Pumping Up the Volume in Achilles Tatius: Vision, Violence, and Interpretation

Niall W. Slater

Emory University

Recent work, especially that of Helen Morales, has emphasized the spectacular "ocularcentricity" of Achilles Tatius's Leucippe and Clitophon. Given the novel's focus on eros, most interpretations of viewing and spectatorship concern themselves primarily with the psychological, even physiological effects of various sights upon their viewers. While acknowledging emotional effects, however, the novel's own characters often seek to interpret particular spectacles through their personal repertoire of mythological, literary, or artistic experience in order to guide their subsequent actions. Morales denies there is an idealized internal reader in Achilles; close reading over the shoulder of the first person narrator, however, suggests numerous fissures in characters' attempts to see the truth directly—and some overlooked references to the absence or presence of sound work to subvert such purely visual interpretation.

Two oft discussed set pieces in the narrative show the pitfalls and promise of vision alone. Clitophon and his companions witness the false human sacrifice of Leucippe at 3.15 at a distance which precludes hearing. While the others repeatedly look away in horror, then are drawn back to the violent spectacle, the first-person narrator Clitophon is frozen in place—and thus sees and relates to his readers hints which point to the ultimate invalidation of the first interpretation of the spectacle. Spatial reversals, gender-inappropriate mythological paradigms (Leucippe as Marsyas, Clitophon as Niobe), and inconsistencies in hearing all point toward the eventual reversal of the spectators' first impression.

The painting of Philomela, Procne, and Tereus in Book 5 calls forth a specific interpretation (that Leucippe is in danger) and produces a change in the characters' action—though the painting proves ultimately ineffective, postponing but not averting disaster. Menelaus's interpretation of the painting as a portent has often been criticized for lack of specificity (who threatens Leucippe?) and even inaccuracy (what adultery does it predict?), but his overall conclusions are sound. Once again, visual details and narrative inconsistencies noted only by Clitophon point the reader to a subtler interpretation. Unparalleled in other ecphraseis, this painting is located in the artist's workshop: it is still a work in progress.

Sight may predominate in Achilles Tatius's ecphraseis, but the careful reader who listens to Clitophon, as well as seeing through his eyes, experiences the pleasure of beating the characters at their own game of interpretation.


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