Love is a Cattlefield:
Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe
Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
In classical literature the ekphrasis—a detailed description of a work of art or craftsmanship—was a common literary device that served as an enjoyable digression and variation on how the larger story was being told, while also working to mirror or illustrate an important aspect or theme of the work. Often filling in a historical or psychological background, it wasn’t just a digressive pause in a self-reflective and self-contained narrative backwater, but rather actually added momentum to the story and often forcefully threw its subject back into the flow of events. The most famous ekphrasis in all of literature is Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in Book 18 of the Iliad, taking well over a hundred lines to draw back into a brilliantly forged mirror of humanity at peace and war before completing its concentric circles and thrusting Achilles forward into the bloody fray. Displaying a work of art within a work of art for the reader/listener to experience as both a discrete frame and as a fully connected part of life, this device’s reflexive aspects are clear, reminding us that the work as a whole is itself a complete artifice, an enclosed and reflective circle that’s nonetheless an integral and interwoven part of the thread of our own lives. Books may be just an artificial series of marks bounded within static leaves of paper, totally unfazed by the rush of life around them, but they’re still physical objects that we hold in our hands in the real world and that often effect our actions as much as living people do. In Homer and Vergil, and in the millennia of subsequent writers employing some variation of the ekphrasis as a meta-narrative strategy, the device usually serves as a brief reminder that we—like the works’ characters (and authors)—are both looking and living. But one brilliantly singular “literary pendant,” Longus’ second-century Greek novel Daphnis and Chloe, takes the ekphrasis to its farthest extreme, forging the entirety of its narrative out of a description of one single painting.
In a brief prologue the narrator comes across a painting in a beautiful grove—with the painting described as being even more beautiful than the grove itself—and he gives us this brief snapshot of it:
Women giving birth, others dressing the babies, babies exposed, animals suckling them, shepherds adopting them, young people pledging love, a pirates’ raid, an enemy attack—and more, much more….
Wanting to write something about the painting, he finds someone to interpret its story for him so he can create “an offering to Love, to the Nymphs, and Pan, and something for mankind to possess and enjoy.” He claims that it will “cure the sick, comfort the distressed, stir the memory of those who have loved, and educate those who haven’t.” In the four perfect books that compose Daphnis and Chloe, Longus does all of that and more. Much more….
|Arthur Lemon’s The Wooing of Daphnis, 1881|
The way that Jean Racine’s play Phèdre adheres to its immediate audience’s expectations for a generic love-interest diversion while offering immeasurably more artistry and pathos to the larger world theater, Daphnis and Chloe deftly aims its derring-do Greek-novel complications into a kind of Cupid’s-arrow that keeps its unwavering sights on the luscious magic of youthful love discovering itself. One of the great reminders that love and lust are totally marvelous and pure and new for every single human being, this novel’s depiction of ingenuous innocence reads like a Garden of Eden where sin is impossible and where the flesh—along with the heart and the mind—follows the decrees of its true unsullied nature.
|An illustration from Daphnis and Chloe|
by Konstantin Somov
In their confusion about the desperate pangs that they’re both experiencing, Daphnis and Chloe ask an old cowherd named Philetas about Love (aka Eros, aka Cupid), after he tells them a story about his own experience with the lust-god, and he replies, “There is no medicine for Love, no potion, no drug, no spell to mutter, except a kiss and an embrace and lying down together with naked bodies.” They find that this excites and frustrates them even further, still not knowing a thing about doing what comes naturally (as Ethel Merman described it), and even though they observe their livestock mating—but not lying down, which Chloe objects to as contradicting Philetas’ advice—it’s only when Daphnis is initiated by an older woman and given instructions about how to (and how not to) proceed with Chloe that Cupid’s arrow starts to attain the balanced thrust of its final trajectory.
In composing this ekphrastic essay on Longus’ artistic masterpiece, I’ve consulted three different editions of the novel, all of which are worth mentioning to an initiate looking to enter into its mysteries. The most useful by far is the Christopher Gill translation that’s contained in Collected Greek Novels, which was edited and introduced by the incredibly well informed and informative B. P. Reardon. Moses Hadas’ Three Greek Romances also contains good introductory material, and as an edition is unique in including Dio Chrysostom’s The Hunters of Euboea within its genre classification, and Hadas’ translation is the most artistic of the three but is also occasionally overly precious. Of special interest to art-lovers is Paul Turner’s translation, which contains forty-two color lithographs by Marc Chagall, creating a reverse-ekphrasis with its illustrations of a novel that illustrates a painting. The prettiness of the Hadas and Turner editions masks an ugly truth about Daphnis and Chloe’s world, however: the common practice of “exposure.” When Daphnis and Chloe are abandoned, they’re exposed to the elements to die, a kind of postpartum abortion, and Hadas and Turner’s translations elide both the word and the concept, making the babies’ abandonment seem much less unsettling to the modern reader. This was part of ancient reality, though, and part of Longus’ art, and the Gill/Reardon edition gives us the most honest English representation of the Greek original.
|An illustration from Daphnis and Chloe by Marc Chagall|
Knowing this detail, which takes place in the book’s first few pages, the reader will be happy with whichever edition best suits his or her tastes and/or scholarly requirements. I prefer the unmasked version—or, more accurately, the least-masked version, which is the best that a translation can achieve—because I believe that people don’t need to be protected from either truth or art. Because this is a work whose truths and artifices are wholly enmeshed and are as primal and complex as the intermingling world itself, the much larger interplay of love and art and reality that’s represented in this extraordinary novel form an artistic truth that’s so moving and so profound that its arcing thrust both transcends and encompasses its specific—and novelistically idealized—universe. Integrating both the natural and the human sphere into an ever-renewing cycle of love, Daphnis and Chloe cannot fail to reach its mark in the reader’s united mind and body.