Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Chronotope of Medieval Greek Romances

Only a few days before the Spring semester starts, and I indulge myself at Van Pelt Library by skimming through some new books on Byzantine matters. The Variorum Reprints series has issued a collection of essays by Roderick Beaton, the esteemed literary historian of medieval and modern Greek, From Byzantium to Modern Greece: Medieval Texts and Their Modern Reception (Aldershot, 2008). Although rushed by the pending syllabi that need to be written, I take a filling gulp of Beaton and read, “The Poetics of the Vernacular Greek Romances and the ‘Chronotope’ According to Bakhtin.” (forthcoming in Papers of the Conference Neograeca Medii Aevi no. 6). Beaton explores Mikhail Bakhtin’s “chronotope” notions, developed in the late 1930s and completed shortly before the literary critic’s death in 1975. I haven’t read much of Bakhtin, except his Problems of Dostoevsky Poetics (Minneapolis, 1984), which informs much of how I understand modernist literature. Bakhtin defines chronotope as follows: “In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history,” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. M. Holquist (Austin, 1981), p. 84. In other words, the chronotope defines relationships of time and space internal to the fictional narrative. Bakhtin discusses two distinct chronotopes in the Hellenistic novel and in the chivalric novel. Beaton takes Bakhtin’s categorization and applies it on the vernacular Greek romances of the 13th century (Kallimachos and Chrysorrhoe, Belthandros and Chrysantza, Libistos and Rhododamne). Beaton observes that the Byzantine novels are divided into two parts, the first magical the second realistic. The magical and realistic halves provide a background of adventure, the tests of love. Interestingly enough, none of the characters have real geographic origins. The novels have a clear separation between what Bakhtin defines as “biographical time” and “adventure time.” Unlike the western chivalric novel, the Greek novels disguise no allegory, nor do they convey a Christian moral. Beaton concludes that the Greek vernacular novels are a hybrid of the two chronotopes and, thus, articulate “the experience of conflicting and overlapping identities that must have been the reality of a Greek-speaking world fragmented in the wake of the Fourth Crusade.” Beaton argues that the lack of specificity in time/place allows the Greek reader to occupy “the porous boundary” between Byzantine and Frankish rule. Beaton makes a fascinating final observation. Unlike any predecessors in the genre, the heroes and heroines of the novels are emphatically foreign and displaced. If one could articulate a unique chronotope for this literature, it would be the following: “It could even be suggested that the defining characteristic of the chronotope of these romances is precisely this: that time and space are made to function in such a way that the principal characters are presented as multiple exiles.” (p. 13)

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States