The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Tim Kenny
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
As both a reader and researcher of narrative, Antiquity’s now scant remains still offer a relative abundance of potential sources offering comfort and consolation. That said, my personal choice is an easy (and predictable) one: Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica.
When did you first come across the Argonautica?
Alarmingly, a little over twenty years ago now. Time befuddles recollection of the moment but not the context: a first year undergraduate at King’s College London undertaking the obligatory introductory module on Classical Literature, taught that year by Carlotta Dionisotti. I remember being laden with weekly wedges of Aristotle, Longinus, Quintilian (to be read in the original if possible). I think early on there was some Proto-Indo-European. I’ve never had to read more or work harder on a course since then! I was bright enough at the time but still had reservations, I recall, about being in the right place, whether I fit in. Carlotta was an absolute inspiration and the personal source of my introduction to Hellenistic literature in general and the Argonautica in particular. Indeed, my first piece of written work on the poem was submitted on that module, and in my final year I returned to it for my dissertation. Reflecting as I write, I’d have to say that context as well as text plays its part in consolation, a feeling better via triggering those associated emotional impressions of a happy and exhilarating passage of time that can be conjured and allowed to linger when re-engaging with a particular text.
Can you tell me a bit about this text and its context?
The Argonautica is an epic poem written in Greek, comprising four books of hexameter verse narrative relating the voyage of the Argonauts led by the hero Jason on their mission to retrieve the Golden Fleece from Colchis and return it to Greece. It is one of the extant products of the extraordinary literary output of third century BCE Alexandria under the patronage of the Ptolemies. The story is likely most familiar to most audiences, and this is certainly true of me, from the 1963 Columbia pictures film Jason and the Argonauts. Sadly, the Argonautica’s narrative doesn’t include extended narration of a battle with skeleton warriors which thanks to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion wizardry is likely the action highlight of that film. In fact, the Argonautica’s readers will either know or discover that extended scenes of ‘heroic’ action do not feature much at all.
What is it about this poem that appeals to you most?
If I had just one word to describe its appeal, I would have to go with the obvious and say its ‘intertextuality’; the Argonautica builds itself from the bricks of the literary past, most clearly Homeric epic, but also tragedy, lyric, historiography, philosophy et cetera to create something new which rewards reading and rereading when differently privileging this source’s sustained engagement with its own sources – perhaps the Argonautica interacts with its sources to feel better and I feel better analysing those interactions? It’s also likely part of this appeal is itself sourced in my own cultural maturation as, whilst not being fond of labels and frowning at time’s march, I’d most likely be labelled a post-modernist Gen-X reader with a predilection for intertextual negotiation. That’s not necessarily the appeal now, and I certainly wouldn’t want to draw cross-cultural and inadequate equivalences, but individual reader-experiences and predilections always have some part to play in notions of appeal.
Having said that, and I’ve recently returned to write about the very things I wrote about as an enthusiastic undergraduate, I find myself putting to one side those dominant features of intertextual regeneration to analyse the mechanisms of textual engagement. For a first time reader of the poem, one of its most striking sequences is the extended presentation of a young Medea in love. As a first year undergrad, it’s what pulled me in, and now, twenty years on in these difficult times when nostalgia can be a comfort in itself and reflection comes wanted or not, I’m returning to look at the how.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
What do I do outside of Classics to cheer myself up? Not Classics? Getting an idea for a paper, blog post, abstract etc. gives you something to sink your teeth into, engage with, distract from… exciting sure, but inevitably mentally and as I’m finding this year, physically exhausting. In former times, I’d go to the pub to stop the world from spinning with pints and chat. Nowadays I can do decent ciabatta and focaccia, am keeping herbs alive, making curries from scratch instead of from jars. I struggle to read for pleasure when working on a project so like most people I imagine, find cheer and tranquility in a spot of uncomplicated binge TV (I might have watched Justified twice through since the first lockdown) or watching the football and bantering with brothers over Whatsapp. Sundays though are the best cheer as I see my bubble buddies Maya and Leo (niece and nephew, aged 5 and 3) for drawing, roleplay and randomness. Quite sure Leo couldn’t say much last March and now he won’t shut up about some Mandalorian?
I worked most recently as a language teacher (Greek and Latin) at the University of Liverpool (2019-21). My research interests include creative reading, intertextuality, indeterminacies, reader-experience and reader-manipulation. I maintain a personal website for inter alia posting sample applications of narrative theory to classical texts (https://adynamicreader.com) as well as for keeping tabs on sites of related interests. I have an article forthcoming in Siculorum Gymnasium this year ‘Communicating Epic Love: a cognitive poetic analysis of erotic discourse in Argonautica 3’ and at time of writing this I am involved in a wonderful conference on Antiquity and Immersivity (https://punchdrunkontheclassics.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/home/antiquity-and-immersivity-conference/). Later this year, possibly in person (fingers crossed), I’ll be giving a paper at the Groningen Workshop on Hellenistic Poetry on ‘Crisis and Resilience in Hellenistic Poetry’.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.