 105, bottom, indicates: “tragic hedonê does appear to belong to the larger category, the hedonê of mimesis.” The capitals in the Greek quotation on p. 195 are confusing, and are not in the text of Lloyd-Jones and Wilson, the date of which is incorrectly given in the bibliography.

(4) The translations by the author are sometimes inaccurate or poor. For example, τοῦ θρηνώδους (Rep. 10.606a8-b1) is confusingly translated as “this mourning” in the long quotation (64), but accurately translated at the bottom of the same page as “the ‘grieving part’.” Important phrases are sometimes omitted from translations, e.g. διὰ μιμήσεως (71), αὐτῆς (79–80), and μᾶλλον (91). ὢ πόποι is translated by the unfortunate phrase “Oh wow” (126).

Although Tragic Pathos is not always easy to read, it well repays careful study. Munteanu opens up important new ways of approaching old problems, and a broader perspective on ancient texts. Her book has important implications for further studies of literary, philosophical, and political issues, both ancient and modern.

Archaic Colors @ the Acropolis Museum

That ancient statuary was coloured is, of course, well known to all who wander through these pages and in recent years (weeks, even) there has been an upsurge in interest, it seems, in ‘recolouring’ things. Accordingly, the Acropolis Museum has mounted an exhibition devoted thereto … here’s a bit from the blurb:

Commencing Tuesday 31 July 2012 and for the next twelve months, the Acropolis Museum wants to conduct research on its unique collection of archaic statues, which retain their colors to a small or large degree, and to open a very extensive discussion with the public and various experts on color, its technical issues, its detection using new technologies, its experimental use on marble surfaces, its digital reconstruction, its meaning, as well as the archaic period’s aesthetic perception of color. So far, scientific research into the color found on ancient sculpture has made great progress and reached surprising conclusions that to a large degree refute the stereotypical assumptions regarding ancient sculpture. It turns out that color, far from being just a simple decorative element, added to the sculpture’s aesthetic quality.

For ancient Greeks and their society, color constituted a way to characterize various attributes. The blond hair of the gods projected their power; the brown skin of warriors and athletes was a sign of virtue and valor, while the white skin of the korai expressed the grace and radiance of youth.

The Μuseum’s initiative on Archaic Colors is based on very careful observation, on spectroscopic analysis, on special photography sessions, on efforts to reproduce the colors of antiquity and then to apply them on Parian marble, and naturally, on searching through written sources for valuable information on the pigments.
The statues’ crisp, saturated colors, on bright garments and tender bodies, combined with the rich jewelry, frequently made of metal, and elaborately curled hair created a singular aesthetic pleasure, making the archaic statues “wonderful to behold” for the people of the period. […]

If you have kids, or are bored, or want to kill time, scroll down that page and you can colour the Peplos Kore in whatever gaudy goodness you want. The instructions are in Greek, but it’s not difficult to figure out …

CJ Online Review: Foster, Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the Greeks

posted with permission

Daniel H. Foster, Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the Greeks. Cambridge Studies in Opera. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xx + 377. Hardcover, £58.00/$99.00. ISBN 978-0-521-51739-3.

Reviewed by Robert Rabel, University of Kentucky

Mark Twain famously quipped that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. On the other hand, Nietzsche (sometimes) loved the music but came to detest the composer. Few listeners and critics are neutral regarding the man and/or his music, and both subjects continue to attract critical attention. The relationship between Wagner and the Greeks has received especially close scrutiny these days. Here, Daniel H. Foster offers an exciting and original view of the relationship between Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Greek literature.

According to Foster, Wagner conceived the Ring through the lens of an Hegelian-inspired theory of the development of Greek literature, so that much about the four operas can be explained in terms of their gradual movement through four stages followed in the development of literature: epic, lyric, tragedy, and comedy, the last of which Wagner believed to be implicated in the downfall of Greek civilization. In this Hegelian system, each stage in the development retains something of the prior stage and anticipates what is to come later. The first two operas create German national identity in two Greek-inspired epic stages. Das Rheingold exudes the epic flavor of cosmogony through its musical metaphor for the creation of the world. As in Hesiod, the opera also features two brothers, Mime and Alberich, who are at odds over an unfair distribution of wealth. Die Walküre then ushers in Siegmund as an epic hero. Siegfried, the third opera, deals with a hero’s search for freedom and identity and thus mimics the historically later Greek search for individualized personhood characteristic of the lyric age. Siegfried, the son of Siegmund, is uncertain about his parentage and begins the opera concerned that he might share a bloodline with his guardian Mime. In the end, Siegfried kills him. Just so Foster claims, “Wagner’s German hero must kill the Jew” (149). This identification of Mime with the Jewish people may be something of an overstatement. True, Wagner was anti-Semitic, but I am not aware that he ever explicitly identified any of his characters with the Jews, but I may be mistaken. In creating Mime, however, Wagner was perhaps thinking of his (Jewish) rival Mendelssohn. Siegfried only starts out as a lyric figure. After vanquishing the dragon and drinking its blood, he begins the transformation into a tragic hero, a process brought to fruition in Götterdämmerung. Foster considers the fourth opera as both tragedy and comedy.

Foster avoids the pitfalls characteristic of scholarship that seeks out parallels between an artist’s work and something in the past and makes claims for the presence of unmediated, direct influence. (Teresa Rondon Rota’s The Classic in Wagner: A Search for the Ring of the Nibelung in the Iliad is an extreme example of such scholarship.) Foster has a more nuanced version of reception studies. His interest is focused not on Wagner and his relationship with ancient sources but on the whole nineteenth-century German Zeitgeist through which antiquity was mediated and presented to him. Wagner was fired by scholarship on the Greeks as much as by their literature. In addition to studying the works of philosophers and scholars like Hegel and Karl Otfried Müller, Wagner authored a number of theoretical works. Foster demonstrates that Wagner’s theoretical writings do not always accord perfectly with his musical practice. For example, in his writings Wagner extols Greek tragedy and criticizes the role of Greek comedy in the dissolution of the Athenian state, but, Foster says, “the finale to the Ring is anything but a straightforward approval of the one and disapproval of the other” (195f.).

The analysis of Götterdämmerung as tragedy and comedy leaves me unsatisfied. In terms of comedy, Foster sees the opera as a kind of “Aristophanic parody.” He compares the conflagration at the end of Götterdämmerung to the conclusion of Aristophanes’ Clouds, though in the opera not even the gods escape the “cosmic bonfire” (233). Few critics, he says, have even glimpsed the joke (220f.). I have enjoyed three productions of the Ring Cycle, but I have never glimpsed the joke, nor have I even once thought of Aristophanes while sitting through Götterdämmerung. Foster argues that elements of New Comedy are also present in that characters in such comedy are often converted to a new order rather than banished from it (248). Viewing the conclusion of Götterdämmerung as a kind of Greek tragedy seems to me equally problematic because the fall of Valhalla and the demise of the gods resemble nothing to be found in Greek tragedy—except for possible intimations in the Prometheus that Zeus might eventually be overthrown.[[1]] (Novelist John Gardner once said that he loved German mythology because in the end the gods lose.)

Fans of Wagner will find this book a stimulating enterprise likely to change the way they look at Greek influence on the Ring Cycle. Even those who, like Mark Twain, think Wagner’s music is better than it sounds will read the book with enjoyment and profit—and without the pain of having to listen to how the music sounds.


[[1]] For possible connections between the Ring and Aeschylus’ Prometheus, see Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Blood for the Ghosts: Classical Influences in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 140–1. Foster has very little to say about the Oresteia, which is surprising given the extent of Aeschylean influence others have discerned in the Ring Cycle: see, for example, Michael Ewans, Wagner and Aeschylus: The Ring and the Oresteia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

Podcast: Josiah Ober on the Ancient Greek Economy

From the blurb at the Library of Economics and Liberty:

Josiah Ober of Stanford University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the economy of ancient Greece, particularly Athens. Ober notes that the standard view of ancient Greece is that it was very poor. Drawing on various kinds of evidence, Ober argues that Greece was actually quite successful, and that the average citizen of ancient Athens lived quite well by ancient standards. He suggests two possible explanations for Greece’s economic success–an openness of the political process that reduced transaction costs and encouraged human capital investment or innovation and cross-fertilization across Greek states. The conversation also explores the nature of evidence for understanding antiquity and the prospect for future discoveries pertaining to ancient Greece.