Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar

Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar – 01/11/2013

Claire Jackson started off this week’s GIS with a paper on ‘Ancient Fiction and Forgery in Antonius Diogenes’. After explaining some of the problems with studying the concept of ‘fiction’ in the ancient world, she looked specifically at Antonius Diogenes’ novel τα ὑπὲρ Θούλην ἀπίστια (‘The Unbelievable Things Beyond Thule’ – Thule being a semi-mythical land located somewhere to the north of Europe), which survives only in fragments and a plot summary by Photius. This summary reveals the strategies used by the author to present the novel as ‘documentary’, backed up by authentic sources, but simultaneously to undermine that status by referring to these claims as false.

Instead of thinking of in terms of an opposition between ‘fiction’ and ‘forgery’, Claire suggested, reading this novel as deliberately enacting the tension between these two as very similar concepts can help us to a better understanding of the ancient novel in general. Claire’s paper was followed by a wide-ranging discussion covering the reliability of Photius as a reader and summariser, the difficulty of defining ancient terminology relating to ‘fiction’, and comparisons to modern literature making use of similar strategies of ‘pseudo-documentarism’, from Frankenstein to The Da Vinci Code.

Elena Giusti’s paper on ‘Persian Dido’ explored the ways in which literary allusions in Aeneid Book 4 relate Dido to other “oriental” female characters. In particular, references to Aeschylus’ ‘Persians’ link Dido to Atossa, the paradigm of an Eastern queen, while possible references to lost tragedies like Ennius’ Medea suggest another link to a similarly strong-willed ‘barbarian’ woman and the mythical ancestor of the Medes. Allusions like these are not just a part of Dido’s portrayal as a Phoenician queen, but also equate the Punic Wars to the Persian Wars, and so align Roman ideology with the Greek ‘invention of the barbarian’. In the context of the Augustan period, Elena suggested, this could equally be read in terms of the wars against the Parthians, while also giving some insight into Roman ideology from the time of the Punic Wars themselves.

Discussion following this paper focused on the difficulty of tracing allusions to specific figures, compared to the use of paradigmatic characteristics shared by all ‘barbarian’ women or queens – for instance, later works use Virgil’s Dido as a model for their own portrayals of Medea – as well as on potential parallels for Elena’s reconstruction of Roman Punic War ideology from earlier texts or iconography. The meeting then adjourned in the usual way to the Granta.

Just as a reminder, GIS will not be taking place on November 8th due to a clash with the Gray Lectures. Normal service will resume on the 15th, with papers by Robrecht Decorte on Latin legal syntax and Ruth Allen on ‘Gemmed Gods’.


5 thoughts on “Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar – 01/11/2013

  1. I am really interested in the AD text and, is it not the similarity between fiction and reality? Forgery is a fiction in essence but a reality in form, and that surely comes about because the best reflection of reality is often when a real phenomenon is isolated. In this case it would be the pursuit of the truth furthest from credibility/believability (hence apista), and furthest from the world that we know so well (the oikomene (sp.))

    Sounds like an interesting seminar though!

    • That’s a really interesting point, thank you!

      I would hesitate to make an opposition between fiction and reality, because that implies that fictional texts have some relationship to reality, whereas they actually create their own fictional worlds which may resemble reality, but are not dependent on it to be understood and enjoyed: for example, we don’t need to have a map of Middle-Earth to read Tolkein. (I’m basing this a lot on Michel Riffaterre’s ‘Fictional Truth’, btw.) I prefer to think about forgery and fiction because they are both dependent upon belief (one makes the reader believe in the text as referentially true, whereas the other relies upon the reader suspending disbelief), which is of course essential for the text’s credibility, which supports what you say about the pursuit of authenticity as the text moves away from the familiar and into the unbelievable. Thanks for your comment, you’ve given me a lot to think about!

      • I find it helps quite a lot to have a map of Middle-Earth when reading Tolkien… I’d say his maps, like his historical/mythical/linguistic information, are a tool a little bit like Antonius Diogenes’ story about the novel being dug up by Alexander the Great, in creating the illusion of reality for the reader to (choose to) believe. Of course, they work completely differently, by depicting a supposedly real, complete world all the information you’d expect to be available about such a world, rather than making an explicit statement about its reality, and they don’t rely nearly as much on references to our own reality. But still, they’re part of the same game of inviting the suspension of disbelief.

      • (Sorry, that comment is slightly deliberately misunderstanding what you meant, but I thought it was it’s interesting to think about the less overt strategies that can be used to have a similar effect…)

  2. That’s it exactly – even if we didn’t have Tolkein’s extensive information about Middle-Earth, it would make sense and we could enjoy it as a fiction nonetheless, but because we do, it creates a more intense and detailed kind of suspended disbelief. It’s about how deeply fiction encourages readers to believe in the text, and that’s why fantasy/sci-fi examples are so interesting, because they require different strategies to do this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s