Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar

The GISt of things, 6/2/14: Dirce’s Punishment and Lucian’s Octopus

Greetings postgrads all, merry purveyors of the arts arcane and esoteric! In another fine week in the grand story of the GIS, last Friday saw us turn away from the fresh-faced naivety of first year PhDs to some of the grizzled veterans of our community. But fear not – such a move did nothing to dampen the quality of the presentations given.

Familial harmony in action.

Things kicked off with Ruth Allen’s paper, “Wearing Dirce’s Punishment”, a discussion centred on an intaglio held in the Fitzwilliam Museum. The gem itself depicts the climactic scene of the death of Dirce. She was the aunt of Antiope, who gave birth to the twins Amphion and Zenthus after being raped by Zeus. Many years later, Dirce orders the twins to kill Antiope, who is then revealed to be their mother. Their reaction, in keeping with the tragic mode, is suitably understated: they tie Dirce to the horns of a bull to be trampled to death. Happy families indeed. The Fitzwilliam gem, now set in a much later ring (the original setting is unknown), depicts Dirce beneath the bull, whose hooves will soon bring about her demise.

Ruth’s discussion was built around the question of how this intaglio functioned as an object in its own right, with two elements of particular focus. The first was the question of miniaturisation. In contrast to broader theories which see miniaturisation as merely a squeezing down of an image into a smaller and therefore simpler version, the Fitzwilliam gem differs significantly from larger representations of the story. Unlike the famous Farnese Bull, for example, the twins Amphion and Zethus are entirely absent, and the focus is specifically on Dirce herself. This led on to the second part of the discussion, which looked at the image carved into the gem itself, and the rather different meaning that it could thus convey. Ruth argued that in placing Dirce at the centre of the observer’s attention the scene gains a sense of voyeuristic eroticism. She is mounted by the bull, with her drapery leaving little to the imagination. This is only heightened by the function of the gem when worn upon the body. Without the distinctive feature of the twins it becomes considerably more difficult to identify the scene, as it is only the detail of the rope which marks out the story of Dirce specifically – to do so, one must actively engage in the kind of determined voyeurism that the image suggests. Ruth placed this within a broader question of worn imagery: in the case of an intaglio such as this, control of the image and its interpretation belongs very much to the wearer.

After an eroticised bullock, Friday’s GIS stayed within the realms of the animalistic with the entrance of a fictive octopus. Claire Jackson kept all amused with her paper, “Disbelief, Deception, and an Octopus: Lucian’s Dialogi Marini 4 on Fiction”. The dialogue in question is one of Lucian’s rather bizarre conversations, in this case between Menelaus and the Homeric shape-shifter Proteus. In reference to Odyssey 4, Menelaus refuses to believe the sea-god’s claims to be able to transform into both water and fire. After the offer of a test is refused – holding onto him as he transforms into fire is too dangerous even for the sceptical Menelaus to risk – Proteus compares himself to the strange creature that is the octopus, which can make itself look like a rock. Seems, as they say, legit.

Claire’s take on this rather strange text was directed towards the theoretical exploration of fiction. In the apparent rejection of Homer, Lucian creates a space in which the relationship between truth and falsehood can be explored. Though the dialogue in question seemingly goes against Homer’s description of Proteus, in the Odyssey he is never actually shown changing into fire when Menelaus confronts him. When reading it, Claire argued, you are invited to engage directly with this Homeric game, and to make a conscious decision to accept either Homer’s general introduction to Proteus or only the visible evidence of the transformations he can make. Menelaus thus represents the doubtful reader who is wary of being deceived by Homer, while Proteus demands a full acceptance of the text with all the risks that such a move incurs. Importantly however even the sceptical Menelaus is not willing to test out his own rejection of fiction. Even the most determined challenger of the potentially deceptive nature of fiction cannot completely reject its need for deception without being (physically or metaphorically) burned. It is here the octopus came into proceedings. In Lucian it represents the coming together of truth and falsehood, immersion within fiction and scepticism towards it. By presenting the reader with both sides of this dichotomy, Lucian shows how it is impossible to maintain any one extreme. Instead, both are self-consciously shown to be necessary for effective reading. Though it would be foolish to reject and ignore the humour that is within the dialogue, neither should it be considered wholly trifling and inconsequential. As Claire concluded, Lucian’s strange tale acts not only as an exploration of Homer, but also a theorisation of how fiction is read.

Our next GIS promises to continue the trend of interesting and entertaining papers, and should offer something a little different to the standard weekly fare. Charlie Northrop will be presenting something (and I quote directly) ‘a little unconventional’ in his, “Quamquam quem potissimum Herculem colamus scire sane velim (Cic. DND 3.42): how can we say a character is ‘the same’ as another?” In addition, we have not one but two further papers, and the snippet, once thought tragically extinct, makes its glorious return. Providing the morsels in question will be Matthias Gassman (Captive to Pagan Rhetoric? A New Look at the Ad Donatum of Cyprian of Carthage) and Julia Hurley (From Soup to Nuts: Reconstructing Diet in Roman-Period Britain). I’m rather looking forward to it, anyway.


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