Dreams and Suicides
Review by Jonathan Walters
Dreams and Suicides: the Greek Novel from Antiquity to the Byzantine Empire by Suzanne MacAlister, Routledge, London, 1996, 235 pp. Hb ISBN: 0 415 07005 8 [[sterling]]40
The ancient Greek novel is a curious genre. It is a creation of the post-classical period, was not discussed by ancient literary critics or theorists, and had no place in the classical 'canon' of Greek literature. It is uncertain when this type of literature was first created, and though there is scholarly consensus that the surviving examples all date from the Christian era, their precise dating is a subject of controversy and their authors are otherwise unknown. Only five complete examples are extant, together with fragments of a number of others. Although the Greek novel had considerable impact on European vernacular literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it has not, by and large, been the object of much study by classical scholars until recently, this marginal position mirroring its extra-canonical status. It is only in the last decade or two that more attention has been paid to these works of fiction, and their value as literature and as source-material for the study of Greek society and culture in the period of the Roman Empire is now being more widely recognised. Even less attention is paid to a number of novels written in Greek, in imitation of these predecessors, in twelfth-century Byzantium, an aspect, no doubt, of the neglect of Byzantine studies in academia by comparison with the Greco-Roman world.
These novels, both those of the early Christian era and their Byzantine imitations, share a number of plot features: at their heart is a heterosexual romance, where the couple are destined for marriage, but have to overcome trials and difficulties in order to achieve their happy ending. Connected with these plot features are other common elements: Chance plays a major role in the unfolding of the action, and both hero and heroine are characterised as, by our standards, curiously passive and prone to despair. It has also been noted that it is characteristic of the Greek novel that, though it takes place in a world which is recognisably that of the post-classical Greek-speaking bourgeoisie of the eastern Mediterranean, it concentrates on what has been described as 'atomized individuals', whose links with the wider community, with civic life for instance, are downplayed in favour of an emphasis on their validation as private individuals, a validation which is achieved by the successful attainment of a love-marriage. The world of the novel is, manifestly, a very different one from that of classical Greek literature.
Dr MacAlister chooses to investigate this world through two common plot elements, dreams and suicide (or suicidal intention). She uses these two features of the novel to point up an overall emphasis in these works on the characters' sense of helplessness in the face of an all-controlling Chance whose workings they cannot fathom, and their anxieties in this situation. In her analysis of the place of dreams in the plots of the ancient Greek novels, she makes use of ancient dream interpretation. In considering suicide, she takes as her starting-point Durkheim's work on suicide and its connection with an individual's relationship with his or her society, and the strength or weakness of the links between individual and community. In the latter case it could be argued that she adopts too uncritically what has become something of a cliché about the Greek world in the post-classical periods, that, compared with the satisfyingly tightly ordered world of the classical polis, later Greeks felt alienation and therefore anxiety in a vastly bigger world. That may indeed be so to some extent, but we should not forget the strength of civic life in cities throughout the Greek world down to the third century CE. We should also remember that other Greek literature of the time seems less concerned with this supposed atomization, and indeed in its affirmation of the Greek heritage can be seen as strengthening individuals by providing them with a coherent cultural map into which they can place themselves. However, such questions lead on to the unresolved issue of the readership of such novels, and the nature of the relationship between the novel and other, more canonical forms of contemporary literature.
One of the most interesting aspect of Dr MacAlister's book is that it deals both with the ancient Greek novel, and with the imitations produced in Byzantium in the twelfth century. The latter have been subject to a rather superficial judgement which minimises their importance and interest, treating them merely as aspects of an archaising culture. As she points out, this hardly does justice to the social and cultural changes of the intervening millennium: imitation in the twelfth century is something very different, however seemingly slavish it may be, from a similar-seeming production of the second century. The major difference on the ideological, and therefore cultural, level, is of course the impact of Christianity. A world-view imbued with Christianity must necessarily place the individual in a very different relationship with the cosmos from that of pagan culture. MacAlister examines this difference in relation both with dreams and with suicide (a very different matter from pagan times in a society with a strong belief in the afterlife, and in which suicide is seen as a mortal sin). In so doing, she puts the Byzantine novels in their immediate context, a context which gives significantly different meaning to seemingly similar elements in the novels. If the earlier Greek novels appear to deal with one set of contemporary anxieties, their Byzantine successors can be read as implicit comment on a very different set of problems.
This work performs a valuable service for those interested in the relationship between earlier and later Greek novels, focusing on two important structural elements in them to do so.