Amphoteroglossia: A Poetics of the Twelfth-Century Medieval Greek Novel

  Roilos, Panagiotis. 2006. Amphoteroglossia: A Poetics of the Twelfth Century Medieval Greek Novel. Hellenic Studies Series 10. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Final Thoughts

Through their multilayered responses to the past and their present, the Komnenian novels mediate first between antiquity and the Middle Ages and, second, between the Middle Ages and modernity. Due to its inherent discursive plasticity, the genre of the novel offered the Komnenian writers a dynamic literary medium for the exploration of a number of ideological and conceptual tensions ensuing from originally antithetical but often ultimately complementary conceptual and cultural categories. No doubt these tensions marked Byzantine culture from its initial formation to its final exhaustion. However, all these opposing forces reached their acme in the twelfth century: Hellenism and Christianity, antiquity and “modernity,” tradition and experimentation, secular and sacred, “high” and “low,” pleasure and asceticism, realism and fantasy, individuality and universality, to mention only some.

It may thus be no coincidence that the genre of the novel was rediscovered in that specific era after about eight centuries of dormancy. The late-eleventh and the twelfth centuries mark a transitional period in the history of Byzantium. Facing new challenges from the East and the West, the Byzantines found themselves at a historical juncture where they needed to counterbalance the territorial contraction of their Empire. They partially did so by foregrounding the extension of their civilization in time, up to their ancient origins—their Roman administrative heritage and their glorious Greek cultural past.

Close textual analysis combined with a systematic investigation of broader notional categories and patterns of thought from diachronic and synchronic perspectives constitute the main parameters of the exploration of the poetics of the Komnenian novels proposed in this book. In contrast to what has been usually presupposed in connection with medieval Greek secular literature, genre conventions, narrative patterns, thematic topoi—even if inherited from sanctioned literary models of the past—do not constitute a formalistic skeleton of an ossified literary corpus when reworked in new literary contexts. Below the apparent stagnation of established discursive modes and narrative techniques, undercurrents of subtle allusions seem to point to different intersections of cultural and literary discourses—ancient and synchronic medieval Greek. These allusive cues may be detected and interpreted to the extent that the literary systems within which they are inscribed are revisited from a historical anthropological perspective focused on the alterity of past cultural phenomena.

The Komnenian novelists manipulated the traditional conventions of the genre of the novel in an innovative way. The ancient Greek novel provided these authors with established conventions that they adjusted to their own narrative needs and to the cultural experiences and expectations of their twelfth-century medieval Greek audience. Rhetoric was the most important formative factor of the literary creativity and discursive plasticity of those writers. Rhetoric’s inherent quality of amphoteroglōssia (‘double-tonguedness’, ‘ambivalence’) enabled the Komnenian novelists to allude to different, sometimes even opposing, domains of cultural experience at the same time. Although at a first level located in a fictitious distant pagan past, the chronotope of the Komnenian novels extended up to twelfth-century Christian Byzantium to incorporate contemporary literary and ideological discourses. Through several rhetorical, allegorical, and comic modulations—which developed the inherited conventions of the genre of the novel—court ceremonial, religious literature, Neoplatonic philosophy, and broader sociocultural discourses, such as the conflicts between the sacred and the profane or between urbanity and rusticity, were introduced in the Komnenian novels in a most allusive manner. Such allusions called for the active involvement of the original audience, who included the literary and social elite of the era and, most probably, frequented the “rhetorical theaters” of Constantinople.

The Komnenian novels, not unlike their ancient Greek models, were composed and received in predominantly, but not exclusively, rhetorical terms. This is inferred first from the overall critical response of medieval Greek intellectuals to the ancient Greek examples of the genre, second from the manuscript tradition of the twelfth-century novels, and third from narrative and metanarrative elements of these specific texts. Especially in their use of the rhetorical genres of êthopoiia and lament, the Komnenian novelists follow the traditional rhetorical conventions as these had been prescribed by Hermogenes, Aphthonios, and Menandros—but not to the letter. More often than not they manipulate the established rhetorical tradition in order to undermine the words and the deeds of their characters. This subversive attitude invests the Komnenian novels with a subtle ironic self-referentiality while at the same time accommodating allusions to contemporary Byzantine ideological and sociocultural concerns.

The role of the allegorical modulations in the Komnenian novel, specifically in Makrembolites’ Hysmine and Hysminias and Eugeneianos’ Drosilla and Charikles, may be viewed in connection with the resurgence of the allegorical exegesis of ancient Greek texts in the mid-eleventh and twelfth centuries. In this respect it is not without significance that both these literary phenomena of twelfth-century Greek letters—allegorical exegesis and the novel—seem to attempt to recapture or reinterpret aspects of a glorious cultural past.

Makrembolites employs the allegorical tropes of riddle and personification on two levels. On the first level, which I have called “micronarrative,” these tropes are connected with the description and explication of a number of pictorial personifications. The semantic dynamic of these tropes is transferred from the first level to a second one, the “macronarrative level,” thus investing the whole novel with a semantic profundity, which is further enriched with allusions to Neoplatonism—particularly to Proklan philosophy. The narrative schema of Hysmine and Hysminias may also be viewed in terms of what has been called “ritual poetics.” [1] More specifically, it can be perceived as a “translation” of the ritual pattern of pilgrimage into the fictional structure of a romantic story. At the end of this story and after a number of ordeals and contemplative experiences, the hero acquires a profound knowledge of elevated erôs.

In Drosilla and Charikles of Eugeneianos, the allegorical modulations assume the form of allusions to the Bible and especially to the Song of Songs. The use of the ambivalent imagery of the Song of Songs in Eugeneianos’ work enhances the lyricism of the novel and, at the same time, invests it with a subtle allegorical allusiveness. The cultural context that enabled the deciphering and appreciation of such allegorical modulations in the Komnenian novels was conditioned by the ancient Greek rhetorical and exegetical tradition, on the one hand, and Christian aesthetics and semiotics, on the other.

Comic modulations in the Komnenian novel, especially in Prodromos’ and Eugeneianos’ novels, occur in the performative context of festive banquets. Although drawing from ancient Greek comic exempla, primarily from Aristophanes and Lucian, these modulations allow the use of grotesque, parodic, or even satirical references to Byzantine reality. In this way, they become the most effective vehicle of a complex Aktualisierungsversuch in these novels. The comic performances of dancing and singing in these texts may be viewed as fictional reenactments of similar actual performative occasions.

In Niketas Eugeneianos, the comic elements, despite their exceptionally grotesque character, contribute to the serious role of pronoia (‘providence’) in the story. In Theodoros Prodromos’ Rhodanthe and Dosikles, comic modulations undertake distinctively parodic and satirical functions. Court ceremonial, liturgical poetry, and rhetorical conventions are parodically employed by Prodromos to create one of the most highly comic scenes in the tradition of the Greek novel and to invest his whole narrative with a subtle allusiveness to broader medieval Greek sociocultural discourses.

No doubt amphoteroglōssia characterizes—to a greater or lesser degree—all the three fully preserved Komnenian novels. However, significant discursive differences among them may be discerned. Rhodanthe and Dosikles is arguably the most rhetorical of the twelfth-century Greek novels. In this work, even comic modulations are activated by means of a subtle and innovative reworking of rhetorical conventions. Hysmine and Hysminias is dominated by a sublime discourse that is powerful enough to assimilate elements of profane sensuality as well. Drosilla and Charikles is marked by an ambivalent lyricism, which draws significantly from sanctioned examples of biblical literature—especially the allegorical composition of Song of Songs—and is combined with a pronounced penchant for grotesque and comic discourses.

Venturing an overarching assessment I argue that the Komnenian novel may be viewed as the most representative example both of the alterity and the topicality of secular medieval Greek literature. Through their different transformations across time and specific (sub)genres—most notably romantic epic, romance, and allegorical poetry—the distinctive genre modalities inherited from the ancient Greek novel and further developed in the Komnenian novels survived the Middle Ages and—no matter how implicitly—informed later literary developments.

The indigenous medieval Greek concept of amphoteroglôssia (‘double-tonguedness’) is the key to deciphering the complexity of this genre’s position in relation to the pagan past and its Christian present as well as to exploring it in terms of a discursive synthesis wherein the language of tradition coexists with the language of innovation. It is in this sense, I suggest, that the genre of the novel in the Komnenian period should be understood as a mediating genre or—to appropriate a term employed by Ioannes Tzetzes in another context of literary analysis—a metaichmios logos intercrossing the boundaries between antiquity and the Middle Ages on the one hand, and between the Middle Ages and modernity on the other.


[ back ] 1. For the concept of ritual poetics, see Yatromanolakis and Roilos 2003a.