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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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