Untimely epic: Apollonius’ Hellenistic Argonauts

Congratulations to former Anachronism and Antiquity post-doctoral research associate Tom Phillips on the publication of his monograph Untimely Epic: Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica (Oxford University Press, 2020). The book uses analytical frameworks developed by Tom while working on the Anachronism project to re-read this complex and subtle contribution to the epic tradition.

Untimely Epic book cover

Tom writes:

Epic poems are concerned with what is fundamental. They dramatize the concepts, beliefs, and actions that orient their societies: the ‘fame’ pursued by Homeric heroes, the pietas of the Aeneid, and the ‘eternal Providence’ of Paradise Lost. Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, although long recognized as an important representative of Hellenistic poetic culture, has tended to be treated more as masterpiece of learned, self-conscious artistry than as a serious reflection on the exigencies that mould historical life.

This book, by contrast, reads the Argonautica as  deeply invested in the question of what it means, or might mean, to be a Greek in the third century BC. This question is staged in the poem’s presentation of characters, but it also emerges when readers are prompted to consider the historical, ethical, and aesthetic sources of their agency.

The ‘untimely’ is crucial to Apollonius’ project: in the course of their journey, readers are confronted by a lament that sounds unceasingly but is only heard once, a shepherd who lives out an echo of the golden age, nymphs whose harmonious world has been mauled unmendably by Heracles, and many other phenomena constituted by their complex situation in time.

The imaginative and formal subtlety with which Apollonius dramatizes these events impels readers to consider the grounds on which they construct the past as meaningful, and themselves as meaningful in relation to the past.

The story of Jason’s journey has been retold many times since Apollonius wrote his version in the third century BCE. Perhaps the most familiar and iconic modern version is Ray Harryhausen’s 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, which used both live-action and stop-motion sequences to capture the complexities of the story. Jason’s mythical journey provided a vehicle for new cinematic techniques just as it had for Apollonius’ development of the possibilities of epic told in hexameter verse.

The bronze man Talos confronts Jason and the Argo, from Jason and the Argonauts.
The bronze man Talos confronts Jason and the Argo, from Jason and the Argonauts.

For more on Untimely Epic see both the OUP website and our Publications page.

  • If like us you love the beautiful cover art on this book, check out photographer Paul Kenny’s website for more of his amazing work.

Linder’s anachronic Bower of Bliss

Reviewers described the first version of Linder’s performance piece ‘Bower of Bliss’ as ‘remixing history’, surely a working definition of anachronism. That was already an apt description of her 2018 film in which powerful women of the 16th century, Bess of Hardwick and Mary Queen of Scots, encountered each other in the house and grounds of Georgian Chatsworth. This latest instance of ‘Bower of Bliss’ was performed at Murray Edwards College in Cambridge on March 14, 2020, as part of the Linderism exhibition at Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard, and added further layers of multi-temporal myth-making to a rich and provocative performance.

Linder Bower of Bliss performance
Linder opens the Bower of Bliss: an improper architecture, performed in Cambridge 14/3/20

Linder’s layering of time and place is emphatically multi-sensory. Louise Gray’s costumes mixed historical elements, notably the Tudor elements of the queen’s costume, with textures and layers reminiscent of eighties street fashion. Under the college’s brutalist dome, relit in spring green, Linder re-created her bower as ‘an improper architecture’ (a phrase used by critics of this women’s college modernist buildings) using music, lighting, scent – the House of Helen scent created for her Kettle’s Yard exhibition, sprayed into the audience by dancer Kirstin Halliday – and flowers and blossom from the college gardens. Maxwell Sterling and Kenichi Iwasa provided a shifting soundscape, from electronic drone to acoustic instruments and percussion. Elements from Linder’s visual art reappeared in performance, her critique and subversion of the domestic; a sieve is passed between the dancers to become a handheld mirror in the past and a phone for selfies in the present.

The phrase ‘bowre of blisse’ appears in Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’ (Book II, Canto XII, stanza 42), an epic poem from 1590 which explores the power of women in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and which Linder interprets as ‘a critique of irresponsible femininity’. Spenser’s bower of bliss is the ‘wandering isle’ home of Acrasia, a personification of female pleasure, and both delightful and dangerous; eventually it is destroyed as masculine power trumps the feminine. Akrasia is a canonically classical vice, the weakness of will and the triumph of desire over reason; for Plato, that is the outcome of education which empowers the rational part of the soul to command the lower desires. Feminists have long questioned the gendering of desire and reason in philosophers’ models.

Spenser’s description of the bower further invokes classical exempla through description and ecphrasis, the depiction of Jason and Medea on its gate, and the nod to ancient poetic descriptions of gardens such as that of Alcinous (Homer, Odyssey 7.112-32). Linder’s complex web of allusion acknowledges Spenser and his sources, but also reaches from the classical past through the northern club cultures of post-punk music and Northern Soul to the contemporary reality television of Love Island. In this anachronic Bower of Bliss, women explore and express their distinctive identities and allegiances through clashing dance styles from the formality of classical ballet to the vitality of Northern Soul.

Dancers scatter daffodils in the bower of bliss
Dancers scatter daffodils in the bower of bliss

As daffodils were strewn across the floor to create the bower, Linder opened up and reclaimed another past, her own part in England’s post-punk heritage as friend and muse to Morrissey, whose early performances with the Smiths featured him strewing daffodils across the stage as fans surged on to it. Full marks to Lillian Wang for dancing on pointe amid the petals, as Linder’s characters reframed the often-masculine experience of the stage invasion as female delight.

Linder also opposed the academic and institutional context of this bower through sound. The Inter Alios choir, students from Murray Edwards and Churchill Colleges, circled the performance space, their black academic gowns a stark contrast to the colourful dancers. The eclectic and contemporary soundtrack made way for a sombre choral version of ‘Dido’s Lament’, from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, linking back to Virgil’s Aeneid, another classical text in which female experience and pleasure is suppressed and denied, before the choir provided drones and chants for Maxwell Sterling’s soundscape.

The Bower of Bliss musicians and dancers: (back row, l to r) Ashley Young, Maxwell Sterling, Linder, Kenichi Iwasa, Kirstin Halliday; (front, l to r) Lilian Wang, Lauren Fitzpatrick
The Bower of Bliss musicians and dancers: (back row, l to r) Ashley Young, Maxwell Sterling, Linder, Kenichi Iwasa, Kirstin Halliday; (front, l to r) Lilian Wang, Lauren Fitzpatrick

In Linder’s reimagining of the Bower of Bliss, her women characters create a space in which they can express their desires. The temporary installation and performance of the bower upends and replaces the usual order – even in a women’s college, traditional academic hierarchies are usually upheld. The transformation continues in the Linderism exhibition, which features imagery from the project, screens the film, and transforms Kettle’s Yard into a feminine space even to the extent of re-gendering the Kettle’s Yard House website.

In engaging with the distant literary and artistic past, Linder also re-examines her own often transgressive and provocative past as artist and performer, as when she fronted her band Ludus wearing a dress made of raw meat and a dildo in a 1982 performance at Manchester’s Hacienda, a performance intended to criticise artificial conventions of femininity, restrictions on women’s role in the music world, and the macho culture of the Manchester scene. Her performance in the Bower of Bliss was no less provocative, yet completely of the moment. There had been some debate as to whether the performance on March 14 should go ahead at all, as arts organisations began to respond to the arrival of coronavirus. Linder and the musicians performed in dark surgical masks, and Linder turned her opening song into the most transgressive sound of the present moment, the cough.

Linder's subtle interventions in the Kettle's Yard house included opening a secret door between the floors, through which Jim and Helen Ede communicated.
Linder’s subtle interventions in the Kettle’s Yard house included opening a secret door between the floors, through which Jim and Helen Ede communicated.

A couple of days later, Kettle’s Yard followed the other University museums in closing its doors. Linder’s intervention in the Kettle’s Yard house, opening up a small door through which Jim and Helen Ede communicated between the floors of the cottage, was left in place. As Sarah Victoria Turner notes, Linder’s engagement with Kettle’s Yard and particularly with Helen’s Room ‘necessarily looks to the past’ as part of her ‘retrospective practice’ of ‘making invisible women visible’. Linder’s Bower of Bliss envisions an anachronic world in which women’s emotions are revalued and their presence in the past is revealed.

  • Kettle’s Yard has now released a video of the performance on March 14.

 

  • Edmund Spenser (2007)[1590], The Faerie Queene, edited A.C. Hamilton, London.
  • Amy Tobin (2020) ‘Linderism: the red period’ in Linderism, edited A. Tobin and A. Khakoo, London, 39-48.
  • Sarah Victoria Turner (2020) ‘Raising Old Ghosts: Linder’s Conversations with the Dead’ in Linderism, edited A. Tobin and A. Khakoo, London, 65-71.
  • Images from the Bower of Bliss is also installed on billboards at Southwark tube station until May 2020. A version has also been displayed at Glasgow Women’s Library.

Publication day

Today’s the day that Anachronism and Antiquity is officially published. Pre-ordered copies have been shipped, and we spotted copies on the shelves in our local book shop, Blackwells, an anachronistic day early. We’re very pleased to see it out in the world.

Anachronism and Antiquity book with other books on the display bookshelves in Oxford.
Anachronism and Antiquity on the bookshelves in Oxford.

You can take a look inside via the links here.

Classical Receptions Journal

We’re thrilled to announce that our special issue of Classical Receptions Journal has now been published. Papers, from our 2018 conference, Anachronism and Antiquity, range across ancient and modern literature, art and thought, and encompass authors and artists ancient (including Plato, Thucydides, Hesiod and Galen), and contemporary (Paul Chan, Maggie Nelson, and Olaf Stapledon) via both Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, Byzantine historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles, and Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Graves.

Cover image of Classical Receptions Journal special issue

You can access the journal here on the OUP journals website; the introduction by Mathura Umachandran and Tim Rood is freely available to download as are abstracts for the other articles. For more details, see our Publications page.

As Mathura and Tim conclude in their introduction:

Anachronism and Antiquity has a commitment to collaborative modes of reading, thinking, and writing together, a model of academic work that has been one of the strongest parts of the apparatus of classical reception studies. Theoretical openness has translated into a mode of collective working together that, we hope, represents historical plurality over and beyond narratives of linear time which conceive of chronology as single and expect it to be experienced as such.

We hope that you enjoy reading the papers.

A first look at our forthcoming book

Our project’s book Anachronism and Antiquity, written collaboratively by Tim Rood, Carol Atack, and Tom Phillips, will be published in the new year by Bloomsbury Academic. The official launch date is February 6, 2020, but you can take a look inside now. Click on this link to read the opening prelude, ‘Look to the end’, in full.

Anachronism and Antiquity - book cover

If that isn’t enough, there’s also a Google Books preview.

More information on the book at its Bloomsbury Academic page.