This week, GIS truly lived up to its name, as we listened to two very interdisciplinary talks by Albert Bates and Peter Swallow, which engaged with literature, philosophy, art history and reception.
Does Lucretius make us think of such images?
In his presentation on “Artistic images in Lucretius’ DRN 1” Albert Bates looked at the role of ecphrasis in De Rerum Natura. Taking as his starting point that Lucretius’ poetry and philosophy are carefully integrated, Albert shed light on how the ecphrastic language of the Mars-Venus (1.31-40) and Iphigenia (1.84-100) tableaux supports Lucretius’ Epicurean agenda. The first of these tableaux was taken to be a description of an artwork, while the second was interpreted as a staged image that relates to known artworks without explicitly being a description of one. Using some of the sophisticated theories on ecphrasis from the ‘pictorial turn’ of the 1990s, Albert argued in the first half on his paper that the Mars-Venus ecphrasis ‘conjures up’ images of the gods only to emphasise the potent absence of real divinity, whose artwork lies beyond the text, and whose essence lies beyond the artwork. Seen like this, the evasiveness of the ecphrastic artwork paradoxically brings us closer to understanding the true nature of Epicurean divinity which is likewise insensible and ‘other’. The second half of the paper followed recent attempts by pioneering scholars like Jaś Elsner and Michael Squire to put ecphrasis back into dialogue with its contemporary visual culture. By contextualising the Iphigenia tableau with iconographic schemes familiar to a Roman audience, Albert showed that there is a glaring and significant omission in Lucretius’ verbal image: Artemis. Along with the first ecphrasis, the Iphigenia tableau therefore collaborates in absenting divinity in accordance with Epicurean theology. Albert showed how the DRN can be enriched by triangulating three different disciplines: literature, philosophy and art.
Percy Shelley (1792 – 1822)
In his presentation “Pearls before swine: Aristophanes at play in Percy Shelley’s ‘Swellfoot the Tyrant’” Peter Swallow looked at the reception of Aristophanes in the 19th century. Percy Shelley’s ‘Oedipus Tyrannus; or Swellfoot the Tyrant’ is a rare example of Aristophanic reception in literature before the mid-nineteenth century, and its radical liberalism stands out because Aristophanes was elsewhere invariably read as being aristocratic – Aristophanes would not be taken up so firmly again by someone so far to the political left for many decades. In his paper Peter explored how Shelley utilises Aristophanes to create a truly stinging contemporary satire on the many tyrannies of early-nineteenth-century Britain. Shelley’s technique of personification is particularly Aristophanic, as is the sexual innuendo, whilst the play’s use of personal caricature fits well into the same tradition. Shelley’s message is perhaps even more radical and transparent than anything found in Old Comedy. ‘Swellfoot’ also weaves in inspiration from Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, contemporary theatre and Shelley’s own inventiveness. Scholarship on ‘Swellfoot the Tyrant’ has heretofore either ignored or taken for granted the complex receptions at work in the text, and has thus failed to properly evaluate or contextualise these receptions.