Uncanny Intruders

Robert Cioffi

  Cioffi, Robert. "Uncanny Intruders." CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:CioffiR.Uncanny_Intruders.2020.



Abstract

My main project at CHS this semester, provisionally entitled Uncanny Intruders, seeks to understand Greek literature’s fascination with what Sarah Johnston has called the “returning dead,” from the Homeric poems to Heliodorus’ Ethiopian Story. It demonstrates how an engagement with anthropological approaches to the history and phenomenology of ancient religious experience can deepen and complicate readings of literary texts. In addition, I have also been working on a collaborative project to produce the first edition of an illustrated papyrus (Paris Suppl. Grec. 1294).


There are some two hundred and forty deaths in the Iliad, but only one hero returns to the living: Patroclus who appears as a dream to a sleeping Achilles (Il. 23.65-108). His request—not for vengeance, but simply to be buried—begins a series of funerals and laments with which the poem ends. My main project at CHS this semester, provisionally entitled Uncanny Intruders, seeks to understand Greek literature’s fascination with what Sarah Johnston has called the “returning dead,” from the Homeric poems to Heliodorus’ Ethiopian Story. It demonstrates how an engagement with anthropological approaches to the history and phenomenology of ancient religious experience can deepen and complicate readings of literary texts.

Here one second, gone the next, Greek ghosts flicker in and out of view. These shades, who return bidden and unbidden, kindly and in search of vengeance, exist on the murky, “irrational” borders of Greek and Roman religion. Unlike the divinities of the upper world, there was neither a pantheon of ghosts nor even a single term to describe these disembodied manifestations of the dead. Perhaps because of the challenges of classification, ghosts have largely been left on the margins of the study of Greek literature, even though they appear in a wide range of genres, such as epic, tragedy, comedy, historiography, and prose fiction. My project aims to show how Greek and Roman literary texts participate in fundamental questions about the human condition: What happens to us when we die? What power do the dead have over the living? As has been shown by historians of religion such as Jan Bremmer, Daniel Ogden, and Sarah Johnston, these questions are posed in a variety of media (e.g. art and magical texts); I seek to read literary representations of ghosts against this rich cultural background.

I see my project as consisting in two main parts: the first examines the phenomenology of ghosts and the relationship of ghost scenes to literary genre; the second will focus on the cultural and literary valences of ghosts in the ancient imagination. Most of the varied vocabulary for ghosts—εἴδωλα, εἰκόνες, φάσματα, ψυχαί (images, souls, phantasms, and shades)—emphasizes their uncanny appearance and their otherworldliness. What is the connection between ghost stories and the rise of genres that revel in the narration of the marvelous, the supernatural, and the astonishing? How does the language, description, and experience of a ghostly apparition relate to an encounter with a god or goddess in a divine epiphany? Ghosts are characterized by their evanescence. How can such a figure be described in a narrative text or, indeed, be portrayed on stage in ancient drama? In answering these questions, I examine how different genres respond to the challenge of representing what Todorov called the “fantastic uncanny” and the “fantastic marvelous” in narrative description or in on-stage appearances. The ghosts of epic, for instance, are very different from those of tragedy and comedy. For Pliny the Younger, writing around 100 CE, ghosts are experienced by a “friend of a friend,” at a remove from the rationalizing present; his ghost stories begin to take on the character of folklore. Lucian’s Philopseudes, a collection of “tall tales,” takes this tendency even further, intentionally testing the limits of his audience’s credulity about the supernatural.

The book’s second overarching section examines the literary and cultural implications of ghosts. In particular, I am interested in how ghosts mediate between the past, present, and future. Ghosts reminded their audiences of their mortality, but they did more than simply evoke the terrors of death. In one of the final acts of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, a tragic trilogy that revolves around the violent cycle of retribution for past crimes, Clytemnestra alone among the corpses piled high is allowed to appear and make demands after death. Her terrifying presence—she points at the wounds that her son Orestes inflicted on her—stands in stark contrast to ritually conjured ghosts, such as the glorious shade of Darius. He returns in regal splendor in Aeschylus’ earlier play, Persians, to offer ancestral wisdom and special knowledgeof his son Xerxes’ defeat. The shades of the dead can also embody cultural memory in comic contexts. In Aristophanes’ Frogs, the tragedians Aeschylus and Euripides appear in the underworld as ghostly representatives of the literary past. I aim in this project to demonstrate how ghost scenes draw on and transform Greek modes of representing the fantastic and the supernatural and how they become important loci for embodying memory, for mediating between past, present, and future, and for exploring the nature and experience of the afterlife.

This semester at CHS has been like few others. On the day the President announced a national emergency, we could hear helicopters flying overhead at what would turn out to be our last communal lunch. Social distancing is anathema to the normal scholarly community of the Center, but thanks to the hard work and creativity of everyone at CHS, we were kept safe, well-cared for, and able to continue our work. The pandemic has taken an immeasurable toll throughout the U.S. We are extraordinarily lucky to have been able to seek refuge in this Fellowship.

Despite the global upheavals, I have been able to make important headway on this project during my time at CHS. My main task this semester has been to use the resources of the CHS library to collect a comprehensive list of “ghost passages” in Greek literature. Because of the varied vocabulary for ghosts, this task has proven more challenging than it sounds. In addition, I have begun to make headway working on specific case studies, and have begun to sketch out the shape that the final form of the project will take. My aim is to write a literary study (rather than a history of religious belief), so I have been organizing my thinking around genres, such as epic, tragedy, comedy, historiography, and prose fiction. One challenge in this structure is, of course, repetition—the ghost of Protesilaus, for instance, runs through many different genres and works—but I think what I can add to the excellent work that has already been done on ghosts is a wider sense of how the cultural and religious phenomenon of ghosts respond to and participate in their larger literary contexts. A couple of these case studies have given rise this spring to articles that are currently under review or in progress.

In addition to my project on ghosts, I have had the opportunity to work with fellow CHS Fellow Yvona Trnka-Amrhein (whose office was conveniently across the hall) to produce the first edition of an exciting illustrated papyrus in the Bibliothèque national de France. (Image available here.) The papyrus, which combines a prose narrative with three color illustrations, is a very rare example of illustrated papyri from antiquity. Our edition seeks to contextualize the text within the diverse world of imperial Greek prose fiction and the drawings within the history of ancient illustrated books. Coincidentally, this is a topic of local interest. Dumbarton Oaks has an archive of the papers of Kurt Weitzmann, one of the pioneering scholars of illustrated papyri. One of the significant implications of this work is that we have been able to advance our understanding of the relationship between image and text in ancient books. Although this papyrus has often been cited, until our edition its text has never been published before and it has been impossible to judge how text and image work together to make meaning in this artifact.




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