Scholia Reviews ns 6 (1997) 18.

Suzanne MacAlister, Dreams and Suicides: The Greek Novel from Antiquity to the Byzantine Empire. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. Pp. ix + 235. ISBN 0-415-07005-8. UKú40.00.

John Birchall
Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford OX2 6DP.

The title of this book gives some indication of what makes it both a particularly interesting and a problematic contribution to criticism of the Greek and Byzantine novels. It immediately raises the question: why treat dreams and suicides together -- are there specific features that they have in common? And why treat both 'early' and Byzantine novels in the same book? There is, however, a more difficult problem raised by the way in which the work is conceived: MacAlister attempts to combine an examination of dreams and suicides in the novels in terms of the role they play in the literary structure with an examination of novelistic treatment of dreaming and suicide as evidence for sociological history, particularly in the first two chapters. The use of novels as historical documents presents many problems. Dreams and Suicides is part of a welcome trend to interpret ancient novels in the light of their historical context: as we will probably find with much work of this kind, if the trend continues, it is very valuable for our understanding of the novels, but unconvincing as a case for using the novels as historical evidence to advance our understanding of the history of the period in which they were produced.

Dreams and Suicides consists of an introduction, five chapters, and an appendix of plot synopses. The logic for combining dreams and suicides, and 'early' (the author's term) and Byzantine novels is never really spelled out, but can be seen in the introduction. Dreams and suicides are not only common in the novels, but the author sees the interest in them displayed by the Hellenistic novelists as a reflection of a focus in contemporary culture on the concerns and problems of the individual. This does of course imply a broad-brush view, assuming considerable continuity in the sociological conditions prevailing from the time of the first novel (dating is not discussed) to the time of Heliodorus (tentatively given a fourth century date). It is also linked with an emphasis on what the novels have in common: chapter five, 'The Revival in Context' (pp. 153- 164) opens with a rejection of the idea that Byzantine novels are mere imitations, but the author treats the Hellenistic novels very much, perhaps too much, as a group. She argues that they share formal features (which is not controversial), but also that they share plots in which tyche plays much the same role, a view which obscures differences of theological perspective between the novels. The author is however, admirably sensitive to the fact that there are different kinds of dreams, and different kinds of suicide.

The first two chapters, 'A Response to Uncertainty', (pp. 19-52); 'Cultural Meanings Subjected to Reflection', (pp. 53-83) deal with the Hellenistic novels and their time. The sociological analysis is quite explicitly based on two methods: an analysis of Artemidorus' Oneirocritica, and use of Durkheim's work on suicide, together with consideration of Durkheim's critics. Both methods tend in the same direction: they produce a view of the world in which the novel flourished as a society where 'fears and desires are totally bound to a focus on "self" and private life', a self lacking 'consistent validation' (p. 13). There is no discussion of the political structures which lie behind this cultural situation -- it is simply assumed that the conditions of the Empire were likely to produce it.

The literary analysis of the texts makes heavy use of Bakhtin. Here the author is on safer ground. Whether or not one is convinced by MacAlister's use of the novels as evidence for the societies which produced them, her attention to the use of dreams and suicides as elements in their literary structure is compelling and interesting. Her examination of the role of dreams in the novels is to some extent foreshadowed in Morgan's unpublished D.Phil. dissertation, in an insightful note which MacAlister does not seem to have found.[[1]] Nevertheless, she has discussed the theme in greater detail than Morgan, while her discussion of threatened and real suicides and martyrdoms in the novels is as far as I know completely new. Dreams and Suicides can be strongly recommended for the literary insights produced by this work alone.

Chapter one and chapter two deal respectively with what the novels' authors inadvertently, and what they consciously, communicate about cultural meanings. Although the intentionalist language here will alarm some readers, the distinction is in principle legitimate, and works well enough in practice: it could be described as the distinction between what we learn by examining dreams and suicides in the novels in general, and what we learn by examining the particular variations introduced by different authors.

The third chapter, 'The Novel, the Dream and "Suicide" in the Interim Period', (pp. 84-114) examines dreams and suicides in the apocryphal Acts and Lives of the saints, and compares with them with similar motifs in the Hellenistic novels. The contrast, it is argued, is essentially between the uncertainty of personal identity experienced in the Hellenistic world, and the certainty conferred by Christianity. The third chapter is transitional chronologically, but is also transitional in that the author makes decreasing use of her sociological tools, which are based on Artemidorus, Durkheim, and a background awareness of political circumstances. These perspectives are explicitly abandoned in the fourth chapter, 'The Byzantine Revival', (pp. 115-152) in favour of a study of the intertextual relationships between the Hellenistic novels and Hysmine and Hysminias, Rhodanthe and Dosikles, and Drosilla and Charikles. The study makes use of Bakhtin's concept of `alien speech'. Specific dreams and suicides are examined against their models in the Hellenistic novels, showing how the Byzantine novelists challenge the reader by subverting the `alien speech' derived from those Hellenistic models (which, it is argued, were widely read).

The fifth and final chapter, 'The Revival in Context' (pp. 153-164) places this literary activity in the context of contemporary tensions between a Byzantine revival of scholarship, and Christian tradition. It concludes that while themes of the Hellenistic novels were utilised and adapted by their Byzantine imitators in a way designed to stimulate intellectual enquiry in the readers, these themes were also adapted and sufficiently Christianised to provide the authors with a defence against the charge of pagan or heretical writing.

One striking feature of the book is the way MacAlister depends heavily on methods associated with a few named scholars. To some extent this approach is quite sensible. The attempt to use the novels as historical documents does require some theoretical framework to anchor it. The theoretical frameworks used to understand Byzantine culture, and that used to understand Hellenistic culture are disparate; from the point of view of the reader who is interested in the novels primarily as historical documents Dreams and Suicides is composed of two separate essays on separate periods and using different methods. The approach to literary structure is much more coherent, unified as it is by a Bakhtinian perspective. The sociological analyses of dreams and suicides is interesting. I doubt whether historians will find it very instructive, but the student of the novel will welcome MacAlister's work in bringing to bear on the texts a knowledge of Artemidorus, (whose techniques and beliefs seem to have been familiar, even commonplace, for the novelists), and of work on suicide in the classical world. Together with her examination of dreams and suicides as structural elements in the narratives this throws a good deal of light on the texts.

There are a few misprints, not too many (although several words seem to have gone missing on p. 78 l.15). There are interesting and detailed notes, a bibliography, an index of passages cited, and a general index. The index of passages confirms the impression that the treatment of Longus is very cursory, which is understandable given Daphnis and Chloe's very different literary structure and social preoccupations, though I think a little more could be done with dreams in Longus. It would have been nice to see some acknowledgement of the fragments of novels, although the collection by Stephens and Winkler came out too late for MacAlister to have been able to use to use it for her book.[[2]]

In conclusion, Dreams and Suicides is an interesting book, in spite of its theoretical and structural untidiness. It will give specialists on the ancient novel plenty to think about, and raise awareness of and interest in the ancient Greek novel's Byzantine successors.


[[1]] J.R. Morgan, A Commentary on the Ninth and Tenth Books of the Aithiopica of Heliodoros (D.Phil. Oxford 1979) at 9.25.1.

[[2]] S. Stephens and J. Winkler (Ancient Greek Novels: The Fragments, Princeton 1995).