- Peter v. Möllendorff
From a functional point of view, metalepsis can be defined as the shift of a figure within a text (usually a character or a narrator) from one narrative level to another, marking a trangression of ontological borders. This procedure makes the reader or addressee aware of the fictional status of a text and ensures the maintenance of a specifically aesthetic distance, thereby counteracting any experience of immersion in the literary work. At the same time, it can be used as an effective instrument for producing enargeia (vividness), and through its sudden and surprising character it can also create strong effects of pathos as well as comedic effects. Thanks to the specific demands of a culture poised between orality and literacy, ancient literature knows primarily “smooth” metaleptic transitions, that is, ones that do not involve a strong sense of “jolt.” As procedure for transgressing borders between narrative levels, it has many manifestations in antiquity; as a literary motif, however, it appears rather seldom. The study of metalepsis in classical literature started with de Jong’s fundamental article of 2009.
Metalepsis as Rhetorical Figure
In modern criticism, the term metalepsis is used primarily to indicate shifts between narrative levels: that is, between the world of the narrator and the world that she or he describes. The term as the phenomenon itself is identified already in Servius’ commentary on Vergil’s Aeneid.1 The concept of metalepsis (μετάληψις / transumptio) derives originally from the classical rhetorical doctrine of figures of speech. In antiquity, metalepsis refers to a semantic shift by means of tropes like metonymy or synecdoche, or on the basis of synonymy and homonymy. Thus, in Vergil’s “post aliquot mea regna videns mirabor aristas” (after several corn-ears, I shall marvel at seeing my reign: Verg. Ecl. 1.69), aristas (corn-ears) stands for harvests, harvests for summers, summers for years, so aristas can be understood as years. This shift can be extended to the replacement of what precedes with what follows, and then to the exchange of acting/creating and speaking/representing if poetic discourse is understood performatively. Thus, in the phrase “tum Phaethontiadas musco circumdat amarae / corticis” (“Then he [sc. the singer Silenus] surrounds the sisters of Phaethon with the moss of bitter bark”: Verg. Ecl. 6.62f.), the narrative act of singing is figured by the act it describes (the transformation of the sisters of Phaethon into trees). The process of describing the fictional world is therefore replaced by the reality created within that world; and so the boundary between the world of narration and the narrated world is transgressed.
Narrative Metalepsis: Some Central Issues of Definition
This transgressiveness is the defining characteristic of narrative metalepsis, first identified by Gérard Genette,2 and which designates a transgression of internally diegetic boundaries by figures and narrator(s). Further elaborations—not least by Genette himself—have resulted in an extension of the concept,3 so that today any kind of transgressing of narrative boundaries is often understood as a metalepsis.4 Let us give two examples. First, the phenomenon known as mise en abyme (the reduplication of images or symbols mirroring the textual whole: a play within a play, or similar) is sometimes regarded as a type of metalepsis. But while relations between fundamentally separate realms are established here as well, what are shared between the realms are motifs and symbols, rather than actions on the part of a human figure; the latter, however, seem essential to any concept of transgression in the true sense of the term. Likewise, conceptual associations between different parts of the text—such as a proem and a part of the following narrative—are sometimes interpreted as metalepses, but unless they are expressly narrated by a figure who should, logically, be unable to refer to this other part of the narrative, they cannot be understood as metalepses in a strict sense.5 Extending metalepsis in this way sacrifices its specificity; a narrow definition is preferable. Otherwise, it would be conceivable, for example, to regard even intertextual references as metalepses as well, since they cross the boundaries between different fictional worlds. Such cases, however, should be understood as genuinely metaleptic only if the transgression is explicitly performed by a figure within the text. One instance of this arguably arises in the case of Seneca‘s Medea. With her famous dictum Medea—fiam (“Medea—shall I be”: Sen. Med. 171), she breaks open the boundaries of her own fictional, Senecan realm and acknowledges the existence of other, equally fictional Medea figures whom she claims (transgressively) to know.
Equally important is the distinction between metalepsis of theme (of the kind discussed above) and metalepsis of technique, whereby an author encounters a character of her or his creation. In contrast to modern and postmodern literature, antiquity knows only a few works of literature that address the latter kind of metalepsis. One of these rare cases might be found in Lucian’s True Stories (2.20). The narrator meets Homer on the Island of the Blessed, where he and Ulysses participate in a symposium, and he has to fight a libel suit against Thersites.6 The narrative itself, however, does not make any explicit metaleptic leap, but rather plays with the ambivalent position of the myth between fiction and history. In other words, if one accepts Ulysses and Thersites, and Homer too, as potentially “historical” figures, there is no reason why they should not meet; but if one takes Homer and the mythic figures to belong to different ontological levels (history and fiction), their encounter can properly be understood as metaleptic.
Following a formulation of Genette’s, scholarship often sees the boundaries between the realms of the extradiegetic, the intradiegetic, and the metadiegetic level as sacred:7 the realms are held to be self-contained, independent universes, which is why transgressions of level appear shocking. Yet metalepsis is not necessarily, inherently shocking.8 Take, for example, the archaic notion of inspiration and the epic procedure of the invocation of the Muses. When the singer asks the muse to make her voice and her song sound through him “in the text,” he or she presupposes that the muse leaves her celestial and thus decidedly extra-textual location, and in a manner of speaking, settles within the head and the mouth of the extradiegetic singer; thus an ontological boundary is transgressed.9 Yet this is not perceived as a shocking experience. It is quite comparable to the relative serenity with which, for example, the epic hero reacts to the approach of a deity.
In Greek drama, too, we find transgressions of boundaries that we might initially regard as ontological breaks. Thus the chorus and actor of the Attic comedy can enter the auditorium, and the realities of the theatre building and its mechanics are repeatedly explicated and integrated into the play. Likewise, any case of a figure or the chorus explicitly addressing the audience as audience is metaleptic.10 With the help of the ekkyklema, the boundaries between interior and exterior are made transparent: interior spaces are not only shown outside but also integrated into the outside play. This is, of course, not a metaleptic move in the strongest sense of the concept, but we have to bear in mind that what happens inside the house (skene) is first narrated to the figures and to the audience by a kind of messenger: participants in the cruel action inside the house are, therefore, figures of narration who then enter the first level of dramatic representation and become visible, even if, on the whole, they share the same fictional level with the narrating figures: We might speak of a metalepsis unfolding in narrative time, not in narrative space.
Aesthetic Features of Metalepsis
We might be inclined to consider drama as a highly developed, idiosyncratic form of literature, which nonetheless shares features with other modes of orally performed literature. Stage and auditorium are not to be understood as completely separate realms because actors, chorus, and spectators principally share a common space and a common time (the theatre and the festive days of Dionysus: a unity to be labelled here a chronotope). In this chronotope, they are all physically present, and even if it can be subdivided into internal chronotopes (auditorium, orchestra, stage with skene; time of the theatrical event, time of the fictional plot), these subdivisions are only more or less distinct from one another. This means that phenomena of metalepsis can occur in the theatre, but that we have to rethink the specific quality of the boundaries transgressed in the metaleptic act to better understand what metalepsis is.
As for book poetry, it may be more appropriate to regard the reception of this in terms of a (virtual) inner realm constituted by a particular, all-encompassing chronotope, which is the reader’s imagination. The boundary that is metaleptically transgressed has to be considered more permeable from the outset. In any case, readers reduce the superabundance of data of their own lives’ chronotopes—the modern reader, for example, prefers a dimmed ambient light, silence, and a resting position, the ancient reader requires at least a certain isolation and an ambience that will allow him or her uninterrupted concentration—and dedicate, with the help of corresponding instructions within the text, their imaginative powers to shaping the fictional world,11 supported by textual features that create enargeia or “vividness.”12
In the midst of these two extremes—on the one hand, drama with its numerous perceptual stimuli, which stir the imagination intensely (while there are also equally diverse possibilities of external disturbance of the process of reception); on the other hand the written text, with its high demands on the imagination, and minimal opportunities for distraction, at least when reading takes place silently—is to be placed the phenomenon of oral reading to a circle of listeners, which was so common in antiquity.13 Here the chronotopic connection between the narrator and the reader is stronger than in silent reading, and the dialogic togetherness is more intense since the lecturer is spatially close and at the same time stands before us as a real human being, not only as a disembodied voice (or even only as a chain of letters). Visual (gestures, facial expressions) and acoustic stimuli (voice, modulation, etc.) are present; at the same time, in comparison to drama, an increased imaginative performance of the listener is required to recreate the world described.
Precisely because an oral performer has a physically concrete listener in front of him or her, everything suggests the possibility that even in cases where audiences or readers involve themselves ever deeper in the reception of a piece of literature, a total immersion in the fictional world (often assumed in research) does not occur. Instead, it seems plausible that through our imaginative performance, with the help of text signals, we flood our own world of ideas with self-generated images of fiction.
The reception of the verbal arts can take place in many ways, which differ from each other in terms of the different distances maintained between the recipient and the content that is presented. The extreme poles of experience are, on the one hand, the complete fusion of both internal chronotopes (of the presented and the imagined world with the lifeworld of the reader at the time of reception) to the extent of creating an effect of illusion, and on the other hand the maintenance of a maximum distance, which allows the recipients a rational and analytical approach to what they imagine. The aesthetic reception appropriate to the work of art is that in which a recipient neither starts to dream autonomously—the dream is the perfected metaleptic fusion of the world of imagination and the imagined world—nor regards the text as a mere medium of transport of a meaning to be deciphered. This kind of reception is made possible by maintaining a median distance, from where the aesthetical qualities of the artistic form and style can be appreciated.14 Viewed thus, narrative metalepsis can be understood as nothing other than the translation into literary expression of the contact, during the act of reception, between the internal chronotopes.
The transgression of ontological boundaries in the recipient’s imagination15 causes astonishment and wonder because we perceive ourselves as recipients to whom the use of the power of imagination is self-evident to such an extent that we consider ourselves passive, while the figure of metalepsis makes us aware that we are indeed highly active: through the act of reception we breathe life into the figures and their world depicted in the text, and we thereby derive pleasure.
Metalepsis makes us aware of our role as recipients, and can thereby distance us again if we are lost in the illusion (that we have created ourselves)—a powerful immersion that completely occupies our perception and attention—or to bring us closer again if we persistently remain too distant from the fictional internal chronotope, acting as mere interpreters. Both the belief that we are free in the choice of the distance we maintain between ourselves and the text and the view that our attitude towards the text is appropriate per se are shown by metalepsis to be a mere illusion. Stylistically, therefore, metalepsis belongs to the field of irony.
Not least, by virtue of its sudden, surprising, and unpredictable occurrence as well as its temporal limitation to a moment,16 metalepsis reveals itself to be a primarily aesthetic rather than ontological phenomenon. Only as an aesthetic phenomenon is it at all tolerable and does it awaken pleasure in the receiver. Understood as an ontological phenomenon, which seriously challenges the boundaries between different realms of existence, it might become dangerous or even life threatening. One example of the immersive intensity of a real metalepsis is described by Lucian, in an anecdote drawn from the imperial pantomime theatre (Luc. Salt. 83): a mime actor is said to have empathized with his part of the mad Ajax to such an extent that he considered himself actually to be Ajax, and attacked his fellow actors as well as the audience.
Metaleptical Phenomena: Scales and Medial Modes
Metalepses in modern and ancient literature differ in particular in their intensity. In modern literature, the above-mentioned astonishment of the reader/recipient manifests itself often as a shock, whereas ancient metalepses often take place almost imperceptibly17 and rarely develop a truly fantastical potential.
A particularly striking example of this smooth metalepsis is the apostrophisation of a figure by the speaker18 or vice versa—as in the epigrams on Myron’s heifer (see discussion of large sculptures) or (this is disputed) in the proem of Apuleius’ Golden Ass, an option that is repeatedly taken up throughout ancient literature (and in art as well).19
Instances where narrating and narrated chronotopes blur into each other are even more frequent: for example, if, as in Pindar’s choral lyrics, the world of the myth seems to reach into the historical period, or—in the Hieroi Logoi of Aelius Aristides—in the case of the narration of a dream, it remains unclear where it begins and where the one ends and the other begins. It is more difficult to classify the numerous cases of explicit “double addressing” of utterances by literary figures, for example when characters on the comic stage seem to address other figures within the world of the drama and external addressees simultaneously,20 so that the figures seem to be aware of the fact that they are part of a text. Do such characters in fact “know” that they are within that text, or should we consider this feature simply a later textualisation, on the author’s part, of their experience at that time? Individual genres of texts, such as the hymn and Jewish testament literature appear to be fundamentally metaleptically designed with regard to such phenomena.
This omnipresence of unspectacular metalepses in ancient literature may be related to their specific mediality,21 that is, the fact that literature is consistently recited or read aloud despite the general possibility of silent reading. The physical and vocal presence of a narrator is intermediate between the chronotope of the recipient and that of the figures described within the text, and thus allows for smoother transitions. In contrast, in the modern world, the sheer materiality of the book, which is read silently and alone, seems to make it difficult to transgress the sharply defined internal boundaries of the reader’s mind and to suggest in more concrete terms the existence of the narrated world—and hence more shocking when that transgression occurs. Correspondingly, the metaleptic transgression into a medial otherworld, a mere book world, seems to have to be elaborated in a more spectacular way. A similar shock-like transgression from the book into the external world is imagined in the Revelation of John, which (Rev 6:1ff.) lets the Horsemen of the Apocalypse emerge from the testamentum Dei (God’s testament) that is opened up by the lamb, and destroy the world. A funny version of this intermedial process can be found in Lucian’s True Stories: the journey of the narrator through a fantastic world of literature is divided into two books. The boundary of the books between Ver. hist. 1.42 and 2.1 does not only occur in the middle of an episode, but the last and the first sentence are also linked by a dual “true—but” construction (μέν-δέ), so that here the boundary of the book is presented to the recipient as a proper literary feature: the travellers, in the midst of their narrated journey, metaleptically transgress a boundary that exists only in the medium itself.22
The fine arts of the ancient world also know metalepses, and here the question of materiality and spatiality of what is presented plays a much more important role, since narrative levels hierarchised in the picture can hardly be defined, and narrative voices do not manifest themselves as such, but must be found in the structure of the picture, possibly by combining a picture with a text.23 However, the application of the concept of metalepsis should be limited again to those cases where the connection between different and clearly distinguished chronotopes is explicated within the picture, or a contact to the viewer is de facto established through their involvement, as in the Gigantomachy frieze in the staircase of the Great Pergamon Altar (Figure 1) or in the case of the motif of Polyphemus’ blinding on a proto-attic amphora from Eleusis (Figure 2): the viewer has the impression here that Ulysses and his companions use a linear element of the ornamental frame as a weapon.
Here, too, the transitions from spectatorship to participation can be floating and create metaleptic effects by means of blank spaces into which viewers see themselves positioned, or through tricks of perspective.24
The three-dimensionality of large-scale sculptures, their “deceptive similarity,” and their naturalising settings in contexts play an essential role, emphasized again and again in the above-mentioned epigrams on Myron’s heifer or, for example, in Herodas Mim. 4: 27–38.25
- Bohrer, Karl-Heinz. Plötzlichkeit. Zum Augenblick des ästhetischen Scheins. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1981.
- Bohrer, Karl-Heinz. Die Grenzen des Ästhetischen. Munich: Hanser, 1998.
- de Jong, Irene. “Metalepsis in Ancient Greek Literature.” In Narratology and Interpretation. The Content of Narrative Form in Ancient Literature. Edited by Jonas Grethlein and Antonios Rengakos, 87–115. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009.
- de Jong, Irene, Rutger J. Allan, and Caspar de Jonge, eds. “From Enargeia to Immersion. The ancient roots of a modern concept.” Style 51 (2017): 34–51.
- Eisen, Ute E., and Peter v. Möllendorff, eds. Über die Grenze. Metalepse in Text und Bildmedien des Altertums. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013.
- Fludernik, Monika. “Changement de scène et mode métaleptique.” In Métalepses. Entorses au pacte de la representation. Edited by John Pier and Jean-Marie Schaeffer, 73–94. Paris: Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2005.
- Genette, Gerard. Figures III. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972.
- Genette, Gerard. Métalepse. De la figure à la fiction. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2004.
- Häsner, Bernd. “Metalepsen. Zur Genese, Systematik und Funktion transgressiver Erzählweisen.” PhD diss., Freie Universität, Berlin, 2005.
- Klimek, Sonja. Paradoxes Erzählen. Die Metalepse in der phantastischen Literatur. Paderborn: Mentis-Verlag, 2010.
- Lorenz, Katharina. “The Anatomy of Metalepsis: Visuality Turns Around on Late Fifth-Century Pots.” In Debating the Athenian Cultural Revolution. Art, Literature, Philosophy and Politics 430–380 B.C. Edited by Robin Osborne, 116–143. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
- Mahne, Nicole. Transmediale Erzähltheorie. Eine Einführung. Göttingen, Germany: Vandehoek und Ruprecht, 2007.
- Möllendorff, Peter, v. Auf der Suche nach der verlogenen Wahrheit. Lukians Wahre Geschichten. Tübingen, Germany: Narr, 2000.
- Neer, Richard. The Emergence of the Classical Style. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
- Pier, John. “Metalepsis.” In: The Living Handbook of Narratology. Edited by Peter Hühn et al. Hamburg: Hamburg University. Revised version, July 13, 2016.
- Pier, John, and Jean-Marie Schaeffer. Métalepses. Entorses au pacte de la representation. Paris: Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2005.
- Rabau, Sophie. “Ulysse à côté d’Homère. Interprétation et transgression des frontières énonciatives.” In Métalepses. Entorses au pacte de la representation. Edited by John Pier and Jean-Marie Schaeffer, 59–72. Paris: Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2005.
- Whitmarsh, Tim. “Radical cognition: Metalepsis in Classical Greek Drama.” Greece&Rome 60 (2013): 4–16.
1. Ruurd Nauta, “The Concept of ‘Metalepsis’: From Rhetoric to the Theory of Allusion and to Narratology,” in Über die Grenze: Metalepse in Text- und Bildmedien des Altertums, eds. Ute E. Eisen and Peter v. Möllendorff, (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013), 469–482.
2. Gerard Genette, Figures III (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972).
3. Gerard Genette, Métalepse. De la figure à la fiction (Paris: Éd itions du Seuil, 2004).
4. A detailed classification and conceptual delimitation of the metalepsis can be found in Sonja Klimek, Paradoxes Erzählen: Die Metalepse in der phantastischen Literatur (Paderborn: mentis-Verlag, 2010).
5. The contrary is argued by Koen de Temmerman, “A flowery meadow and a hidden metalepsis in Achilles Tatius,” Classical Quarterly 59 (2009): 667–670.
6. Sophie Rabau, “Ulysse à côté d’Homère. Interprétation et transgression des frontières énonciatives,” in Métalepses. Entorses au pacte de la representation, eds. John Pier and Jean-Marie Schaeffer (Paris: Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2005), 59–72.
7. Gerard Genette, Figures III (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972): 243–246.
8. Monika Fludernik, “Scene Shift, Metalepsis, and the Metaleptic Mode,” Style 37 (2003): 389ff.
9. Irene de Jong, “Metalepsis in Ancient Greek Literature.” In Narratology and Interpretation. The Content of Narrative Form in Ancient Literature, eds. Jonas Grethlein and Antonios Rengakos (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009), 101–103.
10. Tim Whitmarsh, “Radical Cognition: Metalepsis in Classical Greek Drama,” Greece&Rome 60 (2013): 4–16.
11. Tim Whitmarsh, “Radical Cognition.”
12. Irene de Jong, Rutger J. Allan, and Caspar de Jonge, eds., “From Enargeia to Immersion. The Ancient Roots of a Modern Concept,” Style 51 (2017): 34–51.
13. Peter v. Möllendorff, “‘Sie hielt ein aufgerolltes Buch in den Händen . . .’—Metalepse als mediales Phänomen in der Literatur der Kaiserzeit,” in Über die Grenze: Metalepse in Text- und Bildmedien des Altertums, eds. Ute E. Eisen and Peter v. Möllendorff (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013), 346–386.
14. Karl-Heinz Bohrer, Die Grenzen des Ästhetischen (Munich: Hanser, 1998), 171–189.
15. Monika Fludernik, “Scene Shift, Metalepsis, and the Metaleptic Mode,” Style 37 (2003): 382–400.
16. Karl-Heinz Bohrer, Plötzlichkeit. Zum Augenblick des ästhetischen Scheins (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1981).
17. See for example, Janet E. Spittler, “‘μανθάνεις πρὸς τίνας εἴρηται τὰ εἰρημένα;’—Metalepsis in the Apocryphal Acts of Andrew,” in Über die Grenze: Metalepse in Text- und Bildmedien des Altertums, eds. Ute E. Eisen and Peter v. Möllendorff (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013), 387–402; see also Tim Whitmarsh, “Radical Cognition: Metalepsis in Classical Greek Drama,” Greece & Rome 60 (2013), 4–16.
18. Irene de Jong, “Metalepsis and Embedded Speech in Pindaric and Bacchylidean Myth,” in Über die Grenze: Metalepse in Text- und Bildmedien des Altertums, eds. Ute E. Eisen and Peter v. Möllendorff (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013), 97–118; see also Jacqueline Klooster, “Apostrophe in Homer, Apollonios, and Callimachus,” in Über die Grenze: Metalepse in Text- und Bildmedien des Altertums, eds. Ute E. Eisen and Peter v. Möllendorff (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013), 151–173.
19. Mario Baumann, “Der Betrachter im Bild. Metalepsen in antiken Ekphrasen,” in Über die Grenze: Metalepse in Text- und Bildmedien des Altertums, eds. Ute E. Eisen and Peter v. Möllendorff (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013), 257–291.
20. Tim Whitmarsh, “Radical Cognition: Metalepsis in Classical Greek Drama,” Greece & Rome 60 (2013): 4–16.
21. Nicole Mahne, Transmediale Erzähltheorie. Eine Einführung (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoek und Ruprecht, 2007), see especially 5.2.1, 6.5.1, 7.5.1, 8.1.1, and 9.3.1, on the forms of metalepsis in various media.
22. Peter v. Möllendorff, Auf der Suche nach der verlogenen Wahrheit. Lukians Wahre Geschichten (Tübingen, Germany: Narr, 2000).
23. Katharina Lorenz, “The Anatomy of Metalepsis: Visuality Turns Around on Late Fifth-Century Pots,” in Debating the Athenian Cultural Revolution. Art, Literature, Philosophy and Politics 430–380 B.C., ed. Robin Osborne (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 116–143; see also Katharina Lorenz, “Der Große Fries des Pergamon-Altars. Die narratologische Kategorie Metalepse und die Analyse von Erzählung in der Flächenkunst,” in Über die Grenze: Metalepse in Text- und Bildmedien des Altertums, eds. Ute E. Eisen and Peter v. Möllendorff (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013), 119–147.
24. Richard Neer, The Emergence of the Classical Style (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
25. Katharina Lorenz, “Der Große Fries des Pergamon-Altars. Die narratologische Kategorie Metalepse und die Analyse von Erzählung in der Flächenkunst,” in Über die Grenze: Metalepse in Text- und Bildmedien des Altertums, eds. Ute E. Eisen and Peter v. Möllendorff (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013), 119–147; see especially 125 et seq.