David Konstan, Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. Pp. xiii + 270. ISBN 0-691-03341-2. US$35.00.
All Souls' College, Oxford.
Later Greek literature is enjoying a great revival of interest these days. Particular attention is being paid to the Greek novels, the long prose fiction texts with romantic plots that were written in the early centuries of our era. Five of these survive intact (Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon, Chariton's Chaereas and Callirhoe, Heliodorus' Ethiopian Story, Longus' Daphnis and Chloe, and Xenophon of Ephesus' Ephesian Story). In Photius' Library there are lengthy summaries of two more novels by Antonius Diogenes and Iamblichus. Additionally, there are numerous papyrological remains.
The five survivors are remarkably homogeneous in their basic storyline. In these 'ideal' novels a young couple from an elite background fall madly in love and undergo adventures leading to or in the context of marriage. The setting is at some definite or vague time in the past, and in any case before Roman control of the Greek world. Although most of the novelistic fragments are very short, the majority do not obviously depart from the 'ideal' formula. The summaries also contain the standard features, though with important differences. Nevertheless, while other types of long prose fiction texts were written at this time (the bawdy Ass story, which survives as an epitome and in the version of Apuleius, being a prime example), the dominant popularity of the 'ideal' type cannot be questioned on present evidence. The novels show considerable differences in the skill with which their plots are developed; but their shared features permit and encourage us to study them together. The most interesting of these is one previously unknown in literature: the portrayal of a reciprocal love which is mutually satisfying to male and female.
Konstan's contribution to the study of these texts is an important one. His thesis is that the portrayal of love (ero:s) in the surviving novels (he discounts - or neglects - the fragments and summaries; cf. p. 76 n. 39) is radically different from what we find in other literary genres. This is not new; but the thoroughness of the investigation and the (usually) judicious choice of examples, from the novels and from other types of literature, make his work an advance. Despite the odd noise to the contrary, he is not interested in _why_ love is different in these stories, but is content simply to demonstrate that it is so.
This demonstration is admirably carried out in the first two chapters. In chapter one Konstan makes important observations about the consequences of the heroes' mutual devotion. This explains what is often held to be their inability to act decisively. Since it is a spiritual rather than a physical matter, it even allows them - under particular circumstances - to have sex with others (though female heroes must remain virgin till marriage, and in Heliodorus at least the hero's virginity is as important as the female's). It also differentiates the heroes from secondary characters, for, though ero:s motivates others as well, only the protagonists know it as part of a deep, enduring relationship. In chapter two Konstan analyses how Achilles Tatius, Chariton, Heliodorus, and Longus preserve this reciprocal feeling during the heroes' many trials.
In the remainder of the book Konstan explores the asymmetrical erotic relationships of the so-called Roman novels (chapter three; Petronius, Apuleius, and the fairy-tale Apollonius King of Tyre), examines earlier (Greek) literary genres to the same end (chapter four), makes comparisons with a somewhat odd selection of medieval and modern tales of love (chapter five), and finally offers as a 'Conclusion' an appendix of thoughts on the novel and society. The bibliography is full and useful (though note inter alia the absence of Carter 1978 [p. 4 n. 8] and Cancik 1985 [p. 80 n. 46] , and the mysterious 'Sherman-White' [cf. p. 112 n. 23]).
To assess his weaknesses and strengths, Konstan must be situated within scholarly trends, especially with regard to the crucial question of the origin of the Greek novel. There have been two main approaches here. Many scholars in the past (Rohde, Schwartz, Lavagnini being the most prominent) have been interested in the novel's literary pedigree, that is, in determining what genres of earlier literature the novel subsumed and how it reproduced them. Scobie's researches on folklore and Anderson's imaginings on Near Eastern literature are really part of the same school. Even the best modern literary studies like Fusillo's are heavily concerned with mimetic input.
Alternatively, enquiries have been made into the _appeal_ of the new literature. There have been two main ideas. In the earlier part of this century scholars such as Bidez, Cumont, and Festugie\re suggested that traditional religion was breaking down in the period of the early Empire, that people were no longer sure where they stood in society, and that cults arose to satisfy a feeling of rootlessness which was eventually assuaged by Christianity. Dodds' Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (1965) is a later development of the same logic. It was in this intellectual climate that Kere/nyi in 1927 put forward the idea that the Greek novels represented versions of the myth of Isis and Osiris, an idea expanded in Merkelbach's Roman und Mysterium (1962). Complementary to the religious interpretation is the thesis advanced principally by Perry and Reardon that the novels' audience consisted of isolated individuals in the great Hellenistic conurbations like Alexandria. These people read the novels as latter-day epics in prose, identifying with the heroes, woes and joys.
On one level Konstan reprises the question of literary form; but at the same time he excludes its significance by concentrating on how love is portrayed. He points out in chapter four that, unlike the novel, the genres of comedy, elegy, lyric/epigram, mime, pastoral, epic, and tragedy only show love as a relation of power, of inequality and asymmetry, of the hunter and the hunted. This picture accords with Foucault's analysis of sexual and connubial ethics in classical Greece in volume two of The History of Sexuality (1984). Foucault is also Konstan's initial guide for the reciprocal passion of the novels. For in the third volume of The History of Sexuality (1984) is traced the change from the classical economy of marriage to the later, Stoic-led conception of marriage as a locus of mutual respect and harmony between man and wife, an idea that was fostered by male moralists and thinkers in the High Empire, and which was exemplified in what Foucault dubbed the 'new erotics' of the male novelists. Here, however, Konstan then ignores most of Foucault's work or fails to understand its implications (cf. pp. 119-120 on Dio Chrysostom's Euboicus, p. 219 on Plutarch's Amatorius).
Foucault's ideas have been very influential among classicists in recent years, especially in America. His focus in the 1970s on the workings of power at 'capillary' level explored techniques and styles of control; it made no difference if this was in the Gulag or the office (though male-female relations were never of interest). But Foucault always liked to pose as an historian and was perfectly aware of the effect of different social and political systems. This is certainly the case in The History of Sexuality, a project which sought to remedy the remarked absence of the self from Foucault's power-knowledge complex, and which began by sketching the invention of 'sexuality' and its deployment in the nineteenth century as a weapon of mass control. Volumes two and three of this work owe their life to the realisation that western sexual ethics could not be discussed aside from Christianity and that Christian ethics grew out of the pre-Christian world. Power-knowledge was now pushed into the background. But as in other works, thought and the texts that contain it were not closed off from society, and the novel itself was firmly anchored to its period of production in the High Empire.
It is this aspect of Foucault's research that is unfortunately missing from Konstan, who ultimately remains curiously literary. When he does do some history in his 'Conclusion', he returns to the Perry-Reardon axis of the isolated individual, assisted by interesting (but unconvincing) modern work from the School of Anxiety on the history of the affections by Toohey. Bourgeois individuals find a place in Foucault's studies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; but Foucault the student of the second century specifically warns against introducing them then (pp. 41-43 in Hurley's translation of volume three).
One of the reasons why Konstan is led into this error is that he makes no enquiry into the _readership_ of the novels (cf. p. 5), which is to be located without doubt among the e/lite (as work by Bowie, Reeve, Stephens, and Wesseling demonstrates; the problem of female readers is unresolved). Apart from invalidating his comparisons with 'Mills and Boone' (sic) and Harlequin romances (pp. 211ff.), reflection on ancient readers might have led him to wonder whether the close network of kinship and patronage that characterises the reign of the notables in the ancient city at this time really permits analogies (pp. 227ff.) with the 'transnational' individual of modern times? For, good as this book is on its own ground, it ultimately fails to tell us why the Greek elite found it so rewarding to reinvent in the novel the age-old polarities of man and woman, town and country, Greek and non-Greek, in a universe so deliberately ignorant of the present.