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CJ-ONLINE  February 2008

CJ-ONLINE February 2008

Subject:

CJ Online 2008.02.03 MELTZER Euripides and the Poetics of Nostalgia

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Euripides and the Poetics of Nostalgia. By GARY S. MELTZER. Cambridge and
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xi + 266. Cloth, $85.00.
ISBN 0–521–85873–9.

Order this text for $85.00 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit
CAMWS and the Classical Journal:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20

Print Version: CJ 103.3: 319–21

The black-figure amphora that adorns the jacket of Euripides and the
Poetics of Nostalgia depicts Dionysus seated on a mule and attended by a
satyr who is dancing and playing the lyre. Beguiling though the image is,
it is also misleading, for this book has little or nothing to do with
Dionysus. Nor, despite its title, does it have a great deal to do with
nostalgia.

Meltzer sets forth his premise in the introduction and opening chapter. He
argues that Euripidean drama, despite its reputation for skepticism and
iconoclasm, is traditional and conservative, in that certain characters at
critical moments express a nostalgia for “clear, univocal meanings and
values [derived] from higher powers” (p. 8)—meanings and values now
neglected or lost—and a concomitant wariness of the cut and thrust of
opposing viewpoints that characterized the sophistic age. Meltzer
identifies similar sentiments in the works of Aristophanes, Thucydides and
Plato; he also sees a resemblance to the anxieties that beset our own
world.
 
Meltzer’s key text is the agon between the warring brothers Polyneices and
Eteocles in Phoenician Women. Polyneices opens his speech by claiming that
“the word of truth is simple (haplous), and just causes have no need of
sophisticated interpretation” (469–70). Eteocles points out in rebuttal
that if there were universal agreement on the meaning of predicates such as
“beautiful” and “wise,” there would be no need for “two-sided debate”
(amphilektos eris, 500); in fact, however, men use the same names for
things, while harboring very different understandings of them. Meltzer
identifies Polyneices’ “word of truth” with the Derridean phonocentric
tradition, and sees in the opposed perspectives of the two brothers “the
central agon of Euripidean drama” (p. 5). Subsequent chapters trace the
permutations of this conflict in Hippolytus, Hecuba, Ion and Helen.

The book is carefully and symmetrically structured. Meltzer’s procedure for
each play is to identify one or more emblematic passages; sketch their
implications for his chosen text, often adducing a Thucydidean analogue;
and close by suggesting contemporary parallels to the issues explored in
the chapter. Chapter Four on Ion, for example, shows how the “word of
truth” cannot be guaranteed even when it emanates from the gods. Meltzer
focuses on Ion’s questioning of the veracity of Apollo’s oracle (1537–8)
and demonstrates that Apollo’s deceptions pervade the play. He notes that
neither Creusa nor Ion ever gets a chance to tax the god with misconduct
and that the issue of his truthfulness is hardly resolved by Athena’s deus
ex machina appearance at the end. He suggests as modern parallels to the
play’s skepticism about Apollo’s veracity both the controversy over the
Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse cases and the issue of “whether
and to what extent the private lives of powerful public figures should be
open for criticism” (p. 186). I must confess that these and other modern
parallels Meltzer adduces (suggesting on p. 225, for example, that the
phantom Helen of Helen has implications for cloning and identity theft) do
not strike me as compelling. The points of congruence between our own age
and the 5th century are few and far between; the differences are vast, and
the search for specific resemblances risks obscuring both eras rather than
illuminating either.

It is true that Euripidean characters regularly voice a desire for a
differently ordered and more transparent world, but in assigning these
passages metaphysical significance Meltzer too often scants their context.
In discussing the Polyneices/Eteocles agon, for example, he does not
consider Polyneices’ motives for speaking as he does. Eteocles had promised
to yield the kingship to his brother after one year, and is undoubtedly in
the wrong in breaking his pledge, but in so doing he harms no one but
Polyneices. Polyneices is arguably guilty of a far greater wrong, for he is
about to attack his native city, an impious, indeed parricidal act that
endangers all the inhabitants of Thebes. Polyneices invokes the “word of
truth,” which he implicitly identifies with his own arguments, not from
conservatism or simplicity of heart, but in order to distract attention
from the ambiguities of his own position. Moreover, Polyneices’ speech is
highly structured rhetorically, considerably more so than the answering
speech of Eteocles. [n. 1] To construe Polyneices as the spokesman for
traditional values and Eteocles as the representative of the sophists is to
oversimplify the situation.

I am not certain either that Meltzer has identified the appropriate
historical context for the opposition between Polyneices’ “word of truth”
and Eteocles’ “two-sided debate.” Meltzer relates this opposition to a
particular moment and movement, the late-5th-century intellectual
revolution. But as Mastronarde (on Ph. 469–72) shows, the associations of
“simple” speech with honesty and of “double” speech with trickiness are
much older, already appearing in Aeschylus, Pindar and Archilochus.
Finally, where is the nostalgia in Polyneices’ statement? Polyneices is
making a claim for the efficacy of the “word of truth” in the present; he
is not harking back to a former time when it possessed enhanced authority.
Neither is Medea when, in a passage Meltzer describes as an “explicit form
of nostalgia” (p. 19), she wishes for a stamp on men that would distinguish
the bad from the good (Med. 516–19); nor is Theseus when, in an outburst
Meltzer identifies as emblematic for Hippolytus, he says that men ought to
have two voices, so that the just one could refute the unjust (Hipp.
925–31). Such sentiments are utopian rather than nostalgic; they represent
proposals for how things ought to be, not regret for how they once were.
[n. 2] Although the wishes of Medea and Theseus are clearly fantasies
incapable of realization, they have more in common with the progressive
accounts of human advancement over time associated with the 5th-century
enlightenment than with the nostalgia for a bygone Golden Age associated
with traditional thinkers like Hesiod. [n. 3] The sentiments Meltzer deems
“nostalgic” in fact return us to Euripides the innovator and student of the
sophists. If the playwright has a conservative side (and I am convinced
that he does), it must be sought elsewhere than in his characters’ utopian
imaginings.

JUSTINA GREGORY
Smith College

[n. 1] See D.J. Mastronarde, ed., Euripides: Phoenissae (Cambridge, 1994)
280, 288. Meltzer has apparently not availed himself of this and other
major commentaries on his chosen plays, which do not appear in his “Works
Cited.” [n. 2] Meltzer acknowledges the utopian element in Euripides, but
redefines it as “an implicit form of nostalgia” (p. 19). He also plays with
a second sense of “nostalgia” when he suggests that nostos is a major theme
of all four plays (pp. 19–20); he does not, however, follow up on this
proposal. [n. 3] For an explicitly progressive Euripidean text, describing
how human beings developed from a confused and brutish state through divine
beneficence, see Supp. 201–13.

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