Greeks on Greekness: Ruth Webb

Greeks on Greekness Colloquium Abstract

Ruth Webb, Princeton University

“Fiction, Mimesis, and the Performance of the Greek Past in the Second Sophistic”

What strikes the modern reader most forcibly about the practice of declamation, which lay at the heart of Philostratos’ conception of the ‘Second Sophistic’ is the apparent obsession with the Classical past. In this paper I argue that, despite its subject matter, historical declamation was very much a modern art for the Sophists described by Philostratos and their audiences. The uses of the past in declamation had no single meaning in themselves, but were open to a variety of response and interpretation. To judge from Philostratos’ comments, audiences focussed on questions of technique, which they judged according to contemporary criteria, rather than comparing performers with models from the past, as one might expect. The mimesis involved in these performances was of contemporary models, and, when the models were from the past, it was of a creative, combinatory kind, rather than slavish imitation. So, despite the apparent obsession with the past in the materials of declamation, once we look past the referent of the speeches, the activity of declamation is rooted in its present context, both through the techniques used, and relationships of competition it set in play.

Seeing declamation as a representational performance art provides a perspective from which to explore the audience’s experience. As with the actor, there was an ambiguity about the identity of the declaimer who temporarily became the character he impersonated while simultaneously remaining himself. The audiences were thus offered a dual perspective from which to respond to these performances: as the audience of a moment from the past, and as the critical audience of a contemporary performer. The importance of competition and criticism in responses to declamation suggests that, in fact, absorption into the past moment portrayed in the speech was secondary to an awareness of the contemporary aspects of the art. The past is carefully bounded, occupying a space between being and not-being that is the domain of fiction (plasma) in ancient theory, and part of a wider interest in the creation of independently coherent, virtual worlds, as in the novel.